It is no coincidence that the bossa nova craze coincided with the years in which I achieved my greatest romantic success–first through sixth grades. No music is better suited to inspire thoughts of love than that associated with the Portugese term translated roughly as “the new thing or trend or fashionable wave or something.”
It was perhaps the fates who decreed it–they have had nothing to do since the demise of the ancient Greeks! I was prepared as no other boy in my elementary school for the coming of the complex harmonies and soft percussive accents of the sound that evolved from the Brazilian samba and swept through the world like a contagion, for I had learned the cha-cha-cha at numerous country club affairs dancing with my younger sister!
I know, this smacks of incest, but we knew “when to say when” when it came to this most ancient and honorable of taboos, having been cautioned by our older sister of the “Hapsburg” lip–the product of inbreeding amoung the royal families of Europe. “You two keep that up,” she said to us sternly when she found us practicing in the front parlor, “you’re going to get underslung jaws like Charles II.”
One look at the picture of the unfortunate heir to the Spanish crown in her ninth grade biology book was enough to warn us off. “It is time that you took the skills I have conveyed to you,” my younger sister said, “and go ask Margaret Shoe to dance. She already looks like Charles II.”
The bossa nova craze lasted only six years, but oh what a half-a-dozen it wozen! There were the quiet nights and quiet stars and the quiet chords from my guitar, a rental until I proved to my dad that I was firmly committed to my art and would not lose interest in it, the way I had with the guppies and the rock collection. And baseball and the coin collection.
The British are coming!
It was a race against time; I had to progress from rank novice to sultry-voiced master before bossa nova was obliterated by the British Invasion in 1964. I took guitar lessons from a flatulent local teen who would go on to the Berklee School of Music in Boston. When he was sick, his replacement was the owner of the music studio, a corpulent woman who looked like Patsy Cline without the makeup. And with maybe sixty, seventy extra pounds on her frame.
There was the fruitless search for an instructor in Portugese in the small midwestern town where we lived. Every week I would check the Yellow Pages: Plumbers, Porch swings, Printers, Psychologists–nothing. Then turn to “Language Instruction.” English, French, Latin, Moravian, Russian, Spanish–no Portuguesa!
Finally, my picaresque quest–and try saying that five times fast–ended in the ridiculous, not the sublime, as such tales so often do. Trudy Espinosa, the daughter of an Air Force colonel on temporary assignment to install intercontinental ballistic missiles bearing nuclear warheads in silos deep beneath the rich soil of our town, held a party in a temporary teen center for the children of the operatives assigned to this top-secret but widely-known assignment. Located in a double-wide trailer, los cento de teenos was gaily decorated with crepe paper and Japanese lanterns, but I–I had already given my heart to Martha Stretz!
Teen center fun!
A bossa nova singer cannot woo two women at once–the fingering on the guitar is too complex, and the side-to-side movement of the head as you croon to two inamoratas aggravated the whiplash injury that I had sustained in Pop Warner football practice.
I stood up, vanquished by the CMaj7 chord. “Trudy,” I said sadly, “I am sorry–I already have a girl from Ipanema.”
“Who is she?” Trudy demanded, her eyes beginning to redden, the storm clouds that announced a torrent of tears was on its way. It was, after all, her party, and she could cry if she wanted to.
Just then Martha Stretz passed, and when she passed, I couldn’t help but go . . . ah.
I blame it on the bossa nova–with its magic spell.
Heroin, some wag once said, isn’t so much the occupational hazard of jazz musicians, it’s the occupation. It doesn’t trigger the schizophrenic visions induced in acid rockers by LSD, and it doesn’t set off the manic bursts of energy–anathema to the lyrical mood–of cocaine. Instead, it acts as a warm blanket or hot bath on the psyche at the same time that it absorbs large quantities of time, the bane of musicians on the road or during periods of unemployment. (Kids reading at home: Please ask mom or dad’s permission before shooting up.) As a result, it’s the drug of choice for those who’ve grown bored of the low-octane euphorics of marijuana.
I’m sorry–I couldn’t resist.
While smack is an equal opportunity parasite, afflicting practitioners of all instruments in the jazz orchestration, it worked particular damage on alto saxophonists during the twentieth century. Frank Morgan, Art Pepper and Charlie Parker–the greatest of them all–all lost valuable time they could have spent creating to the drug.
Morgan and Pepper made it back from the brink, in Pepper’s case celebrated by the song “Straight Life.” Parker struggled with the drug, growing plump during periods when he kicked the habit by feeding on his favorite food, chicken (yardbird, hence his nickname) then turning wraith-like when he fell off the wagon.
Charlie Parker, during a clean period
Some altos steered clear of the drug entirely; Paul Desmond, whose quicksilver phrasing you hear on Dave Brubeck’s “Take 5,” was satisfied with a dry martini. Johnny Hodges, whose career linked Sidney Bechet and Duke Ellington, seems to have stayed away from the stuff, as did Benny Carter.
Charlie Parker, Johnny Hodges, Benny Carter.
Parker’s inability to kick the habit was perhaps a reflection of his musical persona; protean, a fire hose of ideas whose solos–even his off-hand riffs–were torrents compared to his peers’ glasses of beer, or in lesser cases, eye droppers. Perhaps he needed the drug to turn off his rational madness from time to time.
Parker died sitting before a television set watching the Dorsey Brothers show, but this is no reflection on their sweet sound. He died of any or all of four causes; pneumonia, a bleeding ulcer, cirrhosis and/or a heart attack. His body was so ravaged by the effects of heroin that the coroner estimated his corpse to be that of a man between 50 and 60. He was 34.
It’s happened to me twice lately. I send someone a gift, in one case a book of my poems because a woman asked me for it, in the second a copy of A.J. Liebling’s The Sweet Science because a young man I’ve sponsored on a trip to South America told me he was a boxer. In neither case did I get what is every gift-giver’s due–the stiffly-worded and only partially sincere thank-you note that I learned how to write under duress in fourth-grade English class; formal address, salutation, body, complimentary close, signature. Is that too much to ask?
The female donee is, according to rumor, composing a lengthy and thoughtful letter that will serve to both express her gratitude and demonstrate her literary chops. I’ll believe it when I see it. She’s probably sniffing roses, Vikki Carr-style, while she takes pen in hand and tries to come up with something that compares to my handiwork.
The kid, on the other hand, got his today when I visited his school in a hardscrabble, polyglot, inner-city neighborhood where life is as cheap as the overwrought adjectives that litter its mean streets. “Hey, Jermaine,” I yelled out when I saw him from a distance. “What’s with the no thank you note?”
Vikkie Carr: “I can’t write with this rose up my nose.”
It wasn’t the four-figure sum I’d parted with to pay his way to a tiny village for the kind of academic enrichment that my kids had–declined to participate in. After taking the tax deduction, it only cost me three figures. No, it was the $10.95 I spent on the book–the thoughtfully chosen companion to the long plane flight, le cadeau juste. It was just the right gift for the young traveler.
“Oh, yeah, sorry ’bout that,” he said. “I’ve been . . . uh . . . really busy.”
“With what?” I asked skeptically.
“Well, when we got to Costa Rica, there was an earthquake, then the volcano erupted, then the village collapsed into a sinkhole, then . . . “
Kids. They think the world revolves around them. “Sorry, pal,” I said tersely. “I don’t care what kind of youthful hijinx you were up to. You have to get thank you notes out right away–it’s the Code of the WASP.”
“Go to your room and write your thank-you notes first. Then you can beat off.”
“You mean the flying insect?”
“No–the former ruling class of America, the ones who came up with the Mickey Mouse-do’s and don’t’s the rest of you chumps have to abide by in order to get ahead.”
He gulped, and I could see that the seriousness of the situation was sinking in. “Are you a WASP?”
“Half, on my mother’s side,” I said. “It’s a part of my heritage I’m constantly trying to live down.”
National Dodge Ball Target Poster Child
“So it’s like a firm handshake when you first meet someone?” he asked.
“On the nosey. If you get a present or an interview for a six-figure entry-level investment banking position, the first thing you have to do is write a personal thank you note.”
“I’ll go to the computer lab right away and . . . “
“Ix-nay on the omputer-cay,” I said, wagging my finger and shaking my head. “You have to hand-write it.”
The kid was, to say the least, startled. “Gosh–are there a lot of other stupid artificial rules I should know about thank-you notes?” he asked, his voice trembling a little now, creating a chiaroscuro effect with the brittle man-child carapace he covered himself with as he fought his way through the pit bulls and crack dealers on his way to our new, state-of-the-art school building, outfitted with the latest metal-detectors at every entrance.
“Thank you very much for the tattoo you gave me for my gang initiation . . . “
“You’d better believe it.”
“Would you–teach me some of them?” he asked hesitantly.
I looked him up and down, my eyelids narrowed just a little. “Sure,” I said after a few moments, “if you’re really serious about becoming an obsequious, brown-nosing, apple-polisher like me.”
“If that’s what it takes to make it out of this boulevard of broken dreams, where there is no childhood, only a sort of early-onset adulthood, no . . . “
“Can it,” I said, cutting him off. “You’re starting to sound like me, fer Christ sake.”
We went into an empty classroom and I reached into my brief case to bring out two sets of note cards; one, a collection of colorful UNICEF cards that a kid gave me when I slipped him an extra bag of Reese’s Pieces last Halloween, the other a box of formal ecru-with-blue-trim cards that were so thick you could use them to make a sail for a thirty-foot catboat.
“Now,” I said as I laid the choices out before him, “which would you choose?”
“Uh, I guess the cards with the kids on them–they’re fun.”
“BAP!” I said, making my game-show buzzer sound. “Wrong answer. Go with the expensive, upscale cards–it shows you’re a social climber with a great future ahead of you.”
UNICEF card: “Are you serious? It looks like something my kid drew!”
“Okay,” he said, taking a pen from his shirt pocket. He scribbled “Dear” and then started to write my first name, so I stopped him.
“You want to keep it formal–use ‘Mr.’”
“But you told me we were friends and I should call you by your first name.”
“That’s the real world. Now you’re in the phony world of manners.”
He scratched out what he’d written and started over above it, like I used to do in the days before Wite-Out, the custom-blended fluid that delivers precise corrections with no messy brush.
“Thank you very much for sending me to South America,” he began, but he stopped when he heard me clucking my tongue. “What–what am I doing wrong?”
“You’re putting the cart before the horse,” I said. “Did you ever see the movie ‘Six Degrees of Separation’?”
“With Will Smith? Are you kidding? I could never show my face in this place again.”
“WASPs dig the little gestures–jars of jam as gifts. So thank me for the book first.”
“Oh, okay.” He scrawled something out and handed it to me. “Thanks very much for the book about boxing. My mother doesn’t approve of the sport, but maybe after she sees that I have a book about it, she won’t mind that I expose myself to head injuries that could prevent me from reading it.”
“Nice,” I said with genuine admiration. “I . . . really can’t tell if you’re being sarcastic or not.”
“Were you a boxer?”
“No–high school football.”
“That explains why you’re a little slow on the uptake sometimes, I guess.”
“Okay–so what comes next?” I said, returning to the business at hand.
“I thank you for the trip?”
“You wanna walk to the mall?”
“Not yet. You’ve got to take a peripatetic approach . . . “
“What’s that mean?”
“You want to amble around a bit–go for the capillary, not the jugular.”
“So I . . . ”
“Talk about something that’s beside the point.”
“Okay, so like ‘Sport helps me clear my mind, and makes me manage my time better.’”
“Good, good. Conversational, personal, and yet–not self-absorbed, like so many teenagers today.”
“And you weren’t?”
“Of course I was–but I grew out of it.”
“Except for these stupid, self-regarding blog posts.”
“Well, there’s that, yeah. So how much room do you have left on the card?”
“Um . . . about half an inch.”
“Okay, now for the wind-up and the pitch. You can use half of that space for ‘Thanks again,’ etc.”
“How about, “And above all, I want to thank you for the opportunity to see others less fortunate than myself, and I stayed away from hot, molten, fast-moving lava like you told me to!’”
Sweet, I thought to myself. This kid was going to go far. Maybe he’d never become an advertising executive or a high-powered public relations flak, but he’d mastered the art of sincere bullshit. He understood that sincerity was key–if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.
“That’s great, just great,” I said as I clapped him on the back.
“Here you go,” he said as he tried to hand me the note.
“No!” I almost screamed, stopping his hand in mid-air. “You put it in an envelope, put a colorful stamp on it, apply one of your personalized return address stickers, and then and only then do you put it in the mailbox.”
“Isn’t that kind of . . . inefficient, when you’re standing right next to me?”
“When expressing your true feelings, you want to strive for a highly personalized level of impersonality.”
DOWNER’S GROVE, Illinois. Marian Busby was thinking the dinner in a private room at L’Endive, a new restaurant in this suburb of Chicago, was going swimmingly until tragedy struck. “I was basically being interviewed for a seat on the board of Ballet Chicago,” she recalls ruefully. “The chairwoman and her husband were there along with three other board members and their spouses.”
But then the strains of “Love Lifts Us Up Where We Belong,” the monster Joe Cocker-Jennifer Warnes hit and perennial wedding reception favorite, began to issue softly from speakers concealed in the room’s crown molding, and her husband’s face began twitching and his right arm shot out straight from his shoulder as if in salute, causing others at the table to react with alarm.
“No–not that song!”
“Is he having a heart attack?” asked Nigel Scott, a balletomane investment banker as Jim Busby’s face contorted into a look of pain.
“No, he’s fine, he just needs some fresh air–it’s stuffy in here, isn’t it?” his wife replied as she stood him up and started to push him towards the door, but it was too late.
“Where the eagles cry,” Jim screamed in a guttural voice that recalled an animal caught in a leg trap. “On a mountain high!”
Just like the real thing!
Once outside in the hall Busby could only groan at her missed chance as a straw poll taken in her absence resolved to invite her to become a “Friend” of the ballet, but nothing more for fear that a similarly embarrassing outburst would mar a high-toned fundraiser or opening night.
Jim Busby suffers from Joe Cocker Imitation Syndrome, an ailment that afflicts approximately 4 out of every hundred American men between the ages of 55 and 70. “JCIS is characterized by spastic gestures, unintelligible singing and wild arm-flailing,” says Dr. Peter Girardin of the Massachusetts Home for Aging Baby-Boomers. “The search for a pharmaceutical cure has been unsuccessful, largely because the syndrome itself is the product of excessive drug and alcohol use.”
The full Cocker
Victims of the disease typically first exhibit symptoms in early post-adolescence, performing imitations of uninhibited British rock singer Joe Cocker in private settings or at bars. Triggering influences such as a strobe light, bad acid or light beer can cause the affected condition to become permanent, the way your mother used to warn you if you made an ugly face it might stay that way.
There are few support groups or dedicated medical assistance available to Cocker imitators, unlike the broad acceptance that Elvis Presley imitators have achieved through a campaign of annoying appearances at shopping malls and other public venues. “As millions of male rock fans become senile, we as a society need to come to terms with this dreaded disease,” says Girardin as he looks at a brain scan taken during a patient’s rendition of “Delta Lady.” “Do we want these guys breaking into raspy singing in public places, or will we allow them to age gracefully in secure facilities where they won’t bother anybody?”
The week before Memorial Day; summer’s almost here and you can see people opening up to the season, like flowers. And then there’s my partner, the Old Curmudgeon, who makes do with his usual all-weather grumpy demeanor.
“Hey there, Bink,” I call to him as he approaches the elevator bank. He has a look of exasperated relief on his face, if such a thing is possible. “Looking forward to summer?”
“No,” Bink snaps. “The damn kids just got home from college. Sarah’s become a vegan and Todd listens to that damn ‘rap’ music all the time.”
“Kids,” I say, commiserating with him. “You can’t live with ‘em, but you can live without ‘em.”
“You know, some of those rap songs are disgusting,” Bink grumbles. “I think I heard one of those guys say mother-you-know-what.”
“Sort of like classical Greek tragedy.”
“Oedipus Rex–by Sophocles.”
“Hmph. I took mostly business courses. Anyway, I’m worried about ‘em both. Sarah’s thin as a rail, and Todd says he wants to be a ‘DJ’–whatever that is.”
The elevator door opened, and we got on along with a crowd of others. As so often happens, the close confinement of the car acted as a stimulus to my brain, like the isolation booths on ’50′s game shows.
“You know, I think you could kill two birds with one stone if you just got more protein out of your music,” I say to Bink. He looks at me as if I’m daft–and I’m not going to argue with him.
“What do you mean?” he asks with a quizzical look on his face, his head cocked to one side like a parakeet.
“Well, maybe if you played songs with a little meat in them, Todd would abandon the monotony of rap and Sarah would come back to the carnivore fold.”
“I don’t know any songs about meat,” Bink says.
“Well, there’s ‘Hey Pete, Let’s Eat More Meat’ by Dizzy Gillespie,” I say. “Probably converted more vegans than any other song in the history of Western Civilization, but I don’t know if it’s raunchy enough for Todd.”
“Yes, the boy’s obsessed with,” here Bink stops to look around at the other passengers, then continues in a softer voice, “booty.”
“Well, there’s ‘It Ain’t the Meat It’s the Motion’ by The Swallows,” I suggest helpfully.
“Maria Muldaur recorded it too,” a frizzy-haired fifty-something woman behind us says.
“Righto,” I say, “but The Swallows were first.”
“Sounds rather–risque,” Bink says. He once found a set of French postcards in his father’s underwear drawer, and ever since has assumed that all Frenchmen are hopeless debauchees.
“Well, it’s the sort of song that can bring a family together,” I say. “Mom, dad, sis, junior–everyone gets a kick out of it.”
“But those songs are expressions of men’s fantasies,” the frizzy-haired woman says. “How about ‘I Want a Hot Dog for My Roll’?”
“By Butterbeans & Susie?” a bike messenger with stringy hair asks. I’m gratified to see that I’ve enhanced Boston’s often cramped sense of civic engagement by inspiring such a lively discussion among total strangers, except for me and Bink, who are each strange in our own way.
“Yes,” the woman replies.
“I don’t know,” Bink says. “All these songs sound vaguely–disreputable.”
I catch his drift. Jazz, R&B, black novelty acts–it’s all music from the ”wrong side of the tracks.”
“You’re right, Bink,” I say. “What you need is music that’s so well-established and esteemed it’s approved by the federal government of the U-S of A.”
“Yes,” Bink says, his gaze fixed on a point in the middle distance. “I want something that’s as safe as a U.S. Treasury bill–like John Philip Sousa.”
“So I suggest the unexpurgated version of ’Winin’ Boy’ by Jelly Roll Morton,” I say. ”It’s on a Library of Congress recording!”
“How’s that go?” Bink asks.
“Like this,” I reply. A young man in the back takes the iPod buds out of his ears as I begin to sing.
A nickel’s worth of beefsteak, a dime’s worth of lard.
A nickel’s worth of beefsteak, a dime’s worth of lard.
I’m gonna salivate your pussy ’til my peter gets hard.
The car is quiet. We have those little silent TV screens in our elevators, so I figure everyone’s looking at the Red Sox score.
“That’s really in the Library of Congress?” Bink asks, incredulous.
“Yep–your tax dollars at work. When you think of all the crap that our taxes pay for, it’s good to know that every now and then we get some value for our money.”
The car glides to a stop at Bink’s floor, and he steps off into the lobby.
“Well, uh, thanks for the suggestions,” he says. “You know, whenever we have these little talks I always end up feeling . . . “
“Better?” I say as he hesitates.