Props on Pops: 70th Birthday Edition

I have written more than once about my mother (here and here) but I haven’t said a great deal (here) about my old man. That is, in part, because he is still very much with us, and our story is still unfolding. For a variety of obvious reasons, I hope that continues to be the case for a long, long time.

But anyone who knows me understands that my relationship with the old guy (Pops, to me; Jack, to others, Pa, to his two grandchildren), which I’m happy to report has always been more than solid, is a non-negotiable facet of my existence. Certainly, after what he and I (and my sister and her husband) went through during and after the death of my mother, things could never be the way they were. On literal and figurative levels. When I talk to others about this inevitable part of many people’s lives (e.g., losing a parent long before it’s expected or acceptable), I usually offer the opinion, based on what I’ve witnessed and experienced, that the crisis either pulls families closer together or pushes them farther apart. At least once a day, on some level, I’m grateful that our family had the foundation to rally around one another and work together on healing, a process that is measured not in years or months or even weeks but in days and sometimes minutes. We went through it, together and we’ll go through it, together.

I had the opportunity to toast my old man on his (surprise) 60th birthday party, which occurred at his favorite local restaurant, Dante’s. It was amazing to take him back there Tuesday night for a mano a mano dining adventure (keyword: soft-shell crabs) and reflect on how much has changed in the last ten years. But mostly we did –and will– focus on how little has changed: it’s still family first, we celebrate all of these occasions together and I remain as grateful as I’ve always been that this good man brought me into the world. It’s a world I would have been ill-equipped to enter, as an adult, without his guidance and support. It’s a world I’m more grateful than I’ve ever been that he is still very much a part of. We will celebrate those bonds of love and devotion tonight, like we always do.

Enough. There are plenty of things to say about Pops, but today, on the occasion of his 68th (EDIT: 70th!) birthday, I would like to acknowledge, and celebrate, the bond of music that we (like my mother and I) share. Pops is no aficionado, but he has (some) game and I always am pleased to recall the handful of original LPs I happily stole from his collection. One of my earliest musical memories, along with the old Fantasia coloring book sessions, was Curtis Mayfield’s masterpiece, the soundtrack of Superfly. It is not an overstatement to suggest that this album set an aesthetic tone early in my formative development that made me more open (and, of course, susceptible) to all types of music. But no need to linger on the nuances; the nitty gritty of the situation is that holding the original fold-out double album of this blaxploitation classic was a seminal ’70s experience. It was immensely gratifying to give the old man a copy of the remastered reissue of this bad boy on his birthday in 1998.

Curtis Mayfield, “Freddie’s Dead”:

Another one that was in his slight but not unimpressive collection was the original pressing of Janis Joplin’s last joint, Pearl. I even have a picture of him, on his birthday (must have been ’71), happily holding the album up. Shame on me and not getting my scanner set up yet (stay tuned, and be forewarned). Of the “big three” who left us that unfortunate year, Pops never cared much for Jim, and never fell deeply in love (as he should have) with Jimi, but he did –and does– love Janis. Who could blame him?

Janis Joplin, “Get It While You Can”:


Wonderful memory: remember back in the ’80s when radio stations (even before “classic rock” stations became all the rage mid-decade) used to do their Top 500 countdowns on holidays (often either Memorial Day or Labor Day but occasionally July 4)? I used to live for those things and would listen, dutifully scribbling down the entries. Anyway, back in the early ’80s it was very unusual to hear unedited, long songs on the radio. So a song like Peter Frampton’s “Do You Feel Like We Do” was one of those rare treats you’d catch a couple of times a year, if you were lucky. I didn’t own that album (yet) but that only made it more of an event if/when it came on. During one of the countdowns, on July 4, this one came on and Pops and I were heading back from the pool to cook out pre-fireworks. The famous “talk box” section was yet to occur, so we pulled up in the driveway and Pops simply let the car idle. Too enraptured in the moment to even miss a few seconds before we could dash into the house and turn it on the stereo, we sat there, in our soaked swimsuits and savored the moment. These are the types of shared encounters that, I suspect, sustain the father-son relationship a decade down the road when curfews are being tested and new boundaries are being established.

Peter Frampton, “Do You Feel Like We Do”:


1980: there weren’t a ton of bands (or albums) that all of us could enjoy (and by all of us, I mean my parents and me because my sister was never on board although, by 1980 she was already a teenager, so we’ll forgive her), but Bob Seger’s Against The Wind definitely made the cut. In fact, that may have been the only album (aside from The Beatles’ Blue Album) that we owned on LP (mine), cassette (hers) and 8-track (his). Pops has always had a thing for Seger and insists he is a better live performer than Bruce Springsteen (he has never seen either in concert, so we’ll forgive him).

Bob Seger, “No Man’s Land”:

Speaking of 8-tracks…

The Ford Grenada (speaking of the early ’80s!) sported an 8-track and anyone who lived then may recall the not exactly cutting edge way this “technology” handled the transition from one “track” to the other: if a song had not ended before the next “track” was programmed, it would just fade out where it was, then click, and fade back in (I’m sure the artists at the time were thrilled with this development and the ways it butchered their songs). There are more than a handful of albums we owned that, to this day, I can remember (and still, not without some fondness, hear) where these transitions occurred. One of the albums from that era that warrants a serious reexamination is Pat Benatar’s debut In The Heat of the Night. That album holds up remarkably well (indeed, the only two songs I don’t listen to these days are the two hit singles, the generic FM paint-by-numbers anthem “Heartbreaker” and the egregious Blondie rip-off “We Live For Love”). I’m serious. If you haven’t listened to this one in ages, or never owned it in the first place, I’m sure you can –and should– get a used copy real cheap at Amazon.

Pat Benatar, “In The Heat of the Night”

Another band whose catalog we owned on 8-track was Heart. Speaking of another band that deserves a sustained critical endorsement (mental note): their first five albums were solid, and while Little Queen and Bebe Le Strange are minor masterpieces and the first album, Dreamboat Annie, has one of the great first sides of the ’70s, for my money their finest hour is 1978’s Dog and Butterfly. This one got much play in the Grenada and it still gets a lot of play at my crib. When she was in top form, as she is throughout this album, there were few voices as compelling and out and out sexy as Ann Wilson’s. (Pops had the LP version of Little Queen and I used to happily gaze at that front cover for hours. Still gives me a little tingle even today.)

Heart, “Mistral Wind”:

Pops is from Boston (as was my mother), so in addition to the accent he’s never lost (much to many of my friends’ delight), we cruised up north each Christmas and most summers. These were eight or nine hour jaunts (more if traffic or weather were issues and one or both invariably were) and I recall fantasizing, as a ten year old, how amazing it would be to just kick back and watch movies in the back to pass the time. I think of this now and how lucky today’s snot-nosed little brats are (not that I’m bitter or anything) to have video-on-demand installed into the headrest in front of them.

We got through those trips the old-fashioned way: painfully. Lots of reading, Mad Libs and music. Especially music. By the time I got to high school, sis was in college (ironically, in Boston) and moms usually flew the friendly skies, so it was a mano a mano adventure for many years. My father, being very much a man of routine, had (and has) his favorite discs (then cassettes) for each trip. Many, which we fortunately agreed upon, were mandatory, such as CCR (see below), Skynyrd (ditto), The Beatles (see above), Heart (ditto) and a handful of rotating flavors-of-the-year (I’m still not sure I’ve recovered from his infatuation with the Fine Young Cannibals circa 1989).

Funny story: one of the worst fights we almost got in was not due to alcohol, drugs, or a pregnant cheerleader, but whether or not we could (should) listen to the full (and, in hindsight, insufferable) 18 minute version of “In-A- Gadda-Da-Vida”. The fifteen year old me voted yes. Let me explain: this was the summer of either ’85 or ’86 and I was already long past the point where I took music a bit too seriously. At his request, I brought along one of my mixtapes (a long lost art I could have done graduate work in or made a career out of, had the world ever been kind enough to offer graduate degrees or paychecks for such consequential and benificent endeavors). Anyway, that song came on and about half-way through my pops –because he was sane– grew tired of the interminable organ and drum noodling, and since (although he is a seismologist, has a profoundly anti-technology acumen) he could not figure out how to fast forward the tape (you know, that fast forward button) he told me to move things along. I invited him to do it himself if he was so eager to get through the song. Hilarity ensued. Not one of my finer moments, but it was a matter of principle. And, considering I really did like that song at one time, and had not done any drugs, this proves two things: one need not be stoned, only immature, to find pleasure in Iron Butterfly; and I was, clearly, already pretty far down the rabbit hole in terms of the whole music thing.

Iron Butterfly, “In A Gadda Da Vida”

Usually, there were no issues regarding music. Mostly because it’s not that difficult to fill up nine hours. The trips almost always kicked off with CCR, not only one of the all-time great American bands, but absolutely perfect road trip music. Full props to the old man for having an original LP copy of the almost-immaculate Cosmo’s Factory, which I spun like a squeaky clean Jeffrey Lebowski.

Creedence Clearwater Revival, “Long As I Can See The Light”:


Otis: Because sometimes you have to break out the big guns.

Otis Redding, “Pain In My Heart”:


I knew I liked Skynyrd (I remember when “That Smell” got played on the radio in ’77/’78, and thinking that nobody else sounded like they did) but I did not know I loved Skynyrd until I asked for –and received– the double LP Gold & Platinum for my 12th birthday. This one has the (incredible) live version of “Gimme Three Steps” and, of course, the ultimate (live) Bic Lighter anthem “Free Bird”. Later on I crafted a mix that incorporated more material from the very overlooked Second Helping, but that original cassette copy kept us energized, and sufficiently southern, as we headed north of the Mason-Dixon Line.

Lynyrd Skynyrd: “Simple Man”:

More on the musical memories, and Pops, another time. For now, it’s good enough to give credit where it’s due, celebrate a beloved father’s continued health, and acknowledge 68 (EDIT: 70!) well-lived years. Most of all, it’s nice to know this particular story is still being written.


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