Ricardo Arjona has always touched me and if I could speak as eloquently in Spanish as he sings, I would be proud.
This song is an anchor in my heart, and its epicenter swings like a pendulum in my head.
Ricardo Arjona has always touched me and if I could speak as eloquently in Spanish as he sings, I would be proud.
This song is an anchor in my heart, and its epicenter swings like a pendulum in my head.
It was barely noon on an unassuming Tuesday, under a bright January sky, one warring with both sapphire and translucent clouds, in front of a store where passersby failed to notice that a moment was within their reach if they’d only pause, appreciate, and listen.
Almost no one took notice. Each hurried past, taking sideways glances at the older busker with his guitar cradled in his hands, the case propped open on the ground adjacent to the bench on which he perched.
Entering the store with my attention diverted, I didn’t pause. The musician was silent upon my entrance. My mind swirled with the details of what might interest me.
As I exited the store with my cart, the air filled with chords and a broken voice singing simple words. It’s hard to mimic the simplicity of a simple melody, especially when the voice accompanying it has walked countless miles and endured unimaginable heartache. We all recognize such voices. While we might appreciate the songbirds who sing effortlessly, it is difficult to deafen our ears to a voice that adds gravel to what most of us find in our hearts.
I walked the long parking lot, almost to the outer perimeter abutting the access road. The busker’s voice receded to a whisper behind me. I threw my scant purchases into the car and walked back. Giving the musician time to finish his song, I handed him $20 and asked if he knew any Merle Haggard. He sheepishly said he didn’t, which surprised me. Merle’s voice accompanying his would have been akin to walking into an old country church to find the place filled to the rafters with song, the kind any voice could join without embarrassment.
I told him, “Surprise me.” And he did.
I walked around the column and wall behind him and leaned against it as he played. It wasn’t Merle. But it was more. As the song ended, he tentatively leaned around and said, here’s one I wrote called “Ball and Chain.”
As people entered and exited the storefront, as they drove by and looked in our direction, the older man sang his song. And then another, one probably chosen because of my initial request.
As he played “Horse With No Name,” I realized I never thought of the song that way before. As sometimes happens, I heard the song for the first time through the man’s voice. As the chords diminished and the strings went quiet, I walked over and handed him another $20. “God bless you,” he told me, making eye contact. I could tell he genuinely meant it. “God bless you, too,” I told him – and not reflexively, either.
Though you might not understand why, I confess that there were tears in my eyes as I pivoted and walked away.
A took a piece of the sapphire sky with me as I left, tucked away as a memory I know I will retain. I looked across the expanse of the parking lot and saw the man singing another song. He probably wondered who I am and what my story might be. I’m a man with no name – but a lot of moments and memories.
After this afternoon, I have another.
The title of this post popped into my head as I ran from work today. All of us have our struggles. I catch myself in surprise by the dusk in my head. Though I wasn’t consciously thinking about it, I’d walked across the parking lots and sidewalks in the rain, still wearing my mask. It was an absurd moment. “Lost in my thoughts” doesn’t begin to describe the floorless circumstance of my mind. If you’re lucky, you’ve had meditative moments of selflessness like that. In dense moments, they often save us from what streams in our heads.
Ricardo Arjona recently released another album. One of the songs, “El Amor Que Me Tenía,” among others, hit me like an anvil. I learned a lot of poetry and vocabulary from Arjona. He’s known for his turn of phrase. It fundamentally resonates with me. Musicians like him broke open the capacity in me to see beyond language. If Spanish were to become my primary language, I would devote myself to speaking like Ricardo Arjona writes his music, no matter how perplexed people become. I find myself wishing we spoke English the same way, too, but it is difficult to find anyone interested and willing to spend the day deconstructing the absurdity and content of what we say. (Yes, such a willingness is one of the things by which I evaluate a person. Those who demonstrate such an interest won’t ever be disappointed by circumstance.)
One of my co-workers from another department is an avid Arjona fan, too. He got excited when he realized that I had the new album. It amazes him that a gringo like me can appreciate such musicians’ subtle capture in his native language. I brought it, and though we don’t overlap many hours a week at work, I played it on the computer/jukebox I rebuilt at work. Today, my co-worker returned briefly to pick up something. He asked me to put “El Amor Que Me Tenía” on again. I did and increased the volume in the vast space to the point that the angels trembled. I left him there in the back of the room. As the song started, he sat and listened with the rapt attention of one enthralled. It’s rare to see another adult so rapturously engage with a song. When the song ended, he stayed seated for the next song. He emerged from the shadowy area in the back and looked reinvigorated. Whatever it is in that song, it found its way inside him. We now have a shorthand we can use to connect to that kind of music and message.
Whatever the moment with his immersion in the song was, it is a shame that we don’t have such moments several times a day. They ground us in our humanity, and in the parts of our lives we let slide from our grasp.
P.S. “This amazing story was brought to you by me.”
(A line I felt obligated to steal from a winsome writer.)
A couple of nights ago, I was scrolling YouTube on the FireTv app. I tend to discover a trove of songs in other languages. When I began to learn Spanish enough to discover nuance, music in Spanish opened my mind and heart to other styles I hadn’t appreciated. There are many words that I still associate with the first time I understood them through music. Artists with clear voices gave my dubious English-oriented mind the opportunity to understand them.
If I’ve heard it before, I don’t remember it. A song titled, “¿Quién Dice Que No?” by Oscar Cruz played. The video was overly dramatic but the song in its simplicity hit me in the face. Listening to the song again, I was struck by the simple majesty of Oscar’s voice.
As I do with all such songs, I listened to it several more times the next day.
Curiosity overtook me. I discovered that Oscar Cruz won the first season of the Mexican version of “The Voice.” And rightly so. The show and his judge/coach failed to return Oscar’s contribution by helping him afterward. After all, people like Oscar are what makes the judges million dollar salaries possible. While Oscar plays several instruments and has a booming voice, his advancing age make stardom an elusive goal for him.
While there is a lot of his music I’m not partial too, I will always remember the first time I heard this song. Oscar plays several instruments.
After reading about Oscar’s story, I realized I had seen his performance of Piano Man in Spanish on La Voz Mexico a few years ago.
I wonder what he thinks of his momentary fame a decade ago.
NSFW warning: this story is true. It contains references that will make curse words materialize in your head. (Not that watching the news doesn’t cause the same reaction, regardless of which camp you root for.) If you know the song, there’s no use pretending you’re offended. This story, however, reminds people of the fact that I’m not one to be offended at profanity per se; the sentiment underlying the language is the only offending force at work when profanity makes its appearance.
For real, though? You’re still reading? Stop reading. You will get offended or be put in the position that obligates you to pretend you’re offended. (A common affliction we all seem to suffer from more and more.)
Most of us have our profane “in-jokes,” ones which defy meticulous explanation.
One of mine is “Sketchy _____________.”
If someone passes by who looks like he just jumped out of bed after a long night in a beer-filled ditch, I laugh and sing a line from a Prince song. Its radio title was “Sexy M.F.” You can google it if you need to.
Likewise, if someone looks like a rejected extra from “Silence of The Lambs,” the dicey parts, I’ll croon the line in an even creepier falsetto. If they look like a failed professional bowler wearing stuff from his mom’s closet, he gets the “Sexy M.F.” Prince song. The only requirement is that I change “sexy” to “sketchy.”
Shortly after the new road bypassing Old Wire in North Springdale was finished, we were waiting at the light at 264. One of the weirdest people I’ve ever seen in my life was waiting on the opposite side of the intersection. He looked like Axe Body Spray had mated with Domino’s Pizza and produced a child. I suspect that even his birth certificate had been stamped “Suspicious.”
I sang the lyric wrong without thinking. Comedy gold was born.
If you’re ever around me and we see someone really wickedly strange, just nod and I’ll do the thing. There are few joys greater than hearing me sing in a falsetto, especially in regard to an obscure Prince song.
In closing, don’t be a “Sketchy ____________.”
Or I’ll sing at you as you pass by.
In the movie Top Gun, when Maverick (Tom Cruise) goes to Charlie’s House, most people remember the iconic song “Take My Breath Away.” For me, though, the song that stole the moment was Otis Redding’s “Sittin’ On the Dock of The Bay.” Toto originally was supposed to do the “Danger Zone” song, as well as another that would have been the song used instead of “Take My Breath Away.” Judas Priest was going to do a song for the soundtrack too but thought the movie would flop, as did many critics. Tom Cruise declined to do the movie repeatedly.
Most people with harsh criticisms of the movie tended to knock “the talking scenes” such as the one following the love scene at Charlie’s beach house. We all endured the testosterone-laden antics of our male friends in the late 80s as a result of this movie. For most of us who survived the 80s, each of us has at least one guilty pleasure in a song from the movie. I don’t think any of us miss the aviator sunglasses that seemed to be everywhere. None of us fully escaped the energy of Kenny Loggins as he sang “Danger Zone,” the fourth or fifth choice to sing the song.
What most people don’t consider is the unintentional coincidence of Otis’ biggest hit being in the scenes at the beach house. Maverick was about to go on the biggest mission of his life in one of the most modern airplanes in history, where death followed at every high-G spin.
Otis Redding recorded “Sittin’ On the Dock of The Bay” two times in 1967, with the second time being shortly before he died in December. The song was never officially finished. Otis is heard whistling in the song because he forgot the riffs he intended to fill in and started whistling to preserve the session. After Otis died, the beach sounds were added to this famous song by Steve Cropper, who helped Otis co-write the song.
I forgot to mention: Otis died in a plane crash.
The accordion is alleged to have been invented in Berlin in the 1820s. Historians have commented how appropriate it is that the accordion would reappear in Germany and might have been one of the forgotten reasons for WWI. A few modern conspiracists believe that accordions are extraterrestrial.
Weird Al Yankovic, Lawrence Welk, Billy Joel, Dennis Deyoung, George Clooney, Tom Cruise, and Meryl Streep are among the most famous modern accordionists.
According to recent historical finds, however, we now know that the first accordion was invented during the Spanish Inquisition in the 1400s. Given that the Catholic church and the Vatican in particular recently shared some of its archive with historians, we were able to read the original “Pope’s Guide To Stuff.”
Torquemada had been the Grand Inquisitor for fifteen years. Although the boot, thumbscrew, the Judas Chair, the rack, and the water cure were effective at terrorizing heretics, Torquemada’s servant noted that the greatest agony seemed to coincide with horrendously out of tune musical devices.
Since country music didn’t exist at the time, Torquemada’s servant diligently worked to devise something even worse than what we know as country music. After two years of working in secret, the servant connected a flame bellows to an intricate series of reeds and metal plates. During his first test, it is reported that he converted 37 heretics, but also 2,527 believers; their collective agony was so great that they simply fell to the ground and confessed their guilt, if only to stop the cacophony of the very first accordion. History tells us that 12,000 cats and dogs instantly died as well.
Due to the increasing number of people falsely confessing as the result of the effectiveness of the first accordion, Pope Sixtus IV decreed that the accordion was to be destroyed. Further, anyone attempting to replicate it would be put to death.
It wasn’t until about 1700 that an Italian re-invented the idea of a piano. It took another century, until 1820, before someone devised a version of the accordion that Torquemada’s servant invented. We know that modern accordions don’t quite match the horror of the one created during the Spanish Inquisition.
The results are similar, however.
Wikipedia asserts that the accordion and banjo are close cousins of the musical instrument world – and for obvious reasons.
Songs about being so cold that the dog won’t even get in the back of the truck.
The ceremony itself is quite the spectacle. Many of the artists spent several days in New York before the event. The record labels and the Hall of Fame made an effort to ensure that the paparazzi and the artists alike enjoyed themselves and treated it like a vacation.
During the 1998 trip, Andy Griffith and Don Knotts attended the festivities. Both were huge fans of not only The Eagles but also The Mama and The Papas. Don Knotts also enjoyed Santana. They had arranged to attend the ceremony and the pre-induction activities in costume from their roles on The Andy Griffith Show. Don Henley and Glenn Frey were both huge fans of the popular show. They had even unofficially re-recorded the theme song for Don and Andy and planned to give it to them as a surprise.
Due to the complexities of keeping some of the members of The Eagles separated, there were times in which Don Henley and Glenn Frey were the only members accepting the offers of being tourists in New York. Santana arranged to have an entire bowling alley available to anyone interested in knocking over some pins the night before the induction ceremony. Naturally, Don Knotts and Andry Griffith accepted. With a little prodding, Don Henley and Glenn Frey agreed to go, provided that the old-timers agreed to don their television costumes for the event. Surprisingly, Andy and Don good-naturedly agreed.
On the night of the event, a huge party bus arrived at the service entrance of the Waldorf. Santana, Don, Glenn, Andy, and a couple of other honorees climbed aboard the bus. They opened a bottle of champagne in celebration. Don Knotts was having a little trouble with his new hearing aid. Santana kept teasing him about shouting.
They arrived at the bowling alley, laughing and singing old melodies. After they went inside, they were surprised to discover that all 36 lanes were theirs. Only one member of the press was allowed to be there, and she had agreed that it was entirely off the record. Don Knotts, in his role as Barney Fife, pretended to wave his fake pistol in the air each time someone teased him about his hearing problem.
To warm up, Don Henley suggested that they throw a few balls randomly down the lanes to get a feel for throwing the ball. Glenn Frey laughed at this, as he was a renowned bowler and loved playing for money. Don Knotts was a little embarrassed about how badly he would throw the ball, so he walked the entire length of the cavernous bowling alley to use the last lane. “Holler when you all are ready to get down to business,” he told them. Glenn, always a quick wit, replied, “Just fire a warning shot when you’re ready.” Everyone laughed.
Glenn and Don took turns hurling the ball down the alley. Both were competitively eyeing one another. Santana stepped up and asked them, “Do you hear that?” They listened for a second. After hearing nothing, they continued throwing the ball. As they continued throwing the balls down the lane, they heard a couple of shouts.
All of them froze, certain they could hear someone shouting.
Andy stood up, smiling his huge smile that everyone loved.
“Ignore him. It’s Barney. I mean, Don.”
He paused, taking a moment to look directly at Don Henley and then Glenn Fry, his smile growing even wider.
“That’s just Fife In The Last Lane.”
In a nearby cavernous auditorium, perchance in another cosmos, voices rose and fell, each youthfully jockeying for position. The camaraderie of teamwork still lit each of their souls in excitement. Youth is a fuse which can be subdued only with great effort. Its exuberance is a trumpet’s undeniable fanfare.
I could hazily sense the subtle vibrancy of life percolating through the concrete walls as I sat on the right end of a worn wooden piano bench in the chorus room, a place I seldom ventured. My own voice was broken and even in the moments that I might have something to herald, doubt dutifully clamped my lips. Caged birds seldom discover their voices.
The lights were dim about us. I sat in awe, next to a transcendent creature whose humble mastery of those eighty-eight keys hypnotized me. Her long, nimble fingers playfully and effortlessly waltzed across the keyboard. She smiled at me, in part in the simple pleasure of sharing music she had created and in part from the delight she noted written on my face. If imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery, I’m unsure how to compare fathomless wonderment.
It’s a simple satisfaction of life to share a moment with another soul, one which transcends personality and place. Everything extraneous falls away, leaving people to face one another. The overlap of engagement is the subtlest of all possible harmonies. If the metronome of the universe finds the perfect synchronization, each person walks lightly and without recognition that their guards have yielded.
She continued to play as I sat, mute, imagining that I could see the notes float from the opened piano into the spectral air. Absent the vocabulary to express it, I realize now that I was living one of my first moments of bittersweet experience.
After a few sustained minutes, the tumult from the nearby hall spilled out and someone entered our shared sanctuary of the chorus room. The spell was broken as her devout hands moved away from their natural home above the ivories. She instinctively knew that the interloper had ruptured whatever interlude we had experienced. The notes which were magically suspended in the air dissolved and fell to the floor.
She and I smiled at one another – and for a breathless moment, I was rendered floorless.
I returned to my bestial life, one whose existence was the antithesis of that shared melodic moment. That the savagery of my separate life had suffered a momentary rest deepened its claw into my soul. I had managed to peer out the smudged window of my life for a moment.
As the years bury their minute-filled corpses in the past, I am able to sporadically recapture those minutes of rapture, listening. Out of time, out of place, she sits unhurriedly beside me, sharing the gift of presence and music. That moment resides forever in an absent place. In other moments of fanciful experience, I can feel its vacancy beckoning me, though I know it will be but a pale shadow of an iridescent memory of youth.
The gift of experience is that we often fail to appreciate the moments as they wash over us. The agony of wisdom is to discern how fleeting the sublime sensation of joy can be.
And so, we look back, away from the monumental gray of our mundane days.
Our lives often lack cadence and tempo except when sleuthed in reverse, in reverie, and in reverence.
Those melodies, though, they remain; eternal, and accompanied by the decrescendo of our bodies.