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Encore Performances: B.A.L.L.S. to You (Part Two).

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In which we flip over to Side Two of the Ballads, Atmospheres, Laments and Love Songs tape (a.k.a. B.A.L.L.S.) and review the other 45 minutes of music I used to listen to while roaming the ‘burbs.
(If you missed the first installment of this, click here to read.)

I’ll again include YouTube links to the songs where available, for anyone who wants ’em.
You will be less likely to want them than you might have been on Side 1.

Sentimental Lady,” Fleetwood Mac: Still prefer the original ’72 Mac version to the solo version that was a hit for Bob Welch five years later.
Not sure what there was in sentimental ladies to appeal to a 16-year-old boy, but I’ve always liked a good melody wherever I could find it.
Mellow not-quite-gold.

Let Me Roll It,” Paul McCartney and Wings: In which Macca lovingly if unintentionally tips his cap to his old mate John, and my mix gains the slightest of rockish tinges for a couple of minutes.
I dug this for some reason when I was 16, but listening now, it seems more repetitive to me than anything else.

Running Wild,” Roxy Music: Roxy was about as edgy as a loveseat by 1980, but they could still produce a heart-tugging grown-up ballad, with Bryan Ferry’s quaver front and center as always.
From the Flesh & Blood album, which was so unbearably marshmallowy I traded it in after a while. This was probably one of the better tunes on it, whatever that says about it.

“I Talk To The Wind,” King Crimson: Oh, God. Long, dour, mock-profound hippie jam.
You’d think “Sparkling In The Sand” would have taught me to avoid flute solos like the plague.
But no.
Robert Fripp tosses off an acceptably jazzy guitar solo, and Mike Giles turns in some similarly-acceptably-jazzy drum flourishes, but that’s aboot it.
The wind does not hear … the wind cannot hear … and perhaps the wind is the luckier for it.

(The studio version of this tune appears to have been chased off YouTube, which for purposes of this blog post is probably all the better. Here it is live in 1969. And here’s an 8-bit cover. It might be better.)

Have You Seen The Stars Tonite,” Paul Kantner and Jefferson Starship: Now this is what a hippie jam should be.
Kantner’s insistent open-tuned acoustic strumming anchors a simple construction that, while set in outer space, still seems touched by the warm amber glow of a setting sun.
Lovely harmonies from David Crosby and quicksilver steel from Jerome J. Garcia, then firmly in his Buddy-Emmons-of-Marin-County phase.

This is originally from the ur-1970 Blows Against the Empire LP.
But the place I first made its acquaintance was Flight Log, the double-LP 1977 set that summed up the previous decade’s best work from the Jefferson Starplane extended family.
A superb album; one of the soundtracks to my high school existence; and sadly, only issued on CD in Japan.

“The Long and Winding Road,” Beatles: The studio version of this one appears to have been banished from YouTube also; this is the closest I can get.

Yeah, you know this one. There’s a tear in Macca’s beer, in part because he’s forced to hear Lennon try to navigate his lovely toon on the unfamiliar dimensions of a bass guitar.
(In his book Revolution in the Head, Ian McDonald goes on at great length about the many muffs that can be heard if you listen closely enough to Lennon’s bass part.)

A pretty song, sure enough, but it wonders me why I didn’t put “Something” on instead.
I guess it’s easy to prefer self-pity when your dating record is 0-for-16-years.

Speaking of self-pity …

Oh Lonesome Me,” Neil Young: Oh, God, times ten. Is it too late to pretend some other, cooler, more listenable, less dreadfully whiny song was in this spot?

I wish I’d had the good taste to omit this one and instead include “The Losing End (When You’re On)” from Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, which is somewhat similar in content, but more original and less cloying in its lachrymosity.

Or “Don’t Cry No Tears” or “Pardon My Heart” from Zuma … or a good angry live version of “Like A Hurricane” … or … or … aw, shit.

Any World That I’m Welcome To,” Steely Dan: From my favorite Dan album, 1975’s Katy Lied.

An excellent evocation of buried trauma and square-peg rootlessness (“I’ve got this thing inside me / That’s got to find a place to hide me“) … tailor-made for that inner voice that says there’s gotta be something different and maybe even wrong about you, dude, ’cause otherwise why would you be walking the streets at 1:30 in the morning thinking about girls who only think about you when they wanna copy off your homework?

On the mythical reboot of this remix, I’d probably swap this one out for the original demo version of “Brooklyn” with Fagen singing, or maybe “Deacon Blues,” or even the underrated “Razor Boy” from Countdown to Ecstasy.

Mean Mistreater,” Grand Funk Railroad: Mark Farner played keyboards acceptably, as was famously said about Tom Lehrer and Jerry Garcia.
And on this particular heartbreak souvenir, he puts down his guitar and applies himself to a couple basic patterns on electric piano.

The song is no great shakes, but Don and Mel nudge Mark into a mid-song jam that gathers a refreshing bit of momentum.
And the tone of the electric piano is nice enough to bathe in — rich and ringing and resonant.

Silly Love Songs,” Wings: No longer inclined to either tolerate or pay tribute to Lennon, McCartney bursts out with a perfect distillation of what makes him great.
The crowning moment of Macca’s solo career, and a pleasure to encounter in any setting, as far as I’m concerned.

As a love song, of course, it sticks out like a sore thumb here on Side Two. Not sure what I was thinking, tonewise. Its placement very near the end does kinda suggest that love conquers all, though. Honor thy mixtape as a hidden intention.

“The Sheltering Sky,” King Crimson: We close with an entry from the Atmospheres column, and yet another toon that’s not on YouTube in its original incarnation (here’s a live version.)
In which the 1981 King Crimson — almost an entirely different ensemble than 1969 King Crimson — hunkers down next to a slow fire in some Moroccan desert outpost and boils down a simple Middle Eastern riff until it practically falls apart over rice.
Depending on my mood, this is either exotic and relaxing, or well-nigh interminable.

We don’t make it to the end on B.A.L.L.S. Side Two, though, thanks to the time limitations of 90-minute tape.

And there you have it — the soundtrack to my nocturnal teenage creepy-crawling.
Time for me to start for home and curl up between the sheets.


Encore Performances: B.A.L.L.S. to You (Part One).

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This appeared on the old blog almost exactly five years ago. A musing about mixtapes by a social media acquaintance reminded me of it. This has been somewhat reworked for its encore appearance. Part II to come.
As with all other content on this blog, YouTube links are only guaranteed to work at the time of posting.

We celebrate this blog’s four-year anniversary by plunging headlong into our navel — or, more accurately, retracing our steps into our 16-year-old navel.
(Yeah, I know. A trip everyone wants to take. But hey, it’s no less relevant than anything else I’ve written. And the soundtrack’s interesting.)

From time to time, at a certain age, I would spend summer nights by sneaking out in the early morning and going walking in a massive subdivision not too far from my house.
At 1:30 in the morning, on dark summer nights with barely a breeze, I’d be skulking past the split-levels with my Walkman, generally thinking about girls I didn’t have the cojones to ask out, and girls who’d never noticed me, and girls who seemed to exist in other universes.
There were other things to think about besides unattained girls (eventually, I managed to attain one, so I’m sure she got on the agenda too), but that was probably a good part of what was on the mental menu.

I had the perfect soundtrack for my wanderings in a certain hand-assembled mixtape.
I called it “Ballads, Atmospheres, Laments and Love Songs,” which not only summed up the contents perfectly, but made for a charming acronym as well.
Mood music for the angsty teenage soul.
(There was also a companion tape of the heaviest, fuzziest arena-rock I could find, called “Assorted Rockers, Grinders and Guitar Heaviness,” or A.R.G.G.H. We won’t be covering that today, or any other day.)

I still have my tape of nocturnal ballads (editorial update: not any more I don’t.) And, motivated by an email conversation with an old high school friend, I dug it out and listened to it.

And now, through the eyes of a 42-year-old, I’m going to review it, one 45-minute side at a time.

B.A.L.L.S. to you all, then.

Side One:

The Song Is Over,” The Who: I still love the mesmeric musical atmosphere of this, even if Pete Townshend’s lyrical references to mountains, sky and wide-open spaces reveal his rarely acknowledged debt to the Von Trapp family.

Another Who song that effectively uses Townshend and Roger Daltrey on different vocal parts to best advantage.

MIA,” Aerosmith: Some say the title is a reference to Steven Tyler’s daughter Mia, while others say it’s a reference to recently departed guitarist Joe Perry. This is what passes for ambiguity in the music of Aerosmith.
OK, it’s more complex than “Big Ten Inch Record,” anyway.

Features a nice harmonized guitar solo from Perry, or Brad Whitford, or Jimmy Crespo, or Golda Meir, or whoever was in the studio at the time and able to stand upright and play the neck in the middle.
Other than that, not that much to stick in the mind.

You See Me Crying,” Aerosmith: That’s right, a double dose of Steven Tyler power ballads. I must really have been melancholic. (Although, for the record, I never actually cried over anybody. Not wired that way.)

It says something about my 16-year-old taste that “Seasons of Wither,” Tyler’s most effective ballad of the ’70s, and “Dream On,” his most commercially successful, are both nowhere to be found here.

From Aero’s commercial breakthrough, Toys In The Attic, this would be a better song if Tyler had resisted the urge to sing the third verse in his castrated-alley-cat upper register.

Sail On Sailor,” Beach Boys: From 1973’s In Concert album, Blondie Chaplin explores Brian Wilson’s nautical neuroses in front of a full hockey rink.

Despite its weaknesses (where’s Dennis Wilson, besides the cover?), In Concert is a fine album because it kicks a lot of the studio versions in the ass and gives them new energy.
(If you only know the studio version of “Marcella,” for instance, you don’t fully appreciate the song.)
That’s true for “Sail On Sailor,” which gains a kind of saunter in its live incarnation, without compromising the fear and loneliness in the lyrics.
I would have liked to see that edition of the band.

I Think You Know,” Todd Rundgren: I still hear this one in my head, 25+ years later … one of the toons that cemented my fondness for Rundgren, no matter how much he insists on testing it.
What better lyric for a midnight ramble than “I can’t explain / What’s in my brain / It tells me where to go“?

Incidentally, the girl who eventually agreed to go out with me (though I still went night-walking every so often, just on principle) was/is the daughter of two Rundgren fans whose names appear on the big fold-out poster included in the Todd album.
(A little background for non-fans: Rundgren’s A Wizard/A True Star? album included a card that fans could send in to have their names included in some unspecified future project.
The follow-up album, Todd, included a big poster of the album cover photo, rendered in lines of text made up of the names of fans who had submitted the card. I no longer remember where on the poster my ex’s parents’ names are, but I was much impressed at the time.)

Just One Victory,” Todd Rundgren and Utopia: Taken from the Another Live album, 1975.
A classic anthem of honky-soul uplift, and still a pleasure to listen to.
Not really a ballad, atmosphere or lament; I’m not sure how it ended up on this mix except that I liked it.
Maybe I thought I’d go jump off the nearby water tower if I didn’t have something to lift my spirits.

Dear Prudence,” The Beatles: In terms of ballads, atmospheres or laments, “Julia” might have been a better choice from the White Album.
Still, this Lennon tune holds up OK, big heavy ending and all.
I love how the fingerpicked guitar trails off at the end. Still my favorite part of the song.

Sparkling In The Sand,” Tower of Power: From their wonderfully named debut album, East Bay Grease.
A pretty ballad and the very essence of smoove longing; but way, way, way too long at nine minutes.
In my grown-up review, this was the first song I fast-forwarded through, and I think I did that fairly frequently as a kid too.
(There was no Ron Burgundy back then to make bossa-nova flute solos seem like laughable indulgence.)
The version linked above runs 4:30 or so and is cut down from the album version; you can thank me later.

Bell Bottom Blues,” Derek and the Dominos: My relationship to Eric Clapton’s music has largely curdled in recent years. I’ve grown tired of guitar-hero posturing and mass-produced electric blues. Oh, and Enoch Powell.

But this … this is exquisite, heartfelt and fiery, and also refreshing proof that my musical taste at age 16 was not all shite.

Neat touch: Note how Clapton sings along with the first four notes of his solo (“doo doo doo doo,”) then lets his fingers do the walking the rest of the way.

All Blues,” Miles Davis: This was always a jam favorite in the high school bandroom. Some days we played it fast; some days we played it glacially slow; but we never played it as well as Miles and company did in 1959.

And — click! — that’s the end of Side One.
See y’all on the flip side.

Faded glory.

I don’t spend much time in high schools nowadays. The little time I do spend in my local school is generally limited to the auditorium, where the quarterly band concerts are.

One of my kids had his first youth basketball practice today, so I got to infiltrate the athletic wing.

I couldn’t recall having been there before. It was shinier and nicer-smelling than the high-school athletic wing of my youth.

(Most things I run into are shinier and nicer-smelling than they were in 1990. Curious, that.)

But one thing about the athletic area made it instantly familiar.


It occurred to me that every high school in the country could have the exact same trophies in its display cases, and no one would ever be the wiser.

Perhaps they all do, and these display cases are a quiet, chuckling in-joke among the athletic directors of the world.

(I bet you never thought of your local high school athletic director as puckish, playful or humorous. Maybe he’s playing a fabulous prank on the entire community, out there in plain sight.)

I also had the thought that, at some athletically challenged high school, the senior class might take the money for its senior gift and buy 10 “historic” awards to beef up the school trophy case.

C’mon. If you walked past a display case with plaques reading Runner-Up Hurricane Invitational 1982 and Regional Tournament Champions 1988 and Gus Kekula All-State Third Baseman 1973, would you have any idea they were fake and had been newly minted a month before?

Seems to me that a creatively minded senior class gift could jump-start an athletic tradition at their high school. It would be a better investment than a new sign or new granite bench in front of the school.

I kinda hope I’m not the first person who ever thought of this, and that someone’s actually done it. I’ll never know, though.

(Which is as it should be.)

I was on a couple of cross-country teams in high school that came away from meets with hardware. I wonder if those plaques and trophies are still on display.

My guess is probably not. My old school’s sports teams have gotten markedly better since I graduated. (Coincidence? No.)

I imagine the trophies of 1990 have long since been shouldered aside by garlands of more recent vintage.

That’s fine with me. High schools are no place for immortality, and I have no problem accepting that there is no trace of me left at my old school.

If I’d been All-State, like old Gus Kekula, maybe I’d feel differently.

Days of rage.

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Seems like it’s been a post a day around here lately. I need to shut up already.

But before I do:

Something (I’ve already forgotten what) put me in mind today of one of the choice bits of slang at Penfield High School, circa 1989:


The Internet tells me that a “rager” is common slang for a wild, no-holds-barred party — the kind where legends are made, and stuff ends up broken all over the house, and people feel pangs of regret when they’re 35.

When I asked about the term “rager” on Twitter, a New Hampshire-based acquaintance of mine essentially said, “Oh, yeah. A big party, right?”

(Only about a month ago, a Duke University fraternity got in trouble for holding an Asian-themed party nicknamed the “Racist Rager.” Nice clownshow, bros.)

But in my little corner of teenage America, a “rager” was an individual person, not a party.

I picked up the term from some of the kids a couple years older on my cross-country team. It was actually an abbreviation for “rage machine,” which was an especially high honorific.

And it could be used either sincerely …

Friend: “I had 16 cans of Piels at the party the other night. Started at 6 p.m., ended at 4 a.m., and I had Zeppelin playing the entire time. I woke up in my backyard the next morning with my mom yelling at me and a priest giving me the last rites.”
Me: “Ludwig, you’re a rager.”

… or sarcastically …

Friend: “I totally forgot we had science homework last night, so I skipped orchestra and went to the library to copy it off Mimi Moon. I think I’m running a D+ in orchestra but I don’t care.”
Me: “Ludwig, you’re a rager.”

(The line between sincere and sarcastic is never finer than when you’re 16.)

To translate it into 21st-century slang, a “rager” was a person who was going hard.

Which, in the terms of my time and place, generally (though not always) meant someone who was simultaneously attempting to ingest as many alcoholic beverages and listen to as much Seventies hard rock as possible.

Or, when used sarcastically, a “rager” was a person who was a total, unredeemable poser.

(“Poser” … there’s another great bit of slang. Do kids still use that for someone who’s totally lamesauce?)

I have no idea if anyone, anywhere, ever used the word “rager” in this fashion, outside about two dozen kids at Penfield High in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Still, I’m putting it out on the Internet, just in case someone goes searching for it. Now there’s a written record. Some future chronicler of the ways of America’s people will thank me.

Mundane Moments: The Porch of Secrets and the Pumpkin of Fire.

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My maternal grandpa was a well-meaning but mediocre photographer, skilled at bringing the shutter down a moment too early or late, or in taking pictures of things that were not as quirky or offbeat (or well-lit) as he thought.

I’m going to dredge some of his efforts out of the family scrapbooks where they sit unappreciated, and bring them out for contemplation.

Another installment, then.

# # # # #

All day the little boy had felt something strange coming, a sense in his bones that unusual things were about to happen.

But he hadn’t expected the ragged-looking yet somehow friendly giant to step out from behind the bushes and corner him just as he went outside to play.

“You didn’t know I was coming for you,” the giant said, reading the lad’s confused expression in an instant. “Your parents haven’t been giving you your mail, have they?”

“I… I … mail?”

“Never you mind,” the giant said, emitting a vast, vaguely peaty sigh.

Then he hunched down to the boy’s level and began to explain.

“You have secret powers,” he burred, in an exotic accent quite dissimilar to the nasal tones of the lad’s hometown. “You are a wizard, boy. A special wizard. An agricultural wizard. The soil is your dominion. The worm and the cowflop are your allies … corn rot and drought, your implacable foes.

“People very close to you gave their lives for you to inherit this power. Enemies of the soil do not want you to thrive. Your life is in danger, laddie. Make no mistake. That scar beneath your puddin-bowl haircut? You didn’t really get that falling off a teeter-totter.

I’ll be back in the morning to take you to the academy. Pack your things. There is wizarding to be learned and no time to be lost.

“For now, keep this gourd. Hold it close. It is your destiny.

“I’ll be back.”

And then a puff of smoke … dissipating in the early autumn wind, leaving only a slack-jawed little boy, slowly awakening to his special, life-changing gift and its heavy responsibilities.



Penfield, New York, 1974.

“The credit goes to the kids.”

Tonight, I interrupt the Wheels of Fire series — a look at one mundane high-school cross-country season through the running log of one mundane freshman — for a pretty cool bit of news from last week.

Penfield High School cross-country coach Dave Hennessey — he’s the adult at far right of the Wheels of Fire logo/picture — last week recorded his 900th win at a boys’ or girls’ meet. (It was the girls’ team that scored the milestone win, apparently.)

Even before the big win, Coach Hennessey already ranked as the nation’s all-time leader in cross-country coaching victories, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.

Coach Henn, as he is generally known, had already been at Penfield for a dozen years when the above picture was taken in 1987.

Not only is he still there, but the years seem to have gifted him with some talented teams. Or perhaps they are just more focused and less goofy than the teams I ran on. Whatever the case, on the rare occasions when I see cross-country results in the D&C, Penfield teams usually seem to contend pretty well.

Penfield High is not one of those dynastic schools you read about that racks up 10 state championships in a row. But they seem to be consistently competitive — a pattern that started sometime after I graduated.

With typical modesty, Coach Henn credited his win total to “the kids” who “took forth a lot of great effort.”

As one of those kids, I hereby take credit for my lot of great effort. I guesstimate that I contributed, as one of the top six varsity runners, to perhaps a half-dozen of Coach Hennessey’s league-meet wins.

I had no idea I was making history at the time; I was just trying not to puke.

But seriously: Congratulations to Coach Henn for his skill, endurance, patience and commitment.

And a hat tip, too, to all those kids since 1975 — the jocks, the goofballs, the nerds, the misfits — whom he taught to run to win, and who found a place for themselves in the world of high school cross-country.

Hopefully Coach Henn has it in him to indoctrinate at least a few more classes into that group before he decides he’s set up enough chutes and spray-painted enough roots for one lifetime.

Diminished expectations.

Yes, at some point soon I will write about something other than cross-country. Other ideas are in my head.

But tonight it is late, and the beast has gone unfed for a few days. So we return once more to the latest project, based on my ninth-grade running log from 25 years ago:

Today it is August 27, 1987. It is rainy. This is a significant development.

Most of the time, the cross-country team ran on a path called the “perimeter,” so named because it traced the borders of three adjoining properties — the public library, the high school, and a nearby private school that had been the public high school until the 1960s.

The perimeter had a lot of things going for it.

It was just about exactly two miles in length, with commonly agreed-upon mile points, which made measuring your workout easy.

It was grassy, with just enough gentle inclines and downgrades to make life vaguely interesting.

And it carried you past a variety of settings — the library; the cemetery; girls’ soccer practice; a row of pear trees; traffic on Baird or Five Mile Line roads — any and all of which offered the potential for breaking up the monotony.

(Sometimes we broke up the monotony ourselves. On at least two occasions in my memory, a bunch of us dropped shorts and ran down a stretch of Baird Road in our underwear. We used to joke about getting T-shirts with the name of a hated rival — “McQuaid Jesuit Cross-Country” — to wear on days we decided to offend the public decency. We never did, but we totally shoulda.)

But sometimes we were forced off the perimeter — usually by steady rain, which rendered some portions boggy.

On days like that — days like Aug. 27, 1987 — we ended up running laps of the high school parking lot.

The parking lot was everything the perimeter wasn’t. It was small, paved, oddly shaped (each lap represented some weird fraction of a mile), boring, quickly repetitive, and easily patrolled by authority figures.
Plus the weather was always lousy, and cars were always coming and going.

It was hard to get excited about running laps in the parking lot. Most of the time, we couldn’t.

And that’s how my third practice of the year — a workout I sorely needed at the time — devolved into a “blow-off type practice.”

Sometimes we rise to the occasion. And other times, the circumstances drag us down.

At least I kept my shorts on.