Advice From My Father

With my dad at a Washington U. basketball game earlier this year. Photograph by Rick Budde

The best advice I can ever remember receiving came from my father.

I think I was probably about 14 or 15 years old, on the cusp of high school and all the changes that come with that transition. I have a mental image that he’s telling me this while he’s driving me someplace—we’re on Bompart Ave. in Webster Groves and it’s early evening—but that part of the memory could be just melded together from other events. Anyway, I do remember what he told me:

“Try to be involved in as many things as you can; the more you take part in, the more you’ll enjoy it.”

Simple advice, but profound and so true. He was talking about high school, but the advice applies to any time of life.

My dad has never been a big advice-giver. His style is more to set a good example for us to follow: whether building up his own small business through years of hard work; being a loving husband for more than 60 years; serving as a volunteer literacy tutor; always, himself, reading something of quality; or being involved in numerous other public-minded activities, he’s always led by doing, not by telling. And at nearly 92 years of age, he’s still going strong.

Still, that bit of advice sticks with me. I’ve tried to pass it along to my own sons, with limited success. And in fact, I didn’t always follow it as much as I wish, now, that I had. It’s still good advice though, and you can borrow it if you’d like.

To my father and to fathers everywhere, happy Father’s Day!

List: Top Five Story Songs — No. 1

This week, it’s been all about Story Songs, those songs that adopt their own meanings, sometimes far from what the original artists meant. Previous editions are here and here and here and here. And finally, we come to:

1. Stay Free, by The Clash.

Way back then, in the early early 1980s, we wrote letters. Lots of letters. On actual paper, which went into real envelopes, which that spent several days in transit before they were delivered.

My friend Geoff was back in New York, and I was in St. Louis, and for a couple of years there, it was extremely rare that there wasn’t a piece of paper in my typewriter, representing a letter-in-progress. Mostly to Geoff, and later to Jean, but also to other friends.

Geoff, in particular, soon got bored with sending letters in plain white envelopes, so my mailbox got a lot more colorful, with envelopes made out of pages torn out of rock magazines and folded around the letters inside, with my address scrawled on the outside under a stamp.

Basically, the outsides of our mailings became as much an outlet for creativity as the insides. Geoff, of course, was always much more creative than I was.

So yes, letters also went to other people, one of whom was my brother Jim. In the spring and early summer of 1980, we hung out a lot together, but by July of that year he found the weather and the attitudes of St. Louis to be too stifling, and picked up and moved to Provincetown, Mass., where he had some friends and where, I think, he had lived for a time previously.  That summer, I was sorry to see him go, but I always knew it was important for him, and I knew that once he got back to Provincetown, he was happier and, frankly, where he belonged.

He was from St. Louis, but he was at home in P-town.

Sometime in the late winter/early spring of 1981, I sent him a long letter. And on the outside of the envelope, I wrote the following song lyrics:

‘Cause time has passed and things have changed,
I move any way I want to go.
And I’ll never forget the feeling I got
when I heard that you’d got home.

And I’ll never forget the smile on my face
‘Cause I knew where you would be,
And if you’re in the Crown tonight,
Have a drink on me.

But go easy,
Step lightly,
Stay free.

They’re the closing lines from the song Stay Free, from The Clash’s Give ‘Em Enough Rope album. I thought they pretty well summed up how I felt about Jim at that point. (The “Crown” reference was a bonus; the previous year when we were in town and working at our Dad’s company, we would often have lunch together at Crown Candy Kitchen, a landmark in north St. Louis.)

Anyway, I sent the letter off and didn’t think much more about it, until that summer, when I took the train to the East Coast to visit both Jim, in Provincetown, and Geoff, in New York.

It was my first visit to P-town, and I was able to spend the better part of a week there. Jim had some friends who were Clash fans, and he was actually starting to listen to Sandinista! a little bit; it was beyond his usual range, but his musical tastes were always eclectic.

These friends had taken him to see the Clash movie Rude Boy, and he told me—I can still visualize him telling me this—that when they played that song in the movie, for the first time he recognized the lyric from my envelope. He had thought that I had just written it, so when he saw the lyrics sung out before him in the movie theater, it was a revelation. I think I would have written “—Strummer Jones” at the bottom of the lyric on the envelope, but at the time he received it he probably wouldn’t have known who Joe Strummer and Mick Jones were.

I wish I could remember our conversation more clearly, but for the most part it’s lost to time. I know, however, that he appreciated the sentiment, and the fact that he remembered the lyric over the several months between my letter and his seeing Rude Boy was fantastic.

So anyway, the song has always, for me, sort of encapsulated everything I felt about Jim and Provincetown. And my favorite part is that he got it; he was right there with me on it.

*****

My Clash-fan friends won’t believe this—and will probably berate and shun me when they read it—but I’ve never seen Rude Boy. But as I was preparing this post, thanks to the miracle of YouTube, I have finally seen the Stay Free scene. It’s a little raw, compared to the album version, but hey, it’s the Clash. And it’s great. Here:

List: Top Five Story Songs — No. 2

2. Christmas In Cape Town—by Randy Newman.

This is possibly the darkest, ugliest song that Randy Newman has ever written, and he’s written some ugly ones.

Consider yourself warned: Listen.

The thing you have to understand about Randy Newman, though, is that he often writes songs from the viewpoint of despicable characters—polar opposites from the way he feels—to get his point across.  This song, about a bigoted white South African who sees his country going through changes he doesn’t like, could not be more bleak. The protagonist describes the locals lining up for work at the diamond mine: “They were staring at us real hard with their big ugly yellow eyes. You could feel it. This time you could feel it.”

“What we gonna do, blow up the whole damn country?” he asks at the end.

The song reeks of desperation.

Which will seem strange, when you consider what I associate it with in this list of “story songs.”

On September 22, 1984, I ran in the Busch Stadium Run in St. Louis. It was a 10K (6.2 miles) that wound through the streets of downtown, starting outside the stadium and finishing inside on the field near second base. Another twist on this race was that it had a staggered start; the very old and very young would start first, and then, in 30-second increments, other age groups would start, women before men, until it was the mid-20s guys like me starting last; the idea was that, in theory, everyone would have an equal chance of crossing the finish line first. The upshot was that for me, young and healthy and in shape (those were the days, eh?), I was starting at the back of this pack of hundreds of people, and so for the entire race, I was catching people and passing them. For a runner in a race, that’s almost the perfect definition of fun.

Like most runners, before a big race, I’ll generally focus on a particular song, and listen to that song right before the race so it’s still in my head while I’m running. Now, there’s no way that I would have picked a song like Christmas in Cape Town for that purpose. What probably happened was that I was planning on running to Newman’s  “I Love L.A.,” a considerably more upbeat song, which is the first track on the album Trouble In Paradise. But something happened; either I lingered in the car a little too long and the cassette went on to the second track—which is Christmas in Cape Town—or I just made the jump in my mind. In any case, as I ran the race, it was that darkest-of-dark songs that was playing in my brain.

To add to the mood, it was raining; that was one of the few races I’ve taken part in that was actually run in a steady downpour.

But here’s the thing: after I’d watched all the older and younger and female-er runners start ahead of me, and I got to start with all of my prime-of-life compatriots, something clicked. Suddenly, I was really enjoying myself. And Randy Newman’s song, although dark in tone, seemed somehow to be the perfect tempo for my mood. I started reeling in the runners ahead of me, a dozen at a time. The rain? Sure, I was wet. But once I was wet, I wasn’t getting any wetter, so why not just keep running?

And the running felt great. Joyous, really. Puddles, crowds: nothing bothered me as I glided through the St. Louis streets on my way back to the stadium. Maybe I didn’t realize it at the time, but at 25 years old, I really was in the athletic prime of my life. Actually, that day, I probably did realize it. I finished the race in 38:05, which was probably a minute faster than any previous 10K I’d run up to that point, and it still stands as my fastest 10K ever.*

So now when I hear the song Christmas in Cape Town, I’m not thinking about South Africa or Apartheid. Definitely not about Christmas. I’m thinking about that long-ago September morning, when nothing was slowing me down.

List: Top Five Story Songs — No. 3

3. Sunday, Bloody Sunday, by U2.

October 27, 1985: Denkinger screwed up, and the Cardinals were ticked. After the nightmare finish to Game 6 of the 1985 World Series, it was easy to see that Game 7 was going to be a powder keg. The only question was, who was going to set it off?

I previously wrote about the finish of Game 6 here.  Oh, and also here.

The next afternoon, Sunday, the day of Game 7, I was searching for a song that might capture my apocalyptic mood and get me emotionally prepared to watch the game that evening. I was thumbing through my record collection, and came to the album War, by U2.

AHA!   There’s a song called New Year’s Day on that record that was just right: from the very first distorted piano chord, the song draws you in with a taut, gritty tension that won’t let you go. It was perfect for what I was feeling that day.

I went to put it on … but New Year’s Day was the second song on that album; the first, which I’d forgotten about, was even MORE perfect: Sunday, Bloody Sunday.

“I can’t believe the news today,” the song begins. “I can’t close my eyes and make it go away.” And truly, the news was unbelievable. The Cardinals, with one of their best lineups ever, were supposed to coast through that World Series against the Royals, who were—let’s face it—pretenders to the American League crown. But after that awful finish to Game 6, there they were, all even, going into the deciding game at Kansas City’s home field. Their backs up against the wall, as the song says.

And yes, there was an egregiously blown call by the umpire, but the blame for the Game 6 loss falls squarely upon the Cardinals, who completely fell apart at the end. And worse, their reactions after the game indicated that they were going to spend the whole day Sunday fuming about the umpire, rather than focusing on Game 7.

(OK, readers who are not sports fans—and I know there are a few of you out there—may think that this violent, militaristic song and desperate imagery might be a little over the top when discussing a game. But we’re talking about the World Series here. And the St. Louis Cardinals. In the 1980s, baseball was all St. Louis had.)

So yes, the tone of this song was absolutely perfect. Even the title was exactly right: Sunday, Bloody Sunday. It was clearly going to be bloody. My prediction before the game—I’m not boasting; it was about the easiest prediction one could make—was that it was going to probably be an ugly, blowout game, with at least one person being ejected. I held out a slim hope that it would be the Cardinals on the upper side of the blowout, that “anger can be power” and they’d come out energized against the Royals. And yes, there’s even a tiny note of hopefulness in the song: “We can be a swarm tonight.” But deep down inside, I knew it would probably go the other way.

And, as we all know, it did: I think the score was 10-0 Royals when I gave up on the game, and both manager Whitey Herzog and pitcher Joaquin Andujar had been tossed. It was probably the worst day in the history of Cardinal Nation.

Bloody Sunday, indeed.

List: Top Five Story Songs — No. 4

4. King Horse, by Elvis Costello.

King Horse on Spotify.

This is, without a doubt, the best juggling song ever.

It’s from Elvis’ best album, Get Happy!, which I was listening to quite a bit in the winter of 1981-82, when I learned how to juggle. Besides being a great song, it has lots of wild starts and stops and timing changes, perfect for throwing in tricks. In fact, the lyric I quoted at the top of yesterday’s post is precisely the point of juggling nirvana, for this or any other song.

As jugglers go, by the way, I claim nothing but amateur status. I can keep three objects in the air pretty well, but try adding a fourth and there are soon four objects on the floor. But three, three I can do. And when I hear this song, my arms start itching to juggle.

My second favorite juggling song is Modern Love by David Bowie. Beyond that, really, any song will do.

Not much of a story, eh? Well, it is No. 4…

*****

By the way, I mentioned that what songs mean to us is often different from what the songwriter originally intended. So what did Elvis Costello intend with King Horse? Some interesting discussion here.

List: Top Five Story Songs—No. 5

“You see, I knew that song so long before we met,
that it means so much more than it might”
—Elvis Costello, King Horse

Elvis is onto something here, I think. There are certain songs that take on meanings that are far beyond whatever the songs are “about.”

Surely everybody has their own songs like this, songs that call up their own associations, their own stories, when you hear them. Here, with the usual caveats, are some of mine.

And I’m going to abandon the regular format for this list, since a couple of these are going to be long enough that it would be a nightmare to have them all in one post. So, for the next five days, it’ll be one Story Song a day on Shoulblog. Starting with Number…

5. For What It’s Worth-Buffalo Springfield.

Of the five songs you’ll see on this list, this is probably the only one that most people will recognize. For my part, I knew of the song for years before I ever heard the Buffalo Springfield version. In those days, as a little kid, my exposure to music was mainly from my older brothers, Phil and Jim. I had a little transistor radio, but I would have mostly listened to sports on it, more than music. My brothers were six and eight years older than me—a whole generation, at that age—and what little I knew about music, I learned by hearing from them.

One summer, while we were on our annual vacation at Gull Lake in Minnesota, we were hanging out on the porch of the cabin we stayed in — it was the three of us, plus our cousin Bruce. Jim had a guitar, as he usually did in those days. After a while, he started playing this song, which I’d never heard before. Phil and Bruce joined in vocals. I contributed by turning on a cassette tape recorder we had. There was a fly in the room; Phil or Bruce tried to slay it by clapping his hands at it, and the clap turned out to be right in time with the song, so he kept clapping.

And that, for me was the definitive version of the song. I held onto that cassette for a long time, and it was years before I heard the actual original. That tape is long gone now, of course, but still, today, when I hear Buffalo Springfield’s version on the radio, it takes me back to that decades-ago night at Gull Lake.

“Stop, hey, what’s that sound,
Everybody look what’s goin’ down…”

*****

A note for the ya-learn-something-new-every-day-from-Wikipedia file: I had always thought this song was written in reaction to the Kent State shootings. In fact, it was written about protests of a local curfew in Los Angeles in 1966—a full four years before the Kent State tragedy.