Sunday, April 4, 2021

Jesus Christ Superstar - Music For A Lifetime & Beyond

At the tail end of sixth grade at St Mary's Catholic School, Father Schwartz walked into Friday's religion class carrying a record album in a brown matte cover. He was very excited and immediately launched into an enthusiastic explanation about why he wanted us to hear this music. As he placed the album on a turntable, Fr Schwartz explained that a way of asking people what was going on was to ask them, "What's the buzz?". We all looked at each other, more than a little confused. He dropped the needle on Side A of album One. I first heard the music from the Original Cast Recording of Jesus Christ Superstar. I was electrified.

It was the first time I heard electric guitars and a symphony orchestra playing together. The music was dynamite, but I was the only one in class who was excited about it. When the class was over, I told Fr Schwartz I liked what I had heard, and he handed me the album telling me to bring it back to him on Monday unharmed.

As soon as I got home, I went directly to the only real stereo record player in the house, put on the headphones, turned the volume up, and spent the next hour and a half listening to those records. I played to the rock opera at least six times before recording it onto cassette before returning the records to Fr Schwartz on Monday. After I returned the album, the only downside was that I no longer had a copy of the libretto to read along with while listening to the music. Later that week, I finally convinced my dad to take me to a music store to buy the sheet music and libretto. The only explanation I ever gave him was that it was an opera, and it was religious. I guess that was good enough.

My relationship with the music of that Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice classic became my first musical obsession. But there was so much more. There was, after all, the religious aspect. This music covered the last days of the life of Jesus Christ up to the crucifixion. There was controversy over the music, with many mainstream churches objecting to the story being turned into a rock opera. Not surprisingly, more than one faith banned the piece from being listened to by their parishioners. It was also the time of cult growth, so people were scared of the unapproved. Even though I was introduced to the music by a Catholic priest, it did nothing to convince me that organized religion was the way to go. Due to the objections over the way the story is told in JCS, I had an epiphany that the purest faith existed outside of organized religion rules. For a sixth-grader, this was a pretty bold conclusion.

As I continued to listen to the music on repeat, I memorized all the words and no longer needed the libretto to guide me. The words came from the Bible with few liberties taken here and there to update them without changing the story. Of course, then, just as now, people seem determined to project their meanings into anything anyone else says. Before the movie came out, I recall an argument in eighth-grade shop class between myself and a Baptist minister's son. He asserted that the JCS story implied there was a sexual relationship between Jesus and Mary. In the end, I concluded that anyone who wanted to find sexuality in anything could if they look hard enough. Mary and Jesus had a complicated relationship not due to sexuality but due to her faith and who he was. Mary's song I Don't Know How to Love Him is not about romantic love but her confusion that the only love she understood was something completely different from what she was feeling now.

I was one of four people in the theater on the day the film version premiered at the movie theater in Lawton, Oklahoma. From the minute the theater went dark, and the music started, I was enthralled. For the first time, I could see what the story looked like rather than just playing it out in my mind as I listened to the music. Norman Jewison brought a unique viewpoint to the movie I never imagined. Ted Neeley, Carl Anderson, and Yvonne Elliman's performances were captivating and defined those roles for me for the rest of my life. As soon as I could obtain a copy of the movie, it became an annual viewing ritual.
I find it difficult to watch the movie without feeling deep emotion. The emotion is not only because of the film's spiritual nature but also because of when I was introduced to it. Those years are when a person defines a lot of who they become as an adult. Aside from divine guidance, the movie provided me with an escape anytime I found the real-world overwhelming. The music and words were constant no matter what challenge or question I was facing. 

The movie version contained two additional songs, one of which was Could We Start Again, Please?. The piece is a simple request to return to where they started from Peter and Mary that comes after Jesus' arrest. Even though I call the song simple, it is pretty powerful. Those lyrics, especially the second verse, provided me with great comfort during the tumultuous years of adolescence when sometimes I was the one who had gone a bit too far.

As I have aged and the movie has not, I find myself noticing different nuances every time I see the film. Roman guards continually seem to be present and threatening in every scene, just inside the frame. When all Apostles are seated for the Last Supper, the brief freeze of position is an homage to da Vinci's painting. During my last viewing, I noticed the other Apostles' effort to try and keep Judas within their fold as he pulled away and eventually betrayed Christ.

On Good Friday of 2007, I was able to see a performance of JCS life. This was Ted Neeley's farewell tour and included Corey Glover from In Living Colour as Judas. Unlike the theater when I went to see the movie version back in 1973, this theater was packed and energetic. The performance was amazing.

Recently, John Legend leading a new cast of actors, presented JCS as a live performance on TV. I still haven't seen it, so I can't speak to it, but I'm glad that it was redone for a new generation of viewers. The story is timeless. The music is still good. The rock opera provides unique access to the greatest story ever told the folks who might not have otherwise been aware of it.

The performer side of me always wanted to do this rock opera. Even though the best songs belong to Judas, the role I wanted was Pontius Pilate. As created by Tim Rice, the character changes from a man who didn't want to be bothered with this bit of trouble in the occupied territory he was governor of to one who realizes who he was being called on to condemn. It is a powerful transformation.

If you are not familiar with the music or have not seen the movie or a performance, I would heartily recommend it. It is perfect for the Easter season. Father Schwartz:  Thank you for turning me on to Jesus Christ Superstar!


Monday, March 15, 2021

Who Taught You To Spit? Part I


This blog entry started to be a story teaching my two-year-old granddaughter how to spit. It is an important skill and one every child should be introduced to while growing up. As I planned out the story in my head, I realized who taught me all these little things my parents didn't. Granted, my uncle David did teach me a few guitar licks that I continued to use over the years. Still, most of the life skills that stayed with me, whether I actively use them or not, came from my grandparents. As I thought about the number of things that each grandparent taught me, I realized there was no way to do them justice and still tell the story I wanted to about the things that I was teaching my grandchildren. So, this turned into a two-part blog entry but having been inspired by a single event.

My paternal grandfather died when I was about eight or nine. But he still provided a lesson that remains with me today: Anything can be anything if you put your imagination into it. 

He had me go with him to his back porch during one visit, where there was a stack of empty produce boxes. He grabbed two or three, and then we went out to his backyard, where he had me gather up some sticks that were all about a foot or so long. The sticks were then laid out parallel to each other, about six or seven inches apart, forming a trail through the backyard. He then took the boxes and set them on the sticks.  A final step was tying the boxes together with the piece of twine. When all this was done, he announced that we had built a railroad and plopped me into one of the boxes. 

It didn't move, it didn't look anything like a railroad, and looking back, the only reason I got excited about it was that he was excited about it. But then he started talking about how railroads worked, and we took an imaginary ride on that railroad. He made whistle sounds and chugging sounds and told me how they would have to shovel coal into the boiler and keep an eye on the steam. My grandfather was not a train engineer and, to my knowledge, never worked on a railroad. Whatever he knew, he knew because of personal interest. That one incident stuck with me when he taught me to use my imagination. It was a gift he gave me that I still treasure. 

My relationship with my paternal grandmother lasted beyond my college years and on into adulthood. The one thing she taught me that I still carry with me: How to play the piano, but that was not what I took away. 

She played remarkably and had a beautiful upright Steinway that sat in her dining room. The only time I can ever remember being angry with her was when she traded it for an electric organ. I would've gladly bought her the organ in exchange for the piano. Anyway, when I say teaching me piano, I'm not talking about any level of proficiency or even good enough to play in front of other people. She taught me how to play Chopsticks

Most folks know only the opening notes, but she taught me a two-minute version of the song. Even today, if I have time to sit down and tinker with a keyboard, I can remember most of what she taught me. My memory of that event was her teaching me how something so simple could be dressed up to be so much more. It starts with two fingers and eventually ends up with both hands playing. Single notes into harmony and a separate baseline. It's how we build almost anything worth making.

On the maternal side, my grandmother taught me: The economics of personal visitation. 

I was fortunate enough to spend a week in her home during at least two summers of my growing-up years. During those visits, she and my grandfather made it a point to meet every single relative that was available since I was a temporary commodity. Since I was only eleven or twelve years old, I had no genuine appreciation of the effort until later in life. This led to a constant string of new relatives because I was usually the only kid around-- I spent a lot of time listening. It allowed me to hear the way she spoke with each person.

The conversations were all very different, and it wasn't until I got older that I realized it was based on time. If she had a lot of time, she would spend more time getting into the details and minutia of everyday life. Still, shorter visits called for brevity in these discussions. It's a simple lesson, but throughout my life, I'm surprised how many people never learned how to figure economics into a conversation like that. Most people do it at work, but they don't know how to handle it in their personal life. Doing this was about valuing people and relationships by giving them the essential parts of what you wanted to communicate upfront. Showing them that you appreciated their time, but you didn't want them to miss out.

The most painful phone call I ever had with her was when she was on the downside of a cancer battle. I called her, and we talked for a bit; even during that conversation, she made sure all the important stuff was said. It was painful but a conversation I will always treasure and remember.

I never met my biological maternal grandfather. He and my grandmother divorced after he returned home from World War II and it was never really explained to me why but simply that he came home very changed. It wasn't until I was a teenager that I was told the man I'd been calling grandfather since I was a kid wasn't biologically related. In a lot of ways, it made him more special to me. One of the most challenging jobs a person can ever take on is being a stepfather; I think a stepgrandfather would be even more difficult because of the limited time and contact to develop a relationship. I never had that problem with my grandfather.

Grandpa & Me
My grandfather had a great sense of humor and was something of a trickster too. I have never been a fan of professional sports and never will be. Still, he taught me about dedication to a team and the sport of baseball but, like with my grandmother, that wasn't my take away. 

He was an Atlanta Braves fan. Whenever I was visiting him and a game was on, I would usually be stuck watching it with him, but he took time to explain things during that game. Not just the fundamentals but why it was necessary at this moment. He also knew every player's name that had ever played on the team and all of their stats. All of those stats, stories, and information was what he was passing to me: a love of what some people call trivia. To him, none of it was trivial; it was all vital information. It was knowing all the backstories that told you how you got you to where you were now—how everything connected and all the little untold bits and pieces that made the whole possible.

I knew only one great grandfather. He was a retired farmer, as much as you can retire from being a farmer. When we visited, he would take me around the farm and show me different things, including going to the milking barn to watch the cows be milked. What he enjoyed doing most, I guess, was going fishing. Before going fishing, we would go out to the machine shed where all of the old farm equipment was kept and knock down a wasp nest. Once all the wasps flew away, he would pick it up, and we would use a larva out of the nest for bait.

I have never been a fisherman; I think I can count on one hand all the fish I've caught in my entire life. What I liked about this exercise was going out on the pond in a small boat, just him and me. As we fished, he would tell stories about people, experiences, and life lessons. He was a wonderful storyteller. As happens when you are with a storyteller, one day, I gave him a story to tell that wound up in his repertoire.

My Great Grandfather,
holding my son.

We had done our usual bait gathering and went out fishing for most of the day. When we got done, I took the tackle boxes and poles and put them away. Not knowing what to do with the leftover nest, I threw it in the tackle box since we were going fishing the next day, and we could use it then. The next day, we headed back down to the pond with our poles and tackle box.  After we had rowed out to the middle of the pond, he asked me to hand him the bait, and when I opened the tackle box, I was greeted by a dozen or so freshly hatched and pissed off wasps. 

I will interject at this point that I have never been stung by a wasp, but I have been stung by a bee. I can only assume it would be the same, which prompted my reaction: I promptly exited the boat. When I got back to the surface, I was not greeted by those wasps but by my great grandfather laughing at me. It took him a few moments to compose himself and help me get back into the boat.

By the end of the day, I was dry, so there was no evidence of what it happened when we walked home. We had a big sprawling family dinner and then left the next day. Still, with no mention of it, I had gotten away clean. It was years later when I had a cousin ask me about that day. Grandpappy had added it to his repertoire of stories. Still, in his version, I ran across the surface of the water for several feet before sinking into the pond. 

Not all of his stories were funny; some were serious – – like I said, they contained life lessons. But what he taught me:  Everyday life is a gold mine of nuggets ready to be turned into stories.


Monday, March 1, 2021

Just Sit Right Back and You'll Hear a Tale -- Or Four

Announcing the release of the Pimping Out My Sister-In-Law, Volume 1* audiobook available now on Audible, iTunes, and Amazon.

Pimping Out My Sister-In-Law, Volume 1* is an anthology of short stories selected to provide you with a brief escape from where you find yourself right now. Each will allow you to leave this reality and take a quick trip into a different one. Have no fear. It’s a nice place. Even better, they know you there.

The unabridged version of the book runs just over two hours and was recorded by actress and voiceover artist Courtney Sanello. Courtney's versatile vocal talents bring each of the four stories to life allowing the listener to relax, become immersed, and escape into each short story.

Some recent reviews:

"The book is short and enjoyable. Charles can empathize with the characters while dealing with a story that is always close to finishing. I did not want the story to end but that is the beauty in short stories. Charles is a talented author and I look forward to reading the rest of the collection once it is published. ★★★★★” Rory

“Each story left me guessing as to what the outcome would be and sometimes creating my own continuation and what-ifs... Some erotic, steamy writing so definitely written for an adult crowd. Being an adult, that was perfectly fine with me. Lol! Wondering where I can pick up one of those candles! This really was an enjoyable book. I certainly don't always need 400+ pages to tell a good tale. Actually, I read this more thoroughly than any recent novels and think I got more out of it.” Todd Hanks

“Most of the stories are sultry and adults only- which is fun! On that note, the stories are modern and have a feeling of relatability (Looking at you Miss Rona!) The short story that stood out to me was Just Down from Rimpy's Bait Shop. The main characters remind me of my own grandfather and his stubbornness. These stories have a great mix of dialogue and action! ★★★★★” Alexis Carter

“I like that each story in this book is complete by itself - which to me is a plus for any story. I didn't feel anything was lacking, really, regardless of length. For example, the shortest story, It's a Surreal Thing, has enough intrigue to keep the audience interested without changing the setting or introducing new characters much at all, yet it is complete. I felt one of the longest stories, A Scents of the Virus, has mystery and a nice added hint of the paranormal to it, which is pretty interesting. I could see that one continuing with different characters centering around one main item. But the way it is presented doesn't feel there needs to be more, and I appreciated that. ★★★★★” Natasha Sims


Monday, February 22, 2021

Music That Slays - Killing Me Softly

Humans need to feel not only joy but also sadness. I've written before about the need for melancholy. After all, the only real way to appreciate happiness is to know his flipside. For me, emotions are often connected to music, including feeling blue, but the only song that will turn me introspective immediately and almost always brings a tear to my eye is Killing Me Softly With His Song.  

I'd heard the song on the radio many times, but when I heard Sherry sing it, the emotion it made me feel changed forever. She and I were in the same guitar class and almost immediately we found harmony. Not just metaphorically; our voices harmonized well. My voice was somewhere between bass and baritone but pretty unremarkable. She had the range of Olivia Newton-John but with the power of Linda Ronstadt behind it. Here's a sample from the spring concert of 1977 when she performed Sam; give a listen. Beautiful, right?

While rehearsing for a show, out of the blue, she played Killing Me Softly. I'd never paid attention to the lyrics, but at the same time, I was paying attention to her as she played. I felt the song for the first time.

I heard he sang a good song, 
I heard he had a style 
And so I came to see him, 
To listen for a while 
And there he was, this young boy,
A stranger to my eyes

Strumming my pain with his fingers
Singing my life with his words
Killing me softly with his song
Killing me softly with his song
Telling my whole life with his words
Killing me softly with his song

She finger-picked the guitar, which added more emphasis to her voice and the words. Unaware she was doing it, Sherry was fleshing out the way deep and meaningful songs had affected me my entire life. Music told my story, the secret way I felt about life and love. She was laying out all of the profound darkness of my teenage angst. That is pretty deep exposure for sixteen.

The song is not difficult to play on the guitar. After a few run-throughs, we played it together, taking turns singing the verses and harmonizing on the chorus.

I felt all flushed with fever, 
Embarrassed by the crowd
I felt he found my letters,
And read each one out loud
I prayed that he would finish,
But he just kept right on

Strumming my pain with his fingers
Singing my life with his words
Killing me softly with his song
Killing me softly with his song
Telling my whole life with his words
Killing me softly with his song

When I sang, I changed the lyrics a bit as needed, and by the end of the song, I was finding it hard to hold back the tears. It was an odd feeling. I've been affected emotionally by the music my entire life but never by a song that didn't have a specific event tied to it. This was a new and different feeling, and the song immediately had a heavy emotional weight for me. 

She sang as if he knew me,
In all my dark despair
And then she looked right through me As if I wasn't there
And she just kept on singing,
Singing clear and strong

The message I get from the lyrics is a simple one. A person is listening to a singer playing the guitar. Still, when she listens to the words, she is immediately slain by the fact that he knows her. Not just that he knows her, he knows her inside and out. He continues to expose even the darkest feelings as he sings and strums his guitar without concern for his effect on her. Her pain is the instrument he is playing, and her experiences have become his lyrics.

Strumming my pain with her fingers
Singing my life with her word
Killing me softly with her song
Killing me softly with her song
Telling my whole life with her words
Killing me softly with her song

I think we played the song two or three times during that session. I guess it is more significant that we never played the song together again, even though we dated off and on throughout high school and after. Not sure what Sherry is doing now, but I hope somewhere that voice still sings.

A bit of history... Lori Lieberman recorded and released the song in 1972 and it was included in an in-flight audio program that Roberta Flack heard and liked. Flack went to work on a cover arrangement injecting her own style. She first performed the cover publically at the Greek Theater in LA, where she was opening for Marvin Gaye. Gaye told her that she needed to go and record that thing right away. In 1973, Roberta Flack won the Grammy for Record of the Year and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance for Killing Me Softly With His Song

Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel are listed as the composer and lyricist for the song, but both acknowledged the contributions of Lori Lieberman for many years. In 1997, that changed and they began to dismiss her part in its creation. Realistically, I'm not sure how they could call what she did a contribution when in actuality, she wrote the first draft lyrics.  Lori Lieberman's recollection of who the song is for and why:

"Don McLean," she said simply. "I saw him at the Troubadour in LA last year. ("And there he was this young boy / A stranger to my eyes") I had heard about him from some friends but up to then all I knew about him really was what others had told me. But I was moved by his performance, by the way, he developed his numbers, he got right through to me. ("Strumming my pain with his fingers / Killing me softly with his song/ Telling my whole life with his words."

She wrote the draft on a napkin while still at the concert. Here is a clip where she performs both Empty Chairs and Killing Me Softly.

She was strumming my pain 
Yeah, she was singing my life
Killing me softly with her song
Killing me softly with her song
Telling my whole life with her words
Killing me softly with her song


Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Pluribus Locis Nostrum -- Brat On!

I am proud to be a military brat. If you're not familiar with the term, it means that one of my parents served in the military. As a result, I grew up relocating for new assignments every few years. This mobile lifestyle had its challenges and as we moved from base to base I was forced to make new friends, learn new places, and adapt to new schools every few years. Like most military brats, I credit that style of growing up as beneficial because I learned how to adjust and gained a global view of the world that most people do not have.

Like many military brats, my years as a brat ended when I entered military service myself. In my view, this is no more unusual than the kid who takes over the family business from his parents. It's just that our family business was defending the nation. Those of us in the service who were prior brats walked in familiar with life on a military base. For us, it was just going home.

Now I've reached that place in life where the one downside of being a military brat is found, where are all of those friends I made over the years? For the person who grew up and lived their entire life in a single place, finding a person you went to sixth grade with is easy.  Not so for those of us who did sixth grade in an overseas school on a base that no longer exists. The Internet has made it easier to find people, and I've been able to find and get in touch with a few people I knew growing up. Of course, that doesn't work well for people I knew younger in life whose last name was never part of what I knew about them. Also, getting in touch with the girls I grew up with is more difficult because many of their names have changed due to marriage. 

One incident occurred my senior year of High School that keeps me hopeful that I will eventually run into more of the folks I grew up with as time goes on. My father was stationed at Fort Eustis, the last base he was assigned to before he retired, and I was working as a busboy at the Officer's Club. After we would finish our shift, the busboys would gather together and have and enjoy a few illegal beers while shooting pool. One night we talked about things that happened in our past and bases where we lived over the years. When I mentioned Fort Ord, Tom, one of my fellow busboys, commented that his dad was assigned there during Vietnam like mine.

A few days later, Tom brought in a picture from his second grade class at Fort Ord. As he handed it to me, he told me that he was in the front row. For some reason, the kids and background looked familiar to me, and I started to scan the faces in the picture.  Lo and behold, in the second row, three kids from the right, was me. Tom and I had gone to the second grade together.  Ten years later, in another state at the opposite end of the country, we were together again getting ready to graduate. Only a military brat has that kind of experience. Of course, after graduation, Tom and I went our separate ways, and I've never been able to locate him since.

Now, some mornings I enjoy my coffee while spending a bit of time with ghosts from the past. I wonder what they are up to today, from Mary Ellen Anderson, the first girl I ever kissed, to Tom Arnold, who I attended second grade and graduated high school with.  They are all out there somewhere. I hope they're all happy and doing fine. I also ponder the truth that at least three of the dozen or so bases I grew up on don't exist anymore. Not many non-brats can claim that their hometown vanished because of a BRAC.