Man, That Piano Man

Knock! Knock!
Who’s There?
Roy Bittan.
Roy Bittan who?
Roy Bittan no one else plays hard-driving piano on rock classics.

What makes Bruce Springsteen “Badlands” and Bob Seger’s “Roll Me Away” fan favorites from the many hits the two recording artists produced during the 1970s and 1980s are the “yearning to be free” lyrics, the plaintive voices of the rockers at the peak of their careers, and, most of all, the accompaniment of Roy Bittan’s keyboarding that makes the hard-charging last thirty seconds of each single moments to treasure and ones their fans wish could go on and on and not fade away.

From the very first notes of “Badlands” it is Roy’s persistent “dum-da-da-da-da-da-da-dum” cadence as memorable as the “dum-de-dum-dum” theme of Dragnet that sets the pace for Bruce’s ode to freedom of the spirit. After a pause for a short guitar and sax solo, Springsteen sets up the concluding chords with a humming interlude before the buildup “for the ones who had a notion.” Then Roy’s subtle slide and Max Weinberg’s drum roll, both often overlooked, set up the pulsating drive to the finish line that makes this one a winner for everyone on E Street.

Originally “Roll Me Away” was to start out “full throttle” until a more subtle intro by Bittan and drummer Russ Kunkel became the preferred start, offering a nice contrast to the pounding pace that begins after the first verse is spoken. Once Seger hits the road, the drum and piano go along for the ride. Everyone pauses on the mountaintop to gaze at the young hawk flying, then, with spirits lifted, come cascading down wide open in a “turn up the volume, wake up the neighbors” fadeout that makes this a car cruising standard.

“Badlands” and “Roll Me Away” remain two of rock’s most significant paeans to the open road and individual freedom. Springsteen, Seger, and the musicians (especially Bittan) made certain the fire inside was passed on to us so we can offer words of encouragement to anyone who wants to find out what they have or who stands staring at the Great Divide: There is no need to get it right next time—They got it right the first time.


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The Proverbial Mot Juste

      One of the main articles in the July/August Traditional Home is written by the magazine’s Senior Architecture and Design Editor, Sally Finder Weepie, a great name for an author who describes how a San Francisco designer decorates her home with a “tasteful mix of vintage treasures and youthful verve.” Sally’s name is also a great mix of a well-known proverb. It is to be presumed that both the San Francisco designer and Sally are keepers and not weepers.

Perhaps it is time for other editors to examine not just the experience of those applying for staff positions but also look ahead to see how dazzling the name below the title would appear in their periodicals. Namely,

Manny Spoilbroth      Cook’s Illustrated

Romy Roadleader      Travel + Leisure

Aly Endwell               Shape

Squeaky Wheeler       Bicycling

Cappy Wearfit           GQ

Dr. Kay Appleday      Prevention

Bette Safesorry           Consumer Reports

Lookie Leaper            Sports Illustrated

Jack Tradeall              This Old House

Stormy Calmafter       Mother Earth News

Angel Rushin              Coin Prices

I.B. Holder                  Glamour

Hope Springie             Backpacker

Swifty Notrace            Car and Driver

Missy Milegood          Runner’s World

Abby Hartfonder        Cosmopolitan

Goldy Glitterall          American Digger



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Ye Olde Lemonade Stand

English poet Andrew Marvell is sometimes cited as being the only writer to use wingèd as a two-syllable word in “To His Coy Mistress.” However, Neil Diamond weaved a little poetic magic in his 1974 hit by informing a loved one during his “Longfellow Serenade” they would leave this worldly time “on his wingèd flight.” 

When I bike through various neighborhoods on my 1990 Schwinn Cruiser, I carry change with me in case I encounter any young entrepreneurs offering cold lemonade to thirsty travelers. Back in the 1990s the rate was 25¢ a cup. 50¢ a cup is now the going rate in this part of Wisconsin.

Marvell heard Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near, but at my back as I draw near the not-so-coy sellers of liquid refreshment I hear the spirit of Jack Benny whispering “Ask them how much if you bring your own cup.”


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A Driving Force

The final page of the July/August 2017 Popular Mechanics devoted to “Great Unknowns” attempts to answer this question: “At Big Car Company headquarters, does every employee drive that car?”

The answer: Pretty much. PM cites one GM plant communication manager who said after 40 years she has blue blood:  “I’m extremely loyal to my company…” and poses the question that if people see a non-GM car in your driveway “What does that tell them? That even though you work there you don’t think their vehicles are worth purchasing?”

Very likely, but that did not bother my father who worked at the Chevrolet/Fisher Body Plant in Janesville for 44 years yet never owned a General Motors vehicle in his life. During the years of my life he drove only Plymouth automobiles to and from the plant to our home, a distance of about 23 miles. In chronological order, those vehicles were a 1940 sedan, 1953 Coronado Blue Belvedere, 1956 Briar Rose Belvedere, 1963 Blue Valiant, 1968 Turbine Bronze Satellite, and (after retirement) a 1976 Silver Cloud Fury. He also owned a 1936 Harley-Davison motorcycle which he drove to Janesville during the warmer months.  Not concerned in the least with what people thought of the Plymouth automobiles in his driveway, he would openly tell neighbors and friends, “I see how GM cars are made five days a week. That’s why I buy cars made by Chrysler.”

The entire tone of the piece in Popular Mechanics is that employees are “strongly encouraged” to cruise the streets “propelled by the hand that signs the paychecks” and those that do not are banished to less convenient parking lots. My father stood his ground, maintaining his Mopar allegiance to his dying day. Any derisive comments from his fellow workers about his mode of transportation and the prejudice he endured during the war years because of his German heritage may have deepened his independent spirit. Though only 5’7” tall and weighing under 140 pounds, he stood tall in the eyes of his son who inherited his nonconformist disposition.

American celebrates Independence Day this month, something my father did every day of his working life. One Key verse of “The Star-Spangled Banner” has personal significance because it always reminds me of one special man: “Land of the free and the home of the brave.” As long as my father lived, our humble house was indeed home of the brave.


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Oldies Not Necessarily Goodies

The June 2017 issue of Smithsonian, like so many periodicals of the day such as Popular Mechanics, Popular Science, and Popular Woolgathering, is focused on the future. A contrarian by nature, I tend to regard such stargazing in a manner like Evelyn Waugh who regarded the future as “the dreariest of prospects.”

The article “Up in the Air” with gleeful adults shown floating in Superman flying poses in zero gravity environments does little to convince this reader there will be thousands of us living and working in space as the author claims. After all the giddiness wears off, the reality sets in that life without gravity is very hard. So is growing up and realizing that wishing upon a star is best left to crickets.

The real thorn in the flesh is the notion emanating from Silicon Valley that immortal life can be attained in this vale of tears, bumps, and bruises. One Aubrey de Grey, author of a tome with a title that is longer than I care to devote time to reading before the bell tolls for me, argues in The Mitochrondrial Free Radical Theory of Aging that immortality is theoretically possible. Page after page is devoted to this very free radical and others who believe that people will be living for hundreds of years and that a person who will live to turn over four digits on the yearly mileage meter has already been born. Where? On Krypton?

Even if disease, aging, and decay could be arrested or slowed, what would people do with their long, long, long lives? Work for 60 or 70 years and then spend the next couple centuries in retirement? Aubrey has the answer: robots will take over most jobs and people can spend their lives “doing things we find fulfilling.”

What will people find fulfilling enough to fill in the eons in front of them? Play in pickleball tournaments from age 137 to 144? Paint landscapes for 53 summers while raging against the dying of the light? Visit multiple generations of heirs ranging in age from 5 months to 181 years of age? Spend six months on each of the Thousand Islands? Tour the Southern states by walker or wheelchair in December 2139 to commemorate the bicentennial of the premiere of Gone with the Wind? Totter up close to see an outline of the Crazy Horse Memorial in the Black Hills when it is finally completed in 2287?

Breathing for decades beyond the time when body and brain function at their peak is just existence. According to the July Consumer Reports, there were 74 million people alive over the age of 65 in 2015 and there will be 74 million over that age in 2030, 14% of Americans over 71 have some dementia, and Alzheimer’s Disease affects about a third of the population over 85. Perhaps Aubrey’s legions of robots will  be paying for the health care and housing costs of 120 million centenarians who won’t remember who or where they are as their hearts beat on, borne ceaselessly into the future.

Dr. George Gamble, though no biomedical gerontologist, made a wise observation on the June 11, 1946 episode of Fibber McGee and Molly when he confided to the residents of 79 Wistful Vista that he had nothing “against humanity except there are too many people mixed up in it.” Any theories regarding immortality fall apart because there are too many mortals whose coils are already shuffling off to Buffalo.  



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King of the Hill

Perhaps all baseball fans believe that the players they watched as children or teens were the best of all time. Certainly books like Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer and David Halberstam’s Summer of ’49 spotlight the halcyon days of the Brooklyn Dodgers, New York Yankees, and Boston Red Sox.

Although my favorite players during my formative years were Ernie Banks and Nellie Fox, I had few chances to see them play at Wrigley or Comiskey because I grew up in Wisconsin, not Illinois. I did, however, have ample opportunities to watch the Milwaukee Braves play at County Stadium, and therefore I can nominate from personal observation my candidate for the greatest of his time and my time and perhaps for all time.

No, it’s not Henry Aaron, although Hammering Hank was the best right-handed hitter I ever saw in that stadium for he was a formidable slugger with power to all fields and also a skilled hitter who frequently batted over .300. The Braves at that time were loaded with All-Star performers, consistently finishing near or at the top of the National League standings behind the bats of Aaron, Eddie Mathews, Joe Adcock, Del Crandall, and Johnny Logan, and the strong right arms of Lew Burdette and Bob Buhl.

By now it should be obvious that I am saving the very best for last: Warren Spahn, the Hall of Fame hurler who won more games than any left-hander in Major League Baseball history.

The statistics speak volumes (5,243 innings pitched, 363 wins, 63 shutouts), especially when one considers the caliber of batters he faced regularly from 1946 to the early 1960s such as Banks, Ralph Kiner, Duke Snyder, Johnny Mize, Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, Stan Musial, Dick Groat, Orlando Cepeda, Roberto Clemente, Gil Hodges, Ted Kluszewski, Richie Ashburn, and Frank Robinson.

And the numbers would be even more impressive had not Spahn spent 1943, 1944, and 1945 serving his country during WWII. Lest we forget, the same could be said for Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams who didn’t wait but also served during those three years, not long after the memorable 1941 campaign when Joltin’ Joe hit safely in 56 consecutive games and Williams became the last player to complete a regular season with a batting average over .400. For decades followers of the national pastime have been speculating whether any hitter will surpass those notable achievements.

Fans may debate the prospect of any southpaw or right-hander in this century winning 363 games, but we can be absolutely certain that no Major League pitcher will ever again throw 382 complete games, win 20 or more games 13 times, and go 23-7 at the age of 42 with one of those 7 defeats being a 16-inning marathon in which he will throw over 200 pitches.

During the summers of my youth, it was my privilege to behold from a grand stand the once and future King of the Hill, Warren Edward Spahn.



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An Ancient Dance Ritual

Since I gave a distinctive name to a rock band, Collywobbles, exactly a month ago, it behooves me to create a dance craze that befits their style of playing real oldies. It is a simple matter to eliminate the dances already taken like the Bunny Hop, Bristol Stomp, Stroll, Twist, Swim, Frug,  Cool Jerk, Loco-Motion, Majestic, Hustle, Monkey, Nitty Gritty, Pony, and Hitch Hike.

Because many of the people who remember these dances are over the age of 55, the Collywobbles need to invent a dance for those who still think young but whose arches are sprung. So roll out the barrel and let’s have a drum kit roll for …The Ramshackle.

Here are some sample lyrics:


If you like the oldies and are one too,

We’ve got the dance just for you.

Get out on the floor before your bones crackle

Wobble out there and let’s Ramshackle.

Lean over thus, like your joints are cracking,

Keep in time with your upper plate clacking.

Meno gals, a skirt that hobbles will do the trick:

Hide spider veins from every Tom and Dick.

The gimpy guys, swing your canes like a toy,

Now you’re doing it like a hobbledehoy.

Now pitch to the left and start to stumble,

Then twitch to the right before you tumble.

Bend forward now, not that limbo act,

Get ready to shout, “Oh, my back!”

Wiggle your hips, do it with verve,

Now you’ve pinched your sciatic nerve.

Stick out your double chins as you creep

Not too far or you’ll end up in a heap.

This is the hottest dance, believe me, dad,

You can use that solar-powered heating pad.

The Mouse is old and so is the Moose,

Shake it out here with your best masseuse.

Flimsy is in and so is shabby,

Suck in your cheeks and try to look crabby.

Don’t crumple now, lest we cackle,

Now you’re doing the real Ramshackle.

Keep moving those digits, those rheumatoid toes,

You can even double up on the ortho hose.

Even if you’re an Xer and like to step it,

Do the Ramshackle when you’re feeling decrepit.

We’re all rambling wrecks and rickety racks,

Just trying to laugh off those panic attacks.


Of course, it might be fitting if The Collywobbles themselves were born in the 1950s. Then they could collapse after performing their hit number at concerts, rise as one, and offer this coda: “We don’t collapse, forget the rumors. We don’t fall down, we go—Boomers!”






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