At my go-to karaoke place in Boston, the main stage DJ is fond of playing clips of late 70s pop music in between numbers selected for performance. When things are a bit slow, he’ll even get up and croon a tune himself, and often he chooses songs from the late 70s. For me, naturally, this music sets off immediate bouts of nostalgia — in this case zeroing in on the year 1979.
Why 1979? Maybe it’s simply easy to think in terms of 20/30/40 years ago. But for me it’s more than that. Until recently, I never regarded that year as being a particularly momentous one in my life. Forty summers ago, I was a rising junior at Valparaiso University. Much of that summer was spent working as a retail clerk for a local drugstore chain, unloading trucks and stocking shelves with merchandise. In keeping with my proclaimed career goal of entering politics, I was very active in student government and local political campaigns. My plan was to finish up my B.A. (political science major, of course) and then to go to law school, a tried-and-true path to a political career.
Well, I would graduate with that poli sci major and head off to law school, but another set of significant experiences would come into play as well. In the spring of 1979, I interviewed for and obtained a departmental editor position with The Torch, VU’s student newspaper. Starting in the fall, I would be the paper’s academic affairs editor, responsible for the internal higher education beat at the university. That meant writing my own news and opinion articles, as well as assigning and editing articles for staff reporters.
I’ve actually saved the summer 1979 letter that our editor-in-chief sent to incoming department editors and staffers, in anticipation of our work that fall. A snapshot of it appears below. There’s a reason why I’ve held onto it for so long, and it’s not simply my pack rat mentality. You see, I vividly recall how much I was looking forward to that experience. I had never before worked on a student newspaper, but I had the writing bug. The Torch was a very good undergraduate student newspaper and was taken seriously by the faculty and administration. I was psyched to be a part of it.
Working on The Torch turned out to be a great, immersive experience, intellectually and personally. To the degree that I write clearly and cogently today, I credit the many dozens of articles I wrote and edited as helping to build that foundation. I spent many hours in the newspaper’s offices, and that time helped to forge a cadre of lifelong friendships. In addition, I now realize how covering VU’s higher ed scene helped to plant the seeds for my eventual pursuit of an academic career.
And of course, whether in The Torch offices or driving around in my beat-up 1968 Buick, the a.m. radio played those Top 40 pop songs, over and again. So yes, they do a number on me. In fact, I’m now feeding the nostalgia beast, having assembled a little play list of some of those songs from 1979 for my iPad. They’re like musical time machines.
Two years ago, I wrote a retrospective essay looking back at my college years for The Cresset, Valparaiso University’s journal of the arts, humanities, and public affairs. Titled “Homecoming at Middle Age,” you may freely access it here.
During the last three months, I have become hooked on karaoke.
It’s not that I am new to karaoke. In fact, I’ve done it lots of times, mostly by joining with friends to rent out small private studios at karaoke clubs. Many of them are fellow students in a weekly singing workshop that I’ve been taking for many years at the Boston Center for Adult Education. (I wrote about the latter experience here.) I’ve also done karaoke with a group of (gasp) fellow law professors and other legally oriented types in places as far away as Vienna, Prague, and Toronto.
But until last November, I hadn’t tried the main stage at Limelight Stage and Studios, located in the heart of Boston’s theatre district. Although my compatriots and I had rented studios there before, we had never done the main stage. But some muse inspired us to give it a try, and we — or at least I — haven’t turned back. Since then, I’ve been back there about a dozen times.
The atmosphere at the Limelight is friendly and lively, a mix of regulars and groups of young (and not-so-young) people stopping by to have a good time. Every once in a while, someone steps up to the stage and simply blows everyone away.
Folks, it is so much fun to get up there and sing, as well as to enjoy the performances of friends and others. I’ve been developing a list of “go-to” songs that, so far, includes:
- Sinatra, “Summer Wind”
- Sinatra, “Learnin’ the Blues”
- Sinatra, “Fly Me to the Moon”
- Elvis, “Blue Hawaii”
- Tony Bennett, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”
- Bobby Darin, “Mack the Knife”
- Elton John, “Your Song”
- Frankie Avalon, “Beauty School Dropout”
- Bee Gees, “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart”
Yup, I’m old school, and mainstream. The 70s are about as recent as I get. In fact, I don’t know a lot of the more current stuff that many of the younger folks sing. (“Younger” being an expanding share of the population for me.) If the music catalog were to expand to include more of the Great American Songbook — the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Rodgers & Hammerstein, etc. — I’d be even more old school.
To fuel my habit, I’ve also taken to reading about karaoke. Rob Sheffield’s Turn Around Bright Eyes (2013) is, well, a sort of karaoke memoir, with a dash of karaoke history mixed in for historical perspective. Karaoke, as the name suggests, started in Japan during the 1980s, and soon made it to the U.S. Although karaoke song lists typically offer thousands of selections, a handful of the same numbers are very likely to pop up on any given evening. According to Sheffield:
Let’s get a couple things out of the way right now. One of these things is called “Livin’ on a Prayer,” and the other is “Don’t Stop Believin’.”
These are easily the two most popular karaoke songs. Indeed, as far as many of my fellow revelers are concerned, they seem to be the only two karaoke songs. Once, spending a night at Sing Sing [a karaoke club in Manhattan] with my friend Dave, who works as a wedding videographer, he got all stressed by all the believin’ and livin’ we heard through the walls. “These same two songs all night,” he said, shaking his head. “This is like being at work.”
Hey, at least my oldies-but-moldies selections don’t come up all the time. (OK, the Sinatra numbers are popular with others as well.)
Seriously, though, I consider singing to be a form of mindfulness, a way of being in, and enjoying, the present moment. It’s therapeutic for me. Compared to “serious” singing, karaoke is often regarded as being rather common and amateurish. (Heh, one of caustic American Idol judge Simon Cowell’s favorite putdowns of a performance was that it “sounded like bad karaoke.”) However, it’s a form that gives anyone, regardless of talent, a stage on which to have fun and enjoy singing their favorite songs. That’s a big part of what singing should be all about, right?
My current dream vacation doesn’t involve traveling to popular or exotic tourist sites. In fact, it may sound downright geeky and dull to a lot of folks: A few weeks with a box of selected books, DVDs, and magazines. Television with cable. Favorite music. Some tabletop sports games to play. Several good eateries within walking distance. Maybe a few tourist attractions or get-togethers with friends, but no demanding sightseeing or social calendar. I’d have my computer with an Internet connection to keep up on the news and do some writing, but work-related activities would be kept to a minimum, including e-mails.
It sounds like pure paradise to me.
You might logically assume that creating this vacation should be easy for someone who enjoys the flexibility of an academic schedule. But in reality, academic work has a way of collapsing work-life boundaries, such as they are. So long as you’re checking your work inbox, or opening a Word file just to peek at a draft of something, you can get sucked back into it in a second.
This geeky vacation fantasy also reflects a considerable downsizing of my travel bucket list. I’ve been fortunate to visit some pretty cool destinations during my life. And there are still places that I’d like to visit or revisit.
But I’m not yearning to spend more time on the road (or in the air). Right now I travel a lot to see friends and family, and to participate in conferences and other work-related events. I look forward to these trips, but I’m always happy when my calendar shows several approaching weekends that don’t involve printing out boarding passes.
Maybe I can make this aspiration a reality. At the very least, I could plan it as an extended staycation. I wouldn’t need a list of sites to see, performances to attend, or beaches to visit. Just a comfortable space to read, binge watch, order pizza delivery, and think big and little thoughts.
Sometimes I like to scroll through this blog for the fun of it, as if I’m walking down Memory Lane to revisit writings about Memory Lane! In addition to enjoying periodic nostalgic memories, I’m reminded of where my own cultural center of gravity is located. I am, at heart, a middlebrow kind of guy, grounded in the late 20th century. Here are 25 reasons why, many of which are drawn from previous posts:
- My MP3 music lists include the likes of 80s and 70s pop hits, old standards featuring music of the Gershwins and Cole Porter, and soundtracks & cast recordings of classic musicals by Rodgers & Hammerstein.
- I still have much of No. 1 on CDs.
- I like Stouffer’s French Bread pizza.
- I belong to the Book-of-the-Month Club and occasionally hunt down past BOMC premium books on e-Bay.
- I make my coffee using a drip coffee maker and pre-ground beans.
- Despite my dovish leanings, I enjoy watching old World War Two movies.
- I will indulge myself with an occasional Big Mac.
- I own, and sometimes even read into, a pre-owned set of the Harvard Classics.
- Give me the voices of Olivia Newton-John and Karen Carpenter over those of most of today’s female pop singers any day.
- I miss American Heritage magazine.
- I love watching re-runs of The Dick Van Dyke Show on Netflix.
- I still regard Baskin-Robbins ice cream as a treat.
- My leisure reading tastes go to mysteries and suspense, sports books (baseball, football, basketball), and popular history, as well as self-help and psychology.
- Walter Cronkite remains for me the iconic example of a television newscaster with utmost integrity.
- Given a choice, I’ll take a casual meal at a favorite diner over a fancy meal with multiple forks.
- I’ve been a steady subscriber to Sports Illustrated for decades.
- My first computer was a Commodore 64, and I got years of use and fun out of it!
- I continue to rely on Rick Steves for travel advice when planning blessed trips to Europe.
- Pumpkin pie is my favorite Thanksgiving dessert.
- Having my own personal library is deeply meaningful to me.
- Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York,” Tony Bennett’s “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” and Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” are simply awesome to me.
- I miss talk radio from the days before it got so politically strident and polarized.
- I regard Stephen King as one of our great contemporary storytellers.
- Growing up, I pursued hobbies such as stamp and coin collecting, science, and playing sports simulation board games — and I still do when time permits!
- There’s something thrilling and adventurous about being in a large old train station.
When it comes to discovering my favorite genre of music — old standards by the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Sinatra, and the like — I’m a bit of a late bloomer. Not until moving to New York for law school would I start discovering this wonderful music. In fact, I can pinpoint the evening in front of the TV set when began to realize the brilliance of George and Ira Gershwin.
Late in 1991, I was watching “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson, and among Johnny’s guests was a young man who sang and played on the piano a couple of classic Gershwin tunes. His name was Michael Feinstein, and he was performing numbers from his first album, “Pure Gershwin.” (Today, of course, Feinstein is a star in his own right, having built a wonderful career out of preserving and promoting the Great American Songbook.)
Well folks, a lightbulb went off. I had been familiar with the works of the Gershwins and enjoyed them, but upon watching Feinstein on TV, I knew that I wanted to listen to more. The next day, I went to Tower Records in the Village and bought the cassette (yup, cassette) version of “Pure Gershwin.” I played that tape to death on my Sony Walkman and eventually had to replace it.
Fast forward to today, I have stacks of CDs containing different renditions of the Gershwins’ music, including Ella Fitzgerald, Maureen McGovern, Sinatra, and more from Feinstein.
In the weekly voice class I take and the periodic open mic cabaret nights I attend, it’s not unusual for me to sing a Gershwin number.
Recently I went to a Boston Pops concert featuring the music of the Gershwins, and the finale was a brilliant, moving performance of George’s masterpiece, “Rhapsody in Blue.”
Okay, so here’s my what-if, time-travelish, is-life-that-random question: What if I had not caught that episode of “The Tonight Show” back in 1991? Would this body of music mean so much to me today? What would my music collection look like? Would I be singing something else in my voice class? Would I even be taking a voice class at all? Are such discoveries completely random or somehow part of a grander scheme?
One of life’s little pleasures is getting lost in the world of YouTube music videos. I can watch some of these over and again. Here are a few of my repeat favorites:
If you need an energy boost, does it get any better than Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like The Wolf”? The early to mid 80s is one of my favorite pop music periods. On my iPad I have a music compilation of favorite songs from that time, and Duran Duran singles are prominent among them.
I spent a chunk of the weekend watching and re-watching the incredibly hilarious number from Mel Brooks’s “The Producers” (1967 movie version), “Springtime for Hitler.” With every viewing, I keep finding new things to laugh at. (If you know the movie, then the quick cut to Kenneth Mars at around 2:18 is a guaranteed crack up.) From the lyrics, to the choreography, to the crowd reaction, it is singularly brilliant.
“Carousel” is one of the darkest shows of the Rodgers & Hammerstein canon, and it also has one of the most beautiful scores. This London performance of the ballet scene with Louise and the Fairground Boy, featuring Dana Stockpole dancing to “If I Loved You,” is simply exquisite.
One of the very best opening movie scenes ever produced is that from Woody Allen’s “Manhattan,” set to George Gershwin’s lush, beautiful “Rhapsody in Blue.” It is a loving tribute to the Wonder City.
Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes” is one of the best shows ever produced. This Tony Awards performance of the title number, featuring the awesome Sutton Foster, is worth multiple viewings.
I love this Antwerp train station flash mob performance of a rocked up version of “Do Re Mi” (from “The Sound of Music”). It is so much fun to watch, over and again.
My favorite scene from my favorite movie: Gene Kelly singing and dancing to the title number is truly one of the most joyous scenes in the history of motion pictures. I first saw “Singin’ in the Rain” during a study break while in my first year of law school at NYU, a Sunday night screening at the legendary Theatre 80 on St. Mark’s Place. I knew before it was even half over that I was watching something special.
Olivia Newton-John singing “Magic” in 1980 on “The Midnight Special.” It doesn’t matter that she’s lip-syncing. How many of us had monster crushes on her? (If the comments are any indication, we still do.) Sigh, what a contrast to today’s voice synthesized pop tarts.
And finally, some (probably unintended) humor. It appears that Lawrence Welk had no idea that “One Toke Over the Line” was about smoking pot, not — in his words — a “modern spiritual.” I crack up every time I watch it.
Ear worms are those tunes we just can’t get out of our heads. Especially for members of Generation Jones (born 1954 through 1965), I’m guessing that the early 70s produced a lot of ear worm tunes. To test that theory, and our memories, I’ve put together 25 first lines of pop songs (all different artists) from that era. Let’s see how many you can get right:
- “Jeremiah was a bullfrog…”
- “What if birds suddenly appear…”
- “Who can take a sunrise…”
- “Goodbye to you, my trusted friend…”
- “I was born in the wagon of a traveling show…”
- “He was born in the summer of his 27th year…”
- “Hey girl, what ya doin’ down there…”
- “You and I must make a pact…”
- “Stayed in bed all morning just to pass the time…”
- “There’s a port, on a western bay…”
- “I’m sleeping, and right in the middle of good dream…”
- “We’ll be fighting in the streets…”
- “She packed my bags last night, pre-flight…”
- “Waiting for the break of day…”
- “There’s a spark of magic in your eyes…”
- “The marchin’ band came down along Main Street…”
- “Mother, mother, there’s too many of you crying…”
- “We can never know about the days to come…”
- “I can tell you’ve been hurt, by that look on your face girl…”
- “Well the South Side of Chicago…”
- “Daddy was a cop, on the east side of Chicago…”
- “She ain’t got no money…”
- “Day after day I’m more confused…”
- “Our love is like a ship on the ocean…”
- “I road my bicycle past your window last night”
Okay, have all your answers ready? Check out the answer key below, right under the album pic! If you got 15 or more right, then consider yourself a member or honorary member of Generation Jones!
Answers: 1. Joy to the World, Three Dog Night; 2. Close to You, Carpenters; 3. The Candy Man, Sammy Davis, Jr.; 4. Seasons in the Sun, Terry Jacks; 5. Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves, Cher; 6.Rocky Mountain High, John Denver; 7. Knock Three Times, Tony Orlando and the Dawn; 8. I’ll Be There, Michael Jackson; 9. It’s Too Late, Carole King; 10. Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl), Looking Glass; 11. I Think I Love You, The Partridge Family; 12. Won’t Get Fooled Again, The Who; 13. Rocket Man, Elton John; 14. 25 or 6 to 4, Chicago; 15. Betcha By Golly Wow, The Stylistics; 16. Billy Don’t Be a Hero, Bo Donaldson and The Heywoods; 17. What’s Going On, Marvin Gaye; 18. Anticipation, Carly Simon; 19. One Bad Apple, The Osmond Brothers; 20. Bad, Bad Leroy Brown, Jim Croce; 21. The Night Chicago Died, Paper Lace; 22. Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes), Edison Lighthouse; 23. Drift Away, Dobie Gray; 24. Rock the Boat, Hues Corporation; Brand New Key, Melanie.
In looking back at 2015, one of the highlights for me was doing more singing. Previously I’ve written about the weekly singing classes I’ve been taking for years at an adult education center in Boston (e.g., here and here). From those classes has emerged a cohort of folks who have moved their singing up a notch to participate in cabaret-style open mic nights at a nearby club. It means that during some weeks, we’re standing up to sing in front of others on multiple occasions!
Most of us are not experienced performers; many among our group haven’t done any real singing since school days. We have all felt the butterflies in facing an audience to sing alone. Yet we are drawn to this activity because it brings us great satisfaction and enjoyment. For me, it’s a chance to revel in the old standards that I’ve been drawn to for years. Give me the Great American Songbook stuff from the 20s through 50s any day, and I’ll be happy.
There is a therapeutic component as well. Singing is a form of mindfulness practice for me. It’s an invitation to be in the moment, doing something enjoyable. In both singing class and open mic nights, enthusiastic, supportive applause is the norm, with not a boo to be heard. Both settings provide safe, positive environments, shared with a wonderful group of people.
With these experiences at the core, I’ve noticed that singing has manifested itself in other venues of my life as well, including karaoke nights with (of all people) law professors and lawyers, an annual workshop on human dignity, and even a traditional Thanksgiving feast with family and friends. It’s good for the soul, and I look forward to doing more of it during the year to come.
Thursday night kicked off the NFL season, which for several million fans also meant the beginning of fantasy football. Somehow I find myself in three fantasy leagues this fall, which means that I’ll be managing the fortunes of three fake football teams: The JP (Jamaica Plain) Storm, the JP Blizzard, and the JP Nor’easters.
Fantasy football offers an added element of fandom. In addition to following your favorite pro team(s) (in my case, primarily the Chicago Bears, and secondarily the New England Patriots), you follow the individual statistical performances of players you’ve drafted for your fake teams.
Sometimes the scoring systems are simple, such as that in the league I organized, where points are awarded almost exclusively on actual scoring. This means that when one of your players scores a touchdown, that six points goes to your team. Easy peasy! Other scoring systems are much more complex, using a longer list of statistical measures.
For me, the start of the NFL season also signifies the “real” start of fall, even if the official seasonal change doesn’t occur until later this month. And here in the Boston area, it just so happened that an early September heat wave cooled off markedly for Thursday’s first Patriots home game in nearby Foxborough.
But there are healthy limits to this fandom. On Wednesday evening, for example, I missed the real-time player draft for one of my fantasy football leagues in order to sing at an open mic cabaret night at a club here in Boston. (The Yahoo! fantasy football platform made my picks for me, based on a player ranking list I compiled.)
I wrote previously that I’ve been taking a weekly singing class for many years, and more recently I’ve been joining friends from that class at open mic nights. Over the weekend I had practiced a duet number with one of my friends, “Somewhere Out There” from An American Tail. We performed it on Wednesday night and did a fine job! (Actually, she did great with it, but I felt a little shaky in parts.)
Singing is very therapeutic for me, a form of mindfulness that allows me to be in the moment in a very good way. Performing favorite songs and listening to others do the same is a genuine treat. Following my fake football teams online is fun, but live singing with good company is much, much better.
Okay, students of the Great American Songbook, think now: What iconic popular song embodies the historic city of Boston? What tune did Sinatra croon that captures Beantown?
If we’re being honest, no such song exists.
I’m sorry, but while the Standells’ “Dirty Water (Boston You’re My Home)” from the late 60s is a popular number around these parts (listen to a live performance here), it falls short of city theme status. Over 60 years ago, the Kingston Trio did a fun little banjo song, “M.T.A.,” about a man named Charlie who was trapped in the Boston subway system; it was recorded as a protest to a potential fare hike. (Listen/watch here.) Ummm, that’s not exactly a great anthem either.
Last month, in a post about great songs celebrating great cities, I closed with the question of why there’s no iconic Boston song. Apparently I’m not alone. I recently Googled around a bit and found this blog post by the owner of Voltage Coffee & Art, an area cafe, thinking along the same lines:
Frank Sinatra and his buddies made a lot of songs famous, including several selections that seem to endorse these hipper cities as cooler than cool. The theme from “New York, New York”, “I Left my Heart in San Francisco”, “My Kind of Town (Chicago)” … think about it.
So, here’s my opinion on how to begin to solve this issue: what this city needs more than anything is a swanky jazz standard about our awesome city. Consider this a summer project. We’re putting together a contest to see who can write the best song. We’re looking for something super cool, maybe slightly wistful, that shows a completely un-ironic love of Boston. The best entry we receive will get recorded, hopefully with a Frank Sinatra impersonator and full orchestra if we can swing it. Official details to follow soon.
I don’t know if their project ever got off the ground.
My read on it
Great, cosmopolitan cities have playful styles that have expressed themselves in music and song. It’s why, for example, Sinatra could croon unofficial city anthems like “New York, New York” and “Chicago (That Toddlin’ Town)” in ways that evoke deep, rich feelings about those places.
In my not-so-humble opinion, the core of Boston’s traditional culture has historically lacked a certain joie de vivre. Its essence has been, well, kind of serious, and often uptight and controlling. It has an earned reputation of not being the friendliest place for newcomers. It also has the nastiest, most aggressive, least predictable drivers I’ve ever encountered — and I’m speaking solely as a pedestrian!
As I’ll suggest below, some of these elements are softening. However, during the heart of the century that produced the Great American Songbook, they were fairly baked into the culture of this city. That’s not exactly the makings of a Cole Porter classic.
Boston as music maker
But there’s a twist, and it’s a positive one: There is a lot of music made in Boston! Not only is Greater Boston home to major conservatories, the Boston Symphony, and the Boston Pops, but also it hosts an abundance of amateur and professional venues for playing and singing music of all types.
In his book Greater Boston (2001), urban historian Sam Bass Warner, Jr., opines that among its cultural traditions, Boston’s most notable one may well be “the making of music.” “On any given night,” he observes, “the Boston city region sends more musical sounds towards the heavens than any other American place except such giants as New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles.” Amateur singers and musicians play a meaningful role in the creation of this musical culture.
And you don’t even have to be a star in the making to find a place to play or sing, as my own experience attests. As I wrote last year, for many years I’ve been taking a weekly voice workshop at an area adult education center, taught by Jane Eichkern, a Juilliard-trained vocalist. Jane has built this class around the idea of a supportive, encouraging, and safe place to learn how to sing. And more recently I’ve been joining fellow voice class students for open mic cabaret nights at a local club.
Infused by newcomers
Here’s an interesting, unscientific trend that I’ve noticed about many folks who take the voice workshop: A good number of them are from other places, even other countries. Their personal backgrounds and occupations vary greatly. But they all have that twinkle in the eye and that dose of fortitude that are pretty much necessary to get up in front of a roomful of strangers (at least at the beginning, for it’s a very friendly group) and sing.
They capture for me a more joyful side of the city, one that helps to transform a place known more for its stiffness into one that has a song in its heart, at least within some circles.
Truly great cities are infused by newcomers. The newbies introduce different perspectives and world views. They offer their special qualities to the metropolitan mix. And they’ve already demonstrated a willingness to take a chance on something new, even if it’s a little scary.
Hmm, that does sound a lot like our weekly singing classes.
The music in me
It took me a while to realize how important this singing class has been to me, and, correspondingly, just how important music is to my life. For insight, I draw upon the work of my late good friend John Ohliger, a pioneering adult educator, public intellectual, and community activist. (Go here for a book chapter I wrote about him.) John’s short unpublished memoir, My Search for Freedom’s Song (1997), was constructed around the theme of music:
I can’t read music, I can’t play an instrument, and I don’t sing very well. But, looking back at my first 70 years, music has graced much of my life. Much of the time I find myself singing, humming, or whistling, softly or silently to music. I almost always associate music with good feelings — feelings of wholeness — in a fragmented personal and political world.
Like John, I can’t read music or play an instrument. (I do think I sing pretty well!) And like John, I now understand how “music has graced much of my life.” Thanks largely to participating in this ongoing, shared experience of singing, I also appreciate how music helps me cope with “a fragmented personal and political world.” For me, singing is a unique form of mindfulness, an invitation to be in the present. That’s a pretty cool way to spend one’s time, and in good company as well.