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Save the Last Dance for Me

A song starting to hatch

A song starting to hatch

If someone mentions the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, what is the first name that pops into your head:  Elvis Presley?  the Beatles?  Chuck Berry?  ABBA?  OK, not ABBA — and probably not Doc Pomus, either.

My guess is that there are a lot of devoted rock fans who have never heard of Doc Pomus.  He’s not exactly famous, but he is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, having been inducted in 1992 along with The Isley Brothers, Johnny Cash, The Yardbirds and The Jimi Hendrix Experience, among others.

So who was Doc Pomus?  He was actually named Jerome Felder; he adopted the pseudonym when he was trying to become a rhythm-and-blues singer, and thought Doc Pomus sounded more authentic.

His career as a performer never took off, perhaps partly for a reason we’ll get to shortly.  He did, however, find success as a songwriter.  Collaborating with composer Mort Shuman, he wrote hits for Elvis (“Marie’s the Name of His Latest Flame”, “Surrender”, “Little Sister”, “Viva Las Vegas”).  Unless you’re currently on Social Security, you may not remember other songs they wrote, like “A Teenager in Love” (Dion and the Belmonts), “Hushabye” (the Mystics), or “Can’t Get Used to Losing You” (Andy Williams).

The best-known songs by Doc Pomus were performed by The Drifters, though, and one in particular has been recorded by many other artists in the decades since it was a number-one hit in 1960.

There are different versions of the story about how “Save the Last Dance for Me” came to be written, but the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland has evidence that Pomus jotted down some preliminary ideas for lyrics on the printed invitation to his wedding reception (see photo).

One account has him making those notes while at the party, but that seems unlikely for several reasons, not least of which is the three-year gap between the wedding reception and the release of the record.  Other sources state that he came across the invitation while going through some old stuff in a hatbox, and that finding the invitation triggered a bittersweet memory of that night years earlier, causing him to jot down some phrases on it.

In any event, this fact isn’t in dispute:  As a child, Jerome Felder had contracted polio.  He couldn’t walk without the aid of crutches, let alone dance.  His bride was a Broadway actress and dancer named Willi Burke.

At the post-wedding party, she danced with Doc’s brother Raoul Felder, and perhaps other guests as well.  Because of his disability, Doc could only sit and watch.  It’s not difficult to see how that melancholy recollection could have inspired him to write:

You can dance/Every dance with the guy/Who gave you the eye/Let him hold you tight.  You can smile/Every smile for the man who held your hand/’Neath the pale moonlight.  But don’t forget who’s taking you home/And in whose arms you’re gonna be/ So darlin’/Save the last dance for me.

By the way, the invitation with those lyric fragments scrawled on it is just one of thousands of keepsakes in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum.  It’s sort of like exploring the contents of your grandmother’s attic, if Grandma was best friends with Mick Jagger, the Beach Boys, Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson… and Doc Pomus, too.

 

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Pencil Pusher

Tools of the Trade

Tools of the Trade

Back in January of 1988 I purchased my first computer.  It had a 10-megabyte hard drive; the salesman assured me, “That’s all you’ll ever need.”  It was not inexpensive, and neither was the printer that I got that day, but I was able to rationalize the extravagance because as a professional writer, I needed to upgrade my tools.

As I soon learned, though, it was very difficult for me to do the actual writing of scripts on a computer.  While I stared at the screen, hoping to get an idea for repartee among characters, the cursor just kept blinking at me, as if to say “Hurry up, hurry up, hurry up.”

So I went back to writing the way I’d been doing it for over a decade at that point, with a lined yellow tablet and a pencil.  That allowed me to work through a scene as the words came to me — sometimes quickly, and at other times glacially.  There are inevitably those periods when inspiration is elusive, so while trying to come up with the next amusing bit of dialogue, I’d stare at the ceiling, or glance out the window, or study my pencil.

Before long I’d be wondering why pencils have that hexagon shape, and why are so many of them yellow… and how the heck do they get the lead to stay inside there!?  In other words, the writer part of my brain would be given a little time off by the lobe that generates idle speculation.

I have since learned that the six-sided pencil has a couple of virtues:  supposedly it is easier to grip than a round pencil, and it won’t roll off your desk.  Round pencils are more common as souvenirs because, according to Pencils.com, they are easier to print on.

The majority of them are yellow because the premium pencil of the late 19th century, called the Koh-I-Noor, was yellow.  Other manufacturers followed suit to convey that their products were high-quality, too.

The precursors of the pencils we use today go back to the 1500s, but it was a man named Joseph Dixon (along with his son-in-law) who mechanized pencil manufacturing in the middle of the nineteenth century.  So, you’re wondering, how did they get the lead to stay in there?

OK, as you probably know, even though we call it lead, it really isn’t — it’s graphite mixed with clay.  Anyway, while workers in one part of the pencil factory are making those skinny rods of graphite, other workers are cutting cedar blocks into slats, and grooves are then carved into the slats.

The graphite rods (called “writing cores” by pencil professionals) are glued into the grooves.  Another grooved slat is glued onto the slat that has the writing cores, creating a pencil sandwich.  That sandwich is sliced into individual strips, which are sanded and painted.  The ferrule — that’s what the metal ring is called — is crimped into place on the end of the pencil, and an eraser is glued into it.

This process is repeated with impressive frequency:  Around fourteen billion pencils are made worldwide every year.  That suggests I’m not the only person on the planet staring at my pencil and hoping for inspiration to strike.

The Surprise Duck

Sally thinks this might be the worst picture of her that has ever been taken, but she loves it.

Sally thinks this might be the worst picture of her that has ever been taken, but she loves it.

Every family tradition begins with a single incident.  It may have occurred so long ago that no one in your family can remember why, but there was a first time that someone thought it was a great idea for everyone to jump in the frozen lake on January 1st.  And it was so darn enjoyable that first time, your clan has kept it going.

My wife and daughter aren’t entirely sure how their tradition began, but I’ve been watching it happen for many years now.  It probably started with Jen (our daughter) getting a little rubber ducky as one of her Christmas gifts, back when her age was in single digits.

Sally (my wife; Jen’s mother) thinks perhaps she was gently reminding Jen to pick up her room one day, so she put the duck on the bed or some other conspicuous place.

The response from Jen may have been to hide the duck in her mother’s purse; historians aren’t sure.  However it started, a tradition was born and those two have been surprising each other with toy ducks ever since.

In the early years of the tradition, the duck hiding places were fairly simple.  One would be found in a closet, for instance, having been tucked away in a winter boot since the previous summer.  Over time, the schemes became more elaborate.  When Jen went off to college, a rubber duck was lurking in her belongings when she got to her dorm and unpacked.

Sally and I once checked into a hotel and found a duck on the pillow in our room.  Jen had somehow persuaded the hotel staff to place it there before we arrived.

In a fancy restaurant one night, the servers brought our meals from the kitchen and presented them.  As the cloches were removed with a flourish, voila! — all that was on Jen’s plate was a rubber ducky.  One suspects that Sally may have conspired with the maître d’.

At the wedding of our son Brian, Sally and I came down the aisle with him.  At the appropriate moment, we each gave him a hug and then turned to be seated.  Somehow a duck had found its way onto Sally’s chair.

The ultimate surprise duck happened a year ago today — July 20, 2012.  Jen was in a hospital for major surgery — specifically, she was donating a kidney to her husband.

The day had begun very early; Jen had to be in pre-op at 5:30 a.m.  We got her to the hospital and began the long wait.  We knew she had an outstanding surgical team and were confident all would go well, but still — you can’t help being a little tense.

Hours went by and finally the surgeon, Dr. Peter Kennealey, came out and gave us the good news we had been waiting to hear.  And — you’re way ahead of me, aren’t you? — he also gave Sally a rubber ducky from Jen (see photo).

Personally, I think Jen and Sally should retire the tradition, because I don’t see how a surgeon handing over a duck he supposedly found inside a patient can ever be topped.  But my guess is that those two will somehow manage to keep this silly tradition going.

By the way, that particular duck now has a place of honor in our home (I’m not allowed to divulge its whereabouts).  And I’m happy to say that the donor and recipient — of not only the duck, but more importantly, the kidney — are thriving.

Enjoying a Symphony

In this arrangement, the conductor has to be very careful when he bows.

In this arrangement, the conductor has to be very careful when he bows.

People who know that James Brown was the “Godfather of Soul” might not know that Franz Joseph Haydn was the “Father of the Symphony”.  And vice versa.

In the mid-18th century, “Papa” Haydn began writing symphonies, which the Harvard Dictionary of Music calls “the most important form of orchestral music.”  It borrowed from earlier styles, but Haydn’s music inspired composers like Mozart, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky to write majestic pieces that helped some audience members sleep off the big meals they had just eaten.

Ironically, modern audiences occasionally have difficulty appreciating classical music concerts because these performances require us to a) sit still, and b) listen.  This can be torture when one has just gulped down three energy drinks and can feel their iPhone throbbing in their pocket.

In the right frame of mind, though, a symphony performance can be soul-satisfying in ways James Brown couldn’t touch.  To enhance your next concert experience, here are a few reminders of things you probably already know…

The size of orchestras has grown since the 18th century, when they were performing in some rich guy’s living room or garden.  In today’s expansive venues, a full symphony orchestra typically has 75-90 instruments, most of which are strings.

The usual seating arrangement for the musicians has the first violins to the conductor’s left and the cellos to his or her right.  Second violins and violas are inside the semicircle, which is closed by the woodwinds — flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons.  Behind the woodwinds are the brass instruments; the percussion section is in back.

The photo above gives the general idea; this display was mounted on the wall of the Italy pavilion at the Shanghai World Expo in 2010.  To my knowledge, no musicians were compelled to climb into those chairs.

But let’s get back to our hypothetical upcoming concert.

A few minutes before the performance is to begin, the Concertmaster enters; he is the first-chair violinist and is therefore despised by all the other violinists.  Oh, they’re nice to his face, but the minute his back is turned, well…

Anyway, the Concertmaster gets the orchestra tuned up — the musicians all play an “A” note.  Audience applause is not expected for that accomplishment.  Moments later, the conductor strides in and gets the program underway.

Most symphonies have four movements.  The first is allegro (fast), the second is adagio (slow).  The third movement is often something like a dance number — a minuet or a waltz, maybe, but sometimes it’s scherzo (very fast).  The final movement, allegro, is fast and energetic, has several false endings, and eventually results in boisterous applause from the audience.

By the way, it is considered a breach of classical-music etiquette to applaud between movements.  If you have any doubts about when to clap, you can wait until at least ten other people have done so.

If they’re waiting for you to lead, though, all you have to do is watch the conductor.  He’ll hold his baton above his shoulders until the last note has faded away, and then he’ll lower his hands to his sides.  When he does that, go crazy.  The conductor will turn and take a deep bow, the sweat dripping off him like he’s James Brown.

The Poet and the Painting

“Landscape With the Fall of Icarus”, attributed to Pieter Brueghel (c. 1560) — Musee des Beaux Arts, Brussels

When you visit an art museum, a comment you’ll often overhear is “what time are we supposed to be back on the bus?”  Other popular topics include the lines for the rest rooms and the prices in the cafeteria.

Occasionally, though, I’ve heard museum visitors say stuff about the art they were seeing that was so perceptive I’ve wanted to high-five them.  The poet W.H. Auden had one of those brilliant insights, expressed in a poem he wrote in the late 1930s.  It’s called Musée des Beaux Arts.

That’s the name of a museum in Brussels, Belgium; it houses a quirky painting that until recently was attributed to the 16th-century Flemish artist Pieter Brueghel the Elder.  Its title is “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus”.  (Click on the picture above to enlarge it.)

You probably remember the Greek myth about Icarus, whose father Daedalus made wings for himself and his son.  Wax was a component of the wings, and when Icarus flew too close to the sun, the wax melted and Icarus plummeted into the sea.

If a painting is titled, say, “Madonna and Child”, it’s not unreasonable to assume that the composition will prominently include Mary and the baby.  That’s one of the odd things about the Icarus painting, though:  He’s not the central figure.  In fact, you have to look closely at the painting to see Icarus at all.  In the lower right corner of the picture, his flailing legs are sticking out of the water.

Everyone else in the painting is oblivious to this guy who has fallen from the sky and is drowning.  So Auden, who apparently visited the Museum of Fine Arts in 1938, stood in front of this painting and thought, “Hmm.  What was the artist trying to convey with this peculiar composition?”  For that matter, he wondered what other artists were communicating when they depicted people and animals around the margins who were seemingly missing nearby miraculous events.  Here’s what Auden realized…

Musée des Beaux Arts

 About suffering they were never wrong,                                                                      The Old Masters:  how well they understood                                                               Its human position; how it takes place                                                                    While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking                    dully along;                                                                                                                      How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting                                        For the miraculous birth, there always must be                                               Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating                                       On a pond at the edge of the wood:                                                                            They never forgot                                                                                                            That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course                                   Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot                                                                   Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse          Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Brueghel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away                          Quite leisurely from the disaster; the plowman may                                             Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,                                                                     But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone                                       As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green                                  Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen                      Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,                                                     Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

On Assignment

Because you’ve been nice enough to follow this blog, it’s the least I can do to explore more potential topics.  That’s one of the reasons I assigned myself the trip I’m currently taking; the fact that I love to travel has something to do with it, too.

If you’re able to read this, it means that I have been able to find internet service.  That has not always been easy, because Sally and I are in a part of the world that is not famous for its cutting-edge technology.  (The photo that accompanies this post might be misleading; it was taken in Madrid, Spain, which is very high-tech.)

After I have returned home and get my laundry in the washing machine I’ll resume posting, but in the meantime, feel free to browse around my blog.  See if you can discern a theme to it.  (As far as I can tell, there isn’t one.)  Thanks again for your frequent visits here — we’ll talk soon!

Changing the Subject

"Yes, we have to be dry-cleaned. We're wool, you know."

When you gather with friends and family for the holidays, you have a pretty good idea of what conversational pitfalls to avoid.  By now you know which family member believes aliens are real, or which friend thinks the solution to the current political situation is to nuke Massachusetts.

You know not to let Aunt Cynthia see you eating a cracker. (“Those things are laced with preservatives — you might as well eat poison.”)  You are careful to stay away from topics that ultimately make your loved ones storm out and slam doors.

When you’re at a social gathering of people with whom you are only slightly acquainted, though, it’s more challenging to avoid a) tension or b) boredom.  After you and the guest seated next to you have agreed that it certainly is unusual weather for this time of year, where do you risk going next?

Sometimes you don’t get a choice in the matter, because that stranger with whom you have been thrown together is a windbag.  Several years ago, Sally and I were at a banquet table; our dinner companions included a man who grew up in North Dakota.  He thought we would all be fascinated by stories from his youth, mostly concerning livestock.  He shared anecdotes about a calf that didn’t have a penis, about castrating cattle, about techniques of artificial insemination.  These were not stories, really, because they never went anywhere — it was just a jumble of ruminations involving things that shouldn’t be discussed at mealtime.

In circumstances like that, or when attempts at conversation have lapsed into awkward silence, obviously someone needs to change the subject —  but to what?  In the situation described above, it wouldn’t improve things much to talk instead about that fake doctor in Florida who was doing cosmetic surgery with cement, mineral oil, and flat-tire sealant.

The list of hot-button topics goes beyond the merely revolting to politics, religion, ethnicity, favorite sports teams, celebrity divorces, and the questionable military strategy of King Harold at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

So here’s one approach to changing the subject that should be relatively safe:  bring up an Imponderable.  You may not know them by that name, but they have certainly popped into your head from time to time.  It’s stuff for which there seems to be no simple explanation. 

For example, why does “homely” have an unpleasant connotation?  I think of home as a good thing.  Or here’s another one:  When something is described as “foolproof”, who did they test it on?

There are lots of Imponderables floating around the internet, like “What does cheese say when it has its picture taken?”  There’s also “What was the best thing before sliced bread?”  Did you ever stop to wonder why sheep don’t shrink when it rains?  One that just occurred to me is why we call them Imponderables — we’re pondering them right now, aren’t we?

Anyway, when you find yourself in a situation that requires a change of subject, bringing up one or more of the Imponderables could do the trick.  Before you know it, you just might be standing at that punch bowl all by yourself!