Rituals and obsessions: a brief personal history

It started with “Taxman” by The Beatles.

Its distorted vocal opening had gotten stuck in my head despite my stated antipathy toward the band—really more pose than position, in retrospect.

Whenever I run a bath, I like to be in the tub while the faucet(s) run. Until quite recently,[1] when the tub was nearly full, I would turn off the cold water and turn on the hot water to its scalding limit, counting down “one-two-three-four, one-two-three-four, one-two-three-four, one-two-three-four” in the same slow tempo as the opening of “Taxman.” Only then would I turn off the hot water and settle in for a steamy cleansing soak.

I realize the actual track opens with “one-two-three-four, one-two” before George Harrison sings “Let me tell you how it will be/There’s one for you, nineteen for me.”

But, hey, my ritual, my rules.

At some point, I stopped employing that ritual to start a bath—only to replace it with one for exiting a bath, even as most of the water had drained around me. During my senior year at Yale, two other seniors and I lived off-campus. Our second-floor walkup had a bathtub, which I used most nights. One night, for…reasons, before the water fully drained, I squatted down and scooped up some water, quickly shaking it out of my hands as though I had just washed my hands in a sink. I repeated that sequence twice, except on the third iteration, I stood up, shaking out my hands as I did so. Only then did I step onto the bath mat.

I have performed this ritual—or some slight variant of it—every single time I have exited a bathtub since the fall of 1987. It is not as though I expect something bad will happen if I do not do so—I am not warding off anxiety; when that particular coin is flipped, it lands on depression for me nearly every time. It is simply that having started doing it, I continued to do it, making it an essential part of my bathtub “routine.”

Funnily enough, I have yet to mention this routine to my psychotherapist.

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In a recent post, I detailed ways the Netflix series Stranger Things had resonated with me at a deeply personal level. As of the evening of December 26, my wife Nell and I had watched the entire series—25 episodes over three seasons—twice, the second time with our two pre-teen daughters. Nell’s pithy takeaway: “I would watch it again.” Our younger daughter may already have, quietly watching in her bedroom on her new iPad. She now very much wants her friends to watch the show so she can discuss it with them…or at least have them understand why she suddenly—and with great affection—calls folks, mainly me, “mouth breather” or “dingus.”

Meanwhile, over the course of winter break, a small army of Funko Pop! figures appeared in our home, which our younger daughter arranged in rough chronological order; the short video I took of the sequence is my first ever “pinned” tweet.

Stranger Things tower.JPG

Clearly, I am not the only member of this household now utterly obsessed with the admittedly-excellent series. And one peek inside our younger daughter’s room, decorated in true Hufflepuff fashion, will reveal I am not the only member of this household who easily becomes obsessed.

But I am one of only two members of this household legally old enough to purchase and/or consume alcohol, and I am the only one who refused to drink alcohol until well into my college years—even as my high school classmates would try to get me to join them in beer drinking as we stayed in hotels for Youth in Government or Model UN—because I was very wary of my obsessive nature. I was well aware how often I could not simply enjoy something—I had to fully absorb it into my life.

Indeed, once I did finally sample that first Molson Golden in the converted basement seminar room I shared with two other Elis sophomore year, I liked it far more than I would have anticipated from sampling my father’s watered-down beer at various sporting events. Age prevented me from drinking too much, though, until I turned 21 early in my senior year. On my birthday, those same off-campus roommates took me to a local eatery called Gentree. An utter novice at drinking anything other than beer, I had no clue what to order; the gin and tonic I settled upon did nothing for me. Shortly thereafter, after a brief flirtation with Martini and Rossi (I still do not know how that bottle appeared in our apartment), I tried my first Scotch whisky.

It was love at first sip.

Over the next few years, I never drank enough for anyone to become, you know, concerned, but I did feel like I needed to have a glass of J&B or Cutty Sark with soda water—usually lemon Polar Seltzer—every day. When a close friend came to visit me in the Boston suburb of Somerville in January 1992, he presented me with a bottle of Glenfiddich—one of the better single-malt Scotches—and it was like having a revelation within a revelation, as this photograph from that night depicts.

Glenfiddich Jan 1992.jpg

This photograph reminds me I spent the 1990s and a significant chunk of the following decade living in turtlenecks—of all colors—because I decided one day while getting my hair cut, I liked the way the white cloth band looked around my neck. You know, the one hair stylists use to keep freshly-cut hair from dropping inside your shirt.

Eventually, I settled on Johnnie Walker Black (light rocks, club soda on the side[2]) as my primary poison—though I also developed a taste for a port wine called Fonseca Bin 27. Between 1991 and 1993, I spent way too much time at the bar of an terrific restaurant called Christopher’s. In 2005, I used old credit card receipts, which I had stuffed into a desk drawer for years, to calculate I spent $1,939.23 there (roughly $3,500 in 2019) in just those three years—and that sum excludes cash payments. Apparently, a hallmark of being both obsessive and a math geek is the construction of Microsoft Excel spreadsheets to calculate inconsequential values.

It would be another 10 years before I worked Scotch into my emerging Friday night bath ritual—the one with the curated music and the darkness and the single large pine-scented candle from L.L. Bean and the lavender milk bath stuff and the way I would turn off every light before walking into the candle-lit bathroom with my full tumbler of Johnnie Walker Black, or 10-year-old Laphroaig on special occasions. Ahh, that delectably peaty aroma…

More recently, Nell and I moved away from beer and whisky, respectively, toward red wine, going so far as to join Wine of the Month Club. Well, I also developed a taste for rye whisky, be it neat, mixed with ginger ale or in an Old Fashioned.

The point of this borderline-dipsomaniac history is that my high school instincts about my obsessive nature were remarkably close to the mark. Prior to being diagnosed with depression, I self-medicated with alcohol far more than I ever wanted to admit to myself. Perhaps not coincidentally, I recently cut my alcohol consumption down to almost nothing, though my stated reason is the toll it was taking on my sinuses, which have had more than enough trouble already.[3]

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Family lore holds I learned to read at the age of 2½, which my elementary school educator wife tells me is physiologically impossible. Whenever it was, by the time I was eight or so, I had already amassed a solid library of books.

And then I learned about the Dewey Decimal System.

With that, it no longer sufficed to organize my books alphabetically by subject or author or title, or even to use the Library of Congress classification system. No, I had to Dewey-Decimalize them, which meant going to Ludington Library, where I spent a great deal of my childhood and teenage years, to photocopy page after page of classification numbers. I still have a few books from those days, penciled numbers in my childish handwriting on the first page just inside the cover. I even briefly ran an actual lending library out of my ground-floor playroom—the one rebuilt after the fire of March 1973.

Meanwhile, my mother, our Keeshond Luvey and I spent the summers of 1974 and 1975 living in the “penthouse” of the Strand Motel in Atlantic City, NJ; my father would make the 60-mile drive southeast from Havertown, PA most weekends. In those years, the roughly 2½ miles of Pacific Avenue between Albany and New Hampshire Avenues were dotted with cheap motels and past-their-time hotels. The Strand was one of the better motels, with a decent Italian restaurant just off the lobby, dimly lit with its semi-circular booths upholstered in blood-red leather; I drank many a Shirley Temple over plates of spaghetti there. In that lobby, as in every lobby of every motel and hotel along the strip, was a large wooden rack containing copies of a few dozen pamphlets advertising local attractions.

At first, I simply took a few pamphlets from the Strand lobby to peruse later. Then I wanted all of them. Then I began to prowl the lobbies—yes, at seven, eight years old I rode the jitney by myself during the day, at just 35¢ a ride—of every motel and hotel along Pacific Avenue, and a few along Atlantic Avenue one block northwest, collecting every pamphlet I could find. They were all tossed into a cardboard box; when the winter felt like it was lasting too long, I would dump the box out on my parents’ bed and reminisce.

In the year after that second summer, I became attuned to pop music, leaving Philadelphia’s premiere Top 40 radio station, WIFI 92.5 FM, on in my bedroom for hours at a time, while I did homework, read or worked diligently on…projects.

Back in 1973, my parents had bought me a World Book Encyclopedia set, complete with the largest dictionaries I had ever seen. The W-Z volume had a comprehensive timeline of key events in world history. Late in 1976, I received a copy of the 1977 World Almanac and Book of Facts, which also had a comprehensive timeline of key events in world history. And I soon noticed some events were on one timeline but not the other.

Thus, in February 1977, with WIFI 92 as my personal soundtrack, I began to write out a collated timeline, drawing from both sources. Thirty-six lined notebook pages hand-written in pencil later, I had only gotten as far as June 30, 1841—so I decided to slap a red construction paper cover on it and call it Volume I.

Important Events and Dates.JPG

I assigned it Dewey Decimal value 909.

You could say I came to my senses—or I bought a copy of the astounding Encyclopedia of World History—because I never did “publish” a Volume II. In April 1978,[4] however, I wrote a similarly non-knowledge-advancing booklet—no cool cover this time—called 474 PREFIXES, ROOTS AND SUFFIXES. This volume, assigned Dewey Decimal number 423, was only 10 pages long, despite being more comprehensive.

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Even before I immersed myself in hours of 1970s Top 40 radio, I had heard bits and pieces of New Year’s Eve countdowns of the year’s top songs. The first one I remember hearing was at the end of 1974, because I heard Elton John’s “Bennie and the Jets,” which topped the Billboard Hot 100 in April 1974—though I could be mixing it up with John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” released as a single the previous year.

In January 1980, Solid Gold debuted with a two-hour special counting down the top 50 songs of 1979. I was particularly curious to know the ranking of my favorite song at the time, Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk;” if memory serves, it led off the show at #50. A few days earlier, my cousins and I had listened in the house we then shared to WIFI-92’s top 100 songs of 1979 countdown.

I was vaguely aware there were weekly magazines that tracked top songs and albums, but I did not buy a copy of Cashbox until late April 1980.[5] My Scotch whisky revelation nearly eight years later was a mere passing fancy compared to this slender combination of music and data. I pored over its charts for hours, even calling my best friend to all but read the singles and album charts to him; utterly disinterested, he was nonetheless very patient with my exuberance. That fall, I noticed that every Saturday, the Philadelphia Bulletin published that week’s Billboard top 10 singles, albums—and two other categories, possibly country and soul. Reading these charts—literally covering them with a napkin which I slid up to uncover each song/album from #10 to #1—became a staple ritual of my regular Saturday morning brunch with my father, from whom my mother had separated in March 1977. Not satisfied with reading them, I clipped each set of charts so I could create my own rankings along the lines of “top songs, September 1980 to March 1981.”

On December 31, 1980 and January 1, 1981, I heard two radio stations present their “Top 100 of 1980” countdowns. I listened to the first one with my cousins in my maternal grandmother’s apartment in Lancaster, PA; my mother and her sister were also there. The second one my mother and I heard in the car driving home, although we lost the signal halfway through the countdown; I still was able to hear one of my favorite songs then: “More Love” by Kim Carnes. The following weekend, I found a paper copy of yet another 1980 countdown while visiting the Neshaminy Mall with my mother and severely mentally-impaired sister, who lives near there. It was probably there I also found Billboard’s yearend edition, which I purchased—or my mother purchased for me.

After a delirious week perusing its contents, I obtained a copy of the first official weekly Billboard of 1981, for the week ending January 10—albeit released Tuesday, January 6. One week later, I bought the January 17 edition, then the January 24 edition, then the January 31 edition. In fact, I bought every single issue of Billboard for the next seven-plus years, ritualistically digesting its charts using the same uncovering method as the charts published in the Bulletin. I brought each issue to school with me, where my friends and I would pore over its contents during lunch period. Later, I happily scrutinized airplay charts from a selection of Top 40 radio stations across the country—I underlined particular favorites—while waiting to make deliveries for Boardwalk Pizza and Subs in the spring and summer of 1984.

On the few occasions I did not have the $4 purchase price, I sold an album or two to Plastic Fantastic, then located on Lancaster Avenue in Bryn Mawr, PA, to make up the difference; this was after cajoling my mother to drive me to the excellent newspaper and magazine store which then stood a short walk down Lancaster Avenue from Plastic Fantastic. While new issues of Billboard were released every Tuesday, in 1981 and 1982, I would have heard the new week’s Top 40 singles counted down the previous Sunday night on the American Top 40 radio program, then hosted by Casey Kasem.

Sometime in 1981, I began to compile weekly lists of the Top 10 groups, male artists and female artists…so it is not all surprising that over winter break from my sophomore year of high school, I calculated my own “Top 100 of 1981” lists. In the days prior to Excel, this meant I gathered all 51 weekly issues (the final chart of the year freezes for a week) into what I would later call a “mountain of Billboards” on the floor of my bedroom—sometimes the mountain would migrate into the living room—and tally every single and album that had appeared in the top 10 on blank sheets of paper, using acronyms to save my hands from cramping. I used a combination of highest chart position, weeks at that position, total weeks on the chart, and weeks topping such charts as Adult Contemporary, Rock, Country and Soul to generate my rankings. There would always be fewer than 100 singles or albums entering the top 10 in any given year so I would then move into the top 20 for singles and top 30 for albums. I had ways—long since forgotten—of adding up an artist’s singles and albums “points,” allowing me to produce an overall top 100 artist countdown.

Digging into my record collection, and pestering friends for whatever tracks they had, on January 1, 1982, I sat in my bedroom with my cousin and DJ’d my first Top 100 countdown, using a snippet of “Lucifer” by Alan Parsons Project for “commercial breaks.”

That first year, I stuck to the primary charts, but ambition seized me over the next few years, and I began to contemplate creating sub-generic lists; I would usually run out of steam after a week or so, however.  Fueling this obsessive data compiling were large navy mugs filled with a mixture of black coffee and eggnog. Even after enrolling at Yale in September 1984,[6] I would look forward to arriving back in our Penn Valley, PA apartment so I could dive into Billboard mountain and immerse myself in that year’s charts. I would come up for air to visit with family and friends, of course, but then it was right back into the pile, MTV playing on my bedroom television set.

Over the years, I never threw any issues away, which meant schlepping them with me on the Amtrak train from New Haven, CT to Philadelphia; my poor mother had to move giant piles of them twice, in 1986 (~275 issues) and 1987 (~325). They were a bit lighter then because I had gotten into the habit of taping some of the beautiful full-page ads depicting covers of albums being promoted that week. It started with Icehouse by Icehouse, then Asia by Asia; when my mother moved from our Penn Valley apartment, I had taped up a line of pages running nearly halfway around the walls of my bedroom.

Then, one week in September 1988, I did not buy the new edition of Billboard. Most likely, my musical tastes were shifting after I discovered alternative-rock station WHFS. Another explanation is that election data had been slowly replacing music chart data over the past four years. Moreover, I had landed on a new obsession: baseball, specifically the Philadelphia Phillies. Whatever the reason, I have not bought a Billboard since then, though I still have two Joel-Whitburn-compiled books from the late 1980s.

Besides the Phillies and American politics, I have had a wide range of obsessions since then, most recently film noir, Doctor Who, David Lynch/Twin Peaks and, of course, Stranger Things. My obsession with Charlie Chan is old news. But none of these had quite the immersive allure those piles of Billboards had in the 1980s.

Alas, my mother finally threw out all of them in the 1990s. While I wish she had at least saved the eight yearend issues, perhaps it is all for the best. Did I mention a college girlfriend once broke up with me—on Valentine’s Day no less—because I alphabetized my collection of button-down Oxford shirts by color, solids to the left of stripes?

Until next time…

[1] Nell reminds me that at some point in the year before our October 2007 wedding, she came into the bathroom while I was counting down. She apparently interrupted me because I told her, “Now I have to start again!”

[2] For reasons long since forgotten, I switched to Jack Daniels—bourbon—for a few years around 2000. I must have talked a lot about that being my default adult beverage order, because on a first date in December 2000, my soon-to-be girlfriend (my last serious relationship before Nell, for those keeping score at home) waited expectantly for me to ask for “that thing you always order.”

[3] I have long joked that if my upper respiratory system were a building, it would have been condemned decades earlier. In October 2011, I finally had surgery to repair a deviated septum and remove nasal polyps. I may still snore, but it longer sounds like I am about to stop breathing.

[4] April 19, to be exact

[5] I remember “Rock Lobster” by The B-52’s being listed, which narrows the editions to April 19 and April 26.

[6] I was so obsessed with Billboard, I actually suggested I analyze its charts for a data analysis course I took my sophomore year. Not surprisingly, that was a non-starter with the professor.

Stranger Things…about me?

Let us start with the easy one.

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But first, if you have not watched—and still plan to watch—all 25 episodes of the gobsmackingly-excellent Stranger Things, then I strongly advise you not to read further until after you have done so.

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In Episode 2 of Season 2, “Trick or Treat, Freak”, Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer) invites Jonathan Byers (Charlie Heaton) to come to “Tina’s party” on Halloween with her and her boyfriend Steve Harrington (Joe Keery). The introverted Jonathan demurs, noting he has to keep an eye on his younger brother Will (Noah Schnapp) while he trick-or-treats with his friends.

Nancy, brushing past this transparent deflection, notes he would still be home fairly early in the evening, at which point he will simply “read Kurt Vonnegut while listening to the Talking Heads.” Jonathan ultimately attends the party, allowing him to be on site to drive a very drunk Nancy home after she effectively dumps Steve and sets a new record for use of the word “bullshit.”

The episode takes place over the last days of October 1984, when I was a freshman at Yale. This makes me one year older than Steve, two years older than Nancy and Jonathan, and five years older than Will and his friends; I am roughly Jonathan’s age. And it was in the spring and summer of 1984 that I read the only three Vonnegut novels I have ever read: Breakfast of Champions, Cat’s Cradle and Deadeye Dick. Moreover, back then I listened to a lot of Talking Heads—there is no “the”—even seeing them live in the summers of 1983 and 1984. That July, when I created a two-cassette mixcalled “Interstate Survival,” two Talking Heads tracks made the cut: “Take Me to the River” and “Stay Hungry” (one of my 25 favorite tracks of all time), both from the excellent More Songs About Buildings and Food album. That November, I created another two-cassette mix called “Paxton Mix,” the last name of my then-girlfriend. Making the cut were not only the two aforementioned Talking Heads tracks, but also the live version of “Once in a Lifetime” from the recently released Stop Making Sense soundtrack, “I Get Wild/Wild Gravity” from Speaking in Tongues and “Artists Only,” the latter also from More Songs.

So, when Nancy told Jonathan he would just “read Kurt Vonnegut and listen to the Talking Heads,” she could easily have been talking to me. And while this is the most obvious way in which I strongly identify with some aspect of Stranger Things, it is not the most important.

Not by a long shot.

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I previously noted my contrarian resistance to watching, reading or listening to something simply because it is popular. I prefer to discover cultural works for myself—though I must admit the only reason I started reading Vonnegut is because my closest friend at the time suggested it.

This is why I did not watch any episodes of Stranger Things until this past October, My wife Nell and I started watching the show almost on a lark—but we were permanently hooked once the cold open of Episode 1 of Season 1, “The Disappearance of Will Byers” faded into the now-iconic theme music. And over the next five or six weekends—weeknights are reserved for MSNBC—we eagerly watched all 25 episodes.

Nell and I reveled in the show’s obvious literary and cinematic homages, most notably Stephen King[1] and Steven Spielberg—the first season is basically E.T. the Terrestrial meets Firestarter; it is merely a coincidence both films star Drew Barrymore. We spent Season 2 debating whether to trust Paul Reiser’s Dr. Sam Owens, the new director of Hawkins Lab. Nell had seen him in Aliens, a clear influence on the season, so she did not trust him at all; I have not seen Aliens. His redemptive arc is a season highlight; Nell conceded I had been right—or, at least, lucky.

Bringing my own cultural influences to our viewing, I detected the perhaps-unconscious influence of David Lynch, particularly in the pulses of electricity and flashing lights which signal the presence of the show’s various monsters from the “Upside Down.” The scene in Episode 6 of Season 3, “E Pluribus Unum,” when first Jim Hopper (David Harbour) then Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) try to call Dr. Owens, only to reach a man sitting in front of four yellow telephones who answers “Philadelphia Public Library” could have come from Mulholland Drive, while in Twin Peaks, Special Agent Dale Cooper and three fellow agents work out of the Philadelphia office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

After watching all 25 episodes—and I am 50/50 whether “the American” is Hopper, though I believe he did not die when Joyce blew up “The Key”—we debated whether to let our almost-10 and almost-12 daughters—watch the series. The show’s youngest characters—Eleven (“El,” Millie Bobby Brown), Will, Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin Henderson (Gaten Matarazzo), Lucas Sinclair (Caleb McLaughlin) and, as of Season 2, Maxine “Max” Mayfield (Sadie Sink)—are 12 years old at the start of the series, which takes place in November 1983. This helped us to decide they could at least watch the first two seasons, which are not nearly as over-the-top gory and, frankly, ridiculous as Season 3; I agree with Jonathan when he asks Nancy, “What part of any of this makes sense?”[2] Or with Steve’s perplexed look as he confirms the giant fleshy spider thing that wants to kill El is a machine made not from metal and screws, but from melted people.[3]

We feel your pain, Steve.

To be fair, a moment early in Season 3 cautions viewers not to take the season too seriously. Early in Episode 1, “Suzie, Do You Copy?”, Steve, now working at Scoops Ahoy in the new Starcourt Mall, lets Will, Mike, Lucas and Max sneak into the mall’s movie theater to watch Day of the Dead, which is a pure “popcorn movie.”

Actually, Season 3 is not so much bad as it is analogous to an album with one or two truly incredible tracks and a lot of mediocre, or worse, filler. If Seasons 1 and 2 are The Cars and Candy-O, then Season 3 is Panorama; not bad, but nowhere as absurdly good as the first two albums by The Cars. The incredible tracks are the evolving relationships between the show’s characters[4]—especially the classic boyfriend-girlfriend-BFF triangle that forms between Mike, El, and Max; after all, it is Max that feeds El the immortal words “I dump your ass.”[5]  Our eldest daughter wholeheartedly agrees, as she has just begun to pay attention to boys as BOYS. While both girls fell in love with the show as quickly as Nell and I did, it was the older one, after seeing El and Mike finally attend the Snowball Dance together[6]—then have one of television’s great kisses as they slow-danced—who stood up and did the cookie dance. Which is apparently something she saw on LankyBox.

To be fair, we had literally just watched six episodes in a row, wrapping up Season 2. We all should have gotten up to dance.

This also explains their gifts for the first night of Chanukah. El is supposed to have a blue barrette, but it accidentally got knocked off her head and needs to be glued back on.

Eleven and Mike FunkoPop

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I first started seeing a psychotherapist when I was 11 or 12 years old, after what I laughably call a suicide attempt: I mashed a bunch of random pills into a wooden salad bowl, poured in some grape soda, took one or two tentative sips—and left the bowl for my mother to find while I attended Hebrew School. That lasted a little over one year. Then, during my junior year of high school, a B in trigonometry on semester—among other far more serious things—led me to decide to swallow 32 Contac decongestant pills. After three days of torment in which nothing happened to me physiologically, I broke down and told my mother what I had done. This led to psychotherapy round two, which lasted only a few months. On the evening of January 20, 1989, I was struck by a speeding car as I crossed 16th Street in the Washington, DC neighborhood of Adams Morgan; having just watched the inauguration of President George Herbert Walker Bush, my first thought was “so much for kinder and gentler.” As part of my healing process—and because insurance covered it—I started my third round of psychotherapy; this lasted until I moved to Philadelphia four months later. Finally, for all of the reasons I list in the Introduction to the book I am writing, I started seeing my fourth psychotherapist in the summer of 2016.

A few weeks ago, I did something in therapy I had never done before.

I cried.

I was trying to describe the closing scene of Episode 7 of Season 2, “The Lost Sister,” and I could not get the words out of my mouth.

Just bear with me while I explain. Three episodes earlier, El, while cleaning the cabin she shares in secret with Hopper, discovers a box containing his research into children possibly kidnapped so their psionic abilities could be tested by Dr. Martin Brenner (Matthew Modine) in Hawkins Lab. Realizing Hopper lied when he said his mother had died, she runs away to find her, using her ability to locate someone from a photograph. In so doing, she discovers she had a kind of “sister” in Hawkins Lab—numbered 008, just as Jane (her real name) was numbered 011. El runs away again to find Kali (Linnea Berthelsen), what 008 now calls herself, in Chicago, where she and four societal outcasts live in an abandoned warehouse and hunt down what El calls the “bad men” from Hawkins Lab. Kali does her best to get El to join their quest to kill their former torturers, but El, after “seeing” the two people she most loves—Hopper and Mike—are in serious danger, decides to return to Hawkins (a fictional Indiana town) to help.

In a moment of crystalline clarity, El realizes that while “her policeman” (Hopper is Hawkins Chief of Police) may not be able to save her, she can save Hopper, Mike and the rest of her newfound friends. In the process, we have cycled through a series of places labeled El’s “home”: the cabin she shares with Hopper, the house belonging to her now-catatonic mother Terry (Aimee Mullins) and her sister Becky (Amy Siemetz), and wherever Kali and her crew happen to be squatting.

In one of the most haunting sequences of the entire series. Kali’s stricken face looking through a van window morphs into El’s forlorn face looking through a window of the bus taking her back to Hawkins. An older black woman (Avis-Marie Barnes), seeing a young girl traveling alone, kindly sits with her. When she asks El where she is going, the latter softly responds, “I’m going to my friends. I’m going home.”

These were the words I struggled to articulate through my tears.

I am still trying to understand why that particular moment turned a show I greatly enjoyed into something far deeper and richer, something resonating with me the way only the most compelling works of art do.

Yes, I was thrilled for El that, after “living” in Hawkins Lab for 12 years, she was fortunate enough to find Mike, Dustin and Lucas within 24 hours of escaping. Or as our wise younger daughter said while watching an early episode, “Mike is taking such good care of El!”

Yes, I spent the 1980s between the ages of 13 and 23, so there is a powerful element of bittersweet nostalgia in Stranger Things for me—and for Nell as well.

Yes, I was…well, not quite a nerd like the Dungeons-and-Dragons playing Mike, Dustin, Lucas and Will, but certainly President of the Math Team and in no way athletic—with the odd exception of gymnastics, in which I did well.

Yes, I attended brutally awkward dances called “mixers” in 7th and 8th grade, though unlike Mike and Lucas I did not slow dance with the girl I “liked” and share a romantic smooch. I did not have my first girlfriend until 10th grade, when I also had my first kiss.

Yes, just as the four boys form “The Party,” two other friends and I started the short-lived Bibliophiles and Explorers Club in 6th grade, while in 8th grade, the six of us who every lunch sat at the same places at the same cafeteria table decided to secede from said cafeteria to form The State of Confusion. We drafted a constitution, elected a “dictator” every week whose only power was to mouth off at anyone he chose (again, all boys), and wrote a letter to then-Secretary-of-State Ed Muskie requesting foreign aid in the form of the total cost of six school lunches. We never did hear back from Secretary Muskie.

All of those identifications and connections are true…but it was something about being 13 years old and “going home” that hit me. I have two possible, if ultimately unsatisfying explanations.

First, three years ago I began to search for my genetic family, so I strongly identify with someone searching for her/his “true” family. Like El, while I met some goof people, I quickly realized my “true” family was the one I was with all along. Just as El was incredibly lucky to happen upon the boys after escaping from Hawkins Lab, I was just as lucky Lou and Elaine Berger adopted me, sight unseen, in the summer of 1966.

Second, I lived in a comfortable split-level house in the Philadelphia suburb of Havertown until my parents separated in March 1977, when I was 10 years old. My mother and I then moved three times in three years, and I enrolled in a new school district twice. After the second moves, we lived in somebody else’s house for a year. Four years after the third move, I went to college, then lived in DC and the Philadelphia suburbs for a year before moving to suburban Boston in September 1989. Over the next 18 years, I lived in seven different apartments before marrying Nell and settling into a suburban Boston apartment with her; we lived there 11 years. By then, however, my father and mother had long since died, and whatever tenuous “home” I had in the Philadelphia suburbs of my youth went with them.

I thus have not been able to go “home” in a very real sense since I was 10 years old—or maybe not since college, when my mother moved out of the apartment we shared while I attended high school. And while I very much have a home now with Nell and our daughters, that is my adult home; my childhood home is long gone.[7]

These explanations are part of why I broke down in tears at that scene, but they only scratch the surface.

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That is not the only scene to induce waterworks, even granting my heartstrings are easily pulled, particularly by father-son stuff, broadly speaking.

At the end of Episode 8 of Season 2, “The Mind Flayer,” continuing into the start of the next episode, “The Gate,” we finally get the reunion, after “353 days…I heard,” between El and Mike, inter alia. It is then Mike realizes that Hopper—with the (mostly) best of intentions—has been “protecting her.”

Actually, let us back up one second to revisit one of the most badass entrances in television history.

Following the tearful embrace of Mike and El is an explosion of emotion, as the former—simultaneously irate, relieved and extremely hormonal—literally pummels a remarkably patient Hopper while shouting “I don’t blame her, I blame you!“ and “Nothing about this is OK!” His screams of impotent young teenage rage quickly fade into the uncontrolled sobs of a boy, however, as he collapses into Hopper’s arms, the latter soothing and comforting Mike with “You’re OK…I’m sorry.”

This is one of a handful of scenes I regularly revisit, primarily because it is the perfect encapsulation of the boy both angry at, and requiring comfort from, a father figure. That Hopper later formally adopts El, making the former Mike’s girlfriend’s father—a very different form of fraught relationship—is less relevant here.

More to the point, however, it distills into one nearly-flawless scene a moment I needed to have with my father at some point, but never did.

As I said, my parents separated on March 2, 1977. I knew it was coming; my mother and I had been poring over apartment floor plans for weeks. Nonetheless, the night before the separation, my father did something he had never done before: he sat down at our kitchen table to type a school assignment for me, a two-page report I had written on George Gershwin for my 5th grade music class.

When he had finished, he set the papers aside and asked me if I knew what was happening tomorrow. Yes, I said. But before I even had the chance to yell at him that “I don’t blame her, I blame you,” he did something else I had never seen him do before.

He started to cry.

Which meant I started to comfort my distraught father, rather than the other way around. How could I be angry or sad at a man so obviously broken?

And this was not the last time I had to play comforting adult to an actual adult. My ex-Philly-cop grandfather once accidentally spilled steaming hot tomato soup down my chest; despite the pain, however, I ended up assuring my shattered grandfather I was fine. Meanwhile, I was 15 when my father died from his third heart attack, but after a short night of grieving, I was helping to take care of his girlfriend as we sat shiva; to my mother’s credit, she hosted the shiva despite her divorce being finalized seven months earlier. Finally, given that my mother spent so much time caring for her only natural child, a severely mentally disabled daughter—why I was adopted in the first place—there was little space in my childhood for that sort of cathartic outburst.

It is thus only natural that watching Mike absolutely unload on Hopper only to be folded into his arms in comfort provided a kind of catharsis by proxy. This works well as a first approximation to why I am so deeply moved by that scene.

**********

There are other scenes that provoke a similarly emotional reaction—again, that is what compelling art is supposed to do—including…

  • El reading Hopper’s undelivered speech, with Hopper—presumed to be dead—narrating over shots of the Byers family moving out of their house, taking El with them: Joyce-the-mother replacing Hopper-the-father.
  • Mike’s charming fumbling attempt to ask El to go to the Snowball with him, using a furtive kiss to replace the words he cannot speak. El’s small surprised smile of delight is a masterclass in facial acting.[8]
  • Mike and El saying the awkward goodbyes of teenagers just before reading Hopper’s speech, with El screwing up the courage to tell Mike, “I love you too.” (I would not hear a girl say that to me—if memory, that devious trickster, serves—until my freshman year at Yale).

But I will close with one of the most beautiful scenes I have ever seen on television: Hopper driving El to Hawkins Lab to close “the gate” just after El is reunited with her friends. As filmed, it is just a “father” and a “daughter” talking, quietly but with purpose, just as I have done hundreds of times with my own daughters, with the caveat neither daughter is telekinetic or has extrasensory perception, nor have I ever referred to myself as “a black hole.” The father sets aside his anger—mostly at himself—simply to listen. And in a gut-punch moment, we realize that in the year Hopper has taken care of El, he never told her about his own daughter Sara, whose untimely death from what we think is leukemia ended his marriage, drove him into alcohol and drug abuse, and sent him back to Hawkins from what we think is New York City. I love my wife and daughters, and I cannot fathom losing any of them. Meanwhile, the closest my father ever came to that level of honest self-awareness with me was the night before he separated from my mother—though even then he never truly took responsibility for it.[9]

But for all Hopper shows us how broken he really is (setting up his slow-burn breakdown in Season 3), El—who also admits having been “stupid” (“It sounds like we both broke our rule,” admonishes Hopper gently) by running away to her mother and Chicago—simply takes his hand in forgiveness.

Cue the waterworks—as a father of daughters, as the child of a father, as someone with no patience for cynicism and prevarication.

By the way, did I mention that Mike looks a LOT like me as a boy, sans braces, while El looks a good deal like Nell to me, except with brown hair?

Until next time…

[1] Nell has read everything Stephen King has ever written.

[2] Episode 5 of Season 3, “The Flayed”

[3] Episode 8 of Season 3, “The Battle of Starcourt”

[4] The awful tracks would be both the excessive gore and the glaring plot holes, such as 1) how the music from the Indiana Flyer could have been recorded over the transmission of the Russian code, 2) how the Russians knew anything at all about “the gate” having been opened in Hawkins Lab by El in November 1983—but were still trying to open their own gate eight months later, 3) how the Russians knew about “the gate” but not about what horrors lay behind that gate, and 4) why El refers back to Mike’s inadvertent admission he loves her but NOT to Mike’s charmingly inept attempt to tell her directly in the grocery store.

[5] Episode 2 of Season 3, “The Mall Rats”

[6] Episode 9 of Season 2: “The Gate”

[7] The house is still there, and I drive past it once a year or so, but the point stands.

[8] This was the first kiss in the lives of both actors as well, I have been told. Curiously, while I had my first romantic kiss at 15, the first time I kissed a girl in a remotely romantic way was also while “acting.” At the end of a 3rd grade play about the relative importance of intelligence and luck, Mr. Intelligence (yours truly) kisses Miss Luck (a female classmate whose name I sadly forget). As our eldest daughter would say, “so cringe.”

[9] Suffice to say my father liked to play cards and visit the racetrack.

A Surrealist Epic Post-Thanksgiving Poem

Since we first started hosting Thanksgiving dinner in, I believe, 2012, I have been responsible for the epic cleanup. As with all good rituals, it started as a one-off: I put Nell and the girls to bed and said good night to the last of our guests to leave with the understanding I would finish cleaning the living/dining room and kitchen.

This meant two things.

One, pulling out my portable CD player and earbuds and four older CD mixes. Forget whistling while you work: there was full on singing and dancing. Cavorting, even.

Two, it was not enough simply to run the dishwasher, make things passably tidy and leave the rest until morning. No, I had to restore the living/dining to its pre-meal state, which included moving furniture to its normal location; wash, dry and put away every single pot, dish and piece of flatware; store every leftover; and clean (within reason—I could not run a dust buster or vacuum cleaner) the two rooms, including taking out the garbage and recycling.

If memory serves, that first cleanup took about three-and-a-half hours, with dazzling results; if there is such a thing as kinetic zen, this is it.

And a ritual was born.

In preparation for Thanksgiving 2019, I curated a playlist of 55 tracks totaling 3 hours and 50 minutes on my classic flywheel iPod. I usually make the playlist a bit too long, finding myself wandering around listening to the last few tracks, but this year I actually had to restart the mix, playing the first two tracks again while I took out the garbage and recycling.

Darn, what a shame.

To honor this mix, of which I am quite proud, I decided to create a surrealist epic poem consisting of representative (read: the ones I most enjoy singing) lyrics from each track in sequence. As three tracks are instrumentals, two serve as overtures to the two parts of the poem, and one introduces the dramatic conclusion.[1]

It is no secret I have eclectic taste in music, though given my recent obsession with Stranger Things (after enjoying David Harbour as the guest host on Saturday Night Live on October 12, 2019, Nell and I watched all 25 episodes in seven weeks), there is a heavy emphasis on the generic classifications of “New Wave” (11 tracks), “Post-Punk” (4) and “Synthpop” (3); seven other tracks could easily be classified under this rubric as well, for a total of 25. Moreover, 30 tracks were released between 1980 and 1989; the show is set in 1983-85 (11 tracks). That said, eight tracks from the 1970s fall into a broad Soul/R&B/Funk/Disco category, six other tracks from that decade fall into a broad folk rock/singer-songwriter/soft rock category. Finally, four of the seven tracks released between 1990 and 2016 fall into a grunge/Alternative Rock category, two are from movie/television soundtracks and, last but far from least, is the joyous Americana of “Square Glass in the Wall” by the Four Legged Faithful.

Given the inherent spirit of randomness masquerading as creativity, I illustrate this epic poem with our eldest daughter’s unnamed creation from November 28, 2014, the day AFTER Thanksgiving that year.

IMG_1455.JPG

**********

Part 1

Overture: Theme from Stranger Things by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein

 

Well lately

You look around

You’re wondering what you’re doing

Yeah lately

You look around

You’re wondering what you’re seeing

What you’re doing.

 

I know you

Were expecting a one-night stand

When I refused

I knew you wouldn’t understand

I told you twice

I was only trying to be nice

Only trying to be nice

Ooh, I didn’t mean to turn you on.

 

So grab your friends, get the train comin’ through

Climb on board, where you leave’s up to you

Leave your worries behind

‘Cause rain, shine, don’t mind

We’re ridin’ on the groove line tonight.

 

Ohh, if I had my wits about me now

About me now

I would tear across the waterway somehow

Oh somehow

The body has never turned its back on me this way

Dare I say

Something was wrong.

 

The wild dogs cry out in the night

As they grow restless, longing for some solitary company

I know that I must do what’s right

As sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti

I seek to cure what’s deep inside, frightened of this thing that I’ve become.

 

Every day, every night

In that all old familiar light

You hang up when I call you at home

And I try to get through

Ant I try to talk to you

But there’s something stopping me from getting through.

 

Nothing lasts forever

Of that I’m sure

Now you’ve made an offer

I’ll take some more

Young loving may be

Oh so mean

Will I still survive

The same old scene?

 

We must play our lives like soldiers in the field

The life is short

I’m running faster all the time

Strength and beauty destined to decay

So cut the rose in full bloom

‘Til the fearless come and the act is done

A love like blood

A love like blood.

 

And I was here to please

I’m even on my knees

Makin’ love to whoever I please

I gotta do it my way

Or no way at all.

 

Come doused in mud, soaked in bleach

As I want you to be

As a trend, as a friend

As an old

Memoria, memoria

Memoria, memoria

And I swear that I don’t have a gun

No I don’t have a gun.

 

The body’s weak, the shadow’s strong

Walk through the fire

Through the dust and ashes

While the building crashes

Walk through the flame

Lion show no sign of fear.

 

I find myself on canvas

I find myself on stage

Can you see me?

Are you near me?

And I long to know you’re real

And I long for you to be a part of me

I long to know you’re real

And I long for you to be a part of me.

 

I might like you better if we slept together

But there’s something in your eyes

That says maybe

That’s never

Never say never.

 

This old town’s changed so much

Don’t feel that I belong

Too many protest singers, not enough protest songs

And now you’ve come along, yes, you’ve come along

And I never met a girl like you before.

 

Politician’s promises

Have made all of us doubting Thomas’

And as we all adjust our confidence

Still in you I trust

In you I trust

In you I must

I trust you more each day

You seem to mean exactly what you say

Friend and lover, lovely friend.

 

Like the fool I am and I’ll always be

I’ve got a dream, I’ve got a dream

They can change their minds but they can’t change me

I’ve got a dream, I’ve got a dream

Oh, I know I could share it if you want me to

If you’re goin’ my way, I’ll go with you.

 

Get around town, get around town

Where the people look good, where the music is loud

Get around town, no need to stand proud

Add your voice to the sound of the crowd.

 

Where are you going now, my love

Where will you be tomorrow?

Will you bring me happiness?

Will you bring me sorrow?

Oh, the questions of a thousand dreams

What you do with what you see

Lover, can you talk to me?

 

But no matter where the days have left you

Every day ends at the street café

The street café

And no matter where the road may take you

Every time it brings you back to the street café

Yeah the street café.

 

Get on up, on the floor

‘Cause were gonna boogie oogie oogie

‘Till you just can’t boogie no more

Ah boogie, boogie no more

You can’t boogie no more

Ah boogie, boogie no more

Listen to the music.

 

Don’t talk to me about love

(yesterdays shatter, tomorrows don’t matter)

Don’t talk to me about love

(yesterdays shatter, tomorrows don’t matter)

Don’t talk to me about love

(yesterdays shatter, tomorrows don’t matter).

 

Shadows from the buildings creep along the parking cars

While the women spank their babies and the old men just drink all day in bars

And the people that “never see it” always end up as the ones who’ve seen it all

And the liquor store is crowded, while an empty phone booth rings another call

And the hills that used to all seem green now look an ugly brown

And no one ever found any movie stars on the stormy side of town.

 

All the love gone bad turned my world to black

Tattooed all I see, all that I am, all I’ll be yeah

Oh oh ooh

I know someday you’ll have a beautiful life

I know you’ll be a star in somebody else’s sky, but why

Why, why can’t it be, oh can’t it be mine?

 

Rough boys

Don’t walk away

I wanna buy you leather

Make noise

Try and talk me away

We can’t be seen together

Tough kids

What can I do?

I’m so pale and weedy.

 

I have waited a lifetime

Spent my time so foolishly

But now that I found you

Together we’ll make history

And I know that it must be the woman in you

That brings out the man in me

I know I can’t help myself

You’re all my eyes can see.

 

Dream on white boy, white boy

Dream on black girl, black girl

And wake up to a brand new day

To find your dreams have washed away.

 

Now the thing that I call livin’ is just bein’ satisfied

With knowin’ I got no one left to blame

Carefree highway, got ta see you my old flame

Carefree highway, you seen better days

The mornin’ after blues from my head down to my shoes

Carefree highway, let me slip away

Slip away on you.

 

So you’re left standing in the corner

You keep your face turned to the wall

A fading dream

A fading memory

A shooting star that had to fall

Mama Mama I keep having nightmares

Mama Mama Mama am I ill?

Mama Mama Mama hold me tighter

Mama Mama do you love me still?

 

Is there something you should tell me?

Is this the time of bliss?

Should I live without you?

I dare not contemplate.

 

Part 2

Overture: Theme from The Shadow by Jerry Goldsmith

 

This is not a horse race where winners beat the time

This is not a funeral with mourners in a line

This is not a sitcom where everything’s alright

This is not a prison with terror through the night

Go… don’t you go

Won’t you stay with me one more day?

 

You don’t pull on Superman’s cape

You don’t spit into the wind

You don’t pull the mask

From that old Lone Ranger

And you don’t mess around with Jim.

 

You function like a dummy with a new ventriloquist

Do you say nothing yourself?

Hanging like a thriller on the final twist

You know you’re getting stuck on the shelf

Come up to me with your “What did you say?”

And I’ll tell you straight in the eye, “Hey!”

D.I.Y.

 

There’ve been times in my life

I’ve been wonderin’ why

Still, somehow I believed we’d always survive

Now, I’m not so sure

You’re waiting here, one good reason to try

But, what more can I say?

What’s left to provide?

 

New cities by the sea

Skyscrapers are winking

Some hills are never seen

The universe expanding

We’re gazing out to sea

Blue dolphins are singing

Minds swim in ecstasy

Clear planet, ever free

Topaz.

 

Feel sunshine sparkle pink and blue

Playgrounds will laugh

If you try to ask

“Is it cool?”

If you arrive and don’t see me

I’m going to be with my baby

I am free, flying in her arms

Over the sea.

 

Ooh, I’m in love, I’m in love

I’m in love, I’m in love

I’m in love

Ooh, I feel love, I feel love

I feel love, I feel love

I feel love.

 

And we would go on as though nothing was wrong

And hide from these days we remained all alone

Staying in the same place, just staying out the time

Touching from a distance

Further all the time.

 

And in the morning when he’s gone

Please don’t sing that sad sad song

I don’t want to hear it

Forget about him

Let him go

It won’t hurt what he don’t know.

 

Dance with the boogie get high

‘Cause boogie nights are always the best in town

Got to keep on dancing

Keep on dancing

Got to keep on dancing

Keep on dancing.

 

Hey Jimmy

They’re calling you back

They want you to come back

And take out the garbage

They want to talk to you

About something

They found in your drawer

Under a Hustler magazine.

 

And just when I think

Everything is in its place

The universe is secure

The whole thing explodes in my face

It’s just another-

It’s just another day…

It’s just another day.

 

I can live without love

If I wanted to in this lonely room

But I don’t want to so I leave it up to you

To wash away my gloom.

 

I tried but could not bring

The best of everything

Too breathless then to wonder

I died a thousand times

Found guilty of no crime

Now everything is thunder.

 

This life I’m living’s getting so hard to feel

Ooh Ooh, I’m missing you

The days are empty and the nights are unreal

Ooh Ooh, I’m missing you.

 

You said you want to reach the sky

So get up

The feeling’s right

And the music’s tight

On the disco nights

Just say you will

Just do what you feel

I’m for real.

 

It’s gotta be a strange twist of fate

Telling me that Heaven can wait

Telling me to get it right this time

Life doesn’t mean a thing

Without the love you bring

Love is what we’ve found

The second time around.

 

In the middle, in the middle, in the middle of a dream

I lost my shirt

I pawned my rings

I’ve done all the dumb things.

 

Oh, all alone, in my bed at night

I grab my pillow and squeeze it tight

I think of you

And I dream of you, all of the time

What am I gonna do?

I want your love.

 

Here’s that rhythm again

Here’s my shoulder blade

Here’s the sound I made

Here’s the picture I saved

Here I am.

 

Ain’t nobody

Loves me better

Makes me happy

Makes me feel this way

Ain’t nobody

Loves me better than you.

 

Shopping Center crazy

I need some fast relief

The boss says, “Boy, you’re lazy”

But I’m just bored beyond belief.

 

[Musical interlude: Theme from The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension by Neil Norman]

 

What’s a poor boy to do when he’s fallen in love with you?

Help me make it through the night.

Everything’s gonna’ be alright.

Yeah…

You take me to the top.

Perhaps, just as Jews on Passover spread the reading of the Haggadah across multiple family members and guests, you could use these stanzas to defuse your next fractious gathering. Simply have each person present read a stanza, cycling through everyone until the final one. I expect the utter nonsense of the successive passages will serve as a much- needed distraction.

And, of course, here is the actual playlist:

Stranger Things Kyle Dixon & Michael Stein 2016
Lately INXS 1990
I Didn’t Mean to Turn You On Robert Palmer 1985
The Groove Line Heatwave 1978
Square Glass In The Wall The Four Legged Faithful 2012
Africa Toto 1982
Nowhere Girl B-Movie 1982
Same Old Scene Roxy Music 1980
Love Like Blood Killing Joke 1985
Turn Me Loose Loverboy 1980
Come as You Are Nirvana 1991
Walk Through the Fire Peter Gabriel 1984
Between Something and Nothing The Ocean Blue 1989
Never Say Never Romeo Void 1982
A Girl Like You Edwyn Collins 1994
In You I Trust Rupert Holmes 1979
I Got a Name Jim Croce 1973
The Sound of the Crowd The Human League 1981
Carry On Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young 1970
Street Cafe Icehouse 1982
Boogie Oogie Oogie A Taste of Honey 1978
Don’t Talk To Me About Love Altered Images 1983
Stormy Side of Town Stan Ridgway 1986
Black Pearl Jam 1992
Rough Boys Pete Townshend 1980
Feels Like the First Time Foreigner 1977
Original Sin INXS 1984
Carefree Highway Gordon Lightfoot 1974
Nightmares A Flock of Seagulls 1983
Beyond Doubt Gene Loves Jezebel 1986
The Shadow Jerry Goldsmith 1994
Stay Oingo Boingo 1985
You Don’t Mess Around With Jim Jim Croce 1972
D.I.Y. Peter Gabriel 1978
This Is It Kenny Loggins 1979
Topaz The B-52’s 1989
Strawberry Letter 23 The Brothers Johnson 1977
I Feel Love Donna Summer 1977
Transmission Joy Division 1979
When It’s Over Loverboy 1981
Boogie Nights Heatwave 1976
Jimmy Jimmy Ric Ocasek 1982
Just Another Day Oingo Boingo 1985
Love Or Let Me Be Lonely The Friends of Distinction 1970
Let Me Go Heaven 17 1982
Missing You Dan Fogelberg 1982
Disco Nights (Rock Freak) GQ 1979
Twist of Fate Olivia Newton-John 1983
Dumb Things Paul Kelly and the Messengers 1987
I Want Your Love Chic 1978
Stay Hungry Talking Heads 1978
Ain’t Nobody Rufus & Chaka Khan 1983
Rage In the Cage J. Geils Band, The 1981
The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Neil Norman 1984
Take Me to the Top Loverboy 1981

You are welcome.

Until next time…

[1] I am deeply indebted to LyricFind for help in deciphering many of these lyrics.

Always Just What I Needed: Ben Orr, Ric Ocasek and The Cars

I wrote these sentences in my Father’s Day 2019 post.

The 24-hour Howard Johnson’s in Medford was a regular late-night hangout for AC (among others) and me before it closed on December 31, 1998. It got to be a habit that on nights I did laundry in the basement laundry room of our apartment building, AC and I would “go for pie” there afterwards, which generally meant eating a full meal; I developed a particular taste for steak and eggs in those days, usually washed down with one of their orange-sherbet-based drinks. And lots of decaffeinated coffee.

“AC” is my long-term 1990s girlfriend, the one my wife Nell calls, not without reason, my “first wife.”

This Howard Johnson’s always had pop/rock music playing in the background, an early form of satellite radio. In 1997, I began to notice one song in particular. It had a lovely tinkling electric piano backed by a soft synth wash, and the chorus was a gorgeous earworm of vocal harmonies, which sounded something “It’s been coming up you, coming up you again.”

I could not get this song (which I thought might be by Alan Parsons Project) out of my head. This was in the early days of the internet, so it took me some time to figure out its title and artist.

And I was not at all surprised by what I learned. The song, “Coming Up You,” was written and recorded by one of my 10 favorite musical artists:

The Cars.

**********

Early on the evening of September 15, 2019, I was scrolling through my Twitter feed (please follow me @drnoir33), when I read a tweet that stopped me cold. It announced the death of Cars lead singer, songwriter and rhythm guitarist Ric Ocasek of natural causes at the age of 75.

I literally yelled out “Oh, NO!” when I read this tweet, and, given the proximity of our two young daughters, had to restrain myself from adding more colorful language.

I had reacted similarly late in 2000, when co-lead-singer and bass player Benjamin Orr died at the age of 53 (the age I will be in just two weeks).

My love for The Cars—arguably the new wave reincarnation of Buddy Holly and the Crickets—began in summer camp in the summer of 1979. Philadelphia rock radio stations like WMMR (93.3 FM) and WYSP (94.1 FM) were seemingly always playing in our bunk. Among the songs they regularly played (at least in my memory) were “Just What I Needed,” “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight,” “My Best Friend’s Girlfriend” and one that really appealed to me, “Good Times Roll.”  It is possible “Let’s Go” (from their excellent second album, Candy-O) was also being played then.

In my suburban musical cocoon, I was slowly becoming aware of this new genre of music: synthesizer-based, angular and uncomplicated. The sound was fresh and clean, highly melodic and hook-driven, and unencumbered by endless instrumental passages.

It was love at first listen, especially this band I soon learned was called The Cars. Years later, I would learn how heavily influenced they were by another top 10 musical artist of mine, Roxy Music. But that is a conversation for another day.

Perhaps a year later, my father (routinely short of money in those days) and I were in a Sam Goody record store in the suburban Philadelphia town of Ardmore; it may well have been for my 14th birthday. He had promised to buy something for me, so I walked up to the checkout counter with three albums: The Cars and Panorama by The Cars (debut and third albums, respectively) and Breakfast in America by Supertramp. Their combined cost was about $25, roughly the equivalent of $75 today.

He gulped a few times, but shelled out the money. After all, this was a man who would say to me whenever I ordered food in a restaurant, “Order whatever you want, pal, just so long as you eat it.”

I did the analogous thing with those three records: I played the heck out of them for years.

Thank you, Dad. That meant the world to me.

While Panorama (released in the fall of 1980) is the only Cars album I still have on vinyl, I gravitated more toward the exceptional debut album; it is still one of the handful of albums I enjoy playing straight through, first note to last.

Panorama

What especially grabbed me was a short instrumental bridge (highly evocative of The Pretenders’ “Private Life”) between the last two tracks on side two, “Moving in Stereo” (memorably featured in the best high school movie ever made) and “All Mixed Up.” As the slow, synth-driven crunch of “Moving” ends, David Robinson plays a soft rhythm on the cymbals. A few seconds later, Elliot Easton overlays a simple shimmering guitar lick backed by a gentle synth arpeggiation from Greg Hawkes. The passage lasts only about 15 second before Orr begins to sing, “She shadows me in the mirror/she never leaves on the light/And some things that I say to her/they just don’t seem to bite.”

I was so mesmerized I played those 15 seconds over and over again—and, in August 1981, when I created my first mix cassette (cleverly titled “My Stuff”), side one ended with those two tracks. Side two opened with two tracks from Panorama: the ethereal “Touch and Go” and the propulsive “Running to You.” The video for “Touch and Go” received a fair amount play on a Sunday night, half-hour television program that aired (on HBO?) at 11 pm. Because everything connects, note that Ric, Ben, Elliot, Greg and David are riding a Tilt-A-Whirl.

The photograph on the rear of Panorama, all black-and-white and shadows, is still how I think of The Cars (and presaged my later love for film noir).

Panorama rear.JPG

Those four tracks were the first of 23 (of 3,305) I would record onto a mix over the next 25 years. Indeed, for my second mix (Stuff Vol. I, December 1981), I recorded “Cruiser,” from their fourth album (Shake It Up), off of the radio (WMMR, most likely). This meant that five of the first 36 tracks to appear on a mix were by The Cars; no other artist had more than two.

However, I would not put another Cars song on a mix cassette until June 1985 (Summer 85, Vol. III), when I recorded the haunting “Drive,” from Heartbeat City, their fifth (and most commercially successful) album, off the radio. The final “scene” of the arty video for the song (third of four singles to reach the Billboard Top 10) reinforces the notion The Cars evoke the 1950s. The eight Summer 85 mixes also include “Dangerous Type” and “Let’s Go” from Candy-O, both recorded off the radio. Two years later, having finally bought a used vinyl copy of Candy-O, I put “Shoo-Be-Doo” and the title track onto a mix; I would then record a live video for “Good Times Roll” onto a VHS cassette in 1989 and “It’s All I Can Do” (from Candy-O) onto the April 1990 Stuff and Such, Vol. XVI mix, meaning 12 of the first 998 (1.2%)  tracks to make it onto a mix were from The Cars.

But that would be it until October 1995, when Panorama opened Stuff and Such, Vol. XVIII.

**********

Heartbeat City was released in March 1984. In the interim, Ocasek released his first solo album, Beatitude, at the very end of 1982. I would purchase a used vinyl copy of the album in the summer of 2006; you can still see the $1.00 price tag from Harvard Square’s In Your Ear records (which, sadly, closed for good this past January).

Beatitude.JPG

Six years later, I was working at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC. A colleague and friend (who, sadly, I have not seen in more than 30 years) was a young woman with similar musical tastes to me. One night, we were out with some other colleagues, when Ocasek’s solo album came up. We both remembered the name of my favorite track from that album (which I recorded from the radio for the April 1983 “I-92 Mix”), the hypnotic ode to alienated youth “Jimmy Jimmy” (I think the video is absolutely gorgeous). But we could not remember the name of the primary single from the album, with its heavy-rotation-on-MTV video showing the tall, dark and handsome (if overly thin) Ocasek and an elegant young blonde woman preparing for a date (maybe?).

Later that night, having consulted a reference work, I called my colleague and told her the song was called “Something to Grab For.” With friendly-but-pointed questioning, she got me to admit I had not actually remembered the song’s title on my own.

She forgave me.

**********

Shake It Up and Heartbeat City, which I would not purchase until the spring of 2010, yielded The Cars’ first two Billboard Top 10 songs: “Shake It Up” and “You Might Think.” The latter song in particular, whose innovative video was an award-winner, is one of a dozen or so songs that recall the spring of 1984, when I completed my last semester of high school (having already been accepted to Yale). Those were heady and happy days, especially because I was working the most fun job I ever had.

The following summer, they performed two songs at the Live Aid festival in Philadelphia: “Just What I Needed” and “Heartbeat City.”

Two years later, they would release their sixth (and final until 2011) studio album, Door to Door. For some reason (the press of my senior year at Yale?), the album made no impression on me at the time, though I vaguely recall the Billboard top-20 single “You Are the Girl.”

And that brings us to the Howard Johnson’s in Medford, and “Coming Up You” (the third single released from Door; it peaked at #74). Once I figured out the name of the track, I bought a used cassette of the album (later replaced with a CD) and promptly made “Coming Up You” the first track on the September 1997 Stuff and Such Vol. LIII mix; it would ultimately appear on seven different mixes, edging out “All Mixed Up” (five); Cars tunes occupy 54 (0.9%) of 6,188 total “slots,” a high percentage given 1,000+ unique artists occupy those slots. Within a year, “Coming Up You” had supplanted “Save Me” by Public Image, Ltd. as my favorite track[1]. That lasted until the early 2000s, when “Blue in Green” by Miles Davis supplanted it for good.

Two other tracks from Door to Door, “Wound Up on You” and “Fine Line,” would be recorded onto 1998-99 mixes. Around this time, AC became enamored of the Ben Orr 1986 solo single, “Stay the Night,” which I would purchase on iTunes about 15 years later and put onto the May 2013 CD Stuff Vol. CIX mix.

An additional six Cars tracks would be recorded onto mixes, beginning with “Bye Bye Love” from The Cars in March 2000 (Stuff and Such Vol. LXXI). This track would be memorialized in our household as a long-running joke, once our daughters became old enough to appreciate it.

Whenever one of us would observe a sunset, or any other sky with unusual coloring, I would inevitably recite these lyrics (with Nell or one of the girls sighing in exasperation):

“It’s an orangy sky/

Always there’s some other guy/

It’s just a broken lullaby/

Bye bye love”

Last night, when I told our eldest daughter (our youngest was already asleep) why I was so sad, I used that song to explain who Ric Ocasek was.

Oh right, she said, and returned to her book.

Which was just fine.

Rest in peace, Mr. Orr and Mr. Ocasek. Your place in the rock firmament is secure.

Until next time…

[1] Technically, it was a mash-up of “Save Me” and the unlisted reprise that closes the Happy? album.

Wax museums and The Beatles: a postscript

A few weeks ago, I interrogated my memory of why I so intensely disliked The Beatles as a child and tween. Basically, I blamed the Fab Four for frightening me when I was seven or eight years old, when what actually frightened me was a wax museum Chamber of Horrors. Combine that with my extreme disinclination to be told what to like and what not to like, and you have the (silly) reasons I disdained The Beatles.

Yesterday, I read a tweet asserting The Beatles are “VASTLY overrated.” A tweet to which one especially curmudgeonly journalist I follow (and admire) replied “Dead. To. Me.” While I would not go nearly that far, I agree they are not overrated, other than in the sense that anything truly exceptional often becomes a caricature.

And I realized I never explained how I slowly reversed course on The Beatles.

**********

To be fair, as a child, I generally heard their early pop confections (e.g., “She Loves You,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand”) or other songs which, I must be honest, do very little for me (“Yesterday,” in particular).

But in July 1978, a few months before I turned 12, the wretched movie Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released. It is hard to earn a poor rating on IMDB, but this film earns a 4.1. It also has a 12% score on Rotten Tomatoes, with a somewhat more charitable Audience Score of 44%.

It is just not a good movie, despite a cast that includes Steve Martin, Donald Pleasance and George Burns…and some fine musical performances by The Bee Gees (as the titular band) and Peter Frampton (as Billy Shears); Frampton simply cannot act.

What the movie does have, though, is some interesting covers of The Beatles’ songs, including a soaring “Got to Get You Into My Life” by Earth, Wind and Fire, a powerful “Get Back” by Billy Preston, and a mesmerizing “Come Together” by Aerosmith. I would even argue the Earth, Wind and Fire version improves on the original in its sheer exuberance.

Those covers were played on the radio, not only on my favorite Philadelphia radio station, the Top 40 (plus) WIFI-92, but also on the classic rock stations I was slowly discovering: 93.3 WMMR, 94 WYSP and, a few years later, the more adult-oriented WIOQ 102.5 FM. This is how I came to hear the original version of “Come Together,” which I strongly associate with summer at Camp Arthur-Rita (long since closed) in Zieglerville, PA, about an hour’s drive of our home in Bala Cynwyd, PA.

Well, I spent the summer there minus the week-plus I was sent home with an epic case of poison ivy.

The extraordinary opening riff to “Come Together,” that slow hypnotic interplay of voice, cymbals, electric bass, drums and organ, was a revelation. This was not another one of those “silly love songs,” as Paul McCartney would call them in 1976. There was a lot more to The Beatles than I had ever realized.

The irony in the previous paragraph is that the first album I ever bought was Wings Over America; Wings—McCartney’ post-Beatles band—was my first favorite pop group, when I was about 10 years old. They would soon be toppled by Fleetwood Mac…then Peter Gabriel…then Genesis, who have reigned supreme since about 1981.

I still have Wings Over America on vinyl, by the way.

Wings Over America

But I digress.

**********

I do not know what possessed my 14-year-old self to turn on a rerun of Quincy M.E. that Monday night at 11:30 pm on our local CBS affiliate[1], when I should have been going to sleep.  I almost certainly had never watched the show before, nor have I since then. For only a few minutes into the show, it was interrupted for a breaking news bulletin.

It was December 8, 1980…and the news was that 40-year-old former Beatle John Lennon had been shot and killed outside his New York City apartment building, The Dakota, where he had lived with his wife Yoko Ono.

In the course of writing this post, I stumbled across a fact I had either forgotten or never known—that most people first heard the news of Lennon’s death from Howard Cosell on a broadcast of Monday Night Football. Nor had I known that the garrulous Cosell and the cerebral Lennon were friends.

For my generation—born just after the end of the Baby Boom ended in 1964—this was our “where were you when JFK was shot?” moment. One reason I know this is that the normally loud and raucous bus ride to Harriton High School, where I was a freshman, was eerily quiet the next morning; nobody said a word. There was a girl a year or two older than me who always sat toward the front of the bus, where she would quietly play a cassette mix tape of 1960s folk rock; if memory serves, she just sat there, softly crying. She may have played some Beatles songs, but I cannot be certain.

Like many other people, I bought a copy of Double Fantasy (which regrettably I have since sold), the double album Lennon and Ono had recently released. The singles, “Starting Over,” “Woman” and “Watching the Wheels” would dominate the airwaves for the next year or so. And Beatles songs were ubiquitous as well—or, at least, I was far more aware of them.

Not that they were moving me, however, even as the Dutch musical act Stars On was recording and releasing their “Stars on 45” Beatles medley. On March 22, 1981, I typed out a five-page list of FAVORITE SONGS, 160 in total. In the SUPREME ECHELON were “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” by The Police and “Carrie” by Cliff Richard, still one of my 100 favorite songs. Included in the 134 HIGH ECHELON songs[2] was a single Beatles song, “Come Together.” Five months later, as I detailed here, I began making my own cassette mix tapes. I created the second one (Stuff Vol. I, most likely December 1981) by flipping around my favorite radio stations and hoping for the best. Perhaps not surprisingly, the 9th of 10 tracks on side two was “Come Together.”

The following Memorial Day weekend, I listened (some while driving in the front seat of my father’s taxicab; thank you, Dad) to my first “Rock and Roll 500” on WYSP, which tended to be more “hard rock.” I dutifully (if somewhat sloppily) recorded the data in a hard-backed dark blue notebook; my tally showed The Beatles came in fourth, with 28 tracks[3] (topped by “Hey Jude” at #32), behind The Who (30), Led Zeppelin (33— “Stairway to Heaven” was #1) and the Rolling Stones (38). The only other Beatles song in the top 100 was “A Day in the Life” at #89. Two summers later, that latter track would rank #2 overall on the WMMR version of the Rock and Roll 500, with “Hey Jude” at #7.

It was “A Day in the Life” that kicked my slowly-developing interest in The Beatles to another level. “Come Together” was cool, but this was something else entirely—epic, eerie and capped off by the best orchestral crescendo ever. Early in the summer of 1982, I bought (or acquired from someone?) used vinyl copies of The Beatles’ “Red” and “Blue” albums, a combined four-disc compilation of their best songs.

Yes, I still have them.

Beatles Red.JPG

Beatles Blue.JPG

I likely bought a used vinyl copy of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band at the same time, and at some point over the next few years, I purchased Abbey Road, Revolver and The Beatles (aka the White Album).

For all that, I still resisted calling myself a Beatles fan, even as I liked more and more of their songs…and learned that Revolver was the #1 album in the United States the week I was born.

**********

Remember the girl on my high school bus with her 60s folk rock mix tape? That idea stayed with me, even after she graduated (I now suspect she was a senior), and in July 1982, I started to make my 6th mix tape cassette. Side One was my spin on her mix:

A Day in the Life Beatles, The
Gimme Shelter Rolling Stones, The
Colour My World Chicago
25 or 6 to 4 Chicago
Summer Breeze Seals and Crofts
Tuesday Afternoon Moody Blues, The
Nights in White Satin Moody Blues, The
Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds Beatles, The
Suffragette City Bowie, David
Ziggy Stardust Bowie, David

Note that I opened the mix with “A Day in the Life” and added “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” for good measure.

That October, I created Stuff Vol. VII (my 8th mix overall) by again recording songs from the radio. The 3rd track on Side Two was “Get Back.” meaning four of the first 135 tracks I put onto a mix were by The Beatles.

But that was it for nearly eight years.

In the interim, I enrolled at Yale, where two classmates continued my change in perspective on The Beatles. One was a freshman year roommate, a brilliant musician and composer whose opinion I still greatly respect (despite resisting his occasional entreaties to run for office); he regards The Beatles with an almost sacral reverence. The other was a freshman in a different residential college with whom I became close friends, despite his being 12 years older than the rest of us. He kept trying to get me to apprehend the context in which The Beatles emerged, to imagine what he lived through: the world of popular music before and after they began to record. I was insufficiently versed in musical history to grasp his lesson then, but I now understand what he meant.  Mick Jagger’s ebullient speech inducting The Beatles into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame hints at the wasteland that was popular music around 1962-63. I may yet write a post exploring that moment around 1960 when it was uncertain whether rock or jazz would become the dominant mode of popular music (clearly, the former did), and the disparate roles played by The Beatles, The Beach Boys and Bob Dylan (among others) in resolving that question.

Finally, in July 1990, I closed out Side Two of Stuff and Such Vol. XIX with three tracks from the “White” album: “Dear Prudence,” “Martha My Dear” and “Julia.” These were the 1,025th through 1,027th tracks I put onto a mix, recorded off a CD version of the album. I would eventually get Abbey Road and Revolver on CD as well, followed by Rubber Soul in 2006.

And it would be another 8½ years until the 8th Beatles track (“I Feel Fine”)—#1,484 overall—appeared on Stuff and Such Vol. LXIV. “She’s a Woman” followed in March 2000 (#1,585), with “Got To Get You Into My Life” (#1,682) making it an even 10 that November.

The following June, however, is when then dam began to break. I recorded four Beatles songs on a two-cassette mix I created for a road trip (Philadelphia to Ann Arbor, MI). Three more would follow in 2002, two in 2003, two in 2004, three in 2006-07 (including what is likely my favorite Beatles song, “If I Needed Someone” from Rubber Soul) and one in 2009; I was now up to 25 Beatles songs out of 2,649.

Finally, in July 2010, that number increased by 10 when I put the entire Abbey Road Side Two medley on disc eight of an 11-CD mix I created for a trip to Philadelphia.

Because Beatles, The
You Never Give Me Your Money Beatles, The
Sun King Beatles, The
Mean Mr. Mustard Beatles, The
Polythene Pam Beatles, The
She Came In Through the Bathroom Window Beatles, The
Golden Slumbers Beatles, The
Carry That Weight Beatles, The
The End Beatles, The
Her Majesty Beatles, The

I added one final Beatles track (“Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey,” #2,799) in June 2012, meaning that through August 2015 (the last time I updated the database, unfortunately), 36 Beatles tracks were included among 3,305 total tracks (1.1%). A similar 1.3% (124) of the 9,560 tracks in my iTunes are Beatles tracks; for context, see here.

When I first began assessing my favorite tracks, albums and artists in the early 1990s, The Beatles languished between my 51st and 35th favorite artist; they were only that high because I owned six of their albums. By 2005, however, the last time I formally analyzed my musical tastes, they had risen to #12; this is roughly where they would rank were I to perform this analysis now.

It had been, dare I say it, a long and winding road, but 30 years after visiting Louis Tussaud’s Wax Museum in Atlantic City, NJ, I had more than made my peace with The Beatles.

Who are very much NOT overrated.

Until next time…

[1] According to page 37 of the December 8, 1980 edition of the Philadelphia Daily News.

[2] Technically, HIGH ECHELON (124) and ALSO HIGH ECHELON (10), because I did not remember the latter until after typing up the former.

[3] After a recount, there may only be 26.

Interrogating memory: The Beatles, wax museums and a diner mystery solved

To the extent my writing over the last three years has a theme (or perhaps even a brand), it is what I call interrogating memory.

At one level, this is just a fancy term for “fact-checking,” as in looking through my elementary school report cards (I am missing the one for third grade[1]) to confirm my fourth-grade teacher was named Ms. Goldman, only to discover she was my fifth-grade teacher and her name was “R. Goldberg.”

Quick story.

On the first day of fifth grade at Lynnewood Elementary School, my new teacher called me up to her desk. Ms. Goldberg, an attractive woman with an unwavering platinum blonde permanent, was curious about my father, whose name she had seen was David Louis Berger. We quickly established (most likely through his age and being raised in West Philadelphia) they had been in the same confirmation class at Congregation Beth El in 1951. It was also clear from the way she spoke about him (my aunt once wrote me, “He really was lovable you know”) she had a serious crush on him. I do not recall how I reacted, or what my father said when I told him.

Still, knowing it was fifth, not fourth, grade and that her surname was Goldberg, not Goldman, does not materially alter the story: my teacher had known and liked my father when they were teenagers.

The thing is, however, I pulled out those report cards in the process of reassessing an entirely different memory, one that better exemplifies the complexity of interrogating memory.

As a child and young teen, I hated The Beatles (or, at least, refused to succumb to the pressure to love them). And until a few weeks ago, I believed this disdain stemmed from my active resistance to being told what to like and what not to like. My attitude from a very young age was that I will decide for myself what I like and do not like, thank you very much.

My proof, other than my own memory?

I was certain that mixed in with otherwise glowing comments from my elementary school teachers on my report cards was a common phrase along the lines of “does not like to follow directions.”

But when I pulled out my five surviving report cards from Lynnewood, this sentiment was far less ubiquitous than I had remembered. Mrs. Virginia Hoeveler did begin her extensive (and humbly flattering) comments, dated June 13, 1973, by noting I initially had “difficulty conforming to a classroom situation,” though I quickly adjusted. She also added a postscript: “Matt is quite the ‘individual – he likes to do his ‘own thing.’ “

Five months later (November 7, 1973), Ms. C. Edwards—who broke the heart of every boy in my second-grade class when she became Mrs. C. Stevenson at the end of the school year (many of us attended the wedding, sitting in a mezzanine area of the church, overlooking the ceremony, stage left)—wrote, “Matt sometimes gets carried away with his intelligence. He seems to feel that he doesn’t need to follow directions.”

Ouch.

Still, as of June 1, 1974, I had “become much more social with [my] peers.” Good to know I was ceasing to be a curmudgeon at seven years old.

But…that is it. I have no third grade report card, neither Miss Nichols nor R. Goldberg wrote more than a token sentence or two, and Mr. Bianco (a good-looking man who wore platform shoes and was smitten with my mother) merely noted I would have had an “O” (Outstanding) instead of an “S” (Satisfactory) in Social Studies but for too many missed assignments.

Oh.

The point is, my memory was not, strictly speaking, incorrect; there were comments along the lines of “does not like to follow directions.” It was just that they were confined to first and second grades, when I was apparently still adjusting socially and academically to a formal classroom environment.

Here is the kicker, though. Even before I pulled out those report cards, I had already concluded my aversion to structured guidance was not why I had hated The Beatles (which I no longer do; quite the contrary, in fact[2]). Or, at least, it was not the only reason.

Just bear with me while I wax rhapsodic about Atlantic City, New Jersey.

I spent the summers of 1974 and 1975 living with my mother and our dog—a Keeshond named Luvey—in Penthouse A (really, just one of two slightly larger rooms with two queen beds and a walk-in closet sharing a small semi-circular concrete balcony overlooking the pool) of the Strand Motel in Atlantic City. On weekends, my father would drive the roughly 80 miles from our home in Havertown, Pennsylvania (just west of Philadelphia) to join us.

Luvey in Atlantic City August 1974 2.jpg

The Strand Motel, which sat between the Boardwalk and Pacific Avenues, and between Providence and Boston Avenues, was knocked down around 1979 as part of the construction of the Golden Nugget Casino (which, after many name changes, closed in 2014). I am reasonably certain this photograph was taken in the lounge directly below the penthouses one of those two summers; my father is the silver-haired man in the blue jacket sitting at the bar, while the left side of my mother’s face is just visible on the right (her natural red hair was back).

Scan0011.jpg

Those two summers, I spent my days wandering up and down Pacific Avenue (either on foot, or riding a jitney for 35 cents) and the Boardwalk. By myself, at the ages of seven and eight, that is; I cannot imagine that happening today. I especially loved going into the lobby of every motel and hotel along the roughly three miles of roads/Boardwalk in my purview to collect one of each pamphlet available in the large wooden racks there. During the winter, I would dump them onto my parents’ bed and rummage through them, wishing I was back in Atlantic City.

One of those pamphlets was actually a red-covered brochure for Louis Tussaud’s Wax Museum, then located at 1238 Boardwalk (yes, the Boardwalk is considered a road for mailing purposes), roughly halfway between North Carolina and South Carolina Avenues.

I do not know why I suddenly recalled this wax museum a few weeks ago (which was opened by Madame Tussaud’s somewhat less-talented great-grandson). Perhaps it was researching my book, and thinking about how we stopped summering down the shore (as those of us raised near Philadelphia say) in 1976, just before the casinos started being built, effectively ending “my” Atlantic City. Along those lines, I have reflected a great deal this summer on how much my wife Nell and our daughters love spending much of the summer on Martha’s Vineyard, and how much, frankly, I do not. And I have concluded no longer spending summers in Atlantic City, even as it was inexorably changing (for the worst, in my opinion)[3], was a deeply painful occurrence I have yet fully to process. But, the result is a silly jealousy of Nell’s childhood (and current) summer home.

Or, Louis Tussaud’s Wax Museum came to mind for no other reason than the 1953 Vincent Price vehicle House of Wax was recently on TCM OnDemand (I did not get a chance to watch it).

Regardless, what I specifically recalled about that slightly tacky museum was that one of the first tableaus you saw when you entered from the Boardwalk was of The Beatles circa 1964. Walking by the four wax figures, I would hear “I Want to Hold Your Hand” playing; perhaps songs like “She Loves You” played as well. In fact, now that I interrogate that memory, the point of the tableau may have been to reproduce their historic February 9, 1964 appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.

I could not tell you what other tableaus I saw in Louis Tussaud’s because, frankly, the only other thing I clearly remember is the Chamber of Horrors.

Again, I was seven or eight years old when I viewed those displays, some of which were particularly gory and graphic. This nostalgic video includes two of them: a low-quality rendition of the Lon Chaney version of the Phantom of the Opera and a gruesome Algerian Hook (speaks for itself, despite being misspelled in the video).

As an aside, the photograph in the video of the Boardwalk in front of Steel Pier in the summer of 1974 was like stepping out of a TARDIS: that is the Atlantic City I remember. To be fair, I preferred Million Dollar Pier, whose Tilt-a-Whirl I would foolishly ride every weekday, around 12:30 in the afternoon, after eating a slice of pizza from a little stand just where Arkansas Avenue meets the Boardwalk. Seeing that photograph was both exhilarating and painful; I may have known Atlantic City at the very end of its family-resort glory, but I loved being there.

Returning to the Chamber of Horrors, I was both terrified and fascinated by the scenes it depicted. If memory serves, they also included Lee Harvey Oswald being shot by Jack Ruby on November 24, 1963. As deeply unsettling as they were, I could not stop poring over the photographs of those displays in my souvenir booklet back home in Havertown.

But rather than admit they scared the bleepity-frick out of me, I displaced that emotion onto the completely banal and non-threatening (if mildly creepy, in the way all wax figures are mildly creepy) wax renditions of John, Paul, George and Ringo. Simply because they were what I saw before I entered the Chamber of Horror, which truly did scare me. This may not be quite what Sigmund Freud meant by a “screen memory,” but the concept is broadly the same.

In some ways, “interrogating memory” is like the love child of psychoanalytic technique (patiently probing memories to get at any underlying meaning) and the epistemological underpinnings of epidemiology (questioning and verifying everything, putting all data points into context—usually chronological), raised on a steady diet of persistence and a genuine love of history.

Or, to put it even more simply, it is using every technique in your critical toolbox to answer the question, “Hold on a minute, did that really happen that way, then, in that place?”

*********

Speaking of persistence, I may have solved a mystery I first identified here:

Memory 2: One Saturday night in 2002, 2003 or 2004, I took a meandering night drive. Somewhere in Montgomery County, north of Philadelphia, I found myself driving on a “road with a route number.” I then turned left onto a different “road with a route number” to explore further; I may have intended to find this latter road from the start. Sometime later, I find a 24-hour diner (on weekends, at least); I park and enter. I am almost certain I walked up a few concrete steps to do so. It was clean and kind of “retro-modern;” despite my sense of a great deal of black and white in the décor, I also feel like there was a fair amount of neon and chrome. I sat at a small-ish counter (curved?) in a separate room to the right as you entered (there were some booths behind me); in front of me may have been glass shelving stacked high to the ceiling. Behind me and to the left was a large glass window through which I can look down onto an asphalt-covered parking area with at most a few spaces. The diner itself is sort of tucked into a dark urban commercial corner, almost as though it jutted out from an adjoining building. I do not recall what I ordered or what I was reading, or whether I even liked the diner or not. I never returned there, and I can no longer recall the name of the diner or its precise location.

In the post, I concluded I had almost certainly turned north on Route 152 from Business Route 202 that night, eventually wending through the Montgomery County towns of Chalfont, Briarwyck, Silverdale, Perkasie, Sellersville and Telford (where Route 152 ends at Route 309). It was just that none of these towns had the sort of urban-feeling center in which my memory placed the diner.

Frustrated in my efforts to find a diner that fit the necessary criteria, I concluded thus:

I have a sinking suspicion this particular eatery has since closed; this was 15 or so years ago, after all. Or else I have simply mixed up an intersection from one drive with a diner I happened upon in another—though I highly doubt it. What remains mystifying is how this late-night restaurant could have made such an impression on me—yet I have no idea where it is/was or what its name is/was.

As I said, though, a key element of interrogating memory is persistence, so the other night I resolved to trace my possible route that night, starting at the intersection of Routes 152 and Business 202, using StreetView on Google Maps.

Patiently clicking the forward arrow, waiting less patiently for the photographs to resolve on my computer screen, I made my virtual way through Chalfont and Briarwyck and Silverdale and Perkasie into Sellersville. I took a few wrong turns along the way (Route 152, like many state routes, has a habit of randomly turning left or right onto a different street), but always righted myself.

After getting lost multiple times at a particularly tricky five-way intersection, I continued along South Main Street, heading away from the center of Sellersville. In that confusing way of state routes, by following “North” Route 152, I actually travelled south. After passing a few scattered two-story brick houses and local businesses, a large (for the area) parking lot appeared on my left.

In the middle of the lot was a light gray single-story building with a double-sloped roof. The front of the building was a two-story structure from which short flights of concrete steps, under red awnings, protruded. Above each awning was a lighted sign, white with red letters, reading “A & N DINER.” A yellow road sign embedded in the asphalt just beyond the sidewalk read “A & N DINER/ FAMILY RESTAURANT / OPEN 24 HOURS”; with “HAPPY LABOR DAY” spelled out in removable black plastic letters just below that.

Say what now? How did I miss this 24-hour diner in my extensive search?

Something about it seemed vaguely familiar, especially adjusting for the fact these September 2018 photographs were taken during the day, while my drive occurred at night, when the A & N Diner would have been brightly lit in the darkness. I clicked on the map’s icon to learn it is no longer open 24 hours. If that change occurred between Labor Day 2018 and early March 2019, that would explain why I could not find it searching for “24 hour restaurants.”

Scrolling through the accompanying photographs, I observed a small counter area to the left as you entered. One photograph showed five dark pink (almost gray) leather-covered stools bolted to the floor. To the left of the counter was a window, which another photograph confirmed overlooked the parking lot. And the wall one faced sitting at the counter might be the one I recalled—the glass shelving could easily have been replaced since I was (possibly) there in 2003 or 2004 (or existed only in my memory).

The only problem was that this was hardly the urban downtown my memory insisted housed the diner. However, I may have an explanation for that.

One of the classes I took in the first semester of my biostatistics Master’s program at Boston University School of Public Health was on probability theory. While I earned an A on the first of three exams (which comprised ~90% of the final grade), I bombed the second exam. Forget getting an A in the class; I was simply hoping to salvage a B with the final exam. Sometime after that disastrous second exam, say in November 2005, I had a powerful dream. In that dream, in which I learned I did in fact earn an A, it was night. The dark second floor room in which I stood extended far behind me as I stared out a large bay window; perhaps I was in bed first, it is all a bit fuzzy 14 years later. Below me was an urban corner with low buildings, lit by a single street lamp; a kind of brick culvert was off to my right.

This dream made such an impression on me, I still remember it relatively clearly nearly 14 years later. It is possible I mixed up looking out the window into the dark parking lot at the A & N Diner with looking out the window at the urban street corner in the dark in my dream. Why, I could not begin to tell you…unless the former somehow got worked into the latter? I would have to drive to the A & N Diner at night to be certain.

Another slight variation is that I recall the diner being on my right, but I would have approached it from the left that night. That could easily be explained, however, if I parked on the opposite side of the building (putting the diner on my right as I entered) and/or if I drove past it at first, decided to stop in for a snack, and turned around, thus placing the building to my right as I drove to it again.

There is one additional small point of confirmation. In my memory, the diner is shiny and new. Well, a little digging on the invaluable Newspapers.com uncovered a February 2000 article in the NEWS-HERALD of Perakasie, PA[4]. The gist of the article is that Nicholas and Vasso Scebes had assumed control of Angelo’s Family Restaurant on January 31, 2000, renaming it A & N Diner and Family Restaurant.

The key passage is this:

“Later this month, the manager said, they hope to be settled in enough to change the environment of the restaurant, starting with the interior wall colors, which are currently a bright two-tone lime green. Vasso said that’s the first thing regulars asked to have changed.”

Later in the article, Vasso avowed her intention to “clean up this place and make it respectable.”

If those renovations were completed sometime in 2000, they could well have seemed “shiny and new” three or four years later, when a young man out for a meandering night drive almost certainly stopped in with his book for a meal and lots of decaffeinated coffee, black.

For the record, dreams sometimes do come true. I studied intensely for the final exam, and earned something like a 92. Great, I thought, that will get me a solid B in the course. When I learned I had actually received an A, I e-mailed the professor to make sure he had not made a mistake. No, he said, he thought well enough of my participation in the class to essentially “throw out” the middle exam as an unfortunate outlier. Oh, I replied, thank you very much.

Until next time…

[1] Itself a curious slip of memory, as I originally wrote (from memory) “fourth grade.” I only pulled out these report cards to review a week or two ago.

[2] I am even listening to Abbey Road as I edit this post.

[3] This shift is beautifully rendered in Louis Malle’s 1980 film Atlantic City.

[4] Baum, Charles W., “New family takes over operation of former Angelo’s in Sellersville,” NEWS-HERALD (Perkasie, PA), February 16, 2000, pg. 3.

Organizing by themes V: Popular music

This site benefits/suffers/both from consisting of posts about a wide range of topics, all linked under the amorphous heading “data-driven storytelling.”

In an attempt to impose some coherent structure, I am organizing related posts both chronologically and thematically.

While I have told many stories from my life (and those of my ancestors), I rarely discuss my personal tastes (with exceptions here and here and, to a lesser extent, here).

This includes my taste in music (other than what is written on my home page).

In fact, it usually takes the death of a musician I admire for me to write about music, as I did with…

In every case, I was describing my tastes within the context of a larger story.

As I did with two post about The Beatles: why I thought I hated them, and how I came to love them.

I once turned an iPod playlist into surrealist epic poetry.

************

One reason I rarely write about my tastes in music is that on March 24, 2018, I pretty much said everything I need to say about them. Inspired by giant wall charts detailing the 2004 and 2007 Boston Red Sox seasons—superior examples of what I call “data art,” I created a graphic that displayed—in technicolor splendor—all 9,500+ tracks on my classic fly-wheel iPod by year, artist and genre.

Cropped data art screen shot

What I intended to be a quick overview of the chart’s highlighted became an epic, 4,300+ word journey through dozens of my favorite musical artists, more or less chronologically by genre.

It remains one of the best posts I have ever written–certainly the most comprehensive.

Enjoy.

Until next time…