To Sir, With Love

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The Greenwich Country Day School’s distinguished English teacher emeritus, Mr. Tom Brody, passed away recently in Hanover, New Hampshire. Sometimes, great trees fall in the forest, and there is no one to hear it. Mr. Brody’s seedling turned out to be a Sequoia – so we all heard it even from afar. As a former colleague who still toils at GCDS, I have received ripples of praise for him from a gaggle of his former students this week. Accordingly, one of his English scholars wrote me earlier today, “He might be gone, but the spirit of Mr. Brody will always be in the present tense for me.”

Tom Brody’s passion for literature inspired three generations of students at Country Day to become adroit writers and deft thinkers. A teacher who loves teaching will teach a student to love learning. Mr. Brody was one of those difference-makers who emphasized that the world of learning was limitless. He innately understood that our students are only as brilliant as we allow them to be. William Butler Yeats once wrote, “Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire.” In every way, Mr. Brody was a fiery fellow (and, yes, he loved puns). His influence was such that he shaped the hearts and minds of virtually every student he taught.

As a renowned columnist and writer for Sports Illustrated in the 1960s, Tom Brody was a respected contemporary of such acclaimed writers as Frank Deford and Jack McCallum. (Tom’s published profiles of everyone from Johnny Unitas to Bill Russell to Willie Mays at SI are now considered veritable classics).

Beginning in the fall of 1967, Mr. Brody instilled his “clarion call for lucidly written expression” within the hearts and minds of hundreds of his minions whom he coaxed and prodded in his celebrated English classes for the next three-decades-plus. Tom Brody cared – perhaps more than any teacher I have ever known. His legendary SPLAT Paper assignments inspired a legion of young people to write with feeling, intensity, and sagacity. He emphasized a plethora of compositional techniques including the most elusive of them all, “show don’t tell.”

Through the venue of such short stories as Crane’s “The Open Boat” and his favorite narrative beginning – “No one knew the color of the sky” – Tom’s would ultimately take his marking pen and cross out gobs of prose in order to uncover the simple truth that framed a student’s narrative. He believed that the act of writing was a sweat inducer, which…“ was more exhausting than pitching a complete game and more satisfying because printed words on a page were monuments to the process.” As Mr. Brody used to say, the first and foremost entity a writer must have is pluck.

In recognizing that teaching is the greatest act of optimism, Tom Brody strove to have his students learn a wellspring of lessons about life through the characters he introduced to them in a myriad of short stories, poems, and novels. While he was a great pontificator in class, Mr. Brody’s listening skills were such that I used to kid him that he was a cleric in a former life. An innovator at heart, Tom taught Lord of the Flies through the lens of Freudian psychology; he cherished the flawed Holden Caulfield and prodded his students to walk in the shoes of all people, both real and imaginative. (I well remember one class when his charges got to the critical juncture of Lord of the Flies, and Tom was almost reduced to tears. “Oh, Piggy…..dear, sweet Piggy.“)

I was incredibly blessed when the celebrated Mr. Brody explicitly adopted me as his protege and asked me to teach with him in ninth grade beginning in 1995. Under his nimble guidance, I learned how to use the exemplary texts he so loved to bring a profound sense of enlightenment to my charges. When he retired, Tom charitably left me with his notes to over 25 short stories and seven novels, a gift that continues to light up the sky for me nearly two decades later.

As someone who spent hundreds of hours in his shimmering presence, I was able to incorporate Tom’s pedagogical template for how to bring out the best in my own students. Like all great teachers, Tom Brody’s heady sense of humor, his flair for the dramatic, and his preference to clothe anything through the prism of the anecdote – especially the absurdist variety – was legendary. His passion for everything from baseball to politics to literature was indisputable. (He once told me that the thing he most loved about baseball was “the music of the game.”) The bottom line, Tom Brody invariably gave a damn. No wonder Juliet Capulet was his favorite literary figure.

Ultimately, I will remain forever indebted to him for showing me the way as a teacher, writer, and nurturer. When I heard Tom had died, I immediately thought of Dylan Thomas’s immortal refrain, which he so loved. “Do not go gentle into that good night; old age should burn and rave at close of day; rage, rage against the dying of the light.” As passion fueled him like a woodstove, I am certain that in the end, Tom Brody raged on against the dying of the light.

As a master wordsmith, Mr. Thomas Cobb Brody frequently ended his trimester comments to deserving students with a favorite laudatory word, which fits pretty well right for him right here. Kudos.

Kudos, indeed.

 

 

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Glad All Over

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Unlike virtually every rock and roll ensemble, this British Invasion band was fronted by a drummer, whose unique style of play created a sound that is as distinguishable today as it was more than 50 years ago. Mike Smith, the group’s lead singer, called by Bob Dylan, “the single greatest white male vocalist of the 1960s,” remained such a revered figure in musical circles that everyone from Joe Cocker to David Bowie viewed him as a revelation. Denis Payton’s saxophone-rooted solos were so fetching that it convinced a young Bruce Springsteen to hire Clarence Clemons because he wanted his septet, the E Street Band, to sound like them. Renowned guitarist and producer, Miami Steve van Zandt, called their mid-1960’s singles… “the absolute best productions made during the mono era.” And Bruce Springsteen’s longtime drummer, Max Weinberg, declared, “When you attend an E Street concert today, there will be at least 20 to 25 songs featuring their characteristic tum-tum-rolls.”

During their heyday, The Dave Clark Five headlined such giants as The Rolling Stones, Otis Redding, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, and The Who. When they were formally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008, it was lifelong fan Tom Hanks who presented them to an adoring audience. Later that evening, Billy Joel, Bon Jovi, Jeff Lynne, and Joan Jett paid tribute to them during a memorable musical revue onstage at Carnegie Hall, where the DC Five had once performed 12, sold-out shows in three days 43 years before.

In 1964 and much of ’65, this celebrated band from Tottenham, North London, brazenly managed to spot the Beatles single-for-single. Like every other group at the time, however, The Dave Clark Five ultimately couldn’t match the Lennon-McCartney juggernaut, especially when the Fab Four demonstrated an astounding ability to change their sound with virtually every record. Nevertheless, for those of us who loved pop music back then, the DC Five’s music was such that everytime one of their singles popped on one of our local AM radio stations, you quickly turned up their music to full volume. In the end, the band had 17 hits on the Billboard Top 40 and also appeared on the influential Ed Sullivan Show a record-breaking 18 times between 1964-68.

In a decade that gave us such LP masterpieces as Astral Weeks, Sam Cooke Live At the Copa, High Tide and Green Grass, Rubber Soul, Revolver, Blonde on Blonde, Days of Future Past, and I Never Loved a Man The Way I Love You, it was The Dave Clark Five’s Greatest Hits that was my most played album when the 1960s ended. As Bruce Springsteen commented a few years ago, “My copy of that record was so full of scratches that I had to purchase a new one by ’68.” 

I ended up purchasing The Dave Clark Five’s Greatest Hits in the fall of 1966 with some newfound money I had earned as a local paperboy. Recorded in crystalline mono by Epic Records – with the distinctive canary-yellow label – the record’s 10 songs seemed to literally jump right off the record-player like a Saturn Five rocket. For rock fans at the time, the DC Five’s uninhibited, gleeful singles chased away any stormclouds and gave us a reason to believe. “Their music reverberated, primarily because it was percussion-based, which was both original and distinctive,” remarked Bruce Springsteen in 2014. “For kids like me, their recordings were like instant adrenaline shots.” Thus, a greatest hits package of such treasures was a must for those who cherished their songs.

For marketing purposes, The Dave Clark Five’s Greatest Hits hit the ground running with its opening tune, “Over and Over,” a classic cover of the 1958 Bobby Day hit that is reinvented by the group in an absolutely inspired recording. Back then, it was the band’s latest single to hit the market. To the commonplace listener, however, it was a reminder that you needed to strap yourself in and hold on. In addition, there was a hipness to the “with-it” message, “Everybody there was there,” as well as the idiosyncratic tom-tom-beat that drove so many of Dave Clark’s songs. Of course, the intensity of lead singer Mike Smith’s vocals was omnipresent. Indeed, his husky baritone in “Over and Over” knifed right through the percussion-centered musical accompaniment even as he provided a lilting keyboard riff. The memorable bridge was framed by Denis Payton, whose riveting harmonica solo proved worthy of Delbert McClinton, while the vocal harmonies sung by both drummer Dave Clark and lead guitarist Lenny Davidson provided a palpable sense of panache. The number one song in the US during Christmas week, 1965, “Over and Over” turned out to be the group’s last tangible gasp in its nearly two-year competitive battle with the Beatles.

The second tune on the album, 1964’s “Everybody Knows,” remains my second favorite Dave Clark Five number, a single so infectious that it should have its own zip code. From the unforeseen chord changes to the incredible instrumentation provided by saxophonist Denis Payton and lead guitarist Lenny Davidson, it is Dave Clark himself who drives the bus here with his propelling percussion work. The song is bridged together by the group’s version of Lennon-McCartney-Harrison-like harmonies, led by alpha dog vocalist, Mike Smith. Like most DC Five fans, I have never tired of listening to this indelible single after 54 years.

The Dave Clark Five’s Greatest Hits’ third entry, “Can’t You See That She’s Mine,” reached as high as number 2 on the Billboard Top 40 the week of July 18, 1964. It also has been my all-time personal favorite Dave Clark Five number, a tune so animated that my pulse still soars every time I hear it. Keyboard player and lead vocalist Mike Smith dominates throughout, with an amusement park ride-like introduction that morphs into his familiar gravelly vocals that exuberantly frame the rest of the song. When you see the video, however, you will surely notice the extraordinary musicianship of the great Dave Clark, from his riveting percussion work to his auxiliary vocals, which support Smith at every turn. Underrated lead guitarist Lenny Davidson adds the essential licks, while Denis Payton provides the finishing touches with a breathtaking solo that forms an instrumental bridge for the last verse. When I used to host oldies shows in college back in the mid-’70s, “Can’t You See That She’s Mine” was one of those songs where everyone got up and danced.

The record’s fourth number, “Bits and Pieces,” was, in reality, one of the DC Five more pedestrian releases, a B side throwaway for most bands. Here, though, in a seminal “Tops in the Pops” television presentation on the Beeb, the band proves that this number is downright irresistible. The rhythmic jungle of sound is deftly choreographed by the planned stomping of feet and reminds us why Dave Clark, who directed the band’s movements, was both the spiritual and musical leader of the group. In addition, the exceptional bass guitar work of Rick Huxley tears straight through you. As an aside, it should also be noted that the copyright to “Bits and Pieces” is still owned outright by Dave Clark. Paul McCartney once said, “We all should have all taken business lessons from Dave. John and I lost millions and millions of pounds because of our mismanagement. Dave never did. He got it when none of us cared.” 

“I Like it Like That,” the single that ends Side 1 of the record, turned out to be a faultless cover of the 1961 R&B hit by Chris Kenner. In less than two minutes, Mike Smith here provides an iconic vocal performance that many rock critics believe actually surpasses John Lennon on his more famous “Twist and Shout.” This isn’t just some persistent teenage bewailing as Lennon does so fervidly throughout his Beatles hit. In Mike Smith’s re-do of “I Like It Like That,” his vocals are nothing less than a manly plea for both temptation and lust. When Tom Petty introduced the song on his Sirius radio show a few years ago, he called Smith’s performance throughout the group’s cover version, “a genuine tour de force.” I agree.

Side 2 of The Greatest Hits of the Dave Clark Five begins with the title song of their only feature film, “Catch Us If You Can.” An exuberant harmonica solo by Denis Payton forms the bridge to some of the best harmonies the band ever recorded. Not only is Dave Clark’s drumming truly buoyant here, but his primal screaming, which spoofed Paul McCartney’s Little Richard-like yowl is downright hysterical. Like virtually all successful DC Five numbers, the simplicity of the number belies the complexity of the musicianship.

Many fans of the DC Five regard that the seventh tune included in their greatest hits package, “Because,” as the most illustrious single they ever generated. Within the context of 1964, this was the group’s famed retort to the Beatles’ “This Boy” and “Do You Want to Know a Secret?” In every way, it was a beautiful slow song, whose luminous harmonies and melodies matched the lyrics themselves. Mike Smith’s reverent vocals, his improvisational organ solo that forms the bridge, and the exceptional bass guitar licks by the underrated Rick Huxley create a veritable masterpiece. Paul McCartney once called “Because” a “daunting song” to match if you were in the rival band. “Those blokes threw everything they had into that one,” claimed Sir Paul. Brian Wilson recently called “’Because’ one of the two or three best songs that were recorded in 1964.” Throughout that summer, this gorgeous single dominated the radio waves on both sides of the Atlantic, reaching number one in North America by the Fourth of July. Such indelible musical memories still beat inside of us like a second heart.

“Any Way You Want It,” a frolicking, speed-of-sound-rocker, logically followed “Because on the album, reminding listeners that the Dave Clark Five were primarily a fast-paced dance band. Mike Smith admitted years later that the DC Five were intentionally mirroring the Beatles “big vocal sound” throughout this radiant gem, which features four of the band’s members in a classic call-response refrain to soloist Mike Smith’s strident lead vocal. The reverberated “hey…hey…hey” was not electronically mastered; Smith actually used vocal elocution to pull off the trick! This is one of those songs that remind you that the authentic joy transcended any gloom in virtually every one of The Dave Clark Five’s singles.

Only the DC Five could follow-up one impossibly fast-paced rocker with another, as they did on their greatest hits package with the indefatigable 1964 smash, “Do You Love Me?” A remake of the Contours 1962 Motown classic, the boys here decide to record their cover version in Mach 3 speed, daring the listener not to get up in dance forthwith by undocked impulse. Mike Smith’s singing here is an epiphany, but you could argue that it is Dave Clark’s machine-gun-drumming that drives the engine. Saxophonist Denis Payton provides the musical harmony with his decisive playing, providing a musical blueprint for Clarence Clemons to emulate a generation later for the E Street Band. Like all eminent Dave Clark Five numbers, the ongoing collaboration between the circle of band members here is extraordinary.  

Not surprisingly, the ballad that concludes their greatest hits package also happens to be the DC Five’s most sustaining, hit record. With its marching band stomps that supports an irrepressibly adolescent chorus, “Glad All Over” became the first major British Invasion hit in North America by a band other than the Beatles. It was also the single that knocked “I Want to Hold Your Hand” off the top of the British hit parade. “I was going through my record collection, and I saw the title ‘Glad All Over,'” remembered Dave Clark Five singer Mike Smith to journalist Dave Marsh of Rolling Stone. “I couldn’t remember what the song was like, but I thought it was a great title. So I sat down at my dad’s piano and wrote ‘Glad All Over.'” As Bruce Springsteen recollected years later, “The title of their most popular song was how we felt each time we heard a Dave Clark single back then.”

While The Dave Clark Five continued to achieve palpable success through 1966, they managed to generate just one more significant hit in the States thereafter. Their last top ten single, a phenomenal cover of Marv Johnson’s 1959 classic, “You Got What it Takes,” was released in late April 1967, skirting the psychedelic singles that would then dominate just the subsequent Summer of Love. Although the band continued to have modest success in the UK for a spell, by 1970, they quietly disbanded. The proverbial one-trick pony, the band had exhausted their unique musical template and didn’t – couldn’t – reinvent themselves as the Beatles did so with aplomb. Let’s be honest, you didn’t turn to the DC Five to figure out the mysteries of life as you did when you listened to the Moody Blues or the Pink Floyd. Ultimately, their music just made you feel better at the time. In retrospect, that was not a bad legacy to maintain.

Still, for the group’s legion of fans including me, we all continued to wave their banner and never stopped listening to them. We were thrilled when Dave Clark ended up working with such artists such as Freddie Mercury, Stevie Wonder, and Cliff Richard as a producer and musical entrepreneur. We rejoiced when keyboardist and singer Mike Smith began performing with his own band in 2001 after a 25-year hiatus and were stunned to discover that he still had the same behind his vocals. We also wept when Smith died of complications to a fall suffered at home, just two weeks before he and the band were to be formally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Happily, when Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band began to steadfastly cover a batch of the DC Five’s singles onstage, we rejoiced that a new generation of fans had begun reexamining the group’s timeless music.

For Christmas 2016, my wife ended up giving me an unexpected pleasure – a turntable with a built-in speaker. I instantly fingered through my stack of old records that I had kept and quickly located The Dave Clark Five’s Greatest Hits.

Riddled with scratches made by a careless needle 50 years ago, the DC Five’s music still filled me to the brim with sustained delight. When my son, Max, asked about the cacophony of audio blemishes throughout the album, I reminded him that some were so old that many of them had been made while Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were still alive.

“You are listening to an antique, Max, a cultural fossil from a different time and place!” I bellowed. Max chuckled and began to listen.

“Good tunes!” he exclaimed. I merely smiled and nodded my head affirmatively. a smile planted on my face, my right foot tapping away at the beat of every song. It made a good day even that much better.

I guess that was the point The Dave Clark Five was trying to make all along. That music like theirs has the capacity to make you feel glad all over.

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Crossing the Line: My One-Day Experience as a Baseball Beat Reporter

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March 1978. I began to stir as a stream of light pierced through my bedroom blinds that face east, towards the expansive Atlantic Ocean just a few miles away. After clearing my head, I realized I could make the two hundred mile drive from the Arlington section of Jacksonville, Florida to Winter Haven—a modest hamlet situated in the central portion of the Sunshine State—in about three hours.

As I hastily left my flat, I scooped up a portable Radio Shack cassette recorder with fresh batteries. I hoped to include a few recorded interviews during my planned sojourn to the Boston Red Sox Spring Training facilities.

By reflex, I grabbed a tattered Red Sox hat on my way out of the apartment. Realizing that I would be attending an afternoon spring training game as a writer, not as a fan, I threw the Boston baseball cap onto the vacant passenger seat as I started my car.

As the bank clock adjacent to Exit 5A registered 7:30 am, my rickety ’69 Dodge Dart made its way towards Daytona on I-95 with an oppressive Florida sun shimmering off the highway blacktop. Heading southwest, I began to think–as long as I had been in love with the game of baseball, I had always assumed I would somehow end up in the sport.

After enjoying success as a player growing up in the Boston area, I somehow made my way onto the roster at nationally-ranked Jacksonville University, where I found myself buried in our bullpen like a dog’s bone in a well-worn garden. While I had pitched against such significant collegiate powers like the University of Miami and FSU early on, by this time, I had painfully acknowledged that my supposed “prowess” as a lefty on the mound would never enable me to enter the professional ranks through the constrained avenue as a player. Accordingly, in the summer of 1977, I contacted an umpiring school in Florida about possibly starting out in that lonely but honorable trade. When I received the brochure, however, I just couldn’t fill it out. I had always wanted to be Sandy Koufax – not Ed Runge.

Luckily, I had begun to find my voice as a writer. During my last year in college, I served as the editor of the university’s newspaper. Since graduating the previous spring, I found myself supplementing my job in the printing business in North Florida by working as a stringer for the Associated Press, mostly covering NCAA Division 1 basketball games featuring the University of Florida Gators and the Jacksonville University Dolphins.

I smiled as I pondered it, that the written word was about to become my doorway to the big leagues. The cobalt waters of the Atlantic framed my backside as I pulled onto the Interstate for the last major portion of the drive to Winter Haven, some 70 miles inland. A plethora of billboards upholding the virtues of both Orlando and Disney World began to peek through the stout palm trees that lined the highway.

An hour later, I turned onto Florida State Highway 27, the last thoroughfare on my itinerary. After driving past the renowned Cypress Gardens, I soon pulled into Chain O’ Lakes Park in Winter Haven, the then winter home of one of major league baseball’s most celebrated franchises, the Boston Red Sox.

Almost immediately, I was stopped by a weary parking attendant asking for my credentials. Proudly, I flashed him my pristine 1978 Spring Training Press Pass. He fingered it for a moment and then mechanically pointed to a long rectangular building off in the distance. “The Sox clubhouse is over there. You have to walk through it to get to the field beyond!” he bellowed over the din of traffic.

Instantaneously, I maneuvered my junk-heap into the choice lot next to the team’s clubhouse area. The blazing Florida heat caused my vehicle to wheeze as I turned off the ignition. My shitcan Dart looked absolutely ludicrous next to a shimmering new Cadillac, glistening in the sun like a sparkled jewel. Prominently displayed on the right rear bumper was a sticker proclaiming, “If You Outlaw Handguns, Only the Outlaws Will Have Them!” I reminded myself that I was in the heart of redneck country and felt suddenly out of place. Nevertheless, I strutted toward the Sox clubhouse with my cassette recorder in hand. I looked at my Red Sox hat on the front seat; I decided to leave it there. That day I was a reporter, not a fan.

30 seconds later, I entered a nondescript building that opened into a brightly lit chamber. A row of lockers greeted me as I began to saunter through the outsized room. The pulsating beat of a Latin American samba echoed from an unwieldy speaker in the clubhouse.

Emerging from a whirlpool and smoking a long stogie was none other than Luis Tiant, a legendary Red Sox pitcher who was at the height of a brilliant eighteen-year career in the big leagues. “El Tiante” paid no attention to me as he wrapped a towel around his body and began to dance to the music. As the Red Sox starting pitcher circled to the tune, puffs of smoke formed a cloud near the ceiling above.

In 1978, Luis Tiant was my favorite Boston player. And there he was, dancing away less than 20 feet away in the Red Sox clubhouse! I’d officially enter The Twilight Zone. Somehow, I snapped back to reality and walked briskly through the room to find the nearest exit. I was there to get a story and would not interrupt the Boston pitcher who was oblivious to my meager presence.

I quickly ditched the clubhouse and skirted out onto an emerald field, which had just been watered down. While there was a handful of Sox players within shouting distance, a wave of trepidation consumed me as I tiptoed onto the spongy playing surface. My dream of being on a big league field among major-leaguers was suddenly realized. For a decade-and-a-half, I had dreamt of scrambling up Mount Olympus, and yet, now that I was there, I discovered I couldn’t speak to the bronzed idols circumventing the bulky iron cage jutting out around home plate. As I glanced again at the home plate area, shortstop Rick Burleson and second baseman Jerry Remy were leaning against the cage, bats in hand, laughing at the antics of outfielder Bernie Carbo, pretending to employ his bat as a cue-stick in a billiards game.

Sheepishly, I turned in the direction of two young men near the warning track in right field, dressed in civilian clothing – obviously reporters –and steeped in conversation. For the first time in my life, I felt more comfortable with two journalists than with the players encircling the field.

I closed in and gestured to the two reporters. “Hi,” I croaked, “my name is Shaun Kelly. I am from Boston, but I work for the Associated Press out of Jacksonville.”

“Hi, Shaun,” one of them replied. “You’d better face home plate instead of at us because the Sox are about to take BP.”

“Oh, sorry,” I muttered, embarrassed beyond belief.

I gazed at the batting cage and spotted a left-handed batter crouching in an irregular stance, his bat swaying forward like a flagpole in a gale. As the white ball was delivered to the plate, Carl Michael Yastrzemski’s bat uncoiled like a conductor’s baton.

Crack.

Instantaneously, the ball whizzed over me. A ball hit by the Great Number Eight, Yaz, the first American League player to have 3000 hits and 400 plus home runs. The screech of the sphere passing over my head brought me to my senses. Yastrzemski motioned to the accommodating batting practice pitcher for another pitch. I looked closer and realized that Eddie Popowski, the famed third base coach of the ’67 Impossible Dream Red Sox, was throwing BP to the renowned Red Sox left fielder.

Immediately, I reverted to the batting circle. Carl’s sniper eyes converged in on another pitch. Crack. My eyes grew larger as another sphere lashed into the air, gathering momentum as it approached us.

“Your first time, Shaun?” one of the reporters sighed.

“Yes,” I said meekly. They could smell a rookie a mile away.

“My name’s Peter Gammons of The Boston Globe,” stated the reporter matter-of-factly. He stuck out his hand and gave me a firm handshake. “This is my friend, Tom Boswell.”

I glanced at the other reporter as a cordial smile promptly appeared on a broad, patrician face. “Hi, Thomas Boswell of The Washington Post. Heads up!” Crack. Another bazooka launch from home plate carved our group in two.

“The old man can still shell them out,” Gammons exclaimed, pointing to the batting cage where Yastrzemski, the winner of four batting titles, was hitting.

“I see that Yaz is working on another new stance. A genuine sign of spring!” laughed Boswell. We smiled collectively. For longtime Red Sox fans, Captain Carl’s annual experimentation with new batting stances was nothing less than insolence against advancing age.

I continued to watch the fabled Number Eight battle fate, time, and the game itself. As I looked at him closely, I realized that nothing was ever easy for Carl Yastrzemski. I pressed the record button on the cassette recorder and whispered a note: “The harder Yaz works, the more unlikely it is for him to surrender.” Silence began to engulf the three of us as we continued to watch Yaz. I wanted to linger in this intimate circle longer, but I knew I was a provisional member, at best. To break the quietness, I bleated out, “Is Ted Williams here today?”

“Oh, yes,” replied Gammons. “He’s off in the minor league complex working with some of the rookies. If he were here, you’d have surely heard him by now!” Boswell and I snickered, knowing that was true about the retired Boston legend who then habitually worked with “his kids” during Spring Training.

Crack. I looked up and observed a white sphere disappearing into the orange grove beyond the reaches of the outfield. I had seen Carl Yastrzemski hit innumerable home runs since 1963, my first year following the club, but not from this angle! I remained standing near the worn part of right field, the spot where the regulars transformed the area into a shallow patch.

Crack. I looked up as Yaz swung from his heels. The ball whistled over first base and seemed to pick up speed as it headed toward us. I skipped out of the way as the white blur hurtled past me.

“Looks like he’s aiming for you!” chortled Gammons. The reporters chuckled as we moved past the right field foul line.

After explaining my motivation, I asked the two men which Sox players might be amicable enough to accommodate a struggling reporter with a short interview on the field. “Most of the backups are pretty reasonable, “Gammons volunteered. “Some of the regulars are, by nature, not the friendliest people in the world. You learn to live with it in this job. It’s part of the business.”

Just then, I noticed Bill Lee doing wind sprints in the outfield. Lee, an iconoclast of the first order, had appropriately been nicknamed “The Spaceman” by announcer Ned Martin. Lee, who famously had admitted to smoking pot in the Red Sox bullpen and had counted Jerry Garcia and Warren Zevon as two of his close friends, was the embodiment of the generational gulf that I had already observed on the field. In the bluest state in America at the time, Massachusetts, Bill Lee was already a veritable icon. The Spaceman approached the outfield where we were still huddled forth like a crowded island. “Lee might give me an interview; am I right?”

“Normally, yes, “replied Gammons, “he loves the spotlight, but this spring, Bill’s been avoiding the press. I doubt he’d give you–or any of us–the time of day right now, especially with the season almost upon us.”

“Well, I am going to try anyway,” I smiled as Gammons nodded, emitting a slight chuckle in the process. I thanked both reporters for spending a few minutes with such a conspicuous novice. They shook my hand warmly as I left the outfield.

I silently crept away from them as Boswell spit out a few observations on other camps around the Grapefruit League. The Globe baseball writer started to take down notes as Boswell spoke in rapid fire; some of the tidbits would be subsequently used in Gammons’ Sunday “Baseball Notes” column.

As I sauntered near the first base bag, I noticed the Red Sox third baseman was headed towards the Boston clubhouse. Remembering that Gammons claimed Hobson was an agreeable sort, I blurted out, “Excuse me, Butch. Can I ask you a few questions?”

He turned around and appraised me with weary eyes. Hobson was dripping sweat but proved too much of a gentleman to turn a juvenile correspondent aside. “Okay, for sure,” he mumbled with a soft Alabama drawl.

We sat on a bench adjacent to the Red Sox clubhouse. I held my cassette player and asked him a series of inane questions. I concluded the two-minute interview by inquiring, “And what about the Yankees?”

“Whatever team outlasts the other will be the one who wins,” Butch replied. “It’s gonna be a dogfight all the way. I think we have the horses to do it. We have a lot of gamers on this side of the field. We’ll get it done, or there’ll be heck to pay up in Boston!”

I thanked the young Sox third baseman, noting to myself that he poured more clichés down on me than sparks in a firestorm.

As the chivalrous Red Sox infielder sprinted away from me, veteran Sox players Dwight Evans and Fred Lynn approached my bench from the batting cage. The two mates were chortling as they drew near – Lynn cracked up as Evans replicated Yaz’s new stance. In a game where failure is more ubiquitous than success, laughter is the only preemptive strike against madness.

In the past, I might have said hello to both Dwight and Freddy. But I had been part of a fraternal baseball collective in college, however, so I knew to keep my mouth shut. The two players skated by me to the shelter of the Boston clubhouse.

Haphazardly, I glanced down at the cassette recorder that was begging for more interviews. I wondered if I could muster up the gumption to talk to another Sox player. Had I somehow crossed a line that I shouldn’t step over?

Moments later, I glanced at the stands and noticed more and more people filing into Chain O’Lakes Park. Hundreds streamed in like a horde of bees. The vast majority of fans were wearing blue or red Boston baseball caps. I touched my hatless head and suddenly felt utterly exposed.

“I should be sitting with them,” I thought.

Moments later, I detected a solitary Boston player completing his wind sprints in the haze of the outfield. Before I knew it, he was lollygagging my way, bathed in perspiration, his left hand playfully juggling a baseball like a ball of Silly Putty.

I considered what Gammons had told me earlier about Bill Lee not talking to the press, but now the fan in me wanted desperately to speak to him. The last bit of reporter left in me began to wonder if Lee might possibly talk to me, a neophyte.

In 1978, WCAS in Cambridge, Massachusetts was an alternative folk-rock station whose playlist ranged from Richard Thompson to Patti Smith to John Prine. The tiny, 5,000-watt station could barely be picked up beyond the Newton hills and through some obscure FCC ruling, ‘CAS could only broadcast from sunup to sundown. Since its inception, WCAS, like Bill Lee, always marched to its own drummer.

I made a bold move to get Lee to talk to me. Instinctively, I surmised that Lee was probably a keen listener of the station. “Excuse me, Bill,” I barked. “I am a stringer for WCAS in Cambridge. Can I talk to you?”

Lee’s chocolate eyes widened; he broke into a bemused smirk when he observed the el-cheapo recording system in my shuddering hands.

“You must have come down here on your own time and money. I can’t see that station spending money sending anyone down here.”

Man, he is smart, I thought. “You’re right Bill,” I retorted, “I’m here on my own. Could I ask you a few questions anyway?”

“You know, I really like ‘CAS,” he began, looking me directly in the eyes. “I can usually pick up the signal near the Belmont-Cambridge line—in the afternoon, of course.”

Lee suddenly dropped down on the bench next to me as the sun dropped, quilt-like, over the grandstand behind us. I instantly raised the issue of the Yankees in my opening salvo to the Red Sox lefty pitcher. He looked out at the field as the visiting Minnesota Twins begin fielding practice. “The Yankees will always be a force. The gods have determined that, of course. However, the challenge over the years has been to confront the notion of predestination. In so doing, one defies fate. I’m a fate buster.”

I waited for him to finish and then asked, “Don’t you feel that this year, particularly with pitcher Dennis Eckersley having just been traded to Boston, that this is the year for all of you to change that fate?”

He chewed on the inquiry and then replied, “Hopefully, but it’s all out of our hands. All 25 of us could come down with hamstrings on the same day. You ride it out, hoping that the wind will be blowing your way at the end of the day.”

I then commented on the teeming pack of fans and the wave of press engulfing the team whenever it traveled. He immediately gestured out to the infield, “There is a certain magnitude to all of this, I guess. Still, I’ve never forgotten how, in one sense, we are not very important compared to what social workers or teachers or doctors or nurses do on a daily basis.”

As I continued listening to the Red Sox pitcher, Tom Boswell and Peter Gammons walked by us, their eyes wide open. I could hear slight laughter in the background as the two reporters walked together to the batting cage.

I looked back at Lee who began to finger a baseball as he continued his sermon: “I find myself playing for the Boston Red Sox in Boston, Massachusetts, New England. Who’s to say that if I ever end up in a commune outside of Spokane, Washington that I actually might find a greater truth ultimately? Some of us need to get perspective in life,” Lee spat out emphatically as a purposeful Carl Yastrzemski walked by, careful not to glance at the quixotic Red Sox hurler.

He ended the interview with this thought: “You know, our entire universe could be encased in an atom on the fingernail of a much greater being – so we all have to keep perspective of the comings and goings of our lives. Whatever we do in life, information is processed and then regurgitated—only to then be forgotten. Nothing lasts in this world. The earth continues to rotate regardless of our successes or failures—and will do so no matter what happens this season.”

“The Spaceman” abruptly got up, grabbed my hand, and shook it earnestly. “Hey, kid,” Lee smiled, “you tell ‘CAS not to ‘sell out.’ So many do these days, but you probably know that already.”

Lee’s last words hit me between the eyes.

Despite my success in securing a Lee interview–even under somewhat false pretenses–I felt somehow tainted. As I stumbled away from the bench and towards the Red Sox clubhouse, I asked myself, “What the hell am I doing here?”

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Over the course of the next four hours, I completely embarrassed myself by welcoming pitching stud Dennis Eckersley to the Red Sox during his first official press conference with the team; fumbled an interview with closer Bill “Soup” Campbell, whose exasperation with me left me disconsolate; observed Yaz in a screaming match with a mortified fan over an autograph; sat and listened to a number of jaded reporters in the crowded Chain O’ Lakes press box while they gossiped about the lives of many of the players; and passively watched as the local press interviewed Jim Rice and Carlton Fisk at the end of the game.  I hadn’t even bothered to tape Fisk’s and Rice’s responses to the press, even though I had stood five feet away from the two future Hall of Famers. As the day progressed, I found myself wanting to chuck the cassette recorder away and join my baseball brethren in the stands.

After the last player left the clubhouse at the end of the afternoon, I found myself sitting alone in one of the seats near the Boston dugout. While the notes I secured would be used as the basis of a future story – and WCAS would receive my interview as well – I realized I did cross a line I had never wanted to step over. I looked at the press box one last time and ripped up my official MLB press pass. 

Moments later, I circled the outer lining of the park as the sun began to peek its way toward the shadows behind the orange grove in centerfield. I trudged towards my Dodge Dart, aware that I had a lot of hard driving ahead of me. I figured I could make Jacksonville by 8:30 if there was no traffic. I got into my car and threw my cassette recorder brusquely on the passenger seat.

Off in the distance, a familiar figure could be seen approaching the parking lot from the adjacent minor league complex. The echo of his shoes hitting the pavement reverberated off the elevated press box behind the lot. Heading in my direction, the approaching man seemed like a lone sheriff inspecting the main thoroughfare of a Western frontier town. He approached the car parked next to mine, saddled up to his pallid Cadillac, and disappeared behind the tinted glass.

Instinctively, I rolled down the driver-side window. Not knowing really what to say, I finally blurted out, “Thank you, sir!”

Slowly, his passenger window mechanically stopped halfway; the gentleman’s creased face became a fissure behind the glare of the sun. He stared at my youthful eyes, puzzled, and then made an educated guess. “No problem, kid!” he roared, his voice cutting through the air like a machete. “Remember, always swing with a slight uppercut.

“I will,” I grinned, thrilled beyond belief that the great Ted Williams concluded I was one of the many Red Sox prospects he had helped earlier in the minor league batting cage.

Watching my reaction to his morsel of advice, “The Splendid Splinter” flashed me a smile and motioned an abbreviated wave. He then closed the window of his car, ignited the engine, and leisurely pulled out of the Red Sox players’ parking lot. I smile as I observed the “If You Only Outlaw Handguns – Only the Outlaws Will Have Them” sticker that covered his right bumper.

“Of course,” I laughed to myself, “Williams would have that on his car!”

I cranked up my own car as the baseball legend’s car disappeared in the distance.

When I thought about it later, I found it fascinating that I had cried out “thank you” to Ted Williams. On the evening of Number Nine’s death 24 years later, I finally figured it out. Intuitively, I wanted to thank him back then for being the greatest hitter of all time; for being the greatest Red Sox player to ever wear a Boston uniform; and for serving our country so nobly in two separate wars. Most importantly, my show of gratitude for “Teddy Ballgame” had come from the heart of a fan. 

After Williams left that afternoon, I put on the Boston baseball cap I had left behind earlier in the day. Within moments, my car pulled out onto Florida State Highway 27.

My one-day career as a baseball reporter was forever in the rearview mirror.

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Teachers and Guns Don’t Mix

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Like nurses, doctors, and the clergy, the vast majority of us of us who are teachers view our profession as a calling. To paraphrase fellow educator Brad Henry, a good teacher can inspire hope, ignite the imagination, and instill a lifelong passion for learning in children. We don’t teach for money. We teach to nurture and shape humankind’s most precious commodity. The payback is in the give-and-take of learning, fostering, mentoring, and the profound joy that comes with discovering something new. Ultimately, the best teachers dare their students to find the best within themselves.

Thus, when President Donald Trump speculates that American teachers could be “on the front lines” armed and ready to confront mass killers, it struck a chord in all of us who are teachers. After all, there have been a number of educators in recent years who have bravely put themselves in front of the children they teach in order to protect them from such madmen. All you have to do is to Google Dawn Hochsprung, Anne Marie Murphy, Aaron Feis, Scott Beigel, or Christopher Hixon and you’ll learn what authentic courage and selflessness really mean. From this lens, virtually every teacher I know would instinctively step in front of a gunman to save his or her kids. After all, we are in the business of saving lives.

But to put a gun in a teacher’s hand? Almost every instructor I know would refuse to do so. Why? For something that educators would inherently understand but many who are not might find perplexing. As one colleague said to me today, “I would immediately think of those children who are already filled to the brim with anxiety and stress. The trust they have for their teachers would quickly dissipate if they knew their teachers were armed. They are not looking for policemen on the block. They are looking for someone to understand them.”

All of us who teach these days know that we are in the front lines of insanity because American politicians as a group do not dare to do what is right and seek sane reform in the area of gun control. Your guns or your children? What is more important to you? That’s rather stark, but the truth can sometimes hurt. Every day for the rest of this school year, we teachers will be there for our kids and their futures. When you think about it, everything else is secondary.

Standup comic Tim Hanlon made a most salient point this afternoon in a series of tweets, which he posted hours after the shooting. He reminded his followers that Chris Kyle, the most prodigious American sniper in recent military history, was shot and killed in 2013 by Eddie Ray Routh, who used a 9mm SIG Sauer pistol. In the end, the former Navy SEAL was killed by a deranged veteran with a gun. I wonder if  America’s teachers could stop such a killer if Chris Kyle could not? Given that there were 8,000 American casualties to friendly fire during the Vietnam War, imagine the damage that might occur in a school with an ill-trained, armed teacher?

If common sense and practical gun control can somehow form the basis of a sane approach to the issue, then our nation will be better for it. If that occurs, then American teachers can, in the words of Einstein, continue “to awaken the joy of creative expression and knowledge” within each child and teenager under their care.

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The Work Bus

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At precisely 2:45 pm, after we had spilled out of our large public high school and into a football-field-sized waiting area, approximately 40 of us would automatically sprint towards Vehicle #1, known to virtually everyone at school as “The Work Bus.”

Unlike most of our brethren who leisurely returned home in mid-afternoon, the assorted students on Vehicle #1 were all deposited at a central location in our hometown of Wellesley, Massachusetts for one overriding reason – to toil at local business establishments for the rest of the afternoon. As one of the regular riders of “The Work Bus” for three years, I was employed as a bag and stock boy at the Wellesley Supermarket next to E. A. Davis’s, across from the stately Wellesley Inn on tree-lined Washington Street.

After securing my usual seat behind our driver, Gus, I would save a space for my girlfriend at the time, Kathy, who worked at Ara’s, a prominent men’s clothing store. During our five-minute ride, Kath and I nestled together, arms around one another in a solitary seat for the mile-ride to Wellesley Square.

At the conclusion of our ride down hilly Route 16, we then poured out of the bus in front of the old Clement Drugstore, where the business’s longstanding clerk, Sunny Zani, would wave to us from the pharmacy’s front window. As we left Bus #1, Gus, who could well have served as a body double for Burt Ives, would shake our hands as we alighted the vehicle. “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas, Gus!” I would bark at him, and the affable driver would roll his eyes and pat me on the back. On temperate days, we would hear a string of harmonica solos that disabled veteran Bernie Zetlin joyfully played on a park bench situated at the juncture of 135 and 16.

Once we reached Wellesley Square, police officer Derb Maccini would normally stop traffic and wave us through the maze of streets that intersected the central point of the town. Kathy would head up Route 16 towards her job at Ara’s. Another high school amore, Mary, would wave goodbye she raced to her receptionist job at Linden Cleaners. My buddy, Chris, who also worked on Linden Street, would dash over to his job behind the counter at Nino’s Delicatessen. Joe normally accompanied him as he worked in the lawn mower and snow blower section at Diehl’s. Three afternoons a week, Judy joined Chris and Joe to Linden Street as she worked as a waitress at Friendly’s.

Simultaneously, Tommy sprang towards the top of Crest Road, where he labored in the Ski Department at Olken’s, a popular sporting goods store. Carolyn had the easiest commute; she simply traversed the street and began work in the Circulation Department at the Wellesley Free Library. Pals Chris and Bruce reconnoitered their way toward Grove Street, where they worked as mechanics at the Jenney Station. Finally, my fellow employees, Diana, Bobby, Cathy, Cynthia, and Debbie, would join me for the two-minute trek up to Washington Street to Wellesley Super Market

Even though our lives were decidedly different from our peers who attended local private institutions, it was our afterschool work that made our high school experiences so unique. While their afternoons were framed by required athletic contests against local independent schools, we would simultaneously punch the clocks at our respective places of work in order to complete the traditional 3-6 pm shift before heading home for the evening. 

Although we never misconstrued activity for achievement, we did realize that there were tangible benefits that came as a result of our working lives. Because we were expected to be on the job during the afternoons, our attendance at work meant that we also missed very little time at school. While there were times that we functioned at a frenzied pace, we also experienced the bookends of drudgery and boredom. A thousand days before college, we learned about W2 forms; Social Security taxes; withholding pay; minimum wage scales; set schedules; and 15-minute coffee breaks. During the summer months, when I was the one employee who greeted the Hood Milk Truck at precisely 5:30 am for its morning delivery, I grasped the importance of both self-discipline and commitment. More significantly, we eventually figured out that life is nothing but what we made of ourselves.  

We also learned how to work with people – all different kinds of folks. I was often assigned as the bag boy for Betty, an affable mother and longtime employee at the market who seemed to know everyone in town. She expected me to be on time, courteous to the customers, and funny as Betty just loved to be entertained.

At the other end of the store, I would occasionally serve at the other main counter of the store. Jean, who controlled that area like an Eastern European autocrat, was a middle-aged chain-smoking cynic who had a heart of gold beneath a crusty veneer that could disarm the meek and the powerful alike. “How ah ya, Judge!” she would bellow in her classic Boston accent to a retired member of the Massachusetts Supreme Court. We always smirked as the Judge appeared stunned whenever she greeted him. Of course, Jean would also have me hide her “medicinal” – a flask of the “hahd stuff” – in case some “customa” pissed her off. Whenever there was a fender bender outside on Washington Street, Jean would yelp, “Holy Mary, Motha of Gawd!”

In the fish and meat department,  Joey, the store’s manchild prankster, used to hold the head of a large striper, fresh from Cape Cod Bay, and move its jaws up and down, mouthing a “How was school today, Shaunie?” to me. And then there was Henry, the venerable fruit and vegetable man, the most well-read man in town, who would pontificate about everything from Camus’s heady sense of alienation to Nixon’s Vietnamization policy to any Wellesley College student or professor in speaking distance of him. Five decades after she graduated from Wellesley College, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright remembered Henry as the most cultured man she met during her years at Wellesley.

When it was “slow on the floor,” I was often was asked to restock the shelves, something that appealed to the OCD in me. In retrospect, I probably invented the concept of “the anal retentive chef” years before Phil Hartman did. I regularly was asked to alphabetize the market’s extended spice rack in a sing-song pitter-patter that would often leave Betty and Jean in hysterics. (“Our Anise Seeds are followed by Arrowroot Powder, which then introduces us to Black Peppercorns and then – making their grand entrance – our much-beloved Caraway Seeds! Vola!”) When it was time to do the soups in the middle aisle, it was even a bigger deal for my employee-audience, who would often give me sustained applause as I completed the soup aisle.

Adjacent to Betty’s counter was the frozen food section, where she loved to laugh away as I stocked the shelves of Matzos above Minute Maid Frozen Orange Juice cans. The only way to reach that high was to stand on top of the frozen casings. Thus, I would sing-and-dance to the refrain of Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walking” as I deposited the boxes of Passover-inspired wafers. Because Larry Dobis, the beloved owner of the market, was Jewish, I once belted out an inspired version of “Hava Nagila,” much to his bemusement.

Another job that Larry gave me was to escort the elderly to their cars with their bags of groceries. One Wellesley College octogenarian, a Mrs. Edith W. Johnston, Class of 1912, who resided in a tiny apartment on Cottage Street, expected me to deliver her groceries each Friday by wheeling them in a Wellesley Supermarket basket almost a mile from the store. “Here’s your nickel, Shaun, and thank you so very much!” she would say as I unloaded her groceries in her kitchen. My big payday would occur each Christmas when Mrs. Johnston would give me a quarter. I always thanked her profusely and then chuckled as I ventured back to the market.

And then there was Mrs. Aurelia Plath, who was then an administrator at BU and would habitually appear each Friday afternoon to stock up for the weekend. She loved the fact that my English teacher at Wellesley High was the legendary Wilbury Crockett. “He taught my daughter how to write and was the best teacher she ever had,” the mother of Sylvia Plath informed me one day when I helped her with her groceries.

The secret of places such as Wellesley Supermarket was that they added value to people when they valued them. My three years as a bag boy seem like a blur in time 45 years later, partly because the best families in life are usually the result of great teamwork – and we were one fabulous group.

In September 1970, when I took Vehicle #1 for the first time, I never realized then that I would begin a life of work that continues to this very day. Within those margins was the reality that there was nothing worth knowing that could be taught. As Bill Dempsey, one of my old bosses at Wellesley Supermarket, once said to me, “Experience is the one thing you can’t get for nothing.” Ultimately, our lives would then be defined by what we did and what kind of people enlarged and shaped our existences in life.

When one of my private school friends recollected playing competitive sports each afternoon during his high school experience, I said to him, “Yes, but I was actually more fortunate.”

After all, I rode “The Work Bus” each day.

In loving memory of one of my Work Bus adventurers, Carolyn, who worked at the Circulation Department at the Wellesley Free Library until she was too sick to continue. She died much too young in 1972.

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Joni, All the Time

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It’s the unknown that has always drawn me to women. To paraphrase Churchill’s most oft-quoted adage, they are a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. They are as complicated as the inner workings of an iPhone. They are both nurturers and truth-seekers. At one moment, they can be as distant as a remote tropical island. In an instant, they open up their enveloping arms to strangers and friends alike. They are maternal, intuitive, and emotional – and by far the tougher of the two sexes.

Not surprisingly, it’s the labyrinthine essence of women that lies at the heart of my four-decade-plus-long fixation of Joni Mitchell. While I have been a longtime devotee of both Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, it is Joni’s music that lingers these days. Recently, her music has become my daily coping mechanism. As a matter of fact, since January 20, 2017, I have listened to virtually nothing but Joni Mitchell’s gallery of tunes as a counter to the misogyny, greed, and deceitfulness of President Donald J. Trump. Because I have seen my own gender spiral into a cultural splashdown both unprecedented and warranted, I have methodically reexamined the Saskatoon, Saskatchewan native’s music as if it could be somehow both redemptive and life-changing.

It has.

For the uninformed, Joni Mitchell has been able to nail the most elusive of all great pop music quests, eight spectacular albums in a row, something matched by only a handful by such goliaths as the Beatles, Stevie Wonder, Springsteen, the Stones, Van Morrison, and Dylan. Beginning in 1969, Joni released Clouds; Ladies of the Canyon; Blue; For the Roses; Court and Spark; Miles of Aisles; The Hissing of Summer Lawns, and Hejira during an astonishing seven-year period. Ultimately, these musical gemstones are as good as anything generated by any soloist in the past 60 years.

Of course, Mitchell authored the anthem of her generation, “Woodstock.” (“We are stardust, we are golden. We are billion-year-old carbon. And we gotta get ourselves back to the garden.”) With “Big Yellow Taxi,” she composed the most revered ecological anthem in the last half-century. (“Don’t it always seem to go. That you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone. They paved paradise – and put up a parking lot.”) Joni’s hallowed “Circle Game,” has been played at countless christenings, weddings, and funerals. (“Yesterday a child came out to wonder. Caught a dragonfly inside a jar. Fearful when the sky was full of thunder. And tearful at the falling of a star. And the seasons they go round and round, and the painted ponies go up and down. We’re captive on the carousel of time. We can’t return we can only look behind – from where we came. And go round and round and round in the circle game.”) Finally, the songwriter’s most venerated song, “Both Sides Now,” is considered one of the ten most important ballads produced in the modern era. (“I’ve looked at life from both sides now. From win and lose and still somehow. It’s life’s illusions I recall. I really don’t know life…at all.”)

All in all, Joni Mitchell is a Nobel Prize for Literature waiting to happen.

In addition, Graham Nash wrote one of his most popular singles paying homage to Joni’s enduring domesticity in CSNY’s “Our House.” (“Life used to be so hard. Now everything is easy ’cause of you.”) And, of course, that’s Mitchell’s voice backing Carole King throughout Tapestry and James Taylor throughout Sweet Baby James. From Prince to Taylor Swift, from Bonnie Raitt to Lana Del Ray, from Stevie Nicks to Ed Sheeran, a cavalcade of rock stars has listed Joni Mitchell as their dominant influence over the years. To her fans, she has proven to be an enduring nectar they have sipped from during an epoch so hyperkinetic that it has become unfathomable to most. “You were our Prozac before there was any!” two fans screeched to her after a concert in the late 1990s.

Characteristically, Joni took it as a supreme compliment.

Thus, on a gloomy January afternoon one year ago – the day that Donald Trump was sworn into office – I reflexively began to listen to her undisputed masterpiece, BlueNamed by the Smithsonian Institute as one of the most 100 influential musical albums of the twentieth century, it’s bloodletting, siren-songs to love and loss remain unmatched. For me, Blue matched the heart-rumblings of a dark time and proved to be a welcomed elixir to the moment. As the winter morphed into the promise of spring, I breezed through the rest of Mitchell’s music as if it were the only oxygen I could breathe to keep me alive.

By the summertime, I discerned that I had listened to nothing but Joni Mitchell music since “The Donald” had taken over the White House. In the meantime, from last winter’s Women’s March on Washington to the astonishing results in local elections around the nation 10 months later, scores of prescient observers have predicted that such memorable bookends are harbingers to what will occur in this calendar year. If so, then, Joni Mitchell has already provided the era’s decidedly feminine alternative.  

While I continued listening to Joni, a patchwork of her phrases began to bore into me like a corkscrew to the heart. First of all, I noticed that on virtually every recording, Mitchell’s voice was as clear as a bell and yet as capricious as New England coastal weather. Critic David Mitchell – no relation – wrote recently, “Joni’s voice warbles with vibrato but is stringent and harsh, too; it’s acrobatic yet grounded; vulnerable yet indestructible; mannered and octave-straddling, yet also as natural as breathing or speaking.”

And then there were her musical accompaniments. Indeed, although Mitchell has dabbled in every vocal genre possible and has been supported by everyone from Neil Young to Charlie Mingus, from Yo-Yo Ma to Willie Nelson; her ordinarily sparse orchestrations, while undoubtedly brilliant, are mere props to her illuminating vocals. On some of her greatest recordings, it is Joni playing on a simple dulcimer, a delicate, fretted string instrument of the zither family,  made famous by Appalachian folksingers, typically with four pronounced strings. Mitchell’s understated acoustic guitar and piano work has enabled her vocals to blossom and allows her words to remain center stage. In addition, she has also dabbled in the Byzantine world of jazz, where her vocals have been accompanied by such greats as Wayne Shorter, Miles Davis, Pat Metheny, and Jaco Pastorius.

Finally, unadulterated fidelity frames Joni’s ingenious lyrics. In each tuneful text, Mitchell has managed to push and pull at the pieces of love and youth, age, experience, and circumstance. They are the etchings of autobiography in which she never confesses but instead reveals something about herself in every one of her songs. It’s similar to removing the skin of an onion whose core is very much intact.

From Joni’s ode to love, loss, and motherhood in the poignant, “Little Green,” to her melancholic, universal sadness in “River,” to her paen to the exhilarating pain of intimacy in “A Case of You,” she has made me feel things I had forgotten about myself. Like her kaleidoscopic paintings, Mitchell’s music projects texture, tone, color, emotion, and intimacy. Every product of hers is a work of art – and her musical pallet – from folk to gospel, from jazz to rock, from country to the blues – invariably rings true. There’s nothing false about Joni Mitchell. She is both for real – and for keeps.

Given the fake news, the lies, the indiscretions, and the tumbledown communion that has come to swirl around us like a societal Dust Bowl, I will continue to listen to the vivid hues and the unfettered truthfulness that oozes out of each Joni Mitchell song until the sky above me is a cloudless blue once again.

Until then, I will be a prisoner of the white lines of the freeway.

 

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Skating Under the Stars – A Christmas Memory

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In the years before global warming, Wellesley, Massachusetts, my hometown, was typically encased in sub-freezing degree temperatures by Christmas vacation. This made outdoor skating a tangible reality for us during our formative years. Accordingly, a pack of us would traipse down Radcliffe Road’s vertical hill and head toward the outdoor rink at nearby Wellesley High School. There, we would join a Congress-sized assortment of boys and girls from aged 8 to 18, all eager to play street hockey.

For four generations of Wellesley kids, the outdoor rink at Wellesley High turned out to be a godsend. Such local natives as Glenn and Craig Patrick, who both later played in the NHL, had spent hundreds of hours playing on the bumpy service adjacent to Seaver Street. While we sampled other playing surfaces – from Morses Pond to Lake Waban to Dana Hall School’s circular rock-lined pool – our dream had always been to have a place to skate closer to where we lived. Kids were allowed to be more resourceful and independent then. Thus, we never even thought to ask our parents for rides to places a couple of miles away, and so, we would habitually trudge through both slush and snow to reach our icy destinations.

Consequently, when one of our neighbors on our street began to speak in whispered tones of “a magical frozen pond hidden in the woods where you can skate to your heart’s content,” my eyes became as wide as saucers. By December 1968, I had reconnoitered around our neighborhood environs and knew every single square yard, from Radcliffe Road to Southgate, from Brook Street to nearby Woodlawn Cemetery.

The next day, when I then observed one of my neighborhood buddies gallivanting up our street, heading for Brook Street, with a hockey stick and skates dangling from the blade end of his stick, I stood along our property in wonder. At that instant, I recognized that when you stopped believing in reality, it just doesn’t go away. I accosted him the next day and inquired if he had found “something.”

He had.   

Of course, when one of our own had discovered the aforementioned hidden pond situated a half-a-mile from our houses, it became instant headline news on our street. We soon learned that as part of the Fuller Brook inlet there was a small deposit of water, whose cigar-shaped size was a bit longer than the length of a football field. Situated behind Fuller Brook Road, the “pond” was named for the family that owned it – Knowles.

To get to Knowles Pond, you walked eight houses down from the corner of Brook Street and Fuller Brook. You would then have to cut through one of the neighbor’s yards to reach the pond at the bottom of an elongated hill. Concealed amidst five acres of woods, we learned that the Knowles family “welcomed neighbor visitors” skating on their natural ice surface once it was safe enough for children to use.

When I timidly walked down Fuller Brook to the “cut through” yard for the pond the first time, an affable young mother greeted me with a smile. “Yes, Son, this is how you get to Knowles Pond! You may walk through our property anytime to do so!”

After thanking the affable woman profusely, I learned that her name was Marcia Decter and that she was the wife of veritable Wellesley legend, Bob Decter, whose Central Street store had provided shoes for two generations of local children.  

As the local paperboy for The Patriot Ledger, an afternoon daily newspaper at the time, I began to scout Knowles Pond whenever I delivered my papers to local customers after school. On December 24, Christmas Eve, the biting air reminded me that if I played my cards just right, I could have a late afternoon skate after I completed my route that day. However, I hadn’t counted on the fact that each customer would want to personally hand me a tip – usually a dollar – for my services that year. Thus, by the time I had completed delivering my newspapers that Christmas Eve, it was near pitch-black out. Regardless, I grabbed my skates, put them on the end of my stick, thrust an old puck into my coat pocket, and departed for Fuller Brook Road.

When I completed the ten-minute trek from my house, I then sat on the wooden bench that the Knowle family has so generously left for us to sit on as we changed into our skates. Soon, I was teetering through a tuft of snow in order to reach the frozen pond just as a full moon glistened overhead.

Suddenly, two outdoor flood lamps, which had been strategically placed in a couple of trees lining the pond’s surface, magically came to life, lighting the previously darkened lake like a shimmering jewel in the winter darkness.

A handful of seconds later, Bing Crosby’s infectious version of ‘Let it Snow” began to blare out over a tinny loudspeaker, which had been placed next to the floodlight closest to Knowles’ house. I immediately glanced up and saw Mr. Knowles himself, who waved good-naturedly at me.

“Merry Christmas, Son!” he barked through the barren oak trees.

“Thank you so much, Sir!” I shouted back. “I hope that you have a Merry Christmas as well!”

For the next 45 minutes, I skated alone on that wondrous wintry surface to the uplifting sounds of Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, and the Harry Simeone Chorale playing over the rickety Knowles Pond sound system. While I skimmed over the hard surface with the night enveloping around me, the spirit of the season engulfed me As Mr. Knowles continued to play a series of spirited Christmas songs and light my way around his little pond in the dense woods of a frigid winter’s night, I realized that the best things in life usually come from a fountainhead of generosity.

When I finally put my skates off and began to trudge up the steep ravine adjacent to Fuller Brook Road, the otherworldly little scene below descended into darkness, and the music ceased playing.

I quickly skirted home into the glow of the evening with the spirit of the season and an irreplaceable Yuletide memory that would last a lifetime.

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