The Four-Year Old Who Discovered America

July 30, 2011

It was rare when my parents would throw something on the turntable of the console stereo inhabiting the living room.

Yet, in the car, the radio was usually playing and, from the backseat of the Gremlin, the first hit songs that I experienced was the soft rock of The Carpenters, Jim Croce, John Denver. Cat Stevens, The Bee Gees…

…and America.

Paloma and I had long joked of our cat Sam having an affection for ’70s soft rock, especially America.

With Sam moving on last week, I couldn’t help but pause when – two days later – I read of the death of Dan Peek, one the three musicians that formed the trio in England.

I took it as synchronicity and couldn’t help but picture Sam hustling along through the scrub, dutifully following her new, troubadour friend as he rode a nameless horse through some desert in the afterlife.

(though, personally, I’m hoping that she’s lounging about in Clarence Clemons’ garden)

A Horse With No Name does occupy a special place in my heart, though. If I try and pinpoint the first song that I can actually remember hearing while it was popular, I do believe it would be that song which topped the charts in early 1972.

I was four.

The song fascinated me. It was all quite exotic and mysterious – a horse, the desert, birds, trees, rocks, things…

It had undeniable appeal to a four-year old tyke.

A Horse With No Name was America’s debut, so I was discovering the trio with the rest of the world. I doubt that I necessarily knew the band’s name, but I knew the song as I would I Need You, Tin Man, Lonely People, and Sister Golden Hair as well as several others.

By the time I reached grade school, I had never really known a world where one song or another by America wasn’t in constant rotation on the radio.

The commencement of my education meant less time in the car, held hostage on a seemingly never-ending succession of daily errands. That meant less time hearing the radio.

It would be another five or six years until curiousity led me to listen to the radio of my own volition and America was gone.

Their ’70s hits still popped up on light rock stations, but the group – now a duo following Peek’s departure – managed only a few hits in the early ’80s which didn’t appeal much to me.

But those early ’70s hits by America…yeah, I totally get why Sam and I were fans. Here are four songs by America…

America – A Horse With No Name
from Have A Nice Decade: The ’70s Pop Culture Box

It’s raining for the first time in weeks as I write and I remember that it always seemed to be raining when I’d hear A Horse With No Name on the radio as a kid. Using the logic of a four-year old, I felt the song’s desert setting was somehow connected to that rain.

(of course, the song was a hit during the spring months of ’72, so…)

I still love the song and its trippy vibe. Plenty of folks have carped over the lyrics throughout the years, but, even if arguably non-sensical, I find them evocative and far more interesting than your typical June/moon stuff.

I truly care little as to what the song is about as it feels like a trek through the desert.

(I just have long assumed that the three members were stoners)

America – I Need You
from History: America’s Greatest Hits

The lush, melancholic ballad I Need You has a dreamy quality that reminds me of The Beatles’ Something and, several albums on from America’s debut, the band would end up working with producer George Martin.

America – Lonely People
from History: America’s Greatest Hits

America received a lot of comparisons to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and, of the songs I know by America, the lovely, resilient Lonely People captures that vibe to me more than any other.

Maybe it’s the harmonies or the gentle melody or how much Dan Peek on lead vocal reminds me of Neil Young.

America – Sister Golden Hair
from Billboard Top Hits (1975)

Though I do find the lyrics on Sister Golden Hair to be pretty goofy and the protagonist to be a bit of a wuss – I keep picturing George Costanza bursting into tears to postpone his impending nuptials – I can’t help but be drawn to the song‘s sunny melody and infectious chorus.

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The Sound Of Insomnia

July 27, 2011

One Sunday morning in the spring of 1982, I thumbed through the Entertainment section of the Cincinnati Enquirer and, as I’d hoped, found some album reviews.

(the reviews seemed to appear erratically, but, when they did, it was Sunday)

This particular morning, Simon & Garfunkel’s reunion album, The Concert In Central Park, was spotlighted. My young mind snagged on the reviewer’s assessment that the duo had released considerably more good music during their brief career than REO Speedwagon had during their far lengthier one.

I was fourteen and REO Speedwagon had – after a decade of middling success – notched one of the biggest albums of the ’80s with Hi Infidelity two years earlier. Its follow-up, Good Trouble, was one of the most anticipated of the summer.

I understood the reviewer’s angst, though. Simon & Garfunkel was music for adults and, thus, better than REO Speedwagon and the greasy kid stuff that might be popular with me and my friends.

I doubt that I knew much by Simon & Garfunkel in 1982 and probably couldn’t have named much aside from Bridge Over Troubled Water and Mrs. Robinson, maybe Cecilia and The Boxer.

I’d heard their version of Wake Up Little Susie while listening to Casey Kasem on American Top 40 that spring.

(I was definitely more familiar with REO Speedwagon’s oeuvre)

And I knew The Sound Of Silence.

In October, 1975, I was herded into our auditorium with the other five hundred or so kids in our school.

The lights went out as the film projector fired up. I was seven and nothing broke the tedium of the school day like a film strip. Sitting in folding chairs on the gym floor with my friends was the educational equivilant of being in our hometown theatre for a Saturday matinee.

It was Fire Prevention Week.

For the next forty-five minutes, we were treated to scenes of the carnage that could result from fire.

The one that vividly remains in my head was one of an ordinary-looking family of four, sitting in the living room, watching television. It likely resonated as the very ’70s decor – shag carpet, wood paneling – resembled our family room where, like the family portrayed, we often spent evenings in front of the television.

As the family headed off to bed, the father, extinguishing the lights failed to do the same with his cigarette burning in the ash tray. The next scene was one of firemen removing charred bodies from the rubble.

And playing over the scenes was Simon & Garfunkel’s The Sound Of Silence.

I’ve heard the song be described as haunting, but, after that little Ludovico technique-type experience, I found it to be freaking creepy.

I was also convinced that our house was going to go up in flames if someone didn’t remain vigilant during the wee hours of the night.

Night after night, for weeks – maybe months – I’d lie in bed, remaining awake as long as possible to ensure that we wouldn’t fry like bacon as the duo once known as Tom & Jerry crooned about prophet’s words on subway walls.

(the legacy of Fire Prevention Week ’75 for me has been decades of restless sleep and a song that still makes my skin crawl)

Having not been present for their heydey, I’ve nonetheless become familiar with the hits from Simon & Garfunkel’s catalog throughout the years. But, there are moments when I hear something from the duo -like last week when I heard April Come She Will on television last week – that I make a mental note to dig deeper into their catalog.

In the meantime, here are four songs from Simon & Garfunkel (none of which are The Sound Of Silence)…

Simon & Garfunkel – El Condor Pasa (If I Could)
from The Best Of Simon & Garfunkel

I’m not sure if it’s a true memory or not as I would have been about three when it was a hit, but I seem to have hazy recollections of hearing El Condor Pasa on the radio as a wee child.

Simon & Garfunkel – Mrs. Robinson
from The Best Of Simon & Garfunkel

If I recall, the first time that I saw The Graduate wasn’t long after, like Benjamin Braddock, I had graduated from college. It certainly resonated and put the song Mrs. Robinson into a new light for me.

I still think of a teacher I had in eighth grade when I hear the song. Her name wasn’t Robinson, but she had attended the same college which I would eventually attend. Not long after his star-making turn in The Graduate, she had escorted Dustin Hoffman around campus when he had been a guest for some function.

(she told us that she had him commemorate the day by autographing the interior roof of her VW Bug with a magic marker)

Simon & Garfunkel – America
from The Best Of Simon & Garfunkel

Having had the good fortune to do some aimless wandering, America truly captures the vibe for me of rolling through unfamiliar terrain with no clear destination or being constrained by timetables.

(and making sure there were enough smokes was certainly a concern)

Simon & Garfunkel – The Boxer
from The Best Of Simon & Garfunkel

If I were more disciplined and ambitious, I might compile a list of songs which I would have on my ultimate jukebox as whiteray over at Echoes In The Wind did awhile ago.

If I did so, Simon & Garfunkel’s The Boxer would definitely have a spot.

It had me at the first lie-la-lie.


Bye Bye Buddy

July 23, 2011

When Paloma and I got together, she brought two felines with her, Coltrane and Sam.

Coltrane was petite and graceful, quiet and sphinx-like with her black fur giving her an air of elegance.

As for Sam, I must confess that I didn’t think much of her. She had heft to her and didn’t so much enter the room as charge into it like some wild animal rumbling from the underbrush.

(Paloma would often suggest – only half-jokingly – that she might indeed be part badger)

Sam didn’t strike me as particularly bright, either, as she’d sit, motionless, and stare at me dully to the point of distraction.

And, her small, pink nose was usually covered in dirt.

Yeah, I didn’t think much of Sammy.

Slowly, I began to notice that, though Sam in motion could be a somewhat comical exhibition of locomotion, she had quick, nimble feet and a surprising amount of agility which was demonstrated effortlessly.

The staring was merely a manifestation of her desire to interact with people.

I viewed Sam as a bit of an underdog and I am sucker for the underdog. She slowly won me over and, though we had no shortage of nicknames for her, I gave her one more…

The Buddy.

And that is what she’s been for the past five years – The Buddy.

Each day as I arrived home from an often grueling day at the office, if she wasn’t at the door as I opened it, she was rushing into the room to greet me.

Every day.

If only momentarily, the pressures of the day would be forgotten. It was impossible not to smile at her obvious enthusiasm over my return and I’d spend several minutes stroking her head as she’d lick my face.

She’d amble into the kitchen with me as I’d go see what Paloma was working on for dinner and she’d follow me into the bedroom while I shed my work clothes.

From my morning shower – when I’d often look down to see Sam pacing on the lip of the tub, rustling the shower curtains – until I turned out the lights and headed for bed, she was usually there.

And now she’s not.

Over the 4th of July, when I was home for a couple extra days, I realized that things had changed.

Sam followed me from room to room, but there was something palpably different in the way she would stare at me. I couldn’t shake the feeling that she wanted something that I was unable to offer.

So, yesterday Paloma and I curled up in bed with Sam between us and said our goodbyes.

She seemed more contented and at peace than she had in weeks as she lay there drowsily, basking in the attention.

And this morning, Paloma and I are both astounded at how quiet things are without Sam’s vibrant spirit.

Goodbye, Sammy. You’ll always be The Buddy.

Mark Knopfler – Going Home (Theme Of The Local Hero)
from Local Hero

I considered posting some soft rock from the ’70s as we’ve long suspected that Sam dug the music of America. But the song that has kept coming into my head the past few days has been the closing song from Dire Straits’ guitarist Mark Knopfler’s soundtrack to the movie Local Hero.

Much like Sam, the movie is low-key, quirky and sweet with a charm that sneaks up on you and is hard to shake.

As for the song, there’s a touch of sadness, but that quickly gives way to a determined melody and concludes with an anthemic, almost joyous close that leaves you feeling that everything’s going to be alright.