A Halloween tale: a lamp, a banshee and a nightmare

When I was a young boy, Walt Disney released a movie that made a lasting impression on me.  It turned out to be the source of a recurring nightmare for quite some time.  The film was Darby O’Gill and the Little People.  The innocuous title belied multiple appearances of a very scary creature in the film called a “banshee.”

I lived with my parents and younger sister in a small, two-bedroom home.  The living room, kitchen, bathroom and both bedrooms all opened into a small hallway.  Mounted on the wall of that hallway was a single light fixture. The lamp’s stem stuck out of its wall plate in a downward, then upward curve to an upright socket fitted with a round, squaty, frosted glass chimney shade.  When it was dark in the hallway, you’d flip the switch turning on the lamp which projected, upward and around, an eerie glow that in itself was scary enough. But it also cast a shadow on the wall behind and below which, in the active mind if an eight year old, resembled a dark, flowing cape or robe.  I used to run through the hall from one room to another, especially at night, averting my eyes from that lamp as much as possible.

Witnessing a banshee on the big screen in a darkened theater, then coming bansheehome to an already tenuous hallway situation with terrifying light and shadow, inevitably led to regular nightmares.  They were nightmares from which I’d awaken with a start, heart beating in my throat.  In each nightmare, the hallway lamp would come to life as the banshee, howling and reciting something that I’ve mostly forgotten, but which always ended with the phrase, “…all your ages and wages.”  I have no clue what it meant, but it scared the crap out me.

And that’s what I think about every Halloween.  What’s your nightmare?

Here’s a movie clip (click on it and see for yourself):  Darby O’Gill and the Banshee

 

My Mother Should Know: A Beatles Moment

We weren’t all that innocent. Not like the media would have you believe.  We already had rock ‘n’ roll, the very name of which implies a loss of innocence. We had Elvis, though he wasn’t someone who excited me.  I was a little too young to fully appreciate what an older sibling Elvis fan might have liked about him.

Instead, I counted Del Shannon’s Runaway among my favorite songs.  Having memorized the lyrics, I’d sing it aloud bicycling around the neighborhood.  Over time, Gene Pitney’s Twenty-Four Hours from Tulsa took over the top spot in my “bicycling aloud” repertoire.  The lyrics to both songs were emblazoned on my brain.  To this day, I still play and sing them whenever the urge to pull out my guitar creeps over me.  Only rarely do I sing either of them aloud anymore while bicycling.

That internal playlist changed on the day I accompanied Mom to the Bonnie Bee Supermarket.  I always enjoyed going to the grocery store with her because I’d get to hang out in the magazine aisle and leaf through the latest issue of Song Hits magazine.  Occasionally I’d make a halfhearted attempt to scan Hot Rod magazine.  What captured my attention on this day, however, was a nearby record rack that housed the week’s top ten hits on 45s.

I’d seen picture sleeves on records before.  Some singles by the Beach Boys had them.  There were other groups with picture sleeves as well.  On this day the one that attracted me had on it a black and white photo of four guys in collarless jackets, the guy on the left sporting a lit cigarette in his fingers.  These were the Beatles I’d been seeing on television news and was hearing on the radio.  That sleeve containing their record, I Want To Hold Your Hand, called out to me.


I walked down one aisle after another, record in hand, to find Mom.  If I could just sneak it into the cart unnoticed, I’d nonchalantly slip it on to the conveyor belt at the checkout as I helped unload groceries.  I chickened out and simply asked her if she’d buy it for me.  My reasoning must have been sound.  In 1963, Mom bought me the first Beatles record I ever owned.

Tonight we saw the Ron Howard film, The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years.  The first few minutes of the movie stirred up such a visceral response that I almost pulled out a handkerchief.  My thoughts were drawn back to that day in the Bonnie Bee Supermarket and how Mom gave in to my begging.  Little did she know I’d eventually be asking for an electric guitar.  (I got that too.  Man, I must have been good.)

See the film.  If you’re so moved, post a comment about your first memorable Beatles moment.  And by the way, thanks Mom!

The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years official UK trailer

Snowflakes Are Dancing

It snowed in northern Wisconsin recently.  A bit unusual for mid-May, but not entirely unheard of.  I couldn’t help thinking those snowflakes, swirling in the chilly air, were dancing in tribute to yet another fallen artist.  Isao Tomita was a Moog synthesizer virtuoso who died at the age of 84 on May 11, 2016.  Forty-two years ago I was introduced to what became his most famous work.

Snowflakes Are Dancing

Snowflakes Are Dancing was an album of Claude Debussy’s “tone paintings” as interpreted by Tomita on the Moog.  It wasn’t the first album of electronic music I’d heard.  Just before graduating high school, I was flipping through the “Psychedelic” bin in the record section of a local department store one day, searching for some unconventional music.  (I was already a fan of Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention.)  A shiny, silver cover bearing the title Silver Apples grabbed my attention.  It was recorded by a duo bearing that name and has since been cited as the first collection of experimental electronic music.

I plunked down a couple of bucks and brought it home for a trial listen.  At first I didn’t care much for the pulsating, sometimes discordant, driving beat of synthesized sounds.  Nonetheless, I continued to play it occasionally just to hear something different.  Until my freshman year in college.  It was then the album was sold along with some others in what would be the first of several record purges over the next few years.  How I regretted purging some of those albums is a story for another time.

Most of my college listening (and occasional performing) involved serious folk-rock music, much of which carried with it a message of protest.  But a spark of interest in the strange and exotic sound of electronica was rekindled after college, fueled in part by movie soundtracks like A Clockwork Orange.  The film featured works performed on the Moog synthesizer by Walter Carlos.  (Later he became Wendy Carlos.)  Carlos had already gained notoriety with his 1968 Grammy-winning album, Switched On Bach, a collection of music by Johann Sebastian Bach played on the Moog.  He composed the electronic music for A Clockwork Orange three years later.

I picked up both albums and shortly after that acquisition, purloined one track from Switched On Bach to use as background music for a National Library Week promotional film I co-produced in the mid-seventies.  It featured card catalog drawers opening and closing on their own, created with stop-action animation effects.  The spot aired for a brief time on local cable television.  I wish I knew whatever became of it.

In the meantime, on November 2, 1973, I attended my first Moog synthesizer concert, promoted as a “multimedia performance of light, film and synthesized music.”  The soloist was Morton Subotnick, whose press kit highlighted his contribution of electronic effects for the soundtrack to 2001: A Space Odyssey.   It turns out my expectations were fulfilled neither in sight nor sound.  2001: A Space Odyssey it definitely was not.

A few months after that concert, undaunted by my disappointment with Subotnick’s performance, I acquired Tomita’s Snowflakes Are Dancing album. The atmospheric interpretations of Debussy’s works blew me away.  I played that record until it wore out.  For years I would be reminded of Tomita whenever I’d hear a Moog synth in progressive rock music.  Bands like Emerson, Lake and Palmer, for example.

Only recently did Snowflakes Are Dancing rejoin my playlist after noticing the recording among a listing of digital titles available online.  Who would have thought the electronic music produced forty-two years ago is now downloaded electronically and paid for electronically as well?  Far out!  Those May snowflakes in northern Wisconsin were dancing for Isao Tomita, who forever left his footprints in the snow and his fingerprints on the Moog.

 

Love and Mercy

A few days ago I saw the new Brian Wilson biopic, Love and Mercy. As I mentioned to my wife Sylvia after the film, and at the risk of sounding a bit too sentimental, I was misty-eyed during much of the movie. Maybe it’s an emotional attachment to the music of the Beach Boys in general, and Brian Wilson in particular. The attachment extends more specifically to the album Pet Sounds, the production of which was an integral part of the film story. Maybe I’m simply a fan.

When Pet Sounds was released in May 1966 I was finishing my sophomore year in high school, had just put together a garage band, and had landed my first full-time summer job as a private groundskeeper for a well-to-do retired businessman in my hometown. I’d always enjoyed the Beach Boys and their songs about summer, surfing, cars and girls. My cousin Mike and I even went to Chicago, driven there by my uncle, to hear the Beach Boys in concert at McCormick Place the previous year. Brian Wilson had stopped touring with the band by then which was a disappointment.  However, his place on bass guitar and harmonies was capably filled by Glen Campbell.

Pet Sounds was a different Beach Boys record. It was more introspective and personal music. The songs on that record spoke to me in a way that’s difficult to describe. All day long during that summer I mowed acres of grass, reseeded several patches of lawn, and labored at other outdoor chores. All the while, each song from Pet Sounds played repeatedly in my head. I heard every nuance of every note played and every lyric sung. It helped pass the time while working and would be the equivalent today of wearing earbuds connected to an iPod. But it was all in my head. There was no external device.

As much as I liked that album, most of my friends did not. And I knew this was not music my garage band could play. So at each day’s end that summer, I’d go home and clean up for dinner, maybe have a few bandmates over to practice, and then go to my room to play some records or listen to WLS Radio, the “Big 89.”  But the next working day it would usually be Pet Sounds in my head.

Summer ended, school reconvened, I bought a new bass guitar with the money I earned and continued to play gigs with my band.  The Beatles released Revolver, the Beach Boys released Good Vibrations and life went on.

I heard the Beach Boys again in 1971 at Notre Dame, again sans Brian Wilson.  Sylvia, Colin and I caught them one more time in LaCrosse around 1989, this time with neither Brian nor his brother Dennis Wilson who had died tragically a few year earlier.

At last in 2002, Sylvia and I were fortunate to be at the foot of the stage to hear Brian Wilson and his band at the House of Blues in Chicago. During intermission between sets, a stagehand picked up set lists off the floor and placed new ones. I could read one from where I stood. They would be playing Pet Sounds in its entirety. When the concert was over, they left the stage to thundering applause. Returning for their encores, I caught Brian Wilson’s eye as he walked to his electric piano. I can’t explain why, but he veered toward me and extended his hand to shake mine, which I gladly did. I expected him to shake a few more hands along the way, but he didn’t. Mine was the only one. Maybe he knew… I’m simply a fan.BrianWilsonTix2002