Sunday, February 26, 2006


As long as I can remember I have been strongly drawn to music. It makes me feel good and can evoke a wide range of emotions. It often moves me to the point of tears, yet can make me laugh out loud. And while I have some classical training, I tend to be drawn more to popular music, a very narrow slice of popular music, but popular music nonetheless.

The first music to attract me came from my mom's transistor radio that she kept in the kitchen to listen to while she worked, and it seemed as if it played all day long. When I wasn't beating up on my younger brother, I hung out in the kitchen listening to top 40 hits. Two of my favorites were Counting Flowers on the Wall by the Statler Brothers and King of the Road by Roger Miller. Then, when I was nine, The Beatles came to America.

It was on a Monday morning in third grade that I first heard of The Beatles. Several of the girls in my class were raving about seeing them on the Ed Sullivan Show the night before. It aroused my curiosity, and the next time my parents took me to Hecht's, I talked my dad into buying me to their album, Meet the Beatles.

I took it home and listened to it on my mom's old record player. While listening to the songs, I looked at the back of the album cover. It told who did what on each song, and I was appalled to see that Ringo got to sing only one song. I felt sorry for him and began to cry. (Sensitive little dude wasn't I?)

I had a cousin three years older whose name was also John. Whenever my parents would take us kids over to visit my Aunt Suzanne and Uncle Ralph, I would always slip off to John's room. He always had the latest Beatles records, and he would tell me news and trivia about the group.

I soon became a big Beatles fan myself and always listened to my mom's radio for the latest Beatles song. Back then, the only place within walking distance that sold records was Drug Fair and Giant, and they had a scant few records to choose from, but occasionally they would have a Beatles album.

I remember one time I talked my younger brother into splitting the cost of a Beatles album with me. After we got home I explained to him that we each had a side, and that he could only listen to his side. (I was your typical evil older brother.)

At the age of 11, I caught a bus to a full-fledged record store (there were scant few in the area), and bought the album Sergeant Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles, and I couldn't wait to get it home.

Up till then, my dad had been an ardent hater of The Beatles, particularly the song Yellow Submarine. But after I began playing Sergeant Pepper over and over, he began to like the song When I'm Sixty-four. He would sing the chorus to my mom: "Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I'm Sixty-four?"

After The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix became my favorite musician. I believe that I got my first Hendrix album, Are You Experienced, when my parents had taken us to Montgomery Wards where, like the Hecht Company, had a decent selection of records. Again, I talked my dad into buying it for me. I got it home, and after listening to it was "blown away." I was an instant fan.

By the age of 13, I had discovered the mecca of record stores: Record City. It was in DC and required a bus ride and a long walk to get there, but it was well worth it. They had the latest of everything. I would never be found wanting again.

At the age of 14, I want to the Laurel Pop Festival, which was a two-night concert held at the Laurel Raceway in Maryland. It was there that The Mothers of Invention caught my ear. For the most part, they were discordant; I couldn't understand what they were playing, but one tune stuck out: The Orange County Lumber Truck. (I remember at one point during the show Frank Zappa telling the audience, "You'd better enjoy the concert because it will be a long time before we play here [DC] again." And it was a long time...)

The next day I was at my uncle's (a different uncle) sightseeing business in DC, and I went across the street to Hecht's where I looked for any Mothers of Invention albums that I might find. There was only one: Uncle Meat. I bought it, and took it home, but Orange County Lumber Truck wasn't on it.

Rather, it was a mix of the dissonant type of music I had heard the night before and some songs though weird were listenable. Consequent trips to Record City allowed me to purchase additional Mothers of Invention albums that were more conventional than Uncle Meat but still rather strange. I didn't understand most of the songs, but a few were pretty funny. (My 14-year-old mind reeled at the thought of a girl who was, "... only 13 and she knows how to nasty.")

As I grew into my later teens and early twenties, I gained a new appreciation for the music of Frank Zappa: founder of The Mothers of Invention. He had been quoted as being a musician's musician, which I thought made sense as one trained in music would be more likely to appreciate him.

My first formal music training came when I was in my sophomore year of high school when I took a class in music theory. It was there that I was introduced to the science behind music and studied classical music. I actually became a classical music snob for a while looking down on all popular music. Beethoven's Ninth Symphony was my favorite composition while also enjoying Bach, Tchaikovsky (especially his crowd pleaser The 1812 Overture), Stravinsky, Copland and many others.

My junior year I was offered along with one other student to study composition under my music theory teacher. (He had a master's in music composition.) He introduced us to modern classical music, which can be extremely dissonant. To this day, much of it still sounds like noise. But as it was explained to me, in his day many of Beethoven's works were considered to be dissonant! Perhaps in the next century today's modern classical will seem melodic to the average listener, dissonance and all.

I soon got over my snobbery and began listening to popular music again, mostly rock, and this was when I began my bona fide appreciation for Frank Zappa's music. I know that my classical training helped me to understand his more complex compositions: they are akin to modern classical music. It only stands to reason. His two favorite composers were Igor Stravinsky and Edgard Varese.

So there you have it, my musical influences. My favorite group will always be The Beatles, of course. I grew up with them: they are the fabric of my early music awareness. Jimi Hendrix redefined the electric guitar and opened up a new listening experience for me.
Frank Zappa, though only a curiosity in the beginning, has garnered in me a great respect for his compositions. It is his music above most other popular music (though his music wasn't that popular) that I believe will survive the ages.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

My little sister is homesick.

How do I know? I read it in her blog. As I use my real name, and she doesn't, I won't reveal what her blog's name is. I know what else, too. I miss her terribly! I hope she plans a trip back home soon. I want to see her again. It's been too long. We talk on the phone occasionally and IM a lot, but it is not the same as being able to reach out and hug her. Of course, growing up we were not a hugging family, and I regret that we weren't for I feel that it is important for kids growing up to be comfortable touching others in an affectionate way. It paves the way, in my opinion, for an easier transition to being intimate with significant others (and insignificant others, if and when the situation arises--I'm a guy).

(An old picture of me with my younger brother and sister)

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Another birthday

I noticed in the news today that John Travolta turned 52. It seems like he's been around forever beginning with the TV series Welcome Back, Cotter and going on to star in countless films. It made me do a little reflecting on my own life.

I will be 51 in a few days, and I ask myself, am I really this old? It seems like I have only accomplished a fraction of what I should have by this age. Have I let life pass me by? It seems like I had quite a rich life up to the age of 20 or so, but since then, some three decades, I don't really have much to say for myself. Of course, there are extenuating circumstances.

I was caught in a rut of sorts up until the age of 30, and then just when things started to click for me I was an accident and became permanently paralyzed. And not just from the waist down, it was the whole enchilada: quadriplegia. Talk about ruts! It definitely put a damper on my social life, not that I had much of the social life before that. I had been pretty much of a hermit. Besides work, I spent most of my time at home reading books and sleeping.

I worked for my father who ran a photography company. We shot pictures of school groups with the US Capitol in the background and sold copies to the students as souvenirs. It was a lucrative business, but it was a grind with the capital G. I ran the office and the photo lab, and when we were busy it was a literal sweatshop.

Most of the school groups come to Washington during the spring and from March to June we had our hands full. My father and brother worked up at the Grant Memorial where the pictures were shot, and one of our selling points was to deliver the finished photos to the group before they left town. On a busy day, they would shoot 20 or more school groups that ranged anywhere from 30 to 600 kids each (though the average groups were 50 to 100. That left me and a few others with the arduous task of developing the film and making the finished photographs. Many days we had to make over 1000 prints. Adding insult to injury, after the day was finished the night was spent delivering the packaged photographs to the various groups at their hotels. This task split up between my dad, my brother and myself. I handled the spots in Arlington, which included Crystal city, down I-395 and down Route 50. 60 hour weeks were not uncommon. Needless to say, when we were busy I had little time to do anything but work.

I began working for my dad full-time when I was 19 (as vice president of the company, no less). At the age of 18, I had dropped out of high school in my senior year. I was dreadfully behind in my studies from skipping class--I liked to party a lot--and since only needed three more credits to graduate, I figured I could get them in adult education and receive a GED. My parents and my teachers tried to talk me out of it, but I had made up my mind. Having done that, my father promptly put me to work that spring as a courier for the company. The following fall I got my three credits, and someone liked me for instead of a GED I received a full-fledged diploma from Washington and Lee high school (alma mater of Warren Beatty and Shirley McLean).

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Mom's birthday

My dear old mom turned 82 today, but you wouldn't know it by looking at her or watching her get around. She doesn't drive (though she's had a driver's license for 50 years), so she walks everywhere that's within walking distance, which can be a mile or two, and takes the bus for farther jaunts. If she wants to get somewhere she gets there.

The youngest of six children, my mother was born in rural Georgia in 1924. Shortly after her birth, my mom's mother died leaving her father to fend for the family. He was a poor farmer, and for short period she was cared for by a more affluent family. They wanted to adopt my mom when her father would not allow it. He believed in keeping the family together, and soon he took Lillie Sue, my mother's Christian name, back into the household. She had three older brothers: John, Bill, and Ralph; and two older sisters: Mary and Juanita (' Nita for short).

Growing up during the Depression, my mom's family had very little in the form of material things, but there was a lot of love amongst them. Sue didn't realize how poor they were as she grew up in the midst of poverty. It was the way things were, and that's all she knew. At Christmas, her biggest treat was the fresh fruit her father would bring back from the city for the family share.

Sue's brother, John, shot squirrels and rabbits that provided meat for stew. The squirrels were skinned and cleaned and sold in town for a dollar a piece. As soon as Sue was old enough (around age 9 or 10), she picked cotton for as little as ten cents a day, and a working day was from sunup to sundown. Amazingly and to her credit, she has never been one to dwell on hard times (a classic way for parents to guilt trip their children).

(That's it for now--more to come later)

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Sin City

I saw the movie Sin City recently and was absolutely awestruck by its radical departure from conventional directing. The entire film is in black-and-white with judicial splashes of color. For example, in the opening sequence we see a woman looking out at a bleak cityscape of skyscrapers from a large balcony of a tall building. All is in black-and-white save for her dress, which is a bright red made all the more vibrant by the stark background. She turns and her lipstick is the same red color against a black-and-white face. I found the effect quite striking.

The film is based on Frank Miller's graphic novels. At first I thought they were called graphic novels was because of their graphic nature (graphic violence and nudity), but now I've come to the conclusion that a graphic novel is an illustrated novel, basically a comic book in novel form. I did little research and found thatthe reason the movie was done in black-and-white was to reproduce as faithfully aspossible the original artwork in the novels; they themselves are in a graphic arts style black-and-white.

The movie was the brainchild of Robert Rodriguez, writer and director of Desperado, Once upon a Time in America, and all of the Spy Kids movies as well as others. He and Frank Miller directed the movie after Rodriguez persevered in grinding down the reluctant Miller to take a look at his take on bringing the graphic novel to the screen. Bruce Willis is the biggest name in the list of credits followed by Benicio del Toro (who received an Academy award for supporting actor in Traffic), Mickey Rourke, and Powers Boothe. It was Mickey Rourke that stole the show with his character Marv. It was if the character were tailor made for Rourke. There were a couple of other familiar faces: Brittany Murphy from Just Married and Uptown Girls and Nick Stahl from HBO's Carnivale.

I found Sin city to be the most innovatively entertaining film since Pulp Fiction, which reminds me; Quentin Tarantino was a guest director. Now I don't know what a guest director is--have never heard the term--but I'm guessing that he did some of the scenes. Be forewarned: there is graphic violence and nudity but it is not gratuitous; it is intrinsic to the story, as with Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, another movie on my A list. For those of you who see the film and like it, you'll be glad to hear that there is a Sin City 2 scheduled to be released later this year. I will be anxiously awaiting it.
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