Saturday, September 24, 2016

Under the Big Top # 38: “Fortunate Son”

(Personal reflections inspired by Who songs)

Song: “Heart to Hang Onto”
Album: Rough Mix
Release Date: September, 1977

“Heart to Hang Onto” is this week’s Big Top entry.  The song is about those among us who struggle to find their identity due to a lack of conviction, focus and faith.  I count my blessings that I have never had that problem.  I credit this to my upbringing, which set a solid foundation and opened up an endless array of doors for me. 

We are just a few weeks shy of my Mom and Dad’s 56th wedding anniversary and so I thought I would roll out a poem I wrote for their 35th (below).  It hits on many of the highlights of my upbringing, but more important it is reflective of a youth full of life and love.  My apologies go out to Pat’s wife Ruth, who was not in the picture yet (and so is not in the poem) along with the additional grandchildren who came after October, 1995; Joe (who was awfully close), Molly, Katie, Grace, Peter, Jack, Ryan, Abigail, Patrick and Anastasia.  Some of the poem will be nonsensical to those who were not there.  But that’s not the point.  The point is in the title “A Relationship Full of Life”.  However, to try and explain some of the characters, localisms and colloquialisms, I’ve added a Glossary of Terms at the bottom.

“Heart to Hang Onto” is such a beautiful song.  The version here was performed live on Late Show with David Letterman (  Pete Townshend accompanied by Eddie Vedder and the Paul Shaffer house band.  The original interplay was with Ronnie Lane (Lane singing the verses and Townshend the choruses).  In this live version Pete Townshend and Eddie Vedder switch it around some: Very well done I might add.  The mid-section horns in the studio version were performed by John Entwistle.  The house band does a very nice job of recognizing that Who-bandmate contribution.

A Relationship Full of Life

October 15, 1960 that’s where we begin
Ike was on his way out, Camelot on its way in

And on the alter at St. Pat’s another Camelot had emerged
Here’s my humble attempt to put parts of that story into words

Franklin was a hick town, much, much smaller than now
“Gooey Louie” had the eggs, Brett had the cows

Mom and Dad spent their honeymoon up in Quebec
And picked up a pumpkin on their way back

To their new home on Mill Street where they placed it outside
Announcing to Franklin, the Steeves had arrived

Now those first years on Mill Street the thoughts I have few
For I didn’t come round until mid ‘62’

But I know happiness abounded and the laughs there were plenty
Visits from Jerry and Big Fred, Nandy and Grampy

And Margaret and Kenny who were back then still single
The Rappas, the Martins, Mr. Burke as Kris Kringle

Dad kept political signs off the lawn
Occasionally out of the woods leaped a doe with her fawn

In the meantime the family had started to grow
‘63’ Jen and Fred, and 64 along came Joe

Soon after my memory begins to take hold
What follows are some tidbits that need to be told!

The cigarette stool was where everyone wanted to sit
‘koya koya’ you never saw Jen without it

Fred rode a red tractor, dinner time Dad said grace
Jen’s nickname was ‘Missy’; Joe had mud on his face

Jack O’Connor took photos, Mush Mush was our Dog
Ginger hid in the tub and we all searched for God

We heard “I am the Ghost of Abel Gable”
And made sure we ate up everything on the table

After dinner sometimes Dad would have us all searching
For 4-leaf clovers: I’m sure he was laughing

In ‘67’ Mom gave birth to Amy, December 9th was the day
Amz name would have been Santa if Joe had gotten his way

With Amy in tow many memories followed
‘Scuz cuts’ Jolly Cholly’s, Bubble-heads at the Mellos

Benson’s Animal Farm, Mrs. Doyle and Proovo
Dad never got their names right; he’d say ‘Boil’ and ‘Ghoulo’

From Mill Street to Martin Ave in 1969
Now we were in the center, no longer on the town line

There was Dean Junior College, St. Mary’s and more
Newbury’s Kearney’s, Jimmy’s Penny Candy Store

As the new decade rolled in the old one said “Top that!”
The new decade answered with a bang; it was Pat

Here’s where my memory really starts to cruise
Every statue was Dad; the ‘71 Bruins would …. Lose

Big Butch walked round town with a radio held to his ear
There were rabbits and turtles, white shoes I had to wear

Jen in the Brownies; Dean kids shining moons
Street hockey, tree climbing, water balloons

'Joshua Brown’ in the cellar, altar boys and ‘Boo Agway’
Driving to hockey at 5 am Dad would shout out ‘Woon-sock-ayyyy’

Mr. Rappa pulled a chunk of wood out of Fred’s wrist
Sister Margaret Ester had me on her negative list

Joe ran outside naked to bring the bathing suits in
With Jen and Phil in it the pools lining burst open

There was Falmouth and Ashland, Rocky Woods with the egg toss
Mom taking us to swimming lessons in the VW bus

After painting the Martin Ave house harvest gold
We got out of there quick and moved into Park Road

I must admit now I did not want to move there
There were holes in the walls; there were holes in the stairs

But Mom and Dad worked day and night, room to room
And turned a rickety old house into a beautiful home

This is where the memories really start to pile high
There was Mr. Lavertue, Lindy and Herm Bly

Dad’s mopeds, Jen’s green hair, Phil’s ice cream and Nicky
Whiskers played shortstop, there was Daisy and Chrissie

When Mom rang the dinner bell, no matter where you heard it
So much laughing at the table – “Bububububbit”

Jen and Amy, Julie and Liz set up haunted house in the cellar
Where Mrs. Tibbit’s corpse could be seen for a quarter

We had a puzzle room, and Charlie on the MTA
Flashlight Tag, Kick-the-Can, fire crackers, Croquet

Wacky Packs, coins, apple trees, Danny Leary
‘The Watergate’, Joe’s killer dance on Skittle Alley

When Dad read from the Bible on Christmas Eve, we were all ears
Christmas Day began at the top of the stairs

Soccer and baseball, Friendly’s and the New Store
Applebee’s, Welick’s, paper routes door to door

And then there were all the great times on vacation
The ‘Penalty Box’, the time Joe went hitchhiking

Williamstown, Ottawa, Quebec and the Falls
D.C. and Bush Gardens, it was a ball

And let’s not forget Camp Wind-‘n’-the-Pines
Mom holding the gas pedal, Dad trying to drive

By ’79 Jen was dating a great guy named Dale
Pat rushed over to greet him, Jen’s face went pale

Rolling into the 80s there’s a lot to be said
Emmett falls off the garage roof, Paul Smits under Jen’s bed

Mom was the best hostess for every occasion
Whether Thanksgiving or Christmas or just welcoming a friend in

North Adams and Lowell, Johnson & Wales, Keene, B.C.
There was Shannon and tailgates and Sucker in Lee

‘Mi Grabisin grabone’, the Scrubius Pip…. I just had to throw those in
Along with “Bird Lady”, “Oh Lamby”, “Nachos Grande”, Jason

Amy left behind after dinner; shopping at Heartlands
Mom running the Bellingham Branch for Ben Franklin

In late ’84 everyone got to meet Nancy
After she’d taken the Pike half way to Albany

In ’85 Ginger coordinated a great 25th
’86 Jen and Dale….. Best Man must make a list

’87 “Party Summer”, the 1st camping trip
Monica said ‘hi neighbor’, teeth under her lip

Lots of other things also happened that year
There was Lake Street, ‘Plum Dandy’, and more than one beer

It was the 1st “Pete Steeves Open”, the Grinch with the Whos arm in arm
And ‘we can’t find the money for the mortgage on the farm’

’88 the second annual camping trip to Moosalaukee
Where Nancy and I stuck out the rain with Fred and Kippy

’89-’91 was all laced with weddings
Joe and Mon, Fred and Kip, Pete and Nanc…. Amy singing

“Big Mac La Fry La O” & “I’ve been hornswaggled!”
Bachelor Party police escorts, a bus driver frazzled

Getting Nancy dressed up as a clown
My face in a cake, and then dancing around

Meanwhile the annual camping trips continue in earnest
Out of all the fire side chats “I love you guys” one of the best

Dale cooking chicken over nuclear heat
Dad heaved rocks in the river; Nancy dropped a cake meant for Pete

Then there was the trip to Prince Edward Island
And the rain cloud that followed us from the hills to the beach sand

Finally into the picture came Paul
The rooftop party on Beacon Street sure topped them all

Johnson and Wales at Pat’s graduation
Seeing Mom sobbing, overcome with emotion

And the grandchildren arrived, first Kelsie then Kelley
Then Charlotte (with Mom’s help), Meagan and last for a short time, Lily

I say for a short time because Jen and Dale are expecting
The news was enough to have Mom summersaulting

Here it is ’95, Mom and Dad’s 35th
They get to spend part of it overseas with the Irish

When I read between the lines of these words that I’m writing
I see a story that I find O Quite Fascinating

Because it reflects a relationship that is So-Full-Of-Life!
That started with Dad and Mom alone…. Husband and wife

Glossary of Terms

The Characters in order of appearance (not including Mom and Dad and their 6 children):

Big Fred and Jerry > my grandparents on my Dad’s side

Nandy and Grampy > my grandparents on my Mom’s side

Margaret and Kenny > two of my Mom's siblings

The Rappas > Nancy and Bob Rappa; my parents earliest of friends in Franklin

The Martins > Mom’s oldest sister Marge and her husband Bill and their children

Mr. Burke > another of my parents earliest friends in Franklin

Jack O’Connor > Dad’s best friend growing up (also my Godfather)

Ginger (Sister Virginia Smith) > another of my Mom’s sisters, who became a nun (a great one I might add!)

The Mellos > Dad’s sister, Nineen, her husband, Arthur, and their boys Peter, Eric and Andy

Big Butch > a kindly, very large war veteran who hung out downtown.

Mr Lavertue > a carpenter who spent a lot of time repairing our Park Road home

Lindy > a kindly elderly man who befriended my parents. 

Herm Bly > another elderly man who spent a lot of time on the phone with Dad planning the bicentennial parade: He talked so incessantly, Dad once put the phone in the freezer for 10 minutes.  When he took it out Herm Bly was still talking.

Phil > my neighborhood friend in grade school: Noted here in several ways, including for making his own ice cream

Nicky > my wonderful old faithful mutt

Whiskers > Phil’s dog:  One of the smartest animals I have ever known.

Daisy and Chrissie > our very bright rabbits

Julie and Liz > Our cousins the Gilligan’s (Mom’s side)

Mrs. Tibbits > the elderly woman who lived in our Park Road home alone before us

Danny Leary > another neighborhood friend (of Amy and Pat)

Dale > Jen’s husband

Emmett > our cousin (Mom’s side)

Paul Smits > an over-exuberant New Year’s Eve victim who temporarily found a place to pass out until he was discovered when my sister went to bed

Nancy > my beautiful wife

Monica > Joe’s wife

Kippy > Fred’s wife

Paul > Amy’s husband

Shannon:  My grandfather’s young golden retriever handed off to us.  She kept Nicky alive for an extra half decade I am sure

Sucker in Lee” > Dad never wanted to conform to campground rules and celebrations, particularly at the trailer park in Lee, NH.  Some people took a while to accept this

Bird Lady” > A colorful character on CB radio.  Amy and I ran with it

Definitions and Events (in chronological order):

koya koya” > Jen’s tangled up torn and frayed pink and white tiny blanket

The Cigarette Stool” > Fred, Jen, Joe and I named this stool after a round burn indentation in the seat, about the diameter of a quarter.  The story goes that Dad used a cigarette or cigar to intentionally put the mark there, which has never been substantiated

Missy” > Uncle Bill used this nickname for Jen, but no one else did!

The Ghost of Abel Gable” > A neighbor a few years older than us claimed to be this persona while crouched unseen outside the kitchen window while we ate

Scuz  Cuts” > Whiffles/buzz cuts.  Usually me

Jolly Cholly’s” > An amusement park, I believe in North Attleboro

Bubble-heads” > a great video exists of one of these soapsuds episodes in the Mello’s pool.  I looked like Confucius

Every Statue was Dad” > Dad used to claim the statues in town were all of him.  This claim did get me in trouble one time with a neighborhood bully

 Joshua Brown” > A brilliant horror poem told in the dark to a bunch of us kids on Halloween as “body parts” were passed around (i.e. grapes for eyes):  Scared the daylights out of us

Woon-sock-ayyy” > Woonsocket Rhode Island, where we would travel to on early weekend mornings for hockey at Mount Saint Charles.  Dad was never a big fan of Rhode Island in those days

Boo Agway” > A hardware store Dad did accounting for early in his career.  When he switched to a competitor, we booed them every time we passed the building

Rocky Woods” (Reservation) > in Medfield MA:  Annual family reunions (Moms side) were held there

Bububububbit” > Dad’s unique style of belching

Charlie on the MTA” > Fred, Phil and I put a nice skit together to this tune

Apple Trees” > Amy and Cousin Linda had 2 baby apple trees planted in the yard named after them

The Watergate” > Dad named our inflatable boat after this infamous Washington D.C. hotel break in

Skittle Alley” > a kid game show hosted in Boston that we all appeared on

Welick’s” > a very busy local restaurant Fred, Joe, and I all worked at

The Penalty Box” > the area in the far back of our VW Bus

Joe went hitchhiking” > ….with a straw hat and pants pulled up to his ears.  Our vacations were where Joe became the hilarious Joe we all know and love

 Mi Grabisin grabone” > just a saying I made up and used when I had nothing in particular to add to the conversation.

Scrubius Pip” > a great childhood storybook

Oh Lamby” > when Joe and I landscaped for a summer, a pestering new homeowner repeated this line over and over to his pet poodle.  We ran with it.

Jason” > we also ran with the lead character of the Friday the 13th movies

Best Man must make a list” > I was Jen and Dale’s Best Man, and so I came up with a list of my duties

Plum Dandy!” > a store in Kennebunk, Maine:  Everything was purple.  We admired many of the items by exclaiming the stores name as we shopped: Too funny

Lake Street” > Fred’s and my first owned home (in Waltham).  Later Nancy and I.

Pete Steeves Open” > Dad’s annual golf tournament, all done in fun (and everybody got a trophy!).

Grinch” > Jen hosted an annual Grinch-watching party the week before Christmas

Amy singing” > Amy sang (in spellbound fashion) at all our weddings

Big Mac La Fry La O” > While down south, a friend of Joe’s heard a local yokel order at the drive thru using this exact term.  Joe’s friend tried it after to see what would happen and received a Big Mac, large order of fries, and a large orange soda.  It was the hit saying at Joe and Monica’s wedding

I’ve been hornswaggled” > another hit term we used frequently on a camping trip (it seems we had a hit term on every trip)

Nancy dressed up as a clown” > the girls brought a clown suit for Nancy to wear around Boston for her Bachelorette party

My face in a cake and then dancing around” > my bachelor party ended on a sweet note

I love you guys” > Dale uttered this


Saturday, September 17, 2016

Under the Big Top # 37: “This Machine Kills Fascists”

(Personal reflections inspired by Who songs)

Song: “I’ve Known No War”
Album: It’s Hard
Release Date: September, 1982

Despite not releasing any new material in many years, the Who sounded like a well-oiled machine on their Y2K Tour.  The show at Great Woods in Mansfield, Massachusetts that summer was one of my all-time favorite Who shows; the band sounding crisp and honed, consisting of just the three surviving original members, Pete, Roger and John, along with Zak Starkey on drums, and John “Rabbit” Bundrick on keyboards; their most-thinned lineup since 1982.  It’s not often a band grabs you right out of the gate, but on that nite the Who would indeed do that,  hitting the ground running with “I Can’t Explain”, “Substitute”, and “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere”.  From there they would not take their foot off the peddle all the way through the final encore. 

In many ways the mid-70’s super-group Who was back, once again performing at levels that most other bands can only dream of.  I believe there were several reasons for this, starting with their Quadrophenia tour three years earlier, which brought back some of the old spark.  Pete Townshend and John Entwistle followed up on that tour with solo tours of their own in ’98 and ’99 respectively, which further conditioned them.  The biggest reason however for that throwback feel was Zak Starkey, who had raised his contributions to equal footing with the rest of the band, something neither Kenny Jones nor Simon Philips had in them.  For those of us who thought Keith Moon could never be replaced, we were pleasantly floored.  ** Side Note A: I do have to say in Jones’ and Philips’ defense that 1) the shows they played in were still quite potent and 2) the bar was extremely high. 

The best thing about the Who’s re-mastery of the stage was that there was an old/new air of authority about them, which I myself had never seen.  This supreme confidence proved to be of particular importance on October 20, 2001 when the Who performed at Madison Square Garden.  If the date doesn’t make a connection, please read on (although I welcome you to continue reading regardless!).

Few historical events in a lifetime are so extraordinary that they induce instant recall when reflected on.  Going back a generation or two before mine, I’m willing to bet there’s a fairly unanimous ability for Americans of those near bygone eras to nail down the time and place they were when they heard the news of Pearl Harbor, VJ Day, and JFK’s assassination.  Fifteen years ago this past Sunday, September 11, 2001, most of us had our first encounter with an event of this magnitude.  There was nothing even remotely comparable.  It shattered our sense of reality.  Life has not been quite the same since.

The days and weeks immediately following 9/11 were, to put it mildly, intense.  Everyone seemed to be walking on eggshells.  Little flags decorated most cars in a display of patriotism.  Normally comedic talk show hosts were devoid of humor.  Days seemed dreary and nights felt darker than before.  Despite the efforts of Hollywood types, musicians, and political leaders it appeared nothing could be done to help us recover from what happened.  The country was in universal mourning and on the brink of despair.

At the same time, there was plenty of debate about how to respond to the attacks.  Case in point: I was driving down Rte. 128 later that fateful week, when I spotted a pickup truck with a large handmade banner in the flatbed reading “Kill All Arabs!”.  I looked over at the guy driving the car as I passed him by.  He stared at me as if to say “you got a problem with that?”.  It was a tough pill to swallow:  I was on the same team as this guy?

The experience got me thinking: 9/11 was horrible in so many ways, but as happens with all crises, it brought out either the best or worst in us.  What I really saw in that man was fear, and it was something I saw and heard from others in not so blatant ways over those weeks and months following the tragedy.  I admit to some of it myself.  But fear is a dangerous thing.  It stems from ignorance and often leads to vengeance and hatred.  Yes, there no doubt was a need for justice….but not hatred.  That’s what those who aimed the planes and coordinated the attack had in them.  To react in a similar manner would make us no better.  ** Side note # B: I once heard it said that the term ‘hate crime’, used by media types is a misnomer.  The suggested replacement:  ‘ignorance crime’.  I concur.

It’s difficult, but not impossible to rise above fear and loathing in such times.  The USA had done it before in its history.  Since the repercussions of 9/11 still linger to this day, I think it’s too soon to tell if we will do it again.  The country remains way too polarized:  Joe McCarthy-like finger pointing and mistrust is standard fodder on our airways.  Hopefully, rational, well meaning, peace loving minds will ultimately prevail.

Healing and unity were a long time coming after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington D.C.  The first ray of light for me was a month later, when the aforementioned ‘Concert for New York’ took place.  Although professional in their performances, most of the acts, including Paul McCartney, David Bowie, Eric Clapton, Elton John, Billy Joel, John Mellencamp, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, were understandably not quite ready for the intensity of that period.  But The Who were.  Their four-song set (John Entwistle’s last show in North America) in front of the surviving first responders (who were taking up a majority of the first 20 or so rows) was exceptional, and the crowd reacted accordingly.  This point has to be emphasized for posterity, as rising to such an occasion is extremely unusual and not for the faint of heart. 

The Madison Square Garden crowd reaction to the Who’s four-song set was uplifting to those of us who watched on TV.  Once again, the music prevailed.  It seemed the healing had begun, but though the Who had initiated a certain positive strength that had not been seen at any point after 9/11; there was still a ways to go.  Several more months passed, and expectation of building on the Who’s spirit had yet to be capitalized on.

This brings me to football. 


Yes, football. 

First I need to rewind.  After a one week hiatus immediately following 9/11, the NFL kicked its schedule back into forward motion.  For New Englanders, the 2001 NFL season was to prove far from business as usual.  The Patriots, with a history more bizarre than the Bad News Bears, were climbing the ladder of success, led by an amazing coach, Bill Belichick, who ran a team that insisted on being introduced…. as a team.

After a great regular season run and two action packed playoff games (including the unforgettable ‘Snow Bowl’ game against the Raiders and the Troy Brown-dominated AFC Championship game against the Steelers), the Pats found themselves in the unlikeliest of places: The Super Bowl, against the heavily favored St. Louis Rams (“The Greatest Show on Turf”).  The Patriots surprised everyone, dominating most of the game.  The final score was not a true barometer of the lopsided play, with the Pats winning on a last second field goal.  Football’s ugly duckling reigned supreme! (much to the disgust of the powers-that-be).  ‘Team’ and ‘Unity’ were the key themes in this story.

But what was almost as memorable as the game itself (perhaps more memorable for those who were not fans of the Rams or the Pats) was the half-time show.  Most Super Bowl half-time shows up to that point were for the most part, forgettable, over dramatized events. 

Not this time. 

With the names of the September 11 victims scrolling on a Twin-Tower-like screen behind them, U2 performed “Where the Streets Have No Name” with all the emotion and passion a band can bring to the stage.  As the song reached its climax, the names listed on the screen collapsed in an eerie but powerful moment of flashback.  The performance was intense, classy, and unifying.  These 4 lads from Ireland hit all the right notes, showing their respect, admiration and solidarity for the United States in 11 short minutes (which included a second song ‘Beautiful Day’).  Strangely enough, an unlikely event (The Super Bowl) and an unlikely group (a band from another country), allowed us to emerge from darkness. At least that’s the way I felt. 

There’s a great old photo of Woody Guthrie with a guitar slung over his shoulder on which are written the words: “This Machine Kills Fascists”…..that’s what the Who and then U2 pulled off (not to mention the New England Patriots).  At the very least, they made democracy a little stronger. “Where the Streets Have No Name” is a song U2 have played at virtually every one of their shows since they penned it.  The song was written at the height of unrest in Northern Ireland, and envisions a Belfast where street signs do not distinguish Catholic streets from Protestant ones.  It’s a song that tries to break down prejudice-centric barriers between people.  Love thy neighbor.

After the Super Bowl, Bob Kraft, the Pats owner, said to the crowd “We are all Patriots here”.  One pundit rhetorically posed the question: “What if the Rams had won?  Would their owner have stated ‘We are all Goats here’?”

I guess even the wonderfully warped American sense of humor started making a comeback around that time too.

As for the Who, well, for many of us they were the first to have us stepping out of that proverbial underground bunker into daylight.  Those were indeed scary times, giving all of us who were too young to experience World War II a tiny sense for the intensity of a war-strewn world.  Pete Townshend actually wrote a song about this very notion for the Who in 1982: “I’ve Known No War” (  Little did he know how it would play out 20 years later.