Tuesday, December 31, 2013

No. 156 – Soul Sacrifice

Performer: Santana
Songwriters: Carlos Santana, Gregg Rolie, Jose Areas, Dave Brown, Michael Carabello, Michael Shrieve
Original Release: Santana
Year: 1969
Definitive Version: Anything from Woodstock, of which multiple releases exist. The one on my iTunes is from Woodstock: Music from the Original Soundtrack and More, 1994.

I’m fascinated by how things can play out. Take Woodstock for example. Bill Graham had two San Francisco acts he wanted to slot at Woodstock. One was It’s a Beautiful Day. Debbie liked them, and they're as folky-trippy as you would expect a San Francisco band that had that name would be. (I recently found out Laurie likes them, too.)

The other was the group that the show promoter selected based on a coin flip, an act no one ever heard of that had a one-word title taken from the surname of the band’s lead guitarist: Santana. The rest, as they say, is history.

Although we’ll never know for sure, I think Santana still would’ve been big even if they hadn’t been so chosen. But their electric performance at Woodstock highlighted by this volcanic eruption of a song made them instant superstars.

The first time I watched Woodstock had to have been not long after discovering The Who, probably sometime in 1980, and I made a tape of my favorite performances that I listened to for a long time thereafter. Needless to say—but I’ll say it anyway—Soul Sacrifice was among my selections, and I didn’t require a coin toss to get it on there.

That would have been one of the tapes I would have taken with me when Jin and I went to England that summer had I actually had something to play it on. I didn’t, much to my regret on the flight over.

The journey back home was a different story. I don’t know that anything would’ve helped me on that one.

Our flight from London to New York ran late for reasons I don’t recall. What I recall is we had little time to get through customs and then get from the Pan Am terminal to the Eastern terminal. With the delay, we had no room for error.

Customs was no problem, although it was humorous to have to explain to the agent that the four boxes we carried contained empty beer cans. Empty beer cans? That’s right.

I had spent a large portion of the vacation collecting—and later rinsing out—beer cans found at pubs or restaurants, at the park, wherever I could. I was reaching the end of my time collecting beer cans, but I couldn’t pass up the chance to load up on the numerous brands England had available. I must have had more than 100, including doubles, when all was said and done.

The agent seemed skeptical, but when he lifted the boxes, he could tell right away that they weren’t heavy. He let us through. However, as you might imagine, the boxes were difficult to transport quickly, and we had to get to the Eastern terminal NOW.

We grabbed the first cab and fought through the traffic at JFK. I remember that we gave the guy like a ten for a $3 fare. I couldn’t wait for change. We ran into the terminal to check in … and our faces fell when we saw the lines stretch from the baggage-check counter out the door. And none was moving.

I went to the front of the line and asked if we were in the right place. I was told to get to the back of the line, not by other passengers but the counter clerk. Our flight to Columbus left in about a half-hour. Not my problem. Get to the back of the line.

It already had been a long day, and although Jin was in much better shape than she had been on the flight to London, she wasn’t feeling very well. Perhaps that could work to our advantage. Other kids seemed at various points to have help when traveling alone. Perhaps a kindly worker at Eastern would take pity on me with my ill younger sister and help us out. No dice. Get to the back of the line.

I don’t know whether it was the combination of boredom, bad airline food, a long flight, a lack of sleep and not getting any help from anyone that got to me, but I snapped. I was so frustrated—we had to get home, and we were going to miss our flight—that I couldn’t do anything but cry in anger.

Suddenly, a woman—another passenger in line—asked whether she could help. She was brunette in her mid-20s, I’d guess, and she reminded me of my aunt Nan. I told her of our plight and showed her my tickets. She said our bags—as well as us—already had been checked through to the end. What? No one told me that. Yes, she said, all you have to do is take the bags over here …

We gave them to a clerk outside the door. Now, you’re all set, just get to the gate on time, she implored. Run. RUN! We did.

I never got her name. I wished I had, and I hope for nothing but the best for her, because we sure would’ve missed our flight if she hadn’t stepped in. We arrived at the gate mere minutes before they closed the door. Whew!

And then we sat at the gate for 45 minutes. What’s going on? We were awaiting clearance. By this time, Jin had had enough and went to sleep with her head on the fold-out tray.

We finally pushed away and taxied out to the runway. The captain got on the p.a. saying that we were 26th in line, so it’d probably be another hour before takeoff. That’s when I gave up and joined Jin. I awoke just in time to hear the captain announce, “OK, now that we’re next in line, we’ve received a report of a thunderstorm coming in, so all flights are delayed. It’ll be another hour.” UGH!

From there, the night was a blur of brief awakenings—taking off, a quick stop in Philadelphia and then, finally, landing at Port Columbus … to no one at the airport to pick us up. It was late; Mom wasn’t going to drive out to get us, and I don’t remember what Dad was up to, unless he was at Torch Lake.

So Jin and I grabbed our luggage and all four beer-can boxes and trudged out to the cabstand. The cabbie—another guy whose name I never got—was great. He talked at length about beer-can collecting, and I made sure to give him a huge tip—pretty much all the money I had left—when we finally arrived home at about 1 in the morning.

School started the next day. I was entering my junior year at UAHS. I knew the drill, and I had absolutely no problem with taking a sick day on the first day of the school year. Jin, however, wouldn’t hear of it. She was entering seventh grade, her first day at Hastings, a new school, and she felt it was important to go in and get her bearings. Somehow she got up and went in to class.

Now that’s dedication … or insanity.

Monday, December 30, 2013

No. 157 – They Dance Alone

Performer: Sting
Songwriter: Sting
Original Release: … Nothing Like the Sun
Year: 1987
Definitive Version: None.

Of course, Nelson Mandela died about a week ago. In the summer of 1988, he still was in prison in South Africa, when a massive benefit concert was held in his honor at Wembley Stadium in London. I think I referred to this show before, but I recall a somewhat disheveled Sting doing an excellent version of this heartbreaking song at one point.

Many years later, I played this song one night at The Thurman and succeeded in bumming out the entire Dispatch crowd. That wasn’t my intent. I love playing great songs in any situation; it doesn’t change my mood, because I just love hearing a great song. But I made sure to never play They Dance Alone at The Thurman again.

Just before Christmas a week ago, I drove to Cincinnati to take Leah to her first performance of The Nutcracker. I took her to her first baseball game, why not her first ballet, too? I’m a Renaissance man; I can do both.

Afterward, we went to Mitchell’s Fish House in Newport, Ky. In Columbus, that restaurant was known as Columbus Fish house when it opened at Easton, and I probably hadn’t been to it in more than a decade. Leah and I had a great time, yet it didn’t make me rethink the very important decision I made at about the same time as the Mandela concert: I didn’t want to have kids.

When I was with Beth, of course, I wanted to have kids after marriage. We even had a name picked out for the first son: Rory William. (We had a daughter’s name picked out, too. It also was Irish, but I don’t remember it now.) After we broke up, I’m pretty sure I still wanted to have kids, but the reality of it was put off in the distance.

Everything changed in 1988. You might not recall the name Laurie Dann. Laurie Dann went on a murderous rampage in Winnetka in May 1988 that included shooting and killing a little boy at a school before killing herself.

Now exposed to the horrors of the world, I wasn’t bothered by the actual killing. What bothered me was Steve Dahl’s reaction to it. He spoke very passionately on the Steve and Garry show about the rampage and how his oldest son was about the same age as the boy who was killed and how if she had gone to his son’s school, it could have been his son who was killed.

I started thinking about the father of that little boy and realized that the horror was unbearable. I couldn’t imagine sending my son (or daughter, for that matter) off to school and then never seeing him again. Quite simply, if that were to happen, I wouldn’t be able to go on. The only way to guarantee that that would never happen to me was if I didn’t have children.

I voiced this belief to Melanie during an epic phone call that lasted three whole hours. I’ll never forget it. I lay on the carpeted floor of my New Buffalo apartment living room as we talked and talked and talked.

I’d had phone calls with Beth while I was at Wabash that eclipsed an hour, in which we struggled to find anything to talk about besides how much we missed one another. The evidence that Melanie and I were much better paired was that our conversation went twice as long without us ever breaking a sweat; there were no lulls in the conversation.

I don’t remember exactly what she said on the subject, but I felt we were sympatico, and I loved her even more than before. In retrospect, I’m not sure that this didn’t have something to do with why we broke up. We were together another three months after, and it never came up again in conversation, but it’s possible Melanie felt that her future might be limited if we stayed together. Regardless, it’s entirely possible if not probable that had Melanie and I stayed together, I eventually would’ve changed my mind on the subject. The point soon became moot.

I suppose the fact that Debbie was 42 when we hooked up might have had a lot to do with why I was keen to pursue a romantic relationship with her. She was almost past the age where kids were out of the question, and I certainly was in no hurry to do something like adopt. Any later change of heart was rendered moot when Debbie had her tubes tied. Before she did it, she asked once more whether I was sure she wanted to do this. I said I was and asked if she did. She said she did. Neither of us regretted the decision.

Then I was free again, and along came Laurie. Laurie was 44 when we met, and she, like me, had zero interest in having children, and she, like Debbie, was at the point where if she were going to have children of her own, it had to happen pretty quickly.

In January 2005, I was babysitting Leah, and I called Laurie to chat. She remembers very distinctly—as do I—that I talked her ear off about Leah and all the cool things we did together and how cute she was when she mangled the English language and how much I loved her. I went on and on, when, as Laurie describes it, I suddenly took a big pause and said, “it’s not for me.”

Laurie couldn’t believe it. She thought for sure I was going to say I wanted kids of my own. Wow, she said, I wasn’t expecting you to say THAT.

No. I loved being a pretend father, and if, God forbid, something were to happen where suddenly I end up with custody of Leah and her brother, John, (and Jin’s daughter, Bridget), I’d embrace my newfound responsibility of raising them and being a surrogate father with all the energy I could muster.

But … I didn’t want to raise a child of my own accord. It started out as a reaction to fear but now it’s become an acceptance of selfishness. After I was with Debbie for a while, I realized that I liked having the freedom to go on vacations at the drop of a hat or go out to dinner and drop a couple hundred bucks without worrying about how it might affect, say, college savings. That sentiment continues, and that sentiment is counter to the responsibility of being a parent.

I like to think that deciding not to have children for those reasons is a responsible act, too. All too frequently, people want kids until they actually have kids. Then they discover they aren’t willing to make the sacrifices—the life changes—that raising a child properly requires. I didn’t want to make those sacrifices, so I wasn’t going to bring some poor soul into this world to suffer needlessly.

Maybe, someday, if I’m old and alone, I’ll wish I had children, so I’d have someone who could visit me once in a while if not help me out. That’s just more selfishness, isn’t it? No, I made my decision, and I have no regrets.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

No. 158 – Tank

Performer: Emerson, Lake & Palmer
Songwriters: Keith Emerson, Carl Palmer
Original Release: Emerson, Lake & Palmer
Year: 1971
Definitive Version: Works Live, 1993.

Waiting until the Nineties to buy my first CD player and move my music into the digital-production era had money-saving benefits. By the time I was ready to start buying albums on CD, many of my favorites were re-released with additional material included, so I didn’t have to buy them twice.

Although this had been true of studio albums, such as So, from the beginning, what began to happen in the Nineties was the re-release of classic live albums that were longer. The first one I remember was Four Way Street by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young in 1992. (I bought my first CD player in 1990.) It was nice to have the four extra songs, but it was a bit of a disappointment that the electric disc hadn’t been enhanced similarly.

One album that wasn’t a disappointment in this regard was Works Live. After I pledged undying allegiance to ELP in the early Eighties, I wanted more stuff to listen to, but after you buy Welcome Back My Friends …, there’s really only so much more that you don’t already have.

I passed on ELP’s final album, In Concert, because it was only a single album. How can ELP possibly release a live album that’s only one record? Works Live is a double disc, and as soon as I discovered it among Scott’s CDs in the summer of 1993, I bought it for myself. I was particularly pleased to have this version of Tank in my collection.

At about the same time, the Sports staff made a momentous discovery of its own at the White Horse in Flint—the tap had been switched from Labatt’s to Labatt Ice. I don’t know which summer discovery pleased me more at the time—the arrival of Works Live or the arrival of Labatt Ice.

Being close to Canada, I had been able to explore pre-craft Canadian beer. In the United States, you got Molson, Molson Golden, Labatt’s, Moosehead, and that was about it. In Canada, however, there was a full slate of Molson and Labatt offerings—many of them highly potent—like Molson Brador. It soon came to pass that any trip to Canada required a stop at the duty-free shop at the border to bring over some of those unavailable beers for home consumption.

I looked it up, and Labatt Ice made its debut in Canada in spring 1993, but I would swear that it had been out at least a year before that. When it finally arrived in the United States—at the White Horse—I already knew well of it from trips to Great White North, so I was pretty excited by the tap switch. Memory being what it is, however, I might have known it more from reputation than actual sampling.

Either way, it was as good as I recalled (or heard). Labatt Ice instantly became my favorite beer of all time as well as the beer of choice by everyone in Sports the rest of the time I was in Flint.

Of course, by the time I moved to Columbus, the U.S. breweries had jumped on the ice-beer bandwagon, and what had been a legitimately good product became the latest beer fad to be watered down and ruined by overexposure. It was kind of like what happened to alternative rock at the time, with Hootie and the Blowjobs playing the role of Bud Ice.

Now if you see ice beer at all, it’s lumped in with the Thunderbirds and Mad Dog 20/20s of the cooler. Sad.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

No. 159 – Baker Street

Performer: Foo Fighters
Songwriter: Gerry Rafferty
Original Release: My Hero single
Year: 1998
Definitive Version: None.

On Opening Day of The Baseball Room, I awoke not long after going to bed at the crack of dawn (good ol’ No. 364). After pulling an all-nighter preparing for the debut June 18, 1998. I still had some work to do before the festivities began at noon.

First, I had to finish assembling the room. Most of the heavy-duty work was complete, but I still had a few final touches, such as the Babe Ruth faceplate for the light switch. Second, I had to put away empty boxes and clean the room, so it would appear as immaculate as the Hall of Fame itself.

Finally, everything was as ready as it ever would be, and I felt a real sense of pride. It was done, on time, and in my inestimable opinion, it was … perfect. Now, all I had to do was await the guests.

Scott and Shani were on the VIP list and the first to arrive. Scott sensed the opportunity to make up a bit for some tomfoolery that had been absent since the Indy 500 barbecue stopped due to the rift between team owners that wrecked open-wheel racing and opened the door to NASCAR’s domination.

If I were going to have a big baseball party, he thought, might as well do it up right. He used his Kinkos skills to print up programs and tickets for the opening ceremony. The programs I knew about—just that he was doing them. I had no idea about the tickets.

When they arrived, Scott sent Shani to the door and told me to look out, that there was someone who wanted to contract some business. I smiled when I saw right away what Scott was up to. He stood on the sidewalk with his shades on and a sign that read “Got Tickets” in black magic marker, you know, just in case anyone in the neighborhood needed to scalp a ducat or two to the prized event. I raced out to break up the ill-gotten activities … and secure two tickets for myself.

Debbie’s friends Sharon and Roger showed up, as did Steve and his new wife, Katie. Brutus from work and his wife attended as well, which should give some indication of how our relationship had been before Brutus ascended to management at The Dispatch.

Unfortunately, Dave and Jim sent their regards, which was no surprise, really, but a disappointment nonetheless. Jim, however, made his presence felt via a donation to The Baseball Room in lieu of his appearance. I hope he remembered to take the tax write-off the following year.

When Jim worked for the White Sox as a public-relations intern in 1985, he procured a set of 1967 World Series tickets that the White Sox were allowed to sell but, of course, never used for games that were never played at Comiskey Park. He sent the ticket for what would’ve been Game 7. The face value for upper deck seats, in case you’re curious: $12. I put the ticket front and center on my Chicago shelf.

When everyone was assembled, the pageantry began. I brought everyone up the stairs to the hallway outside the closed door marked only by a hanging bat and ball ornament and a baseball doorknob. Through the miracle of modern recording technology, Carl Lewis butchered the National Anthem and Marge Schott butchered an introductory speech as part of the tearful festivities. Then, by the power invested in me by Commissioner Bud Selig, I declared The Baseball Room open.

I turned the knob and, like Willie Wonka, moved out of the way, so everyone could partake of the delights therein. (I passed on the opportunity to serenade the guests with Pure Imagination, however.)

Like the kids in the classic 1971 movie, everyone was overwhelmed. Even Debbie, who had seen The Baseball Room in various stages of construction was wowed by the final result. I gave a tour of the room, pointing out the themes of each shelf, and a few took particular note of how I layered the shelves, stacking up memorabilia so it looked like a museum display.

In The Mitt (the one I bought in 1993 that made the epic journey from Seattle to Chicago with me and Scott), I had a baseball that I called the Guest Ball. Anyone who visited The Baseball Room had to sign the Guest ball.

After proper homage was paid, we repaired to the first floor for refreshments—hot dogs, cracker jack, beer and soft drinks. A few people peeled off, while the rest stayed to watch the Reds on TV. Hey, if you’re going to have a baseball-related party, might as well go all out, right?

Scott was hopeful that this would turn into an annual celebration—to replace the sorely missed 500 barbecue—but, really, you can open something only once. It wasn’t to be repeated.

Of course, there was impermanence to The Baseball Room itself. Three years later, it was returned to that of a working bedroom. The museum collection now sits in a storage garage, deserving of a better fate than it received. Maybe someday I’ll have another house and another Baseball Room, but it’s also possible that it was a one-time thing. It’s difficult to top perfection.