Les Miserables and Social Injustice (a reprise)

The following post was written about eight years ago, but still resonates today. It remains my third most frequented post by readers, but I felt with the concerns of today, it deserved a reprise.

My wife and I have long been fans of the musical Les Miserables, so yesterday we took two of our children to see the recently released movie with Hugh Jackman as the lead character of Jean Valjean. We were not disappointed and enjoyed the movie immensely. Of course, a few people have noted some of its imperfections, yet on the whole, it is a very moving experience and fills in a few details that the play could not.

As an aside, I also enjoyed the dramatic movie made a few years ago with Liam Neeson in the role of Valjean. As for the recent musical version, I would encourage you to see it , whether you have seen the play, early dramatic movie or not. If you have seen the play, you will be even more moved by Anne Hathaway’s Fantine singing how life has killed her dreams. The music is so wonderful, sometimes the everyday tragedy  of social injustice shown in the play is overshadowed. If you have not seen the play, you will also find it enjoyable as did my teenage children.

I wanted my kids to see it for its storytelling and musical beauty, but it was also very good for them to see what poverty and injustice looks like. They have accompanied me on occasion to help with homeless families, but to see it from an omnipotent perspective like this fills in the back story and context for those in need. I mention this as Les Miserables, when translated to English means “The Miserables.” It also is reflective of a world we still live in, even in the United States with over 50,000,000 people in poverty.

There are many stories to be told in Les Miz, but to me there are three main themes of social injustice that resonate today. First, Fantine personifies the lot of many in the movie and in real life here in the US, that many live paycheck to paycheck, especially those in impoverished settings. It won’t give away too much of the story to say Fantine loses her factory job and has to turn to a life of prostitution to provide for her daughter. In the US, 47% of American workers are living paycheck to paycheck. That includes many who are beyond poverty levels, meaning even the lower middle class have just enough money to make ends meet. Those in poverty are living on a wing and a prayer trying to make ends meet, with a significant majority paying more than the needed 30% of their income for housing and utilities to maintain a reasonable standard of living. It should be noted that 40% of all homeless people in the US are mothers with children, the fastest growing segment in the US. To further illustrate this tragedy, of the homeless families the non-profit agency I volunteer with help, 89% are single parent women as head of household.

Second, another social injustice theme is the one between Valjean, an ex-convict who paid dearly for stealing a loaf of a bread and the policeman Javert (Russell Crowe in the movie) who relentlessly chases him for breaking parole. A quick sidebar, Valjean could not get a job with his “scarlet letter” of papers he had to carry with him. However, Valjean repays the kindness and decency afforded him by a priest (played by Colm Wilkinson in the movie who was the original Valjean on the London stage) by doing the right thing and treating others like he wants to be treated. The injustice is the fervent belief by Javert that a thief is always a thief and could not change. What Valjean demonstrates and later tells Javert “you are wrong and always have been wrong.” Valjean, like many, is conflicted with trying to do the right thing and taking advantage of the circumstances to hide from the law. By doing the right thing at great personal sacrifice and cost, he shows Javert you can change. He also learns the priest’s lesson of treating one another with decency and dignity. “There but by the grace of God, go I,” was not said in the movie but lived by Valjean.

Third, and most powerful, is the overwhelming discontentment by those in poverty. There are many more than just Fantine who are exposed to the extreme poverty of the streets. The movie does far more than the play ever could to show the filth and sickness brought about by living in such conditions. If you had a job, it was more about economic slavery, working a tireless, repetitive factory position. You dared not complain or you could be let go or “sacked” per the movie and replaced by another. If you did not have a job, without significant welfare help, people had to beg, borrow and steal. Or, in Fantine’s case, she first sold her possessions, her hair, her teeth and then her body as a prostitute.

Scrolling forward to today’s time, I have written two posts about Tavis Smiley and Cornel West’s book “The Rich and the Rest of Us.” This could have been the title to “Les Miserables.” One of the misconceptions noted in the Smiley/ West book about poverty, is poverty is not due to a lack of moral virtue. It is not defined by people who do not work hard. Poverty is the lack of money, period. The homeless families we help have jobs, sometimes more than one. They work hard trying to make ends meet and do the best they can. In these earlier posts, I have encouraged people to also read “Nickeled and Dimed in America” by Barbara Ehrenreich. She lived the life of minimum wage jobs in America on purpose to see if she could get by. Her major conclusion – minimum wage jobs perpetuate poverty.

If you are earning at that level, you are beholden to a life of eating cheaper poor food, the inability to afford healthcare, jobs where you are on your feet all day which affects your health and a general lack of sleep as you try to be a worker of multiple 15 – 20 hours jobs and being a parent. And, you dare not complain, as someone else can be brought in right behind you. In Les Miserables, this is why the people rebel. They “have-nots” are tired of being taken advantage by the “haves.” This is also a major lament I have with LIbertarians and many Republicans. We need some regulations to keep things fair. Otherwise, employers who tend to chase cheap labor, will always find someone cheaper to use and let you go. We need some laws to keep things fair for the worker. If you want to advocate a true Libertarian life, go read Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle.” The Robber Barons treated people just like the “haves” do in Les Miserables.

This is all about social injustice. Unlike people who perpetuate stories about welfare queens, etc. painting many with a broad brush of a few, we need to help people in need. I am all for empowering people to succeed. I am all for giving people opportunity to succeed. Yet, they have to climb the ladder of success. There are many who are not given this opportunity and are shunned as undesirables. They are treated with disdain and without any decency. Let’s lift others up and give them a chance to succeed. Like Valjean, let’s be enablers of success for others. I believe in the words “a community’s greatness is measured by how it takes care of its less fortunate.” The less fortunate could also be termed “The Miserables” or in French, “Les Miserables.”

Don’t Laugh at Me (a reprise)

The following was written about eight years ago, but sadly it seems to be in even more needed today. The words go straight to the heart, especially if you are a parent. We should remind ourselves that every child or even adult who is tormented, is someone’s child. Thinking of the Golden Rule, is this how you want your child treated?

Peter Yarrow, Noel (Paul) Stookey and Mary Travers made famous a song written by Steve Seskin and Allan Shamblin called “Don’t Laugh at Me.” Mark Wills, another artist has also recorded a variation along with Seskin, but it is the context and words that are embodied in Peter, Paul and Mary that makes the song resonate. When you live your lives speaking out for the disenfranchised, this song takes on far greater meaning than with any other artist, even the writers. Here is the entire song, courtesy of Peter, Paul and Mary with due thanks to Steve Seskin and Allan Shamblin. You can give it a listen after the lyrics.

I’m a little boy with glasses, the one they call the geek. A  little girl who never smiles ‘Cause I have got braces on my teeth. And I  know how it feels to cry myself to sleep.

I’m that kid on every playground who’s always chosen last. A single teenage mother tryin’ to overcome my past. You don’t have to be my friend but is it too much to ask?

Don’t laugh at me, don’t call me names. Don’t get your pleasure from my pain. In God’s eyes we’re all the same. Someday we’ll all  have perfect wings, don’t laugh at me.

I’m the beggar on the corner you’ve passed me on the street. And I wouldn’t be out here beggin’ if I had enough to eat. And don’t think I  don’t notice that our eyes never meet.

Don’t laugh at me, don’t call me names. Don’t get your pleasure from my pain. In God’s eyes we’re all the same. Someday we’ll all  have perfect wings, don’t laugh at me.

I’m fat, I’m thin I’m short, I’m tall I’m deaf, I’m  blind Hey, aren’t we all?

Don’t laugh at me, don’t call me names. Don’t get your pleasure from my pain. In God’s eyes we’re all the same. Someday we’ll all  have perfect wings, don’t laugh at me.

Well I’m fat, I’m thin I’m short, I’m tall I’m deaf, I’m blind. In a way we’re all.

I’m black, I’m white. And I am brown. I’m Jewish. I’m  Christian. And I’m a Muslim.

I’m gay. I’m lesbian. I’m American Indian. I’m very, very young. I’m quite aged.

I’m quite well fed. I’m very, very poor.

Don’t laugh at me, don’t call me names. Don’t get your pleasure from my pain. In God’s eyes we’re all the same Someday we’ll all  have perfect wings, don’t laugh at me.

My country ’tis of thee. oh, sweet land of liberty. It is of thee I that I sing.

We need to stop the bullying of others whether it be physical or mental torment. Whether it is in person or online as cyberbullying. Whether it is in the legislature or in the pulpit. But, especially the latter. One of my greatest pet peeves is bigotry from the pulpit and when bigotry is espoused by a spiritual advisor it is just like bullying. And, per Dan Savage who advises teenagers who are bullied because they are gay or lesbian, it does get better. Yet, it could be better still, as we have too many adults and hate groups (which is the extreme version) who try to divide, exclude and torment. Please heed these words and advocate by voice and example to treat all as we want to be treated.

Don’t laugh at me, don’t call me names. Don’t get your pleasure from my pain. In God’s eyes we’re all the same Someday we’ll all  have perfect wings, don’t laugh at me.

Peter, Paul & Mary – Don’t Laugh at Me – YouTube

US is in serious need for a Peace Train (a reprise)

This post was written five years ago, yet it still resonates today as conditions have deteriorated here in the US and some places abroad. Fear mongering and finger pointing by wanna-be leaders have taken us further down a dark path. We must demand more from people in leadership positions and we must do our part to be civil and keep the peace.

One of my favorite Yusuf/ Cat Stevens’ songs is called “Peace Train.” It is also one of his more memorable hits. Here are few lyrics:

I’ve been crying lately
Thinking about the world as it is
Why must we go on hating?
Why can’t we live in bliss?

For out on the edge of darkness
There rides the peace train
Peace train take this country
Come take me home again

We should heed its words around the globe, but especially here in the US. It did not come as a shock to me in the annual Global Peace Index, the US ranks fairly low coming in 103rd out of 163 countries. Per the  attached article:

“The index, put together by the Institute for Economics and Peace, an international think tank, defines peace as ‘the absence of violence or the fear of violence.’ It covers three ‘domains’: the level of ongoing domestic and international conflict; the level of ‘societal safety and security’ (things such as murders, terrorism, and riots); and the level of militarization, both domestic and international.”

The US scores poorly on the amount of money we spend on incarceration and militarization, both domestically and abroad. Plus, we have more gun deaths than in the other 23 wealthiest nations combined. The highest scoring and most peaceful countries are Iceland, Denmark and Austria. The least peaceful were Libya, Sudan and Ukraine.

The article notes the world is a less safer place than in the previous year. So, we all have our work cut out for us. But, we could start at home by being more civil to one another, shining spotlights on bigotry, reducing incarcerations for petty crimes and having better governance over gun access. At least that is my opinion.

http://www.fastcoexist.com/3060968/in-case-it-wasnt-obvious-the-us-ranks-very-low-on-the-global-peace-index

Mr. Tanner – a Harry Chapin vignette (a repeat performance)

The following post was written about five years ago. I was thinking about this song the other day. Please do give it a listen.

One of my favorite performers who passed away much too early is Harry Chapin. Some may remember his biggest hits like “Cat’s in the Cradle” or “Taxi.”  Each of these songs is exemplary of his work as his songs told short stories. I have written before about my favorite one called “A Better Place to Be” where he tells two stories, one being recounted by a midnight watchman to a rotund waitress with the second one when she responds to his sadness.

But, a close second is called “Mr. Tanner” about a man who would sing while he worked. The lyrics follow, but listen to the song at the link below:

Mister Tanner was a cleaner from a town in the Midwest.
And of all the cleaning shops around he’d made his the best.
But he also was a baritone who sang while hanging clothes.
He practiced scales while pressing tails and sang at local shows.
His friends and neighbors praised the voice that poured out from his throat.
They said that he should use his gift instead of cleaning coats.

Chorus: But music was his life, it was not his livelihood,
and it made him feel so happy and it made him feel so good.
And he sang from his heart and he sang from his soul.
He did not know how well he sang; It just made him whole.

His friends kept working on him to try music out full time.
A big debut and rave reviews, a great career to climb.
Finally they got to him, he would take the fling.
A concert agent in New York agreed to have him sing.
And there were plane tickets, phone calls, money spent to rent the hall.
It took most of his savings but he gladly used them all.Chorus

The evening came, he took the stage, his face set in a smile.
And in the half filled hall the critics sat watching on the aisle.
But the concert was a blur to him, spatters of applause.
He did not know how well he sang, he only heard the flaws.
But the critics were concise, it only took four lines.
But no one could accuse them of being over kind.

(spoken) Mr. Martin Tanner, Baritone, of Dayton, Ohio made his
Town Hall debut last night. He came well prepared, but unfortunately
his presentation was not up to contemporary professional standards.
His voice lacks the range of tonal color necessary to make it
consistently interesting.
(sung) Full time consideration of another endeavor might be in order.

He came home to Dayton and was questioned by his friends.
Then he smiled and just said nothing and he never sang again,
excepting very late at night when the shop was dark and closed.
He sang softly to himself as he sorted through the clothes.

Music was his life, it was not his livelihood,
and it made him feel so happy and it made him feel so good.
And he sang from his heart and he sang from his soul.
(And) he did not know how well he sang; It just made him whole. 

His songs are reflective and poignant. Often, they leave you with melancholy. “Mr. Tanner” is no different. Yet, he also balanced these with some fun songs like the one where a truck load of bananas crashed in the middle of a small town. When he performed, he told you about the songs and then sang his stories.

Please do listen to this song and catch a few others while you are at it. He made you feel at home as he regaled you.

Random life lessons from sports or other interests

Whether it is playing an individual or team sport, marching in a band, or working in some group effort, life lessons abound. These lessons may not be earth-moving, but they will serve you well, if you heed them and use them elsewhere. In no particular order:

  • Sporting activities teach us how to handle failure. The best baseball hitters will fail seven times out of ten. Think about that. What you do when you fail is of vital importance.
  • Specific to golf, it is a terrific metaphor for life. Golf is a game of managing your mistakes. The worse the golfer, the wider array of outcomes to any given shot. The next shot is of importance, but also managing that six inches of area between your ears. The just completed bad shot needs to shoved out of your mind before the next one.
  • Marching band is hard work and involves a lot of team work. Think about playing an instrument while weaving in and out of patterns avoiding other marchers. And, doing that until you get it right for the day.
  • Any team member knows we each have a role on the team. Not everyone can be star or lead the effort. We just need to roll up our sleeves and do our part. In basketball, teams with too much talent are not necessarily the ones who win. There is only one basketball, so someone has to pass the ball, rebound the ball, play defense,…
  • You cannot change the past, only the present and future. The great baseball pitcher Orel Hershiser said when he starts out, he wants to throw a no-hitter. Once the opponent gets its first hit, he sets out to throw a one-hitter and so on. He said he was good at putting the past behind him, as I mention about golf in the earlier example.
  • Life is not fair. Neither is sports or music. No matter how hard you practice, there will be some who are more talented than you. So, just do your best, work hard and find a way to contribute. There is an old lesson that the best coaches are the former players who had to work harder to succeed. Think about that.
  • Practice the things you do not do as well, not what you do well. This is a common mistake. Practice is good, but practicing what you need to practice is better. Also, do not shirk on practice efforts. Work hard to improve as if you do not, then you are only cheating yourself.
  • Focus on sustainability as you practice or work out. What are your goals? Then work toward them. Whether it is better chipping, more accurate free throw shooting, or more aerobic exercising, work toward those goals.
  • Play the game the right way treating all participants and team mates the way you want to be treated. Recently, I wrote about Dean Smith teaching his basketball players to thank the person who passed the ball leading to their basket. Also, trash talking serves no constructive purpose. Win and lose with class.

There are so many more life lessons that can be mentioned. Please share your thoughts and other lessons you took away from such interests.

You’ve got to be carefully taught – one more time for emphasis

With yet one more racially motivated mass shooting, this time toward Asian-Americans, the need to bring out this old reference to carefully teaching bigotry seems sadly, still appropriate. Fear of the unknown has been a powerfully seductive and horrific teacher. We need to call it out and teach the opposite, the stuff that Jesus fellow taught.

For those of you who have seen the play or movie “South Pacific” by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, you may recognize part of the title as a pivotal song in the story – “You’ve Got to be CarefullyTaught.” The play involves a woman who falls in love with someone and then realizes his children are half islanders. She has a hard time coming to grips with her bigotry as according to the song, we are not born hating; hatred has to be carefully taught. A sample of Hammerstein’s lyrics follow:

“You’ve got to be taught, to hate and fear. You’ve got to be taught, from year to year. It’s got to be drummed in your dear little head. You’ve got to be carefully taught.”

“You’ve got to be taught, before it’s too late. Before you are 6 or 7 or 8. To hate all the people your relatives hate. You’ve got to be carefully taught.”

This play was written in 1949 based on excerpts from James Michener’s novel “Tales from the South Pacific.” Rodgers and Hammerstein knew precisely what they were doing with this novel and lyrics as America was full bore in its civil rights crisis and more reasonable people were questioning why? Bigotry, hatred, bias – it has to be drummed into you before it’s too late. Before you can think for yourself.

Yesterday, I saw a picture above a story about the Boy Scouts and their delaying a decision to allow gays in their ranks. As a father of three, this picture was very disheartening as it showed young scouts holding up signs which were derogatory to those who are gay. For all the good the Boys Scouts does for young boys, teaching them to be bigoted toward others who happen to have different sexual preference, is not something worthy of a merit badge. For all of the teachings about responsibility, accountability, advocacy, and civility, to carefully teach them it is OK to hate these people because they are different from you is not in keeping with the mission of the Boy Scouts, nor is it in keeping with the teachings of Jesus.

Jesus said it in many different ways per the bible I learned from. The two that are burned in my memory are “love your neighbors as you love youself” and “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” There are no exceptions about being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. And, for that matter, there are no exceptions about them being Atheist, Muslim, Jewish or Agnostic. Words are easy. I have seen people who can inspire with words. Yet, the proof is in the action. What do you do each day? How do you interact with others? I see people everyday treat customer service people or perceived subordinates poorly and treat others in more cordial way.

However, these scouts are learning from us adults, both parents and leaders. I have noted many times before, it disturbs me greatly when spiritual leaders promote bigotry. This is one of the greatest betrayals of their responsibilities I know. Yet, our civic leaders are not much better and tend to be worse on occasion. Right now, Congress cannot pass an act which will make it easier to protect those who experience Violence Against Women. The primary hold up is the inclusion of gays and lesbians in the bill.  Violence against anyone is crime, unless it is self-defense. To distinguish who should be protected more than others based on sexual preference is the height of hypocrisy, especially since the push comes from the evangelical right.

Hatred has to be carefully taught. The Congressional leaders who are against the bill to stop violence against loved ones, should truly be embarassed to be on the wrong side of this issue. Domestic violence is a horrible crime because it happens routinely and consistently until a tipping point occurs. Unfortunately, the tipping point may be a death of a loved one. Women and children are the primary targets, yet others are impacted and should be protected. I have written before about an acquaintance whose sister was killed by her husband and he and his siblings had no idea she was being beaten. They learned the kids, on occasion, would have their father pick them up and beat their heads into the ceiling. What difference does it make if the target is gay or lesbian? This is not right and those Congressional leaders who are against the inclusion of all are “not on the side of the Angels.”

What should and can we do about it? We need to strongly encourage our leaders to think like parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts on most issues. Stop thinking like politicians. When GOP Governor Bobby Jindal says “we need to stop being the stupid party” this is an example of what he is talking about.

But, if we cannot alter the bigotry of the adults, please let’s focus on teaching the kids not to bigoted in their views. By word and deed; by encouragement, mentoring, or by corrective action or admonishment, please encourage people to do their best to follow Jesus’ examples and treat others like we want to be treated. The most important thing of all, is to walk the talk. Do everyday what you are telling them to do. That is what they will remember most.

Let me leave you with an encouraging story, which I may write more about later. The Western-East Divan Orchestra is a highly successful orchestra. But, that is not newsworthy by itself. The news is the orchestra consists of Israelis, Palestinians, Syrians, Iranis and Iraqis. The news is the orchestra is right in the hornet’s nest of danger. These teens and young adults come together at great risk to play and collaborate. Many of their friends and relatives judge them harshly for so doing. Yet, they continue because it is important. By working side by side toward a common purpose, they see that the person they are supposed to hate is just like them. They are being carefully taught, this time not to hate, but to get along and play as a unit. We could learn a great deal from these young people and those who lead them.

You’ve got to be carefully taught. My question as a parent – what do you want to teach them?

Lines to remember

Those who follow this blog know I love good song lyrics. Here are few, leaving off the ones I tend to quote the most. Please add your favorites at the end, as any list like this will be found lacking.

You’ve been telling me you’re a genius since you were seventeen. In all this time I’ve known you, I still don’t know what you mean.” Steely Dan in “Reelin’ in the Years.”

“I wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then.” Bob Seger in “Against the Wind.”

“Stayed in bed all mornin’ just to pass the time. There’s something wrong here there can be no denyin’. One of us is changin’ or maybe we’ve just stopped tryin’.” Carole King in “It’s too Late.”

“If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.” Rush in “Free Will.”

“I wish for just one time, you could stand in side my shoes. Then you would know what a drag it is to see you.” Bob Dylan in “Positively 4th Street” better known as “You’ve got a lotta nerve.”

“You got a fast car. I want a ticket to anywhere. Maybe we make a deal. Maybe together we can get somewhere. Any place is better.” Tracy Chapman in “Fast Car.”

“Then I fumbled through my closet for my clothes. And found my cleanest dirty shirt.” Kris Kristofferson in “Sunday Morning Coming Down.”

“Just when I think. I’ve taken more than would a fool. I start fallin’ back in love with you. Alicia Keys in “Fallin'”

“Then I got Mary pregnant and man, that was all she wrote. And, for my nineteenth birthday I got a union card and a wedding coat. We went down to the courthouse, and the judge put it all to rest. No wedding day smiles, no walk down the aisle, no flowers, no wedding dress.” Bruce Springsteen in “The River.”

“And every time you speak her name. Does she know how you told me. You’d hold me until you died?” Alanis Morisette in “You Ought to Know.”

“Imagine there’s no countries. It isn’t hard to do. Nothin’ to kill or die for. And no religion, too. Imagine all the people livin’ life in peace.” John Lennon in “Imagine.”

“Operator, well could you help me place this call? See, the number on the matchbook is old and faded. She’s living in L. A. with my best old ex-friend Ray. A guy she said she knew well and sometimes hated.” Jim Croce in “Operator.”

“Daddy loved and raised eight kids on a miner’s pay. Mommy scrubbed our clothes on a washboard every day. Why, I’ve seen her fingers bleed. To complain there was no need. She’d smile in Mommy’s understanding way.” Loretta Lynn in “Coal Miner’s Daughter.”

“Maybe I’m just too demanding. Maybe I’m just like my father too bold. Maybe you’re just like my mother. She’s never satisfied (She’s never satisfied). Why do we scream at each other. This is what it sounds like. When doves cry” Prince in “When Doves Cry.”

“Do you want to see me crawl across the floor to you?. Do you want to hear me beg you to take me back?. I’d gladly do it because. I don’t want to fade away. Give me one more day, please. I don’t want to fade away. In your heart I want to stay.” Eric Clapton in “Bell Bottom Blues.”

Love. Loss. Pleading. Contempt. Reality. Reflection. Aspiration. There are lots of emotions wrapped up in these songs. I added the last one is it is not as well known, but to hear Clapton’s guitar and plaintive voice accent this song is worth listening to.

Diamonds and Rust – a repeat tribute to Joan Baez

I was feeling melancholy after watching a performance by Judy Collins on PBS last night. My mind drifted to a song from a contemporary of hers, Joan Baez. My brother introduced me to Baez, as she was a strident voice for the disenfranchised and often sang at marches or events to bring attention to the cause. Her most popular was song was a rendition of “The Night they Drove Ol’ Dixie Down,” which I find ironic, as she spoke often against racism, in general, but especially in the south.

Yet, my favorite song of hers has nothing to do with causes. It is about the human nature of reflection and how memories can be both good and bad, especially with relationships that waned. The best of Joan Baez to me is found in “Diamonds and Rust” which is a fitting description of our memories. Here are the lyrics. At the conclusion, there is a link to the song which is worth the visit, as her melancholy guitar playing and voice make the song resonate even more.

Well I’ll be damned, here comes your ghost again. But that’s not unusual. It’s just that the moon is full. And you happened to call.

And here I sit, hand on the telephone. Hearing a voice I’d known a couple of light years ago. Heading straight for a fall.

As I remember your eyes were bluer than robin’s eggs. “My poetry was lousy”, you said. Where are you calling from? A booth in the Midwest.

Ten years ago I bought you some cuff links. You brought me something. And we both know what memories can bring They bring diamonds and rust.

You burst on the scene already a legend. The unwashed phenomenon. The original vagabond. You strayed into my arms.

And there you stayed temporarily lost at sea. The Madonna was yours for free. Yes the girl on the half-shell. Would keep you unharmed.

Now I see you standing with brown leaves falling around. An’ snow in your hair. Now you’re smiling out the window of that crummy hotel over Washington Square.

Our breath comes out white clouds mingles and hangs in the air .Speaking strictly for me, we both could have died then and there.

Now you’re telling me, you’re not nostalgic. Then give me another word for it. You, who are so good with words. And at keeping things vague.

‘Cause I need some of that vagueness now. It’s all come back too clearly. I once loved you dearly. And if you’re offering me diamonds and rust. Well, I’ll already paid…

If you don’t know her work, please enjoy and investigate further. She writes meaningful lyrics and captures things well. She could hold her own with many more well-known contemporaries. Oftentimes, it is these “under the radar screen” gems that stand the test of time. She was my Janis Ian before Janis came around. I would love to hear your thoughts on Baez and learn of your favorites.

http://www.songlyrics.com/joan-baez/diamonds-and-rust-lyrics/

Janis Ian – an original truth teller (a reprise)

About a dozen years ago, my wife and I got to see a concert where two old favorites regaled us for a wonderful night. I remember the evening to this day. Don McLean was the closing act and he is always worth the effort with songs that go well beyond “American Pie.” Yet, just as entertaining, was a tiny Jewish girl who came on stage by herself and mesmerized us – Janis Ian.

Many women (and men) within ten years of my age will know her immediately for her huge hit which told the unvarnished truth she learned “At Seventeen.” This song spoke to so many as most of us are not blessed with model like looks and effervescent charm. And, when you are not, you face a different set of challenges. Yet, the other part of this “truth” is even when you are born with looks and charm, you need to be able to find and be yourself, because looks don’t last forever, even with Botox. Here are a few lyrics, which ironically were penned by two men, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff.

I learned the truth at seventeen
That love was meant for beauty queens
And high school girls with clear-skinned smiles
Who married young and then retired

The valentines I never knew
The Friday night charades of youth
Were spent on one more beautiful
At seventeen I learned the truth

And those of us with ravaged faces
Lacking in the social graces
Desperately remained at home
Inventing lovers on the phone

Who called to say, “Come dance with me”
And murmured vague obscenities
It isn’t all it seems at seventeen

…To those of us who knew the pain
Of valentines that never came
And those whose names were never called
When choosing sides for basketball

It was long ago and far away
The world was younger than today
When dreams were all they gave for free
To ugly duckling girls like me

Yet, if you download her body of work or purchase a greatest hits CD, you will find a number of enchanting songs. Once you do, pour yourself a glass of your favorite wine, light a few candles or stoke the fire and listen. Here is an excerpt from “Between the Lines” written by Janis which speaks to how people do not know what to say to each other after the games and banter end.

There’s never much to say between the moments of
Our games and repartee
There’s never much to read between the lines of
What we need and what we’ll take

There’s never much to talk about or say aloud
But say it anyway
Of holidays and yesterdays, and broken dreams
That somehow slipped away

In books and magazines of how to be and what to see
While you are being
Before and after photographs teach how to pass
From reaching to believing

Another one of her classics, is called “Jesse” by  Columbier and Michel Jean Pierre, about her loneliness over her lover Jesse’s departure. The pacing of this song is emblematic of her style. She is never in a hurry and she has a voice that soothes, as well as portrays her pain. So, you can find the words amid the tune.

Jesse, the floors and the boards
Recalling your step
And I remember, too
All the pictures are fading
And shaded in grey

But I still set a place
On the table at noon
And I’m leaving a light on the stairs
No I’m not scared – I wait for you

Hey Jesse, I’m lonely, come home

Many people likely do not know Janis Ian. My older brother was the first person who turned me onto Janis Ian. She followed in the tradition of similar singers like Joan Baez and Judy Collins and a contemporary Phoebe Snow. If I had to find a more current performer, I would liken her to Traci Chapman. But, I think her words and music resonate with people as she would never be considered a glamorous person. In fact, when she walked on stage with her guitar, she came in from one side and walked all the way to the other side and exited the stage. This shyness was characteristic of her and her music.

A link to Wikipdedia will help tell her tale. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Janis_Ian

So, if you do not know her music, you are in for a treat. Every 17 year old girl (and boy for that matter) should listen to “At Seventeen.” If you know her, please use the opportunity to revisit her songs. And, remember the glass of wine and the candles.

More than American Pie – a tribute to Don McLean – a reprise

The following post was written almost eight years ago, but with some recent posts on Don McLean by others, I thought I would dust this one off, as it goes beyond his most popular song. My wife and I had the pleasure of seeing him perform with a very good opening act in the person of Janis Ian. McLean said that little woman can sing her hind end off.

When you hear the name Don McLean, your first thought is likely his magnum opus “American Pie.” That song was voted the 5th best song of the 20th century and is truly a classic. Yet, McLean produced a significant body of work that often gets overshadowed by that song’s huge success.

My wife and I had the pleasure of seeing McLean perform in a theatre venue which was perfect for his style of singing and it was truly an enchanting evening. His voice is underestimated, so he can make his wonderful words and music come to life.

Here is a small sampling before we get to his main event. I have several favorites, but let me start with  “And I love you so” about how his life becomes complete when he meets his love:

The people ask me how
How I’ve lived till now
I tell them I don’t know

I guess they understand
How lonely life has been
But life began again

The day you took my hand

Probably his second most popular song is his tribute to Vincent van Gogh, called “Vincent” or more commonly known as “Starry Starry Night.” McLean’s melancholy singing and strategic pauses make this song both haunting and compelling.

And now I understand
What you tried to say to me
How you suffered for your sanity
How you tried to set them free

They would not listen
They did not know how
Perhaps they’ll listen now

Another favorite is a reflective and sad song about the emptiness when his lover finally leaves hims. It is called “Empty Chairs.”

Morning comes and morning goes with no regret
And evening brings the memories I can’t forget
Empty rooms that echo as I climb the stairs
And empty clothes that drape and fall on empty chairs

And I wonder if you know
That I never understood
That although you said you’d go
Until you did I never thought you would

McLean began as a folk singer in the 1960s and was mentored by Pete Seeger. He also knew Jim Croce before he left Villanova University after four months (he did complete his college degree at Iona). So, he spent a lot of time in small venues along the Hudson River and was able to hone his craft. I mentioned his voice. He did a cover of Roy Orbison’s “Crying” and it became a number one hit record internationally before it was brought back to the US. To sing that song, you must have some vocal chops. And, he truly does Roy proud. Another great song of his is “Castles In The Air” and here is a taste:

And if she asks you why,
you can tell her that I told you
That I’m tired of castles in the air.
I’ve got a dream I want the world to share
And castle walls just lead me to despair.

But, any tribute to McLean would have to include “American Pie.” When we saw him, Madonna had just done a cover of the song, so he referenced he would get to that Madonna song later. He references so much musical history in the song beginning with day the music died when the plane carrying Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper crashed. I particularly like one of the final stanzas where it is believed he references Janis Joplin.

I met a girl who sang the Blues, and I asked her for some happy news
She just smiled and turned away
I went down to the sacred store where I’d heard the music years before, but…
The man there said the music wouldn’t play
And, in the streets the children screamed, the lover’s cried, and the poets dreamed, but…
Not a word was spoken – the church bells all were broken
And, the three men I admire most: the Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost, they…
Caught the last train for the coast the day the music died

You would think I would close with that classic, but I have personal observation which may not be correct, but I like it anyway. Let me run it by you. He has a wonderful song lamenting George Reeves who played Superman on TV. It actually destroyed his career and he could no longer get good acting roles and for some reason was alleged to have committed suicide. My thesis is McLean had such overwhelming success with “American Pie” that he did not want to only be remembered for that song, hence his fascination with Reeves. Here is a glimpse of the song “Superman’s Ghost.”

I don’t want to be like old George Reeves
Stuck in a Superman role
I’ve got a long way to go in my career
And some day my fame will make it clear
That I had to be a Superman

Don McLean, you may not be a Superman, but you are an American treasure and much more than the writer and singer of “American Pie.” Yes, that is one fine song, but so are the above and many others. Thanks for sharing your words, music and voice with us.