We sang. Starting in the first grade. I don’t remember singing in kindergarten, coulda happened, but my memory of that year is sketchy.
But the first grade classroom was right next door, we lined up outside, and the teacher was Mrs. Godfrey.
We had two recesses. The first one included milk, but no cookies. I never drank the milk, I don’t remember EVER drinking white milk, but if you put enough Bosco in, I was down. And those brown boxes of Hershey’s in the grocery store…I’d implore my mother to purchase them, sometimes she’d accede to my wishes.
And I don’t have that many memories of first grade either, except for making a map with Mark Levy. That was the assignment, a map of our classroom. And I insisted that it needed red lines, roads, because I always saw them on my dad’s maps. I drew one, from the bottom to the top of the heavy paper, and then Mark convinced me not to draw any more. I didn’t, he was right.
And there was always music in school. Mr. McCann taught the junior high students, but we saw him too, at this point the elementary and junior high schools were still in the same building.
But in the afternoon, before the clock hit 2:30 and we exited, we’d sing with Mrs. Godfrey.
Now you’ve got to know, this was back before the boomers became parents and were overinvested in their children. Sure, we had some kids records, but our parents weren’t enriching us, scheduling us 24/7, we went to nursery school, that’s what they called it, what’s up with “pre-school,” and learned in the classroom, outside of it we played. As for watching TV…it was illegal in the daytime, at least in my house, you had to go outside, but at five we’d sit in the den, the three of us, my two sisters and myself, and eat buttered noodles and watch “The Mickey Mouse Club.”
And in Mrs. Godfrey’s class we sang “The Volga Boatmen.” Funny thing about the internet, now I can listen to it on Spotify, but it’s different, I remember it in my head at six.
We took piano lessons. I didn’t know a house without a piano. Not that they were Steinways, mostly Knabes, compacts not grands. I started at six, a the Dranoffs’ house. With five other people. Three of us on each piano. I learned to read music, we played “Hot Cross Buns,” but then baseball interfered and practice was so boring and Mrs. Dranoff was a taskmaster and I stopped playing. For a while anyway, when the Beatles hit, I could play chords and did, occasionally.
We sang at summer camp. Mostly folk music. We had singdowns. That’s where you have to come up with a song using the topic provided by the other team. That’s right, you not only had to come up with it, you needed to SING IT! I remember faking “The Days of Wine and Roses” at Camp Laurelwood, but it got us over the hurdle.
And when I got to junior high, we had club period, I tried out for the Glee Club. One year they admitted me, the next I was cut. This was the sixties, when everybody did not get a trophy. I ended up being in the shop club, and ultimately didn’t build anything.
And when the Beatles hit, everybody got a guitar. It was kind of like everybody buying a computer to be on AOL back in the nineties. Then again, today’s college students may not have even been born in the nineties. I’m trying to think of something that ubiquitous. And instant. We all have smartphones, but it didn’t happen overnight. Ah, I guess you had to be there.
And you’d take your guitar with you, and you’d sit in groups, and SING!
Most of my social life revolved around the Aspen crew, Jim Lewi’s conference in Colorado. But a funny thing happened in the last twenty years. People lost their jobs. Labels became secondary to live. And now it’s a whole different slew of people. Some of whom weren’t even old enough to attend back in ’96.
Used to be everywhere you went you had an Aspen friend. Show up at a gig, there they were. You got privileges. Institutions roll on, people do not.
But in the last few years, some new people have come into the family and when Marty said he was gonna be in L.A. last weekend, Craig reached out and said we were all invited for a party at his house.
I came late. I was doing my taxes. I was lucky I could get a Saturday appointment as it was, I booked it a month in advance.
And the atmosphere was festive, and Craig made Mexican food. And we were hearing about how Craig and Rick marry people. Craig’s done ten, Rick eight, Craig’s had one divorce, Rick two. And then…
I moved over to the couch where the women were talking. The women’s conversation is much more interesting. It’s not about cars and sports, but people and feelings. And then when we heard the singing from the other room, Felice asked why I wasn’t joining them. I told her I was talking to Lewi. But when I was finished with Jim…
Craig Newman is an agent at APA. He came to L.A. and tried to make it as a performer, but that didn’t take, he had to make a choice, and he did.
But the truth is your passions never leave you. You can suppress them, but they’re still there.
So Craig has a music room. At one end of his living room. On the other side of the fireplace.
He’s got a bunch of guitars. A Martin twelve string, a mellow-sounding Gibson. And bongos. And a snare drum.
And a piano.
Turns out Craig showed interest and his parents got him lessons at six, and when he purchased this house, they bought a piano for him, believing every house should have a piano, a twentieth century construct if there ever was one.
And when I got to the music room…Marty, Rick and Craig were preparing to do “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant.”
We never sang Billy Joel songs, and certainly not ones as complicated as this.
And the thing is, Craig hews to the record. He doesn’t cut verses, he includes it all. And he’s a maestro on the keys as well as the frets and off we went.
And suddenly I understood the story of Brenda and Eddie.
Oh, I’ve heard the song zillions of times, but when you’re singing along to your smartphone…
At first I just sang from memory, but I didn’t remember every word, so I dialed up the lyrics on my iPhone and…they made sense, they resonated, in a way they never have before. I could see Brenda and Eddie out on the Island, and I wondered where they were today. In their New York State of Mind.
Some folks like to get away
Take a holiday from the neighborhood
It was never a hit. But after 9/11, “New York State of Mind” really got traction. And if you grew up in New York or New England you get it.
It was eighty degrees in L.A. And I yearned for the change of seasons on the east coast.
And I thought what a marvelous song this was.
And now I was so energized I asked Craig if he knew “Summer, Highland Falls.”
What closed me on Billy Joel was the album “Songs In The Attic,” a live LP where he recut all his initial songs the way they should have been produced, after he started working with Phil Ramone. And “Summer, Highland Falls” is a keeper.
Craig explained the history, the war between right hand and left, AND THEN HE PLAYED IT!
No one else knew it, but Craig and I sang it at the top of our lungs, we felt so good.
And if you’re singing Billy, you’ve got to sing Elton.
And now Jamie and Greg are in the music room. Andy and Amy. Felice. We’re huddled around the piano singing the songs of our youth.
Now I’ll be honest, I thought this was an impossibility with today’s generation. The records don’t usually have melody, but it’s something more, back then music was everything, it drove the culture, we all knew the hits, people don’t today.
And Craig’s whipping out one after another.
And then we get to Simon & Garfunkel. He plays “Mrs. Robinson,” which he used to open his sets with when he moved to L.A. and played the bars.
And we did “Homeward Bound.”
I’m sitting in the railway station
Got a ticket for my destination…
What exactly was that destination?
I never wanted kids, except for when I turned forty and my ex was living separately and ultimately rejected the idea.
I never wanted to be rich. I mean I didn’t want to dedicate all my time in the pursuit of money.
I did want to go skiing, which I still do.
And I wanted to pursue feelings, explore my identity and art.
And “Homeward Bound” is wistful. The story is clear. The musician is on the road and he wants to get back to his love and his music and…he wants to feel comfortable, not out of sorts and lonely on the road.
And the truth is we all feel lonely a lot of the time. We go to the gigs of oldsters to assuage this feeling. We want to be connected. The music connected us. Sure, the players made money, but it was about feelings, setting your mind free primarily.
There was experimentation. There was always something new. New sounds, different styles.
And the thing was the music was made by the musicians, but it ultimately became ours, we own it.
And when you’re singing along to the hits of yore, the songs you think you know by heart, you’re brought back to who you once were, there’s a thread from then to now, you’re ten once again. You can see the old girlfriends, the teachers, the Little League games. It’s all laid out before you, both the victories and the losses, the good memories and the bad.
And you never run out, there are always more songs to sing.
And I’m always the last to leave. I guess I don’t want to be alone. But even more, I want that feeling, with the music in me, thinking of nothing else but the moment.
That’s the power of rock and roll.