A second toast to my father-in-law with a deep voice

My father-in-law’s birthday is approaching and when looking for a musical post to repost, I found this tribute to him. One of my favorite memories of him is singing old standards with my mother-in-law at night on a long trip back home.

Around the holidays, I often think of my father-in-law Tom, who had a voice that he would take to a velvety deep level. It was not bass level deep, but he could get close to that low if he needed to. He loved music and sang in his small church, actually leading a small ensemble each Sunday with his guitar. Christmas-time brought out the carols and he would relish in singing them.

Some of my favorite memories are when he asked my wife to sing with him on Sunday. She could harmonize extremely well with that deep voice of his. We would arrive at their house on Saturday night and the two of them would rehearse. My mother-in-law kept a dark house so it was very ethereal listening to them play with only small lights illuminating their efforts.

Tom had a rough childhood having to work at an early age delivering German language newspapers in Detroit. Yet, his wages would be handed to his mother to help meet their needs. His real father and mother divorced and he was raised eventually by his mother and step-father. He did not talk much about his childhood, but he did talk about his desire to be a car engineer and musician.

He could not afford to be the former, but he was a professional musician for a while playing various gigs, gatherings, etc. around the area. Unfortunately, he had a tendency to drink away too much of his profits, so my mother-in-law gave him an ultimatum delivered with his suitcases on the porch when he came home. He decided he needed to get a job away from the alcohol and they were married until he died in 1997.

Eventually, he moved down south to become a farmer, where Lee, his wife, grew up. After about a year of farming, he decided if they were going to eat, he better get a job with a salary. So, he became a textile machinery representative repairing the machines. That would be as close as he would get to being an engineer.

In addition to singing and playing the guitar (and accordion before it burned up in a fire), he loved photography and filming. We have footage of him narrating videos he recorded that are priceless with his enthusiasm and deep voice. Even small birds, butterflies, bees, etc. would be entertaining with his excited narration.

So, Tom, here is a toast to you. We hope you had a merry Christmas and please know you are in our thoughts. We hope you are playing your guitar in heaven for everyone to hear.

Note: This is one of the classic hymns my wife would harmonize with her father.

gentle woman song – Bing

Straight on for you – a revisit to a tribute to Heart

My wife and I had the great fortune to see Ann and Nancy Wilson and their Heart mates perform live a few years ago. We decided to splurge and had seats in the second row off to the side. Although, they were not at the start of the career, we were enthralled by one of the greatest rock and roll voices of all time in Ann and her energetic guitar playing sister, Nancy. Anyone who can play “Crazy on You” on the guitar has got to have some energy.

Heart began as a cover band in the Seattle area and gained renown with Ann singing some of Led Zeppelin’s songs better than Robert Plant could. It was a great tribute to both bands, when Heart performed “Stairway to Heaven” to close the Kennedy Center Honors of Led Zeppelin. As an aside, on one of their live albums has Ann singing one of the finest versions of “Unchained Melody” by the Righteous Brothers I have ever heard including the original.

Heart is a true kick ass rock and roll band. Their attractive looks may have overshadowed that fact at first, but even if you never saw them, you would like what and how they played. One of their earlier tunes was “Kick it Out” which is vintage rock and roll. Yet, they broke through with “Magic Man” and the aforementioned “Crazy on You” both whose straightforward and highly seasoned double entendre lyrics were cleverly done and gave us teenagers an extra thrill.

Yet, with these lyrics setting the stage, their musicality showed Heart was all about words and music. And, when you have Ann belting out rock and roll songs like only she can, it made a very powerful sound. I will not highlight the three songs I mentioned first, as they are well-known. Yet, I do love them dearly.

I would rather highlight some other songs, a few hits and few that were interesting to me. One of the more lyrical songs they performed is “Dog and Butterfly,” the title song off a great album. Here is a sample of the lyrics.

Well I stumbled upon your secret place
Safe in the trees you had tears on your face
Wrestlin’ with your desires, frozen strangers stealin’ your fires
The message hit my mind, only words that I could find

We see the dog and butterfly up in the air he like to fly
Dog and butterfly below she had to try
She roll back down to the warm soft ground
Laughin’ to the sky, up to the sky dog and butterfly

To me this song is about not reaching your dreams. The dog will never catch the butterfly (his or her dream), but will keep on trying. The idea is to keep trying and learn to laugh at yourself, even if you fail. As, we will all fail more than once.

Another great song of theirs is “Barracuda.” This one is more obvious about a deceitful man who hurt her dearly, but the wordsmithing and tune are excellent.

So this ain’t the end, I saw you again today
Had to turn my heart away
You smiled like the Sun, kisses for everyone
And tales, it never fails!

You lying so low in the weeds
Bet you gonna ambush me
You’d have me down, down, down to my knees
Wouldn’t you, Barracuda?

Another title song, which is terrific, especially when played live is “Dreamboat Annie.” Here is a sample:

Heading out this morning into the sun
Riding on the diamond waves, little darlin’ one

Warm wind caress her
Her lover it seems
Oh, Annie
Dreamboat Annie, ship of dreams
Oh, Annie
Dreamboat Annie, little ship of dreams

Nancy usually sang harmony in the chorus to many songs. Her voice is good and she should have sung more lead on occasion. One of her better songs is “These Dreams.” It should not be lost on others, that dreams play a hand in several songs. Here are Nancy’s words.

Is it cloak and dagger?
Could it be spring or fall?
I walk without a cut
Through a stained glass wall
(Weaker in my eyesight)

Weaker in my eyesight
The candle in my grip
(Words that have no form)
And words that have no form
Are fallin’ from my lips

These dreams go on when I close my eyes
Every second of the night I live another life
These dreams that sleep when it’s cold outside
Every moment I’m awake the further I’m away
(Further I’m away)

After some time away from the charts, Heart came back big in the late 1980’s with “Alone” which showed the world that Ann was still a big time voice. This song needs little discussion and is quite apparent in its meaning.

I hear the tickin’ of the clock
I’m lying here the room’s pitch dark
I wonder where you are tonight
No answer on the telephone
And the night goes by so very slow
Oh I hope that it won’t end though, Alone

Till now I always got by on my own
I never really cared until I met you
And now it chills me to the bone
How do I get you alone?
How do I get you alone?

A song that many may not know which I have always enjoyed is “Mistral Wind.” Especially, when played live, this song resonates with me. In addition to dreams, references to the sea are often used in their songs. Here is taste:

No wind when I took the watch, my ship was still waitin’
I lay on that mirrored sky, a restless sail waitin’ I closed my eyes, said the words of will for the gentle breathin’
That moves the sea, make my sails fill

Whisper waves cloud the glass, awake at last like a lover
It rushed around the talkin’ sweet, roll over, roll over, roll over
And in my ear he blew his name, it sound so strange
But I heard it plain mistral, mistral wind

The double entendres abound in this one as well. Sometimes, they are plain-spoken about desire, but they are equally adroit at the subtle. That is part of their great appeal. This final song and the title of the post is in the former category. It is exactly as the title implies. “Straight on for You” may be my favorite Heart song, if I can have only one (a link is below to a late in their career live performance of this song).

Quite some time, I’ve been sittin’ it out. Didn’t take no chances, I was a prisoner of doubt.

 I knocked down the wailin’ wall, ain’t no sin. Got the feel of fortune, deal me in

Comin’ straight on for you, you made my mind. Now I’m stronger, now I’m comin’ through. Straight on, straight on for you. Straight on for you.

The song is about taking a chance. A lyric in a later verse describes “what the winner don’t know, the gambler understands.” Initially, she is a prisoner of doubt and won’t dare to take a chance. But, then she realizes, if I want this person to be mine, I better take a chance. I might lose, but by God I better try.

And, that may be the best way to think about life. Earlier, I wrote about a recurring theme of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young of taking a chance and not sitting on the shore (there is that sea analogy again). Ann and Nancy took a chance and still do. They became one of the greatest rock and roll bands ever (a Wikipedia summary can be linked to below). Plus, I think they still have some more they can come “straight on for us” with. Many thanks ladies. You are the best.

Heart – Straight On (from Night At Sky Church) – Bing video

List of Heart band members – Wikipedia

Dialogue by Chicago – the words still matter (a reprise)

Robert Lamm, of the wonderful band Chicago, penned a song more than forty years ago called “Dialogue” that could still ring true today. The song resonates with me and is one of my personal favorites of the band because of its theme and musicality, but also the fact Lamm and lead singer Peter Cetera sang it as a dialogue. Two guys talking about the problems in the world. Here are the words:

Are you optimistic ’bout the way things are going?
No, I never ever think of it at all
Don’t you ever worry
When you see what’s going down?
No, I try to mind my business, that is, no business at all
When it’s time to function as a feeling human being
Will your bachelor of arts help you get by?
I hope to study further, a few more years or so
I also hope to keep a steady high
Will you try to change things
Use the power that you have, the power of a million new ideas?
What is this power you speak of and this need for things to change?

I always thought that everything was fine
Don’t you feel repression just closing in around?
No, the campus here is very, very free
Don’t it make you angry the way war is dragging on?
Well, I hope the president knows what he’s into, I don’t know
Don’t you ever see the starvation in the city where you live
All the needless hunger all the needless pain?
I haven’t been there lately, the country is so fine
But my neighbors don’t seem hungry ’cause they haven’t got the time

Thank you for the talk, you know you really eased my mind
I was troubled by the shapes of things to come
Well, if you had my outlook your feelings would be numb
You’d always think that everything was fine

We can make it happen
We can change the world now
We can save the children
We can make it better
We can make it happen
We can save the children
We can make it happen

I heard this song the other day on the radio for the first time in a long while and listened with my daughter as we drove to school. I found myself pointing out how the song is sung and called a dialogue. She thought that was cool. But, it got me thinking about the words. The problems then still exist today. The more things change, the more they stay the same. We have a national and global poverty problem. I am glad Pope Francis is bringing attention to this more.

We have a national and global problem with how we treat women and girls. Former President Jimmy Carter’s said his new book “A Call to Action” on this issue is the most important mission of his life. Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s book “Half the Sky” speaks to these issues as well. I would add global poverty and how we treat women are linked, as woman hold up “half the sky” per the Chinese proverb used by Kristof and WuDunn. If you treat women poorly, in addition to their maltreatment, you are impacting half of your intellectual capital and economic value as a community.

Per my blogging friend George Dowdell, through his vast experience on a mission to help the impoverished, global poverty is also directly traceable to violence and corruption. Corruption takes the money that could be used to help others and violence is the mechanism to keep control and keep others down. These two seem to go hand in hand. Hosni Mubarak of Egypt had a net worth of $70 billion, while his constituents got by on less than $2 a day, e.g.

Throughout history, the “haves” have taken advantage of the “have-nots.” The “have-nots” do not have a voice or when they have, it has taken a huge effort over time to change the paradigm. It is only with this groundswell of effort that will help change the world. Per Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

So, back to Chicago’s song “Dialogue.” Re-read the final chorus that closes the song. It is repeated as a mantra over and over again. The influence of the “haves” is huge and, in the US has been made easier with recent Supreme Court rulings. The “have-nots” need that voice. They need those committed citizens that Mead and Chicago talked about.

How do we do this? One step, one block, one community, one city at a time. Find your passions and reach out to help others. But, don’t just band-aid a problem. Look to find ways to improve people’s lots in life. Become better informed through reputable news sources. Speak out against injustice or just start asking more “why” questions of leaders and people with strident views that seem harmful. Why do you think that? Why should we do that? Write letters, write emails, make phone calls. Go to events to educate yourself on an issue. Go to protest injustice.

Many of the leaders of efforts to help did not listen to naysayers and blockers who said they could not accomplish change. There is an old line about change. Get people on the bus that will help you make change, not hinder it. We are more powerful than me. So, enlist or join your efforts with others. The operative word is “we” – “we can make it happen.” But, it starts with me.

dialogue by chicago live – Bing

Bonnie Raitt – down home fun and music (a reprise)

A few years ago my wife and I had the pleasure of seeing Bonnie Raitt perform in a theatre venue. As one of our favorite performers, she did not disappoint, bringing her comfortable persona and slide guitar talent to the stage. Raitt is the daughter of two Broadway performers, so her musicality comes first hand.

Rather than Broadway, she mixed blues, rock and folk together to be a cult-like, but largely unknown icon for years during the 1970s. She has always been an excellent performer, but she did not break through in popularity until her album “Nick of Time” was released at the start of the 1990s, followed up by two successful albums in the next few years. To show how down home she is, when she won a Grammy, as she walked to the stage to accept, her heel broke. So she took off the other high heel shoe and accepted the award in her bare feet.

Her are sample lyrics from a few of my favorites.

I can’t make you love me

‘Cause I can’t make you love me if you don’t
You can’t make your heart feel something it won’t
Here in the dark, in these final hours
I will lay down my heart and I’ll feel the power
But you won’t, no you won’t
‘Cause I can’t make you love me, if you don’t

Her voice is a marvelous instrument as well as her guitar. It is well-suited to painful or love torn, lyrics. The timing of “if you don’t,” is a good example as the thought lingers, before you hear the words.

Something to talk about

I feel so foolish, I never noticed
You’d act so nervous,
Could you be falling for me?
It took a rumor to make me wonder
Now I’m convinced I’m going under
Thinking ’bout you every day
Dreaming ’bout you every night
Hoping that you feel the same way
Now that we know it, let’s really show it, Darlin’

This is her most fun song about rumors floating around of her romance to a co-worker before they realize it. When she is not singing the painful lyrics, she shines with a wry, playful kind of singing. This is very much the latter playful banter. A link to the official song video is below.

Have a heart

Hey hey, have a heart, hey, have a heart
If you don’t love me, why don’t you let me go?
Have a heart, please, oh don’t you have a heart?
Little by little you fade while I fall apart
But don’t you run away, baby

Another one of her painful songs asking the most basic of questions. Do not pretend that you love me anymore, so why don’t you say so? She is more smitten, but does not want to be anyone’s fool.

Thing called love

I ain’t some icon carved out of soap
Sent here to clean up your reputation
Baby, you know you ain’t no Prince Charming
We can live in fear or act out of hope
For some kind of peaceful situation
Baby, how come the cry of love is so alarming

This is not the chorus, but I love this lyric of how she says I am not here to clean up your reputation. She playfully dares the man are you ready for this thing called love?

A couple of other great tunes are “Love me like a man” and “Nick of time.” But, there are many more where those came from.

If you have not seen her in concert, give yourself a treat. She is a wonderful guitarist and does not always play a slide guitar, which is neat to see. But, she is just down home fun. She is the kind of woman you would love to hang out with.

If you don’t know her music, check her out. I think you may find her body of work worth listening to on those long car rides. Better use cruise control, as we don’t want you getting distracted. As you will have a lot of fun along with a hoarse voice. Bonnie is worth the trip and hoarse voice.

bonnie raitt something to talk about – Bing video

The Harmony Project – Sing, Serve, Share – an encore

The following brief post was written five years ago, but deserves an encore performance given its theme. It is a quick read, so please indulge a few minutes of your time.

What do you get when you have a choir which does not require auditions? You get a tremendous amount of harmony, but not just the musical kind. From a recent CBS Sunday Morning report, David Brown has formed a choral group whose primary purpose is to bring different kinds of people together to sing, serve and share.

Based in Columbus, Ohio, its members must serve the community in various community projects, as well as practicing and performing. During the interview, Jane Pauley talked with what sounds like the set-up to a joke – a CEO, a warden and a Rabbi. These diverse people epitomize what the group is all about – getting to know people who are different from you, then realizing how similar we are.

Brown has even taken this concept into the warden’s prison where female inmates have their own chorus. Recently, the incarcerated chorus joined the larger one for a performance, which brought down the house.

Brown’s history has been one of being diverse. It started in high school when he moved into a new school district and was the lone white student at an African-American school. In college, he came out as a gay man. So, getting along as the non-main stream person has formed his bent toward diversity.

The Harmony Project is such a positive effort to bring out the best in us. While these examples happen on a daily basis, we need to celebrate them and our humanity by sharing our common threads. This is what America is all about. It is not finger pointing and hate speak. Let’s bring America together by celebrating our diversity, as well as these common threads that bind us.

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.

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.

Harry Chapin made it “A Better Place to Be” – a reprise

Writing a comment on Deborah’s blog reminded me of an old post about a terrific songwriter and storyteller who left us way too early. Here is a reprise about Harry Chapin.

Like Jim Croce, another favorite story-telling songwriter of mine, Harry Chapin also left our world much too soon. Chapin died on July 16, 1981 of cardiac arrest that occurred either before or after a car accident on his way to perform a free concert at Eisenhower Park. He was only 38 years old. He never had the huge popular success that many performers crave, yet I don’t think that was his motivation. He wrote very meaningful songs which usually told stories or had lessons for us all. And, he was one of us – a guy we wanted to hang out with and let him regale us with his stories.

If your ever saw or heard him in concert, he was equally known for his story-telling between the songs. He would very often share how this weird story came to be, many that actually came from true events. One of my favorite songs of his – “I Wanna Learn a Love Song” is actually based on the true story of how he met his wife, Sandy, when she hired Chapin as her music teacher. Their family consisted of five children (two together and her three children from a previous marriage).  In fact, his most popular song, “Cat’s in the Cradle” was based on a poem Sandy had written about her childhood, but a lesson for her husband and all of us fathers – “when you comin home Dad, I don’t know when, but we’ll get together then, Son, you know will have a good time then.” As we all know, the Dad/ Son are switched at the end  “as I hung up the phone, it occurred to me, he’d grown up just like me. My boy was just like me.”

His first big hit was “Taxi” about a man who wanted to be a pilot and is now driving a taxi. He picks up a fare that turns out to be his ex-girlfriend who wanted to be an actress. It is a very melancholy song to which we all can relate. Other favorites include “W.O.L.D” about an old disk jockey who has seen better days and “Thirty Pounds of Bananas” about a funny trucking disaster that spilled boxed bananas everywhere. Yet, my two favorites are vintage Harry Chapin. I will save the best for last, as it appears in this title.

One of my two favorites is called “Mr. Tanner” which is a song about a man who loved to sing while he worked. And, all the shopkeepers nearby loved to hear him sing. Yet, when they encouraged him to perform, the critics were not as kind. As Chapin points out…

“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.”

You find yourself pulling for this man and are so heartbroken that his joy of singing was shattered. At the end, he only sang softly, so no one could hear him.

My favorite, though, is “A Better Place to Be.” It is a story about loneliness, a midnight watchman and a rotund waitress. The watchman tells the waitress his story as she says “I know I’m not no beauty queen, but I sure can listen good.” He tells how he met this beautiful lonely girl who, surprising to him, agrees to come home with him because “I’m goin nowhere and anywhere is a better place to be.”  After the most memorable night of is life, he leaves to get breakfast and when he returns, finds she has left, shattering his dreams.

The waitress dries tears from her eyes and eventually says “I wish that I was beautiful, or that you were halfway blind. And, I wish I weren’t so Goddamn fat, I wish that you were mine. And, I wish you’d come with me, when I leave for home; for we both know all about emptiness, and livin all alone.” After he finishes his last sip, he says “And, I know we both have been so lonely. And, if you want me to come with you, then that’s alright with me. Cause I know I’m goin nowhere, and anywhere is a better place to be.”

This is one of the most true to life, heartfelt songs you will ever hear. The song has many nuances and flavors. I hope I have given you taste of the genius of Harry Chapin. But, let me not stop there. On top of all of his storytelling songs and performances, Chapin was also a humanitarian. He was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his work on ending hunger in the US and abroad. He started an organization called “Long Island Cares” to combat hunger there and in 1977, Jimmy Carter asked him to be on a Presidential Commission on World Hunger.

So, through his songs and through his actions, Chapin told us how to make this world “a better place to be.” His epitaph is taken from his song “I Wonder What Would Happen to the World” and reads: “Oh, if man tried, to take time on Earth. And, prove before he died. What one man’s life could be worth. I wonder what would happen to the world.”  Harry, you live well beyond your 38 years. You keep on teaching us. You made the Earth “a better place to be.” Thank you.

This is a long video of Chapin singing “A Better Place to Be,” but grab some tissue, it is well worth it.

a better place to be harry chapin – Bing