Friday, October 02, 2009

Sound Tracks

I was doing my evening shopping the other night when I heard a familiar song on the radio.

I had trouble making out the tune because of the noise around me, but I knew I’d heard this song before.

As I put my groceries down in front of the cashier, I listened carefully and tried to figure out the words.

It was from the eighties, one of my favorite decades for music. And I could tell it was a woman singing. Then there was a sudden gust of silence around me and I was able to name that tune.

It was “Papa Don’t Preach” by Madonna.

Okay, well, if you just ring me up, I'll be on my way. Please, for the love of God, ring me up.

As soon I got my change, I bid farewell to the Material Girl and bounced down to the corner drug store for some additional shopping.

At first I wasn’t paying too much attention to the piped-in music, but as I roamed the aisles in a futile search for whatever the hell it was that I wanted, I started to listen to the song pouring out of the sound system—and wished I hadn’t.

This was a song from the seventies, one of my least favorite decades for music, clothes or just about anything else.

It was a man singing this time…wait, don’t tell me…oh, crap, please don’t tell me it's “Everything is Beautiful”— Jesus, Mary, and Ralph, don’t I have enough problems?

Come back, Madonna, all is forgiven.

If you haven’t picked it up from the title, “Everything is Beautiful” is a mawkish streak of audio bilge that it so cloying and creepy it can make the skin crawl clean off your bones.

Ray Stevens, the towering talent who gave us “Ahab the Arab (pronounced “A-rab”, by the way), “Guitarzan,” and “The Streak,” is also responsible for this atrocity and it’s rather hard to believe that one man could do all this damage and still avoid incarceration.

“Everything is Beautiful” was Stevens’ attempt at a serious work, I suppose, and it certainly is a seriously bad piece of work.

The thing actually won a Grammy—another reason to hate the seventies--and I remember my father singing it incessantly, which, of course, made me loathe the disgusting little ditty all the more.

Obviously beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but some things in this world really aren’t beautiful in their own way or any other goddamn way. Face it, some things just suck--like this song.

I guess I was fortunate to be in a drug store, so if I felt the urge to lose my lunch, I’d be close to plenty of medicine. Maybe I could get some earplugs, too.

I got to the cashier just as this nightmare was ending and another seventies song came on. I recognized this one, too. Funky opening…strings coming in…another “poppa” tune...this was-oh, yes--the Temptations’ classic “Poppa Was a Rolling Stone.”

Finally, they’re playing a song I liked.

Hymn and Me

This was a big hit when I was a sophomore in high school. One kid would start singing it in mechanical drawing class, half-a-dozen more would join in and pretty soon the teacher would be bouncing off the four walls.

I really wanted to hear this song again, but it has a rather long instrumental opening and, since I had just gotten my change, I really had no business being in the store.

I decided to do some bogus browsing until I heard the first verse. The place was crowded, though, and I kept having near misses with legitimate shoppers.

When I found myself walking through the cosmetics section looking at the make-up, I decided to throw in the towel and get the hell out. And then I heard those opening lines…

“It was the third of September,
a day I’ll always remember, yes I will.
‘Cause that was the day my daddy died…”

I rolled out of the store, a satisfied customer.

The soundtrack of my life continued while I was attending mass at Trinity Church. (No wisecracks, please.)

A recent service began with a beautiful hymn called “Be Thou My Vision.” The lyrics go back a little further than the eighties or the seventies to more like the Sixth Century.

I can’t carry a tune in a wheelbarrow and I never sing in church. I lip-synched my way through eight years of Catholic school and I’m proud to say I never got caught.

But I was so moved by this song that I actually picked up the hymnal and joined in. That has never happened before. Next I’ll start speaking in tongues--which might be improvement.

Naturally, I sounded godawful, but this was church, by God, not American Idolatry. And it still sounded better than Ray Stevens.

Even the priest was in a singing mood. Rev. Mark was giving us a sermon about being at our best and he mentioned an old Sammy Davis Jr. song called “I Gotta Be Me” to prove his point.

How well I know that song—also from the seventies and another one of my father’s favorites. He liked it so much he bought the single and played it seemingly non-stop on this crummy old phonograph we had in the living room.

The record used to skip at the end, so that when Sammy was supposed to say “Daring to try, to do it or die,” the needle got stuck on “do it or die” and that’s all you heard until my father tapped the needle. After a while I wanted to die before hearing that song again.

“Forgive me,” Rev. Mark told us, “I’m not that good a singer….”

Oh, no you’re not, I thought. You’re not going to stand there before God and everybody else and sing that old clunker, are you? Well, as matter of fact...

“Whether I’m right,” Rev. Mark sang, “or whether I’m wrong…”

You know he was actually pretty good. Maybe he could do “Poppa Was a Rolling Stone” for an encore.

After his number, Rev. Mark told us that there was someone attending the service whose father was in a coma and he began to speak to this person directly.

“I’ve gone with you to the hospital,” he said. “I’ve seen talk to him, tell him that you love him even though he can’t hear you. That’s what I’m talking about.”

He said this with such tenderness, such emotion that I started to think that maybe everything really was beautiful in its own way.

“When we’re at our best,” Rev. Mark said, “we are at our most-loving, our most-grateful, and our most-forgiving.”

Sammy Davis Jr. couldn’t have said it any better than that.

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