Incomplete memoir (Part 18 – final installment)

About five years ago I started writing a memoir. I kept at it for a little while, writing about 1,000 words a day for a few weeks. I hadn’t yet been to therapy and there were many things I didn’t really understand about my life, but I still find the unfinished memoir to be a fascinating look into my own past. I’ve decided to post it in installments here, with only a few redactions. You can find the other sections by clicking the Memoir category.

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18.

Lenox is also the place where my family began its decline and separation. Thinking back on my time there as a small child, I remember big family dinners with aunts and uncles, cousins both near and distant, my grandparents, my mother. We gathered around the big table in my grandparents’ dining room for meals; the adults swapping stories as one or another of my cousins chased me under the table to tickle me.

While “Lenox” survived, my family thrived. Or at least it did in my young estimation. We were all close – geographically and emotionally. We did things together. I played with my cousins, ate junk food with my grandparents, went to Friendly’s for a Fribble. The town was the like the mass of gravity at the center of our familial galaxy. It held us together, gave us a shared history and sense of belonging. Even as young as I was, I could tell that it was a special place. Our special place.

And then, in ones and twos and threes and fours, my family began to leave. Aunt Jill married Chuck Sohl and moved to Baltimore. Linda and Dick and Tammy and Todd were in Wareham on Cape Cod. My mother got remarried, and she and I followed my new dad to upstate New York, then Oklahoma, then back to New York State again. Within a few years, Denise and John and Lynne and Mike were in Kentucky. Then my grandparents left, driven out of the Hagyard building by soaring rent, but also pulled into the new orbit of one of their far-flung daughters. Inside of 10 years, everyone was gone but my grandmother’s brother, Great-Uncle Jack. The apartments in the Hagyard Building went to new tenants. And my anchor in Berkshire County came undone, leaving my ship to float directionless in new waters.

Norman Rockwell’s paintings were my image of family life – the ideal to which I compared my own family. A comparison made all that much easier because he painted people we actually knew in the place we lived. But like so many American families, mine was scattering, following work as it moved to new boomtowns in the South and the West.

We were never the same again. No more big family dinners. Fewer and fewer visits. Our relationships reduced to the Saturday round of phone calls between the matriarchs of the individual branches, as memories of cousins faded from the minds of the younger members of the families.

I miss my family.

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That’s it. That’s as far as I got five years ago. In the time since, both my grandparents have died, my parents have moved from their home of 25 years and are about to move again, my sister moved, my own little family has moved several times and is now scattered, and more change is on the immediate horizon. In fact, I’ve moved during the run of these memoir installments.

Incomplete memoir (Part 17)

About five years ago I started writing a memoir. I kept at it for a little while, writing about 1,000 words a day for a few weeks. I hadn’t yet been to therapy and there were many things I didn’t really understand about my life, but I still find the unfinished memoir to be a fascinating look into my own past. I’ve decided to post it in installments here, with only a few redactions. You can find the other sections by clicking the Memoir category.

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17.

My grandparents have always seemed more like enemies than friends. Their tempestuous relationship has been at the center of quite a few arguments in my family over the years. The easy analysis is that my grandmother is a tyrant who beat my grandfather down over the course of 65 years of marriage. She’s been the villain in most disputes, and both of her daughters tend to side with their father.

Ever since I can remember, my grandmother has had nothing but vitriol and scorn for my grandfather. She corrected everything he ever said and shot down every idea he ever had. Eventually she reduced him to sitting alone in a room at the end of the hall (no matter where they lived, he always ended up in a room at the end of the hall) listening to the radio or watching The Price Is Right while working on a cross-stitch picture or a scrimshaw or a wood carving or a painting. Her shrew nature was certainly good for my grandfather’s artistic side, and for the rest of the families’ desire for free artwork.

In recent years, we’ve begun to discover another side to my grandfather. Particularly since my grandparents and my Aunt Linda (their daughter) moved in together. My grandmother has been sick quite a bit, and she’s now in a nursing home a few miles from their house. That means my aunt, her partner, and my grandfather share a house, and my Linda says she’s seen a whole different Bernie as a result. She describes him as distant and demanding. Set in his ways and unwilling to change. She talks about him getting angry – something no one has seen in his 93 years of life. And she says that as while my grandmother may have the tyrannical reputation, my grandfather has his own weapon – silence.

As a kid and a young adult, I was always on my grandfather’s side. I never understood why he didn’t fight back, and I’d sometimes take on my grandmother for him when I just couldn’t take the sniping anymore. But maybe my grandfather was the smarter combatant. Maybe his cold war was ultimately more effective than my hot war could ever have been. Maybe his goal wasn’t victory, but reprieve. His room at the end of the hall, filled with art projects, Bob Barker and big band music.

Incomplete memoir (Part 16)

About five years ago I started writing a memoir. I kept at it for a little while, writing about 1,000 words a day for a few weeks. I hadn’t yet been to therapy and there were many things I didn’t really understand about my life, but I still find the unfinished memoir to be a fascinating look into my own past. I’ve decided to post it in installments here, with only a few redactions. You can find the other sections by clicking the Memoir category.

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16.

“Home again, home again, jiggety-jig.”

That’s what my grandmother would say every time we pulled into the little driveway on Housatonic Street next to the Hagyard Building. The driveway ended in a squat, yellow-brick garage. The garage is now an upscale-chocolate-and-fine-art store run by a retired National Geographic photographer. Back in the 70’s, though, it was just a garage. I don’t remember ever parking the car in there.

Next to the driveway, facing Housatonic Street, was a narrow wooden door that led to the steep flight of steps up to my grandparents’ apartment on the second floor. When I talked to my father for the first time in 28 years, he told me that he remembered leaving my Christmas presents at the top of those stairs the year he and my mom split up. He said he sat in his car with an alarm clock to wake him so he could creep up the stairs, drop off the gifts and drive off.

My grandparents used to get a new car every two years, no matter what. They were fond of convertibles, although I came along after they’d traded in their final convertible. They drove Chevrolets, back when families were Ford Families or Chevy Families.

When I was a kid, my grandmother still drove. That seems almost surreal now, given that she stopped driving about 25 years ago. But I clearly remember her driving me around Lenox and Pittsfield. She worked as the receptionist in the beauty parlor in England Brothers, a department store on the main drag in Pittsfield. My grandmother was a snappy dresser – never a hair out of place, always the right accessory. My cousin’s wife, Karen, used to go with her mother when her mother would get her hair done at England Brothers. Karen said she’d sit in awe of my grandmother, wanting to be like the glamorous lady at the reception desk.

For most of my life, my grandmother has been sitting in an easy chair watching television. It’s almost hard to create a picture of what she was like years ago. There’s the occasional black-and-white photo of my grandparents dressed to the nines, ready for a night on the town. There are stories of evening spent at the Crystal Ballroom dancing to Benny Goodman or the Dorsey Brothers or Duke Ellington. There were trips to Florida. Cruises in the Caribbean. Dinner with friends.

Then it all just went away. My grandparents withdrew into themselves, into the TV set, and into the little dramas that are the hallmark of small families. I wish I’d known them better when they were lively and fun and dancing.

No one in my family is quite sure what happened to them. It’s almost as if one day they had lives, and the next day they didn’t. Maybe retirement caused them both to lose steam. Maybe they were never really that social, and they just forced themselves to conform. As far as I know, once they left Lenox they never looked back. They never contacted their Lenox friends again – not even the Cronins, with whom they’d been extremely close. They just closed the door on that life and drove off to Plymouth, then Rochester, then Tucson, then back to the Rochester area again, part of a procession headed by one or the other of their daughters.

Incomplete memoir (Part 15)

About five years ago I started writing a memoir. I kept at it for a little while, writing about 1,000 words a day for a few weeks. I hadn’t yet been to therapy and there were many things I didn’t really understand about my life, but I still find the unfinished memoir to be a fascinating look into my own past. I’ve decided to post it in installments here, with only a few redactions. You can find the other sections by clicking the Memoir category.

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15.

About the Kenton record: When I was first listening to it as a kid, it never occurred to me that I might one day talk to members of the band. And I don’t mean that I never thought I could reach those heights. I mean it literally never occurred to me that the band existed in the real world, and that some people had jobs that allowed them to talk to musicians.

I probably heard that record for the first time when I was four or five, and I got to know it well a decade later in junior high. Fifteen years after that, I interviewed Maynard Ferguson, one of the trumpeters on Kenton In Hi-Fi, and a legend in his own right. I didn’t ask him about that particular record, although we did talk about Kenton. He was a funny, approachable, articulate man, and he was very generous with his time as a guest on my radio show.

Before I ever thought about interviewing famous musicians, I thought about becoming one. As a young child, I took classical guitar lessons, but I was never very good and I didn’t last long. Right before I went into 7th grade, my cousin-hero Todd sent me his clarinet, which he’d traded in for an electric bass. I started playing clarinet in junior high, switched to saxophone in high school, and decided that being a professional musician was the life for me. As it turned out, though, I got much closer to the top level of performers as an interviewer than I ever did as a performer.

I’m not really sure when it was that I realized that musicians were actual human beings. Isn’t that strange? When do we cross that line of perception and discover that recorded sound is produced by regular people? How do we do it? I don’t think anyone ever told me that all those records were made by people just like me. I guess one day I just put together all the images I’d seen on TV with the records I’d been listening to and made the connection. All these years later, there’s still an element of magic and awe involved in talking with someone who was on a milestone recording.

One of the strangest such meetings I ever had was with two legendary musicians – bassist Eddie Gomez, who played for years in the trio of pianist Bill Evans, and drummer Jimmy Cobb, who played with Miles Davis. They played a show in Furukawa, Japan. I lived in Furukawa in 1991 and 1992 as an exchange student, and I went back with my wife in 1996 when we decided to move to Japan.

Furukawa was home to Hana no Yakata (Castle of Flowers), a jazz club run by a drummer who had long been one of Tokyo’s first-call players until illness forced him to retire to his hometown in northern Japan. The Master, as everyone called him, still had connections, and he’d often get famous jazz musicians to come up to his club when they played elsewhere in Japan.

When Jen and I moved to Japan in late 1996, we stayed in Furukawa with my former host family while we searched the Tokyo newspapers for jobs. While we were there, Gomez and Cobb played a date at Hana no Yakata along with a pianist whose name I’ve forgotten, and the flute player Jeremy Steig, who also recorded with Bill Evans. I heard about the gig from The Master, and Jen and I made plans to go to the show.

In the afternoon, we were walking down the street and saw two other foreigners – a rare site in Furukawa. One was an older African-American man wearing a puffy blue winter jacket, and the other was another non-Japanese man with glasses and a dark coat.

“I think that’s Eddie Gomez and Jimmy Cobb,” I said to myself. And of course it was. But I didn’t go over to talk to them for some reason.

Later that night, I showed up at the club and had a lovely dinner with Gomez, Cobb, Steig, the pianist, The Master and his wife, and one of my Japanese teachers from the high school I went to in Furukawa years before. So there I was, sitting down to dinner to with the drummer from Kind of Blue and the bassist from Bill Evans’ longest-running trio in a tiny jazz club in a small town in northeastern Japan. As the only other native English speaker, I had the lion’s share of the conversation. I knew less about the music then than I know now, and I asked them almost no questions at all about their history. We just talked about the food, the town, Japanese culture, and the Las Vegas jazz scene (the pianist was from Vegas). It was an experience that I’ll never duplicate, and one of the treasured memories of my time in Japan.

Incomplete memoir (Part 14)

About five years ago I started writing a memoir. I kept at it for a little while, writing about 1,000 words a day for a few weeks. I hadn’t yet been to therapy and there were many things I didn’t really understand about my life, but I still find the unfinished memoir to be a fascinating look into my own past. I’ve decided to post it in installments here, with only a few redactions. You can find the other sections by clicking the Memoir category.

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14.

Going back to music for a minute: I had a very strange musical upbringing. I listened to Nat Cole and Stan Kenton at a time when most kids were listening to disco and Kiss. As I got older, I stayed on my own course. I got some hand-me-down 8-track tapes when I was maybe seven years old. I can’t remember all of them, but my two favorites were a Kiss greatest hits collection (which I loved because Kiss was my cousin Todd’s favorite band, and thus my favorite band, too) and a collection of performances by Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops. I can only recall one song from that collection – and orchestral version of Burt Bacharach’s “Do You Know The Way To San Jose?” What kind of kid listens to big band, cheese rock, and the Boston Pops? Did no one in my family own a radio?

One explanation for my early musical taste is that I spent so much time in the Hagyard Building with my grandparents, who didn’t listen to the radio all that much. It’s odd that they didn’t, because listening to the radio has been my grandfather’s main passtime for the past 15 years or so. I don’t remember listening to the radio a lot with my parents, which again is odd because they both worked at a radio station. I think I really started listening to the radio after we moved to New York State. Or at least that’s when I remember riding in the car a lot with the radio on, catching up on some of the music I’d missed.

Not counting the Kiss 8-track, I didn’t own my first rock record until I was in high school. I fell in with a crowd that was into prog rock. The first rock tape I remember owning was a copy of Signals by Rush, a Canadian rock band that my friend Jeff calls the “best all-girl band of the 70’s.” Somewhere around my freshman year, this group of friends turned my on to Yes, Genesis, Rush, King Crimson, the Moody Blues, Pink Floyd, Asia, Jethro Tull – all your prog rock favorites. I still love those bands now, although my tastes have broadened considerably since high school.

The first record I ever spent my own money on was Chuck Mangione’s 1978 album An Evening Of Magic: Live At The Hollywood Bowl. I got the album on cassette (two cassettes, if I remember right) and wore the thing out. In addition to Chuck on flugelhorn and electric piano, the concert featured Chris Vadala on saxes and flutes, Grant Geissman on guitar, Charles Meeks on the bass, James Bradley, Jr. on the drums, and a full orchestra. Vadala tears it up on every track. This album set the stage for my approach to jazz for years to come.

Incomplete memoir (Part 13)

About five years ago I started writing a memoir. I kept at it for a little while, writing about 1,000 words a day for a few weeks. I hadn’t yet been to therapy and there were many things I didn’t really understand about my life, but I still find the unfinished memoir to be a fascinating look into my own past. I’ve decided to post it in installments here, with only a few redactions. You can find the other sections by clicking the Memoir category.

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13.

My grandparents have played a big part in my life. My grandfather was a saxophonist and clarinetist when he was younger. He played in a swing band with some guys from the GE plant where he worked. When I was growing up, my grandparents had one of those console stereos that was a piece of furniture. It looked like the bottom part of a hutch when it was closed up. It was painted white, and the speaker section along the front had a curtain covering it. To get to the controls, you opened the top of the console. Inside was a turntable and a receiver. My grandpa had a big collection of swing records – including an entire series of records by Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orchestra. These records were made in the 1950s, when Gray decided to create an archive of classic swing tunes by recreating the arrangements of the famous big bands.

I learned every note on every one of these records. Unlike most kids in the late 70’s, who were memorizing the lyrics to “Detroit Rock City,” I was learning the horn parts to “Nightmare” and “String of Pearls” and “Take The A Train.” I also developed a real passion for Nat “King” Cole that continues to this day. My grandfather knew most of the soloists from the records – particularly the sax and clarinet players. He and my grandma were also big Lawrence Welk fans, and they both knew the names of every musician and singer and dancer on the show.

My favorite album, and the one I learned the best, was Kenton In Hi-Fi. Kenton made this fantastic recording in 1956 for Capitol Records, and it features many of Stan’s biggest hits – “Artistry In Rhythm,” “Eager Beaver,” “Unison Riff,” and “Artistry Jumps,” to name a few. It also features the very gutsy tenor saxophonist Vido Musso, a ridiculous trumpet section led by Pete Candoli and Maynard Ferguson, and the drumming of the incomparable Mel Lewis. This record swings its ass off from start to finish, and it’s a huge piece of my musical upbringing.

I still love big band music, particularly when it gets cold. I’m not sure what the correlation is, but as the winter approaches, I pull out all my Ellington and Basie and drift back into the first half of the 20th century. I listen to swing music throughout the year, but the strong pull of nostalgia is only there in the winter.

I used my grandparents’ stereo for another important thing – listening to the adventures of folks like Superman and Spider-Man and the Six Million Dollar Man on book-and-record sets. Remember those? Back in the 70s, Marvel and DC put out oversized comic books with LP records. These were dramatized versions of the comics, complete with actors, sound effects and music. You could follow along in the comic book while you listened.

The Six Million Dollar Man set had two adventures. One was his origin story: Test pilot Steve Austin crashes while testing an advanced aircraft. He’s severly injured, having lost one eye, one arm and both legs. Rather than perform a regular operation to save his life, the government decides to use Colonel Austin as a test subject for their new bionic project. They give him a bionic eye, bionic arm and bionic legs, making him “better, stronger and faster.” Then he becomes an agent for the government. On the flip side of the record, Austin travels to some fictional Eastern European country to take down a dictator.

I also had a Spider-Man set that included a great story about J. Jonah Jameson’s son, who travels to the moon as an astronaut, returns to earth, and turns into a werewolf due to the effects of a moonrock pendant he wears around his neck. The climax is a confrontation in Jameson’s office at the Daily Bugle. Spider-Man tears the pendant off the werewolf’s neck, and Jameson learns that the creature is really his son. Heady stuff.

I don’t know why comic book companies don’t still make those sets. I think they’d sell like hotcakes.