Monday, December 22, 2008

Cover of the Week 7

Something I read in a magazine a few days ago set me off on one of those Google-search-digression nights and before I knew it was on to a dozen other things that tangentially looped off that original query. The thing that I had read in the magazine was the first third of a poem by a writer named Bob Hicok, who, according to his mini-bio in the New Yorker, has written five books of poetry. One line, from “As I Was Saying” is describing some twin children:

…two of everything the same, as if their parents
knew the odds of needing a spare.


It is a funny little line -- literally, at least on the surface, but very affecting from the perspective of a parent reading it, the hopeless fragility of life. The narrator tosses it off with a deceivingly wry and casual tone, like he’s cracking wise. But he knows how deep the line runs.

I had only gotten that far into the poem when I was set off on my search. The preceding line is what actually triggered me:

When I was a kid, a neighbor man
had a few and tied a cherry bomb to a pigeon,
it flew furiously until
kaboom…”

This is the sort of poem I tried to write when I was boring my creative writing professors to tears as an undergraduate. I was far more artless in my attempts to capture the odd characters and situations that cross everyone’s path as they are growing up, perplexingly unique scenes that seem they must be assigned some sort of significance -- meaning that is elusive but somehow seems to hint at some larger overarching essence. The memories fall away into the mind’s recess, aided and abetted by all the undergrad, post-grad, pre-dad, and post-sad chemical abuse until they bob back up to the surface unexpectedly decades later.

When I read the line about the pigeon bomber, it jogged a memory of this old guy who lived across the street from us when we were kids in the ‘70s, living near Huntington Harbor in New York. The fellow was rarely seen around the neighborhood, just an old guy, sort of broad and hunched over, a few greasy strands of hair combed back late-Bukowski-style. He drove some big-ass ‘70s sedan as many older men did – an Olds or a Caddy. He wasn’t a mean guy, didn’t object to us playing whiffle ball in his level backyard. Nor was he a shut-in; we saw him coming and going. He had a wife, kids grown and left. Never had company, as far as I remember.

One day, when I was coming back from school, the bus got to the bottom of our street. It was blocked off by a bunch of police cars. They told us the whole street and surrounding blocks had been evacuated. I have no recollection about how I ended up getting from the bus to a friend’s house, but it was the ‘70s; the bus driver probably just kicked us out of the bus right there at the end of the street and we walked.

We found out that the reason behind this operation was that Mr. Appletree (not his real name but pretty damned close for these purposes) had some barrels of nitroglycerin in his basement and the state bomb squad had been called in to remove them. There had been a weapons and explosives amnesty period called by the Suffolk County police and Mr. A. took the opportunity to confess that he had somehow ended up with drums of nitro after WWII and had stored them in his basement for 30-odd years. They could have blown up the block at any point during the intervening decades. And we lived directly across the street.

I remember getting back home and sort of hiding behind a neighbor’s big wood-paneled station wagon and watching the last of the police, rescue, and bomb squad armored vehicles finishing up after the main cache had been – slowly – rolled down the street in a police escort of dozens of cars.

I tried to track down remnants of the story online but could not find any trace. I’ve had this childhood memory, with an old Polaroid-sepia tint, verified by my parents. It happened.

Edit: There is a reason the memory has a Polaroid-sepia tint; my sister dug this old picture up of the scene and on the date of the crime:



The woman is my mother's friend from the street, a woman named Cookie. Her daughter was the first girl I kissed. The second girl? My wife, of course. And it seems my memory is a bit off regarding the car; it is not a wood-paneled wagon. It looks like an old Valiant to me. But that green house, that's the one.


During my online search for the story, though, all I ended up doing is finding my old house – which we left in 1979 for another not so far away – on Google Maps. That led to looking up others we have lived in and then, street-level images of my grandparents’ houses closer in to the city. Suddenly I was directing my computer screen through routes I would take on my bike when I was a kid through a neighborhood I have not been to since 1986, seeing the same houses, perhaps a little updated but fully recognizable, rounding corners onto the Boulevard past what was the IGA market, the bike store, the Chinese restaurant and the five-and-dime -- honestly, there was a five-and-dime. I still remember the smell of the place. There is still a place a lot like it near me in Arlington. Cheap plastic toys, rubber chickens, plastic dinosaurs, cap guns, paddle ball…

And then just guiding the view back to my grandparents’ old house, staring at the small brick place, alongside hundreds of others separated only by narrow driveways, on grid-like blocks, remembering those acutely idyllic pre-adolescent days, wondering who lives in these places now.

I remembered Hicok’s poem and returned to it. Near the end, he continues,

…So I’ll die and someone
will have to deal with what’s left, the body,
the shoes, the socks. The last person on Earth
will just be dead: not buried or mourned
or missed. As with kites, I cut the string
when they’re way up, because who would want to come back.
So Somewhere are all these kites, as somewhere
are all these pictures in frames from the camps
and the bows from the hair, and the hair itself


Well, you ask, how the hell does this all relate to the cover of the week? Of course, there are many songs about such topics as these. If we are talking in a general sense about the natural flow of life, i.e. that it all ends in death (oh, this mortal coil!), there have been many great works in the pop music canon. There is a three-LP set (that’s how we used to quantify music recordings) that is pretty much all about these concerns, the masterful All Things Must Pass. And I am not sure any one song in this genre is more sublime than Tom Waits’ “Take it With Me.”

But there are far more lame songs. When I was ruminating about such mid-life concerns in an inappropriate forum for such gravity, predictably coming to the conclusion that we should all live it up, a friend of mine mockingly compared my sentiment to that classic, “Dust in the Wind,” from one of those geographically named bands. If, with a gun to my head, I had to name a band after a place, Kansas would not likely be the first on the list. Clearly Buffalo was. Buffalo trumps Kansas any day. By the way, there was/is a German band who named themselves after Chris Colbourn’s parents’ address in Medfield, MA, which is how it was printed on our first record. The band, Medfield, MA (with “MA pronounced phonetically, like “medfieldmuh”) went on to greater achievement in Germany, is how the legend goes. Of course the Stones went on to greater heights than Muddy Waters, upon whose song they titled themselves. Now, I am not comparing us to Muddy or the Germans to the Stones. It is merely that I had some Flexeril for my back spasms (speaking of mortal coils and all) and I’m feeling pretty good right now. I am also a poor self-editor, as you have increasingly and painfully become aware.

“As I was saying…”


I have decided to do Paul Simon’s artful “Slip Sliding Away” this week. I remember playing it out once, with Chris Toppin, I think. Someone also requested here in the comments section. It is a song that I have always loved. But now some lines seem more acute as I have become a parent. The song came out as a single in 1977, a year or two after the nitro incident. I think I changed the line “we think we’re gliding down the highway when in fact we’re slip sliding away” to “…speeding down the highway…” by accident. But as we know, there are no accidents.

Slip Sliding Away MP3



Happy holidays to you all!

8 comments:

rich L. said...

I think your version of this song is better than the original and is your best cover to date. I was sceptical when you'd said you were going to this song but after hearing it, I think you bring something to the song the Simon himself doesn't. Maybe it's the starker, more stripped down version of the song that brings out the songs darker meanings. To be honest, it's a song I'd never listened closely enough to realize what it's about. Now I see the song in a whole new light and with a new appreciation. The song hits home in many ways for me too, not the least of which is that my Mom's name is mentioned in the song (I'd forgotten that).Thanks Bill.

Also, nice lead up to introducing the song. Being from Long Island (which I've mentioned about 37 times over the years) it's always intresting to hear about your formative years here. Ever think about bringing the family and playing a gig here? I know a place...

Paul Daddario said...

This could in fact, as rich L. states, be your best yet; I too never paid too much attention to the lyrics of that song, given the very strong 50's style retro chorus hook, updated for the smooth seventies. I kind of took it as similar to "50 ways to leave your lover" (tongue in cheek); but you have exposed the deepness of the lyrical aspect of this song, even in all its depressing splendor. As a parent, I also know the feeling of time whizzing by, and as we all grow older we realize why there are "tears" of joy- the bitter-sweetness of memories and the inevitable loss that comes with time, age and letting go.

Geez Bill, Thanks for a nice uplifting post this holiday season! (just kidding-great job-keep em coming)

Bill Janovitz said...

Thanks guys. Got some nice comments at Facebook as well.

Please note the new picture that I just added.

Craig Holman said...

Another fantastic cover of a great song, Mr. Janovitz- I can't thank you enough for posting these and the great background/introductions to each one. And I even learned something- I've always loved this song, but thought it was "a good day, ain't got no PLAN"- I didn't know it was RAIN. I actually kind of like "plan" better, but I'm certainly not going to question Mr. Simon. Anyway, this song makes me think of some similarly themed cover suggestions: "Back In Time" by Graham Parker ("And a girl you tried to court, made you feel about two feet short, where is she now today, what would she have to say?"), or Springsteen's "The Promise" ("And when the promise was broken, I was far away from home, sleepin' in the backseat of a borrowed car"). It also makes me think of "Explode And Make Up" by Sugar, and "Save It For A Rainy Day" by the Jayhawks (another song where the soothing music belies the gravity of the lyrics). End of rambling post- thanks again for sharing.

Randy Reichardt said...

Bill: Read your post today while working. I am enjoying the detailed back stories you are sharing with us about how you are choosing each tune as much as the CotW's themselves! In my role as an academic librarian, I tried digging down into some databases to try to find anything on the nitroglycerin incident you described. No luck anywhere, including a detailed search of the NYTimes Archives db, to which we have access here.

I've done the Google Maps/Google Earth thing - found the houses and neighbourhoods in which I lived as a kid and studied them again and again. My grandparents' home in the north end of Winnipeg was expropriated to build a bridge in the 1960s, so that house is long gone, and isn't on the maps. It's an odd and funny sensation to look at your childhood homes from above, like you're looking at them from outside of yourself, or from a view reserved for God and pilots only. I tend to get nostalgic a lot, and more as I get older. I think I'm 13 years old than you, and the fragility of life gets more visible daily for me. I lost a good friend on August 1st this year, unexpected. Always gives one pause for thought and reflection.

I agree with Rich about the starker version presented here of the Simon tune. Again I am counting 4-5 tracks, two guitars, 2-3 vocal tracks. And once again, production of the highest quality. You are slowly giving us a new solo album here! I never paid close attention to the lyrics either, or at least studied them to get a true feel for the song, so it never occurred to me that Simon was writing about the natural flow of life, and life's fleeting nature.

I hope you can forgive me for continuing to wax eloquent about the CotWs, and how grateful I am to you for doing this for all of us. It feels very personal to me (almost as if you are aware that you are doing this for each of us individually), and it is also very inspiring to me as a fellow guitarist. I get to slap on the headphones and play along with one of the musicians for whom I have the highest respect - what a privilege.

Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, safe travels to you and your family and seventeen brothers and sisters! :-)

Mike H. said...

I could always feel the wistfulness in Simon's voice even though the track as a whole transmits predominantly positive grooves that made it a perfect insert into slap-happy transfer/intermission scenes in 80’s cinema despite its actual melancholy theme.

Simon’s more up-beat recording translates like looking back at times with long lost friends when you had full license for utter silliness. Silliness that launched from underpinnings of angst that one didn’t take the time to comprehend wasn’t just your own. Silliness like putting a centimeter square of paper on your tongue procured from a shady character and some how being struck with the inspiration to play Rummy 5000. The background to the game provided by a third hand television with Peter Arnett offering the commentary for the first introduction to live televised shock and awe.

Realization of the devastation on the ground obscured by the ignorance of distance, blind youthful arrogance, and the warm green glow of the nightvision images diminished by an overworked set that recently had lost its will to properly regulate tint. When the realization of the full terms of what was being wrought on humans that night crept in, the natural instinct was to regress back in to the inane and much more palatable surroundings of the table covered with tattered and mis-matched cards, empty ash tray cans, and pans that morphed out of sloth in to "bowls" that were now half eaten and long cold.

At multipe points in the evening, spurned on by illumination of the hole in the drapes as the plow or brave soul crept around the corner, a wise one would honor St. Paul by ash-ing on the floor and telling a dirty joke or a sharp and deft timed utterance at the expense of one of the mates. Such happenings define the moments that somehow manifested bliss from an ill-conceived decision to spend the break in that dark desolate college hell hole to "work" for substance money.

Bill's version is the night after the uncommon event that wrought an uncommon hangover and more contrived amusement. Alone and it is much harder to make the best of it. Instead of balking in the face of the sheer agony of nagging inquiry and passive aggressive mother vacuuming that wakes you from your 2 pm sleep on the couch, your thoughts turn to warmth a full fridge of fresh food and fresh clean blankets.

Thoughts drift from isolative misery to warm steam off of wet gloves laid before the radiator that provided youthful fascination and fun memory of melted pajama feeties. Even thinking of the boring whir of the dishwasher re-cleaning an actual plate that you ate off and recently occupied with sustenance far better than meat flavored salt transferred upon an enriched pasta medium brings about equal parts pleasant memory and further self-loathing.

In the hut atop a ski lift the cold night of course couldn't be any darker. Dare I say it is indeed everything sense wrought from "Sunday Night"? The safety rules say you can't have any electronic devices so such a song playing in your head proved to be a welcome relief.

The mission is supposed to be watching over the few fools hitting the iced over and to make sure the base of the ramp is fluffy or granular as possible.
My mission was to get through the night with as few bursts of complete angst as possible.

Other than waiting for good songs to crawl out of the back of my skull the only other hope of passing time with a somewhat stable mindset was setting a goal that the Queen of Spades I was about to draw on a torn card procured from the pages of a blank lift log would come out better than the King. Given that I had long realized that images draw out of my hand as if it were spastic with gut-wrenching-life-ending-fear… the sheer folly of such a goal was only overcome by the depth of the time hole I had put myself in. It is moments like this that the aforementioned Saint must have been trying to capture on the contrived failure of “Anywhere is Better Than Here.”

As we all do, I have come to realize my time is indeed finite. Fortunately there are artists whose craft and interpretation can make the remembrance of positions I would never put myself in again seem far better than they were. Some how the songs put even the less palatable memories on the same playing fields with the good. Even better is the recordings will make the journey during and forward pass with less if any inclination to wish much of anything away.

Thanks Bill

Angela said...

Bill, thank you so much for recording and posting this song! I agree with rich L. that your version is better than the original. Yours is darker and much more beautiful and poignant. I never really paid attention to the lyrics on the original, and I, too, thought it was meant to be an upbeat song! I now realize it's not upbeat, and it's also easy to relate to. I can't stop listening to yours. It makes me sad and happy and warm inside all at once! How do you do that? :-)

I also want to mention that my husband has played Rock Band a lot the past several months, and your weekly covers have inspired him to pick up his real acoustic guitar again. Mostly he's been covering your cover of "Slip Sliding Away," which makes me smile as much as hearing yours. Thank you for that too!

Anonymous said...

I'm late to this sock hop, but WOW you've been a busy guy. I'm most impressed/pleased/loving SLIP SLIDING AWAY, one of my all time favorite songs. Digging your version very much so.

I've downloaded all CotW so far, and now look forward to getting to hear a new one each week.

FrankD