Listen to the Band

I always thought that if I write the story of my life[1], there will be a chapter called “Listen to the Band”.  It would be an homage to the Monkees.  The Monkees brought me out of the haze of nostalgia and helped me refocus on what might yet be instead of what might have been, for a time.  To me, though, they were less about the music, less even about the show, but about how it was possibly the first thing in my American life that was completely mine. 

I saw the show, (in reruns, of course, for it ended in real life not just before I came to the U.S. but before I was even born), I loved it, I heard the songs, I loved them, and I pursued this interest with the methodical devotion that characterized the infatuations of my younger days.  The Monkees introduced me to the world when music was still on MTV (to quote Bowling for Soup’s stunningly accurate “1985”).  Suddenly in the middle of a decade to which I never quite belonged, they appeared like a throwback to something I could not just understand but adore. 

I have long felt that music is the last bastion of cultural appreciation (I will not say adaptation).  When learning a foreign language (brace yourself for the assessment of this non-expert and non-linguist!), first comes the visual (reading followed by writing), then the auditory understanding, then the speaking.  This is why watching TV is easier than listening to music, which has no visual cues.  By the time you can appreciate music in a foreign language for its message, you have arrived.  The Monkees’ were the first songs to which I could sing along in this foreign language, songs that were not just melodious, positive, and lovely, but with clear, understandable lyrics. 

In my actual first apartment

I was pursuing this gentle hobby in my own wholesome way, tinged with the complications of our still new[ish] immersion into the American life.  As the Monkees’ 20th anniversary tour rolled through the country, what I lacked in means and guidance, I made up in determination.  On November 14, 1986, they came to Centennial Hall in Toledo, Ohio.  I marvel now at the decision that led me to take a bus, *twice* to Toledo, first to buy my ticket, then to attend the concert.  I was literally the only person standing in the after-concert crowd, waiting for the cab to take me to the hotel where I would spend the night before heading back to Ann Arbor in the morning[2].  That seems so weird now—but I was just a freshman, and had no friends with cars, or anyone whom I could have asked to go with me.  What was I supposed to do, not go? 

It was, of course, exciting.  I saw their giant tour buses, and caught a glimpse of Micky going in.  Herman’s Hermits minus Peter Noone (loved them, love him more, though it took a few more decades), The Grass Roots (who were a no show on that date because Rob Grill had just gotten married), and Gary Puckett and the Union Gap (not a fan then, not a fan still—every song title does not need to contain a reference to the female gender) opened for the Monkees.  It is always a greater pleasure to attend a concert where you know the words to every song.  I did then, and I still do.  Every.Single.Song. The only other band whose oeuvre I know almost as well is, of course, ABBA.

The following year, Here We Come Again tour stopped in Dallas, where I was, in addition to listening to their albums and watching their show on an endless loop, whiling the time away assembling roast beef sandwiches and cleaning toilets for $3.50 an hour.  My mom took a day off from her real job to attend her first rock-n-roll concert!  It was very exciting, because we not only ran like mad to get the best lawn seats (a feat of which she is still inordinately proud), but waited afterwards to meet Davy Jones get his autograph.  Weird Al opened for them; we had no idea who he was.

This is how it started, this is what it led to https://oldladywriting.com/2019/06/23/rocketman/

New music, new interests took over.  I had other things to do in the ‘90s.  And then Davy died, and suddenly, as often happens when we face our own mortality, the next Monkees reunion seemed vital not to miss.  I saw them in 2014 at the Fox Theater in Detroit, a sumptuous venue for any performer, and might have to say it was my favorite Monkees concert.  My then teenaged kid was unsurprisingly the youngest in the audience by decades, but even spouse and I seemed youngish compared to the crowd of what looked to be the “original” fans[3].  We had spectacular third row seats—perks of middle age.  Micky’s voice held up amazingly well through the years.  Peter mocked spouse, who clapped out of sync.  But the real treat was Mike.

I have never seen him before; his absence from the ‘80s tours is well known[4].  I have always preferred the two musician Monkees to the two actor Monkees (there, I’ve said it).  I loved Peter because I thought he was the most handsome and most endearing in the show; I loved Mike because musically, he seemed to march to the beat of a Different Drum (see what I did there?). Hearing Mike sing “The Door Into Summer”, “Tapioca Tundra”, “Papa Gene’s Blues”, “What Am I Doing Hangin’ Round” was pure magic—not just Monkee magic, but legitimate concert magic[5].  And of course, “Listen to the Band”.  No one could do it like him, and no one will again, now that he has gone on to that great big Circle Sky.  Thank you for the music, Papa Nez!

[1] Stay tuned; it’s coming.

[2] I reported to my diary that the hotel was luxurious and cost $50 and change.  It was an enormous splurge!

[3] This could be wildly inaccurate, because I have some sort of age dysmorphia, perpetually seeing myself as a college girl in my mind’s eye.

[4] I was surprised to read the account of those ‘80s concerts in my diary—apparently I felt Mike’s absence quite keenly.  I had completely forgotten that, from the get go, despite all the exhilaration, I deemed that the group was incomplete.  I was not wrong.

[5] Small complaint, big regret—I wish I could have heard him sing one of my all-time favorite songs, “Don’t Wait for Me” live.


Thank You for Being a Friend

According to my recently unearthed diary (it was not missing or anything, I just do not like to refer to it too often because of the cringe factor), my teen years were full of seemingly perpetual anguish related to various betrayals which I would never recollect but for this traumatizing written record.  I was, at times, surrounded by The Mean Girls—but who wasn’t in their teen years?  But in a period of just three days recently, I interacted with a variety of people who, in various ways, reminded me how incredibly blessed I have been by friendships in this lifetime. 

  • I auditioned for several parts in a show at the local community theater.  I did not get cast for several reasons. 
    • First, for one of the characters, my Russian accent is no longer convincing.  Yes, and I feel slightly stupid even writing this, but I am only identified as vaguely Eastern European to someone with a very good ear.  There were literally women on that stage who sounded authentically foreign-born (and weren’t), while I was doing a desperate impression of Crazy Russian Hacker.  And I am terrible enough with accents that I cannot just summon it.
    • Second, the director decided that the part of a “wanna be lawyer” should be played by a man, because, well, lawyers are men.  Triggering, and certainly nothing I have not heard from every corner over the past three decades, but for reasons passing understanding I always expect more parity from community theater.  What an unlikely source of optimism!  This actually reminds me of a time when I was not cast in another show.  It was a dual part—Eastern European mother in her youth in Act I, and then her daughter, a lawyer, a couple of decades later, in Act II.  The director called me and told me that I was believable as one but not as the other, and for the life of me I cannot remember which one was which.  There is great irony somewhere here, but ultimately, I guess I would prefer to think that I am an implausible lawyer.  Frankly, I usually feel that way anyway…
    • But, my point in all of this is that I ran into two women I know at the audition.  The camaraderie, the emotional support, the cheering each other on and complimenting each other even though we were up for the same couple of parts was absolutely lovely.  I have not known either of these fine humans in my youth, so cannot tell with certainty if we are all improving with age or if I am meeting a better class of people. Perhaps a little bit of both, which is both sensible and hopeful.
  • Not to make it sound like my American youth was misspent in the friendship department, the following day I drove to Hell (a real town; I am not this inventive) for a “Still 50” party of a high school classmate I have never met before.  Well, we met during a series of Zoom calls that were held on the regular during the darkest days of the pandemic, and encompassed a group of pals who all graduated within three years of each and now live all over not just the continental U.S., but as far as Hawaii.  I count myself more than a little lucky to enjoy the company of almost a dozen folks who knew me at my utmost awkward, clueless, and, in my mother’s characterization, gloomy, and who still willingly interact with me going on forty years later. 
  • The following day I had a lunch lasting several hours with a college friend.  We have not seen each other in about a decade, which is a ridiculous and inexplicable gap, but there it is.  The old saying of picking up where you leave off without missing a beat is always true with this friend, and has been for over thirty years.  I often see people question if there can be genuine, non-romantic friendship between men and women, and this long-standing unshakeable bond between an introverted engineer/scientist and a [seemingly] extroverted lawyer/amateur thespian is a testament to the fact that friendship, like love, is a gift that you take where you find it.
  • And finally, there is my childhood BFF.  She is the one whom I met on my first day of school, and who is the closest I have come to having a sister in this world (I have known my actual sister for a fraction of the time, both in quality and quantity—but that is another story for another time).  We have lived world apart for over forty years, and have averaged one in-person meeting per decade during this time.  Right now, she is on a road trip to the Russian Near North.  From each scenic stop, she has been sending me daily videos, narrating the town histories, telling fun local facts, showing scenic views.  They visited Novgorod the Great, Petrozavodsk the capital of Karelia, Murmansk above the Arctic Circle, stopped on the shores of the Barents Sea.  I have felt included in this wonderful adventure.  In return, I send videos of my foster dog.  And beer.  And my office.  And I feel unbelievably fortunate that my first school friend is still my best friend.  She is, and always will be, family.

The wisdom of the years taught me that not all friendships are for always.  Some relationships are for a season, and every season has its ups and downs.  Looking back, there have certainly been some downs.  But, as the song goes, thank you for having been a friend (this is the Russian/Georgian version—not to be confused with the theme to “The Golden Girls”).  The ups have, and continue to, fill this life with meaning, warmth, and laughter. 


Sorrow Floats

My former business partner used to say this—“August is a heavy month”.  His father died in August, and he was not able to make it to the funeral.  August also used to be a slow month in our practice, during which we usually made less money than we wanted (and often needed), so it was logically explained away by this “heaviness”.

Other than those five crazy years with him, during which we had a saying, if not an actual solution, for every eventuality, I am not sure I noticed a particular problem with August.  I got married in August—not because of any particular significance, but simply because a hall was available, and friends who introduced me to my husband also got married in August, in the early part of the month, and returned from their honeymoon in the later part of it.  And so there is something to celebrate during this heavy month—as of this writing, I am still married to my first husband.

Translated from the original Russian, though, the word can mean anything from the physical or emotional heaviness to heaviness of sorrow, pain, grief.  August is a sorrowful month.  I am not sure if there are any statistics on what month is the deadliest.  I am not sure I want to know.  If I just search my memory, the only person I can think of who died in August is Joe Dassin, the beautiful French singer of my childhood.  He was 41 in the August of 1980.  Fun fact: when I was in labor with my second child, I, for reasons passing understanding, needed to listen to Joe Dassin’s song “À toi”.[1]  We brought the CD to the hospital, and my husband had to continuously replay it.  Joe’s voice—and that specific song, no other, not “Les Champs-Élysées”, not “Siffler sur la colline”, not “Et si tu n’existais pas”—soothed labor pains. True story![2]

But this past August has been a tough one.  I am glad to see the backside of it.  I suffered three losses, two actual deaths and an emptying of my nest—neither of which I have been able to process yet; a couple of physical injuries—I am going to lose that nail after all ( the real one), plus a fall that can only be called good because there is only a flesh wound, but still, I missed a couple of weeks of running at the height of training season; and of course, there is that ever present, ever looming, ever unendurable—work stress.

Another phrase difficult to translate from Russian is one my mother used to describe this state of being.  It is literally translated as “loss of strength”.  I used Google translate, and it came up as “prostration”.  Prostration?  We do that in church! “Collapse” seems slightly more accurate, but way too dramatic.  I would say there is a certain loss of strength, to be sure, but more of a loss of the mind-heart-body connection.  The mind is going through the motions (especially during the work day).  The heart is hurting.  The body is parked on the couch.  The body is fairly useless when not motivated by the heart. 

But finally, as we also say back in the Old Country, “hope dies last”.  I hear it in the voice of one of our dearly departed from this August.  I heard him say it at a family gathering quite some many years ago, and whenever I say it to myself, I hear him and see him in my mind’s eye.  And that memory-to-mind-to-heart connection is something, is it not?  Yes, Sorrow floats[3] and is a short distance away; and wisdom comes in unexpected ways…

[1] It came out in 1976.  My son was born 25 years later. 

[2] You should have heard me humming Joe’s “Il faut naître à Monaco” when I visited Monaco almost two years ago.  The reference was lost on everyone around me, especially all the poor unfortunate souls that heard me sing, but I enjoyed it! Ah, Joe, you left your mark on this world…

[3] John Irving, “Hotel New Hampshire”

There are almost no images of Sorrow out there. That’s a bummer, because he made the biggest impression on me from this book. THE.BIGGEST


I did not really make acquaintance with English-language music almost until after high school.  I was not only entirely uncool, but had no real pop culture influence.  My mom does not listen to music except when attending concerts of the classics—one of the trademarks of good breeding in our culture.  Although of the Baby Boomer generation, not having grown up in the US made her completely unable to pass on any retro musical heritage to me.  The only records in our home were mine.

In the way of awkward teenage communication, I could never figure out how to seek guidance from peers.  I mean, when one is fourteen, one does not simply say, hey, to what music should I listen so that I am not an outcast?  Of course, pop music then was not as easily accessible—records cost money.  In high school, I had no money.  I did somehow manage to procure the following: (1) Billy Joel’s “Innocent Man”—because I saw “Uptown Girl” on Friday Night Videos and liked the catchy tune; (2) Quiet Riot’s “Metal Health”—because a boy on whom I had a crush seemed to be into it, and (3) Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”—because it was all the rage, and made me feel quite with it and in the know.

Around my high school graduation time, The Monkees made their decennial revival—the show, of course, which immediately reminded me of my beloved Marx Brothers.  I thought I made such a profound connection—turns out, John Lennon said it first.    Through them, I discovered other 60s music (technically, the music of my parents generation, even if they remained oblivious).  And then came Elton John.

In typical college drama fashion, the lousy boyfriend du jour (the same one from the “Arc de Triomphe” post—he was just a remarkably bad boyfriend!) stood me up on Valentine’s Day.  A friend came over to cheer me up, with leftover filet mignon from a dinner with her boyfriend (who turned out to be not much better than mine, if somewhat more attentive), a couple of bracelets from her own collection, and the music of Elton John.  She is still a friend, albeit a geographically removed on.  She was, and is, fabulous, beautiful, self-assured, stylish.  She might have been the only friend I ever had who actively influenced my musical taste.  It does not seem likely now that she came with the sounds of music on that occasion, but in my flawed memory, that Valentine’s Day is conflated with the day I first heard “Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road”.

It is still my absolutely most favorite song of all time—even though I have misheard the lyrics for all these years.  I am not entirely sure I ever knew exactly what they were until I just looked them up now!  “Horny back toad”—really, those are the words in this song?  I just like “It’ll take you a couple of vodka and tonics to set you on your feet again”.  True then, true now.  Although I do not believe I ever had vodka and tonic together. I have had more than my share of vodka over the years, and quite a bit of tonic, but never together.  Still, it’s the sentiment that counts.  And I have to this day the “favorite breakup songs” playlist on my iPod.  Do people still have iPods?  It used to be a tape, then a CD, so I count myself as quite technologically advanced!  “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” is always opening that party.

When I got married, my thoughtful husband suggested an Elton John song for our first dance as the wedding reception.  The problem was, all my favorite songs of his were either sad or inappropriate (“The Bitch is Back”?  That would have pleased my in-laws, at least…)  “Your Song” was a natural choice.  My eyes are not green nor blue, neither are his, but we made it work.

And now they made a movie about Elton’s life and music. Well, not they—he.  He made it.  He loves it.  I love it.  I was wary of it at first, because I expected another “Bohemian Rhapsody”—a strangely sanitized account of a vaguely unhappy but tremendously successful musical genius who had indulging and supportive family and friends (especially Brian May—I want to be friends with Brian May, he is clearly just The Friend of Friends!), made the crowds go wild at Live Aid, and then discreetly died of AIDS.  The music was awesome, but the rest was ambiguous.  And the lead actor constantly licking his prosthetic teeth was downright distracting.

Not so with “Rocketman”.  Elton’s unhappiness despite success is very clear—and dare I say, justified?  His parents are shown as just awful, cold and critical throughout.  I do know that such parents exist, of this I have no doubt.  My sons and I argued who was worse, his father or his mother, but does it really matter?  Elton’s tremendous and destructive insecurities seem to have been rooted in their lack of love.  As one of his songs goes “mama don’t want you, daddy don’t want you”.  Add to that an equally unpleasant and downright abusive manager/lover, and voilá– “sad songs say so much”. 

It would all not be so impressive without (1) the wonderful music of Elton John and the way it is inserted to advance the plot (I can’t wait for this story to be made into a Broadway or West End musical!) and (2) the unexpectedly (at least for me) potent and poignant performance by Taron Egerton.  That kid from “Kingsman” really sings!  And he really acts!  And he really looks incredibly much like Elton—the wonders of theatrical makeup never cease to amaze me.  I could not picture this transformation until I actually saw it on screen.  Although I must note, Bernie Taupin was never as handsome as the kid from “Billy Elliott” all grown up.

The reason that “Rocketman” is so powerful is rooted in the simple fact that, despite all the extraordinary accomplishments, love is a basic need, and without it we are nothing.  We, as humans, joke that if money cannot buy love, it can buy other things that are just as good.  But I do know that those of us who say this come from a position of “love privilege”. We are not lacking in affection in our lives, so can look to that next stage in the hierarchy of emotional needs.  Even that cranky old St. Paul wrote about this in 1 Corinthians 13, the famous treatise on love.  Elton John’s life seems to have embodied the 2nd verse of that chapter, “If I have the gift of [we have to insert music and riches and anything else that comes to mind], but do not have love, I am nothing”.  And so I walked away from the movie not irritated by the plight of a sad rich musician but touched by the tragedy of a man is craves acceptance and affection from all the wrong people, those who are fundamentally incapable of giving it, and finally, happy for Elton that he found his happily ever after.  My son pulled out an album of Elton John’s greatest hits which I recognized as pilfered from my own old record collection (plus ça change…), and all was well with the world.