Norm & Me

I’ve just added my Norm Nathan tribute pages from my old and defunct website to this site. Click on the Norm Nathan button on the navigation bar above and you’ll go to the introduction page. There’s also a bio of Norm, and two pages of my favorite memories of Norm and his wife, Norma.

I thought to kick it off right, I’d feature the page Norm & Me here as a post as well. I wrote this piece – along with all the material here related to The Norm Nathan Person – in 1999. 

I still miss that guy. 


The first time I heard Norm Nathan was on a New Year’s Eve. I’m not sure of the year. I was around nine years old so it was around 1964. It was the first time my parents had allowed me to stay up until midnight. They had gone out for the evening and my siblings were asleep. It was just me and my Aunt Eva, my mother’s aunt, so I guess you could call her my great aunt. She was in her seventies and we were best friends. We’d made popcorn and watched TV and now we were listening to the radio to hear the New Year rung in. As always in our house in those days the radio was tuned to WHDH, my parents’ favorite station. We were listening to Norm’s program “Sounds In The Night” which started at 11:30 p.m. My memory of this is hazy but just before midnight Norm did some sort of countdown and then chimes or a church bell rang out twelve times. When the bells stopped, Norm said something – I don’t recall what it was. But it must have been profoundly silly because I do recall my aunt and I were both doubled over with laughter. Here we were, a nine year old kid and a woman in her seventies and both of us had been reached by this voice on the radio.

For the next few years any time I was allowed to stay up past 11:30, or we were in the car at that hour on the way home from a trip, I would listen to that voice. When I was in my early teens and WHDH moved Norm to afternoon drive I would listen to him every day when I got home from school. When I was in high school and they moved him to middays I could only hear him during vacations or when he’d fill in for Jess Cain on the morning show. That wasn’t enough. So when my best friend Alan got a car…uhm…as Norm would say, come closer because I don’t want everybody to hear this, we used to skip class and sit in his car and listen to Norm’s show.

I first met Norm Nathan in December of 1973. I was 18 years old, a freshman at Emerson College and I’d just landed a slot as the co-host of a weekly comedy/variety show on the college’s FM station, WERS. The first thing I did was to write a letter to my Radio Hero, Norm Nathan, to see if he would consent to an interview. A week later I was sitting in Norm’s windowless office at WHDH hardly able to believe it! I was nervous as this was the first interview I’d ever done. I was really hoping I didn’t ask any stupid questions. Norm was wonderful and the interview went great. He laughed at the questions that I’d hoped he would laugh at and he gave me great tape. My friend Alan had driven me to the station and Norm had made us both feel at home and spent quite a bit of time talking with us after the interview was over. (A couple of years later Alan told me he was at some event that Norm hosted and went up to introduce himself afterward and Norm remembered him and they talked like old friends.) The interview aired on our first show. A few weeks later I got a letter from Norm – a fan letter! He’d been listening to the show every week and liked the comedy we were doing and wanted to know if…er, maybe there was a way he could be on the show again? Of course we had him back! This time he was in the studio with us and he took part in our comedy bits and played some silly characters.

I’ll never forget the day he came over to WERS to record his bits for the show. There was one sketch in which Norm would play himself in the the lead role. The two of us were sitting in this tiny production studio getting ready to record. I handed Norm the script – which I had worked very hard on – and he read it silently. Silently! This was a comedy script! I was beginning to panic, thinking “He hates it. He probably wishes he’d never agreed to do this. He must be right – it must stink!” He just kept reading, silently. I finally spoke up and said hesitantly, “I tried to write it in your style.” “I know,” he said, “This is amazing! I’ve never seen it on paper before!” Norm appeared with me a number of times on WERS during my four years in college. Several times he took part in on-air fundraisers for charity during my jazz program. Every time he was on we’d get more contributions than in any other hour of the week.

In my senior year Norm helped me get an internship at his new station, WEEI. Later I was hired as a newswriter and producer. My first assignment in the latter role was as Norm’s producer, setting up his interviews. We had similiar interests – radio, jazz, baseball, politics – so we worked together very well. And, although I must have been as green as the outfield grass at Fenway Park, Norm treated me as a peer. I certainly hadn’t earned that kind of respect yet but that’s the way Norm was. His celebrity and talent never went to his head. I remember once we were headed out to lunch after work and he had to stop at the bank to cash his check. He’s standing at the teller’s window talking to me while the teller – a guy in his twenties – recognizes Norm from the TV show he was doing at that time. I could see the excitement on this guy’s face – he couldn’t believe he was waiting on NORM NATHAN! Hey, I knew how he felt. But Norm was oblivious. The teller was extremely polite and efficient and Norm thanked him and as we walked away Norm said to me, “That was the most enthusiastic teller I’ve ever seen.” I said, “He obviously recognized you from TV.” Norm had had no idea and now he felt embarassed that he hadn’t said something besides thank you. “I’m such a putz,” he said.

Two pictures come into my head when I think back to WEEI in 1977 and both of them involve Norm’s wardrobe. Newsrooms were pretty tough rooms in those days. The ribbing could be merciless! Once Norm came in dressed in a white shirt that was covered with the autographs of great jazz artists: Ella, Dizzy, Bird, Miles, Trane. It was a wild-looking shirt and he heard about it all day from his colleagues. Another time on a day when the WEEI Softball Team had an evening game, Norm – who was the team’s starting pitcher – came in and anchored the news wearing his uniform. On the back it had his nickname. You’re probably thinking it said “The Old Sport.” Uh-uh. “Stormin’ Norman” is what it said.

Norm’s style of dress was often a topic of conversation among his colleagues when Norm wasn’t around. But Norm knew he’d never make the cover of GQ and didn’t care. While he was working at WEEI, Norm also co-hosted a weekly TV show on WCVB Channel 5 Boston called “Sunday Open House.” Another personality at the TV station, Frank Avruch, a very nice man and a long time friend of Norm’s, was known for his good fashion sense. He would appear as the host of the station’s movie series dressed in a tuxedo. Earlier in his career Avruch had played Bozo the Clown on Channel 5. One day we were talking about the TV show and Norm told me that it was written into his contract for “Sunday Open House” that he couldn’t pick out his own clothes! “The station pays for the clothes I wear on the show so they’re not about to trust me. They make Frank Avruch go with me when I buy my suits.” As I chuckled at that Norm went on, “I guess it’s pretty sad when the boss wants some Bozo to choose your clothes for you.”

Over the years Norm interviewed the comedian/writer/musician/actor Steve Allen a number of times. If you ever heard them together you could tell there was mutual respect and I know Norm really enjoyed talking with Steve. So here’s a little piece of trivia I’d like to brag about: I’m the guy that set up their first interview. I wish there was a great story to go along with that fact but I don’t recall anything unusual about making the arrangements. Just a little footnote to The Norm Nathan Story.

The thing I’m most proud of from my time at WEEI is a documentary I wrote and produced called “Thinking Back: Boston Radio in the ’40s and ’50s.” There had been many specials on both radio and TV in the 1970’s about the network shows in the “Golden Days of Radio” but I’d never heard one about local radio. I had come up with the idea for the show a couple of years earlier and thought about producing it for the college station but it never happened. So, on my first day on the job at WEEI, I went in and pitched the idea to the boss, Mike Ludlum. I still can’t believe he let me do this. I was 22, a part-time newswriter, still in college, and I’d never produced a documentary before, but he said yes. As I look back I figure Norm must have gone in and talked to him about me, either about that show in particular or about my talents in general. Whatever…I got to do the show and better yet – Norm would be the host! We had a ball working on that show. We interviewed Bob & Ray, Curt Gowdy, Leo Egan, Arch MacDonald, Sherm Feller, Tom Russell and others. I found a guy who taught at Keene State College in New Hampshire named Lou Dumont who had worked at WCOP Boston in the 1940’s and who had made what were now rare recordings of the local broadcasts of the time. Lou provided us with the tapes and we put together a wonderful half-hour show. After several weeks of preparation the day came to record the program. It was a lot of work and we were in the studio for several hours. Norm was great and looked to me (ME!) for direction constantly. “Am I doing this okay?”…”Is that how you want me to read that?”…”I think I muffed that one. Let’s try it again.” You couldn’t find an easier person with whom to work. Norm had also had to pull his regular shift so he’d had a really long day. After the recording session was over and I finished packing stuff up, I was getting ready to leave and stopped by Norm’s desk to say thanks and good night when he said, “Kid, let me buy you a drink.” We went across Boylston Street to J.C. Hillary’s to sit at the bar and discuss the show and how it had gone. When our drinks arrived Norm Nathan – my Radio Hero – lifted his glass to me and said, “Steve, I’ve been in this business for thirty years and that was the best damn show I have ever been associated with.” I was speechless.

After I left WEEI to pursue an on-air career Norm always stayed in touch. We’d write letters regularly and talk by phone from time to time. Anytime I called Norm – from some outpost like Geneva, New York – he’d always make me hang up and he’d call me back so he’d be paying for it. I’d send him airchecks (tapes) of my work and he’d send me critiques. When I landed a job at ABC News in 1980 I came home to visit my folks for a few days before starting the new gig. I phoned Norm and he invited me to come in to WHDH where he was back on the overnight shift, doing a talk show for the first time. My Dad drove me in and there we were, sitting in studio as Norm began his show. After his opening remarks Norm shocked me by introducing me as his special guest, “a young newsman who’s just been hired by ABC News and was nice enough to stop by before heading to his assignment in New York.” Norm interviewed me for a bit and then started taking calls. He included me in the conversation too. The callers didn’t know who I was and didn’t care but Norm acted like I was his co-host. At 3 a.m. we were about to leave. Norm thanked me on the air for being with him that night and then opened the microphone nearest my Dad and said, “Steve’s father’s been sitting here quietly all night long. Why don’t you say hello to the audience.” My Dad was not expecting this and began to say, “Yeah, this is Steve’s father — ” but that’s all he got out because Norm interupted him. “All right Steve’s father, that’s quite enough. I had no idea you were going to ramble on like that.” We all cracked up.

Once when I was back to Boston for a visit, I was meeting Norm for dinner. He asked me to meet him at his new station, WMRE, which was located in the Fenway Park building. I got there toward the end of Norm’s shift as he was doing his final on-air breaks and putting away his carts (recorded music). “I hate for you to see me like this,” he told me. He hated that station and everything about it. “Everyone thinks I must be happy because I’m a DJ again and I’m playing these old songs. But we’re not playing any of the good old songs, we’re playing all the crappy ones.” His shift ended and we went back to the disc jockey office so Norm could collect his things. We sat in Norm’s cubicle and talked for a while. Eventually a WMRE colleague came in to the office – Bill Marlowe. Marlowe was another Boston radio legend who, in his time – which was about thirty years previous – was pretty hot stuff, a local star. He had one of the biggest voices in the world. But he also had one of the biggest egos in the world so a lot of radio people didn’t like him. Norm was one of them. Now, you’ve got to know a couple of facts before I continue. First, as I said, I’d been working in New York so I had no idea that Marlowe was working at WMRE and, although I’d heard him on the radio in the past I’d never seen him before, so I had no idea who this guy was that was walking toward us. Second, Norm did an unbelievably funny impression of Bill Marlowe and had entertained me with it many times over the years. Now, back to our story… Norm turns casually and says, “Bill, I’d like you to meet a friend of mine, Steve LeVeille, from ABC News in New York.” Bill, ever gracious when meeting somebody who might be important, immediately offered his hand and as I shook it Norm looked at me with a straight face and said, “Steve, meet Bill Marlowe.” I tried not to flinch as I exchanged pleasantries with Bill. It was all I could do not to burst out laughing! Then to make it worse Norm, who now was standing slightly behind Marlowe, started making silly faces at me, and on top of that, all I could think of was Norm’s Marlowe impression. And now I’m listening to Marlowe talking to me and it sounds just like Norm’s impression! I have no idea what I said to Marlowe and no idea how I was able to hold in the laughter. A few minutes later when we were safely outside the building I lost it, cracked up, and couldn’t stop laughing. “What’s so funny?” Norm asked knowingly. “You (expletive deleted)!” I replied. We both laughed all the way to Kenmore Square.

We stopped at a bar to meet up with another friend, Mike Ludlum, our old boss at WEEI and by this time a big wig at WCBS New York, and the three of us headed off to the restaurant. It was a classy restaurant and gentlemen were required to wear jackets. Mike was dressed in a suit as he’d just flown in from New York after work. I was wearing jeans but also a sportscoat. Norm, who as mentioned earlier was never known as a snappy dresser, had a dress shirt and slacks. The maitre’d wouldn’t let Norm in. Here’s Mike and me, just a couple of guys, with Norm – a real celebrity who had already been recognized by a couple of other customers as we’d entered the restaurant – and Norm’s the one who can’t get in! “What do you mean, I can’t come in?” Norm asked the maitre’d angrily. “I’m sorry sir but gentleman must be dressed appropriately,” was the response. Norm was steamed. He pointed to me and said, “But he’s wearing blue jeans.” “I can see that sir but we require a jacket,” was the reply. Mike suggested we go somewhere else. But Norm was now adamant about dining here. He turned to the people in line behind us and said sheepishly, “I’m sorry to make you wait but I’m not dressed appropriately.” After we hemmed and hawed about what to do for a minute the maitre’d finally said, “We could provide you with a jacket, sir.” “Oh,” Norm repeated to Mike and me, “they could provide me with a jacket.” Turning back to the maitre’d Norm said, “Do you have something in a nice charcol gray? If not I’d settle for navy blue.” The people behind us giggled as did Mike and I, and the maitre’d said, “I’ll see what we can do sir.” So we all moved over to a closet by the coatroom and someone from the staff helped Norm into this thing that looked more like a sweater than a jacket. I think it was the only thing in the closet. “Do you think he’ll let me in with this? It’s not really a jacket,” Norm said to the attendant who just shrugged. We walked back over to the maitre’d and Norm said, pointing to his sweater, “I kind of like this, can I buy it?” The startled maitre’d said, “I don’t know sir. May I seat you now?”

When I married The Wonderful Diane in 1984, Norm and his wife Norma drove up to New Hampshire as guests at our wedding. They sat with my parents friends’ The Parkers and, if I’m remembering correctly, with the parents of my friend Alan. For years afterward my mother would say, “Don Parker still talks about how funny Norm Nathan was at your wedding reception and what a nice man he is. And oh, that Norma. They said she was really something!” She was! (Click below for a couple of Norma stories.)

Steve Norm 1

Steve LeVeille with Norm Nathan at Norm’s “Fifty Years in Broadcasting” Bash.

In 1991 I joined WBZ as a talk show host. I still have the Air Schedule from my first week at the station – not because it was the first time I was on a WBZ schedule but because it was the first time I was on the same schedule as Norm Nathan! We had worked together 14 years earlier at WEEI but now to be an on-air colleague of Norm’s…well, I guess it was a dream come true. In those days the best part of working at WBZ for me were the times that I’d work the shift just before or just after Norm. Then we’d get to do what’s called in radio lingo, a “cross-over.” That’s when the host of the show that’s ending chats for a few minutes with the host of the show that’s about to start. With Norm and me, as some of you may remember, it was never for “a few minutes.” Whenever I’d fill in for David Brudnoy on Friday nights, Norm would be my relief. I’d come out of the studio with my stuff to make way for him and he’d say, “Get back in there. You’re going to be on with me.” If he had a guest scheduled at the start of his show, the guest would have to wait. Norm would talk with me for 30 to 45 minutes. If I do say so myself, and I do(!), it was great radio. We’d talk about the topic I’d just finished doing in the previous hour or the one he was going to do on his show or about the Red Sox or radio or music or whatever was happening in Boston that week. The conversation would be filled with jokes and laughter. I started getting fan mail from listeners who would write that their favorite time of the week was when Norm and I were on together. Norm was also getting this kind of fan mail. Although I was on the air with him a number of times over the years I’ve often wished we could have done a show together on a regular basis. We talked about it a few times and actually tried to put something together once but it was one of those things that just didn’t work out.

The most difficult moment I’ve ever had on the air was on my old Saturday afternoon talk show on WBZ. The newsroom alerted me that they’d just received word that Norm’s wife had died. If you don’t know about her, this was big news. Norma Nathan was the top gossip columnist in Boston for many years. She had been ill for some time so the news was not unexpected but I certainly hadn’t given any thought to the possibility that I’d be on the air when it happened. My newscaster, Jaqueline Goddard, went to the news studio to do the bulletin. We just happened to be in a commercial break as she was doing so, so I said to her on the intercom, “Jacquie, when you’re done – stay there. I think I might need some help for a few minutes.” I was right. As Jacquie aired the news bulletin and gave the details, I was sitting in my studio worrying about Norm. “Where is he right now? Was he with her when she passed or did someone have to break the news to him? How’s he holding up? He loved her so much. How is he going to get through this?” And then, suddenly, Jacquie was done and it was time for me to go back on the air. I started by talking about Norma directly to Jacquie so that she would have to respond. My voice wavered and I was grasping for the right words. Jacquie was a real pro (she went on to become Mayor Menino’s press secretary) and she helped me get past those first few minutes. But hey, she had a breaking news story going and she had to get back to the newsroom and start working the phones. So I thanked her and continued talking and started telling some stories about my encounters with Norma and I asked the callers to “give me a hand” in getting through the rest of the program. And they did.

In 1996 I was working for Monitor Radio, covering the presidential campaign. In October I spoke with Norm on the phone. Although he hated talking about it on the radio Norm loved to talk politics off the air. He wanted all the details of the stories I’d been working on and what I was doing next and we discussed the campaign in general. He wanted to get together for dinner but I was about to leave town to do some reporting in the midwest. Then I’d be back in town for two days to file some stories and then right down to Washington to cover Bob Dole’s headquarters on election night. We made plans to have dinner in November, the week after the election.

I got back from Indiana late one night and was up early the next morning, at the computer writing my story on deadline and talking with my editor on the phone. My wife was getting ready to go to work. Diane came in and said, “Steve, I just heard on ‘BZ that Norm died.” I was stunned. I told my editor what had happened and said, “I can’t write this right now. I’ll call you back.”

An hour later I called him back and resumed my work. Life went on, radio went on. But it’s never been the same.

Norma & Me

Jackie Robinson Day

“You can’t tell the players with a scorecard.”

This “everybody wears 42″ thing is one of the stupidest promotions baseball has ever done (and there have been many). It’s one of those ideas that sounds nice – too nice for anyone to speak up against it…but in practice, it is stupid.

It has led to a new tradition in my house – we don’t watch baseball on Jackie Robinson Day…which kind of defeats the whole purpose, doesn’t it?

Where’s My Comment?

“I can’t believe I’m the first one to comment on this blog…” You’re not.

“Steve, you don’t have any comments. Is anybody reading your blog?” Yes. A surprising number of people are.

“I’ve commented on several of your blog posts but I’m not going to comment on any more until I know you are reading the comments.” I am. Now you know.

“How long does it take to get moderated?” You’ve been moderated. (Was it good for you?)

Yup, I’m reading the comments people make to this blog. Nope, I’m not approving any comments so they don’t appear on your screen.

Why?

I did radio talk shows for years. Those shows were a two-way street. I talked, you listened. You talked, I listened. And everybody else heard us. That was your chance. I don’t do that format here. As explained in my very first post here, this blog is for me. You can read it if you want. Or not. You can send me a comment here or email me. I’ll read it. But everybody else won’t see it. Been there, done that. I write this blog for me, because I want to. I read your comments – for me, because I want to. And that’s as far as it goes. I don’t let the comments go public, because I don’t want to. I write other blogs under other names and I let the comments go public on some but not on others, because that’s how I want to do it.

If I get around to it, I sometimes respond to a comment by email. It would be nice to respond to all of them by email but I don’t because I don’t have time. I have read other writers’ blogs and observed how good they are at responding to each comment. And then responding to the commenter’s response to their response. I know from my radio experience that this is a very good way to connect with your audience. And so I applaud these writers for being very good at this blogging thing and at promotion. I do a little bit of promotion for this blog but not much. I want to spend my time writing the next thing rather than writing to someone about something I’ve already written. I have other things to do with the rest of my time.

Remember, I’m retired. Part-time writer is my title. I write other blogs and other stuff too and I do other things besides write. (Part-time beach bum is my other title.) I write what I want, when I want and post it where I want. That’s why you only see things on this blog once in a while. I write a lot more stuff. But it gets posted under other names in other places. No, I won’t tell you where because I don’t want to.

I know this is not the way to market a blog. But I’m doing it this way regardless. Because I want to.

Any comments?

Clay and the Spitter

Question: Steve, Do you think Clay Buchholz is throwing some kind of spitball?

Steve: No. But I hope I’m wrong. And whether he is or not, I think it’s great he’s been accused of it.

Questioner: What? I can’t believe it! How can you say that?

Steve: I think it’s great that we finally have a controversy about something that is happening on the field rather than in the manager’s office or the front office or the commissioner’s office or a congressional hearing room or a courtroom. Maybe now, people will have to stop texting and actually watch the friggin’ game for once.

George Jones

News item: George Jones has died at 81.

I love this man’s work. George Jones is one of those singers who is the epitome of a genre. The kind of sound and delivery that, while you’re listening, you shake your head and say, “my God, this is perfection.”

An FB friend commented that “He Stopped Loving Her Today” is the greatest country song of all time. I know a lot of people feel that way. It’s hard for me to pick the greatest country song ever but also hard to argue against that one. I never get tired of hearing it. It is a perfect country song. That recording was enough all by itself to make George Jones one of the greatest country singers ever, even if he’d never recorded anything else.

But he did record others. He had a whole career before that song came out in 1980 and won numerous awards and put him back at the top. I love sooo many of his recordings.

George could take plain and simple phrases and bring such presence to them… “I’m still the Same Ole Me, lovin’ the same sweet you…”

He could do songs with titles that would make non-country fans laugh. But he would nail those songs and turn them into classics. I’m thinking of songs like “If Drinking Don’t Kill Me (Her Memory Will).”

He could take a song that would never have amounted to anything if someone else had recorded it and turn it into a hit. As with “Her Name Is…” – the only song that has ever made me laugh and cry at the same time. Only George could pull that song off.

He did classic duets with Tammy Wynette of course and also with Ray Charles, Barbara Mandrel and Merle Haggard. Bartender’s Blues with James Taylor singing harmony is one of the greatest records I’ve ever heard – any genre.

There are so many other great, great recordings that I could mention here. There is nowhere to start or finish when you’re talking about his best material, there is so much.

Over the last few decades, the highest compliment I could pay a country song was to say, “George Jones should sing that.”

 

Related article from Billboard magazine…

James Taylor Remembers George Jones and “Bartender’s Blues”

http://www.billboard.com/articles/columns/the-615/1559980/james-taylor-remembers-george-jones-and-their-bartenders-blues-it

Patriots’ Day

My favorite memory of Patriots’ Day – and I think of this every April – was of 1975, going to Lexington with my parents and siblings to see President Ford speak as part of the kick-off to the celebration of our country’s bicentennial.

I was 20 years old and I remember so much of that day, so vividly: listening to the traffic reports on the radio before we left the house; coordinating by phone – land line – with my aunt in Bedford about parking at her house so she could then drive us as close to Lexington Green as we could get; knowing we would have to walk all the way back to her house when the event was over as there were no cellphones in those days on which to say, “Okay, come and get us;” approaching the exit on Route 128 and finding the traffic wasn’t that bad – apparently predictions of a massive tie-up scaring people off and causing them to stay home; my Dad saying – as he turned toward Lexington rather than Bedford, “Let’s see how close we can get;” parking the car right near The Green and walking over to it; listening to the brand new all-news station, WEEI, airing the live events that took place first over in Concord; waiting for the President and the other dignitaries to arrive; watching the motorcade move slowly down the street, people cheering the President; watching and listening to his speech and the other speeches and ceremony; asking my Dad, “Which way will he leave to get back to Hanscom Field?” and watching him point across the way to the street on the other side and saying, “Over there;” running with the entire family across the open grass, leaving the crowd behind and lining up along the road my father had pointed to; watching the motorcade VERY slowly come down that street, President Ford standing in the open roof, smiling and waving; my little brother – who had just turned 13 – reaching out to touch the President’s limo; the Secret Service agent’s arm coming down hard on my brother’s arm, bashing it aside as the agent walked alongside the President’s car; the surprise and pain in my brother’s voice as he yelled, “OOOuucchhh,” as he quickly pulled his arm close to his body and held it with his other hand (he bragged about that incident for days!)….. So vivid these memories are in the mind’s eye, 38 years later.

A couple of years earlier, the family had attended the Boston Marathon. It was my first Marathon in person. My father thought we’d never get close to the start or the finish lines so he picked three spots along the route where he thought we could park close enough, get to watch the runners for a while and have time to get to the next spot and find parking and watch the runners again. It worked! It was so exciting. We had only the newspapers and radio updates to follow the race in those days. There was no wall to wall radio coverage or any live TV coverage back then. To see it as it happened after only being able to imagine it based on previous years’ newspaper photos was really something!

In 1974, the year before the Bicentennial festivities began, I was a freshman at Emerson College. I lived at home in the suburbs and don’t recall why I was in Boston on Patriots’ Day as there were no classes on a holiday. But as 2:00 p.m. approached, I got the crazy idea of going over to the Prudential Center, which was where the Marathon ended at that time, to watch the lead runners come in. I walked right up to the finish line about ten minutes before the runners were expected and stood there and applauded the winner and the early finishers. I was surprised – there was no crowd whatsoever. Hundreds, yes. Tens of thousands, no. This was just before marathoning became a huge and popular sport, before live TV coverage gave the locals a yearning to be there in person, before the Bicentennial made Boston the nation’s hottest tourism destination for years to come.

Three years later, I was living in Boston, a senior at Emerson and working at WEEI. On Patriots’ Day my shift started at 3:00. WEEI was in the Prudential Tower and I knew it would take me forever to walk from my studio apartment at the foot of Beacon Hill over to the Pru as, by now, the Marathon had become a mega-event and the crowd would be enormous. I had some kind of strategy as to where to enter the building so I could get around the race and inside and over to the ground floor elevators. My vivid memory from that day is getting stuck in the revolving door leading to the elevators. The crowd was so dense that the door couldn’t move. There I was in my compartment of the revolving door with someone else in there behind me such that my face was pushed up against the glass and my eyes were looking into another face which was pushed up against the other side of the glass – the face of Jerome Drayton of Canada, the man who just a few minutes earlier had won the Boston Marathon. Laurel wreath on his head, a towel wrapped around his shoulders, a look of confusion on his face – the same look I’m sure was on my face too until I thought, “Holy shit!” and smiled at him and at the absurdity of it all. Then someone’s push moved the door loose and I made my way to the elevator for the 44th floor to report for work and he to the elevator to the basement where a bowl of beef stew awaited him as his reward.

I have stood and cheered at the finish line of the Boston Marathon several other times over the years both at the old Prudential Center finish and the newer Copley Square finish. It has always been such a joyous occasion. The rest of the country doesn’t know what the Marathon really is. Yes, the elite runners of the world are there and we love to watch them – their athleticism, their combination of strength, determination and grace. But the heart of the Boston Marathon is the “real people” in the race. The firefighters and teachers and mechanics and office workers…the people we might usually think of as average Joes or Joans. They are and they aren’t. Somehow, in this busy world we live in, they have made the time, the commitment, the sacrifice to push themselves to a point where they can have a day in the sun and be on the same playing field as the best in the world. They are the biggest part of what the Boston Marathon really is. And the second biggest part is the people who turn out to watch and cheer them on…and treat them as the champions that they are. They stay for hours in a marathon of cheerleading. People cheering on a friend, a co-worker, their child, their parent, a brother or sister. Strangers cheering on strangers. This is what sets it apart from every other major athletic event we know. These runners – these every day people, these people with day jobs…or night jobs – inspire the crowd and the crowd, in turn, inspires the runners.

So, it was with all of the above in mind, that I began Patriots’ Day of 2013. No longer a resident of my native state of Massachusetts, I am now retired to the only other state that has always celebrated this holiday, Maine (where we move the apostrophe a bit – Patriot’s Day). Back in April of 1775, when Paul Revere made his famous ride, Maine was a part of Massachusetts.

I got up too early on this Patriot’s Day. While drinking my coffee, I checked the Portland Press Herald’s website for the weather and the tide. Checked a sports site for the starting pitchers of the annual 11 a.m. game at Fenway Park, a traditional start time set to allow fans to walk to the Marathon route, after cheering the professional ballplayers, to cheer the amateur marathoners. And I made my schedule for the day: beach walk, watch the game on TV, find Marathon reports on TV or radio, make chicken soup. And I went out to walk the beach on a gloriously sunny morning. Haven’t been too many of those yet this spring. The computer said it was 39 degrees so I wore my winter coat with a sweatshirt underneath. The computer was wrong and I was way over-dressed. The temperature had to be higher plus all that sun and no wind. I was too hot but low tide was beautiful and it was the beginning of school vacation and there were parents and kids and their dogs enjoying the morning on the beach.

Like I say, I woke up too early so as game time approached I knew I’d be taking a nap around the third inning. So instead of watching it live, I set the DVR to record it and did some stuff around the house. Nap time.

Got up, avoided radio, TV and internet so I wouldn’t know the Red Sox score. This kept me from finding out how the Marathon was going. Oh well, I’ll find out later and see the highlights on the evening news. Took inventory in the kitchen to see that everything was set for the chicken soup which I would make after the game. Got settled in front of the TV and watched the Sox. It was a good game, close. Ryan Dempster – 10 strikeouts! Where is that coming from? Nice. But the closer of the moment blew the save in the ninth and a great day was threatened. But then Pedroia and Napoli came through in the bottom of the ninth and there was a walk-off celebration at home plate. Now to find out who won the Marathon. I was really enjoying my first Patriot’s Day as a retired guy.

I stopped and deleted the game recording and the live TV came up and I heard the end of a Brian Williams question about terrorism and the beginning of the expert’s answer. They were both off-screen. On screen was a picture of a city street strewn with debris. Before I could compute that it was too early for Brian Williams to be on or to take in what they were saying or to notice what the on-screen graphics said, I thought, “That’s Boston!” My heart sank immediately. I forgot about the soup. Like you, I spent the next couple hours, watching and listening and reading and thinking about what a fucked up world this is.

When my wife got home from work, we heated up yesterday’s leftovers (no soup) and watched the evening news and the extended coverage and the latest briefing before we had to shut it off to talk about it and then to rest our brains and our emotions for a bit. Or to at least try.

This morning, like any other day, while drinking my coffee, I checked the Portland Press Herald’s website for the weather and the tide. It was sunny but clouds were coming in. I read some updates on newspaper websites. At 9:00, I turned on today’s all-news station in Boston, WBZ, where I also used to work. I heard Joe Mathieu report the latest. A few new facts, new numbers on the dead and injured. There would be a briefing at 9:30. “I’ll watch that on TV and then go out to walk the beach,” I thought. I figured there’d be other people out there too, at low tide, school vacation week. But I knew it would feel much different than yesterday. My mind went back to a walk on this same beach on the weekend after 9/11 and how abnormally quiet it was. No planes were allowed to fly, no boats on the water, people on the beach but no one talking. Silence…except for the sounds of nature.

Just then, nature caught my attention as I drank my coffee and looked out my kitchen window. Joe’s voice faded into the background as I watched the neighbor’s cat burrowing under my fence at what he thinks is his secret spot. I smiled. It was only then that I noticed that a cardinal was singing, a sound that has only returned to the neighborhood in the last couple weeks as spring has arrived. Some thought about how the sounds of nature are soothing at terrible times like this crossed my mind…but it was too deep a thought to focus on right now. Instead, I walked into the living room where my own cat was sleeping in his favorite spot atop the back of the couch. I wanted to pet him but I didn’t want to startle him from his sleep. So I spoke to him very softly. He didn’t open his eyes but he began to purr quietly. Now I could pet him and as I did, he opened one eye a bit. Another pet, a few more soft words…and he went back to sleep. It was good to have something to smile about for a few moments.

I watched the briefing at 9:30…for a little while. Until it appeared that no new facts would be announced. People need to hear from their local leaders – governor, mayor, police commissioner – at times like this. Even if they have no news. We need to hear them reassure us and we need to see that they are working on it. No matter what we think of them politically and no matter that we already know that they are working on it and no matter that the little bits of information they do give are only of real importance to the people in the immediate area – which streets are closed, etc. And in this case, we need to hear the FBI guy even though we know he isn’t going to say anything about anything. Still, he’s Da Man and we need him to speak to us. We really do. Even the person laughing and cursing at me as they read this and cursing the entire concept I’m referring to needs it…if you didn’t, you wouldn’t be watching those briefings, you asshole. (Sorry folks, had to give ‘em a ‘right back at ya.’) What we don’t need is the parade of other officials – both elected and appointed – to come on and say, if I may paraphrase, “I have nothing of value to add but I wanted to make sure I got my face on TV.” So, that’s the point at which I shut it off. Sorry Senator.

The temperature said 46 – was it right this time? Clouds were coming in though so I put on the winter coat but no sweatshirt – I’m not falling for that two days in a row. As I walked toward the beach, I knew I was wrong again. I did need that extra layer today, the wind was powerful and blowing right off the water. The beach was quiet, not as many people as yesterday’s nicer day but more than usual for a Tuesday morning. But it was the sounds of nature that took over as the people were too sad to be talking and laughing like yesterday.

I stood there, staring at the ocean, rather than walking. And thinking about the new and vivid and terrible memories I now have of Patriots’ Day. And recalling Joe Mathieu’s lead at 9:00, “The Boston Marathon, changed forever.” When I heard it I cringed…because I knew he was right. And now I was thinking about that and how yesterday’s events changed it all for me – and everyone else, forever. And how vivid my happy memories of 1975 and 1977 and the other years are…because I was there. And how vivid the awful memories will always be for those who were there in 2013. And how none of us will ever be able to think about Patriots’ Day or the Boston Marathon again without thinking about yesterday’s tragedy.

Lives were changed yesterday. Some directly and horribly. A parent takes their child to a fun event, an exciting day for a kid, but the child never comes home. A person starts a happy day, a day they have looked forward to, and ends that day in a hospital, maimed for life. And the changes that are not as serious but still so sad… Families and volunteers and organizers prepare for a great day in a great city, a tradition that their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents observed before them, and it is ruined…forever.

Is it really forever? It is forever as we who are here today know it. But I know the day will come when those of us who can remember the way it used to be will die off. And after that, if I can cop a line from another writer who called both Boston and Portland home, there will be a time when “hardly a man is now alive who remembers this famous day and year” and its tragic events.

All one can do is hope that future generations learn from this history and find some way to avoid repeating it. Maybe somewhere along the way to those times, we as a people, will figure out how to make the world a better place and the streets of our cities and towns a safe place to gather to observe and celebrate our traditions.

In the meantime, what can one person do? All we can do is keep on going. Keep on going and spread your love. Spoil your kids, spoil all those close to you today or tomorrow or this weekend. We all need a lift right now and we are dependant on each other to provide it. Make the world a better place in the little ways that are within your control. Do something nice for everybody you love. Then do something nice for those you see often but just barely know. Make somebody’s day a little brighter than it would have been had you not acted.

And then do something to comfort yourself.

Me? I’m going to finally make that chicken soup.

Hang in there everybody

Sequestration

Some words just hurt the ear. ‘Sequestration’ is one. Politics aside, I hate that word. Now my local TV newscaster uses it regularly.

When she started with it, I barked at my TV, “That’s not a word!” Just because lawyers and politicians use it, doesn’t make it a real word.

I turned to my wife, an editor, and said, “That’s not a word.” She said, “Everybody’s using it.” I maintained, “It’s not a real word. Real people shouldn’t be using it.” Not that TV newscasters are real people. But if they start using it regularly, real people will start using it too.

I finally got around to looking it up. Turns out the word has been around almost 600 years. I lose. Damn.

(If I was an editor at that TV station though, I wouldn’t let that newscaster use it. At least not as often as she does.)

Prepping For Opening Day With A Brand New Fan

I’m spending Opening Day with a friend who has only become a sports fan in recent years. He started with football, which is a good way to start. Now he’s ready to move up to something more complex, nuanced. I offered to assist him in learning to become a baseball fan. I’ve turned people into baseball fans before.

We’ve been emailing back and forth, making plans for the big day. I can tell he’s a little nervous about the whole thing. He’s asked me to explain EVERYTHING to him and to talk to him as if he’s a third-grader. But that’s not the way to go. There’s just too much going on in a baseball game.

My team, the Boston Red Sox, are playing the New York Yankees. He’s a new fan so I don’t know who he’s going to root for, I didn’t ask. All I know is, he’s from New Jersey.

I sent him the final pre-game email last week…

Hey Mike,

The Bean Dip sounds way too good to consider anything else. Bring it! I’ll take care of the beer and something basebally – peanuts & cracker jacks maybe. And I’ll get something sweet for dessert. We’ll need sweet after spicy bean dip.

Now, this is going to be a relaxing afternoon. No need to worry, there will not be a quiz at the end. Remember, I know how to do this. I am NOT going to explain everything to you. There will be future lessons. The best thing about baseball is that NOBODY knows everything about the game. I still learn things all the time. That’s why I love it.

We’ll get into an advanced subject or two just to touch the different levels of what’s going on but the best thing to do is keep it simple. We’ll cover some of the basics – but not all. You just want to follow the flow of the game, get the feel of it, understand the feel of it. It’s fun, it’s relaxing (unless the bad guys kick our ass). There’s a lot going on but it moves slowly. So, you learn slowly.

But Rule Number 1: during the game, we don’t talk about anything but baseball. And it’s not going to be non-stop talk. Mostly, we’ll be watching.

A game runs about three hours usually. Opening Day ceremonies usually run over and the game starts a little late. So first pitch will hopefully be at 1:05 but I wouldn’t bet on it.

Why don’t you get here about 12:30. I hate pre-game except on Opening Day (always capitalized). My favorite part is when they introduce the players one by one. They don’t always show that on TV because it takes so long but I don’t want to miss whatever part of it they do show.

And finally, you can root for whichever team you want but do not wear a Yankees cap or I will grab the Bean Dip and close the door on you.

Steve

 

One Saturday in December

0900 hours

Going out today on a mega-errand run: pet store, office supply store, supermarket, buy the Christmas tree, hardware store, home improvement store, cable company…not necessarily in that order.

First, it’s breakfast at the diner, the calm before the storm, a last chance to compare notes. Then the battle begins.

We have a coupon for the pet store, the sale on office chairs ends today at the office supply store, we’ve been very busy and now our cupboards are bare so we have to hit the supermarket if we want to eat tonight and for the foreseeable future, we’re planning to get a smaller Christmas tree than usual (of course, we always say we will get a smaller tree than usual but we never do, I must factor in that fact), if we do, we have to buy a smaller Christmas tree stand at the hardware store, the stop at the home improvement store is to get today’s sale price on the shelving we bought there two days ago, and the cable company stop is to exchange our remote control – which I have threatened to throw into the ocean – for the new version which is supposed to be the answer to all of our troubles. If only.

But where to start? How to pull this off? There’s only so much room in the car.

It’s like the fox, the chicken and the sack of feed… If we buy an office chair at the office supply store, that will take up much of the room in the back, then we will have to do a separate run for the Christmas tree; but if we don’t find a chair we like, the size of the tree will determine whether the stop at the supermarket will be to just get what we need for today and go back tomorrow to get the rest or to get it all now. There are other possible outcomes with each stop that can impact each later stop, some of it is obvious, some of it is nuance and some, I fear, we have not thought of, not taken into consideration. There is the distinct possibility that each stop could be a failure or that just one bad outcome or one instance of stopping out of order could throw the entire day into a tailspin the likes of which could threaten our entire holiday season. The pressure is almost unbearable.

You need to have a Plan A and Plan B and be flexible enough to throw them both out and ad lib a Plan C. You can’t just say, “Hey, let’s go to the store,” and jump in the car willy nilly and say, “Where should we go first?” No, no, no! Are you kidding? There is strategy involved. It’s more involved than preparing to land at Normandy.

I am in charge of remembering all of the stops and rearranging the order as events warrant. She is in charge of remembering what it is we have to do at each stop and adding or deleting items pending further developments.

Eisenhower never faced such a challenge.

D Day is here. One can only hope we are ready.

I Blame Dave Brubeck

Two things happened this week that got me thinking this morning about just how important music is to me.

One was the passing of jazz great Dave Brubeck. The other, I’ll get to in a bit…

If you know me, you know I love music. Lots of different kinds of music. I can’t imagine life without it. On “The Steve LeVeille Broadcast” on WBZ radio in Boston over the years, I did a number of shows that got listeners to think about – or call in to talk about – their own love of music and its importance in their daily lives.

The fact that I know something about music and that I’m a good broadcaster has something to do with it but I think the main reason people enjoyed hearing me talk about music on the radio or enjoy talking about music with me, is that my love for music and the importance of it in my life is obvious, it comes across.

Once at Monitor Radio in the early 1990s, I was filling in as host of their afternoon news and features program, Daily Edition. I had to record an interview with the singer-songwriter Dar Williams. Dar was new on the folk scene. She had one album out – which had received much acclaim – and she was just releasing her second one, which was why she was talking with us. The interview would be edited down and mixed with her music later. We were going to talk for 15 to 20 minutes or so but, as these things often do, it went longer. Only this one went MUCH longer. I don’t know what she expected or how many interviews she had done to that point, but I got the distinct impression that this one was quite different than what she had experienced before. She was obviously quite into our discussion, intensely so. As were the people in the control room.

That was one great interview. Dar liked it so much it was featured on the front page of her website for a long time afterward. After it was over and Dar had left the building, the producer/editor Dean Cappello (one of the very best editors I ever worked with, these days he runs WNYC radio), came in to the studio. Everybody on the crew was smiling because they knew the interview had given us the makings of a great segment for the show.

But Dean couldn’t come in and say, “Nice job, that was great.” No, of course not. We were buds so he couldn’t just give me a compliment. In his understated manner he said, “What am I supposed to do with that? I tell you I want 15 minutes and you give me an hour and a half? Oy.” We both cracked up. Then came the compliment. He told me that everybody in the control room was so mesmerized by the interview that no one moved or said anything. Until one of the younger assistant producers turned to him and said quietly of me, “Why is he so good at this?” To which Dean just smiled.

In the mid-1980s, when I was at ABC Radio News, I was assigned to cover a tribute concert at Lincoln Center honoring John Hammond, the legendary record producer and the greatest A&R man in the history of the recording industry. Among many others, Hammond had discovered, signed, or developed Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Bruce Springsteen and his latest discovery, Stevie Ray Vaughn. Jazz, folk, rock and blues artists were on the bill. My wife and I were planning to go to this show as soon as it was announced because I figured Goodman, Dylan or Springsteen would either make a surprise appearance or be added to the bill at the last minute. I’d never seen any of them in person but, considering their respective ages and the fact that Goodman no longer toured, I was hoping it would be Benny…and that I’d eventually get to see Dylan and Springsteen at a later date. It was…and I did. I was going to buy tickets to the show but then I got the assignment. I told the producer, Dave Alpert, I would need two tickets because I was definitely bringing Diane. If he couldn’t get two, then give the assignment to somebody else because I didn’t care if I had freebies or not – we were going to this show. But Dave came through, big time. We sat eighth row center with Stevie Ray Vaughn’s publicist. My specific assignment was to interview Stevie Ray after the show.

We did the interview in a corner, backstage at Avery Fisher Hall. We were standing up because he had agreed to be interviewed for just a few minutes. Which was fine because I just needed “a couple of cuts” of Stevie to go into the broader story of the Hammond tribute and a couple more cuts about his second album, which had just been released. But it went longer. Not a lot longer because he really didn’t have time, he had an event to go to after the show and his wife was waiting for him. He was nervous at the start of the interview and the answers were short. But something I said or the way that I said it or…I dunno…well, let’s just say he got into it. In a big way. In fact, when we were done, he was so enthused about our little talk that he invited us to the event he was headed to. It was a party his record company was throwing for Stevie and his band to congratulate him on the fact that his first album had just gone gold. It was a small private party at the Mayflower Hotel, no media, just record company executives and friends of the band. So there wouldn’t be seats available for us. Stevie told us not to worry, when we got there his wife would take care of us. She did. We sat with the band! And they treated us like old friends.

In 1994 I did a live, hour-long interview on WBZ with jazz great Wynton Marsalis. You wouldn’t know it from his manner and the way he gives an interview today, but at that time Wynton was known to be a very difficult interview. He may or may not have been an angry young man at one time but that was certainly said and written about him in the 1980s and into the ’90s. He was considered to be controversial and some called him rude or a jerk. I never put much stock in that stuff. Wynton Marsalis is a genius and genius and geniuses are often misunderstood by we mere normal people. I figured the questions or the questioners probably had a lot to do with the image Wynton had, maybe more so than the interviewee himself. But, I really didn’t know…because I wasn’t there. But now I would be. I wasn’t worried about it but I was certainly curious to see how it would turn out.

Wynton was pushing a book so, of course, we’d talk about that for part of the hour. It would have been an obvious thing to do to also ask him about these past controversies, the time he said this or the time he said that and what it was all about. I knew that’s what a lot of interviewers did when they talked with Wynton. So that’s why I didn’t do it.

It was TOO obvious. And it had been covered. And it would be covered again. By – as the old blues song says – somebody else, not me. Look, I’ve got Wynton Marsalis sitting across from me. One of the all-time greats, a giant in music. Here’s a guy who can talk about a subject, jazz, in a way in which very few people in history can. I can do the obvious or I can talk about music. With Wynton Marsalis. To me, it’s a no-brainer.

The previous hour of the show had been about politics, some political controversy in the news that week. As the intro music ended, I opened the hour by back-announcing that topic and noting we would return to politics later in the show… “…but first we we’ll talk about music. Talking about music can be controversial too sometimes…” At this point I saw Wynton’s eyebrows arch and he stared hard at me…maybe preparing for the kind of questions he’d been subjected to in the past. I watched his expression change as I continued, “…But not tonight! Tonight we are going to talk about music, just pure music, with one of the greats of jazz…” I plugged the book and went right into my first question. Within a couple minutes he was completely relaxed, smiling, talking with love about jazz and classical music, about playing in a famous jazz group and the high school band.

He was having so much fun – and I was too – that I did something I never do during a live interview. I had a rule about this: Don’t talk to the guest about the subject at hand during the commercial breaks. Talk about something else. But we couldn’t. We were having too much fun talking about music. It was a great hour and he gave the audience something nobody else could, as I said above. They got to hear a giant talk about his art from a perspective that only a giant has.

When the hour was over, we stood up to go to the door and Wynton turned to me and said with great enthusiasm, “Man, you can interview me anytime.”

So, as I say, people like to talk to me about music because they can see it’s important to me and I know something about it. I don’t mean I’m an expert on who had what hit in what year or that I can name all the members of all the bands or that I’ve heard of any band you can name, etc. I don’t mean that at all. I can’t do that…but that’s not what I’m talking about. I mean, I know something about it, as in: I know about the music itself. I get it. I feel it. I wicked get it. And it’s wicked important to me.

I wrote music when I was young. I was serious about it, loved it. A few of the things I wrote are really good. But only a few because I didn’t pursue it. I knew from the age of 14 that I would be a radio broadcaster. But I learned enough about music and had enough talent that, when I was 16, I could sit in study hall for 45 minutes and write a short classical piece in my head and then transcribe it onto staff paper – the assignment I should have done the night before at home where I would have had a piano handy – and then go to my next class, Music Theory, and turn it in and get an A.

As a teenager and in my early and mid-twenties, I wrote jazz and classical pieces, rock tunes, folk songs, country songs, blues, etc. But over the years, as the creative energy was spent on putting together and executing radio shows, I stopped writing music. Completely. Other than writing a couple of songs for my show, I haven’t written a song – a keeper – in almost 20 years. But I haven’t tried either. No time. And no creative juice left over. And I have forgotten enough about how to do it that I couldn’t write jazz or classical today. But I still have a guitar and my wife has a piano.

Now that I’m retired – and have had a few months to exhale and chill – I am creating again. Writing. Mostly fiction and some essays and commentaries. And lately, because I’ve embarked on a particular writing project that really turns me on, I have been writing up a storm! I can’t stop! It is flowing like a river after the spring thaw. I’m writing what I need to do for this new project but I am writing other things – lots of things – EVERYTHING! – too. And what I am writing these days is good. It really is! I’ve been getting great compliments and feedback from other writers – published authors! – and that has revved me up even more and is, in part, what led to this latest project.

It reminds me of back in the day, when I used to write songs – folk songs especially – and I’d go on a writing binge and just churn them out, one after another. I thought of that yesterday as I headed out for my regular beach walk. An email had come in announcing the latest version of the music accompaniment software, Band-in-a-Box, which I’ve been using for years when I play the clarinet. I haven’t played much the last couple of years because of two shoulder operations – I didn’t have the strength to take the instrument apart when I was done playing. But, although the shoulder pain hasn’t budged a bit (ugh), structurally the shoulder is sound and the strength has returned. And I’m settled now in my new digs. So the time is right for me to start playing again.

So I’m walking over to the beach yesterday and I’m thinking about all this – I want to play my clarinet and my writing has the creative juices flowing and I have time now to do whatever I want – and I start thinking maybe I could start writing music again, just a little, for myself and about how much I would like that. And as I hit the beach, check the wind, decide which direction to walk and set my target to turn around at, I said to myself: “There’s no good reason I can’t walk down this beach and come back with a song.”

So I did.

I came up with a piece of the melody for the verse rather quickly and played around with it, changing it, inverting it, playing with the tempo. By the time I’d reached my turnaround point, it was pretty much done. On the way back, I wrote most of the bridge. Then I edited and rewrote the verse some more. With nobody else on the beach (hey, it’s a weekday, it’s cloudy, it’s Maine, it’s December), I hummed it aloud over and over, tweaking it and memorizing it. I liked it.

When I got back, I took off my coat and sat down at the piano and played the verse and put some chords to it. Then I finished the bridge. Done. It’s good too. I played it for Diane later. She liked it. I haven’t decided whether to write a lyric. Now I’ve got to come up with a title. But here it is, the first song I’ve written in a long time. A keeper.

It made me feel really good. Not in the “I’m proud of myself” way, no reason to be. I should be able to do that, write a song like that. Now that I have time it should be no biggie. But I felt good to be creating music again after such a long time, to be having fun that way, and because it will probably lead to more songs, more fun creating.

So this morning, I was thinking about the importance of music in my life…because I wrote a song yesterday and because Dave Brubeck died this week.

The first LP I bought with my own money was “Dave Brubeck’s Greatest Hits.” I was 13 or 14 years old and a big fan of the Dave Brubeck Quartet. I loved the music these guys made. I had already started writing music and I was jazzed (if you’ll pardon the expression) by their explorations into uncommon time signatures and amazed by the mastery of their performances in those odd structures, so smooth and comfortable, so cool.

They caused me to experiment with time signatures in my own compositions and as a result, furthered my interest in jazz and classical music and opened my ears to the traditional folk music of Transcaucasia.

A jazz composition I wrote at age 15 or 16 was a tribute to Brubeck’s alto sax player, Paul Desmond. It took the 5/4 time signature from Desmond’s piece, “Take Five” and reversed the count. Instead of counting it 1-2-3, 1-2, you had to count my song, 1-2, 1-2-3. When I told the music director of our school system, Frank Cagliuso, about it, he asked how another musician would know how I wanted it counted. I told him they would have no choice because I wrote the melody right on that count. When I brought it in and played it for him, he said, “This is really good, Steve!”

The bridge featured alternating bars of 3/4 and 4/4 which was inspired by Brubeck’s song, Three To Get Ready (Four To Go). The melody on the bridge did two things rhythmically, it was written right on the three beats of the 3/4 measure and it quoted  from the 5/4 melody of the verse in the 4/4 measure. I was really keeping you on your toes with this one! And yet, it flowed. Brubeck and Desmond could have played this song as if they had written it. We played it in one of the rehearsal bands I was in. I still have a lead sheet for it – never decided on a title. This is the one jazz piece I wrote that I wish somehow I could have placed in the right hands. Some jazz group could be playing it now. It’s good. I can’t believe I wrote something that good 40-plus years ago.

That song was purposefully written with the time signatures in mind. But I got so deep into messing with time that I was writing melodies without thinking about meter. One day I wrote a motive that I could not figure out. (I’d probably been listening to Bartok!)

I kept playing this theme over and over again on the piano and trying to count it. I really liked it but didn’t know if it was going to end up being a classical or a jazz composition…and it looked like I was never going to find out because I couldn’t write the rest of the piece if I couldn’t figure out what time signature the “signature” part of the melody was in. (Pardon me for the puns, I can’t help myself.)

I had to bring it into school to play for our band director, Itamar Lubetsky. I had written it on staff paper but without specifying the length of the notes because I didn’t know where the measures started or ended. Just the pitches were on the page, notes with no stems. I played it for him a couple times so he could memorize the rhythm and then he sat down and played it over and over and tried to count it. It took him awhile!

We had an unusually good music program at Burlington (MA) High School and unusually good teachers. That resulted in very good students. For three years I was in Mr. Lubetsky’s music theory classes. He enjoyed my composition efforts and I often made him laugh with my penchant for writing music that purposely broke the rules he had just taught us but which worked musically nonetheless. One of my proudest moments in music was when I brought in a motive for an assignment he had given the class. We were to write a type of piece called an Invention. We had been studying the form of an invention and listening to examples. I wrote a motive which was too long for the form but I loved it so much I brought it to class anyway. “LeVeille!” he shouted, as he shook his head while looking at my staff paper. He said my name as if it were a curse word. The other students, who were very good musicians themselves, had heard him say my name like that before. They all laughed knowingly. “This is good. But you can’t use it,” Mr. Lubetsky said, smiling. “But it is very good. You can’t use it but I will use it. I will use it to write a fugue. I will call it ‘Fugue in D Minor, Based On A Theme By LeVeille.'” The class laughed again, knowing he was completely serious. He really did like it. And he ended up letting me use it as the motive for my invention. “But remember,” he told me after class, “this is NOT how you write an invention.” He relented because he knew there was still some learning going on here and he wanted to see what I could do with that theme. I wrote a nice little invention with it. I wonder if he ever wrote that fugue.

Which brings us back to that day when I brought in that other motive that I couldn’t figure out the time signature for. Mr. Lubetsky sat at the piano, playing it over and over. Grunting and playing it again. And at regular interviews shouting the curse, “LeVeille!” interspersed with, “aaaaarrrrggghhh” and more grunting.

Finally he got it. “Okay mister smart guy,” he said, “Making me work hard on my lunch break. What you have written is a measure of 7/8, a measure of 3/4, a measure of 7/8, a measure of 4/4.” (Those four measures repeated with the melody resolving at the end of eight bars.) My response? “Wow! Cool!” Mr. Lubetsky laughed and played it some more, this time singing the melody and trying out some chords. I ended up using that theme as the second part of a multi-section jazz composition. The first part of that piece – after the introduction which was in 4/4 – was alternating bars of 6/8 and 5/8. The third section was in 3/4 and the finale, a variation of the intro, was in 4/4 with a rock beat. It was performed twice, at my high school’s spring concerts. But I wasn’t there. I had pneumonia so I was at home while an adult stood in for me on tenor sax, playing with the other teenagers in our group.

Although I knew early on that I was bound for a career in radio, I loved my time playing and especially writing music. And I can’t thank Mr. Cagliuso and Mr. Lubetsky enough, or their colleagues – Bob Tyler, Tom Vento, Doug MacIntosh, John Whitney, Joe Wayshak, Joe Corcoran and others for all they added to my life by teaching me how music worked and furthering my ability to appreciate it in its many forms.

But, as important as those men were in my life, the truth is that all of the above – and so much more – was the fault of Dave Brubeck, who passed away this week, and his quartet featuring Paul Desmond, who died in 1977. I never saw them perform in person but never missed a chance to see them on TV. I listened to their records over and over again for many, many years. These days they are on my iPod and I still listen over and over. My life would not be the same without them.

Related:

Text excerpts from my 1994 Wynton Marsalis interview