Thursday, December 30, 2021

Talk about haunting melodies....

     In 1972, I was in sixth grade, in Miss Benson's class in Fairwood Elementary School in Berea, Ohio. She was a severe, short-haired woman with glasses. I couldn't tell you her first name; I don't think any of us kids ever suspected she had a first name. The same way we never paused to contemplate her living arrangement, with Miss Palmer, the enormous secretary in the school office. Not for decades anyway, until the moment when the truth would occur with a growing smile of understanding and an "ohhhhh!"
     Only one moment from her class survives in memory over the span of half a century. One day, Miss Benson invited her students to bring in a record, to share music we liked. I can still see the albums that other kids brought in. Rolling Stones' "Sticky Fingers," with its real zipper. Jethro Tull's "Aqualung." 
     And my album, Khachaturian's "Sabre Dance," my parents bright red copy with a leaping Cossack. Of course I would bring that. I don't believe by then I had actually bought any music of my own. My allowance was 25 cents a week; I wouldn't consider buying a record any more than I would consider buying a car.      
       Besides, my parents had plenty of records, which we'd play on my father's Fischer turntable, a gorgeous thick metal turntable with a perfectly balanced tone arm we'd love to tap and watch float slowly upward. 
   I believe the day we brought in our own music is the only thing about 6th grade I remember, because my choice was not viewed with approval by my classmates. I don't remember anything more specific, whether kids laughed, or maybe one person said something. 
Some kind of veil of protective forgetfulness must be shielding me from the class reaction.
     Or maybe nobody had to say anything at all, and I, a perceptive boy, just took in their rock music, and my frenetic blast of Slavic gales, and realized all on my own just how out of the main current of American life I was swimming. Listening to it now, it must have been when the needle was set down and the music started playing and I cringed myself into a little ball.
     There was to be a lot of that.
     That moment resonated, nearly 20 years later, when I was getting married. The forced march to plan a big downtown wedding is far clearer than 6th grade. Picking a location—the Renaissance Room at the Intercontinental Hotel downtown, which had just re-opened after renovating. I liked the Babylonian bas reliefs. Choosing the menu, stepping around hanging slabs of beef in Fulton Market to try various meals at various caterers. The question of napkins: we were looking at green toile napkins that cost $600 to rent for an evening when my betrothed and I looked at each other and realized we had gone mad, and white would be fine.
     And a band. Much listening to inferior bands, much ratcheting the price, trying to find that sweet spot of something we could both afford and want to dance to. Up and up. I jokingly came up with what I called the "wedding unit," a play on the term "astronomical unit," a way to measure the vast costs of a wedding on par with a span to measure the enormous distances of the universe. An astronomical unit is the distance from the earth to the sun, roughly 93 million miles. A wedding unit was $2,000, since everything seemed to cost that or its multiple. Though sometimes a fraction: those napkins were 0.33 wedding units.
     The band we settled on, the Bradley Young Orchestra, was two wedding units. A 12-piece swing band. At some point, close to the big day, my beloved and I visited with Bradley Young at his home to pick music. He had a shiny enamel black baby grand piano, art deco furniture and bric a brac.
     Our song was "Feels like Old Times" from "Annie Hall," though that was a stand in for our actual song, the music that, dancing to at 950 Lucky Number on Wrightwood, changed us from two strangers dating to a couple that would be together for decades: "Bella Lugosi's Dead," by Bauhaus. A 12-piece swing band was not playing that, though we did ask them. We also had them play "Leave Your Hat On," the Randy Newman song that Joe Cocker sings in "9 1/2 Weeks."
     Toward the end, Young, sitting on the piano bench, asked us what music should be played when we entered the Renaissance Room to be married. Edie picked the haunting flute melody that every Jewish bride uses. 
    They turned to me. As a fan of cliche, under certain circumstances, I would have picked Wagner's wedding march from "Lohengrin."      
       But this was a Jewish wedding, and so no Wagner, just as I never got to say "I do" ("You say, 'anee l'dohdee v'dohdee LEE,'" explained Rabbi Paul Greenman. "You utter the syllable lee and you're married. If you say 'I do,' before you utter the syllable lee, it doesn't mean anything, because you're not married yet.' And if you say 'I do' after you utter the syllable lee, it doesn't mean anything, because you're already married.")
     Hard to argue with that logic.
     So when Bradley Young asked what music I wanted the band to play when my parents walked me into the Renaissance Room, I had a choice already, something meaningful, and personal, that would claw back a bit of a process that at times seemed to be unfolding without me. Not "Sabre Dance"—too frantic, even I knew that. But there was the march from "The Love of Three Oranges." I loved that, my whole life. It had a bouncy a whimsy to it. Something of a personal theme. Neil music.
     "You mean this?" said Bradley Young, playing it with, if memory serves, a Monty Python pianist leer, fingers bouncing high off the keyboard. "Brump-bump, brump-bump, bump—tah-bump. Bump, tah-bump. Bump-tah-bump, bumpt—tah-bump. Braddaa-dah bump...."
     It took about 10 seconds for me to realize just how wrong my inclinations were, how the song's ponderous March-of-the-Toy-Soldiers vibe would make me a figure of ridicule at my own wedding.
     No, I said, raising my hands defensively, Not that. I couldn't tell you what the music I walked into. Whatever the male version of the Jewish flute music that ushered my bride in. I thought about telling this story with my big "Love for Three Oranges" column yesterday, but obviously it wouldn't fit in. There's been a lot of that.


  1. At least you didn't go with Funeral March of a Marionette. That would have been appropriate at my first wedding.

  2. Love the column
    Jack from Superior Colo

  3. I was kind of a dork in sixth grade, too, Mister S. When kids were crying on the Day The Music Died (February 3, 1959)...I didn't even know who any of the plane crash victims were. Somehow, I had never heard of Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and J.P. Richardson (AKA the Big Bopper). I wasn't into rock 'n' roll, or Monsters of Filmland magazines, or even major league baseball. Truth be told, I didn't know which respective leagues the Cubs and the White Sox competed in.

    Thanks to my father, and his "hi-fi" equipment, I knew all of Sinatra's stuff, and classical composers, and countless Broadway show tunes. Instead of ballplayers, I had learned the names (and nicknames) of all of Chicago's Mafia "boys"...and knew where Capone's HQ was, and where St. Valentine's Day had happened. I was also an avid reader of MAD, which immeasurably enchanced my relationship, six years later, with the woman who is now my wife (she read it, too). MAD turned me into the class clown, and a snarky wise-ass.

    My one-liners in class, and my punning, made me a big hit with the cool kids. By that spring, I was being invited to basement parties, learning dance moves in garages, hanging around girls' front porches, and listening to AM Top 40 radio. But my sudden popularity didn't last. By junior high, those same cool kids had discarded me like a pair of worn-out Keds. Once a dork, always a dork.

    My rejection made me resent and despise the powers-that-be, and the tastemakers of pop culture, and probably helped to propel me down the road to radicalism and pinko beliefs (much of which also came from Jewish parents and grandparents...I have never voted Republican in my life). And I still liked classical music, natch, right along with my new taste for rock. One can have two musical loves simultaneously. Or even more. Later on came folk...snd jazz...even blues and bluegrass. Spending half my life in Chicago, a musical Mecca, was a huge plus.

    Hey, Mister S, I went to 950 Wrightwood. Once. Shlepped there on New Year's Eve of 1978, during a huge snowstorm, with a gorgeous widow I'd recently met at the Channel 11 holiday food-and-toy drive. Some kind of Serbian punk band was playing, and we both got very drunk. Took her back to her place. Then she kicked me out, into the storm. The CTA trains to Evanston weren't running, and I had a long walk home, through deep drifts. Got totally soaked and frozen, and caught a bad cold. Never connected with that gorgeous widow, who was still mourning her loss. Nine-fifty was most definitely not my Lucky Number.

    1. Well, it couldn't have been lucky for EVERYBODY. There is so much culture, we can't keep track of all of it. Once I participated in a celebrity softball match. I was excited because I got to share the outfield with Minnie Minoso and talk to him. But I also had my photo taken with an actor who was in town, and I was surprised to see that photo framed in my kid's room. It was me and Jackie Chan. I had no idea who he was when we took it.

  4. I love "Sabre Dance," but it *would* be a bit much for a wedding march. And as for the other choice, one can certainly understand not wanting to be "a figure of ridicule at my own wedding."

    I grew up with at least some familiarity with, and a definite appreciation for classical music. My parents had a couple albums, with titles like 25 Classical Gems or 50 Classical Greatest Hits, or whatever. (Obviously I don't have the encyclopedic memory that some of you folks sport.) Which was a good way to be introduced, in a way, as it hooked you with the "good" parts of much longer works. Though it led to some disappointment as I later explored many of the works in their entirety and was not as captivated. Anyway, though I've listened to and enjoyed a lot over the years, before yesterday I would have said that I was completely unfamiliar with "Love for Three Oranges," though I now realize I'd heard the "March," at least.

    This morning on WFMT, former morning host Carl Grapentine briefly commemorated the 100th anniversary of the Chicago premiere in his "Carl's Almanac" segment. He played three segments from the "Love for Three Oranges Suite," I believe.

  5. The one thing we knew that we wouldn't spend money on was a live band. Too loud for my sensitive ears. When you ask a band to be quieter they are offended. Not so a DJ. After the wedding, the one comment I got repeatedly was "We LOVED that we could actually hear each other and TALK during the dinner!"

  6. I don't think it happened until freshman English class that we were asked to bring in records. My choice was Jethro Tull thick as a brick. They were the first band I saw live in concert at the Old Chicago stadium.

    Needless to say, if you're familiar with the album, My English teacher wasn't thrilled with my choice.

    I could have brought the first record I ever purchased in 7th grade. Lola from the kinks that probably wouldn't have been a big hit either.

    Didn't discover my love for classical music until my eldest son learned cello and played in the Chicago youth symphony orchestra. Super nerd that kid still listens to classical music in between cuts of rap , death metal and classic rock. He has a Remarkably broad taste in music that one

    1. Did you know in 1970 what the song referred to? I know I didn’t until sometime in the early ‘80s. I had a sheltered childhood. As a flute player, I appreciated that Jethro Tull was the coolest thing flautists had going, but my talents were not in the same time zone, even.

  7. As a patrol boy, I stood at the corner of North avenue and Menard in front of an establishment called the Blue Dahlia. Similar review to what they have at the Baton Club now and so there was a lot of talk about that song. So yeah I guess I did.

    1. I knew. One of my best friends could have written that song, because it happened to him, in pretty much the same way, a couple of years before the song came out. He, too, met her in a club, but not in old Soho. He was a student at Georgetown, so it was down in old D.C.

  8. Are you saying that your parents misappropriated the profits from your Berea News Sun delivery route and only left you with 25 cents?

    1. No, that was my allowance—I didn't work the paper route until I was 9, and then I remember saving most of the money to buy a roll-top desk, when I was 14. I've still got it, behind me now. An amazingly nice piece of furniture for a 14-year-old to buy for himself.

    2. If it wasn't apparent, I was joking about the misappropriation.

      BTW chances are I was the kid who brought in Sticky Fingers, even if I don't remember Miss Benson's music expo. I remember coveting that album at the Revco(?) at Bagley and Lindbergh(?). I loved Wild Horses and Can't You Hear Me Knocking. Still do, even though I rejected the Stones for a while during the punk/new wave years.

      And... nothing wrong with Sabre Dance! ("you can dance if you want to, we can leave your friends behind"..., oh, wait).

    3. Now THAT one I's a cold medium, and nuance is lost. And I can be extra thick about jokes, ironically enough. Speaking of 1970s rock, for years I thought the Kinks song "Lola" was about a girl.

    4. Speaking of the Rolling Stones, there’s a great segment from an episode of this American life, in which Tig Notaro (one of my favorite comedians) tells a story about introducing her sixth grade class to a classic Stones hit.

    5. Coey, thanks for that. The transcript itself doesn't do justice, so I listened to part 4 of the episode (as if I ever need any excuse to listen to the perfect voice of Ira Glass). That was funny!


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