American Tune

I always listen to music walking to and from work.  This evening, as I was listening to my acoustic playlist, it struck me that American Tune by Paul Simon — a beautiful song that is one of my favorites — pretty accurately captures how many people are feeling these days.  I’m not just talking about disappointed Hillary Clinton voters, either.  There seems to be a strong sense of disquiet, an unsettled feeling, mingled with curiosity, trepidation, raw hope, and uncertainty about what might happen next, lurking throughout the general populace.  Some of those feelings stem from the election results and the thought of Donald Trump as President, to be sure, but some of them also seem to flow from concerns about the direction of the country as a whole.  Where is our road leading?

American Tune, which was released in 1973, aptly crystallizes this odd mixture of emotions and sensations.  Simon wrote:

I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered
I don’t have a friend who feels at ease
I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered
Or driven to its knees
Oh, but it’s all right, it’s all right
For lived so well so long
Still, when I think of the road
We’re traveling on
I wonder what went wrong
I can’t help it, I wonder what’s gone wrong

Two verses later, the song concludes, in a mixture of pride, doubt, fatigue, and resignation:

Oh, we come on the ship they call the Mayflower
We come on the ship that sailed the moon
We come in the age’s most uncertain hour
And sing an American tune
Oh, it’s all right, it’s all right
It’s all right, it’s all right
You can’t be forever blessed
Still, tomorrow’s going to be another working day
And I’m trying to get some rest
That’s all I’m trying to get some rest

It says something about the universality of music when a song written at the end of the Nixon Administration can so perfectly express how so many Americans are feeling, 45 years later.

The Ballad Of I-75

This weekend Kish and I drove on the worst freeway in America — the stretch of I-75 between Findlay and Toledo.  It’s been under construction for years, and seems to be no closer to completion than it was when the work started.  I think the first orange cone may have been placed shortly after Washington crossed the Delaware.

Driving it sucks so bad that it moved me to compose this bit of doggerel (with apologies to Sgt. Barry Sadler’s Ballad Of The Green Berets):

IMG_2568The Ballad Of I-75

Today I drove, and hated it

My car was fine, but the highway bit

It’s the worst freeway you can drive

That awful stretch of I-75.

It starts in Findlay, like a funnel

Cars and trucks, in a high-speed tunnel

I’m just hoping I survive

That awful stretch of I-75.

Orange cones here, orange cones there

Orange signs too — they’re everywhere

I’ll see orange ’till I arrive

After that stretch of I-75.

The work began ages ago

When it first started, I do not know

No one who does is still alive

Yet work goes on, on I-75.

Louie, Louie

The man who sang one of the greatest rock ‘n roll songs in history has died.  Jack Ely, the lead singer for The Kingsmen who delivered the definitive vocal rendition of Louie, Louie, died recently at age 71.  His song is an acknowledged classic that is instantly familiar to every rock music fan and was memorably sung by the frat boys in Animal House.

What makes a song great?  The Kingsmen’s version of Louie, Louie is only 2 minutes, 46 seconds long.  It features a cheesy organ intro, a simple beat, crashing drums, and an off-kilter guitar solo, but what makes it unforgettable are vocals that sound like they were recorded at 3 a.m. in a bus station bathroom by a drunken guy who is singing in a rare Martian dialect.  The unique sound occurred because Ely, who was wearing braces at the time, was placed in the middle of the band by the recording engineer to achieve a “live feel” in the recording and had to scream out the lyrics into a microphone located several feet overhead.

The deliciously slurred, garbled result was an immediate hit, in part because you could dance to it and in part because teenage boys across America had heard that the “real” lyrics were “dirty” and bought the record in droves trying to decipher them.  In fact, Louie, Louie, which was written by Richard Berry, is a simple, sweet song about a man thinking about the girl he is going to see when he returns to Jamaica — but good luck figuring that out from Ely’s howling, boozy-sounding vocals.

The rumors of a dirty meaning to the song were so persistent and widespread that the FBI and other law enforcement entities actually looked into the issue to determine whether Louie, Louie violated then-existing obscenity laws. They ultimately concluded that The Kingsmen’s version was “unintelligible at any speed.”  And that’s what made it great.

A Song For The Blue-Haired Ladies At My Polling Place

Every Election Day, the same blue-haired ladies staff the registration tables at our precinct.  They’re as much a part of the voting experience as the “I Voted Today” stickers.  In their honor I wrote this song, sung to the tune of Lady of Spain:

Blue-Haired Ladies
We see you again, blue-haired ladies,
We see you, this Election Day;
For campaigns have ended, and it’s time to vote
With you whose hair once was gray
We’ll tell you our names, and you’ll check them
While your hair shines that bright blue;
Then the book we’ll sign and go stand in line
And ’til next year we’ll bid you adieu
What do you all do, we wonder
When your Election Day work is done
For you never grow older or bluer
Can you suspend animation?
We’ll tell you our names, and you’ll check them
While your hair shines that bright blue;
Then the book we’ll sign and go stand in line
And ’til next year we’ll bid you adieu
You’re always here when we arrive,
Though we’ve voted here for years long since;
We don’t know what a vote would be like
Without the blue in your rinse
We’ll tell you our names, and you’ll check them
While your hair shines that bright blue;
Then the book we’ll sign and go stand in line
And ’til next year we’ll bid you adieu

Song Of The Percolators

Our kitchen on Lake Temagami had no electricity.  All cooking was done over propane-fueled flame.  That meant no toaster, no microwave, and no Mr. Coffee.  We made our morning coffee the old-fashioned way, in metal percolators.

The slow process set a good rhythm for the day.  First, remove the cold metal fittings — the stalk, the basket, and the lid — from the pot, then fill it most of the way with water.  Insert the basket onto the stalk.  Open the coffee can, smell those savory dark brown grounds, and feel the crunch as you spoon out the coffee until the basket is filled.  Put the lid on the basket and stalk, and place them upright in the pot.  Turn on the burner and hear the hiss of the gas.  Light it, and watch the little flames ignite until a tiny circle of blue dances in the kitchen darkness.  Put the pot on the burner.  Then, repeat the process for percolator #2.

Soon enough, the percolators will begin to sing their song.  Jets of steam will skreee from their spouts, and the pots will cluck and and rattle as the heated coffee circulates through the grounds in the basket and plops against the inside of their glass percolation bulbs.  When the pots are burbling furiously and the coffee seen through the bulb is black, you’re done.  Turn off the burner, pour out that piping hot liquid into your cup, and let it warm your hands as you inhale the dark aroma and let the coffee cool a bit.  Then, take a tentative first sip.  Ahhhh!

I’m back home, drinking coffee from our electric brewer.  It’s very good, but I miss the song of the percolator.  It’s a song that I haven’t heard in a long time — one of the sounds that I associate with childhood, like the whistle of a tea kettle or the comforting hum of static from the TV when programming ended for the day.