Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Summertime Nostalgia At The Twin Towers

The Stage Between The Twin Towers at Austin J. Tobin Plaza

Writing a novel which takes place in the early 1990s in New York City had me frequently thinking back on what life was like in that not-so-long ago era. It’s remarkable how much things have changed in a relatively short time period. Not just the skyline, the ballparks and the presence of Uber cabs on every street. For as sophisticated as the big city is, our existence was notably simpler back then. Email was in its infancy. Amazon was solely a desert without prime customers. Wi-Fi was not yet a concept (let alone a civic requirement). Security was far less of a presence. And you didn’t have sidewalks cluttered with distracted pedestrians checking their phones and texting their friends persistently.
          One of the simple joys that I recall both with fondness and a tinge of melancholy is a summertime ritual lost to time and terror. From 1987 – 2001, thousands of downtown workers would gather each week at Austin J. Tobin Plaza during their lunch hour for a series of free concerts. Tobin Plaza served as a park, performance venue, and crowd-funneling area in the open space directly between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. It was the ideal spot in lower Manhattan to entertain a large mid-day crowd.
          I’ll never forget the pure joy of escaping work for an hour on a warm day to grab a Frozefruit bar and join thousands of fellow New Yorkers for a free lunchtime concert by some of rock & roll’s legendary names.
          I first learned about the summer concert series from my late cousin, Michael Greenberg, who worked most of his adult life in lower Manhattan. It was June of 1995. I’d been employed a few months at a direct mail agency down on Hudson Street. Mike, who had been working just blocks from the Trade Center, often met me for lunch when the weather cooperated. We’d regularly wander the neighborhood, shopping for CDs at Tower Records, or duck inside the basement of the Century 21 department store.

          Like me, Mike was an aficionado of classic rock & roll. He and I attended many memorable concerts together. Through his broker “friends,” he’d often manage to score us tickets to some of the most in-demand shows including Paul McCartney in ‘89 at Giants Stadium and Fleetwood Mac with Squeeze at Jones Beach in 1990. But by the summer of ‘95, work had mostly overtaken play. And in my case, office life was exceptionally demanding.
          The job I had interviewed for was an assistant accounts manager, helping with the subscriber renewal campaigns for some popular magazines. I was hired at a low salary, trained by my supervisor for two weeks, then handed over the full responsibility of these clients when she departed ten days later for something more lucrative. My employer offered me none of the compensation, or perks of my predecessor. He even continued to refer to me as an “assistant” to justify the entry-level pay. It was delightful.
            The one perk that I was sure to make full usage of was my one-hour lunch break. Each day around 12:30, I’d forward my phone line to an answering machine (this was the pre-voicemail days) and step out to grab some fresh air and a sandwich. I’d even found a favorite pizza hangout down on Chambers Street, near Broadway.
          Personal calls at work were more difficult to manage in the era before cell-phones. Still, Mike and I did touch base regularly, usually late in the day to chat about last night’s ballgame, or a recent family gathering. Then came that Wednesday morning call in early July. “Hey Lonnie, come on down at the Trade Center at noon. Peter Noone and Herman’s Hermits are doing a free show.”
          We met up at the bustling curb just before Tobin Plaza. Mike knew we weren’t likely to get much closer for a popular attraction on a sunny afternoon. I’m not quite sure how we managed to find each other in the crowd without cell phones or GPS. Yet somehow, this is exactly what people did over the centuries that proceeded today’s technology. We each bought a snack from the Good Humor truck on the corner, then maneuvered about halfway through the crowd toward the stage area.

          What I best remember about these summer concerts is the incredible backdrop that the towers provided. Each Wednesday, another musical star of the 1960s would play a free mini-concert on a wooden stage, framed by metal stanchion and draped with a huge rectangular banner for WCBS-FM, NY’s Oldies Station. At 12:15, the classic artist and his/her band would be introduced by a CBS-FM on-air personality, like Cousin Brucie or Norm N. Nite. The audio system was powerful enough for passerby’s to hear the music even a couple of blocks away. And the sight of the soaring steel and glass directly above the stage was dramatic, even breathtaking.
          Peter Noone’s free show was the first of many we would gather for that summer. The following week it was The Grass Roots, followed by Lesley Gore and later Felix Caveliere and the Rascals. Each week, the artist would perform a set of 6 – 8 of their best known tunes, sometimes interrupted by a lesser-known album track, or cover song. They would usually save their biggest hit for last, which resulted in a joyous sing-along. It’s My Party by Leslie Gore and Good Lovin’ by The Rascals had the crowd in whipped up in a frenzy. Midnight Confessions by the Grass Roots saw hundreds of New Yorkers playing their best air guitar and keyboards.
          One week in mid August, we headed to the towers for a show by The Association. Even as a listener of “oldies radio,” I didn’t recall the band’s name being terribly familiar. An overcast morning kept early crowds to a minimum. I met Mike at the iconic bronze Sphere sculpture right in the center of the plaza. We were fortunate enough to get just steps away from the stage; the closest we had gotten for any of the shows. To our utter amazement, The Association were fabulous. For 45 minutes they played hit after hit (Along Came Mary, Cherish, Windy, Never My Love), as the crowd swelled in numbers and volume. So good were they that the group was urged on to play an unscheduled encore. It was the only time we witnessed something so spontaneous at one of these tightly scripted performances.

One convenient aspect of the summertime shows was that each artist actually played an identical set both at 12:15, and then again at 1:15. Latecomers who caught the tail end of the early performance could hang around and see the balance of the show after a 15 minute intermission. This format worked wonderfully for artists with a solid catalog of hits. Then there was Chubby Checker.
 It was a beautiful August afternoon when Mr. Checker took the stage between the towers for his summertime spotlight. A strong crowd filled ¾ of the standing room on the plaza. And things got off to a roaring start with his biggest song, The Twist. Hundreds of New Yorkers were clapping and swiveling their hips. Next came his follow-up hit, Lets Twist Again, also fondly received. And then… the singer – apparently short on worthwhile material - elected to repeat the same two songs twice more. And this just to round out the opening set! A good portion of the early crowd left, looking perplexed during the first repeat. Later arrivals headed for the exit after the second duplication, leaving just a handful of spectators to take in the 1:15 show. The confused faces of the departing fans summarized the shortcoming of this sometimes limited format. Especially when the headliner was a legendary two-hit wonder.
Davy Jones of The Monkees at the World Trade Center

          The biggest crowd that summer at the Trade Center was for a concert by Mickey Dolenz and Davy Jones of The Monkees. Mike and I arrived at 12:10 to find the audience stretched all the way out onto West Street. Getting anywhere near the vicinity of the stage was a pipedream. But from our vantage point at the curb, we were at least able to hear the full performance and the roar of an adoring 6,000 fans. That didn’t even include the hundreds of workers watching through the glass inside the north tower. Monkey-mania was still very much alive in the summer of ’95.
Back in 1995, cell phones were not as commonplace, or as sophisticated as we now know them to be. As a result, few photos and even fewer videos exist of these magical summer freebies. One would have had to have owned a bulky camcorder and been close enough to the stage to pick up both the audio and video of the show. Only a handful of YouTube clips have surfaced.
By the next summer, I had been firmly ensconced in a new job up on west 34th Street. Lunch-breaks were infrequent at best. And the Trade Center was now a good 25 minute commute. Mike still worked downtown and would often call me to meet him for the ’96 concert season. He mailed me a tri-fold pamphlet (which I still keep to this day) listing all the shows including Opera Mondays, Swinging Tuesdays, Jazz Wednesdays, and Country Fridays. But only Oldies Thursdays held any appeal to us. Just once was I able to escape work that summer. And that was to see a revamped lineup of The Mamas and the Papas featuring Papa John Phillips and a trio of non-original members. Uninspiring as the performance was, it was still great to bond with Mike and get away from my desk for a mini-summer vacation. Hard to believe that this would be my last time standing in the formidable shadow of the soaring Twin Towers.
The summer concert series continued to draw large lunchtime audiences right up to the tragic morning of 9/11. An afternoon show had been scheduled there for that very day. One which would obviously never be played.

When I gaze upon the skyline of lower Manhattan today, my heart aches for what is no longer there, rather than to admire the structure that stands in its place. So much of our youth, our past and our history was robbed from us on that fateful September Tuesday morning. That and the lives of nearly 3,000 New Yorkers, some of whom I likely rubbed shoulders with down on Austin J. Tobin Plaza on those warm summer afternoons.
In spite of all of the unfathomable destruction from the 9/11 attacks, one singular landmark from Tobin Plaza remains mostly intact. The 25-foot tall bronze Sphere sculpture that served as a meeting-place for thirty years somehow emerged from the rubble of two collapsed skyscrapers with only some punctures, dents and scrapes. Today, it has been relocated to nearby Battery Park where it now stands next to an eternal flame as a memorial to everything and everyone we lost.
When I tell my daughters about what life was like in the early 90s, I get a quite an array of surprised reactions and eye-rolls. They find it hard to believe that society once functioned without wireless tablets, Instagram and streaming video. “You mean you didn’t get a cell phone until you were 33? How’s that possible?” It’s a foreign concept that they will never quite wrap their mind around. But when I share stories of my summer afternoons with Cousin Mike, catching free concerts at the foot of the old Twin Towers, I detect a gleam of comprehension. An appreciation and disappointment of a time and place that they will never get to visit outside of their imagination.
Quite an irony that a series of shows intended to celebrate an earlier yesteryear has now become my own nostalgia.
Poet Of The Wrong Generation by Lonnie Ostrow is now available in paperback and eBook format. CLICK HERE to order your copy.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

The Heartbreak Behind Our Greatest Ballads

There is a moment in my novel, Poet Of The Wrong Generation, when our protagonist, Johnny Elias, experiences a stunning revelation. As a lifelong music fan, he always thought of ballads as a three minute escape into someone else’s melancholy. Never had he pondered the significance behind the poignant lyrics and melodies. But after a crushing betrayal by his long time love, the young poet is awakened to the reality of true inspiration via his own heartbreak. He finds the spark to compose a tear-jerking ballad entitled, We’ve Already Said Goodbye.” It’s a song that puts him on an unlikely trail to musical stardom, while unintentionally sending her down a path of desolation.

          Throughout the history of pop music, there have been countless songs of pleading, anguish, longing and finality. Unrequited love and despair are almost certainly the greatest source behind the most heartfelt songs ever written. Here below is a unique look at some of the more heart-wrenching ballads and the stories behind the musical heartbreak.

          In 2011, British songstress, Adele topped the pop charts with her power-ballad, Someone Like You. It’s the torment of a spurned lover, wishing her ex well in his newfound relationship, but begging not to be forgotten. A bittersweet goodbye from someone who believes she has lost the love of her life. Although not confirmed by Adele, speculation is that this tune was penned about photographer, Alex Sturrock, who dated the singer on her 2009 US tour. Says Adele about the song: “We were so intense I thought we would get married. But that was something he never wanted... So when I found out he does want that with someone else, it was just the horrible-est feeling ever. But after I wrote it, I felt more at peace. It set me free.”

Eric Clapton and Patti Boyd
          Layla by Eric Clapton is considered perhaps the ultimate ballad in classic rock, and one of intense desperation. It was penned by rock’s most revered guitarist in an attempt to win the affections of Patti Boyd, then the wife of his best friend, George Harrison of the Beatles. The song, composed in 1970, was the first grand gesture made by Clapton over a four-year courtship that eventually led to the breakup of the Harrison’s marriage. The ballad’s subject, Patti Boyd told Rolling Stone magazine: “Eric turned up one day when George was away. He said. ‘I've got something for you to hear,' and he put it on in a cassette machine and played it. And I said, 'Oh, gosh, this is unbelievable!' And he was just looking at me and saying, 'This is for you, I've written it for you.'" Clapton would go on to marry Boyd in 1979. They would divorce in 1988, but the song (released in 1972 by Clapton’s band, Derek and the Dominos) remains a timeless example of musical pleading, epitomized by the second verse:
I tried to give you consolation. When your old man had let you down.
Like a fool, I fell in love with you. Turned my whole world upside down.
was not the only rock classic in which Boyd inspired. She was earlier the subject of George Harrison’s classic Something on the Beatles Abbey Road album. Later, she was the “beautiful lady” in Eric Clapton’s standard, Wonderful Tonight. Patti Boyd is almost certainly rock and roll’s greatest muse.

            Walk Away Renee by the Left Banke just might be the quintessential pop ballad of the 1960s. Rolling Stone magazine ranks it as one of the top 200 songs of all-time. It is a recording so unique (featuring strings, harpsichord and a flute) that it helped to inspire a musical sub-category called “Baroque Rock.” And yet, as impassioned as the song comes off to the listener, it is not a traditional break-up song, but rather one written to prevent one of a different kind. In 1966, the band’s keyboardist and primary songwriter, Michael Brown, found himself falling hard for Renée Fladen, a young beauty who just happened to be the girlfriend of the group’s bassist, Tom Finn. A month after meeting his muse, Brown’s infatuation grew, prompting him to pen the now legendary, anguished song. In the chorus he begs her to “just walk away,” rather than allow her to come between him and his band-mate. Brown said of his unrequited feelings: "I was just sort of mythologically in love, if you know what I mean, without having evidence in fact or in deed. But I was as close as anybody could be to the real thing." Renée herself was said to be on hand in the studio during the recording of the song, and her presence left the songwriter frazzled. In an interview with, Brown stated: "My hands were shaking when I tried to play (the harpsichord), because she was right there in the control room. There was no way I could do it with her around, so I came back and did it later." Walk Away Renee went on to reach # 5 on the pop charts, and was later, famously covered by The Four Tops and Linda Ronstadt. The original is 2:48 of tormented pop music perfection.

Unreciprocated affection is the spark that ignited the 2007 chart-topper, Hey There Delilah by Plain White T’s. Written by lead singer, Tom Higgenson, the acoustic ballad is about a long distance couple who talk about their future plans of her finishing school and him becoming a famous guitar player. It was inspired by track and field athlete, Delilah DiCrescnzo, an Olympic hopeful when she met the songwriter in New York. In an interview with USA Today, Higgenson said: "I thought she was the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen. I told her, 'I have a song about you already.' Obviously, there was no song. But I thought it was smooth." Delilah was, in fact, involved in a committed relationship. She made it clear that she was off limits. Still, the creative seed had been planted.  The band’s guitarist Dave Tirio explained: "I remember when we met Delilah back in the day. Tom was just kind of flirting with her and he was talking about writing a song about her and she responded by goofing around and saying ‘oh where is my song? I want to hear this thing.’ He got about four lines in and just writing about how she’d gone off to school and how much he missed her. Then he kinda spun that into what would you want to say to any girl in your life that you were totally head over heels for; all the things you would want to cram into one little conversation." The ballad slowly climbed the pop charts, eventually hitting # 1, more than a year after its release.  DiCrescnzo, the song’s muse told ESPN: “It’s catchy, melodic. It’s very romantic. It means something to everybody — especially for anybody who ever yearned for someone.” It was nominated for a pair of Grammy awards including Song Of The Year. Delilah attended the ceremony with Tom Higgenson. The song didn't win, and while it was technically their first date, Delilah made it clear that she was still committed to her boyfriend. No matter, this unrequited lust managed to inspire one of the biggest songs of the decade.

Yesterday by the Beatles is the most covered song in music history. Paul McCartney’s 1965 opus has been recorded by some 3,000 artists ranging from Frank Sinatra to Elvis Presley to Placido Domingo. McCartney has often recounted that he composed the timeless melody in his sleep one night when living in the London home of his longtime girlfriend, Jane Asher. However, the lyrics are not about Asher, but rather about another great love which he lost many years earlier. Paul’s mother, Mary McCartney was a nurse and midwife; the primary earner in their household. She was on call for deliveries at all hours, and Paul has periodically expressed his memories of seeing her biking off to the hospital because the family did not own a car. Mary died from complications of breast cancer surgery in 1956. She was only 47. Paul was just 14. When informed of his mother’s death, young Paul’s initial reaction was cold and thoughtless. “What are we going to do without her money?” he asked his grieving father. These words, he says, still haunt him. In Yesterday he sings: “I said something wrong, now I long for yesterday,” a line of regret, wishing he could take back his youthful insensitivity. In 2013, Paul told Mojo magazine: “With 'Yesterday', singing it now, I think without realising it I was singing about my mum, because I think now, ‘Why she had to go, I don’t know, she wouldn’t say, I said something wrong…’ I think the psychiatrist would have a field day with that one.”

 I Will Always Love You may best be known for the
chart-topping rendition by Whitney Houston in 1992 for the film The Bodyguard. But this bittersweet song was actually composed by country legend, Dolly Parton in 1973. Like many great ballads, this one spotlights a parting of the ways. However, in this instance, it is not the separation of lovers that she sings of, but rather the dissolution of a professional partnership. Country music author Curtis W. Ellison stated that the song "speaks about the breakup of a relationship between a man and a woman that does not descend into unremitting domestic turmoil, but instead envisions parting with respect – because of the initiative of the woman." In 1967, country star Porter Wagoner gave an unknown Dolly Parton her big break by hiring her to appear on his weekly TV show. Over seven years, Dolly went from being Porter’s musical apprentice to an escalating star. In 1973, she elected to exit the show and forge a solo career. On her final episode, Dolly debuted her new song inspired by their platonic breakup and her mixed feelings at leaving her mentor behind. She told the CMT network: “It’s saying, ‘Just because I’m going don’t mean I won’t love you. I appreciate you, and I hope you do great, and I appreciate everything you’ve done, but I’m out of here. And I took it in the next morning. I said, ‘Sit down, Porter. I’ve written this song, and I want you to hear it.’ So I did sing it. And he was crying. He said, ‘That’s the prettiest song I ever heard. And you can go, providing I get to produce that record.’ And he did, and the rest is history.”

Sometimes, even the mundane, everyday tasks can provide good fodder for a song of heartbreak. In 1995, Alaskan folk singer, Jewel, burst on the music scene with the raw and sentimental, You Were Meant For Me. This song describes those early days after a breakup, when she attempts to go about her daily routine but cannot shake the doldrums of being alone. As Jewel makes breakfast, showers and dresses for the day, all she can think about is how empty everything is without the man she loves. The tune is haunting, yet peaceful, sung with great vulnerability to the accompaniment of an acoustic guitar. Some of the most poignant lyrics are found in the song’s bridge:
I go about my business, I'm doing fine
Besides what would I say if I had you on the line?
Same old story, not much to say
Hearts are broken, everyday
I was probably 19 when I wrote You Were Meant For Me,” says Jewel to Songwriters Universe. “It was this naïve, sweet longing, and then you grow up and you actually fall in love, and you realize how hard it is and how much work it is. You start to realize that the difference between lust and love is that you actually stick around when it’s hard when you’re in love. You find that you can’t leave and the hard things seem worthwhile, and you’re actually able to find poetry in the daily struggle of building a relationship.” The song hit # 2 on the Billboard singles chart and was the most played radio song of 1996.

Of all the heartfelt ballads in pop music history, perhaps the most gut-wrenching of all is Without You, most famously sung by Harry Nilsson in 1971. It is the story of two lovers who have gone separate ways, and the singer proclaims that he “can’t live if living is without you.” Paul McCartney described it to VH-1 as "the killer song of all time." The verses were written by Pete Ham of the band Badfinger (inspired by his girlfriend at the time, Beverly Tucker). The chorus was composed by his band-mate, Tom Evans (about his future wife, Marianne). The two separate compositions, referring to real events in the songwriters' lives flowed together to create the song. Pete Ham had written a tune originally titled: If It's Love, but the chorus was lackluster. The second verse was written first.
"Well I can't forget tomorrow, when I think of all my sorrow, I had you there but then I let you go, and now it's only fair that I should let you know... if it's love."
Events in Evans' life would lead to the completion of the track. While on tour he had met the woman who would become his future wife, Marianne. One evening she ran off after an argument. He wrote a song called 'I Can't Live'. Its chorus: "I can't live, if living is without you, I can't live, I can't give any more.” And so the merging of the two songs created something exceptional. Ham's verses, warm, sweet and sentimental. Evans' chorus, intense, dramatic and heartbreaking. Both Ham and Evans said they did not consider the song to have much potential at the time Badfinger recorded it. Though the band would score several top-40 hits, this would not be one of them.

Harry Nilsson was best known in 1970 for his hit Everybody's Talkin,' from the movie, Midnight Cowboy. He heard Badfinger's recording of "Without You" at a party, and decided to cover it for his album Nilsson Schmilsson in 1971. The song was released as a single in October 1971, and it stayed at number 1 on the U.S. pop chart for four weeks. It features one of the rangiest male vocal performances ever recorded. His injection of all-out passion turned a good song into a great one. Mariah Carey's 1994 cover version is faithfully based on Harry Nilsson's emotional recording rather than the Badfinger restrained original. It reached number 3 on the Billboard Hot 100. Without You remains Carey's biggest hit across Europe. It became her first UK number 1 single. The ballad is a perfect storm of heartache and hopelessness, piano and violins blended together in a recipe of delicious sorrow. 

Gut-wrenching ballads have been written and performed through the decades by a wide array of tormented, talented artists. Whether folksy, piano driven, hard rocking, or tinged with country twang, all of these truly-inspired classics find a way to transport us to a place where melancholy never fails to tug hard on our heartstrings.

Poet Of The Wrong Generation by Lonnie Ostrow is now available in paperback and eBook format. CLICK HERE TO ORDER YOUR COPY.