Birdland

Sunday, August 21, 2011




“Keeping in touch with the things that help us feel alive – music, books, movies, even the theatre, if, mysteriously, you are that way inclined – becomes a battle, and one that many of us lose, as we get older. If the fresh supplies stop, it's you that becomes stagnant."  == Nick Hornby

There's more than a little bit of William Miller, the Cameron Crowe stand-in set free in Almost Famous, in me. Definitely not the cool part, for sure (although Will learns that lesson later as well.) But one look at his expression as he sees the treasure trove bequeathed to him by his older sister is all you need to know that he's been bitten with the bug. 

Apparently I was reading at barely three years old. I can remember getting up early (even at that age I had trouble sleeping) and reading anything and everything I could get my hands on. The Scholastic books I would order at school, Beverly Cleary's Henry Huggins series (although I was always drawn to Beezus, even if I wasn't quite sure why) and the Hardy Boys. (I also read my sister's Nancy Drew books, but I knew enough to wait until no one else was around when I read those.) 

If I'd burned through my personal stash, I would go for the back of cereal boxes, the newspaper… even a few of those Harlequin Romances when all else failed. That redefined "educational reading," as you might imagine, even though I was far too young to grasp the intricacies of those bodice-rippers. (I was, of course, fascinated by the descriptions of the elaborate dresses the women wore in these books, but again, that's a tale for another time. :c)) But it was more than just *wanting* to read something; I *had* to be reading. It was a compulsion.

But even my book lust paled in comparison to my biggest obsession: music. It took a while for it to emerge, though. I grew up in a house with a record collection stocked with the likes of Danny Davis & The Nashville Brass, Englebert Humperdinck, and others of a similar ilk. Like our pal William in Almost Famous, it was an older relative who started me on my journey to musical geek-dom. 

***

My cousin E was six years older than me, and, as a teenager, more than a little bit of a hell-raiser. Six years is a big gap when you're a teenager, but E never really lorded it over me. Truth be told, he mostly ignored me, until one Friday night when I was 12 years old. I'd come over to his house for a cookout with my parents, brother, and sister.  

I wandered inside from the backyard (even then I didn't like crowds) and heard a mysterious sound coming from his bedroom. I walked by, lingering outside the door. E's girlfriend C, a true sweetheart, noticed me first. She smiled and gestured to the beanbag chair next to her. After a moment's hesitation, I entered. E's best friend D sat on the floor, his back to the wall, eyes shut tight, utterly absorbed. E, sitting on the edge of his bed, noticed me a moment later and nodded. I started to say hello, but he lifted his finger to his lips, pointed to the record player, then tapped his ear. 

So, for the next forty minutes we listened. I struggled to make sense of the lyrics and the complex arrangements. It was unlike anything I'd heard before. When the needle finally lifted off the record player, a respectful silence fell over the room.

E's friend D finally spoke.

"That was some serious f**-ing s***, man."

E nodded in affirmation, then looked over at me.

"So... what did you think?"

My eyes widened. This was well beyond Danny Davis and The Nashville Brass Band. In fact, it was so alien I had no frame of reference to apply.

D snorted.

"Who gives a s*** what Encyclopedia Brown here thinks? What the f***is this, g***** Romper Room? Go listen to your Partridge Family albums, kid." 

He was smiling.

E spoke.

"Hey, just because you're home jerkin' the gherkin to David f***ing Cassidy's picture every night doesn't mean you have to bring him up every chance you get, or to drag my cousin into your sick little obsession." 

"Projecting your own twisted fantasies onto others yet again, I see. Nice."

E fired a wiffle ball at him. They both turned to C, who was shaking her head, and simultaneously said "Sorry." She rolled her eyes.

"Please don't leave, L. I'm hoping against hope some of your manners might rub off on them."

E laughed and flipped me the wiffle ball.  I fumbled it momentarily but managed to hang on.

D said, "Putting aside your cousin's projection of his sick fantasies onto me, an innocent bystander… what did you think of the album?"

 I thought for a moment.

"Um… I liked it. They sound like really amazing musicians. Those songs sound really hard to play."

D turned to E and C, nodding his head approvingly.

"Kid's got ears." He turned to me. "So, better or worse than "I Think I Love You"? 

I stared back blankly.

He laughed again. "The Partridge Family. Maybe there is hope for you." He gestured for the wiffle ball. I tossed it back. 

"You're absolutely right about these guys being incredible musicians. Becker and Fagen only work with the best of the best. They get jazz guys like Larry Carlton and Wayne Shorter asking to play with them." He shook his head. "Wayne f***in' Shorter! Jesus."

I asked, "So Wayne Shorter is really good?"

E & D both chuckled. 

"He only played with the Miles Davis Quintet, wrote "E.S.P." and "Nefertiti," and co-founded Weather Report," E said. "Yeah, he's really good."

I was confused. "Weather Report? Like on TV?"

D looked at E gravely.

"My. God. The poor lad hasn't heard Weather Report. Do you think he can handle the awesomeness that is Shorter, Zawinul, and Jaco?"

E rested his head on his chin.

"Well, he didn't run away, even after I brought up your weird obsession with David Cassidy's, uh, catalog. So yeah. I say we bring it on."

E sat down on the floor next to the turntable and began flipping through the huge stack of albums. C stood up.

"And that's my cue to leave." She turned to me. "Please don't leave these two alone, L. If you do, I'm not sure one room can contain that much idiocy at one time."

D stood up, kissed her hand, and, gesturing elaborately, held the door open for her. 

"A pleasure as always, milady." 

Sighing in mock exasperation, she turned to E. He sat engrossed, murmuring something about Ricky losing her number. Teenagers could be really weird sometimes, I thought.

C picked up the wiffle ball at D's feet and handed it to me.

"Come out back if you get tired of babysitting, L."

Without turning his head, E called out in a singsong voice.

"Goodbye, dear."

She shook her head and mouthed "Good luck" to me as she closed the door behind her.

E stood up. He lifted the album from the turntable, and, holding it respectfully by the edges, slid it into the plastic sleeve, then into the album itself, facing away from the open end. He noticed me watching.

"Great art deserves to be treated with respect, right?"

I nodded. He handed it to me as he pulled out the next album.

I stared at the cover intently. A mysterious-looking Oriental woman, her face made up in white and barely visible against the black background, stared off moodily, a slash of white and red cloth arcing down her back. To her right, in a vaguely Oriental red script, was one word: Aja. Below that, in stark white: STEELY DAN.

As E placed the album on the turntable, D gestured to the album in my hands.

"That's some pretty sophisticated stuff. Most kids your age wouldn't be interested. Hell, most kids *our* age aren't interested."

E spoke up as he carefully ran a cloth over the album on the turntable.

"It's OK if you don't like this next one, by the way."

"I'll bet I like it," I said.

He nodded.

"I think you will too. But it's OK if you don't. You don't have to like it just because we do."

D said, "In fact, that's an excellent guide to life: just do the opposite of what d***-head over here does."

E raised his middle finger in D's direction as he cued up the album.

D held his chest in mock pain. "You wound me, sir." 

Turning to me, he said, "No, for once dips*** here is actually right. That's the great thing about music. And art. You can like whatever you want. There aren't any tests. And don't listen to idiots who tell you something isn't cool either."

"Okay," I said. "I don't think I have to worry too much about people thinking I'm cool."

E looked at me for a second.

"You know what I do when I've had a s***** day? I come in here, put on my headphones, and crank up The Beatles or The Band or whoever I want. And I close my eyes."

I nodded slowly. "I think I know what you mean. But for me it's always been reading. Especially my Peanuts books. I always feel… better when I read them. Kind of… safe."

D and E nodded. Silence fell over the room.

E finally spoke. 

"Hey, your sister said you draw your own comic strip?"

I looked down. "Yeah. But… they suck… It's stupid."

D glanced over at E. E stared at me intently.

"Says who?"  

"I don't know… everyone."

D stared at E, his palms up, looking confused. From the corner of my eye I watched E tilt his head slightly in the direction of the back yard. D looked over at me.

"So… what do… 'they' say?"

"You know… I should be outside. Playing sports. Not spending so much time drawing, or being in my room by myself. I should be, you know… tougher."

I sighed. 

"But... I suck at sports. And I'm a shrimp. So most of the time I just… I just want to be left alone." I stared at the floor.

E leaned over. "L... L. Look at me."

I looked up. He took a deep breath. 

"'Everyone' is full of s***. Just because they're your…" He paused and shook his head. "People want to put everyone in a little box. Because it's easier. That way they don't have to think about whether they're in the right box or not. So when someone doesn't fit…" 

"It makes people nervous?" I asked.

E nodded and smiled. "Exactly."

D spoke up. "He's pretty sharp. What the hell happened to you?"

E shrugged. 

"Smart gene skipped a generation, I guess." 

"Do you get what E's saying?" D said. "It's OK to just be who you are?"

"Even if it's scary?" I asked.

"Especially if it's scary."

"But… why do I have to be the one who's different? I just want to be good at the same stuff as everyone else." 

E spread his hands. 

"I don't know. I wish I did. But for what it's worth, the world could use a few more people who are willing to go places the rest of us can't. And then come back and tell us about it."

He turned back to the record player, flipped it on, and dropped the needle on the LP. A joyous noise filled the room.

I picked up the album cover and flipped it over to see the track listing. Track 1: "Birdland."

It sounded like a place well worth the journey.









2 comments:

Sarah Wilson on January 27, 2013 at 11:59 PM said...

OMG I can't believe nobody has commented on this. Heavy Weather and Mysterious Traveler were a couple of my favorite albums when I was in my teens. About that time I was also listening to the likes of Jean-Luc Ponty, though some of my schoolmates couldn't understand why I listened to some goofy looking guy who played a fiddle in a way they never heard before. They'd rather listen to Greg Kihn, "Ah-ah-ah, ah-ah-ah-ah, aaah." As for myself, I'd rather listen to HW for the umteenth time again. Just about every tune is a favorite, well, save for "Rumba Mamá". Sad shame how Jaco wound up. And "A Remark You Made" can still bring tears to my eyes under the right circumstances. Only if I knew then is a VERY familiar phrase on our circles.

Ciao!
Sarah

Cassidy on January 28, 2013 at 12:41 AM said...

Hi Sarah!

I recently received a box set with remastered versions of the entire Weather Report catalog. I am happy to report they *still* sound as fresh and vital as ever.

It's hard to pick a favorite, but their debut and I Sing The Body Electric are particular favorites. It probably wouldn't surprise you that In A Silent Way is my favorite Miles Davis album. :c)

Heavy Weather was the second jazz album I ever bought, shortly after Pat Metheny Group from 1978. And the very first album I bought was Steely Dan's Aja. I was a strange 13-year-old. lol

In the interest of full disclosure, I must confess that I *love* Greg Kihn. (ducking from thrown shoe ;c)) I am a sucker for power pop (my first concert was Cheap Trick), and he is a master of the genre. I mean, Bruce Springsteen gave him "Rendezvous," so he clearly was doing SOMETHING right! :c)

Do you know the story of why "The Breakup Song" has those "Uh-uh-uh-uh-uh-uh-uh-uh's"? The melody and most of the lyrics came to him all at once. He knew it was a good song, so he played it for his band with those "uh-uh's...". He told them he was going to finish the lyrics, but they all told him it was perfect as is. I would have to agree. :c)

Thank you again for the thoughtful comment, Sarah! Off to listen to Sweetnighter right now... ;c)

== Cass

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