Death of a Piano

As a parent, you usually know when you mess up, but sometimes fails happen when you least expect it. For instance, last night at bedtime, I was looking for some relaxing piano music to help lull my daughters (3 and 7) to sleep and ended up finding this video about an old piano left on the sidewalk, and the reactions of people who pass by it.

My daughters asked if they could watch it. It seemed harmless enough. I thought it would probably be uplifting somehow, like maybe some concert pianist would sit at it and get one last nocturne out of it.

As we watched, I explained to my girls the difference between a regular piano with a long, contoured body and an upright piano, and how they were introduced to make pianos available to people with smaller homes or apartments.

I’ve been trying to inspire one of them to play because I always regretted that I didn’t learn. I took lessons as a kid but was a typical boy, more interested in playing baseball in the street. How could I know how much knowing how to play a piano would benefit me for the rest of my life? I can play the guitar bit and I love to sing, but man how I would love to sit down and play a little Beethoven or Chopin.

Anyway, a few people stopped to tinker with the piano but the camera was too far away to hear what they were playing. By the time the video was over, my girls were riveted, wondering what the fate of the old piano would be. Then . . .

they tore it to pieces.

My girls both started crying. I turned off the video exactly as I would if I were trying to protect their innocent eyes from an act of violence. Struggling to calm them and undo the damage I had unwittingly done, I said, “Come on, girls. It’s just a piano. It’s a piece of furniture that makes noise.”

It didn’t work. They cried harder. Insulting the piano only made matters worse.

Then I switched directions and acknowledged their feelings, saying, “I wish that would have ended differently, too. I was hoping someone would come by and take the piano home with them. That was sad, huh?” They both calmed down a little and, with quivering voices, said, “Mm-hm.”

Their reaction may also have been partially caused by the fact that we have an upright piano in our house. It has sat in the corner for years like an old friend, waiting for someone to muster the interest and determination to learn to make it sing again. It’s old. Like a hundred years old. I imagine it sits there silently dreaming about its glory days in some house in the 1930’s when the family piano player (almost every family had one back then) played while the others sang and danced.

I also remembered my own childhood, when I anthropomorphized absolutely everything. I would crumple up a piece of paper and throw it in the trash only to retrieve it, straighten it out, and apologize to it. (Really.) Maybe I had watched H.R. Pufnstuf too much and thought everything was alive. Or maybe children are just naturally more sensitive to the various kinds of consciousness – however subtle and immeasurable they may be – that imbue all things that are made from something that was once alive. Or perhaps an object’s usefulness, particularly the joy it brings the user, gives it a kind of personality. Plenty of musicians talk to their instruments, give them names, etc. There’s even an old expression used in love, “How about you and me making beautiful music together?”

So, though I hate to see them cry, I’m glad my girls felt sorry for that old piano. They knew it wasn’t just a piece of furniture. They know it’s much, much more. I think somehow they know, like all would-be musicians curious about an instrument, that only it can help them unlock all those secrets and fears and overwhelming feelings stirring in their young souls.

My favorite singer/songwriter, David Wilcox, (the American one, not the Canadian one), once said he was attracted to the guitar as a teenager for just that reason – because he thought it knew something about him that he didn’t, and that he couldn’t discover without its help.

When my girls busted out crying, I felt like I had done something wrong, but in the larger picture, I think my wife and I are doing alright. More importantly, I think they’re going to be alright. If they didn’t care about the old piano getting demolished, I’d be much more worried.

The Touch of the Master’s Hand (poem)

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‘Twas battered and scarred, and the auctioneer
      Thought it scarcely worth his while
To waste much time on the old violin,
      But held it up with a smile.
“What am I bidden, good folks,” he cried,
    “Who’ll start the bidding for me?”
“A dollar, a dollar. Then two! Only two?
      Two dollars, and who’ll make it three?”

“Three dollars, once; three dollars, twice;
      Going for three…” But no,
From the room, far back, a grey-haired man
      Came forward and picked up the bow;
Then wiping the dust from the old violin,
      And tightening the loosened strings,
He played a melody pure and sweet,
      As a caroling angel sings.

The music ceased, and the auctioneer,
      With a voice that was quiet and low,
Said: “What am I bid for the old violin?”
      And he held it up with the bow.
“A thousand dollars, and who’ll make it two?
      Two thousand! And who’ll make it three?
Three thousand, once; three thousand, twice,
    And going and gone,” said he.

The people cheered, but some of them cried,
    “We do not quite understand.
What changed its worth?” Swift came the reply:
    “The touch of the Master’s hand.”
And many a man with life out of tune,
      And battered and scarred with sin,
Is auctioned cheap to the thoughtless crowd
      Much like the old violin.

A “mess of pottage,” a glass of wine,
    A game — and he travels on.
He is “going” once, and “going” twice,
    He’s “going” and almost “gone.”
But the Master comes, and the foolish crowd
    Never can quite understand
The worth of a soul and the change that is wrought
    By the touch of the Master’s hand.

– Myra Brooks Welch
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From old poetry dot com –
Probably best known for the poem “The Master’s Hand” written in 1921, Myra Brooks Welch was born in the late 19th Century in America. Thanks to one of our Oldpoetry readers we believe she was born in Illinois 1878, daughter of John Brooks,and she married Otis Welch. She was a resident of La Verne, California. As a youngster her special joy was playing the organ but this was denied her in later life as she suffered badly from arthritis and spent much of her time in a wheelchair. She wrote with an inverted pencil in each of her gnarled hands and would pick out the words on a type writer. She said that the joy of her writing outweighed the pain of her efforts.

What Happened to Peace and Love?

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There’s no way to say any of the following without sounding like a crotchety old carbunkle, but for all you youngsters today who may not know it, back in the 60’s and 70’s, there was a real, serious, dedicated movement that centered around coming together as friends, seeing beyond differences to the heart and soul, ending war once and for all, etc.
We have gradually lost sight of that goal as time has passed. It’s like we’re all standing among the ruins of a half-built Utopia without the will or ability to complete it. In fact, many people seem to be determined to widen political/religious/social/racial divisions and wipe out everything not exactly like themselves. (Exactly what the Islamic terrorists are guilty of, ironically.)
I was a kid in the 60’s, but I was befriended by a group of hippies, and let me tell you, they lived their philosophies. They made me feel like a prince at a time when I felt pretty small and insignificant. I told that story in Chicken Soup for the Soul’s book called Random Acts of Kindness.
I’m not saying we should all become hippies, or even that they were right about everything. For instance, I don’t respect the fact that they wanted to put limits on everything except their own behavior. But what can’t be questioned is their level of commitment to peace and love. I wonder if we’ll ever get back to that ideal of seeking understanding and compassion. We can’t have anything unless we first actually want it, and wanting is useless without action. In other words, if we don’t define what we want, there’s no way to ever achieve it.
There will always be evil and naked aggression that needs to be squashed by non-pacifists. (ISIS, Al Quaeda, the Taliban, Nazi’s, fascists, etc.) But it’s equally and maybe even more brave to seek peace in our daily lives with people we have nothing in common with, to try to connect as human beings and see past (or not even notice at all) our racial/sexual/economic/educational/religious divisions, and all the other ways we divide ourselves from others. After all, the first requirement for doing evil to another is to think of them as something separate from ourselves, or even non-human. That’s why the first thing Hitler and every tyrant like him did to win over the mindless masses was to label the group he wanted to persecute as “vermin” that needed to be exterminated. This is how he convinced men who weren’t born killers to murder women and children. 
Every measure of peace must be attempted before breaking out the guns, or fists. At least the hippies were brave enough to try, you know?
Here are a few songs from back in the day that illustrate my point. Feel free to message me with your favorite.
Why Can’t We Be Friends – War
Stop Children What’s That Sound – Buffalo Springfield
Love is the Answer – England Dan and John Ford Coley
Everyday People – Sly and the Family Stone
Lean on Me – Bill Withers
Eve of Destruction – Barry McGuire
The Times They Are a-Changin’ – Bob Dylan
Blowin’ in the Wind – Peter, Paul & Mary 
Give Peace a Chance – John Lennon
Some Mother’s Son – The Kinks
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For the Children

Like everyone else in America, I’ve been thoroughly disgusted and saddened by the couple who starved, tortured and abused their thirteen children for over a decade. I won’t mention their names because I think anyone who commits such atrocities should not be awarded fame, however twisted, after they’re caught. They even smiled at each other in court yesterday when the judge told them they couldn’t talk to their children for three years. Thankfully, it looks like they’ll spend the rest of their miserable lives in prison.

As a parent of two daughters, it’s unfathomable to me how not only one but two parents can do the things they did. I feel guilty when I raise my voice to my girls even a little.

When my first daughter was born six years ago, I wrote and sang 15 songs on a CD in her honor called Great Big World. Of course, the songs apply to both my girls now. I’m working on a second CD for both of them.

One of the tracks is below. I hope it provides a little therapy to anyone as troubled as I am by all the child abuse stories we hear about these days. I know I need regular therapy, and it usually comes in the form of music.

This song is also for all the children unfortunate enough to be born to parents who don’t appreciate the miraculous blessings that they are.

Becoming My Father

I did two things for my father in the ten years or so before he passed away in December of 2014.

The first was to help him finish his memoir, The Other Belfast – An Irish Youth, and self-publish it so he could hold a real book in his hands and know the stories he told and wrote for forty years would finally be read by others around the world.

I’m proud to say I helped him accomplish that because his last five years on this earth were not good ones. He was whittled away to nothing mentally and physically by Parkinson’s Disease and Dementia until he couldn’t even remember me most of the time. This is his book.

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The second thing I did was dig up every old cassette I could find of his karaoke recordings and turn it into a CD with help from Rick Balentine – Composer (remixing) and Ryan Silo (cd design). I’m so glad I did because it’s a treasure to me now. Good Lord, could that man sing. If you like American standards, click on the link at the bottom of this post and have a listen to the song samples. Here’s his CD – 

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I named it “Get Rickerby Up For a Song!” because that’s what somebody would inevitably yell every time he was at the pub.

Every now and then, I mention his book and CD on some social platform because promoting his legacy helps ease the grief of losing him, particularly to diabolical brain diseases that leave only a shell of someone who was once full of passion, and the life of every party.

I remember listening to these old songs on the car radio for hours during long road trips and banging my head against the window hoping to knock myself out. (jk)  Now I love it, as my dad predicted I would, eventually. He tried to tell me the music I listened to when I was a teenager was garbage. and that someday I would come around and realize what real music was, but I refused to believe it. I’m pretty sure he’s laughing at me in heaven. I hope he’s still singing up there, too, because it was his greatest joy down here. 

You, Me and Sam (for Sam Cooke fans)

This is a poem I wrote when I was courting my wife. I read it to her over the phone late one night. She had heard the few Sam Cooke songs played on the radio (You Send Me, Venus, etc.) but no others. At one point as I read it to her, she let out a little gasp, one of those sudden inhalations that let me know I really got her. Since I quote some Sam Cooke’s lyrics in the poem, I give him more credit for that gasp than myself. But for all the enjoyment his singing has given me, it is credit gratefully given.

The poem will be vastly improved by listening to the Sam Cooke song referenced while reading – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WwuCLxCfdB0

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I can’t watch a sitcom so soon after the news.
Too much sadness has left my heart barren tonight.
Sirens are screaming somewhere in the distance
In this old world, it seems like nothing is right.

Television and movies seem to thrive on this stuff.
I suppose it keeps the almighty bucks rolling in.
Maybe peace and quiet never last very long
Because so many profit from horror and sin.

So let’s turn off the TV and light a few candles.
Put on some Sam Cooke – an album, not a CD.
I know they sound better, but they have no charm.
I like the lived-in crackles of an old, vinyl LP.

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Turn it up loud enough to drown out the madness,
The hubbub of all this progress for its own sake.
Sometimes all the mayhem invades me too deeply
And I need some soft music to ease the heartache.

Yeah, that’s better. Nobody could sing it like Sam.
The sweet, simple melody makes you feel so fine.
I’ve heard this song so many times, it’s part of me.
It’s like I wrote it for you; like the lyrics are mine.

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If I go
A million miles away
I’ll write a letter
Each and every day
‘Cause honey, nothin’, nothin’
Can ever change this love I have for you

There aren’t many refuges in this old city;
The silence marred by shouts and alarms.
I’m just old-fashioned – born too late, as they say.
I hide in music, but especially in your arms.

Even Sam fell victim to the night and this city,
Shot down in his prime in some seedy motel.
He had so much left to give when he was taken.
His music makes me feel like I knew him so well.

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Those old songs never fail to quiet my soul.
I wish this world could be the one they created.
Though I know their harmony is just an illusion.
Back then, like today, folks still fought and hated.

Music brushes away the dust of this world
And reinvents it again the way it should be.
My favorite songs are a lot like fairy tales.
They turn their back on reality, just like me.

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Music and love both serve a similar purpose
For a union of souls is the grandest refuge of all.
In this slow dance, we create our own fairy tale.
I’m the prince and you’re the belle of the ball.

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Oh, you’re the apple of my eye
You’re cherry pie
You’re cake and ice cream
You’re sugar and spice and everything nice
You’re the girl of my dreams

Thank you for the peace you’ve given to me.
Thank you for loving me the way that you do.
I wish I could hold you just like this forever.
There’s no greater heaven than here, close to you.

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Sam’s singing all the words I don’t tell you enough.
Strong, clear and sweet, and wrapped up in a song.
He’s smiling in heaven, singing just for you and me.
The day’s washed away, and we have all night long.

If you wanted
To leave me and roam,
When you got back,
I’d just say welcome home
Cause, honey, nothin’,
nothin’ can ever change
This love I have for you

 

 

 

Sam Cooke 1/22/31 – 12/11/64

Sam is buried at the Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, California, a few miles from where I live. I visited his grave one day (against cemetery rules) and sang a few of his songs next to it. I hope he heard in heaven and was merciful in his critique. What they lacked in virtuosity, they made up for in sincerity. 

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Memories of John Denver

My parents moved fifteen times before I was fifteen years old so I spent a lot of time alone. I remember sitting in my room in a house on a hill in Sun Valley, California, listening to music with headphones on, finding comfort and even guidance in some lyrics, but only annoyance and more confusion in other music of the time. (The 1970’s) One can only deduce that much of it was written under the influence of psychotropic, hallucinogenic substances. To a kid or anyone else struggling to figure out the world and people, clear guidance is a wonderful thing. Unfortunately, songs that became popular and were played over and over again were not clear at all. Here are a few examples.

1.
In and around the lake
Mountains come out of the sky and they
STAND THERE!
(Roundabout by Yes. Not helpful.)

2.
Mars ain’t the kind of place
to raise your kids.
In fact, it’s cold as hell
and there’s no one there to raise them
if you did.
(Rocket Man by Elton John. Again, not helpful.)

3.
Some people call me Maurice ’cause I speak of the pompitous of love.

(The Joker by The Steve Miller Band. I really like this song but what the heck is going on with this lyric? I heard Steve even made up the word “pompitous” just to confuse people even more. File under Not Helpful.)

4.
“I am”… I said
To no one there
And no one heard at all
Not even the chair

(I am, I Said by Neil Diamond, apparently tiring of his rich and famous singer life and attempting to tap into Rene Descartes’ territory.)

5.
Muskrat Suzie, Muskrat Sam
Do the jitterbug at a Muskrat Land
And they shimmy, Sam is so skinny

(Muskrat Love by Captain and Tennille. Originally recorded by America. I remember liking this song’s soft, gentle, soothing quality but I didn’t know what a muskrat was, and just having the word “rat” in its name made the song hard to like because one of them that got stuck in our garage took a chunk out of the front wheel of my beloved Big Wheel, either because it was starving or dulling its front teeth, which I hear will grow and grow forever (kind of like human fingernails) and cause the rat to starve to death because it can’t shut its mouth. Yet another reason to not like rats, muskrats, or any other kind of rat. Or songs about rat love.)

6.
Someone left the cake out in the rain
I don’t think that I can take it
’cause it took so long to bake it
And I’ll never have that recipe again

(MacArthur Park by Donna Summer. Even as a kid, I knew a weird metaphor when I heard one.)

7.
A Horse With No Name by America – the entire song, but here are the more confusing lyrics of the entire nightmarish bunch.

You see I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name
It felt good to be out of the rain
In the desert you can remember your name
Cause there ain’t no one for to give you no pain

And yet a hit song played repeatedly forever and ever.

8.
‘Cause the free wind is blowin’ through your hair
And the days surround your daylight there
Seasons crying no despair
Alligator lizards in the air, in the air

(Ventura Highway – America. I like this song melodically, too, but again, these lyrics only added to the already immense confusion of my youth.)

One singer more than any other rescued me. His name was John Denver.

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He was the best-selling singer of the 1970’s. In other words, what Elvis was to the 50’s and The Beatles were to the 60’s, John was to the 70’s.  He was so popular then and even today because he was able to write easy-to-understand but deeply emotional lyrics.

I had a speech teacher in college who said if I had a choice between a simple word and an obscure one, I should choose the simple one because, though the obscure one might impress a few people, it would cause many others to lose track of what I was saying, and if the audience didn’t understand, it was my fault, not theirs.

My brother went to the dark side, listening to not only confusing lyrics but deeply toxic ones by death metal groups. I warned him that music is like a chant – it gets into our psyches more deeply than anything else because we listen to it hundreds, even thousands of times, and melodies (using the term loosely) and rhyming verse are easy for the human mind to remember. We can be purified or polluted by music. As with everything in life, it is always our choice whether we see the bars of our prison or the stars beyond them.

John helped audiences put their own difficult feelings into words, not confuse them even more. That’s what great writers, poets and singers should do. For example, after all the lyrics above, isn’t this refreshing?

Sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy.
Sunshine in my eyes can make me cry.
Sunshine on the water looks so lovely.
Sunshine almost always makes me high.
(Sunshine)

I am the eagle. I live in high country
in rocky cathedrals that reach to the sky.
I am the hawk and there’s blood on my feathers
but time is still turning, they soon will be dry.
And all those who see me, and all who believe in me
share in the freedom I feel when I fly.
(The Eagle and The Hawk)

Well, I got me a fine wife, I got my old fiddle.
When the sun’s coming’ up, I got cakes on the griddle.
Life ain’t nothin’ but a funny, funny riddle.
(Thank God I’m a Country Boy.)

Almost heaven, West Virginia.
Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River.
Life is old there, older than the trees.
Younger than the mountains, blowin’ like the breeze.
Country roads, take me home
to the place I belong.
West Virginia, mountain momma,
take me home, country roads.”
(Take Me Home, Country Roads)

You fill up my senses
like a night in a forest,
like the mountains in springtime,
like a walk in the rain,
like a storm in the desert,
like a sleepy blue ocean,
you fill up my senses,
come fill me again.
(Annie’s Song)

I learned how to write from John Denver, how to love and respect nature, and how to live a good and decent life. He helped me climb out of one of the loneliest times in my life and invited me to explore the fields, forests, rivers and mountains of Colorado with him that he loved so much. The best artists can do that. They take you along. They transport you out of the world you’re in and show you how great life can be if you never knew, or remind you if you’ve forgotten. That’s the kind of artist I want to be. 

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Get John’s music here – https://www.amazon.com/John-Denver/e/B000AR80Z0/mrw02-20