Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Goodnight Saigon

They call it Ho Chi Minh City now, but to thousands upon thousands it will forever be Saigon, a place where they lost their innocence, their wallets, their optimism, their brothers, their families, their lovers, their lives.

At left, the last Marine helicopter leaves the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, April 29, 1975 

Monday, April 21, 2014

Sitting here in limbo

Hi, gang.

I'll be in limbo until further notice. I have taken a medical leave of absence from the newspaper to deal with a debilitating, but thankfully non-terminal, illness.

The long and short of it is that I can't read or write for any length of time and, on bad days, can't even listen to the radio or watch television. Being robbed of my hobbies is heartbreaking, but I'm still here to tell the tale.

So, as Jimmy Cliff sang, "I'm sitting here in limbo, but I know (hope) it won't be for long."

You're looking above at the famous Hotel del Coronado on Coronado Island near San Diego. It was rumored that Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson met here, which isn't true. They did spend time there, though, and you're seeing it because I wish I was there. I think the timbre of the tides and the salubrious scenery would do wonders for my weaknesses.

As it is, I watch reruns of "Harry O" (filmed on Coronado and in San Diego early on) when I can, and
try to catch Padres games when they're playing on the West Coast and I can't get Vin Scully. I like and have admired the Padres' announcer, Dick Enberg, for years. And I have a huge crush on Fox Sports San Diego reporter Kate Osborne.

Baseball, as it has for decades, has rescued me yet again. It's there, through thick and thin, in sickness and in health, often breaking my heart but a daily presence six months out of the year, beginning in the sweetness of spring when the colors are in sharp focus and the possibilities are as endless as pi.

So, let me say au revoir, because I certainly plan to see you again. I wish you nothing but peace, joy, happiness, fastballs thrown right down the middle of the plate, and the sweet surrender of sunshine on your shoulders.

See you soon, my friends.

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Sunday, April 13, 2014

Recalled to life

Charlotte, N.C. -- It has returned, this game, this pastime, this soothing balm for the stricken soul.


Four months of illness, pain, winter, and disappointment have given way to springtime, to sunshine, to the melody of sweet, sweet song.

The music is medicine -- ball hitting bat, barkers boasting beer, peanuts, Cracker Jack, chatter.

Last night, on a super Saturday in Charlotte, the Knights came from behind late to beat the Norfolk Tides 4-2. The Budweiser Clydesdales were on hand to christen the new BB&T Ballpark. 10,199 others joined me, and I didn't want to go home.

But, then again, I never want to go home.

Kurt Pickering has made it to minor-league ballpark No. 127. He'll have visited every affiliated park by the end of the year. How about that!

I have a more meager goal -- to get to more than a game or two this year. Migraines keep me home these days. It's OK. I shut my eyes, listen to the Tigers game, or to Vin Scully if he's on, or to Dick Enberg. I like good broadcasters. Few remain.

You can pack up your troubles and leave them elsewhere when you're watching a ball game. Nothing else matters. Not one damn thing.

Like the old man in Dickens, you are recalled to life, connected to that part of you that is still eight years old, when the difference between joy and heartache is measured by mere inches.

Monday, March 24, 2014

"Far out!"

A funny thing happened on Facebook yesterday.

I've been listening to a lot of John Denver lately. I recently purchased a box set of all of his RCA albums, and he's usually not far from the CD or record player anyway. (He's among my top 6 favorites, which also include Elvis, Sinatra, Dean Martin, Karen Carpenter and Robinella.)

Anyway, I thought I'd take a poll and ask my Facebook friends to name their favorite JD album and/or song.

The far and away favorite song was "Thank God I'm A Country Boy." And it's no wonder. It's infectious. If you can listen to that song without a smile on your face, you have a heart of stone. A close second was "Back Home Again."

And, interestingly, the favorite album was John Denver and The Muppets, "A Christmas Together." Heh, heh. The Muppets have staying power, methinks, and certainly hold a special place in the hearts of those of us who grew up in the '70s and '80s.

For the record, no pun intended, my favorite John Denver album is "Windsong" and my favorite single is "Looking For Space," which I consider my theme song.

Sometimes I fly like an eagle; sometimes I'm deep in despair...

John Denver's music does what all good music should -- it makes me happy, sad, introspective, fun-loving, running the gamut of human emotions.

This music has provided the soundtrack of my life. He was omnipresent on the radio in childhood. We even sang his songs in elementary school music class.

"Looking For Space" plays a prominent role in my favorite "Magnum, p.i." episode, "Limbo."

And I'll never forget getting ready for work that awful October day in 1997 when Mom busted into the bathroom.

"Jake, I just heard on the radio that John Denver is dead!"

Stunned silence.

I miss John Denver. I miss his spirit. I miss his soul. I even miss that goofy grin.

Found a few clips you might like.

Here is John Denver guest hosting "The Tonight Show" for Johnny Carson, interviewing Carl Sagan.

Here is the song he wrote for the Challenger 7, "Flying For Me."

And here is JD with Bill and Taffy Danoff singing the song they co-wrote together, his 1971 mega-hit, "Take Me Home Country Roads."

Far out!

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Sunday, March 23, 2014

Isn't it rich?

Ah, yes. Detox day.

We all need them from time to time, don'tcha think? Just a day to relax, unwind, do whatever makes you happy, forget your troubles awhile.

Planned on getting outside on Saturday -- gotta work on that Dino tan -- but my back had other ideas. Yep. Having some pain down there. Just hoping it's not a kidney stone. Those are bad words in my house after giving birth to 13 of them.

But, all wasn't lost. I caught a complete "Dean Martin Show" and was able to listen to Jonathan Schwartz's birthday tribute to one of my favorite composers, Stephen Sondheim. (I cannot believe that man is 84.)

I'm not a huge fan of Broadway musicals, but I do like a few. Rodgers and Hart and Rodgers and Hammerstein are favorites, but Sondheim's songs touch my soul.

My favorite -- it's hard to pick just one -- is "A Little Night Music," an adaptation of Bergman's "Smiles of a Summer Night." Love that play.

And, although it's a cliche, my favorite Sondheim song is, you guessed it, "Send In The Clowns."

Everybody has their interpretation of the tune. Mine is that it's about a man and a woman looking back at a relationship that didn't make it. She -- in this case Desiree -- runs into the man -- in this case, the lawyer Fredrik -- who has wed but not consummated a marriage with a much younger woman. During the course of the play, Desiree looks back on the disappointments and missed opportunities of her life. It's a universal human theme.

In a 1973 interview at the Lincoln Center, Sondheim said:

"I get a lot of letters over the years asking what the title means and what the song's about; I never thought it would be in any way esoteric. I wanted to use theatrical imagery in the song, because she's an actress, but it's not supposed to be a circus [...] 

"It's a theater reference meaning 'if the show isn't going well, let's send in the clowns'; in other words, 'let's do the jokes.' I always want to know, when I'm writing a song, what the end is going to be, so 'Send in the Clowns' didn't settle in until I got the notion, 'Don't bother, they're here,' which means that 'We are the fools.'"

I've been in that situation once. Right romance. Wrong time. It happens. How you deal with it is what's important.

The song was written for Glynis Johns. I like the covers by Judy Collins, Mandy Patinkin and Barbra Streisand, but -- to me -- the definitive cover is by Francis Albert Sinatra.

Frank recorded it twice. The first attempt in 1973 is fine but flawed. It's a Gordon Jenkins arrangement, and as Schwartz said on his show, it's filled with too many fiddles.

Schwartz sent Sinatra a letter suggesting he record the song again just like he performed it in concert -- quietly, with only Bill Miller's piano as an accompaniment.

So, in May 1976, that's what Sinatra did. It's magic. Listen. See what I mean?

Useless trivia: This is also the only Sinatra song recorded in a studio that features a spoken word introduction.

Anyway. It was good to hear Jon Schwartz tonight. Due to my busy schedule (and frequent migraines), I haven't had a chance to listen to him of late. His was a fitting tribute to a true pioneer. Sondheim's music is magic, his lyrics are lovely, and his plays are (almost always) perfect.

Isn't it rich, indeed!

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Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Lunch with a true lady...

Earlier today, I enjoyed lunch with film, TV and opera star Mary Costa. She's perhaps best known to most of you as the voice of Princess Aurora from "Sleeping Beauty." My good friend Dean Harned arranged the luncheon and brought along his wife, Allison, and their son, Lincoln.

Thank you, Mary, for making me feel "alive" today! What a gracious, gracious woman.

Also included is a screen shot of Mary with Bing Crosby on his 1971 Christmas special.

She was so gracious, so warm, and even so persuading that she talked me into seeing the encore showing tonight of The Metropolitan Opera's Live in HD! production of Massenet's "Werther," starring the touted tenor Jonas Kaufmann.

Here's to a true Knoxville legend!

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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Why I like him so much...

You know, it dawned on me earlier that I don't think I've ever told you why I like Dean Martin so much.

 Dino was supremo, the king of cool, calm, classy. Longtime readers know how much I love him and his music.

Of the members of the so-called Rat Pack, Dean is my favorite. Before you have a coronary, let me add a caveat.

Sinatra was superb. Nobody, and I mean nobody, resides in Francis Albert's league. He was a stylist, a singer's singer, The Voice, The Chairman of the Board. I own more Frank Sinatra records than any other performer, with the possible exception of Elvis.

But Dean is my favorite.

For one thing, he's funny. You can't help but laugh at the guy. His drunk routine (he usually was drinking apple juice) was classic. His ad-libbing one-liners were hilarious, delivered with pitch-perfect timing. Even his former comedic partner Jerry Lewis said Dino had the "it" that all superstars possess.

His relaxed, "I couldn't care less" attitude was inspired by his hero (and mine), Bing Crosby, updated for the '60s and '70s. There's a classic clip of the two of them together from Bing's 1970 TV show. Look at the admiration in Dean's eyes.

Oh, and don't miss this gem from Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show."

And you'll get a kick out of this. Yeah, I've tried to copy Dean's hair, his performance mannerisms when singing, even his laid-back persona when I speak before an audience. What can I say? Imitate the best!

I ordered the complete Dean Martin roasts, a collection of "The Dean Martin Show" -- both from Time-Life -- as well as the "Collected Cool" box set for my birthday. Best money I ever spent.

Maybe one of the secrets to it is that Dean, unlike, say, Frankie, seemed so accessible.

"I made myself part of the audience," he said. "I didn't act like I was doing them a favor on the stage. I've seen entertainers act like they were doing you a favor by singing for you, which is wrong. If you make 'em feel like they're a part of ya..., I don't know..."


And there's a serious side here, too. You know about my migraines. Won't rehash them here. But, when I get them, I can only listen to four singers: Bing Crosby, Karen Carpenter, John Denver and Dino. There's something about the timbre in each of their voices that doesn't further irritate my head.

One of my favorite things to do is put one of Dino's records on the turntable -- and they usually are records -- ease back with an ice pack, shut my eyes and dream of a day when pop culture wasn't pathetic.

So, I owe the boy quite a bit. He never fails to make me smile -- sometimes belly laugh -- and his music is pure magic.

Salud, Dino. I hope each of you has a Dean Martin in your own lives.

P.S. For the record, my favorite Dino song is his cover of Jim Reeves' "Welcome To My World" and my favorite album is "Dream With Dean." My favorite film is a tie between "Robin and the 7 Hoods" and the first Matt Helm movie.

Everybody loves somebody sometime

"And don't worry, Jeanne, I'll be home soon..."

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