Friday, January 23, 2015

A Sign

Over at my other blog, The Backside of America, I chronicle the hidden elements of our world, from run-down mills and abandoned factories, to ghost signs, shuttered movie theaters and forgotten quarries. Of late, I've been consumed with putting together as full a picture of possible of the backside of my adopted hometown, Newton, Mass.

I spend a LOT of time poring over old atlases and maps on the City of Newton web site and conducting online searches to try and figure out what the 13 neighborhoods of Newton looked like a hundred years ago. I'm trying to ascertain which buildings from the early 20th century are still around, and how their uses have changed. I also want to know what buildings are long gone, and what's in their place now.

I also peruse Google Maps, as I look up addresses from old atlases and see where they are so I can take pictures. While looking at online maps today as part of an ongoing process to learn about an abandoned house in Newton's tony Chestnut Hill section, I came across this image on Google:

I'm used to seeing people walking their dogs on Google Maps, or just strutting along, but this image stopped me in my tracks. This property is a convent owned by the Daughters of Mary of Nazareth. I'm not religious in the least, but I'll take this as a sign that an answer will come soon about the nearby abandoned property....

Monday, January 5, 2015

Take My Grandfather, Please

(My grandfather, Al Bogert, with my brother and sister. Note the dollar bill in my sister's hand. Grandpa never came empty handed.)

Faced with a lack of facts, or people to check them with, we sometimes make up family history. In my fictionalized account, my mother's father could have had his name in lights on a vaudeville stage if not for the selfishness of a man who became known the world over for telling jokes while scratching away on a violin.

This is a story about music, family and what might have been, but also of what was and what might yet be. This convoluted statement should not be confused with Led Zeppelin's "What Is and What Should Never Be."

Music is a major part of who I am. I've loved listening to music as far back as I can remember, from Paul McCartney & Wings when I was young, up through Southern rock as a teenager and on to punk rock during college. These days I listen to indie rock, classic rock, blues, electronica, alt-country and more. I joke that I started turning the volume to eleven early in my life, as a way to to drown out the sound of my older brother and sister arguing.

I'm the only one of the three of us who plays an instrument, although my sister gave the flute a try, and my brother has always liked to sing. I like to think there's a direct line of musical talent that runs from me and my guitar playing, to my mother and her love of piano, and back to her father, who played piano and organ. I don't know whether my grandfather's parents or grandparents were musical.

I don't believe that my father's parents were musical, although my dad had a lifelong love of singing and acting in community theater productions.

I started playing the clarinet in 5th grade, but it must have been at least a year earlier when my interest in the woodwind was piqued. My mother played the piano in our house regularly, and after the movie "The Sting" came out when I was in 3rd grade, she bought the soundtrack. The album featured a few versions of Scott Joplin's "The Entertainer"; the orchestral arrangement featuring the clarinet was the one that grabbed my ear.

For reasons I've never understood, I asked my mother, "What instrument is that?" I wanted to learn to play it, and since she had tried, with little success, to teach my siblings to play piano, she must have figured, here's a kid who actually wants to play music. She and my dad talked about it, and in short time, he procured a used clarinet. My life as a musician had begun.

My first teacher was Mr. Levine. He gathered a small group of 5th graders in a cramped room near the school's boiler room -- or maybe it was the boiler room. I recall one or two kids playing saxophone, and I believe one other clarinetist. I'm sure there were a few other kids, too, perhaps flutists.

Each week we squeaked and honked and tooted our way through basic lessons. I don't recall what we played, but before long I had learned the basics of reading music. I wanted to learn to read and play well enough to duet with my mother on "The Entertainer."

I continued playing in 6th through 8th grades, performing in a few school band and orchestra concerts. As time wore on, my interest in the clarinet flagged. I didn't practice as much as the teachers wanted, as I found doing so boring and unsatisfying. I never learned to play "The Entertainer."

As 8th grade came to an end, I realized that if I continued playing clarinet in school, I'd have to be in the marching band. Although my friend Bene would be playing trumpet in the band, I had no interest in joining him. Thus ended my clarinet career.

I'd always liked guitar-heavy music, and enjoyed goofing around on my best friend's father's old guitar. Around this time both my mother and father had taken acoustic guitar lessons, but neither of them stuck with it. So I borrowed the guitar one of them had bought, and signed up for lessons one night a week at my elementary school.

I learned old standards including "Froggy Went A-Courtin'," "Sloop John B" and "House of the Rising Sun," as well as Neil Young's "Heart of Gold." Those were great, but I wanted to play rock music. The older brother of a kid I played street hockey with was in a band and worked as a guitar teacher on the side, so I became his pupil.

I learned songs by the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Who, Ozzy Osbourne and others. Over time, I began to write my own songs and figure out covers of songs by the likes of The Clash and U2. In college, I played in a band for two years, performing numerous times on campus and once off campus. I had a great time, although often I was quite nervous and always had an out-of-body experience while on stage.

I recall telling my grandmother once that I was in a rock band. She told me something that has stuck with me through the years: "A lot of people might think you're just making a bunch of noise," she said to me. "But as long as you like it, that's all that matters."

Her statement surprised me at the time, but it shouldn't have. She was, after all, married to my grandfather, who'd spent his life playing piano and organ, including a stint with that guy I alluded to in the opening paragraph, and the title of this post. Some of you likely figured out right away who I was talking about. For those who didn't, I'm referring to Henny Youngman.

Born in 1906 in England to Russian emigres, Youngman moved to Brooklyn's Bay Ridge section as a child. He loved to tell jokes, according to numerous biographies I read online. His father loved music and saw to it that Henny learned the violin. Eventually, Youngman formed at least one band. My grandfather, Al Bogert, was in one of those bands.

The story of how Al Bogert met Henny Youngman is lost to history. My grandfather grew up in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, which is a few miles from Bay Ridge. I'm guessing they met because of their shared interest in music, through friends or acquaintances.

I don't know when the two got together to make music, or for how long. Even the name of the band that my grandfather played in is unresolved. My mother remembers that he was in the Select Star Syncopators; I can't find any reference to that band online. The band linked with Youngman during the Roaring Twenties and into the early '30s was the Original Swanee Syncopators, sometimes referred to as just the Swanee Syncopators. I suppose Youngman could have changed the name.

That band worked "all manner of dives, from Coney Island sideshows to New Jersey's immortal Nut Club," according to a 1991 Chicago Tribune article about Youngman. During the band's performances, Youngman often told jokes. At some point, at some club -- and none of this is clear to me after I read several sources online -- a comedian on the bill didn't show, and the club owner asked Youngman to fill in, and he did so well that he decided to launch a solo, stand-up career.

Some sources indicate this happened at the Nut Club, but even the location of that long-ago venue is in dispute. The New York Times, in an article from many years ago, quoted some folks as saying it was in Westfield, NJ, and others who claim it was in nearby Mountainside. Wherever it was, I hope my grandfather got to play there. In its obituary for Youngman, Time magazine said the Swanee Syncopators were playing at the Swan Lake Inn in Swan Lake, NY, when the club owner heard Youngman's jokes and "decided to save money by firing the band and telling the funnyman to stay."

Now, for the whole premise of this essay to work, I have to prove that my grandfather was in the Syncopators when Youngman ditched the band and went solo with his schtick. None of the articles I found (many of which have the same information, probably stolen from Youngman's autobiography) give a date for this schism between bandleader and band. My mother believes that her father played in a band (unclear whether it was still with Youngman) until the early '30s. My mother was born in 1932, her brother in 1929.

What matters is that my grandfather continued playing music throughout his life. "He played mostly 'popular music of the day,' according to my mom, "but he did have a few classical pieces he perfected." He had a baby grand piano in the house in Brooklyn where my mother grew up, but he sold it when he and my grandmother moved to a retirement community in Lakehurst, NJ. Of course, he couldn't be without a keyboard of some sort, so he bought a huge organ with two rows of "stops," or keys that corresponded to different sounds, such as "Acoustic Bass," "Harmonic Trumpet" and "Xylophone." My grandfather took organ lessons in New Jersey when he was in his mid-60's, my mom said.

I absolutely loved playing with that keyboard during our visits: using the foot pedals, plunking the keyboard, manipulating the sound with dozens upon dozens of stops.

The organ looked something like this:

For more on the vast universe of organ stops, check out the Encyclopedia of Organ Stops.

My grandfather passed his passion and gift on to my mother. I have fond memories of my mother playing piano -- Scott Joplin, Judy Collins, Christmas carols and other holiday songs, and one of my favorites, "Kitten On the Keys."

"Grandpa could really play this piece," my mom remembers.

Was he robbed of a chance for greater fame? I don't think so. I doubt many jazz combos made much money during the Depression, and Yougman's obvious talent lay in telling jokes, not in playing music. Still, the man who made the quip, "Take my wife, please!" famous, didn't forget my grandfather. My mom remembers that her father told her that at some point years later he and my grandmother went to see Youngman perform in Manhattan. They went backstage afterwards to see Youngman, who was very cordial and introduced my grandparents to some other folks, presumably at least some of them famous.

My grandfather loved to tell jokes, too, and do little tricks and play games with us kids when he and my grandmother visited us in Connecticut once or twice a year. I wish I'd known about the Henny Youngman thing when I was a kid, so I could've asked him for the straight dope. It's not really important to me that he played with the famous comedian, although it's a cool footnote. What matters is that I'll always feel a connection to him through music, just as I feel a bond with my grandmother through her kindness and understanding.

As for the future of music in my family, there is great hope. Owen took drum lessons for two years, and although he doesn't play his kit much these days, he and I do talk on occasion about getting our two-man band, The Megachips, back together. Amelia loves to sing and dance, and has told Beth that she'd like to take piano lessons some day.

Beth bought a microphone for the kids for Christmas, and she and I have already jammed on the Stray Cats' "Stray Cat Strut." Why that song? Because the riff popped into my head, and she found the lyrics on her smartphone with ease.

So maybe someday the four of us will form a band and work a few jokes into our set.