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 through much of 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, a seedbed of 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, my hometown, Wellesley, Massachusetts was usually 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, 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 glistening 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, Bing Crosby, and the Harry Simeone Chorale playing over the rickety Knowles Pond sound system. As Mr. Knowles continued to light my way around the 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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When the Beatles Saved America

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On the afternoon of Friday, November 22, 1963, I hopped on my cherry-colored Schwinn bicycle on a narrow, backcountry passageway called Benvenue Street in my hometown of Wellesley, Massachusetts. An energetic third grader at the time, I was determined to get home quickly from my elementary school in order to join my neighborhood friends for an anticipated game of touch football on the Sullivan twin’s front lawn.

On this scrubbed up, late autumn day, I began the mile-long trek to my house at 48 Radcliffe Road  After struggling up the elongated hill that peaked a quarter of a mile past Cartwright Road, I hurriedly churned my bike pedals in order to make it up the incline. Overhead, the tall oak trees that framed the old street seemed to be stretching their finger limbs overhead. Stacks of leaves remained in the street’s front yards, little mountains waiting to be picked up before the first winter snow.

The halfway landmark of my journey was an elongated, bone-white-colored mailbox with the name, Thompson, in black letters centered on it. I breezed through it and began the rapid descent to my house. Suddenly, I heard a car’s horn blasting at me from behind. I hurriedly pulled over to the side of the road as the vehicle slowed down to an unexpected stop. The window on the car’s left side was then hastily pulled down.

I instantly recognized the driver – my mother’s closest friend – Mrs. Sally Fulton. As I glanced into her blue, ‘63 Plymouth Valiant Station Wagon, I noticed that her normally amicable face was covered in shock. With trembling lips, Mrs. Fulton blurted out, “Oh, Shaunie, Jack Kennedy’s been shot!”

I raced home the rest of the way, my heart beating wildly. I flew off my bike and left it in the middle of our lawn. I then sprinted for our back door and flung the door open. When I got into our kitchen, I observed my mother sitting in her chair at the kitchen table, tears forming in her gray-blue eyes. She threw me a glance as I entered. “Jack’s gone,” she whispered. From our den, I heard “Taps” being played on our black-and-white TV in tribute to our nation’s fallen leader.

For the next ten weeks, 180 million Americans walked around with unyielding stares, unable to look anyone else in the eye. Martin Scorsese later compared the murder of our young president as the equivalent to a national car crash. In retrospect, most Americans, including me, resided in a perpetual gulag of grief that winter.

Thus, when a veritable tsunami of euphoria suddenly hit us between the eyes six weeks into 1964, it was if summer had suddenly descended upon us all. For the first time since President and Mrs. Kennedy had landed in Dallas, there was a pronounced bounce in our steps. 

The Beatles were here – and life for us all would never be the same.

Like everyone else who was of a certain age that winter, I distinctly remember when I first heard the band’s first American hit, “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” On a glacial February afternoon, my oldest brother brought home a 45 he had bought that day from the Music Box in Wellesley. Chris’s bounding footsteps rattled the walls of our house as he raced up to my bedroom. As my door flung open like the hatch of a Mercury capsule, he screeched, “You gotta listen to this!”

He then put the little disc on my rickety turntable.

At the instant when the Fab Four broke into the abrupt and distinctive syncopations; the intuitive vocal fills; the falsetto screaming; the novel chord progression, and the overdubbed handclaps, I literally jumped. When Bob Dylan, who was driving across the Mojave Desert that February heard the distinctive opening of “I Want to Hold your Hand” for the first time on the radio, he bellowed, “What the fuck is that?”

Of course, one of the reasons that the Beatles’ sound was so distinctive to first-time listeners in ‘64 was that they sang in two-part melody. As John Lennon admitted years later to writer David Sheff, “Do you think I’m going to tell Paul McCartney that he’s going to sing harmony with me?” Ultimately, no other group before or since ever attempted to sing that way. The resulting testosterone that brazenly surged out of “I Want to Hold Your Hand!” note-by-kickass-note turned out to be the quintessential musical foreplay. The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson began referring to their distinctive vocal arrangement as that big voice.

There were more surprises in store for us. As Chris and I continued to listen to the “I Want to Hold Your Hand” unfold before, we were stunned to hear the song’s distinctive bridge morph from a pulsating rocker to a pensive ballad. It was all held together by a series of intricate chords and adult-like lyrics before reverting to the teen-driven verses that had begun the entire affair.

In retrospect, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was a premeditated single. Even the Beatles themselves soon admitted even then that they wanted to throw everything they had into one song in order to break into the then-elusive US market. As we played it through for the first time in our lives on my little record player, my brother and I both instinctively knew that pop music had just entered an entirely new musical continent. Ultimately, we listened to “I Want to Hold Your Hand” 6 or 7 times before I turned the 45 over to the B Side out of pure curiosity.

Could the band from England perform another musical miracle again?

Within 10 seconds, my bro and I knew that this band would be no one-hit-wonder. Chris began smiling broadly at me as this single, “I Saw Her Standing There” triumphantly played to its crushing conclusion – 2 minutes and 55 seconds later. Largely a McCartney track, Paul’s soaring voice initiated the number with a “One, two, three, four!” howl before the band launched a series of infectious chords, which would become as famous as any in rock history.

Unlike the majority of the other songs that they recorded early on in their career, “I Saw Her Standing There” seamlessly captured the swinging dance sound the lads had perfected first at Hamburg’s Kaiserkeller and then in the bowels of Liverpool’s Cavern Club. Within the margins of the song’s emphatic pop stance, we heard an underlying bluesy flavor that permeated all the way to the last “whoooo!”

James Taylor later reflected that after he completed hearing both sides of the Beatles’ first American 45 that “I just knew that there was something there, there, and it was something that I hadn’t heard before – ever.” For the rest of the afternoon, my brother and I flipped the 45 over and over, relishing both songs as if they were manna dropped from heaven.

A few days later, when my entire family sat down in our den and watched the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show, virtually every American under 25 had left the glare of Dealey Plaza in Dallas behind them and had begun to experience the consequential years of the 1960s. After the Fab Four appeared on national TV live to an unprecedented 78 million American viewers on the evening of February 9, 1964, every male I knew either had shortened hair or a military-style crew cut. By the time the Beatles recorded Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band three years later, even our local bankers had long hair.

On the day that the school year finally ended on Friday, June 12, 1964, the Fab Four had an unfathomable eight songs in the Top 10 of the US Billboard charts that week. We simply couldn’t get enough of them. Over the next five years, the group would record 237 original songs and release a jaw-dropping 13 studio albums. The Beatles’ last song on their final album, 1969’s Abbey Road, provided their own epitaph: “And in the end, the love you take – is equal to the love you make.”

These days, there’s an entire generation of Americans who now keep the Kennedy assassination and the appearance of the Beatles in the US in the same pocketful of memories.

I am one of them.

Recently, when I visited my hometown of Wellesley, I drove the length of Benvenue Street, the same road I had ventured down as a boy on my bike when I heard that President Kennedy had been shot. As I approached the precipitous slope where the stately Thompson mailbox had once stood, I impulsively hummed, “I Want to Hold your Hand,” aloud. At that moment, I remembered it all, especially what happened after the darkness of Dallas. After “a long, cold lonely winter,” an unlikely band from Liverpool, England had reminded millions of young Americans how great it was to be both young and alive.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. 

 

 

 

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Read This – And Thank Yourself

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One clammy afternoon this past July, an affable rising senior named George entered my classroom seeking my advice on how to answer “a particularly troublesome college admissions question.”

When George slumped down in the chair next to me, he immediately shared the alleged supplemental conundrum, an inquiry which was required to complete his application to one of the top 50 colleges in the country.  When I perused the question, I smiled. It seemed simple enough to me:  “In 250 words or less, discuss the work of fiction you have read on your own, which has helped you most to understand the complexity of the world.”

“Oh, George – this is a layup. Think of the possibilities. This might actually be fun to answer!”

“But Mr. Kelly,” George replied, “I haven’t read a book on my own since I was in eighth grade!” I paused – and then gave him some hopefully sage advice, which he later followed.

Now, before you are going to get on your high horse and nag about the fact that “young people today don’t read anymore,” remember, there are plenty of adults who are non-readers as well. One of them supposedly works in the Oval Office. As someone who has taught hundreds of students for over 37 years and believes that in many ways, young people today are more thoroughly prepared for the rigors of a working life than we were decades ago, you will not find any generational smugness from me.

If truth be told, when I recently waited in line at a local Dunkin’ Donuts, I was surrounded by a veritable sea of Baby Boomers who were either texting or tweeting. They might have well been a covey of 16-year-olds. Unlike technology, human nature doesn’t change over time. Accordingly, if the children of today grew up sharing one landline phone with their parents and siblings and resided in communities where there were only 4-5 receptive TV stations, they would have turned out exactly as most of us did. After all, books open up light to worlds that were previously in the dark, but you have to do some heavy lifting in order to discover that.

Thus, for those of us who became readers without the distractions that currently plague our children and grandchildren, it is as if we have been allowed to drink some magic elixir, which has then provided us with the basis for a purposeful life. As both a devoted reader and educator, I have come to recognize that reading is supremely foundational. It not only develops the mind, but it nurtures the soul. Reading is imperative in introducing the essentials while providing readers with a wellspring of the possibilities. In addition, it is one of the most natural and practical ways of discovering new things.

Reading is also the indispensable ingredient in functioning in an increasingly cyber-connected society. In a world where individuality is defined both by experience and background, reading allows people to walk in the shoes of others. Most empathetic people I know these days are also avid readers. I have never yet met a bully who also cherishes what he or she reads. In the end, reading enhances the imagination and enables one to experience different cultures within the context of different time periods. Think of the world behind the wardrobe – or beyond Track 9 and ¾!

Thus, when my college-essay-challenged friend, George, sat with me on that sweltering July afternoon and asked, “What should I do?” I ended up assigning him a book that he should have read on his own, Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief.

“Read all 557 pages, George, and then you can answer your question.”

Just ten days later, I received the following email from him: “I read The Book Thief, Mr. K. and I loved it! I ended up answering the question and am very pleased with the result. Do you have any more good books to recommend for me to read?”

“Oh, yes, George. I have enough to last a lifetime,” I replied.

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Walk it Off

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37 years ago last week, I was a newly hired teacher at the Tenacre Country Day School in Wellesley, Massachusetts. Within 24 hours, had it not been that fate and luck interceded in the form of a self-assured and winsome mother of a student, I might well have lost my job. As I begin my 38th year as a teacher, this guardian angel needs to be acknowledged for saving my educational career. Like most such stories, however, it was initially clothed in innocence and naivety.

In the fall of 1980, after three unfulfilling years as a reporter, advertiser, and retailer, I was offered a job as a co-teacher at my elementary school alma mater, the Tenacre Country Day School in Wellesley, Massachusetts. The day before classes began, the school’s supportive Assistant Headmaster, Paul Schmidt, advised to me during our orientation meeting, “If you don’t know what to say to a child, Shaun, just think what your mother might say in the same situation.”

That seems easy enough, I thought at the time.

Thus, the next day at recess, when I went out for the first time to play Nerf football with my third grade class – I threw a spiral to a robust boy named Greg Hoffman, who was then subsequently tripped by another classmate. As I recall, the third-grader tumbled to the ground and then attempted to regain his feet. With literally no arsenal of experience behind me, and already swelling with gnawing apprehension, I remembered what my assistant headmaster had told me the day before. Consequently, I then tossed some motherly advice to the injured Greg so effortlessly that I figured it would instantly take care of the problem. The injured boy nodded, got up slowly, and limped back to the huddle.

Now my parents were classically “old school” and capably represented their much-venerated generation. Like virtually every father I knew growing up, Dad, who was born in 1913, had been tempered by war – in his case – the invasions of both Leyte Gulf and Iwo Jima – while Mummie, born in 1920, had raised four children during the crux of the Nuclear Age. Ultimately, you didn’t want to disappoint such adults – that was the boundary we all danced around as children – and for that – our parents gave us an enormous berth. We could be gone for hours, and if we showed up on time for dinner, they never asked where we were. This kind of easygoing ambiance was encapsulated one September morning when, as I was quietly eating breakfast before school. Mom, who was sipping on her Sanka, glanced at me and asked, “Are you now in fourth or fifth grade, Dear?”

“Fifth grade, Mummie,” I replied.

“Good for you,” she replied.

If such adults could put most anything in perspective; employ an intoxicating mix of common sense and pragmatism; and believe that learning from mistakes was essential to a child growing up into a productive adult; then it was also true that my parents and their peers were as tough as nails. Indeed,  virtually every one of my coaches growing up had either landed on Omaha Beach or had fought at Guadalcanal – even as many of their wives worked in the factories back home after having spent their childhoods enduring the Great Depression.

As tough as the men were, their wives were even tougher. In our particular neighborhood, such expressions as, “Suck it up – and tough it out;” “The world most certainly DOES NOT revolve around you!” – And, a personal favorite – “You are not special. Now Mozart and Shakespeare – they were special!” were among the many pronouncements we heard from our mothers in growing up.

Thus, later that day, when I heard that Greg Hoffman had been picked up by his mother and then taken to the doctor for X-rays, I became increasingly alarmed. Accordingly, I called my older brother that night, a young man who was already a seasoned administrator at a local private school. When I shared with him what my Tenacre assistant headmaster had advised me during orientation – that – when in doubt – tell a child what your mother might have said in the same situation – there was an extended pause on the phone. My brother sighed, “Let me take just one guess. You told Greg Hoffman to…. ‘walk it off.”

“Well, yes,” I mumbled.

“Nice job,” he replied, “Mummie would have told Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre to walk it off. Expect to be grilled at school tomorrow. This is not good.”

After a sleepless night….I arrived at Tenacre the next morning with dark circles under my eyes, and a copy of The Boston Globe’s Help Wanted Section in my right hand.

Five minutes later, as the cars streamed into Tenacre’s front entrance, I spotted a station wagon pull up in front of the school, and a cordon of students and teachers immediately encircle it. Out of the back right passenger side, I then caught a glimpse of two crutches followed by a solitary figure, who was not sporting the “modest little ankle wrap” I had prayed to see, but instead was encased entirely in plaster, the surface area of which exceeded the Shroud of Turin.

To complete the nightmare, Greg’s mother, Mrs. Isabelle Hoffman, emerged from the driver’s side of the car, scanned around like a hawk looking for its prey, saw me, and bellowed, “Shaun! Don’t move an inch! I need to talk to you!”

As she escorted Greg into the building – in a wheelchair – of course – I remained immobilized, awaiting my fate. Even Anthony Scaramucci lasted longer in the White House than I would have at the time. How could I possibly tell my parents that I had just been fired as a teacher after only one day on the job?

After spending five minutes in unremitting purgatory, Mrs. Hoffman marched out of Tenacre’s main building and walked briskly towards me. Not until I had read Stephen King’s The Green Mile would I again feel how profoundly terrifying it is when someone is waltzing toward you intent on strapping you into “Old Sparky.”

Seconds later, Mrs. Hoffman stopped in front of me, looked fiercely into my eyes, took a deep breath, and thundered, “Shaun…I just want to thank you for making sure that Greg doesn’t grow up to be a wimp!”

I almost fainted straight away, regrouped, and thought to myself, “Did she just say what I think she did?” Ultimately, I caught myself, stuck out my hand, smiled at her, shook Mrs. Hoffman’s profusely, and exclaimed, “It’s a pleasure, Mrs. Hoffman…..” For whatever reason, God had made sure that the one woman in the area like my mother happened to be Greg Hoffman’s parent.

That evening, at my parents’ house in Wellesley, I told my family what had happened earlier that morning.  Mom, who, like John Irving’s memorable character, Owen Meany, forever spoke in capital letters, commented after hearing the story, “WELL OF COURSE MRS, HOFFMAN THANKED YOU, DEAR! WHAT ELSE COULD SHE POSSIBLY DO?”

Another guest at the table that night, my brother, looked at me with death-star eyes as I told the tale. My father looked at his milk glass and chuckled to himself while my mother asked for my opinion.

“You’re so right, Mummie,” I said while beaming at my sibling, who glared at me and whispered, “You are so damn lucky.”

37 years later, here I am still working in the classroom. Greg Hoffman is 45 years old, and a certain mother from Wellesley, Massachusetts remained my patron saint for almost four decades. While there are hundreds and hundreds of students, teachers, administrators, and parents I need to thank for providing me with such a meaningful career over the years, there’s really only one person I am indebted to – Mrs. Isabelle Hoffman of Wellesley, Massachusetts.

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My Beautiful Nauset

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In Willa Cather’s classic novel, My Ántonia, Jim Burden, the story’s narrator, reads a passage from Virgil about the notion of Patria. Jim’s teacher, Gaston Cleric, explains that it does not mean, country, as traditionally translated, but refers instead to the intimate rural village where Virgil was born. Eventually, Jim realizes that his own memories will continually be rooted in Black Hawk, Nebraska and the nearby prairie, his “Patria,” the place where he feels most “at home.”

When I first read this much beloved American narrative in legendary English teacher Wilbury Crockett’s junior English class at Wellesley (MA) High School in 1972, Mr. Crockett asked us to think about our particular Patria. As he said at the time, “It is that essential place where you can be unfettered and uninhibited, and think of time not as a straight line but as a circle.”

Even then, I knew what it was, raised my hand, and shared it freely with my classmates. My particular Patria is situated on a five-mile stretch of beach called Nauset in Orleans and Coast Guard in Eastham, which smugly juts out into the unforgiving Atlantic Ocean at the forearm of Cape Cod. In between the two communities is a natural cleft that parts the beaches in two, creating an intimate harbor called Nauset Inlet.

The waters off of this section of the ocean have been the site of more shipwrecks than any other span of coastline this side of the Atlantic. Indeed, one of the reasons that the Cape Cod Canal was constructed by the US Army Corps of Engineers between 1909 and 1916 was that such treacherous seas at this distinct point of the Massachusetts coastline caused most ships to literally pause to a standstill on the way to either Boston or New York. “The Devil lies off the coast of Eastham,” wrote one New York sea captain in the 1880s, “and it is wise not to play a game of chance with him.”

Where the Cape is at its narrowest, the waters off of ocean side are most perilous. Incredibly, there are less than three miles of land between placid Cape Cod Bay and the intolerant North Atlantic at this point. A brisk east wind off the ocean frequently blows at seventy miles an hour; storm surges during winter nor’easters can take chunks of parking lots out to sea in a single gust. Over the last trio of winters, the Cape Cod National Seashore has had to replace three newly-constructed wooden staircases each April.

But when the ocean is tranquilizing, and the weather is accommodating, there is no spot on earth more breathtaking in both its immensity and grandeur. Created by Ice Age glaciers ten-thousand years ago, formed and redesigned by wind and tide, the peninsula’s shore is a naturalist’s paradise. “A wild, rank place without flattery,” is the way Henry David Thoreau described it in his posthumously published travel memoir, Cape Cod. Given the fact that most scientists believe that such a uniquely shaped peninsula has a shelf life of between 2,000-8,000 years left, no wonder naturalist John Hay called the Outer Cape, “this fragile outpost.”

Poet Sylvia Plath, who worshiped this particular stretch of land on the outer beach throughout her childhood summers, ended up spending an extended, eight-week honeymoon with her husband, Ted Hughes, in Eastham, a half-mile walk from Nauset Light Beach. Five years later in London, Plath memorialized my Patria in her confessional poem, “Daddy,” when she wrote… “And a head in the freakish Atlantic/Where it pours bean green over blue/In the waters off beautiful Nauset.”

Another frequent visitor to the Outer Beach, Norman Mailer, once wrote a letter to a friend about Nauset Beach’s “terrible beauty that lies beyond the reaches of mortality.” When President John F. Kennedy, a longtime resident of Hyannis Port, proposed making the outer beach a national park, he informed his Department of the Interior, Stuart Udall: “We need to preserve the Outer Cape for our grandchildren and their grandchildren so that they too can see the power of nature in its full and uncompromising splendor.”

I first walked this stretch of beach in 1956 when I was just beginning to walk. 61 years later, I still amble along its soft humps of sand no matter the season. As a young boy, I sprinted along the rivulets made by the tide and then fervently jumped over them. When I was 4, I got swept away by a rogue wave so fierce that it took my more than a 100 yards toward the Nauset Beach parking lot. I made my first sand castles by its shore the next summer, hoping that somehow my intrepid fortification would withstand both logic and Mother Nature.

As I grew older, I partook in countless games of Wiffleball, hoping that my yellow dart of a bat could somehow strike a ball hard enough to peel through the gale for a home run. As a teenager and young adult, I held the hands of a few girls, strolling with them to Nauset Inlet to show them the view while hoping they loved it as much as me.

Consequently, it was not surprising that one of those girls, my wife, a proud Canadian, shared the same adulation for the Outer Beach as I have. Over time, our two sons developed the same kind of long-term relationship with it. They too have felt its allure.

But it is not just those seamless summer days that make me return year after year. I also love the beach in the winter; during torrential April rainstorms; after a relentless January blizzard; in the evening chill of an early October day. During one fall nor’easter, a friend of my mother phoned her at Mum’s cottage in Eastham and asked her about the weather. “Simply glorious,” my mother, the quintessential New Englander, quipped, without a hint of irony. While Nauset’s loveliness has always seduced me, it is its inexorable power that has always transfixed me beyond any words to express it. I can never get enough of it.

Thus, as I reconnoiter through the seasons feeling both grateful and humbled to have lived so long, it is evident that the outer beach of Cape Cod has served as my personal North Star. After all, I have visited many places and have lived on both sides of the Atlantic, but I have always returned to my formidable and breathtaking Patria. In its azure waters, I see the ripples of childhood and promise in the morning tide. And when the sun begins to set over the ever-changing dunes twelve hours later, I realize now as an old man that each day on earth is measured in the enduring push-pull of the tides and the capriciousness of the sea.

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50 Years Later, “Ode to Billie Joe” Still Haunts

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“It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty Delta day/I was out choppin’ cotton, and my brother was balin’ hay/And at dinner time we stopped and walked back to the house to eat/And Mama hollered out the back door, Y’all, remember to wipe your feet’/And then she said, ‘I got some news this mornin’ from Choctaw Ridge/Today, Billy Joe MacAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge’.”

50 years ago this summer, the psychedelic era was launched in June with the release of the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Within the next two months, rock and roll’s roulette wheel hit paydirt on almost a daily basis as an avalanche of superlative music catapulted from the soul of a young generation that that had begun to yearn for peace, love, and understanding.

For the first time, music aficionados were joyfully listening to a host of rousing debut albums by the likes of Big Brother and the Holding Company, featuring Janis Joplin; the Grateful Dead; the Doors; the Jimi Hendrix Experience; and the Jefferson Airplane. Fledgling soloists such as Van Morrison; Joni Mitchell; Laura Nyro; Linda Ronstadt; Gordon Lightfoot; and Grace Slick were all generating their initial releases. In addition, a number of veteran stars were producing their most celebrated tracks to date including Jackie Wilson; Aretha Franklin; Marvin Gaye; Stevie Wonder; the Marvelettes; the Mama and the Papas; the Lovin Spoonful; and James Brown.

From “All You Need is Love,” to “Light My Fire;” from Somebody to Love” to “(Your Love is Lifting Me) Higher and Higher;” from “Purple Haze” to “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” a perfect storm of art, politics, and culture merged to define an entire era.

Despite the incandescence of such disparate musical masters, the tune that was ultimately named 1967’s “Song of the Year” was so improbable that uber rock critic Lester Bangs later called it, “the most unlikely hit in the history of rock music.” At the time, its mystic chords wove such a haunting tale of loss that Janis Joplin said that she felt nauseous after hearing it for the first time.

The song, of course, was “Ode to Billie Joe,” composed and then recorded by a then-obscure singer-songwriter from Chickasaw County, Mississippi named Bobbie Gentry. As someone who faithfully listened to the Top 40 on AM radio back then, I distinctly remember the first time I heard the tune in August 1967. While I wasn’t sick to my stomach like Janis had been, I felt as if Scout Finch had somehow emerged as a pop singer. After all, I had just finished reading Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, and the vernacular and context of the song were as Southern as fried okra, pimento cheese, and chitlins.   

“And Papa said to Mama as he passed around the blackeyed peas/‘Well, Billy Joe never had a lick of sense, pass the biscuits, please./There’s five more acres in the lower forty I’ve got to plow.’/And Mama said it was shame about Billy Joe, anyhow/Seems like nothin’ ever comes to no good up on Choctaw Ridge/And now Billy Joe MacAllister’s jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.”

What attracted all of us who listened to “Ode to Billie Joe” back then was that searing, fingerstyle-like groove, which began the number so distinctly. That Bobbie Gentry, just 23 at the time, could make her Baby Martin acoustic guitar sound intensely primeval was part of the magic. While the public was drawn to the song as a lyrical, homespun ballad, “Ode to Billie Joe” found almost universal acclaim among musicians for its musicianship. On his celebrated SiriusXM show, Bob Dylan recalled when he heard the beginning of the ballad for the first time. “It felt primitive, searing -as if the bark had been whittled off a tree,” Dylan quipped. “That girl got my attention straight away.” Otis Redding was quoted as saying to producer Dan Penn, “When I heard that distinct strumming in her intro, I knew it was going to be ‘some kind of trouble’.”

To hundreds or civil rights volunteers, “Ode to Billie Joe” summoned up the searing image of FBI agents methodically combing the same Tallahatchie River for the bodies of SNCC volunteers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Mickey Schwerner three years earlier. In the summer of 1967, I had just leafed through my sister’s old copy of William Bradford Huie’s Wolf Whistle, a harrowing account of the 1955 Emmett Till murder. In the end, 14-year-old Till’s tortured body had been tied to a cotton gin fan and thrown off the Black Bayou Bridge and into the Tallahatchie below by two supremacists who had objected to him “talking fresh” to a white woman.

Of course, no one knew those waters better than Bobbie Gentry.

As the world soon discovered, she had spent the first 13 years of her life a short walk from the Tallahatchie River Greenwood, Mississippi before moving with her divorced mother to Arcadia, California for her teenage years. Bobbie supported herself with a variety of clerical jobs after high school and also worked for a spell as a fashion model in LA. Eventually, Gentry attended the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music and began to appear in a variety of local nightclubs in the area. In the winter of ’67, Capitol Records executive Kelly Gordon heard a demo Bobbie had recorded and signed her to a one record contract based on the strength of a single she had written entitled, “Mississippi Delta.” Because her original number needed a B-side, Gentry dutifully composed “Ode to Billie Joe.” As the artist admitted later on, “The ballad just came in the form of a dinner conversation back at home. It wasn’t true, but there were elements of truth throughout it. I felt it captured the essence of time and place pretty well.”

The executives at Capitol immediately recognized that the B-Side should be the featured number and reversed the sides. The entire affair was recorded by Bobbie Gentry on July 10, 1967, at the famed Capitol Records Studio C near Hollywood and Vine. It only took five-takes and 40-minutes of time for Gentry to lay down her masterwork.

Veteran record producer Jimmie Haskell was given the responsibility of “layering” the song, which had originally been Gentry’s solo guitar and vocals. As Haskell later explained to music historian, Gary Theroux, “Bobbie’s lyrics sounded ‘cinematic’ – very visual –  so I composed the string arrangement as if it were a movie.” His arrangement turned out to be a revelation adding even more intrigue to a tune that dripped with subtlety. Ultimately, Haskell used four violins, one viola, and two cellos to compliment Gentry’s picking, which remained the lead instrument throughout the ballad. Because single records had to fit on one side of a 45 in those days, most labels insisted that hits be less than five minutes in length. Somewhere buried in the Capitol Records vaults there supposedly is the complete seven-minute version of the song, which contains at least one more verse where a “girl named Sally is heartbroken over the death of her beloved Billie Joe.”

“And Brother said he recollected when he and Tom and Billie Joe/Put a frog down my back at the Carroll County picture show/‘And wasn’t I talkin’ to him after church last Sunday night?/”I’ll have another piece of apple pie, you know it don’t seem right!“/I saw him at the sawmill yesterday on Choctaw Ridge;/“And now you tell me Billie Joe’s jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge’?”

What transpires, then, is nothing less than a Southern Gothic Tale, replete with every possible human emotion that frames the four-and-a-half minute song. Written in a dialect that has so much fidelity in it that you feel as if Eudora Welty could have written it, the casual dialogue that transpires over a family meal finds the narrator’s life crumble apart amidst conversationalist tones. It is Faulkner-as-musical-verse-form with a Flannery O’Connor sensibility to it.

As Gentry said years after she had recorded her magnum opus, “The message of the song revolves around the nonchalant way the family talks about a suicide that had both obvious and unintentional consequences to the family around the dinner table. In my mind, ‘Ode to Billie Joe’ is a study in unconscious cruelty.” Within a year of Billie Joe MacAllister’s death, the brother would marry and move away; the father would die of the flu; the mother would plunge into paralyzing depression, and the daughter would be haunted by the boy whose demise was both tragic and unlikely.   

And Mama said to me “Child, what’s happened to your appetite?”/“I’ve been cookin’ all morning and you haven’t touched a single bite”/“That nice young preacher, Brother Taylor, dropped by today”/“Said he’d be pleased to have dinner on Sunday, oh, by the way”/“He said he saw a girl that looked a lot like you up on Choctaw Ridge”/“And she and Billy Joe was throwing somethin’ off the Tallahatchie Bridge.”

Just for kicks, I once asked my advanced English students to dissect Gentry’s tale. They came away from the experience obsessed with the unfolding fable that the vast majority of them have just read and heard for the first time. Many of them zeroed in on the family dynamics. One insightful young man wrote: “The narrator just can’t let on that the news is profoundly devastating. She can’t let on that it’s killing her. Interestingly, though, I feel that her mother somehow knows anyway and is quietly dying inside as well. That is because her hardworking father knows as well, but because he apparently viewed Billie Joe with mostly negative eyes. Thus, he wants her daughter to just ‘suck it up.’ Life is hard where they live, and that’s the way it goes sometimes. Finally, her brother is both reflective and sensitive to Billie Joe’s death. It seems to shake him to the core to such an extent that he ends up marrying his girlfriend and moving away.”

The overarching wonder of the tune, of course, lies in the death of Billie Joe McAllister and why he ended up committing suicide in the first place. One of the geniuses of the song is that Bobbie Gentry’s “show – don’t tell” writing never reveals the mystery, which is why “Ode To Billie Joe” is a featured number on the Smithsonian Institute’s Masters of Country Music box set. There, preserved for all-time is Gentry’s dark and exotic husky voice who sang a tune unlike anything else on the radio at the time, with a narrative that was steeped in mystery and intrigue. As Bobbie told journalist Fred Bronson ten years after the release of “Ode to Billie Joe”: “Everybody has a different guess about what was thrown off the bridge—flowers, a ring, a draft notice to go to Vietnam, even a baby. Anyone who hears the song can think what they want.”

During the closure of my English class discussion on the ballad, another exceptionally enterprising student exclaimed, “This is very much an example of the ‘butterfly effect’ in action. The concept that small causes can have large and sometimes unexpected consequences.”

When I asked her to expand on her idea, she later wrote about it in her English journal: “Every little thing does matter in life, and the things we take for granted might be difference-makers for others. Something incredibly inconsequential to you might alter the world of another. That is why this is such a heartbreaking song. It reminds you that have no idea how much trouble each person experiences in life. I guess all we can do is provide a human bridge over any troubled waters for others. Isn’t that what empathy is about?”

“A year has come ‘n’ gone since we heard the news ’bout Billy Joe/And Brother married Becky Thompson, they bought a store in Tupelo./There was a virus going ’round, Papa caught it and he died last spring;/And now Mama doesn’t seem to wanna do much of anything;/And me, I spend a lot of time pickin’ flowers up on Choctaw Ridge -/And drop them into the muddy water off the Tallahatchie Bridge.”

In the summer of 1967, an unlikely songwriter composed, performed and sang a tune whose pathos and innuendo made it an instant classic. When the first sweltering chord of “Ode to Billie Joe,” is struck, I still take notice and listen intently all these years later. john Steinbeck once famously said, “Everyone has one good story in them.” While there were some good stories that were told in the summer of 1967 – Janis Ian’s “Society’s Child” and Paul McCartney “She’s Leaving Home,” among them, it is this somewhat obscure, inconclusive ballad whose bell still tolls for us all.

 

 

 

 

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