Susan Kelly One of the most memorable community events I ever witnessed in Cambridge was when Martha and the Vandellas came to town. There was no particular occasion being celebrated, as far as I can recall. Somebody just decided that it would be nice if…Martha and the Vandellas came to town.

The event was held outside the Cambridgeside Galleria, a multi-story shopping mall on First Street near the west bank of the Charles River. Before the north entrance to the Galleria was a sort of plaza. In the center was a pool connected by a canal to the Charles. The pool had a fountain that shot water fifty feet into the air and, on windy days, showered everyone on the plaza with a spray of fetid brown droplets. (Remember that song about the Charles River by the Standells: Dirty Water? They killed it with that number.)

That evening—it was in late summer—the fountain had been turned off for the event. In the middle of the pool floated a little boat like one of the excursion craft that plowed up and down the Charles. A ramp had been placed from the edge of the fountain to the boat.

The concert was to begin at seven, but people started gathering for it at five. The ages represented ranged pretty much from Pampers to Depends. Four generations of family groups showed up with coolers, picnic baskets, and lawn furniture. A few cops appeared to maintain crowd control. I saw one I knew and said hello to him. “I remember when Martha and the Vandellas were a new group,” he said.

A little after seven I was perched on a railing surrounding the pool, watching some grubby-looking ducks paddle around in the opaque water. I heard a stir behind me, and the crowd broke into a ripple of applause that became a wave. I turned. Three women in iridescent cocktail dresses and baroquely curlicued wigs scampered daintily down the ramp to the boat. They were Martha and the Vandellas, of course, still looking very good.

They did some of their own numbers—Nowhere to Run and Heat Wave—and covered some Supremes and Temptations hits. A few people rose and bopped to the music. As the concert progressed, the energy in the audience seemed to transform itself into a kind of driving expectation. People began leaning forward in their seats with anticipation. I knew what they were waiting for; I was waiting for it myself.

The singers vamped around for a bit before they did it. Then the notes of the signature saxophone introduction echoed around the plaza. The crowd roared in response. (There’s no other word to describe the sound it made.) En masse, several hundred people rose from their lawn chairs and began…Dancing in the Street.

Grandmothers in their mid-seventies capered with their teenaged grandchildren. Toddlers cavorted. Those who were adolescents when the song was Number One on the charts danced the dances of 1965. The cop I knew looked as if he was mightily restraining himself from joining them.

I looked more closely at the faces nearest me. Each one was effulgent with something. Joy? Exuberance? Plain old happiness? All I could think of was the William Butler Yeats line about the dancer and the dance.

The moment lasted longer than the song. Martha and the Vandellas took their bows. Something stronger than the setting sun cast a communal glow over the audience as its members began folding up lawn chairs, re-packing picnic baskets, and collecting their children.

It was the night everyone in East Cambridge smiled.



Zachary Klein

So it’s mid-afternoon and I’m tired. As much as I hate it, the recliner is still the most comfortable seat for my post-op arm. Down I go and on goes the television. The opening credits of a documentary called Springsteen & I hit the screen. I wasn’t thrilled with the movie, but there was enough of his music to keep my attention. And to keep it long after the movie ended and had me on my knees rummaging through cds trying find anything Springsteen.

You lived on another planet to be unaware of Bruce Springsteen during the past forty plus years, but my only real connection with him was an album called The Rising. I played that sucker over and over until everyone in the house screamed whenever I got near the player. Inexplicably my love of that album didn’t push me into his other music. I’m a jazz guy who left rock and roll right around the time Led Zeppelin blew up the charts.

Maybe it was Springsteen’s “fast” songs whose words I couldn’t decipher and was reluctant to google the lyrics. Or perhaps I’d caught the musical elitism that jazz can generate. And though I knew he “brought it” to every single performance, so did the Rolling Stones. Basically I considered Springsteen just another back-beat rock and roller with an energetic band.

Well, after two weeks burying my days in his music, watching documentaries about the making of his albums (Born To Run, Darkness At The Edge Of Town, The Seeger Sessions) and concert films, I’m here to tell you I’ve been a cement head. What I heard is a musical poet who uses rock to frame most of his work. And, many times, a songwriting novelist.

There’s really nothing new about narrative songwriting. I’d guess it’s been around since people penned words to music. But to believe—as I did—Springsteen simply wrote songs that tell a superficial straightforward story was to miss the depth of his art.

Racing In The Street, a track from Darkness At The Edge Of Town, is a six-minute novel. Beginning, middle, conclusion, character arcs, movement—with lines of major league poetry within. This song-novel is special in its multiple levels of meaning. A rippling effect that goes beyond the song itself. The ability to touch people who never even imagined owning a car with a hemi still walk away moved by the song’s effect.

Moreover, the song has the ability to shade meanings in the way it’s played. On the original album the overwhelming emotion is poignancy. But, his 1999 Oakland E-Street Band concert, as he finishes singing, the band virtually replays the entire song, only a driving piano leads the rest of the group to create a sense of hope and optimism underneath that poignancy. By the end, your foot is tapping rather than your eyes watering.

I don’t have to stop with Racing In The Street. Damn near every Springsteen album creates a mood in which one or more of its songs transcend the song’s surface story. A discussion in one of the movies revolved around Springsteen’s desire to create different moods with each album, which, after careful listening, he actually does. (I was told by a Bruce mavin that he also wants his albums to leave the listener wanting more; an invitation, so to speak, to attend his concerts.)

It’s interesting. Springsteen and I are just about the same age. It’s easy to see how a Dylan, Elton John, or Paul Simon can keep on keeping on the way they perform, but how do you keep a firecracker lit and exploding concert after concert? There’s no sleepwalking through this rocker’s greatest hits. I’m beginning to believe the Springsteens and Jaggers will just keep rocking until they keel over. Definitely worse ways to go.

So much has been written about Springsteen’s connection to the working class and his politics over the years, there’s no need to rehash. So I’ll stick with his art. One of the learning experiences that really impressed during my Bruce Fest is the breadth of his work, the different styles in which he chooses to work, his constant growth without losing his history or roots. That willingness and sensibility to stay ‘now’ and look back simultaneously demanded that I eyeball the limits of my own thinking and openness. Springsteen has the ability to stretch his mind and vision along with a commitment to pay homage to those who came before (The Seeger Sessions: We Shall Overcome) and turn those old-time songs into modern, breathing, living music. Special is, indeed, special.

Then there’s the undercurrent to much of his work. He brings a genuine belief in the American Dream, all the while seeing damn near everything that stands in its way. Our wars, our racism, our alienation, our despair that anything can turn this country around makes Springsteen’s unyielding, often unspoken belief, a breath of fresh air. A present day echo of “keep hope alive.”

But most of all I’ve come to respect the humanity that rides shotgun with his art. And that humanity has been there since Greetings From Asbury Park (1973) right though High Hopes (2014).

All of this just goes to show you that:

”Some guys just give up living and start dying little by little, piece by piece. Some guys come home from work and wash up, and go racing in the street.”~ Bruce Springsteen

A very special note of gratitude to Andrei Joseph who took hours of his time to school me in the ways of Bruce and provided virtually all my listening and watching material. Learning something new is like racing in that street. Thank you, Chico.


Dear Hank,

You and I don’t believe in heaven or hell but we do both believe in wind. Which makes it sadly ironic that you would pass for the lack. Still, while I don’t give much credence to mysticism or even spiritualism, I truly hear you rustling around. I feel you swirling around me and expect you always will. I might not have all the time sequences accurate, but the following experiences are true to the bone.

During the last year of your life we spent a fair amount of time talking about what we had brought to the world. You always concluded, “At least I was able to give pleasure to people through my music.”  That was money, but just the beginning of a whole lot more.

You were incredibly important to my life—though it didn’t start that way. You were about ten years older when I hung around Roselle Park with your brothers, so I was just the little cousin. Occasionally you’d have one of your friends punch me in the stomach to prove how good I could take it. Of course you and your brothers, Frank and Jeff, never remember that happening. Hell, why should they or you? I was the one getting hit and struggling with every bit of energy not to fall and let you (or myself) down.

Just a couple of years later I was holding you in awe. You were a musician, a saxophone player, the only real artist in the family. You honked with a band AND eloped with a Christian, Barbara, the band’s singer. A definite first for our family, met with slings and arrows. I thought it an act of bravery, a serious sacrifice for love, much the same as I viewed your work as a musician. When the group (I think it was The Escorts at the time) was scheduled to play on the Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Telethon, and they kept pushing the group back later and later, I remember begging my mother to let me stay up to watch. Finally, when you came on the wavy black and white, Barbara sang the first song and then you sang the next. I think that shocked everyone because no one knew you could sing—but you sounded fine. Even through those tinny TV speakers.

My recollections of your life during my preteen years are sketchy, but I did know you never stopped blowing your horn. Night after night, year after year. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, this was a significant lesson about what it took to become really good at something.

And I knew you were good. When you played in New York, you’d tell your brothers and me you’d get us into the bar and we’d be okay. The place was rowdy, but even from the bandstand you kept an eye on us to make sure we weren’t hassled. More than that, I remember how you sounded with Barbara’s singing. I didn’t know anything about music then, but I knew I was listening to something special. Your fingers were a blur and the richness of your saxophone was nothing I’d heard on any records. Barbara’s throaty voice was the perfect offset to your style. There was a song called Sorrento I’d never heard before going to The Wagon Wheel, but when you played your long, lightning fast solo I’d jump and cheer. You must have noticed; every time I saw the band you made a point of playing that number.

You had become my role model. Someone willing to go against family conventions, took on a world where a living was dicey at best, but one that you loved and willingly entered head on. There’s no way I would have, could have, made the life choices I did, had you not led the way.

We lost track of each other after I went to college, but I knew you had moved to Florida and were still playing night after night. Eventually I realized I too wanted to get into the arts. I hadn’t yet realized I was a writer, so I did what seemed natural. I wrote you a letter and asked, if I gave you the money, could you choose and send me a decent sax. Instead, you sent me one of your altos with a note saying you weren’t playing it anymore. Looking back, I imagine you chuckled at my request. You knew I hadn’t the slightest idea of what a decent saxophone cost, which is why you gave me your Buescher with its New York Meyer mouthpiece.

Well, life had other plans that took me into counseling for decades. But throughout all those years the sax was left out in plain sight. The next time the arts called loud enough, I was drawn to writing, which took another dozen years of my time. Then, during my next job as a trial and jury consultant, the Buescher kept whispering its siren song, soft and low.

By that time you had moved back to New Jersey, diagnosed with COPD, and was slowly on your way to emphysema. I called and asked if I was crazy to even think about starting to learn music at 50 years old. “Keep your day job but go for it,” you answered. “It’s never too late to learn something that interests you.”

We kept in touch and after about a year of lessons, my terrific teacher suggested I join his teaching ensemble, though he warned me I’d be its worst player. Still, he felt it would add to my music education. So I called you again and asked if you thought it a good idea. You laughed and said, “Playing with other people is different than playing in your room or with your teacher. And playing with better musicians is the best way to get better yourself. Just be prepared to be humiliated. You’re strong enough to take a punch.”

Years later, at a family occasion, I mentioned I’d bought a tenor. You told me sit tight, drove to your nearby home, and returned with the mouthpiece you’d gotten from your friend King Curtis. You told me it was the last of your musical instruments and you had confidence I’d do it justice. I’m not sure you’re right about the justice thing though I treasured that mouthpiece, but sadly realized you were saying an official farewell to music.

Then the emphysema started to really hit and you moved in with your daughter Cheryl, her husband Eddie, and Emily, your granddaughter. Our irregular contact stepped up into regular. We spoke on the phone, sometimes about music, but mostly about baseball. You were a rabid Yankee fan and my team was the Sox. We bought MLB.com so we could watch each other’s game. When they played each other we’d talk between innings, and when talking took too much out of you we’d text. We both got pretty good pushing those tiny damn buttons.

At some point I realized that I hadn’t actually seen you in forever. At first you objected to my driving to Forked River. I think you were concerned about how much weight you’d already lost, though you’d always been a skinny son-of-a- bitch with a metabolism I’da killed for. We worked it out and this visit started another part of our relationship. I still remember Cher and Emily peeking into your room while we laid on your bed watching one baseball game on the TV and another on the laptop. I supposed we did look a little strange.

Then a week happened that, for the rest of my life, will always bring a smile. Cheryl wanted a family vacation and needed people to cover. Brother Jeff and his wife Michelle did the first weekend, then I came down to hang. As usual you bitched and moaned but we had a terrific time. You turned me onto Jimmy Dean breakfasts, though like idiots we microwaved ’em in their plastic package. (This after I’d fought the vinyl chloride industry for ten years).

In fact, that week we caught a lucky break. Your emphysema really backed off so we were able to go to your breakfast joint a couple of times instead of the microwave. You told me that sometimes you’d start to feel well enough to go there late in the morning, but knew they were closing in about 30 minutes so you didn’t. “Why make ’em stay past their working hours?” Well, however limited your visits had become, when we walked in the door those two mornings, everyone would call out their greetings and never asked for your order. They knew.

We were also able to go out to lunch at another favorite place where brother Frank from New York joined us for hours of talk. You were even strong enough to drive and hang at the car dealership where you’d been the customer rep since the COPD stole your music. And goddamn, if everyone from the owner on down didn’t stop by the room where we were hanging. Dave, the repair manager, regaled me with stories of the hijinks you and he played. I laughed my eyes out and you your breath, until we finally went home.

During my last visit you weren’t as strong, but even then but even then the wind whistled and baseball was on the tube every day. Brother Jeff visited and the two of you schooled me on auto racing. I’ll never be a rabid fan, but I no longer think it’s just a fast left hand turn.

What I really want you to know is it’s true that you gave people enormous pleasure with your music—but you gave even more than that. You gave those connected to you a loving, warm embrace. And there were a lot of people connected to you. You really cared.

And you gave me permission to have an artistic life.

I know how much you loved your family and I’m proud to have been a member as well as a friend. I know how much you loved Cheryl, Eddie and Emily and how much they loved you back. And I know how much the rest of the family and your friends loved you, respected you.

If we were both wrong and there is a heaven and hell, I know you’re making great music with the best of the best. And when I get there I’ll be in the audience shouting, “Sorrento, Sorrento!”

Dare to be strong and courageous. That is the road. Venture anything. Sherwood Anderson

Dreams Don’t Quit, People Do

My cousin Hank didn’t know he was my role model when we were growing up.  Truthfully, I don’t think he paid much attention to me.  We were more than a decade apart in age and I hung with his much younger brother Jeff.  In fact, when I recently mentioned that he had his boyhood friends punch me in the stomach to show how well I could “take it,” Hank denied it ever happened.  Of course, he wasn’t the one who took the hits; why should he remember?

Hank was older and cool, but most importantly he was a saxophonist.  I was still a kid when his band moved to Las Vegas and grabbed the town by the throat.  We heard great reviews of his playing, with lots of accolades to Barbara, his wife and the band’s singer.

Then word came back that the group would appear with Jerry on the Muscular Dystrophy Telethon.  In those days, that was “can’t miss TV” replete with every famous headliner including the Rat Pack.  Plus, this was gonna be the first time I’d get a chance to hear him play and Barbara sing.  I couldn’t wait.  Although scheduled for ’round midnight, they didn’t get on air until the early hours of the morning.  No matter–despite threats from my mother who wanted me to go to bed–no way I was gonna miss his set.

I loved what I heard.  He had the fastest fingers I’d ever seen and the horn just wailed, counterpointed by Barb’s husky crooning.

That night was the beginning of my dream to become a musician.  When the band moved back to New York, I was attending a Yeshiva high school in Brooklyn.  Hank’s willingness to sneak Jeff, me, and Frank (their middle brother, who along with Jeff and Hank is one of my best friends) into a dive off Broadway called The Wagon Wheel just reinforced my fantasy.

But like most people’s dreams, mine slunk into a corner when confronted by daily life.  I’d quit college to go into Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) and discovered I was a talented organizer and counselor and enjoyed the work.  Like most people, I continued to do what I did well.  The fact that I never had a music lesson or any experience with musical instruments didn’t help all that much either.

Fast forward through decades:  Twenty years of working in social services, raising children, and ten years of successfully writing detective fiction (another dream of mine).

Still, throughout those years, the thought of playing music never disappeared.  In fact, at one point I asked Hank to pick out a sax for me to buy.  Instead, he kindly sent me one of his, told me he never played it so I could keep it.  I can only imagine him shaking his head and wondering what the fuck I wanted it for.

What the fuck, indeed.  The sax sat in the closet for another decade while I delved into my next serial career as right-hand man to my blood brother Ron, a lawyer in D.C.

I took pleasure in facilitating focus groups, running mediations, preparing experts to testify, even editing briefs.  I was especially proud that Ron’s practice was totally committed to fighting for the little guy against powers that be.

Still, something was missing.  I needed the arts.  Since I’d burned my writing bridges, it was time to pull out the other dream and Hank’s alto.  I was sure to succeed–hell, I’d written a New York Notable novel without ever writing much more than a short story.

I found a teacher, Bob Brenner, and dug in.  And while I could actually get a sound out of the sax fairly quickly, I slowly, unhappily, discovered over the next couple of years that muscle memory wasn’t a strong suit (memory in general, actually), and learning to read music, finger an instrument, understand ‘time” and enough theory to become competent in this new language, was a brand new bag.  And not one in which I was particularly proficient.

Frankly, I was shocked.  I’d been certain that with time and effort I was sure to succeed.  Beginning at 50 years old was an excuse for a while, but some dreams ride with talent and some don’t.  Images of playing weekend gigs at Holiday Inns weren’t going to become a reality.

Part of me thought about quitting.  Just giving up.  If I couldn’t snag my goals, why bother?  But Bob knew better.  He’d surely known my fantasies were just that–fantasies.  But he also recognized and understood that the pleasure of playing music didn’t hinge on unattainable dreams.  There was more to get from making music than gigs or muscle memory or nimble fingers.  So he urged me to join a learning ensemble populated by much more experienced musicians than I.

At first I took to calling the ensemble, my Tuesday Night Humiliation Session.  But I discovered that playing with people much better than me was a growing experience.  Letting go of my pride made room for more music to enter–and I even got better.

During my writing years people continually asked what kind of book to write in order to sell to a publisher.  I always replied with a question of my own; do you want to write or do you want to sell?  Either is fine, but they ain’t neccessarily the same.

At that time it was an honest but facile response.  My musical life has taught me how true that answer really was and then some.  It’s taken close to a lifetime but I’ve finally learned that it isn’t always the “goal” that need carry the day, but the activity in and of itself.

I don’t know if what I’m about to say makes sense in today’s world, but I’m retro.  I don’t think life means all that much if you don’t go after what you want.  No matter how unlikely, unusual, or just plain difficult.  No, I’m never going to play at a Holiday Inn, but I do love playing.  Sometimes dreams don’t turn out as expected, but that doesn’t always mean worse.  Sometimes it just means different.

“Inside every old person is a younger person wondering what the fuck happened.”