Summertime Songs from the Memory Bank

August 1st, 2014

              If you’re like me, as in old, you are probably finding yourself being more and more nostalgic for the past.  I think the main reason for this phenomenon is the realization that life is all too short and that memories can provide a sense of perspective, if not contentment, with the never-ending passing of the years.  Anyway, before I got overly maudlin, let me get to my point, which is to recall the songs of summer’s past that bring back memories of happier, or at least more carefree, times.

              I’ve compiled a list of 20 such songs.  They may not all resonate with you, and if you are under 50, you may not even know most of them.  But they were all hits in their day, and they filled my summers on the AM radio stations we used to have our transistors tuned to as we sunned ourselves at the neighborhood pool or on the nearby beach or as we cruised the boulevards of our home towns.  I list them here in reverse order of my favorites.

              20.  “Summer Breeze,” Seals and Crofts (1972) – It had that mellow feel to it that most songs by this harmonic duo produced.  It was the kind of song you listened to while the sun was setting.

              19.  “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay,” Otis Redding (1967) – Recorded just days before Otis died in a plane crash, this song captured the feel of a summer night in San Francisco or Montauk, Long Island.

              “18.  “Summer in the City,” the Lovin’ Spoonful (1966) – John B. Sebastian was a master at weaving feeling into his lyrics, and on this one, he captured the feel of a hot night in the Big Apple.

              17.  “Dancin’ in the Streets,” Martha and the Vandellas (1964) – It had to be summer to want to dance in the streets, at least where I grew up.

              16.  “Surf City,” Jan and Dean (1963) – I was always a fan of this duo, even though most of their harmonies were thin.  This song was the perfect beach song.  I used to hum it as I swam out to catch a good wave.

              15.  “Wipe Out,” the Safaris (1966) – Great guitar licks on this one.  Years later I became best friends with the lead guitarist on the record.

              14.  “School’s Out Forever,” Alice Cooper (1972) – This one could have been my anthem if it had been released ten years earlier.  As it is, I was just getting ready to start law school when it was a hit, but it still struck a chord.

              13.  “Theme from a Summer Place,” Percy Faith and his orchestra (1960) – This one isn’t really a summer song.  But it was a great song to slow dance to.  I first discovered the supreme pleasure in that activity with this song.

              12.  “Summer of ’69,” Bryan Adams (1985) – I cheated a little to include this one, since I was well into being married with children when it was a hit.  But it captured exactly the nostalgic mood I’m trying to express in this column, and it’s a darned good song.

              11.  “Lazy Hazy Crazy Days of Summer,” Nat King Cole (1963) – An upbeat ode to summer by the master crooner of his day.

              10.  “The Girl from Ipanema,” Stan Getz and Astrud Gilberto (1964) – Talk about a sultry summer vision; this one had every guy I knew day-dreaming and fantasizing.  The vocal by Ms. Gilberto was as provocative as any I think I’ve ever heard.

              9.  “Hot Fun in the Summertime,” Sly and the Family Stone (1969) – Sly and his crew were great at spinning out dance tunes, and this one was perfect for a barbeque or a summer wedding.

              8.  “Saturday in the Park,” Chicago (1972) – I was driving across the country when this song hit the charts.  It was a mix of a catchy tune and a quixotic lyric that seemed at once happy times and message song.  But mostly it was just a song that made you feel good.

              7.  “California Girls,” the Beach Boys (1965) – More than any other song, this one caused me to want to move west, which I did seven years later.  It would easily qualify as the group’s signature song if they didn’t have so many others equally worthy.  But it conveyed an image that, if, like me, you were a teen trying to figure out how to get a date, was pure heaven.

              6.  “The Boys of Summer,” Don Henley (1984) – Another one that really doesn’t fit the time frame, but what a great song.  And with the built in nostalgia in the lyrics (“Remember how you made me crazy? Remember how I made you scream?”), it captures the passion that maybe we were lucky enough to feel during one of those summers of our youth.

              5.  “Summertime,” Janis Joplin (1969) – I could have selected the original hit (by Ella and Satchmo) from 1957, but, frankly, I wasn’t old enough then.  But Janis’ version, sung in her scratchy soulful voice, was poignant in its complexity and yet beautiful in its simplicity.  It’s a great rendition of a great song (from Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess”).

              4.  “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini,” Bryan Hyland (1960) – From the most innocent days of budding adolescence, when wearing her first bikini could actually cause a young gal intense embarrassment, this song was a novelty at the time.  We (the guys) laughed at it, while the gals whom we wanted to pay attention to us understood exactly what the subject of the song was feeling.

              3.  “That Sunday, That Summer,” Nat King Cole (1964) – I fell in love for the first time when this song was a hit, and it has always reminded me of that feeling, one that can only be felt by the young and innocent.  Ah, youth.

              2.  “Under the Boardwalk,” the Drifters (1964) – She never went under the boardwalk with me, but I fantasized that she did. 

              1.  “In the Summertime,” Mungo Jerry (1970) – I defy anyone to listen to this song and not love life and all that the summers of our youth gave to us.

On the Joy of Great Friendships: Three Examples

July 25th, 2014

              My son Keith was born six months before Davey.  The two “met” when Davey was two days old.  They have been the best of friends for the thirty-three years that have now intervened.

              Davey’s parents and my wife and I were very close when our boys were born, and we remained so throughout their childhood.  Thus, the two had no alternative but to spend time with each other, and so they did, from the playpens to the sandboxes to the little coloring tables and on through the pre-pubescent years.  They played on the same little league teams, Davey playing second base and Keith first.  They played on the same soccer teams, Davey scoring the goals that Keith assisted on. 

              They went to different middle and high schools but stayed close.  During their college years, they were geographically separated, but stayed in touch.  Then Keith moved to LA, while Davey settled in San Diego, and they assumed their adult personas.  And, wonder of wonders, they found much to admire, respect, and like in each other during those post-adolescent years. 

              Ultimately, Keith moved to New York and Davey settled back in Sacramento.  Yet the friendship flourished, in spite of the geographic divide, as they would get together whenever Keith returned for a vacation or holiday visit.

              Last week, Davey got married and Keith was his best man.  Hearing Keith’s toast of Davey brought tears to my eyes, as it marked the most beautiful of friendships—the kind that endure and grow over the years into the kind of relationship that can only be equaled in the best of marriages.

              Bob is my oldest friend.  We met in what is now called middle school.  (It was junior high back then.)  We were coincidentally scheduled in all of the same classes that first year, which helped in terms of starting the friendship.  But we both felt a natural draw to each other in those adolescent years, I to his wit and out-going personality, he to something in me that I’m not sure I understand. 

              In those early years, we were constantly doing things together—golf, bowling, girls (well, not so much with girls, but talking about them incessantly).  We had a ritual on those nights when we both were lucky enough to have dates to meet at a local diner in our town where we’d share reports on the conquests (or, more likely, lack thereof) of the evening.

              We stayed connected during our college years, and when I accepted my commission in the Air Force, I was fortunate to be stationed at a nearby base, allowing us to see each other regularly.  During those years (our early twenties), we took up skiing and got much more serious about the opposite sex.  Each winter we joined with a band of similarly minded guys in renting a ski lodge, and we’d essentially spend every weekend at the lodge, often with female companionship. 

              We also joined an encounter group during those years with a wise old man named Abe.  He led us into a better understanding of the adults we had become and prepared us for the bumps in the road that were to follow.

              And we have been there for each other ever since, albeit we have been separated by a full continent since I moved to California to attend law school and pursue my career.  Our long standing tradition is to phone each other on our birthdays, and I don’t think either of us has missed one in over 40 years.  Bob wrote in my high school yearbook that “our bond will never be broke.”  I’ve always cherished that pledge, much as I do the vow I made to my wife thirty-six years ago.

              I met Jan in the fall of 2000.  He had just started dating my wife’s best friend, and she was convinced he and I would quickly become fast friends.  She was right.  Before I even met him in person, we were exchanging lengthy e-mails that delved deep into the kind of philosophical issues that regular readers of my columns know engage me completely.

              But our friendship involved much more than metaphysical discussions.  Aided by the friendship our wives shared (Gayle and Jan married in 2001), we began a tradition of attending concerts together (a tradition that received a gigantic boost when the great Mondavi Center opened).  On average we would attend three events a month together.  Our musical tastes were similar, and we learned from each other (he jazz and classical from me; I folk and blue grass from him).

              And we were both sports nuts and political junkies.  Suffice to say, we were never without topics to discuss, and our discussions were always invigorating and educational.

              And then five years ago, Gayle and Jan and Jeri and I joined with two other close friends, Ron and Sherrie in a once-a-month dinner-and-movie night in which we would rotate from house to house with each host/hostess responsible for the main course for the meal and the movie (DVD) selection that we would view together.  We all reveled in these evenings to the point that we often would cancel other plans just to make sure we didn’t miss a month.  (In five years, I don’t believe we missed more than two.)

              I dearly loved Jan.  He had become my closest and most intimate friend when he died in a horrific single-vehicle car accident last month.  He was driving home from his daughter’s house in Concord when his car spun off of the road, flipping and killing him instantly.  Our best guess is that he dozed off for a critical moment.  In the weeks that have followed, I have struggled with the pain that comes from the sudden loss of a person so intimately and completely involved in my life. 

              I don’t have much to add.  I’m not sure that any of these friendships, as I have described them, are all that unusual.  I suppose we all have such friendships over a lifetime.  Let this be my tribute to them, with the hope that these friendships may resonate with those you have known.


E. Haig’s DVDs for a Stay-Home Summer Night

July 11th, 2014

              If you’re a fan of fine cinema, summer, with most theatrical releases easy to ignore, is a good time to catch up on older films you may have missed or might want to view again.  Many films from decades past (or beyond) are joys to see, either for the first time or because it’s been too long since you last viewed them.  So, with the caveat that not all of these are certifiably great films, here are twelve that make our list of “highly recommended” if you haven’t seen them and “worth another viewing” if you have.

              “American Graffiti” (1973) – Now a classic coming-of-age tale, this highly entertaining film marked the debut of Richard Dreyfuss as a major star and George Lucas as a major director.  Set in 1962 in Modesto, the story focuses on one night of cruising the main drag in town as Dreyfuss and Ron Howard work out their teenage angst.  It is full of humor with just a little pathos thrown in for good measure.

              “Children of Heaven (1997-Iranian) – This lovely “small” film tells the tale of an eight-year-old boy desperately trying to replace the single pair of his sister’s shoes that he caused to be lost.  It touches on the values of family and perseverance and integrity and will resonate with anyone who has ever been a child.

              “David and Lisa” (1962) – A film about disturbed teens who want to be freed of their afflictions might not sound like an uplifting experience, but this gem is that and more.  Marked by beautiful portrayals of the two key youths (Keir Dullea and Janet Margolin) and their committed shrink (Howard da Silva), this Frank Perry film will touch you if you have even a very small heart.

              “Dinner at Eight” (1933) – George Cukor directed an all-star cast (including John and Lionel Barrymore, Jean Harlow, Marie Dressler, Billie Burke and Wallace Beery) in this delightfully entertaining tale about a hostess’s need to fill out a formal dinner table and the lives of the folks who are potential invitees. 

              “Fargo” (1996) – We haven’t seen the new hit TV series (on the fx network), but if it is anywhere near as good as this masterpiece by the Coen Brothers, it must be terrific.  The film made stars of William H. Macy and Steve Buscemi, who play a pair of losers who concoct and try to carry out a lame-brained kidnapping with hilariously disastrous results.  The film is violent and bloody, but you’ll chuckle throughout.

              “Lilies of the Field” (1963) – Another “small” film that is too easy to overlook, this one got Sidney Poitier his well-deserved best acting Oscar.  In it he plays Homer Smith, an itinerant traveling handyman who happens upon a group of nuns (immigrants from Germany) who are intent on building a chapel in the New Mexico desert.  Homer gets drafted as the contractor to get the job done.  Wondrous consequences ensue.

              “Marty” (1954) – This Paddy Chayefsky script gave Ernest Borgnine an Oscar and won the best picture nod as well.  It’s a film for the ordinary people of the world, which is to say, all of us.  In it, Borgnine finds love and then struggles with peer pressure and self-doubt.  In an age of hooking up and e-dating, the film holds up remarkably well.

              “The Secret of Santa Vittoria (1969) – Anthony Quinn stars as the mayor of a small Italian town that needs to hide its cache of a million bottles of wine from the occupying German army during World War II.  Can the townspeople join forces to outsmart the Nazis?  And where do you hide that much wine?  Anna Magnani is Quinn’s wife, and Virna Lisi is the town’s seductive distraction for the German top brass.

              “Secrets and Lies” (1996) – Mike Leigh’s film offers an upbeat look at how ordinary people can find new outlooks from extraordinary events in their lives.  It’s a film that moves subtly from being emotionally heart-wrenching to being surprisingly funny.  In other words, you’ll laugh and you’ll cry.  Brenda Blethyn and Timothy Spall lead a fine cast. 

              “The Seven-Per-Cent Solution” (1976) – Contemplate this story: Sherlock Holmes is tricked by Dr. Watson into meeting Sigmund Freud so Freud can cure Holmes of his cocaine addiction.  But Holmes quickly becomes embroiled in a mystery that Freud must help him solve.  A great cast includes Alan Arkin (Freud), Nicol Williamson (Holmes), Robert Duvall (Watson), and Laurence Olivier (Moriarity).  

              “The Sweet Hereafter” (1997) – Atom Egoyan’s masterpiece is a dark, haunting tale that focuses on an attorney who seeks clients in a town that has been devastated by a horrific school bus accident that has killed most of the town’s children.  The film touches on many aspects of the human condition and is hard to shake.  This one isn’t for everyone but has rewards for those who like to ponder metaphysical issues.

              “Women in Love” (1969) – Ken Russell’s take on D. H. Lawrence’s novel stars Alan Bates, Glenda Jackson, Oliver Reed and Jennie Linden as lovers in pre-World War I England.  The film was controversial when it premiered (primarily for the nude wrestling scene between Bates and Reed), but it fully captures the mood of the novel and still resonates today.

              All twelve of these films are readily available through all the usual access channels and on-line centers.  Enjoy!


Baseball 2014: A Mid-Season Summary

July 11th, 2014

              Baseball’s All-Star Game traditionally marks the midway point in its season.  It actually takes place a little past the halfway mark, but the break provides a good opportunity to see what surprises have occurred and what developments have been about as expected.  And by my count, there have been many more of the former than the latter.  Here’s a look at the pennant races in each league.

              In the American League, as expected, the Detroit Tigers broke out to an early lead in the Central Division.  With a strong starting staff (anchored by Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez) and a powerful lineup (led by Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez), the Tigers have only been threatened briefly to this point (by the Kansas City Royals, who have slipped since catching Detroit about a month ago).  Cleveland, Chicago and Minnesota don’t appear to measure up as real contenders, although the White Sox have a rookie of the year candidate in power hitting first baseman Jose Abreu and a Cy Young-quality ace in Chris Sale.

              Over in the West, the Oakland A’s have carried the best record in both leagues for over a month, and they’ve done it without any standout superstars (although third basemen Josh Donaldson is considered one by astute observers who look beyond his mediocre batting average).  And then, just last week, General Manager Billy Beane (he of “Moneyball” fame) pulled off a legit steal of a trade with the Chicago Cubs, picking up two quality starters (Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel) in exchange for a few highly regarded prospects. 

              The A’s chief competition in the second half of the season figures to come from the L.A. Angels (of Anaheim), who have the game’s best overall player (Mike Trout, this era’s Willie Mays) along with Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton.  The Seattle Mariners spent $240 million (for a ten-year contract) for former Yankees’ star Robinson Cano, who, together with ace pitcher King Felix Hernandez, has Seattle fans excited. 

              The East was supposed to be the AL’s strongest division, but it has been anything but that as all five teams have struggled.  The surprise in the first half has been the Toronto Blue Jays, last year’s biggest disappointment after spending a bundle to load up some big names.  This year they have actually produced, to a point.  After surging to first place (behind sluggers Jose Batista and Edwin Encarnacion and pitchers Mark Buehrle and R.A. Dickey), the Jays have slipped behind the Baltimore Orioles.  But the O’s hold on the lead may not last either.  The division is really ripe for the plucking and the Yankees (old but still capable of scoring runs), Red Sox (underperforming as a team) and the Tampa Bay Rays (trying to crawl back after a horrendous first half) could all contend.

              Over in the National League, the surprise team has been the Milwaukee Brewers, who broke fast and have maintained their hold on first place in the Central Division.  But the other three contenders (forget about the Cubs, who are still building for a run at a title in two or three years – some things never change) figure to make significant runs before the season ends. 

              The Cardinals have been clobbered by injuries to the pitching staff (and, most recently, a devastating one to their all-star catcher, Yadier Molina) and have not hit their stride offensively, but they still have Adam Wainwright (a strong Cy Young contender), along with a rookie who could be another Mike Trout in Oscar Tavares.  The Pittsburgh Pirates also have reasons to be hopeful, starting with last year’s MVP, Andrew McCutchen.  And the Cincinnati Reds may just be getting their act together (although having Joey Votto on the disabled list right now isn’t helping).

              For the second year in a row, everyone is waiting for the Washington Nationals to break away and become the best team in the league.  They have all the ingredients, led by hitters Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman and Jason Werth and pitchers Stephen Strasberg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmerman, but under rookie manager Matt Williams, they have been hot and cold and are currently in another dog fight with the Atlanta Braves. 

              The Braves were hurt by season-long injuries to top pitchers Kris Medlan and Brandon Beachy, but they are still right there, led by pitcher Julio Teheran, first baseman Freddie Freeman and slick-fielding shortstop Andrelton Simmons.  The surprise team in this division is the Miami Marlins who have a group of young studs, led by slugger Giancarlo Stanton.  But the loss (to season-ending elbow surgery) of last year’s rookie of the year, Jose Fernandez, probably keeps them from contending in September.

              In the NL Western Division, the San Francisco Giants had the best record in baseball after 63 games and appeared to be running away with the N.L West (leading the Dodgers by nine and a half games), but, as they say, it’s a long season.  And within the space of three weeks the Dodgers made up the deficit as they won 16 of 24 while the Giants lost 19 of 25. 

              Depending on which tea leaves you read, either the two teams will now engage in a dogfight for the rest of the season or the Dodgers, with a Yankees-like payroll, will pull ahead and win with relative ease.  (The other teams in the division—Colorado, San Diego and Arizona—are headed for spoiler roles at best.)  For their part, the Dodgers boast a pitching staff that could be the strongest in either league (led by all-stars Clayton Kershaw and Zach Greinke).  And their starting eight isn’t too shabby either (with names like Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, Adrian Gonzales, Hanley Ramirez and a second-year player you may have heard of named Yasiel Puig).

              Predictions are never smart in baseball, and over the years I’ve made a bunch of ridiculously bad ones.  Just this spring, for example, I picked the Cardinals to beat the Tampa Bay Rays in the World Series.  A mid-season revision is definitely in order, so let’s go with the Dodgers over the A’s in a repeat of the 1988 series.  That sounds about right, but, as they say, they gotta win ‘em on the field.