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Thursday, December 4, 2014

Forever Young # 45: "Dog Story"

Song:  Old King
Album:  Harvest Moon
Released:  October, 1992

It’s not often that the simpler-meaning songs on an album are the ones I connect most strongly with.  Typically I enjoy grappling with the more complex tunes; the ones that get your mind spinning in different direction with multiple interpretations, or the ones that have you tapping into the historical context of the times, or the ones with a legendary story behind them. 

The music on ‘Harvest Moon’ is a rare exception.  Don’t get me wrong, the entire album is as smooth as silk, with nary a hiccup from start to finish.  However, my favorite songs on this 1992 gem-of-a-record are lyrically undemanding.  There’s the iridescent title track, which was the cornerstone song for my parents on their golden wedding anniversary video (compiled by their children).  This is truly one of Neil Young’s best works.  There’s the opening number (Unknown Legend), with lyrics that allow for the magnificent imagery of an inspirational free spirit, and One of These Days; a promise to friends and family, and Such a Woman; as sweet of a love song as we are going to hear by a musician with an anthology chock-full of them. 

Then there’s Old King, the focus of this week’s Forever Young entry ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uXvXCtXkd68 ).  A simpler constructed song you will not hear in Neil Young’s repertoire (excepting perhaps the bizarre T-Bone off ‘Re-ac-tor’).  However, this Rockwellian tune has energy, powered along by great backing vocals and a topic many of us can relate to:  A pet dog. In this case, Young’s pet dog (whose real name was Elvis, which may have been changed either out of respect for “The King” or because not much rhymes with ‘Elvis’ other than ‘pelvis’,  and Presley himself has sole ownership of that custom-fit word combo).  The vocals are serious, counterbalancing the upbeat-banjo beat, and pointing out in the process that this is not a giddy kiddy song.  Young seems to be stating here “this may be about my dog, but I loved this creature”.   Hear, Hear!

Anyhow, along with the Beatles Martha My Dear, Old King makes surprising inroads into my psyche in regards to songs that are about man’s best friend.  It stirs up memories of my youth, where the dogs were as much a part of the old gang and the family as any one of us.  With this in mind, I thought it fitting to reflect on my old pal, Nicky, and several of her (and my) canine sidekicks. 

Nicky, a black female mutt (“Heinz – 57 varieties”), was as faithful of a dog as there was.  My parents brought her home the evening my favorite rabbit, Chrissie died (and what a character she was, but that’s another story), back when I was in 5th grade.  Before the night was over, Nicky was my new best pal.  Although she would never be a dog akin to Old King  (who “wasn’t scared of jumping off the truck in high gear”) or one who could fetch a ball or wow you with her smarts, she was loyalty personified.  Yes, Nick stood by me through thick and thin.  She joined me on fishing trips down the track in the early morning hours, and on treks thru swamp-laden woods and on precarious hikes up rock ledges and, oh yeah, running from trouble (of the teenager prankster variety).  She waited patiently outside of stores and ice cream parlors downtown for me to come back out.  I confided in her when it was time to call it a night, as I sat on the chair by the wood stove before heading upstairs.  She perked right up at these moments, no matter the hour. 

There were other more specific moments.  For example, while in my junior year of high school, a motley crew from another part of town showed up one night in our neighborhood for no other reason than to pick a fight.  It got pretty ugly for a few moments, as one of my friends was signaled out for some high-octane abuse.  This was the only time I ever saw Nicky show her teeth.  She worked her way into the melee, prompting the ringleader to say something along the lines of “get that thing away from me or I’ll hurt her”.  The kid was scared, which, looking back now, is pretty comical considering my dog’s placid reputation.  Things soon broke up and the intruders backed off.  I’m not certain Nicky could take the credit, but I was sure proud of her that night. 

There was the day at Dean Junior College when my friends and I walked in through the front door of the main hall for a jaunt through the heart of the school.  We loved to explore Dean, because all the buildings were connected, and most were very old.  Often we would run into my friend Bruce’s Dad, who was a professor there.  We’d also run into the President, Dick Crockford, who lived next door to Bruce.  We’d look at the portraits of all the Presidents (of the USA) along the main-hall staircase and take a look to see what was happening in the gym and music hall.  Anyhow, after this one particular jaunt through the school, I exited out a back door and completely forgot about Nicky, who I had left behind outside up front.  Later that evening, after dinner, my Mom went to feed her and she was nowhere to be found.  I panicked for a moment, but then suddenly remembered where I last saw her.  Feeling terrible, I hustled my way down to the front entrance of Dean Junior College, and there she was, sitting nervously by the front door with a few students patting her.  She knew her way home, but I had told her to “stay”, and she did!

My favorite memories with Nick may have been on my paper route.  My good friend Phil’s dog, Whiskers, would routinely join us, meeting in the parking lot at the bottom of the hill from my home (with an uncanny sense of timing, seeing as Whiskers lived 2 blocks away and always showed up at the precise moment).  We would then make our way down another hill to Dean Ave, where I started my door-to-door deliveries.  No two dogs could have been more different than Nick and Whiskers, and they ignored each other for the most part.  Whiskers was an old, wise male terrier.  Other than a bad habit of chasing cars and another of shredding dolls and stuffed toys, he was about as smart of a dog as I’ve ever known (and the shredding may have been a veiled aspect of Whiskers smarts, as he would only tear up the tacky teddies).  And Whiskers loved our family.  When Dad would tell him a particularly funny joke, he would do as close to an imitation of human laughter as is possible for a creature on four legs.  You had to see it to believe it.   His head would cock to the side, and so would his mouth, tongue protruding through agape jaw, and a faint “ha, ha, ha” utterance when you listened close enough.  This was not panting, oh, no….this was a dog heartily yukking it up!

Anyhow, Whiskers and Nicky routinely joined me on my paper route.  Many on the route looked at the three of us as a team.  If I were alone, which was unusual (on occasion, in the rain) there would be comments to this effect.  There were numerous other dogs on this route, and over time, many of them got a sense for the circular nature of it (up one street, down another), and in turn would join us.  For a lark, I started keeping a checklist in a small notebook of the number of times each dog joined us.  Often I had no idea what the name of the dog was, so I came up with my own names:  “Mutt Mutt”, “Chumly”, and “Mr. Friend” are a few of the names I recall.  Since I wanted to give every one of them a check for the day, I’d often plead my case for them to join us, as I believe would Whiskers and Nicky. 

The vibes were all there, and over the months, the momentum built up.  Soon there would be at least 5 dogs I could rely on regularly on any given day.  But often there were more, and one day in particular I had reached critical mass; 15 dogs were with me that fall afternoon.  I still remember one customer opening her door and seeing me with all these dogs.  Her jaw dropped, and she insisted the lot of us freeze so she could run back and get her camera.  Man, I wish I could see that photo.

Neil Young expressed quite well the emotions that are tied to what a good dog brings to the table.  A handful of memories of an old pal confirmed that.

-          Pete

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