Aretha Lives On

I still can’t believe she’s gone. A year later, after the media finally stopped running clips of her demanding “R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” after The New York Times’ obituary hit all her career highlights, after she appeared one last time on the cover of Rolling Stone, I still struggle with the fact that Aretha Franklin has died. How can it be when her voice, widely celebrated as music’s greatest, still moves me so?

The loss of our music idols—another one seems to fall every week—can be difficult to fully accept when a YouTube search or an iCloud “library” delivers their voices, sounding alive as ever, in an instant. So, if their music plays on, what do we really lose when a singer dies? This past year, listening to a lot of Aretha while contemplating her passing, has led me to believe that it’s the difference between a recorded song and a live performance. When you’ve seen a music icon like Aretha in concert, which I did three times, a singer becomes more than her songs.

In 1989, I attended my first Aretha concert in Philadelphia. I was beyond excited to see and hear her, even when I found out the show was a memorial to her siblings Carolyn and Cecil, who’d recently passed. I did get a little worried when she walked on stage dressed in black, then stood silently as the orchestra played a medley of songs Carolyn had written for Aretha. Two of Franklin’s entourage stood by her side, holding her up as she openly wept.  But Aretha did not let the concert linger in sorrow. Handed a microphone, she broke into song, assuring us with “Your Love Keeps Lifting Me Higher and Higher.” We stood and cheered and I walked out of that arena believing in life beyond death.

A few years later Aretha appeared in Williamsport, PA, where I once taught school. Friends invited me back to watch her perform at the opening of the city’s new arts center and I was lucky enough to be sitting front row when she strolled on stage in a jumpsuit and ponytailed, looking young again; reborn, you might say. The audience was in tuxedos and evening gowns, not exactly dressed for Aretha’s rhythm & blues, but by the end of the show she had every row on their feet, dancing to “Chain of Fools.” She inspires life in every one of us fools, I thought, as we exited the righteously christened arts center.

It was at my final Aretha concert, in 2008, where I began to imagine we might always have her in full voice. She’d been invited to perform at Hamilton College, which offered alumni two complimentary tickets. A friend, an alumnus, invited me: I was going to see Aretha live—for free! She was 65 years old and had slowed down considerably since the Williamsport event, spending much of the Hamilton concert at the piano, which suited me just fine. I’m not alone in thinking her best work was born at the keyboard. As the show wrapped up, she asked the audience—yes, asked us—if she could perform a gospel number. We roared our approval.

At that, Aretha kicked off her fancy shoes, lifted her floor-length dress a few inches and started celebrating. I own her Amazing Grace album, recorded live at a Baptist church, so I was familiar with the power and command of her gospel singing. But I’d never been in the room where she was proclaiming it. Effortlessly, she shed the burden of her severe weight problem and the fact that she was a woman past her prime. Overcome by her spirit, I leapt from my seat 30 rows back and rushed toward the stage, dancing in her joy. I’ve never again experienced what I felt that night.

As I exited the concert, drenched in sweat, I again had this crazy notion: Maybe Aretha could go on forever. Hadn’t she always beat the odds? When the hits stopped coming in the early 1970s, people gave up on her.  But in 1985, she found her way back to the top of the charts on “The Freeway of Love.” She showed up at Divas Live in 1998 and reclaimed her crown from powerhouse vocalists like Mariah Carey and Celine Dion.  In 2012, numerous concerts were cancelled amid rumors of her impending death, but three years later she appeared at the Kennedy Center to honor singer-songwriter Carole King, proving those rumors wrong with a roof raising version of King’s “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman.” If you’ve never witnessed that performance, treat yourself: Aretha at the Kennedy Center. Aretha was in her 74th year that night and in her 62nd as a performer. Perhaps my crazy notion wasn’t so crazy; maybe Aretha never will die. But now she has.

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I finally accepted that reality while watching the video of her funeral, a ten-hour celebration of Aretha’s life in sermons, scripture and song. I watched a little each day, intentionally stretching out my goodbye, hoping to find something I could celebrate. Then, one of the many ministers said this: “I’m grateful that I got to live on this earth at the same time as Aretha.” Amen. How fortunate I am to have seen her in person, to have heard her amazing voice in real time. How grateful I am to still feel my spirit lifted by hers.

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Have you seen your musical idol in concert?

"Home to Myself" Melissa Manchester

Is there a song that defines who you are? Have you ever heard a song in your younger years, but it took decades to figure out why it means so much? My answer to both those questions can be found in one song, Melissa Manchester’s “Home to Myself.” It took thirty years after first hearing it, but I can now say with certainty that this song perfectly describes an important part of who I am. I’m an introvert.

Introverts have gotten a bad rap in our hyper-social culture, with extroverts seeming to have an edge in everything from career advancement to establishing friendships. I bought into this belief at a young age and before I became a writer all my jobs took place in busy work environments: counselor at an overnight camp, teacher in an elementary school, traveling deejay for large celebratory events, and my long career supervising teenagers and young adults in recreation programs. Those jobs required me to be engaging for extended periods of time. Day after day, year after year. All with a smile on my face.

My life of active community work eventually took its toll, and in the final years before I retired, around 2010, I was in rough shape. A friend who’d had a similar health scare described what I was going through as a “breakdown of my nervous system,” which sounded kinder than suggesting I was in the middle of a nervous breakdown. No matter how I described it, though, I couldn’t deny my symptoms: I tired easily, kept losing my train of thought, and had trouble problem solving my staff’s needs. Whenever possible, I’d escape to nature, walking among trees and listening to the sound of nothing.

One day, when complaining about my overstressed life, a friend asked, Have you ever thought you might be an introvert?

I was shocked at her suggestion and couldn’t immediately respond. Being an introvert sounded so tragic, so wrong. But after contemplating her question, I had to admit it felt right. I started to look back over my always-on-the-move life and remembered how being in large crowds made me feel trapped.  As often happens when I’m trying to figure out a difficult situation, a song popped into my mind. Click to hear “Home to Myself.”

I owe ever hearing “Home to Myself” to a friend I lived with back in the 1980s. I didn’t care much for Melissa Manchester at the time; her radio-friendly songs like “Don’t Cry Out Loud” and “Midnight Blue” seemed overproduced and overly dramatic. But my housemate was an FM radio deejay, a job that introduced her to lots of music beyond Top 40, including an earlier folk-based album by Melissa with the song “Home to Myself.” I can’t remember if my housemate actually shared the song with me or if I overheard it playing on her stereo, but there was something about the words—I couldn’t have explained it back then—that was comforting.

I wake up and see
the light of the day
shining on me
Make my own time
it's mine to spend
Think to myself
my own best friend
It's not so bad all alone
comin' home to myself again…

Flash forward thirty years, when I contemplated my friend’s suggestion of introversion.  Putting it in context with the lyrics to “Home to Myself” was like finally finding the key to a locked door. Yes, I realized, I’m an introvert.

I began to research what being introverted meant, with a couple books proving to be particularly helpful: Quiet:  The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain; and The Introvert’s Way: Living a Quiet Life in a Noisy World, by Sophia Dembling. Those books helped me understand why I need significant amounts of alone time. Instead of thinking of myself as we introverts are often seen—hermits, reclusive, odd—I learned that introversion is simply the way I prefer to live life. I have no desire to permanently escape from the world and I’ve learned how to manage my work schedule and enjoy meaningful relationships, but after a long day, literally and figuratively I want to come home to myself.

 Now I understand whatever I feel is whoever I am
Watching my life and how its grown
Looking on back to friends I've known
It’s not so bad all alone
coming home to myself again…

For me, being an introvert doesn’t just kick in at the end of the day. Since starting my writing career, I’ve discovered the joy of working alone. On days when that isn’t possible, I find I manage better by grabbing quiet time when and where I can to recharge my batteries. If I’m attending an overnight conference or retreat, I spring for a single room rather than share one with someone who likes to chat their way to sleep. When meeting a friend at a restaurant, I take time to find its quietest corner.  

And on the days when it feels like life is crowding me, I have Melissa’s song to remind me that it’s okay to create the space I need.

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…Something inside
keeps making me strong
and in the bad times
I'll get along
'cause it's not so bad all alone
comin' home to myself again
I'm comin' home…

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What song defines your personality?

"The Secret O' Life" James Taylor

In my last blog I wrote about the men of Motown and how their songs taught me it was okay to cry. Today’s blog is about another life lesson I acquired from a singer, James Taylor, whose acoustic guitar-driven songs and gentle voice led pop music out of the revolutionary 1960s into the reflective ‘70s. To me, his Sweet Baby James album and hit song, “Fire and Rain” were a breath of fresh air.

But it wasn’t just James’ musical style that I found appealing. Before first hearing his heartfelt ballads, it was only the women in my world who I saw as gentle and contemplative. Hearing a man tenderly sing about life, though new and different, felt right to me and I paid close attention to his every word. Though only eight years older than me, James Taylor became my musical father.

Like a good son, I collected every truth he sang, each record a lesson in a new masculinity: “You’ve Got a Friend,” “Carolina in My Mind,” “Walking Man,” “Shower the People, “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight.” And then, in 1977, James recorded what sounded to me like his most influential message, the one that would lead me to what I was seeking. He called his song “Secret O’ Life.” Take a listen.

 I’m tempted to print all the lyrics of “Secret O’ Life” in this blog because, to me, every word has profound meaning. But let’s start with the opening line:

The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time

What an unusual way to begin a pop song, I thought. Even in my first listen I knew James wasn’t singing about being head over heels in love with his bride, Carly Simon. He was singing about something bigger, something that always seemed just out of reach in my life. At age 22, I was struggling with where I was heading. College had only managed to confuse my career options and I was in the middle of directing a summer children’s camp, responsible for the well-being of hundreds of youngsters and a couple dozen teenagers who were supposed to be their caretakers. I was in over my head and didn’t have a clue what I was doing, which made the second line of “Secret O’ Life” so relatable:

Any fool can do it, there ain't nothin’ to it

Really? Nothing to it? James had my ear, and he sang on:

 Nobody knows how we got to the top of the hill
But since we're on our way down
we might as well enjoy the ride

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Imagine hearing that advice in your early twenties, when everything you’d been taught about a successful life involved fighting your way to the top, stepping on those you encounter along the way. Yet, wise “old” James Taylor, age 30 when he released “Secret O’ Life,” was telling me it didn’t have to be that way. With my full attention, I considered a few more lines, which hinted at a new life path:

Now the thing about time is that time isn't really real.
It's just your point of view. How does it feel for you?
Einstein said he could never understand it all.
Planets spinning through space, the smile upon your face, welcome to the human race.

To be sure, science was never my strong suit, but with James singing Einstein’s theories, it started to make sense. I listened to “Secret” hundreds of times, feeling its guiding principles seep into my confused thinking. I became curious how others defined the human experience and began reading works by spiritual seekers like Deepak Chopra and Eckhart Tolle. Thanks to James and his secret to life, I began experiencing a new feeling: contentment.

Decades passed and then, about ten years ago, I learned something about Taylor that made “Secret O’ Life,” all the more meaningful. When he wrote the song, James was five years into his eleven-year marriage to Carly Simon. Things looked pretty rosy for the famous couple, but in reality Taylor was regularly relapsing to a debilitating drug habit. His storybook marriage would eventually fall apart and a second one would fail before several attempts at rehab helped him finally beat his addiction. I thought back to those early James Taylor years, now aware that the image of him as a happily married music maker was far from true. He wasn’t some guru sitting in a lofty penthouse preaching life’s secrets; my musical dad had been as messed up and lost as I was.

Understanding that is what makes James’ final advice on “The Secret O’ Life” so poignant:

Isn't it a lovely ride?
Sliding down, and
gliding down.
Try not to try too hard.
It's just a lovely ride.

I’ve forgotten and remembered James’ wise words dozens of times since first hearing it, just like he slipped in and out of his worlds of fame, love and drug dependency. But isn’t that the best thing about a song that has been with you all these years? We lose sight of where we’re heading now and then, but with the help of lullabies of hope like “Secret O’ Life,” we will once again find our way.

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What song comes along to rescue you now and then?

The Men of Motown

I grew up in an Italian-American family who lived by some hard and fast rules. Men were breadwinners, women the caretakers. You stayed with your own kind, pledged allegiance to them, and dared not break your promise. And then there was this rule, which held me in its grips for many years: Men don’t cry.

It’s not that Italian guys didn’t show any emotion. My dad never hesitated to complain about being treated unfairly at work. My uncles described the hardships of life during the Great Depression. One had such a sense of humor that I smile just thinking about him today. But I never saw a man in my family cry.

Growing up, I soon learned that this no-weeping-allowed rule also applied beyond my family. On TV and in movies tough guys outsmarted weaker men, and classy guys wooed the ladies. I got the message that it was okay to kill another man or make love to a woman, but you better not get caught crying in sadness or regret.

This ban on tears proved especially challenging in my tween and teen years, when I had a lot to cry about. I was trying to figure out why I didn’t act like other boys or pick fights on the playground. And why wasn’t I interested in chasing after pretty girls? I felt like I couldn’t talk to anyone about this—especially the guys in my life— so my confusion grew, eventually turning into a depression. A good cry would have helped, but I knew that wasn’t what guys did. That is until I heard a much different message from an unexpected group of male role models: the men of Motown.

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Motown singers and groups were among my earliest musical influences. Their songs let me imagine myself “Dancin’ in the Streets” and the confusing world of romance almost sounded fun in “You Can’t Hurry Love.” I got to try out both “My Girl” and “My Guy” as I figured out who I wanted to date. And when all that grown up stuff got to be too much, Motown men showed me it was okay to cry, with my stereo sharing the news in recordings by the Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, and the Temptations.  I also liked Little Stevie Wonder and even littler Michael Jackson, but it was the mature Motown guys who I looked up to. I could relate to their songs of sorrow.

So badly I wanna go outside
but everyone knows that a man ain't supposed to cry
Listen, I gotta cry 'cause crying eases the pain…

Those lyrics from “I Wish It Would Rain” might read like an over-the-top Hallmark card, but that’s where a song—and a singer—can make a difference. The lead vocal on that Temptations classic was David Ruffin, a gravelly voiced crooner who could squeeze emotion out of any string of words. Click here for a sample.

I ended up listening to David sing his misery a couple hundred times and somehow it made me feel better. It was true, I realized: No matter what the men in my world were trying to teach me, crying did ease my pain.

I got the same message from Levi Stubbs, lead vocalist of The Four Tops. You know you’re listening to a Four Tops song when Levi’s distinctive baritone starts wailing, sounding like he was born in the cavern of a man’s greatest grief. Here he is, at his achingly best, on “Ask the Lonely.”

 Just ask the lonely
they know the hurt and pain
of losing a love you can never regain…

Levi and David became my first examples of a different kind of man. They were joined by Smokey Robinson, who, at the other end of a vocal range, was exploring the mysteries of love. Smokey was at his best, I thought, when he used those upper notes to describe the height of his pain. I’m sure I wasn’t the only listener to think he’d written “The Tracks of My Tears,” just for me. Voted Class Clown in my senior year popularity poll, the words were bitterly true. Here’s Smokey on “The Tracks…”

People say I'm the life of the party
'cause I tell a joke or two.
Although I might be laughing loud and hearty
deep inside I'm blue.

So take a good look at my face.
You know my smile looks out of place.
If you look closer it's easy to trace
the tracks of my tears…

Throughout my adolescent years, in the privacy of my bedroom, I struggled with the difference between what I was seeing in my world and what I was feeling inside, and music was my constant soundtrack. Songs helped me figure out who I wanted to love. They showed me how to treat my fellow human beings. They set me on a journey to discover all that I can be. And part of who I am is my sensitivity to the world, which is sometimes expressed with tears. Thanks to the men of Motown, I now know crying is perfectly fine.

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 What song is guaranteed to bring your tears?

The Best Beatles Song Ever!

Will Beatles fans ever get tired of proclaiming the group as the greatest thing that ever happened to music? Will those fans who are writers ever run out of ways to memorialize their phenomenal success? So far, nearly 10,000—yes, ten thousand—books about the Fab Four have been published. One of my favorites was All the Songs: The Story Behind Every Beatles Release (by Jean-Michel Guesdon, Philippe Margotin, Patti Smith and Scott Freiman), which, as you can imagine, gives juicy details about our favorite Beatles tunes. Of course, not all of the 10,000 books were as well-researched as All the Songs (many were merely fan adoration), but they’re proof that a whole lot of people are still obsessed with the Beatles. I’m one of them.

Recently, my love for the group got a shot in the arm when I read yet another Beatles anthology, In Their Lives: Great Writers on Great Beatles Songs, edited by Andrew Blauner. Twenty-nine writers (all avowed Beatlemaniacs) make their case for the group’s best recording, which got me thinking what my choice for the top Beatles song would be and, more importantly, why?

I knew selecting one song was going to be tough because of the 305 songs the Beatles recorded, a few dozen of them created a true music revolution. How can a song like “Help!” compete with “Lady Madonna”? How do you fairly compare “Let it Be,” released after the group had grown sophisticated in the recording studio, with the raw energy of “Please Please Me”? I also knew I’d have trouble fairly judging their songs because I fell in love with the Beatles backwards. By the time I was paying attention to what I heard on my transistor radio it was 1968 and the group was well into the second half of their career. It was their White Album and songs like “Get Back” that made me pay attention to the Beatles.

In fact, I didn’t really appreciate their early music until I became a traveling deejay, in the late 1980s, and teenagers would request those first Beatles classics by name. Decades after those songs were released, I watched new generations claim the group’s music as their own. Name any other band or singer who’s been able to consistently do that. Yes, the Beatles songs released between 1962 and 1966 were pure rock-n-roll and, as modern teens showed me, they were a whole lot of fun to sing along and dance to.

Since it’s those early songs I keep going back to for a pleasurable listen, I decided that my favorite Beatles song would come from that era. But how to choose only one? I tend to listen to them as a collection, one after another, so I decided that would be how I could narrow down my quest. I spent more than a few hours enjoying “She Loves You,”  “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,”  “Eight Days a Week” and so on. Over and over, until, finally, my choice for the best Beatles song shot right out of my CD player. Click here to listen to my favorite Beatles song.

It certainly isn’t the lyrics of “I Saw Her Standing There” that gave the song the crown it deserved. Like nearly every Beatles hit (and every other song from that era), “I Saw Her” was about one thing: being a love-starved adolescent: “Well, my heart went boom, when I crossed that room, and I held her hand in mine…”, Paul passionately sings. No, there’s nothing about his love-at-first-sight lyrics (Paul’s credited with writing most of the song) that make it stand out from any of their other hits. For me, it’s the song’s music, and how the band played it, that pushes it to the top of my charts. When Paul kicks things off with “1,2,3, 4!,” I feel like I’m in that recording studio, in 1962, long before the group began spending hours polishing the sounds that ended up on albums like Revolver and Sergeant Pepper. Instead of polish, “I Saw Her” is all passion and that’s why every time I hear its opening notes I feel like I’m there at the beginning of rock & roll.

In a way, I’m right, because in another book about their phenomenal career, Dreaming The Beatles, Rolling Stone writer Rob Sheffield explains that “I Saw Her Standing There” opens the very first Beatles album, Please Please Me. That collection, which was pretty much recorded in a single day, included lots of our early favorites, and the group’s producer, George Martin, wisely decided to start side A, track 1 with “I Saw Her Standing There.Music would never sound the same again, whether you were hearing it when it was released in the ‘60s, or in 2019, when listening to it feels like the lads from Liverpool have jetted in to rescue me from today’s overproduced techno-pop.

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Isn’t that what makes a good song great and what makes it a great group’s best record: how hearing it can still send a jolt through this 63-year-old, sitting at my computer, jumping back and forth between typing my story and listening to the song on YouTube. And, you know, Paul’s lyrics are starting to make sense, because when I listen to “I Saw Her Standing There,” I really do feel my heart go boom.

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What Beatles song still shakes up your world?

"You and Me Against the World" Helen Reddy

Like most parents in the 1950s and ‘60s, my mom and dad didn’t spend a lot of time having thoughtful conversations with us kids. Back then, before childrearing techniques got kid-friendly, grownups communicated with a few strongly-worded phrases. (Go to your room! Because I said so!) Sometimes, in fact, there were no words at all; the right facial expression could get the job done.

In my family, this was especially true when it concerned heartfelt emotions. You know, touchy-feely stuff, like when I had a bad case of the lovesick blues. Or figuring out the scary world of sex. I’m sure their parents never talked with them when life got messy, so ours had no idea how to have a conversation about what we were feeling inside.

Back when I was maneuvering my way from teenager to young man, my insides were out of control. I was trying to deny my undeniable attraction to guys and was losing the battle. I held in my unexpressed anxiety, attempting to lead the kind of life I believed the world and my parents thought I should. But, no matter how bad it got, I could never have imagined talking with my parents about those feelings.

When Helen Reddy released “You and Me Against the World,” in 1974, my 19-year-old self wasn’t listening. Helen’s songs—sickly-sweet ballads, I called them—didn’t do anything for me. Even her big hit, the anthem “I Am Woman,” which made women’s liberation hip to talk about, did nothing for my sense of powerlessness. I wasn’t paying attention to Helen Reddy’s hits, corny or socially-important. But my mom was.

As a cashier at a drug store, Mom sold medical supplies, magazines, snacks and the latest hit records. The radio at the store played popular songs and I imagine that’s where she heard Helen Reddy’s music. One day, while on summer break from college, Mom knocked on my bedroom door, reached in and handed me a shopping bag. Here, she offered, I bought you something. Closing the door, she left me alone to pull out the bag’s contents, a 45 record. It was “You And Me Against the World.”

Click here to listen to “You and Me Against the World”

You and me against the world,
sometimes it seems like

you and me against the world
When all the others turn their backs and walk away,
you can count on me to stay...

Mom didn’t stay and listen to that song with me. Much like how they avoided deep conversations with us, my parents didn’t hang out in our bedrooms listening to music, especially when they’d just given their teenager a song about a mother protecting her child from the scary challenges of life.

…Remember when the circus came to town
and you were frightened by the clown,
wasn't it nice to be around

someone that you knew,
someone who was big and strong

and looking out for you
and me against the world…

Even alone in the privacy of my bedroom, listening to “You and Me” was embarrassing. Nobody trying to navigate their way into adulthood wants to think about their mom smothering them with overprotective love. Why was my mother giving me this record, I wondered.  Then I panicked. Had she figured out I was gay? Was this record her way of acknowledging my struggles? The thought was too scary. I stashed “You and Me” in the back of my 45 collection and went on fighting my life alone.

Decades later, I found the strength to tell my parents I was gay. It wasn’t particularly groundbreaking for us. They had a hard time accepting my truth, as many of their generation did, and though they didn’t turn their back on me, who I was never became something we talked about. Even when the bigger world showed them healthy and likable gay role models (Mom was a big fan of Ellen), the idea never made sense to my parents. So, in our little world, we carried on with life, finding ways to love each other as best we could.

After Dad died in 2011, then Mom in 2015, I spent a lot of time thinking and writing about them. How we feel about our parents can shift after they pass, after we’ve had time to reflect and reevaluate those relationships. One day, while at a store looking for some new piano sheet music, I ran across “You and Me Against the World.” I’d never considered learning to play a Helen Reddy song, but something made me pause. Something I’d buried in the back of all those 45s said, Give this song a second chance.

For me, learning a song on the piano takes time. Though I can hear its familiar melody in my head, I need to figure out where my fingers go, the song’s pacing, and where to put my emphasis. I often linger on one line or maybe the chorus, playing it over and over, wanting it to sound like what my memory hears.

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And when one of us is gone,
and one of us is left to carry on,
then remembering will have to do,
our memories alone will get us through,
think about the days of me and you,
of you and me against the world…

Paul Williams, who wrote the lyrics to “You and Me,” captured the range of emotions when it comes to a mother protecting her child. I didn’t always feel that safety when I was growing up, but I do know that as my fingers figured out where they needed to go on the keyboard, I offered a little prayer to my mother. It was a thank you of sorts, for noticing that something wasn’t right for her child. Without the words to ask me what was wrong, Mom found a way to let me know she understood.

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Is there a song that reminds you of your mom or dad?

Sinatra Was Cool

My father was strong and healthy most of his life. Though a heavy smoker for nearly sixty years, it wasn’t until he turned eighty that he began to fail. But once that decline began, it was mighty. When he died at eighty-five, Dad had spent five years of medical hell, trying to fight a myriad of ailments:  stroke, collapse of his kidneys, throat cancer, congestive heart failure. He never gave up until the very end, when he refused the dialysis treatments that were keeping him alive.

During Dad’s final years I did my share of taking him to doctor appointments and seeing to his medical needs. Though it was hard to watch a parent slowly pass away, I found that our time together helped us grow closer. For most of my life, Dad and I had a cordial relationship at best, never discussing personal matters that impacted our lives.  Conversation was limited to topics such as the rising cost of gasoline or the decline of our hometown. When I told Dad, some twenty-five years before he became ill, that I was gay, he couldn’t accept it and neither of us ever mentioned it again. Still, I loved my father—but from a distance.

There was one thing he and I agreed on, though: a love of music. Unlike me, Dad never owned a high-quality stereo or collected every album by a favorite singer, but when I stopped in to visit I’d often find him listening to music while playing solitaire on the computer. Before heading off to a doctor, Dad would already have the car radio tuned to his favorite station.  It was always big band music, with their star vocalists: Tony Bennett, Al Martino, Steve Lawrence—and Frank Sinatra.

As Dad’s passing drew near, he was transferred to his hospital’s palliative care room, which provided many comforts of home, including a CD player. Maybe your father has some music he’d like to hear, his nurse suggested. We brought in a few CDs, and as Dad slipped into a coma, and as one empty day became the next, Frank Sinatra provided some respite.

In those years of Dad’s decline I wrote a lot about him and our relationship.  They were quick poems, dashed off in between hospital visits and ambulance rides, and they became a kind of stress relief as I watched my father die. One of those poems was about listening to Sinatra in that palliative care room and how so many of his songs seemed to define Dad: “My Way,” “It Was a Very Good Year,” “That’s Life,” “New York, New York.” It was as if Frank was singing my father’s life story.

There hadn’t been time to reflect on those poems while Dad was so sick, but about five years after he passed I was ready to give them a closer look. I began spending time with each poem, searching for the right words to define our complicated father-son relationship. I brought them to writing classes, where, as it’s said in literary circles, I “workshopped” them. But actually, I was workshopping myself. Spending time with those written memories of my deceased father helped me come to terms with our lifetime of differences.  

Whenever I’m immersed in a writing project, I surround myself with resources to support my work. To help me think about Dad I bought some Frank Sinatra music, splurging on a 100-song set of his classic tunes. For months I had those songs on continuous play, becoming intimately familiar with them. I started by analyzing the songs’ lyrics, thinking they would reveal truths about my father. But it was something beneath the words that helped me better understand Dad and, as I was to discover, me.

It was how Sinatra sang those songs. He made each one his own, often recording the definitive version of timeless tunes from the Great American Songbook. After repeated listenings, I began to see (or, better yet, hear) what made Frank’s singing so special: The guy was smooth. He was classy. And he was in control. Take a listen. (I’ve suggested several songs that illustrate Sinatra’s suave style, but if you’re in a hurry, just one will do.)

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Click here for “Nice N’ Easy”  

Click here for “They Can’t Take That Away From Me”

“I’ve Got You Under My Skin”

For a lot of years, Frank ruled the world of popular music. Before Elvis, or John and Paul, women wanted him and guys dreamed about being him. One of those guys was my father.  As I worked on Dad’s poems, looking for clues of what made him tick, I was bewildered by the difference between Frank’s swagger and my father’s more reserved, almost reclusive, nature. Why was Sinatra so important to Dad? My big breakthrough in understanding the link between the two men came when I began to notice a shift in my self-perception. After several months of listening to Sinatra singing, I’d started to think of myself as a confident writer.  When with a group of people, my normally quiet nature became more animated. I felt in control of my life. Frank’s cool demeanor, it seemed, had rubbed off on me.

If Sinatra’s singing style could have boosted my confidence in just a few months, what might he have done for my father, who admired him for decades? Did listening to his musical hero help Dad feel more self-assured? Had Sinatra helped ease my father’s pain as he privately shouldered life’s challenges?

I’ll never know for sure if Sinatra altered my father’s self-perception, just like he and I will never get to try to resolve our many differences. But I did figure out one more way that my father and I were in agreement: Of all the singers in the world, Frank Sinatra was the coolest. Though we came to that conclusion separately, whenever Sinatra sings, it feels like Dad and I are enjoying him together. Thanks, Frank.

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Is there a song or singer that reminds you of your father or mother?

"Turn, Turn, Turn" Judy Collins

Being a father is one of the highlights of my life. From a young age I looked forward to becoming a parent, and because I’d worked with children since I was 17 I thought I knew what it took to have a family. By the time my first child was born, when I was 28, I was ready for scrapped knees and childhood illnesses. But I never imagined having to fear for my child’s life.

In August 2015, my son Nick discovered a lump under his arm while showering. He described it as golf ball-sized, but by the time it was surgically removed, just a few days later, the lump had morphed into the size of a grapefruit. Doctors analyzed the mass and diagnosed Nick with a rare form of lymphoma known as Burkitt’s.  Because of its aggressive characteristics, if he’d waited a few weeks longer to consult a doctor, there would have been little chance of him surviving the disease. Nick was 29, married and father to a three-year-old.

If the bad news about Burkitt’s was its rapid growth and potentially fatal outcome, the good news was that science had zeroed in on an effective method to fight it in its early stages. Shortly after Nick received his diagnosis, we learned his only viable option: four months of chemotherapy in massive doses. Research showed that this intense attack on the disease offered an excellent chance for full recovery. Within a week of discovering the lump, Nick was in the hospital, starting his regimen.

Those mega doses of chemotherapy did exactly what they were supposed to do. Just weeks after beginning treatments, there was no sign of Burkitt’s in Nick’s body scans. We rejoiced, forgetting that he still faced another three months of the drugs. Originally, it was thought that Nick would spend a few days each month in the hospital receiving chemo, then return home to recuperate. But once the powerful combination of chemicals began battering his body, Nick ended up hospitalized for nearly his entire treatment.

Most days I’d show up at Nick’s hospital room to find him in bed. For a few weeks the TV filled the long hours, but soon that stopped. Slowly, but persistently, the drugs caused Nick’s near complete shutdown. No eating, no talking, and seemingly no interest in the world. As we moved into autumn, heading toward what we thought would be a Thanksgiving celebration, Nick took a turn for the worse. He confided in a nurse that he didn’t feel he could go on. He had thoughts of ending his life.

Nick’s despair made no sense. Tests confirmed no sign of Burkitt’s return. He only needed to complete his treatment, then rebuild his life. Easy for us to accept. But for Nick, with daily vomiting and diarrhea, and confusion due to clouded thinking—doctors called it “chemo brain”—he lost his will.  For his safety, the hospital instituted a 24-hour suicide watch. Medical staff would need to be with him at all times. This continued for six weeks.

It’s a 35-minute drive from my house to the hospital and those trips in rush hour traffic became the start and end of my worrisome days.  Often riding alone, I relied on music to sooth the stress. I’d listen to joyful music, pumping myself up for the day; I listened to songs that reminded me of Nick’s childhood; I listened to songs of faith, hoping mine would remain strong.

One particularly dark day, both in atmospheric conditions and where Nick was in his depression, I brought along a Judy Collins album, knowing her gentle voice and thoughtful lyrics would be a comfort. The CD had me singing along with each familiar song, feeling like I was releasing stress along the roadway. Then Judy offered “Turn, Turn, Turn.” Click here to listen to the song.

Her guitar creating a rolling, childlike melody, Judy’s graceful version of “Turn, Turn, Turn” honors the Bible verses that inspired it. I learned the song at summer camp, back in the late 1960s, and thought I understood its circle-of-life message. But it wasn’t until that autumn morning, with the natural world around me dying as I drove to my son in hopes he was ready to live, that I truly understood its meaning.

To everything (turn, turn, turn)
there is a season (turn, turn, turn)
and a time for every purpose, under heaven.

A time to be born, a time to die…

It was the song’s reference to death that made me consider something I’d been afraid to think about: Nick will one day die.  In the natural order of things, his death shouldn’t have been something I needed to think about in my lifetime, but his inevitable death had come uncomfortably close.

The song was still playing when I reached the hospital parking lot. I shut off the car and gave Judy my full attention:

A time to plant, a time to reap,
a time to kill, a time to heal,
a time to laugh, a time to weep…

My tears that morning were a surrender. Not just to Nick’s current depression; I knew he had a lot to live for and I would continue helping him see that truth. It was a surrender to all deaths: those I loved who came before me and those who will follow.

A time to build up, a time to break down…

On January 1, 2016, Nick received his last dose of chemotherapy. He remained in the hospital two more weeks, and as the drugs left his system, he rediscovered his will to live. It would be a slow climb to normalcy, with the drugs’ residual effects remaining in his system for months.

As I write this, in April, 2019, Nick has had several clean body scans. He’s “in remission” now, rejoining the rest of us living our days. But I look at my son’s life differently now, as I do my daughter’s and everyone I have come to love. I no longer think of death as something to fear, but rather, as Judy Collins taught me, as something to accept.

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To everything, turn, turn, turn,
there is a season and a time…

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When you’ve had to confront the delicate balance between life and death, what song helped you accept it?

"Firework" Katy Perry

I’m a bit of a snob when it comes to music. I have no doubt that my favorite songs, all recorded in the 1960s and ‘70s, were the best ever made. The music was revolutionary and the lyrics had important things to say. End of story. Or so I thought. Today’s blog is about a song from this new millennium that changed my prejudiced opinion, but first let me explain the science behind my stubborn allegiance to my favorite songs.

In the last couple decades there’s been some groundbreaking research on how our brains develop and function. Some scientists—the really groovy ones, I’m guessing—have studied how the music we first heard as kids gets lodged in our brains. They’ve even figured out why I can’t always remember my phone number, but I still know every word of “American Pie.” Here’s the reason, in layman’s terms:

During the time that we’re going through some intense development—those supercharged teen years—lots of information gets stored in our brains, with different sections acting as holding chambers for specific data. One of those sections keeps a file of the songs we listened to 20, 50 or 500 times. So, depending on when you were born and who was the leader of the music pack when you were growing up, the folds and wrinkles of your brain might be devoted to Glenn Miller or Elvis or the Stones or Madonna or (insert your favorite here.) Just like we learned two and two make four, we have no doubt that the songs we couldn’t get enough are simply the best.*

My stubborn devotion to ‘60s music ran into trouble a few years ago, after I’d retired from running a children’s summer camp. Throughout my 27 years supervising teenagers who were working as counselors, those budding young adults often tried to introduce me to a song they couldn’t get enough of. No thanks, I’d say with a sly smile, I’ve got my own music.

A few summers after retirement, a staff member I’d worked with was still at the camp and he sent me a link to a YouTube video the staff and campers created. My first thought? We never needed videos for kids to have fun. Is this what summer recreation has become? But out of respect for the staff person, I watched the video. Take a look: “Firework” by Katy Perry

If you’ve ever worked at a camp or organized a children’s program, you’ve got an idea of what it took to make that video. Here’s what I saw that impressed me: In the dog days of August (The lawn’s shade of brown tells me it had been a cruel hot summer.), the staff still had enough energy to stage a camp-wide activity based on this Katy Perry song. Did you notice how different groups of campers had on the same color T-shirt? That means those kids bunked together, and working on their line or two of the song would have been a bonding experience. And wasn’t it cool that Arts and Crafts added props like glistening stars and Sports offered something for boys who thought lip synching to Katy Perry was lame?

I ended up watching the video several times, noticing more ways those counselors created a fun activity. As I took it all in, something stirred in me. Creative camp counseling aside, I was enjoying the song. The tune was hummable, and as I joined in I felt…uplifted. When I checked out the song’s lyrics, I realized that the masterminds behind the video had wisely chosen “Firework,” because it captured what was always the camp’s goal: helping children feel good about who they are. In case you didn’t catch Katy’s inspiring lyrics (she had help from Ester Dean, StarGate and Sandy Vee), here’s a sample:

Do you ever feel like a plastic bag
drifting through the wind
wanting to start again

Do you ever feel, feel so paper thin
like a house of cards
one blow from caving in…

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Do you know that there's still a chance for you
'cause there's a spark in you

You just gotta

ignite the light
and let it shine
just own the night
like the Fourth of July

'Cause baby you're a firework
come on show 'em what you’re worth…

Wow! “Firework” is a mini-lesson in self-esteem! Who wouldn’t feel better singing and dancing along? After several more listens, my brain’s decades-old loyalty to my music unlocked and let “Firework” in. The song is now logged in my memory, right alongside “You’ve Got a Friend,” “Lean on Me,” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” I was listening to new music—and I liked it.

But a song’s importance can only be confirmed with the passing of time. It’s been five years since I first saw the camp’s video, and when I started creating this music blog and listed the songs I wanted to write about, “Firework” was near the top. I know an old-timer like me shouldn’t be writing about a song by a pop star who looks like a model from People magazine. According to the science of the brain, there’s no way Katy Perry’s music should matter to me. But thanks to some counselors at a summer camp, whenever I’m having a bad day her song sings me out of my slump. ‘Cause, young or old, baby you and I, we’re like fireworks.

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Have you heard a song from recent years which suddenly upended your “Best of the Best” list? Share it with me here and help me keep the musical folds of my brain from freezing over.

*Of course, the science of the brain is a lot more complicated than my one paragraph. If you want to read more about the link between music and the brain, check out the article, “Why Do We Love the Music We Heard as Teenagers?” by Mark Joseph Stern. The article mentions a book that helped me wrap my mind around this whole music-brain connection, This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession, by Daniel Levitin.

The Mamas & The Papas' (Im)perfect Harmony

Today’s blog is about The Mamas & The Papas, that powerhouse of a vocal quartet. Though I’ve been a big fan of the group for decades, I’ve never been able to properly put into words what their music means to me. I’ve decided to give it another try, though, because I recently learned some details about the foursome that helped me understand why their songs have always sounded so good. My story begins back in the 1960s.

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I’ve got two childhood memories of The Mamas & The Papas. First, I remember watching my older sister listening to one of their albums. She was home from college and I was just entering my teens, so I looked to her for guidance on this whole growing up thing. On that day, sitting cross-legged on her bed, my sister was singing with the group, harmonizing with them. She sounded happy.

Hearing my sister’s vocal pleasure would have been new for me since music was rarely played in our home. Any sound traveling from room to room was more apt to have been my parents arguing, which they often did. (Later in life, when I asked them why they fought so much, they assured me they weren’t arguing; they were just discussing.) Added to that family tension was the confusion that I kept bottled up inside me, frightened by my emerging attraction to other boys. So when I saw my sister happily singing along with The Mamas & The Papas, I wanted to feel it too.

My second memory of the group was seeing them on The Ed Sullivan Show, which our family watched together. If a rock band was on, Dad would have some commentary: Send them back to England! he suggested for the Beatles. When The Mamas & The Papas appeared on Ed’s show they looked like they were having a heck of a good time, especially Mama Cass. Dad’s opinion? They’re all on drugs. Maybe he was right, but long after seeing them, I remembered the fun they had harmonizing with one another. Here’s a glimpse of that performance: The Mamas & Papas on Ed Sullivan

Harmony wasn’t what most groups were offering back in the ‘60s. Many successful bands were rewriting the definition of popular music by amping up their guitars and adding psychedelics. The Mamas & The Papas, however, had perfected how to sweetly blend their voices. When the four members of the group—John Phillips, Michelle Phillips, Denny Doherty and Cass Elliot—layered their voices just right, they created, as music reviewers nicknamed it, “the fifth voice”: a pleasing sound that couldn’t have been created by only one person.

The Mamas & The Papas hadn’t cornered the market on harmonizing. There were other groups whose combined voices produced beautiful music. Crosby, Stills & Nash comes to mind; the Beach Boys, the Vogues and the Association, too. I loved all that harmony, because, to me, it sounded like peace. Long before fully understanding why a peaceful life was so vital to me, The Mamas & The Papas were how I wanted the world to sound. So imagine my surprise when, decades after first falling in love with their blended voices, I learned that their world was anything but harmonious.

Papa John was the group’s leader and chief songwriter. He composed most of the group’s hits, using what was happening in his world as inspiration. During the years the group was popular (1965-68), John’s world was The Mamas & The Papas and I can summarize their intense closeness in one sentence: Though John was married to Michelle, she was in love with Denny, who pined for her in return, while Cass carried a major torch for him. That entanglement of emotions created a messy discord, which showed up in the lyrics of the songs they harmonized so beautifully on. For example, “Look Through My Window”

We both knew people sometimes change
and lovers sometimes rearrange;
And nothing's quite as sure as change…

On “Got a Feeling” John and Denny co-wrote the lyrics, giving us a look at their inner struggles with the group’s four-way love affair. John starts it off:

Got a feelin' that I'm wasting time on you babe;
Got a feelin' that you've been untrue.
I got a feelin' that you're stealin'
all the love I thought I was giving to you.

Denny weighs in on the sticky situation:

Got a feelin' that you're playing some game with me, babe.
Got a feelin' that you just can't see.
If you're entertaining any thought that you're gaining
by causing me all of this pain and making me blue
the joke's on you…

The group’s most famous autobiographical song, “Creeque Alley,” summed up their rocky journey to find love in a couple lines:

Make up, break up, everything is shake up
Guess it had to be that way…

Virtually everything written by John (and an occasional group member) rose from the ashes of The Mama & The Papas’ dysfunctional group dynamics. All that turbulence made for some great music, but it tore the group apart. John and Michelle divorced, Denny moved to Canada, and Cass rode her soaring contralto to a short-lived, but successful, solo career. Fifty years later, three of the four are dead (Michelle is still with us), putting to rest any remnants of their struggles with love and life.

What we still have, though, is the recordings of their unified voices. Every time my world spins out of control, every time the noise gets to be too much, I play some Mamas & Papas. Hearing those four bruised souls harmonizing always works like a salve, like a much-needed lesson in how to find peace in a chaotic world.

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Is there a group or duo who brings some harmony to your life? Let me know in the Comments section below.

"Good Morning Starshine" Oliver

I never got to experience joy as a kid. The carefree days of childhood escaped me, though most people back then never would have guessed. I had two parents who provided for me and my siblings, our close-knit extended family welcomed me into their ethnic traditions, and the homes along our country road provided a slew of playmates. There appeared to be nothing that would have kept me from joy. But something always did.

After I realized I was gay, at ten years old, the exhilarating high of happiness was always just out of reach. When I learned what gay meant from a schoolmate’s wisecrack, I knew for certain that’s what I was and it didn’t take me long to figure out that being who I was wasn’t going to be much fun. No one in my 1960s conservative hometown identified as gay, so not only did I begin to think of myself as different, but also alone. Things weren’t much better beyond my town’s borders: every TV show, book and song on the radio informed me it was all about boy meets girl. In an attempt to fit in, I hid my gayness, and life became like living with a slightly elevated temperature: I could function, but I never felt great.

I didn’t realize what a childhood without joy meant until many years later, after finally breaking through the chains of my denial. As happens so often in my life, it was a song—“Good Morning Starshine”—that helped me reclaim my lost joy. In case you aren’t familiar with the song or haven’t heard it for a while, take a listen: “Good Morning Starshine”

“Good Morning Starshine” got me reflecting on my joyless youth when I was driving one day a few years ago, my car radio tuned to an oldies station. The deejay mentioned that “Starshine” was a major hit from 1969. I thought back to my 14-year-old life, my truth deeply hidden, while the world, with its escalating Vietnam war, Woodstock mania and race riots, seemed out of control. To forget about the inner and outer chaos I’d listen to Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 radio show. Casey always had interesting details about the hits, and I remember him explaining that this version of “Good Morning Starshine” was by a singer named Oliver. He’d adapted the song from the Broadway musical Hair, a groundbreaking play drawing huge crowds due to its actors performing in the nude. I liked “Starshine” enough, though back then I wouldn’t have been able to figure out why. Only after hearing it decades later, riding in my car, did I understand why this golden oldie sounded so invigorating.

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“Starshine” starts out like any easy-listening pop song from the 1960s: light percussion marking the beat, guitar strumming dreamy chords. Then the song takes an unexpected turn. As if from a distant planet, starting quietly and then building in intensity, Oliver’s voice swoops in with one long la-a-a-a-a-a-a. After a breath, he lets loose with another 14 seconds: la-da-da-da-da-da-da-da.... Take another listen to the song’s first half-minute: Intro to “Good Morning Starshine”

When Oliver finally gets to the lyrics, we’re treated to a song that’s fitting for a musical about peace and free love. But, riding in the car that day, it wasn’t the words to “Starshine” that surprised me so. It was Oliver’s voice. He sounded like joy.

As I listened to “Starshine,” quivering in unexpected elation, I had to remind myself I was driving on a busy highway. My brain was working overtime to process it all: Why had I never heard the song’s joy—why had I never felt it—before? Safely arriving home, I logged onto YouTube, typed in “Good Morning Starshine” and kept replaying the beginning, filling myself with Oliver’s joyful intro, making up for lost time.

YouTube also had the Broadway cast of Hair’s version of the song, so I clicked on it, hoping to get another jolt of joy. Instead, I was shocked by how pale their version sounded, which skipped Oliver’s exciting intro altogether. Who was this Oliver guy, anyway, and how did he decide to interpret “Starshine” the way he did? A Google search provided details. Oliver’s singing career barely lasted a year. After “Starshine” became a top five smash, his second song, “Jean,” released the same year, also hit big. But after those two songs, Oliver never cracked the Top 40 again. Discouraged with the music business, he switched careers and began managing a pharmaceutical firm. It’s hard to imagine him breaking out in some ecstatic la-las doing that kind of work. Never returning to his career in song, he died at age 54.

The spontaneous joy that Oliver brought to his music may have been short-lived, but what an enduring gift he gave me. Today, whenever I’m caught up in joy—yes, that feeling often comes my way these days—Oliver’s voice appears. Sometimes all it takes is a walk on an early morning, breathing in the promise of a new day, and I hear his intro to “Good Morning Starshine.” I always sing along, because when you’re filled with joy, it feels so good to share it with the world.

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Is there a song in your life that feels like joy to you? What song do you automatically sing when happiness over flows?

"Bridge Over Troubled Water" Simon & Garfunkel

I imagine you’re familiar with “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” though it’s been nearly 50 years since it topped music charts and took home a handful of Grammys. The song’s message of devoted friendship has a way of resurfacing when it’s most needed. People found comfort when it was played over news reports of the 9/11 rescue efforts. Singers recorded new versions of the song to raise money for hurricane and earthquake victims. And in smaller, more personal, ways, it’s been a soundtrack for challenging times. Here’s my “Bridge Over Troubled Water” story.

In 2007 I was on a bus, gritting my teeth with each shift of the engine’s gears. If we could just get up to cruising speed, I prayed, this bus’s painful cries could end. But that wasn’t going to happen. Not when it was stopping every few minutes, picking up commuters as we made our way to the railway station in Stamford, Connecticut. There I would board a jarring train for Grand Central Station and then endure a couple stop-and-start subway rides before reaching my New York City destination. This is all worth it, I kept reminding myself.

That unsettling ride to the City was due to a much-needed vacation I’d planned for myself. An out-of-control work schedule and ongoing difficulties accepting my failed marriage had my mind, body and spirit in search of some joy. Music has always been my answer for tough times, and in a moment of creative dreaming I pictured piano lessons as my savior. Not ordinary lessons; New York City piano lessons.

I’d been playing piano off and on since the sixth grade, when I first became aware that music magically made life better. I wanted to learn how to replicate my favorite songs and after a year or so of lessons, I was doing so. Life was good until my peers—I hesitate to call them friends—made it clear that playing piano was for sissies. Despite my enjoyment, I wasn’t ready for that kind of social pressure. I quit playing.

I returned to piano when my daughter was in her tween years and showed an interest in playing. We signed up for classes and I found that keyboard basics quickly returned. After my daughter moved on to other hobbies, I continued, and in 2007, along with looking for a respite from my troubles, I was ready to take piano to the next step. A magazine ad for a “New England Piano Camp” looked appealing until I found out it ran during summer, my job’s busiest season. But the idea was too good to dismiss, so I called the camp’s director, who pitched an idea. He lived in New York City and if I could get myself there, find lodging and show up at his studio each day, he promised me my own week-long piano camp. Sold.

My vacation plans came together without a hitch. A friend who lived an hour outside New York offered me his place. I’d do the daily bus/train/subway into the city, then walk the dozen blocks to my teacher’s studio. After a day immersed in piano, I’d do the reverse. A packed lunch, a week’s worth of train passes and subway tokens, and I was on my way to music nirvana. Halfway through this dream camp, though, my high hopes were heading for a crash landing.

What I hadn’t accounted for—actually, what I couldn’t account for since I didn’t yet know this about myself—was my difficulty coping with noise and confusion. Having lived most my life in a small town, aside from a rowdy pep rally or a crowded Woolworth’s at Christmastime, I’d never known much other than quiet. It wasn’t until I’d returned home from New York City that a few counseling sessions helped me realize how time in the Big Apple had triggered my anxiety. But even while in the thick of it, I knew something wasn’t right.

I managed to survive the daily commute for the first few days, using self-talk to convince myself that any unease was due to a radically new schedule. I ignored the discomfort, focusing on the fact that I was learning so much, but when my alarm went off Wednesday morning, I was ready to admit defeat. Only the thought of wasting money got me out the door. I arrived at the studio, where my teacher, who’d informed me he always ran a few minutes late, had the studio unlocked.

I walked in, shut the door to the street’s noise, tossed my backpack on a chair, and collapsed at the piano. Hands on keys, I began searching for a song that my teacher hadn’t assigned, but had been playing in my mind since setting off on that morning’s commute.

When you’re weary,

feeling small…

It was Art Garfunkel’s choirboy tenor on “Bridge Over Troubled Water” that had offered a healing contrast to my troubled morning. If you’ve forgotten how beautiful Garfunkel’s voice is, take a listen. (Enjoy the whole song if you’d like, but to understand my story you only need its first 30 seconds.) “Bridge Over Troubled Water”

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It was “Bridge”’s first two lines I kept hearing on my way into the City. But I didn’t just need to hear them, I had to feel them. Though I’d never attempted to play the song before and without sheet music, I wasn’t sure where to begin. But I knew how to play chords and through the process of elimination, I managed to find ones that sounded right:

E flat: When you’re weary…

A flat: Feeling small…

I played those two chords over and over until they became a meditation. There was no need to venture into the rest of the song; with the tiniest shift of my hands I’d swept away the morning’s stress. Later, I would have to again face what was tearing me up inside. But in that moment, I was okay. I’d taught myself to play peace.

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When times are tough, what song brings you peace?

“Sweet Caroline” Neil Diamond

Hearing a good pop song at the right time can be life changing. Case in point: An evening in 1989 when I was working as a traveling deejay. In the two years I had that job I did hundreds of gigs: weddings, bar mitzvahs, holiday galas, and country bar trivia nights. I spun thousands of records (actually, we used cassette tapes), and here’s the story of one song that proves the power of music.

Has there ever been a more uplifting song than “Sweet Caroline”? Neil Diamond’s gem has long been popular whenever people gather, its singalong chorus perfect for ready-to-party crowds. I call it our national anthem of feel good songs, as we saw after the Boston Marathon bombings, when the city rebuilt its confidence by singing its chorus with full voice. If you’ve forgotten how good it feels to sing it, click here: “Sweet Caroline”

Great song, right? But I never thought of it as a dance floor favorite, until that night in ‘89.

My deejaying usually entailed working two shows on a Saturday: an afternoon party and an evening event. This particular day I’d done a doubleheader and, as it crept closer to my midnight quitting time, I was feeling the drain of the day. The dance crowd had already grown thin, partyers limping off to grab one last drink. With the exception of an occasional slow song that gave tipsy couples a reason to cling to each other, the dance floor was empty and I wasn’t putting any effort into finding the perfect party song.

About ten minutes before quitting time, as I was cleaning up my workspace, an older woman approached me. I crossed my fingers that she just wanted to say thanks or complain about my song choices. Please don’t request a song, I begged to myself.

“Do you have ‘Sweet Caroline’?” the woman inquired. I looked up, her carefully applied makeup worn thin from an emotional day. The easy answer would have been to politely say I didn’t have that wonderful song, emphasizing my regret with a disappointed expression. But I did have “Sweet Caroline”—in fact, I had a whole Neil Diamond tape—and I worried that this woman might be part of the family who’d purchased my services. The company I worked for had a strict policy about pleasing customers. Family members listed their favorite songs and we guaranteed to play them. With the woman waiting for an answer, I didn’t have time to scan my sheet to see if “Caroline” was on their list. It was decision time.

I took a second look at the woman, searching beneath her fading makeup to notice something in her eyes. They weren’t demanding or pitiful; they were… hopeful. I was raised right and knew what to say.

“I sure do, ma’am. Would you like to hear it?”

“Yes!” she stated, walking away.

I could have at least have gotten a thank you, I muttered, cuing up “Caroline” on the tape. I checked my watch: three minutes to quitting time. Time for one last tune. Sure hope the crowd likes this song, ‘cause it’ll be ringing in their ears on the drive home.

“Caroline”’s melody, with gentle organ and muted horns, ushered in a change in the evening’s music. Gone was the steady thump of dance classics or the sweeping violins of a ballad. Neil’s voice, reserved at first, strikes gold when he gets to the chorus:

Sweet Caroline…good times never seemed so good…

This is a happy song, I noted, tapping my foot while returning tapes to their cases. As I lined up my equipment to lug to the van, I glanced at the dance floor. One person—one more than I expected—was swaying alone, singing with Neil. It was the lady who’d requested “Caroline.”

I looked over at the crowd, who were ignoring the lone dancer. Probably the bride’s eccentric great-aunt, I surmised. I tried to follow the family’s lead and ignore her, but I was getting a kick out of Ms. Dance The Night Away waltzing with empty air: eyes closed, purse dangling from her arm, moving as if she were partnered with Fred Astaire. Looks like she enjoyed the open bar.

Good deed for the day done, I gave the song an early fade, thanked the crowd, congratulated the bride and groom one more time, and turned off the power. Get me the hell out of here.

As I piled boxes onto my travel cart, daydreaming about my warm bed, I saw my dancing friend heading toward me. Oh, please, don’t be a hanger-on. Don’t let her be as strange as her dancing.

“Thanks for playing that song,” she said, catching her breath. “It was my husband’s and my song...we always danced to it…This Tuesday is six weeks since he died. My name’s Caroline, by the way,” her hand offering a wave as she turned to leave.

“You’re welcome,” I managed.

Cart in tow, I headed out as some young man—her nephew, perhaps—helped Caroline with her coat. She opened her purse, fished out keys, and headed out the door alone.

After loading the van, I took hold of its heavy rear door, ready to slam an end to the day. But something made me stop and I climbed back in to grab my Neil Diamond tape. On the ride home, I listened to “Caroline” over and over, hearing its final verse as if for the first time.

dancing couple.jpg

…but now I look at the night
and it don’t seem so lonely,

we fill it up with only two

And when I hurt,
hurting runs off my shoulders,
how can I hurt when holding you

One…touching one…reaching out…touching me…touching you

Sweet Caroline, good times never seemed so good.

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Do you have a song that reminds you of a friend, relative or person you met only once, but who forever changed your life? Share your story in the comments below.