Friday, September 22, 2017

Golfing in the Moment

To build on the change from summer to fall I put a new set of discs into the CD changer here in the shack.  I looked at my music collection and found musicians I haven’t listened to in a long time.  I had one requirement.  No lyrics.  I have writing to do.  Words in my ear interfere with words in my head.

I turned to jazz:  Chet Baker, a couple of Miles Davis, two by Wynton Marsalis.  I have a two disc set on standby to replace the two CD’s I tire of first.  It’s the Riverside Recordings, a musical collaboration between Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane captured at New York’s Five Spot CafĂ© in 1957.  Chet Baker is playing “’Tis Autumn” in the background as I write.  Let’s get at it shall we?

For a couple years now I’ve been golfing with a good group of retired guys.  It’s an eclectic group, changes every week, goes to different courses, playing collectively or individually well one day and badly the next.  Some of us keep individual scores privately but we only note and report our group success.  We track the number of pars and par equivalents as a ratio of the number of holes played.  The number of holes played depends of course on the number of guys playing.  We aim to play 18.  Once in a while someone has to leave after 9.  At times (like now) someone goes past nine but doesn’t play a full round of 18 (that’s me, still getting my ankle back in playing shape.)  Anyway, using those numbers we do some math and rate the group’s performance.  I’ve decided to forgo that for last week’s round.  It was a different kind of day.

Five guys played 79 holes of golf.  Three played 18, one played 9, I cut out after 15.  But it was not a day for numbers.  That day was an experience, not a contest.  

It started when one of the guys on the list replied to the e mail announcing the place and time with an idea to bring an old friend known to most of us.  He’s a guy who no longer plays much.  Let’s call him Bob.

“Hey, I was thinking of bringing Bob.  It’s going to be a nice day.  He may want to get out of the house, or his wife may want a break.   He won’t play a lot.  Just hit some balls now and then.  Putt a little.  What do you think?”

When you’ve lived in one community for as long as we have you develop and keep friendships with guys important to you.  Bob was a mentor to many of us.  I worked with him for a very short time.  He was happy and expressive, said what he thought, and we realized he had good things on his mind.  He was well suited for his job.  I remember him as both sarcastic and good hearted.  Fun.

“Bring him.  I haven’t been with him in a long time.  I’d love to see him.”

I showed up late, last to arrive, and Bob was already in the cart.  He was wearing big orthopedic tennis shoes with Velcro straps extending down by the toe.  I check those things out these days.  Still recuperating from ankle surgery, I was wearing an Ankle Foot Orthotic (AFO), black leather over plastic covering my calf and laced up to my knee, in sensible black street shoes.  Hard telling when I’ll wear my golf shoes again.  Bob and I were both heavily shod.  When I shook hands with him he gave me a big smile.  You remember people’s smiles and how they make you feel.  At least I do.  His smile had always made me feel good.  It still does.

“You going to be our swing coach today Bob?  Our spiritual golf guru and advisor?”

“Nope.  Playing.”

“All right then, let’s go.”

We play at a fairly leisurely pace on the local courses, and playing on weekdays we find them rarely crowded.  For some reason that day everyone had the same idea.  It was a lovely morning.  There were lots of golfers.  We waited for the guys before us to hit and as we were teeing off another foursome was parked behind us.  That’s unusual for golf in the Illinois Valley.  As the last guy was teeing up his ball I saw Bob slowly step out of his cart.  Very slowly.

He was looking around intently.  When he finally reached the tee box he scanned the horizon all around. 

“That way Bob.”  I pointed down the fairway.  “Straight ahead.  See the flag?”

We were golfing at a course which was a country club that sold and went public.  Bob was a member there.  He knew the course well.  Or he did at one time.

He looked in that direction.  Slowly he bent to put a tee in the ground and once accomplished placed a ball on it.  Then he stood up.  A cart went by on the fairway next to us.  He followed it with his eyes as it disappeared over a little rise.  In the other direction a foursome cheered an apparent long par putt.  He turned and looked intently at them.

“C’mon Bob.  Hit the ball buddy.”

It was his cart mate gently urging him to hurry.  Another of his old friends called out.

“How long does it stay light out these days?”

That crack came from another supportive friend.  It’s what guys do.

Bob looked back and smiled.  Then pulled the club back, his back swing much reduced from the last time I saw him play.  He brought the club forward, all arms, and hit a soft liner about a foot and a half off the ground.  It travelled 80 yards.   But right down the middle and, you know, past the ladies tee. 

“OK.  We’re off.”

Four of us walked quickly back to our carts while Bob made a slow deliberate trip, one step at a time, back to his seat. 

Brilliant blue and plush green were the colors of the day.  A yellow sun moved across the sky.  White clouds came and went.  We played all through the September morning.  Sometimes when I come home from golfing my wife asks what we talk about.

“Golf.” I say.

People have tried to convince me that business gets done on the golf course.  Not in my lifetime.  We talk about turning slices and hooks into fades and draws.  We estimate distance, complain about sand traps, bemoan our bad shots silently (for the most part) and praise good ones openly.  We chide ourselves for bad habits.  We get serious about golf.

Golfing with Bob was different.  He was quiet and didn’t get out of his seat in the cart often.  At random times he would say

“Is it my turn?”

And when he did we would drop a ball twenty yards away from the pin for him to chip, or place one on the green ten feet from the hole to putt.  We kept him involved to some extent, but sometimes didn’t because the foursome behind us was waiting to hit.  He rarely initiated conversation so we took on that task.  Mistakes can be made unknowingly. 

“Bob do you remember that time in Berta’s when you …?”

At the word remember Bob looked in my eyes and replied firmly, but with a smile, “Nope.”

I was embarrassed but Bob wasn’t. 

I did see flashes of the guy I remember from the past.  I drove my ball off the tee first and pulled my cart next to his as the others of our foursome were getting ready to drive.

“How’s your wife Bob?”

Bob is married to a lovely woman, a nurse.  He looked at me for a long time.

“Compared to what?”

It was just the kind of smart ass thing Bob would have said thirty years ago.  Never a straight answer. 

“Oh, I don’t know.  How about compared to you.”

He smiled again, his biggest smile, very close to a laugh.

“Me?  Compared to me?  He paused.  “Fantastic.”

Bob changed our game.  He was living in the moment, enjoying each swing, while we were trying, like always, to figure out how few strokes we could manage at the finish.  He saw everything around him while we saw the flag on the green at the end of the fairway.  His life had changed.  At times we found that awkward to deal with.  But we also found ourselves changing to help our friend.  We pulled his cart to places on the cart path where he could walk more easily. We took his arm and helped him up and down the slopes.  We paid attention to him and each other more than normal.  We may have been good to Bob, but Bob made us a little better that day too.  The score was less important.   Kindness and enjoying the day ruled. 

Good to see you Bob. 

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

A Week Away

Eight men lived in a three room cabin  for eight days and seven nights on a lake in western Ontario.  They had no television, radio, phone signal, or internet connection.  No outside voices, no news, no information from anywhere else came to them during that week.  You might think it would be awkward, boring, perhaps tiresome.  It wasn’t. 

Room one was a narrow galley kitchen.  Past it was the main room with four handmade log bunk beds built into the walls, a dining table with eight chairs, a wood stove and a shelf unit.  In the corner was a tiny bathroom equipped with hot shower (courtesy of propane gas), sink, and a urinal.  Outside, up the hill, was an outhouse.  A fine outhouse I might add, perhaps the best I’ve ever encountered.

The outhouse had a tiny solar night light, a double door, a plastic seat, and dehydrated lime in a bucket, the kind you use to make the batter’s box and foul lines on a baseball diamond.  We were instructed to sprinkle a dipperful in the hole after each use and did so faithfully, or at least I did.  Despite the outhouse visibly reaching capacity the odor was minimal.  It’s said that outhouses in these fishing camps keep out those who require the latest in modern convenience.  So be it.  If true, both the fish and the fishermen benefit from keeping out the faint of heart.
We were the only cabin on a giant lake.  The cabin, the outhouse, a boat house for storing fuel and equipment equipped with solar panels for electricity, a table for cleaning fish, the docks, four aluminum boats with 9.9 HP gas motors, and a good wooden walkway up the incline to the cabin were the extent of man’s intrusion into Job Lake.  Nothing else was manmade.  Apart from that little compound nature took over.

The eight of us quickly fell into a simple routine.  Eating, fishing, drinking, talking, and sleeping.  We did each to extreme.  I’m recovering yet today, days after our return.  With the exception of fishing, which I do exclusively on this trip, and drinking for some, aren’t the rest of those elements pretty much daily life as we know it? 
EATING - We eat well, but we eat too much.  Let me illustrate that reality by rattling off just some of the food we bring for eight people.  Ten pounds of bacon, five pounds of sausage, a six pound box of Bisquick (along with a one pound box of Aunt Jemima pancake mix for peace of mind), two picnic hams, eight big rib eye steaks from Handy Foods, 12 loaves of Canadian Rye bread, 72 eggs, ten pounds of potatoes, a dozen onions, hot dogs, brats, homemade chili, crackers, not enough cheese, Pringles, peanut butter we didn’t eat, jelly, tortillas, homemade pasta sauce, pasta, rice, 7 heads of lettuce, too many tomatoes from home, peppers, carrots, celery, apples, oranges, powdered milk, 9 dozen homemade cookies, and a cake mix.

*Photos courtesy of Nate Robinson

And last but not least a box of Cheerios for breakfast for fly out morning.  Add to that 52 fresh caught walleyes and you’ve got a lot of food.  Little of it went to waste.  And it goes without saying  no one went hungry.
DRINKING - Some of the guys in our group have been coming to Canada on these trips for upwards of 30 years.  Their talk of the old days, when the fishermen were young, is rife with stories of prodigious beer drinking.  That’s changed.  We flew in just nine cases of beer, dropping below double digits, and have stopped buying beer as a group (like groceries) because of the great disparity of consumption among us.  You buy your own beer, more or less, though it’s shared freely.  Lately in addition to the beer, we have increased the hard liquor supply.  This year we brought in four bottles (3,250 milliliters) of Bushmills Irish Whiskey, in addition to a couple of flasks of whiskey, and a liter of Vodka along with the makings for Bloody Marys.  It made for a pretty nice bar in addition to beer. I continue to advocate for hard liquor over beer for practical reasons.  Beer is heavy, and we have weight restrictions due to the size of both the fisherman and the plane.  The plane only holds so much, and we pay a penalty when we exceed it's weight capacity. This year, like most years, some of our stuff had to be flown in later by a second plane.  I argue the blame can be placed largely on the beer. 

A case of beer weighs eighteen pounds.  Nine weigh 162.  The comparative buzz that results from one and a half ounces of whiskey equals roughly twelve ounces of beer.  Buzz wise hard liquor is clearly more efficient in terms of volume and weight.  I lose that argument consistently, and I have to admit a cold can of Moosehead lager or two (or more) each afternoon tastes damn good.  OK, yes, sometimes in the morning too.  But not as a rule.  Suffice to say we drank liberally and well, those of us who drank, which this year was all of us to varying degree.  While we were at it we had a cigar or two.  That’s an after dinner deal, the cigars, which often come out when the whiskey appears.  I’ve observed that the drinking leads to…
TALKING - What do you talk about for seven days with no news, no new information from elsewhere, with the same guys you’ve been talking to since you stepped off the plane?  I can’t tell you.  I can however report we talked a lot.  Occasionally one of us would peel off to read or nap, but for the most part we talked as a group around the table after dinner and breakfast, moved outside to the deck and talked there until it got dark.  Talked, drank, smoked cigars, told jokes, many repeated from previous years, laughed.  You’d think you would wear out after a while, that there would simply be nothing else to talk about.  Not so.  We talked about the past a fair amount of time.  Especially the older guys.  I observed that the young guys talked more about the future.  That all stands to reason.  The older guys have much more past to talk about, and to be frank, a more limited future.  The young guys are in a different spot.  We learned a lot from each other.  And refreshingly, we were able to disagree and fail to come to conclusions.

When people converse these days there is hardly any argument over facts because someone will pull out their smart phone, get on Google, and determine the accuracy of statements within seconds.  At the lake we had only our memories and beliefs to go on.  We were left to our own devices when it came to the truth.  It was refreshing.  You should try it sometime.
In addition to talking as a group of eight we paired off in the boats, switching boating partners each day so we could all get to know one another if we didn’t already.   Nine hours or so in a boat with the motor off on a quiet lake is a great way to form an acquaintance. 

SLEEPING - My single biggest regret is that I didn’t make an audio recording of the cabin when we were sleeping to share with you.  You cannot imagine the cacophony caused by eight snoring men in an otherwise silent black cabin, all with different pitches of a unique cadence.  Being part of a choir, I could pick out the bass snorers from the tenors.  We didn’t have a true soprano, but someone, somewhere got close at times.  The animals around the cabin must have been fascinated by the noise, the rabbits, the ground hog, the whiskey jacks and ground squirrels.  We didn’t encounter bear of moose on this trip.  Good thing.  They may have felt threatened.  We were damn loud.
We were outside all day in the sun and weather, busy fishing, then cooking or doing dishes, then staying awake to talk.  Alcohol may have also been a factor.  Bedtime seemed to get earlier and earlier.  I for one had vivid dreams.  I’d go to sleep, have a series of absolutely wacko dreams which would wake me, then fall back to sleep only to dream the sequel.  I think it was the profound silence, the lack of ambient light, the feeling of isolation that made me sleep so good and dream in such wild detail.  Others reported the same thing.  We used silicone ear plugs to protect one another from the snoring.  I’m sure that helped.  Others had only to remove their hearing aids.  Be that as it may, no one appeared to suffer from lack of sleep.

FISHING – Despite making fish the main part of our diet the number of fish we sacrificed for consumption was right around fifty.  We all bought conservation licenses that allowed us a daily possession limit of two Walleye per person, four per boat.  By agreement we cut that down to three fish per boat and it was plenty.  With few exceptions we only fished for walleye, choosing the three biggest and fattest of those between 15 and 18 inches, and ate only them.  We’d run a stringer in each boat and as the day went on if we caught something better than what was on the stringer we’d release others.  On some days each boat would catch and release upwards of 35 fish.  It was a fishing bonanza.  We go to feel the fish on the line, to experience the challenge of hooking them and getting them in the boat, to go after the big one.  But we want them to live for us and others to catch in the future. 
The fishing itself is a challenge, determining where likely good spots are on the huge lake, gauging wind direction, positioning the boat so it drifts over hot spots.  Sometimes a boat would be doing so well it would stay in the same spot all day.  Often we would see our friends across the lake, motor over, and they would gesture for us to come in, telling us where to start our drift.  There were certainly plenty of fish to catch.  The fish themselves are clean and beautiful, caught from clean water, in a natural unstocked fishery.  The biggest Walleye of the week was a 24 inches, caught by a guy on his first trip.  If we caught Northern pike it was only by accident.  It was a Walleye trip and we were not disappointed.

So there’s the highlights.  After you write a blog for a number of years you realize this has become an annual piece.  How long can you find variety in an endeavor which essentially has the same elements?  I think for as long as you pay attention.  Every trip is different.  This trip was special for me because it represented a needed break from the "civilized"world.  While there we missed eight days of political chaos in America, a devastating hurricane in Texas, crazy and potentially deadly military actions by North Korea, all part of the constant barrage of news that you feel is beyond your control.  We were spared because our cell phones essentially went dead.
Instead of being persistent constant reminders of the outside world they became timepieces, flashlights, and cameras.  I have to admit I forgot at times and pulled out my phone to check for messages, to see the weather forecast.  I found myself wondering about the Cubs score.  That all faded.  Against our will we were completely isolated, cut off, and thrust into nature.  After a while we fell into its rhythm.  Nature in that part of Ontario, though inherently savage as nature is, was to our eye beautiful, quiet and soothing.  I’m convinced we need more of that these days.

That’s why do I keep going back.  In addition to the company of good people it’s the beauty of wilderness.  Given the position of the cabin we could not, from our deck, where we smoked cigars and drank whiskey, see the sunset.  But each night in which we cleaned and ate fish we had a final chore to do, which was to take the fish guts, the heads, spines, and fins that remain after we filet those walleye, across the lake to dump them on rocks at the opposite shore.  Fish guts can attract bears.  It’s a sensible safety measure to dispose of them well away from the cabin.  I went one night, three to the boat, and sat at the bow with the white plastic bucket.  We cruised up to a rock ledge where I dumped them.  Then we backed off twenty yards or so, killed the motor, and sat in silence.
The first to cruise in was a gull.  He was able to make off with a nibble of fish flesh before the vulture arrived, chasing him off.  They were wary though, and skirted around the fish gut buffet looking over their shoulder.  For good reason.  Within seconds we saw the big daddy bald eagle, proud white head, come over the tree line like a B 1 Bomber, scattering all the other birds.

He landed in the middle of the pile and leisurely ate his fill.  We sat and watched.

 Then we looked on the other side of the boat.  The sun was setting over the lake.

When you see a stunning sunset, or sunrise, in a thin place like a wilderness lake you develop both reverence and confusion.  When is it most beautiful?  Which picture among the many you take is the best?  Three of us were transfixed.  We said hardly a word.  We just sat in the boat, in the still and silent beauty of the lake, and took pictures.  We barely spoke.  It was a moment.  I thought of the people I love.  Beauty can inspire beautiful thoughts.  It was one of the moments I go there for.

You get to know other men well when you live that closely with them, spend all day in a boat with them, share three meals a day.  It was remarked during the week that one guy out of sync with the rest can ruin a trip, but I’ve not yet experienced that.  Every year the group changes slightly, yet each year all the men I’ve encountered I would go back on a trip with no problem.  I think we get closer as we listen to each other and share common experiences.  I’d go back to the lake with this last group in a minute if I could. 

That’s the story out of Ontario this year.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Leo Kottke Redux

I’m not sure how old I was when I started thinking about death regularly, but it picked up quite a bit after I had a heart attack at 57.  It was mild as heart attacks go, one stent the fix, probably caused by stress and lack of sleep, but it made me pretty angry.  After that I considered the possibility of checking out quite a bit.  I may have thought occasionally about death prior to that, but I assure you it was only occasionally.  I can’t remember to tell the truth.  Aside from a few dark dramatic moments while traveling in my twenties I’ve always only thought about dying involuntarily.  I would never kill myself I don’t believe, unless I knew I was losing my mind, because I would always look forward to my next meal.
When you’re young you consistently equate death with old people, who die regularly.  Perhaps young people now, what with terrorism, the opioid epidemic, and the dystopian pessimism going around think more about death than I did but I doubt it.  I took a lot of risks which, if I thought I was going to die, I probably would not have.  Death never crossed my mind when I was young. 

It’s hard to avoid thinking about death now at 66, and impossible if you’ve lost a person you loved (a spouse, a sibling, a child).  When friends or family experience the death of one they regard as impossible to exist without, we empathize in a chilling way.  All we have to do is imagine losing a child, a wife or husband.  As a young father I was once invaded by the thought of my infant daughter dying, for what reason I’ll never know. She was and is as healthy as a horse.  I was driving at the time.  I had to pull over I was shaken so badly.
It’s not long after we imagine the deaths of those we love that we finally picture our own.  It’s a slap in the face.  Not pretty. Optimistically, I picture my own death this way.  95, witty, still able to take nourishment and fairly mobile, I laugh out loud while looking up at a blue summer sky, step off a curb, and am hit by a speeding truck loaded with whiskey.
“Poor Dave.  He never knew what hit him.”

“Yep.  The whiskey did kill him in the end, just like his wife said it would.”
Pondering your death is as normal as getting up in the night to pee.  You can’t help but do it, and there’s nothing wrong with it.  Try not to share your thoughts too often though with young people, especially your children.  They don’t like it.  But don’t think yourself morose or depressed.  It’s OK.  Death, as they say, they being funeral directors, is part of life.

If nothing else thinking of death is a mathematical function that simply happens in your head.  You’re sitting across the table from a friend much your senior, looking into his somewhat vacant eyes.  Are they different than they were a year ago or is that me?  Or is that blank look just because he isn’t wearing his hearing aids?
“How old are you now?”


I’m 66.  That could be me in 15 years.  Shit.  Fifteen years is not long.  I have to get busy.

And so ends the long introduction to my piece on Leo Kottke.  My wife and I saw Leo Monday night at the City Winery.  He was wonderful and so is that venue.  We ate there with the kids before the show.  A little pricey but SURPRISE, they picked up part of the tab.  I never thought I’d live that long.
We got married to Leo’s version of “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.”  We listened to his Armadillo album till we wore out the grooves and lost it.  I recently downloaded it and put it on a CD, and am wearing that out as we speak, or as I write rather.  He’s unique.  I have blogged about him before,  two years ago on a drive down south in the Buick.  (You can scroll down if you choose, January, 2016-Road Trip #11).  Here's Leo Kottke when he was young.

Leo has had a hell of a good life, viewed from afar, and has been able I think to stay true to what he loves and is blessed with talent at doing, playing guitar.  He came out on stage at the City Winery with two guitars, a 6 and a 12 string, sat down on a chair and played.  In between he told droll stories.  Even a hitch hiking story, always my favorites, from when he was a busker and played on the streets.  Hitch hiking is all but gone.  I wonder now if the young people among us can imagine what it was like. 
He still plays beautifully.  The notes he gets out of his instrument are so clear and sweet they make me cry.  He sang more than I anticipated, and played mellower versions of his mellower tunes.  My wife asked nicely

Weren’t you just waiting for him to break out into his really loud, hard driving stuff?”
She was talking about Leo’s fast, frenetic playing, known technically as polyphonic finger picking, a complicated thumb and finger technique accomplished with thumb and finger picks.  Tendinitis has forced Leo to give up on most of that stuff.  My wife and I were longing for tunes like “The Driving of the Year Nail, ” the raw and raunchy counterpart to his beautiful slow stuff like Bach’s Jesu.  He didn’t play it.  I don’t think he can anymore.

He played beautifully and I was honored to hear him, the first time I’ve ever heard him live.  When he walked out I felt weirdly like I knew him from somewhere.  I completely agreed with him and his take on encores.  The strange custom that we have developed at concerts where artists leave the stage, wait for the audience to clap and whistle, then come back on and perform more as if they were really going to leave.  Leo simply announced his last tune as his encore, played it wonderfully, picked up his guitars and left the stage.
When he held his guitars up and gestured to the crowd, I thought I saw him rock forward slightly then regain his balance.  That happens when you’re old.
Leo is 71, five years older than me.  I don’t know how long he’ll play, because playing is almost all he’s ever done, but nothing lasts forever.  When it comes to individual performers that’s because no person lasts forever.  I’m pretty sure no one’s going to play like Leo Kottke ever again.  No Leo Kottke one man tribute band I’m thinking.  He’s one of a kind.  And then the thought crept in.

The thought  began with a conversation about Gato Barbieri.  I was talking to my friend Bill about Gato, one of his favorite jazz musicians, who plays the saxophone.  Make that played.
“I always wanted to see Gato, and I had a chance while I was in Rome a few years ago.  Saw he was in town, bought tickets on a whim, went down to the hall, and the show was canceled.  He got sick.  Bad break.

Later he was scheduled in Chicago, and I was all set to order tickets, and damned if he didn’t die. I waited too long see Gato.  Makes me mad.  I’ve decided not to wait till the next time to see people I really admire.  Hell if it’s not them it could be me.”
I feel the same way about Bob Dylan.  I’ve seen him a few times, been disappointed lately, but when I get the chance I’ll see him again.  We grew up together in a way, but neither he nor I are going to last forever.  Another friend said he saw Gordon Lightfoot perform not long ago, and he had to take a medical break between sets.  Breathing treatment or some such thing.  Go see your musical heroes perform while you (or they) still can.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Billy Joel

Note to Readers:  I didn’t give you the links for all the songs I’m writing about tonight.  They’re easily searchable and playable.  But here’s an idea.  If you have one of those devices, an Amazon Echo, an Echo dot, or some other such AI device that responds to your voice commands, tell it to play those songs for you while I write about them.  It will enhance your Dave in the Shack experience.

I heard Billy Joel in concert Saturday night at Wrigley Field.  It was my first Wrigley concert. Paul McCartney was there not long ago.  It’s clearly more than a baseball field these days.  They put a huge stage up in center field covering the old scoreboard. We sat near home plate.  Billy looked small up there.  You knew it was him, though he looked about three inches high, but then his presence was confirmed by huge screens above him showing him in detail, then band members, occasionally the crowd, or images from album covers, or photographs of various scenes, all at least 20 feet tall.  It was impressive.  Technology made up for the cavernous size of the venue.  They closed the bleachers, but put seats on the outfield grass.  I’d guess as many or more attended than a ball game.  And at the prices they charged for seats, I think both Billy and the Ricketts family made a fair amount of money.

What shocked me were Billy Joel’s opening words to the crowd.  He kibitzed about Chicago, the bugs that are attracted to the stage lights (he had both a fly swatter and bug spray), did some trash talking about Elton John, and then confessed this about the songs we were about to hear

“I’ve got nothing new.”

The audience roared.  New stuff?  The crowd could have cared less.  They wanted the old stuff.  They wanted what Billy Joel was, what he represents, not the 68 year old white guy with a shaved head on stage.  They yearned for Billy Joel the singer songwriter, he of solid lyrics, great arrangements, strong voice.  That voice from our past that produces the feeling we got when we first heard him, when both he and we were young.

Not that it was a uniformly old crowd.  I expected to be in the norm at nearly 66, and I was wrong.  People of all ages paid that ticket price for the experience.  A couple in their forties were there with their perhaps 12 year old son.  Both he and his parents recognized the songs and knew the lyrics.  Billy Joel apparently has staying power.  Intergenerational appeal.

With a prolific artist like Billy Joel, who had so many hits over so many years, no one gets all the songs they want.  There’s just too many.  Obviously he didn’t take requests, though he did do an interesting thing.   Sitting at the piano talking into the mike he would suggest two songs and then play the one that drew the most audience response.

“Do you want to hear The Ballad of Billy the Kid from the Piano Man album?  Or Vienna from The Stranger?”

Although I screamed for the Ballad of Billy the Kid we, the ballpark we, picked Vienna.  That’s the way it goes.  Majority rules, the crowd spoke, a choice was made, the losing song was never mentioned again.

Billy Joel played 28 songs.  You can get set lists  on the internet instantly now.  I liked them all and knew the lyrics of most.  It’s amazing what we have in our heads and how the music and the lyrics come back to us.  I found myself hoping for songs I treasured but feared wouldn’t be played.  They weren’t.  Travellin’ Prayer was one, from the Piano Man album, which came out in 1973.

I bought Piano Man when I was teaching at Ottawa High School.  I was 22.  I had nice speakers and a good turntable.  Travellin' Prayer was the first song on Side One.  I was hooked immediately. 

It’s  musically a simple song  starting with a snare drum, adding bass guitar, Billy’s spare piano, a banjo, then a honky tonk piano bridge joined by an electric guitar, fading out with a Jew’s harp of all things.  In 1973 the Eagles were around the corner, and country was seeping into rock.  The banjo fit right in.  Other songs on the album had steel guitar in the background. 

But it was the lyrics.  It’s always the lyrics for me I think in songs that have them.  The music enhances the words, but the words carry the day.  I immediately liked the way Billy Joel wrote about women.  Travellin’ Prayer is his wish, his request to God, for one woman in particular.  Everybody had that woman (or man), at least one, when they were 22.  Someone else, out there somewhere, alone maybe but at least gone from you.  Here’s the highlights, paraphrased:
Hey Lord, take a look all around tonight and find where my baby is gonna be

Hey Lord, would you look out for her tonight cause she is far across the sea

Hey Lord, would you look out for her tonight, make sure that she’s gonna be all right

and things are gonna be all right with me.

Hey Lord, would you look out for her tonight

             and make sure that all her dreams are sweet.

Hey Lord, would you guide her along the road and make them softer for her feet

Until she’s home and here with me.

Oh, don’t you give her too much rain and try to keep her away from pain

Because my baby hates to cry.

Said now, this song seem strange is just because I don’t know how to pray.

Oh, won’t you give her peace of mind, and if you ever find the time

Won’t you tell her I miss her every day. 

That was Billy Joel’s first album on Columbia.  It broke big in sales and made Billy Joel nationally known, on his way to being an international star.  He had made an album earlier, Cold Spring Harbor, on the Family Productions label in 1971 that sold better in Australia and Japan than it ever did in the states. There was a single though that snuck out of that album which was beautifully written.  He didn’t play that either Saturday night.  It’s “She’s Got a Way.”  When songwriters captures emotion, their work stands out.  Billy had a knack for that, not only in the words he wrote but in the way he delivered them, and it became apparent in that early song.

                She’s got a way about her

                I don’t know what it is.

                But I know that I can’t live without her.

                She’s got a smile that heals me,

                I don’t know why it is.

                But I have to laugh when she reveals me.

                She’s got a light around her.

                And everywhere she goes,

                A million dreams of love surround her

I only have three Billy Joel albums on vinyl, and none in any other format.  I missed a couple while I was travelling, and soon after I got back to the states and assembled cash once more I bought “The Stranger.”  That’s where you find Vienna, a plea to his lover (I assume) to slow down and enjoy life.  The more famous songs on that album are the title track, and the songs from the New York neighborhood, all of which he played at Wrigley: “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant, Movin’ Out, Just the Way You Are, Only the Good Die Young.”  It was riddled with hits, and probably cemented Billy Joel’s fame.  Musically the songs were funkier, more hip, compared to Piano Man.  It was 1977 after all.

His lyrics from arguably the best track on the album, “She’s Always a Woman” came as a surprise to me.  They represented some kind of change.  Either Billy was hanging out with different women, or he was looking at women in a different way.  The music is spare: piano, flute, guitar, but the woman he refers to is not perfectly portrayed as the woman he seeks protection for in “Travellin’ Prayer” or angelic as his subject in “She’s Got a Way.” Read this carefully.

                She can kill with a smile, she can wound with her eyes

                She can ruin your faith with her casual lies

                And she only reveals what she wants you to see

                She hides like a child but she’s always a woman to me.

                She can lead you to love, she can take you or leave you

                She can ask for the truth but she’ll never believe you

                And she’ll take what you give her as long as it’s free

                Yeah she steals like a thief but she’s always a woman to me.

                Oh she takes care of herself, she can wait if she wants

                She’s ahead of her time

                Oh, and she never gives out and she never gives in

                She just changes her mind

                But she brings out the best and the worst you can be

                Blame it all on yourself cause she’s always a woman to me

                She is frequently kind and she’s suddenly cruel

                She can do as she pleases, she’s nobody’s fool

                But she can’t be convicted, she’s earned her degree

                And the most she will do is throw shadows at you

                But she’s always a woman to me.

That woman has power.  She’s not dependent on men.  She seems to know what she wants and is ready to take it.  You get the idea that the song writer, and Billy Joel wrote all these songs, learned to respect her and not take her for granted.  I think something changed in Billy Joel’s outlook that allowed him to find the words to describe this woman.  And I think what changed was that he grew as a man and was able to see women differently.  He may have loved her, but you get the idea it wasn’t totally up to him.  After all, “she can lead you to love” but she can also “take you or leave you.”  I don’t care to dig into Billy Joel’s life to try to determine who that woman might have been, but I know it was a departure.  I took notice.

The Stranger in 1977, 52nd Street in 1978, and Glass Houses in 1980 (which I also have) were Billy Joel’s best selling albums.  He recorded thirteen studio albums of fresh new material, his last being Fantasies and Delusions in 2001.  After that it was live albums, greatest hits, compilations, videos.  Primarily the same songs packaged in different ways.  Thirteen albums spanning 30 years.  None of the songs he played at Wrigley from that body of work could have been less than sixteen years old.  And we didn’t care.  We wanted more.  Concerts, like careers, only last so long.  Fortunately, you don’t have to be contemporary to be credible.  His songs sounded as fresh and true as any new song you will hear tomorrow.  Talent lives on.

I’ve already written too much but I can’t stop without sharing this little anthem off Billy Joel’s first album.  Not his most famous, probably not his best, but as a guy who occasionally blows off steam, I treasure its message.  I think Billy and I are kindred souls in fact, if he has indeed lived out this song. Read and remember.  You may need to use this logic some morning.  It’s from the song “Ain’t No Crime.”   And yes, a woman is involved.

You got to open your eyes in the morning

Nine o’clock coming without any warning

And you gotta get ready to go

You say you went out late last evenin’

You did a lot of drinkin’

Come home stinkin’

And you went and fell asleep on the floor

Ain’t no crime

Say everybody gets that way sometime

Ain’t no crime

You know it’s good to get it on to get a load off your mind

Oh no, it ain’t no crime

And then your lady comes and find you asleepin’

Starts in to weepin’ bout the hours you been keepin’

And you better get your ass out the door

 Well now you tell me you love somebody

And you’ll love ‘em forever

You may love ‘em forever

But you won’t like ‘em all of the time

Well now you tell me you need someone for the rest of your life

You might have somebody

But you won’t want ‘em everyday

Ain’t no crime

Say ev’rybody gets that way sometimes

Ain’t no crime

Well it’s just human nature happens all the time

Oh no it ain’t no crime

And just as surely as the wind keep blowin’

The grass keep growin’

You got to keep goin’

And the Lord have mercy on your soul

Thanks for reading all the way to the end.  Billy would be pleased.