Posts Tagged ‘music’

Past Perfect


In an attempt to unclutter my life. I’ve been throwing out papers, giving away clothes and sorting through boxes.  I seem determined to keep my memories consigned to mental cubbyholes. Too much looking back  feels  unsettling.

But the past is never really past, though it may be discreetly tucked away. It seems to find me in misplaced boxes, odd phone calls,  Facebook invitations and even in neglected e-mail accounts–which is how I found myself time-traveling.

* * * * *

Fred was my first serious relationship. I was 26 and stuck in a cycle of failed connections. He was 29 and a working musician, something I was pursuing after jumping my career track (not for the last time) to pursue a career as a songwriter. I met him during a recording session in Washington DC.  Fred was playing guitar, one of several instruments he handled quite well. A big man, a member of the Marine Corps Jazz Band, he was something of an old-school musician: well-trained, versatile, capable, and completely reliable. He was never without a gig. He also bought, traded and sold guitars, maintaining one of the most impressive collection of “axes” imaginable.

I fell for him. He was my mentor, my muse, my main squeeze. I loved him, my friends loved him; even my parents loved him.

Over the next five years, we dated and then lived together in Washington and then in New York, where he hooked up with Harry Belafonte’s world tour and went on the road for two six-month periods. From there it was all downhill. A couple of outside hook-ups (his) later, he met the woman he would eventually marry instead of me and broke my heart. He played Broadway shows for awhile but eventually became a computer specialist for New York’s Metropolitan Transportation System (MTA). He had a daughter, I’d heard, and still took gigs for fun.

Several years later, I met Michael.

Michael was an aspiring playwright and lyricist. We’d been put together by a mutual acquaintance to write the score for a musical the friend wanted to produce. Michael lived in a tiny, rent-controlled apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, overflowing with books, folders, scripts and, oddly enough, medical textbooks. I found out later that he came from money and had gone to medical school but decided to try his hand at theater. Apparently the parents didn’t approve. Maybe they cut him off or maybe he refused their offers of help; I was never clear about that. Michael played it pretty close to the vest. I’m pretty sure he’d served as a medic in Vietnam. was forty-five or so when I met him, had a teenage son. Other details were vague.

We weren’t romantically involved; he seemed to be from a different generation; a cool cat, a Rat Packer among left-over disco divas and punk aspirants. His Scotch was neat, his cigarettes unfiltered. Women came and went and came again; some of them wanted to keep him, some wanted him to keep them. He never did. Michael was his own man.

But man, did he write: plays, poems, essays, scripts, short stories, books, lyrics—some of it pitch-perfect, some of it mundane, all of it cycled through a prolific consciousness that refused to give up. He worked mostly at night, after finishing whatever temp job he toiled at for minimum wage. He often overwrote, in the manner of someone with a large vocabulary who was a bit of a showoff. But when he led with his heart instead of his head, his lyrics were brilliant: poignant, incisive, and brave, as in this song we wrote together (my music, his lyrics).  In it, a father is trying to explain to his young son what the upside of divorce might be:

You’ll have more, I told him
Than many boys your age
And you’ll have more

I added
To help to calm the rage in you…

For all my cool, I knew I lied right through my teeth
My mouth as dry as last year’s Christmas wreath

And still the platitudes, the worn-out phrases flowed
“Your mommy’s still your mommy

I’m your dad, that never ends”
And then (get this) the capper

“You’ll be just like all your friends…”

©1985 Michael Greer and Nikki Stern

 * * * * * *

These latest e-mail communications were, strangely enough, precipitated by housecleaning: someone going through boxes came across something that reminded them of my connection to their friends and they wrote.

Fred is not dead, his brother told me. But he is not where any of us want to be. A slow-growing tumor put too much pressure on his brain and so he had surgery with what his brother calls “mixed results”–alive but with complications from a stroke; paralyzed on the left side; no more guitar playing, assisted living in Florida (to save money; his wife  stays in New York and visits every six weeks), memory loss, diabetes, morbidly obese…

Fred+NikkicOh god! I don’t want this image of an old man I once loved trapped by his own body and kept from the things he loved. I run to the basement and yank down a box to search for a picture I can use instead.  I find it: the very essence of bittersweet. Yes, we were once that young, that crazy for each other, that happy.  He was my first serious relationship.

Im unsettled but I can handle it.

Michael is gone: lung cancer; not surprising.  New York too is hard on older folks who live with stars in their eyes and little in their pockets. His friend, a woman I suspect got close to him, writes that he went quickly, but who knows? Michael always played it close to the vest. She asked me for any sheet music I might have from our musical. His friends are considering mounting a review of Michael’s work. So I head back to the boxes and find a copy of the complete score. Time-traveling again, I’m back at rehearsals.  My stomach tightens again as the bitter and the sweet have their way with me, but against all odds, I stay on my feet.

Pace, gentlemen: Peace to you. I loved you both, in different ways. Our lives intersected, then diverged. But while we were connected, didn’t we make beautiful music together?

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Several young friends, including some mothers, have written me to ask that I comment on the Myley Cyrus “scandal”. This involves the series of photos for Vanity Fair  for which the “Hannah Montana” star, beloved of way younger than pre-teens, posed recently.  Disney Productions, which has carefully cultivated and controlled the image of its money-making teen celebrity, is joining a chagrined Cyrus in blasting Vanity Fairand celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz. If you don’t know who she is, click here and you’ll see her  famous photo of John Lennon and Yoko Ono among many other classics.

Okay, here goes: First, Myley apparently thought the shot was artistic but now is upset because it’s in the public domain. Doesn’t she know – don’t her handlers know, for heaven’s sake, that everything about her is going to be in the public domain? And what, no one knows who the infamous photographer Annie Leibovitz is and what kind of pictures she takes and what kind of pictures Vanity Fair runs, which is to say, provocative and grownup?  Second, supposedly her dad, former country star Billy Ray Cyrus, had left the set after the all-too ubiquirtous daddy figure posed with daughter Myley in a shot (definitely click on this one) which creeped me out far more than a picture of the thin teen’s backbone, although her rumpled bed hair was over the top.  He looked like her, um, much older boyfriend. Now that’s provocative.

Second, I sourced this story by looking at two articles, from AP and from the Daily News article and the two pictures of 15-year-old Myley in her little dresses leave little to the imagination. She’s entitled because that’s how we market teens nowadays which is why this overkill reaction seems a tad hypocritical in the age of Britney Spears. The majority of high fashion models these days appear to be between fourteen and nineteen and are dressed to suggest activities beyond their “maturity level” (to paraphrase the title character in the hit movie “Juno” ). It may be out of control but it’s what we’ve all accepted.

Third, I thought it interesting that several articles referred to Myley’s fan base as being teens because I’ve seen girls in the 6-10-year-old range drooling over the cute teen as their slightly older sisters did with Hillary Duff, who’s gone to full-fledged vamp in less than a year. This is what pop culture is nowadays and expressing selective outrage, as the Disney Company did only because of the selective backlash from the mothers of tiny fans is about as hypocrtical as watching scantily dressed teens compete on “American Idol” and then voting one off because the song she sang, “Jesus Christ Superstar” was considered “blasphemous” by the voters.

While I continue to believe that our pop culture reflects the inconsistant and conflicted views we have about youth, puberty, sexuality and women in general, we’re the consumers and we’re the ones buying. The teen stars rule and everyone wants to imitate them, with middle-aged moms dressing up as if they were getting ready for prom night and little kids dressing up as if they were getting ready for wedding night.  Given all the real problems in the world, it’s laughable that so much outrage is expressed over something like this (then again, France is expressing similar outrage over its leather jacket wearing President and his sexy Italian model-wife). But our outrage has a shelf life. As with everything else, from global warming to government waste, we get excised, then we get over it.

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All My Loving

As I prepare to download his new album, “Memory Almost Full,” to iTunes, I am thinking about my lifelong love affair with Paul McCartney. When I was sixteen, it was all about his looks, combined with my hormones. I mean, that amazing voice, those puppy eyes! No one else could make me swoon like that and I stayed attracted to wide-eyed, floppy-haired guys for a period of time. Later in his career, while I was still struggling with mine as a young singer-songwriter, I was taken with his musicianship. The man was simply brilliant. I was less thrilled with the music he created with his band Wings. Still, I found plenty to admire and envy about his devoted relationship with his wife Linda, even as I was looking for love in all the wrong places. Nowadays, my feelings for Paul are as strong as ever. His apparent optimism and his open-minded and open-hearted take on life are a breath of fresh air. He is a role model and a reminder that I don’t need to view growing older with nearly the dread that I do. It doesn’t hurt that he’s made a killer album. Or that halfway through his sixties, he still has that amazing voice and those puppy eyes.

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