By Rosalie Tirella
Jett relaxing to the music … photos: R.T.
Enjoying THE BAND this Easter weekend. I only have three of their lps but two of them are the great ones. Yesterday I watched The Last Waltz DVD, checked out from the library. Watching the movie I remembered how great these guys ALL were – how American this mostly Canadian band was – what gifted storytellers they were via their wonderfully evocative songs – tales of “Lonesome Susie” and Southern soldiers, downtrodden but defiant … and lights shining West to East/I shall be released (this tune written by Bob Dylan). You enter an earthy, hardscrabble, wistful world whenever you listen to a Band song.
I saw The Band, without Robbie Robertson, at the old E.M. Loews theater in Downtown Worcester decades ago. Right after Robertson, the band’s main songwriter and “leader,” left the group – I think. I remember seeing Rick Danko on that grungy old Loews stage. He looked a little heavy, the sound wasn’t so terrific, it was drafty in this tired old concert venue that hosted oldie shows like Warren Zevon, whom I saw a few years later at Loews. Once young and beautiful and great, now these guys were simply GREAT. I don’t know if Levon Helm was there. I was around 18 … it was a long time ago. Before heroin took Danko, before Robertson got into Native American music, before I left my mother’s house, remaining close to my mom for the rest of her life but seeing my father only a handful of times after that.
I had yet to understand how unlucky I was to be born in Green Island but how lucky I was to be young in the 1970s, a teen in the middle of all this fantastic music coming thru to me and every American kid on FM radio. For free. Sounds and songs and artists extraordinaire getting through to us, as John Lennon once said about the power of rock n roll. The songs expressing our outrage over the Vietnam War/war, our love of nature, our longing for love. And all wrapped up in these beautiful, powerful, intelligent songs. Seeing these great bands in concert – for not a lot of dough – was life changing. To be poor and still be a part of it! How could you not be?! … To be 16 and living in a crumby flat on Lafayette Street, with an asshole of a father yelling at your sweet mom in the background while you’re listening to John Lennon on your record player sing-scream: MOTHER, YOU HAD ME, BUT I NEVER HAD YOU./ I WANTED YOU/YOU DIDN’T WANT ME! That was my world. That was rock n roll back then.
My father lived with us all thru my junior and senior high school years, adding very little money to the household kitty, basically sponging off my mother who killed herself at the drycleaners to keep it all going, to give her kids good food, clean clothes … stability. My father, who had a rickety old truck back then, never once picked her up from the drycleaners. Ma always walked that stretch of Lafayette Street home, alone, in the dark, sometimes pulling a wagon filled with groceries she had bought for the family at Supreme Market on Millbury Street…us kids running down the stairs to help her bring up the groceries, Daddy sitting on their bed reading the classifieds in yesterday’s newspaper. Why is Daddy still living with us? I wondered. Why doesn’t he take his bad feelings and just go away from us – again? We were happier without him! Without a father!
But Daddy didn’t go away.
And yet to be HAPPY whenever I cranked my music! FM radio or my Beatles albums! Spinning them on my cheapie Emerson “stereo” and feeling these seismic shifts in … possibilities. I started writing poetry. My mother bought me a used acoustic guitar. A few times “Daddy” rose to the musical occasion – like the Frank Sinatra records he brought home instead of the loaf of bread my mother had sent him out to buy one evening. Or the way he could sing a Frank Sinatra tune, emotional but still kinda poking fun at it while singing the lyrics. My father came from a musical family. His brother Al (my Uncle Al) had a jazz band in Worcester during the 1930s/40s and his brother George (my Uncle George) was a terrific banjo player. One summer day – I think I was in the 8th grade – Daddy hit a yard sale and walked away with 50 albums and scores of 45s. Good stuff that he lugged up three flights of stairs – a couple of times – to our apartment. Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. The Supremes. Gladys Knight and the Pips. Donovan. Simon and Garfunkel. I mean, the old man had struck gold! As soon as he laid the used albums all out on the kitchen table, I grabbed them and began playing them all, one after the other, on my cheapie record player in my bedroom – to my father’s delight.
The Last Waltz captures the beauty of ’60s + ’70s rock ‘n’ roll.
The Last Waltz, the Scorsese classic film, brought it all home to me last night: the Green Island flat, the hopes, the tangled feelings, the fear, the disappointments, my angel mother, our canary in her cage, all our cats and dogs and little turtles and newts and gold fish … and Daddy. The perennial fish out of water. The movie also made me cry: for my youth, for the singers’ youth. All gone now. And for the music, so beautiful, so all encompassing in the ’60s and ’70s. These days nothing compares to it. In the film: Joni Mitchell svelte and strong limbed; today in a wheelchair. Neil Young’s wife died of cancer a few years ago, after he left her for a movie actress. Neil Diamond so cool with his sunglasses in The Last Waltz has Parkinson’s Disease today. My old beau, who took me to so many concerts great and small, venues where I saw Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Loretta Lynn, YES, the Moody Blues and many more, walks haltingly with a cane these days. His back operation was risky … I remember driving to Boston with him years ago to an oldies rock concert – maybe the Monkees? – and glancing over my shoulder to see him driving but turned to me and smiling at me, his long platinum hair blowing in the wind, falling all over his aviator sunglasses, looking so cool and free… I snapped a photo of him with my cellphone camera and it came out looking so ’70s! My hippie guy, his long platinum hair streaming in the wind, the open highway before him, the sun ricocheting off his aviator sunglasses…he used to own a motorcycle. I had wished we were on one then. He looked so full of himself – and handsome! I kept the photo in my phone for years.
We talked on the phone yesterday and wished each other a Happy Easter. His girlfriend is making the traditional Easter Dinner – baked ham with pineapples, mashed potatoes and all the fixings. This old vegetarian hasn’t eaten meat since she was 19, but the old beau wasn’t all in when we were together, despite my nagging. I said: So, you’re going to have ham this Sunday. He said, in his quiet, but sexy deep voice: “No. The poor animal.”
I was stunned by the … emotion, the goodness. He had made my Easter! Then I wanted to be with him all over again. But now, we’re old and he made his choice years ago. He chose her.
My wrist has a wrist plate after the surgery and my fingers are stiff. Just yesterday I dropped a whole jar of tiny Vitamin D caplets on the floor when my fingers couldn’t hold the little bottle right. I got very upset. I felt old. But then I listened to MUSIC FROM THE BIG PINK and THE BAND and talked with the ol’ beau and heard him say “No. The poor animal” and then I saw a pig, clean and pink and rotund, walking before my eyes, very quickly on its piggy legs, happy and free in a rolling country meadow, and I felt … hopeful.