When Linda Was Country

I recently went retro and bought three CDs, small-disc versions of LPs that I owned decades ago but haven’t heard in many years, owing to the fact that I haven’t owned a working turntable since some time in the Clinton administration. Anyway, the three CDs are:

  • Randy Newman—Sail Away
  • Randy Newman—Trouble In Paradise
  • Linda Ronstadt—Heart Like A Wheel

We may or may not get to the Randy Newman discs in due course, but today I want to discuss Linda Ronstadt. (And yes, this is the third post in a row to at least mention her!)

I became a fan in 1976, when I saw her at the Mississippi River Festival in Edwardsville, Ill. It was my first concert. Over the next few years, I bought just about everything she recorded, but at some point my musical tastes changed and I moved on. I did, however, eventually buy Prisoner in Disguise and Hasten Down the Wind on CD—they were her two best albums, I felt, released in 1975 and 1976, respectively.

Over the last few months I found myself playing them quite a bit. Comfort music, y’know.

Hasten Down the Wind has a very polished, refined sound. If you care to crank up Spotify (it’s free), check out Lose Again. Or try Try Me Again. The only song on the album you might begin to think of as “country” is Crazy, by Willie Nelson. There’s a little bit of slide guitar in it, but that’s the only nod to country in what is a beautiful ballad. The album has a couple of rockers, even a reggae song or two, but for the most part, it’s full of the gorgeous, highly produced torch songs that Ronstadt specialized in.

Stepping backward, now, to 1975, Prisoner in Disguise shows a little more of Ronstadt’s country genes, but not to excess. There are a couple of twangy songs, but they fit in nicely with the rest of the album. Even the Dolly Parton-penned I Will Always Love You doesn’t scream “country” like you might think it would. About the closest you come to needing a cowboy hat is The Sweetest Gift, a duet with Emmylou Harris. Oh yeah, and the Neil Young song Love Is A Rose has a bit of the ol’ pickin’ and grinnin’ as well. Still, it’s not really country. A couple of other great songs from that album: Many Rivers To Cross and Hey Mister, That’s Me Up On The Jukebox.

As I mentioned, I’ve listened to those two records a little more than usual recently; just putting “Linda Ronstadt” on shuffle play on iTunes on my computer. But those two records didn’t prepare me for my first listen in years to Heart Like A Wheel.

Sure, there were the rockers I’d remembered: You’re No Good might be the best song she ever recorded, and When Will I Be Loved was also a huge hit for her. I was also anxious to hear her You Can Close Your Eyes, a James Taylor song that I’ve seen him perform several times since I last heard her version. An absolute gem that I’d almost forgotten about is Willin’, a classic Little Feat song that she made her own. With that song, you begin to hear the country roots that Ronstadt grew out of. All well and good; Willin’ is a truck-driving song, and you’d expect it to come across as pretty country, although her version is much less so than Little Feat’s. But check out the opening notes to I Can’t Help It If I’m Still in Love With You. Heck, not just the opening notes, but the whole song; this is country in the vein of Hank Williams. And I’m talking senior, not junior. Or Keep Me From Blowing Away. Or It Doesn’t Matter Any More.

I guess I didn’t notice this as much when I listened to this record way back when, because I was sorta country back then myself: several of the earliest records I owned were by the Eagles, who were a lot more country themselves back then.

Anyway, this post is already longer than I’d planned, and the whole thing is sort of apropos of nothing. Any Linda Ronstadt fans out there with anything to add?

The Meditations Of Our Hearts

Every once in a while, Pastor Dave will use these beautiful lines at the beginning or the end of a prayer:

“Let the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight…”

The first time I heard this, it stopped me cold. I knew these words, but from where? I figured it must have been a song lyric, and it haunted me until I was able to get to Google and discover/remember that it was from the classic reggae song Rivers of Babylon (originally by the Melodians and on the soundtrack of The Harder They Come, and later covered by Linda Ronstadt and many others).

Cool—Pastor Dave likes reggae!

But then a little further Googling led me to the real source of the words: they are from Psalm 19, verse 14.

Cool—reggae likes Psalms!

*****

Trying something new here: if it works, you’ll be able to listen to the song by clicking on the links below (you may have to register for Spotify, but it’s free and pretty painless). First: The Melodians:

The Melodians – Rivers Of Babylon

And here’s Linda Ronstadt’s version:

Linda Ronstadt – Rivers Of Babylon

(This is the first time I’ve tried to embed songs in this blog. Let me know in the comments or by e-mail at johnshoulberg (at) gmail.com if it doesn’t work for you and I’ll see if I can make it better.)

On Brotherly Love

Today, a story about my brother Phil, who celebrates yet another birthday on this 18th day of April.

Over the years, Phil has been just about anything that anyone could want in a big brother. He took me to my first concert (Linda Ronstadt), my first NFL game (Cardinals-Giants), my first World Series game (Game 1, 1982) and countless other major and minor events. He has of course been a huge influence on the music I listen to (although of late, his tastes have tended a little toward the twangy). He’s my perfect counterpart on the sociability scale; while I pretty much keep to myself, he knows everybody, everywhere—it’s impossible to be in public with him without him running into someone he knows. In conversation, he throws out straight lines like Tom Niedenfuer tossing gopher balls to the ’85 Cardinals. He’s perhaps the only person I know who is truly conversant in Formula 1. And it turns out, after all, that he was right about First Congregational Church.

In short, I love my brother.

Except when I hate him.

And on the morning of October 1 last year, at exactly 8:29 a.m., I hated him.

That was the day of the “Ivory Crockett Run 4 Webster,” a four-mile running race through the streets of our hometown of Webster Groves, Mo. After a spring and summer of back problems, it was to be my first (and, as it turned out, my only) race of 2011, so I was already a little anxious about how things would go.

And then Phil showed up. He’d had a rough running year, too, primarily because of knee problems. Right up to that day, he’d been non-committal about whether or not he’d actually run, and when he wasn’t there as we started to line up, I figured he’d decided against it. But then, just seconds before the scheduled start, there he was, with a number pinned on, ready to go.

Looking at the totality of our races against each other over the years, Phil and I are probably fairly evenly matched. There have been times when I’ve been stronger, and times when he’s been stronger. I’m pretty sure I have faster PRs than his at most of the shorter distances, but he definitely has a better marathon PR. But it’s not like we’re competitive or anything.

OK, well, I guess maybe a little competitive…

Did I mention that Phil is eight years older than I am? It’s been that way all our lives, despite my efforts to catch up.

Anyway, as I said, it had been a rough year for both of us in terms of running, so neither one of us was really sure how the other was doing. But we both knew that whoever crossed the finish line first would have major bragging rights until the next time we met on a starting line. (For the record, the last time we’d raced together was 10 months earlier, at Pere Marquette, Ill., and I came in ahead of him. By a pretty good margin. Just in case you were wondering.)

The thing is, for my first race of the year, it would have been nice to not have any extra pressure, to just be able to run my own race according to how I felt, and not worry so much about the time. If I felt good, I could let it rip and try to nab an age-group award. If not, no big deal. But with my brother in the race, there was no choice.

Complicating matters on this day was a wildcard: Pastor Dave Denoon—Phil’s  and soon-to-be-my minister—was also running the race, and he and I were standing together at the start when Phil showed up. I had no idea about Dave’s running abilities, but to be honest, there was no pressure in that matchup; we had less than three months of mutual history, so the bragging rights were much, much less significant than between Phil and me, with more than 50 years of fraternal jousting behind us.

So the three of us toed the starting line, along with a couple of hundred other runners. There were pre-race ceremonies: Ivory Crockett himself said a few words. And then the starter’s horn, and we were off.

The course started out with a slight uphill, up Lockwood toward Phil’s and Dave’s—and soon-to-be-my—church, and for that first quarter mile or so the three of us ran together. Great, just great. I knew, though, that Phil’s knee problems and the resulting lack of fitness—not to mention his lack of a warmup—were eventually going to pull him backwards and I’d be able to relax a little bit. But as we ran down the next hill, and up the one after that by the YMCA, Phil was right there, matching me stride for stride. I could no longer see Dave, so I assumed he’d dropped back a little bit.

I generally don’t talk much when I run, and by the time we were through that first hilly mile I’m sure I wasn’t talking at all. Still, my brother was unshakable. The next mile was (relatively) flatter, but having taken the first mile out much faster than I would have otherwise, I was hurting severely. And of course trying desperately not to show it.

After two miles, it was clear to me that those “knee problems” were just a ruse. Gasping for breath, I was laboring to keep up with him.

And then, after a long, gentle downhill at about 2-1/2 miles, there was a gift from above: without warning, Phil pulled off to the side. I glanced back, and he was bending over to tie his shoe. I felt a little bad for him, and to be sporting, I probably should have slowed down so it wouldn’t have cost him too much in our friendly competition.

Did I say friendly? Had I been able, I would have stepped on the gas and buried him when I had the chance—think Contador/Schleck—but of course I had no gas left to step on. So I pretty much tried to keep up the same pace, but it was with a decidedly more relaxed mood. Relaxed … except that I knew that the race’s hardest segment was just ahead.

“Gentle downhills” always come at a price. On this race course, the price is the long, steep climb up Swon Ave. This unrelenting hill comes at just before three miles, and seems, itself, to be about three miles long. When the Ivory Crockett race approaches each fall, I try to run the hill in training a few times, but it never, ever, gets any easier, no matter how many times I scale it. On this day, even though I no longer had to worry about Phil, I was still worried about that Swon hill.

And my worries were justified. After trashing my cardiovascular system in the first 2-1/2 miles of the race, I had nothing left for the hill. I tried my best to persevere, and to talk myself into persevering, and to force my legs to keep running, but about two-thirds of the way up the hill I just … failed. If I’d been in better shape, and maybe if I’d had a few races under my belt for the season, I could have found the willpower to keep going despite my complete physical depletion, but I just ran out of arguments with my body, and slowed for a walk-break. Just enough, I told myself, to get my breath back, and then I’d have something in the tank for the last mile of the race.

First of all, though, going up a hill like that, you don’t “get your breath back,” even when you stop to walk. Secondly, I knew that Phil was still behind me, and now rapidly gaining on me. Worse, I figured that he had probably joined up with Dave, and they were undoubtedly conspiring to pass me together, just as, I suspected, they had conspired to get me back into the church.

Perhaps it was that thought that got me going again. In any case, after a short stint of walking (15 seconds? 10 minutes? It’s impossible to judge time in a situation like that), I managed to get my legs running again, and crested the hill. There followed a short but regenerating downhill, and then another slow uphill, before a long, flat straightaway to the finish. Despite my walking break, I hadn’t seen Phil and Dave pass me, but I knew they were now just behind … unless they had found the Swon hill just as difficult as I had. I could swear, though, that I heard their voices behind me, and it sounded like they were laughing.

But still, they didn’t pass me, and as I made it up that next uphill, I was starting to think that maybe I had this one in the bag.

You might think that I could just turn around and look behind me to see if they were there, but turning around is always a dangerous proposition while running, especially in a race when your faculties are already diminished by oxygen debt. About the only chance you get to look back is when you turn a corner, and then you can take a quick peek to see what might be coming up behind you. As I swung wide on that last corner before the final stretch, I turned my head, and there was Phil—galloping around the corner and sprinting past me. Uh-oh, here we go again.

At this point we had maybe a third of a mile to go to the finish line. I knew that he must have expended a lot of energy to catch up to me after stopping to tie his shoe. But he had managed to slingshot past me after that corner, and had opened up about a 10-yard lead. With my legs and my lungs screaming at me, I slowly reeled him in, so that with about two blocks to go I was almost up to his shoulder, but it was all I could do. There was nothing left, and he slipped away again, and he sprinted across the finish line seven seconds before I staggered across. A few seconds later, Pastor Dave made his way to the finish, smiling as always.

Phil, it turned out, was the victor in his age group. Since he’s so much older than I am, we are in different classifications, and in my more youthful and vibrant age group I was a mere fourth place, one spot out of the money, so to speak. Age groups don’t mean a thing, though; what’s important is those bragging rights, and Phil gets to hold those until we race again. And with those “knee problems,” he might just be able to put off that meeting indefinitely.

Anyway, a big Happy Birthday to my big brother. And I was just kidding about that hate thing. Sort of.

From The Old (New) To The New (Old)

In honor of today’s St Louis Cardinals home opener, I thought I’d put up a few photos of the construction of Busch Stadium.

This is, of course, the third Busch Stadium in St. Louis; the first one was on the north side of town, and the second, opened in the 1960s, was right downtown. The new one was built in 2005 and 2006 immediately south of the old one; in fact, they had to build half of it, and then as soon as the 2005 season was over they tore down the old, round, “modern” stadium to allow them to build the rest of the new, “traditional” ballpark.

I never thought the old stadium was all that bad, and I would have been fine with keeping it for another decade or so. But the new one is an absolute gem.

And who would have thought that the place would see two World Series championship celebrations in its first five seasons?

Anyway, here are some pictures I took while Busch III was being built and Busch II was being demolished. As usual, click the thumbnails for a larger view.

Two Easters, Far From Home

For a few decades there, I wasn’t much of a churcher. However, on two Easter Sundays during that time, I found myself at churches that were a long way—both geographically and ideologically—from home, and they were probably my most memorable Easters ever.

Easter 1987

It was Jean’s and my first Easter together as husband and wife, and we traveled to Provincetown, Mass., to visit my brother Jim. April is decidedly off-season in Provincetown; it was cloudy, misty and cool the whole time we were there—not to mention completely deserted compared to the other times I’d visited.

This sign on the bench outside the Universalist Meeting House reads: “From all that dwell below the skies, let faith and hope and love arise. Let peace, goodwill and truth be sung, through every land, by every tongue.”

Jim attended the Universalist Meeting House in Provincetown. In a way it’s a church, but for two people raised in Christian families, it was a vastly different experience, and for me, at least, a refreshing change from every other Easter service I’d attended. It was all  very casual. I don’t remember a whole lot of details about it, except that the minister, in her sermon (they probably didn’t use the words “minister” and “sermon,” or maybe even “service,” but those terms will have to do here) talked a little about the Rev. Oral Roberts, who had recently claimed to see a 50-foot-tall Jesus. She gently mocked him for that, as part of her larger point that we don’t really need spectacular displays like that to be good people. Was that her point? In the haze of the intervening 25 years, I can’t remember for sure, but that’s pretty much what I remember taking from it. Anyway, it was a fun, celebratory service, and when I walked out I felt like I was among a hundred or so new friends.

For Jean, though, the Universalist Unitarians didn’t really fuflill all of her Easter needs. So later that afternoon we went to Mass at a Catholic church in town. (Church twice in one day! It still stands as my personal record!)  Although the Mass was in English, it seemed like most of the other people in the pews were members of Provincetown’s Portuguese community. Now, I will admit that the Catholic church has some beautiful traditions, but this mass was one of the most soporific, lifeless Masses I’ve ever attended, and even more so in contrast to the festive service the Unitarians had put on earlier that day.

These pictures of the Universalist Meeting House are not, unfortunately, from that 1987 trip. I do have one picture of Jim taken during that visit, so I know I had a camera there, but I can’t find any more from that roll. These pictures were taken when I visited P-town in September 2010.

Easter 2005

This time when Easter rolled around, we were halfway around the world in Prague, Czech Republic. “We” refers to Jean and me and Jim, but it was our son Jim, not my brother Jim. We were in Prague with Jim’s high school band, which took a week-long trip to the Czech Republic during spring break that year. The trip happened to coincide with Easter, and the band leaders organized a trip to St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague Castle for Easter Mass, for those who wanted to.

I definitely wanted to. Even though I don’t always go along with all the doctrine, I love going into old churches to check out the architecture. And this one definitely qualifies as “old.” It was built beginning in the14th century, although it wasn’t completed for 600 years.

The enormous gothic-style cathedral is part of Prague Castle, which is also the home of the seat of the Czech government. The cathedral itself is amazing; long, narrow, and incredibly tall; I don’t know how high the ceiling is, but you can get an idea from the pictures here. (The “tallness” of the place is reflected in the fact that, as I look at these pictures seven years later, I notice that almost all of them are verticals.)

We arrived in Prague on Good Friday, and the cathedral was actually one of the first places we visited. After that, we walked down the hill to Old Town, and as we were crossing the Charles Bridge, we saw a procession coming the opposite direction: it was a re-enactment of Jesus’ last day, with Jesus, Roman soldiers, and the lot. Now, everything is strange when you’re jet-lagged as you visit a foreign country for the first time, but seeing that just added one more surreal note to the day.

On Easter morning, I guess we were a little late arriving, because we ended up sitting way in the back of St. Vitus’. Prague’s bishop is a Cardinal, and he said the Easter Mass, in Czech, of course. The sound wasn’t great, and the place was cold, but the experience was well worth it.

Here’s a gallery with these pictures and a few more: clicking on any of the thumbnails below should bring up the gallery view. Happy Easter!

As Lent Winds Down…

A few somewhat muddled thoughts on religion and church as Lent winds down:

*****

It’s been a fascinating Lent, which started, of course, with Ash Wednesday. We went to the service at church, which in included the solemn, sobering ash ritual. I’d never gotten ashes before, and hadn’t even known Protestant churches did that. Like everything else lately, it was a learning experience.

Pastor Dave put together a great Lenten series of sermons and discussions entitled “Lives of the Disciples.” His idea is that, rather than just the 12 disciples we commonly think of as being at the Last Supper, the meal would have probably have included a number of friends and family members, bringing the total to about 23 people. Over the course of the season, he examined each of the 23 in great detail, bringing them to life for our examination, 20 centuries later. The culmination of the series was the Maundy Thursday dinner, in which actors from the church performed a skit, which he wrote, portraying the 23 acted out their preparations for the meal.

During the Wednesday-evening discussions that led up to this week, the minister also shared dozens of artistic depictions of the Last Supper, many of them parodies of the classic Da Vinci mural. Like this one, for example. Many more are here.

*****

If we are to believe Monty Python, the Pope didn’t like the idea of having more than 12 disciples. I’m not sure we CAN believe them, though, because they thought it was Michelangelo who painted the Last Supper, not Da Vinci. In any case, here’s their take:

*****

On a more serious note, it’s been kind of a weird time for organized religion lately. I guess partly because it’s Lent, and partly because I’m paying more attention now than I did in previous years, it seems that there is a lot of questioning of the meaning of religious faith in the news and on the Internet in recent weeks.

Andrew Sullivan wrote about the “Crisis of Christianity” in a Newsweek cover essay this week. In it, he argues for a true separation between our religious lives and our political lives.

What does it matter how strictly you proclaim your belief in various doctrines if you do not live as these doctrines demand? What is politics if not a dangerous temptation toward controlling others rather than reforming oneself? If we return to what Jesus actually asked us to do and to be—rather than the unknowable intricacies of what we believe he was—he actually emerges more powerfully and more purely.

It’s a great essay, well worth a read.

*****

One event that really shocked me was the recent episode in Gaithersburg, Md., in which a priest denied communion to a woman because she was a lesbian—and the denial occurred at her mother’s funeral. I can’t think of a more humiliating experience, and a worse setting for it to happen. I understand the priest was later suspended, but I haven’t heard more about it since then.

I contrast that episode with my experience at my own mother’s funeral, an absolutely 180-degree opposite from what that woman had to deal with. In retrospect, I realize that I was probably a lot more fragile and vulnerable than I imagined.  Fortunately, unlike the Gaithersburg woman’s experience, I got a brilliant sermon from a compassionate and decidedly non-judgemental minister, the first step in a process that resulted in my rejoining the church several months later, rejoining after 35 years in the wilderness, so to speak.

By the way, I don’t regret those 35 years, but I am very very happy to be a part of the church now. I’m still definitely in the process of sorting things out, trying to come upon a better understanding of what God is or isn’t … or maybe I should say IF God is or isn’t.

But for me, at this point in my life, the distinction isn’t critical. This is what I know: when I step into church, the feeling of peacefulness and optimism is almost palpable. During a worship service or even during a Wednesday-night discussion, I am completely rapt; it’s a time when I’m more focused than at any other time in my ADD-addled life. I take part in prayers, even though I don’t really have a target for my praying. It just feels right. And the feeling of peacefulness extends for the rest of the day after I’ve been to church. There’s never a bad Sunday.

At some point, perhaps I’ll figure it all out. But for now, I’m enjoying the ride.

Not Gonna Do It

Nope. I’m not going to post today. I’m not going to challenge the orthodoxy and post something on April first, because half the readers will think, wrongly, I’m trying to pull some kind of prank or something, and the other half won’t get the prank that I’m trying to pull on them.

Oh, sure, I could do something really clever, like tell you I’d recently joined a church. Or that the United States elected a black man as president. Or that a string of 80-degree days in March in St. Louis isn’t indicative of global warming, but a degree- or half-degree rise every few years is. The problem with all of these is that readers, those who remember it’s April Fool’s Day, will be on guard, worried that I’m about to trick them. And people who don’t remember it’s AFD will think I’ve gone ’round the bend.

So I’m just not gonna even bother. No post from me on April Fool’s Day. I’ll come back tomorrow and post something particularly interesting. Cheers.