Friday, May 31, 2013

Michael Jackson -- "Black or White" (1991)

If you're thinking of being my brother
It don't matter if you're black or white

Quincy Jones, who produced several of Michael Jackson's albums, was asked after Jackson's death if it was disturbing to witness the strange evolution of his facial appearance over the years.

"It's ridiculous, man," he answered.  "Chemical peels and all of it.  And I don't understand it.  But he obviously didn't want to be black."

Before . . .
According to an affidavit filed in a lawsuit involving Jackson, he once told his maid "that he bleaches his skin because he does not like being black and he feels that blacks are not liked as much as people of other races."

So despite the lyrics quoted above, it appears that it did "matter if you're black or white" to Jackson.  He not only lightened his skin but underwent multiple cosmetic surgeries in an apparent attempt to look more Caucasian.

 . . . and after
Jackson and some of his siblings were physically and psychologically abused by their father, and it seems likely that his mental health suffered greatly from that abuse.  The overwhelming impression you have when you look back at the life of the "King of Pop" is that he was a tortured soul who was never truly happy.  

His bizarre appearance and strange behavior made him a butt of jokes.  In a kinder world, the response would have been sympathy.  

One thing that is inarguable about Jackson is that he was a hugely popular entertainer.  He wasn't yet 21 when his fifth solo album -- Off the Wall -- was released in 1979.  That album has sold an estimated 20 million copies worldwide.

 But that was nothing compared to his next album, 1982's Thriller, which sold approximately 65 million copies and remains the best-selling album of all time.

Jackson subsequently released four more studio albums between 1987 and 2001, which sold a total of 110 million copies.  Each succeeding album was less of a commercial success than the one before, but even his last album -- Invincible -- sold 13 million copies.

Jackson in the "Thriller" video
I'm not very familiar with Jackson's post-Thriller career, so I asked a friend of mine to help me pick out one of his songs to feature on 2 or 3 lines.  Given his enormous worldwide popularity, I probably should have featured one of his songs long before now -- after all, I've written about well over 500 songs at this point -- but better late than never.

My friend Catie is une femme d'un certain age (as the French would say) who lives in the north of England.  She's a big fan of Jackson's music, and it wasn't easy for her to single out one song.  

I have been thinking long and hard about my favourite Michael Jackson songs – it’s very hard because I tend to like the song I’m listening to the best, and then I hear another and like that one.  Also it depends what mood I’m in.  I like one song one day and then the next find it irritating. 

When I was growing up Michael was in the background.  I liked his music, but was much more interested in Donny Osmond.  As I grew older and became more addicted to music I started to appreciate Michael’s music more.  Yes, I did say "addicted."  I use music almost like a drug – it’s a good pick-me-up, or it can work the other way when listening to maudlin stuff.

Catie suggested three songs.  Two of them -- "You Are Not Alone" and "Speechless" -- might not be classified as maudlin, but they certainly aren't pick-me-up songs.  

I wasn't familiar with either one of them.  "Speechless" was not released as a single, but "You Are Not Alone" debuted at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, which had never happened before.  (You would have thought that I would have heard it.)  

Looking back on Jackson's life and death, I found both songs to be very sad.  So I went with Catie's third suggestion, "Black or White," which was the first single from Jackson's 1991 album, Dangerous.

"Black or White" was a #1 single in the U.S., where it has sold four million copies.  It also hit #1 in the UK, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and just about every other country you've ever heard of -- with the exception of Germany, where it made it only to #2.  

The "Black or White" music video has a very peculiar beginning, featuring Macaulay Culkin (of Home Alone fame) as a loud-music-loving kid who is driving his father (George Wendt of Cheers fame) crazy.  Eventually the video takes us to Africa, where Jackson dances with West Africans, Thais, Native Americans, and Russians.  Jackson appears to be singing the last verse from the Statue of Liberty's torch.  

The aspect of the video that was jaw-dropping in 1991 was this morphing sequence:

The original music video didn't end when the song ended, but continued for another four minutes.  It depicted Jackson leaving the recording studio as a black panther that morphed back into Jackson, who does some sexually suggestive gestures before apparently smashing windows, destroying a car, and causing a building to explode.  

The unedited version of the video has rarely been aired.  It was replaced by a version that omitted those final four minutes: 

Here are the four minutes that were lopped off the original video:

Here's a link you can use to buy "Black or White" from Amazon:

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Band -- "Chest Fever" (1968)

"She's stoned," said the Swede
And the mooncalf agreed
I'm like a viper in shock
With my eyes on the clock
She was just there, somewhere
And here I am again
And as my mind unweaves
I feel the freeze down in my knees
But just before she leaves
She receives

I know this blog is called 2 or 3 lines, but I thought it was better to quote the entire final verse and chorus.  Quoting just two or three lines out of context might have been confusing -- but when you read the entire verse and chorus, it all makes perfect sense . . . right?

I first heard this song over 40 years ago -- the Three Dog Night version, not the original version by The Band -- and I had no idea that these were the words.

The Band
This may be TMI, but if you've never heard the term "mooncalf," it originally referred to a miscarried fetus of a cow.  (Superstitious folk believed that the moon could cause miscarriages.)  Later, the term came to be used to describe malformed or grotesque creatures -- it appears in Shakespeare's The Tempest, an H. G. Wells novel, the Harry Potter books, and The Bank Dick (a 1940 W. C. Fields movie).

"Chest Fever" is from The Band's first studio album, Music from Big Pink, which got its title from the pink-siding-ed house in upstate New York where The Band and Bob Dylan hung out in the mid-sixties.  (The Band had been Dylan's backup band on his 1966 tour, and he wrote or co-wrote several songs on the album).

The Band had a unique style.  You might say they were the quintessential American roots rock band, except for the fact that four of the five members were natives of Ontario.  (Levon Helm -- who died of cancer just last year -- grew up in Turkey Scratch, Arkansas, an unincorporated community near Helena.)

Music from Big Pink wasn't a big seller at first, although Al Kooper's rave review of it in Rolling Stone helped.  Eric Clapton liked its laid-back, rootsy style so much that he quit Cream so he could take a different musical direction.  (Clapton's work on the Blind Faith, Delaney and Bonnie, and Derek and the Dominoes albums demonstrates how influential The Band was on him.)  George Harrison loved it, and Roger Waters of Pink Floyd said it was the second-most influential rock and roll record ever (behind only Sgt. Pepper's).

"Chest Fever" is credited to Robbie Robertson.  He freely admits that the lyrics don't make any sense.  That's a fact, Jack!  (Levon Helm says that the lyrics were originally improvised by him and Richard Manuel.)

Garth Hudson at the Lowery organ
The song begins with a very Bach-like organ solo played by Garth Hudson.  Unlike most rock organists, Hudson played a Lowery organ -- not a Hammond B-3.  

I'm not a huge fan of roots rock, but you can't argue with songs like "Chest Fever," "The Weight," "Up on Cripple Creek," "The Night they Drove Old Dixie Down," "Rag Mama Rag," and "Don't Do It."  The first 500 songs featured in 2 or 3 lines didn't include anything by The Band, but now I've made up for that oversight.

Here's "Chest Fever":

Here's a link you can use to buy the song from Amazon:

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Jellydots -- "Bicycle" (2006)

My legs are getting strong
Bicycle all day long

I always ride my bike to my office on the day after Thanksgiving.  This year, I decided to do that as well on the "Bike to Work Day" that the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA) sponsors each May.  

Over 14,000 riders registered for the event.  I'm guessing that I'm not only older than virtually all of those riders but also that I rode a longer distance than just about everyone.  Aren't I special?  (I know that "Aren't I special" isn't correct.  Would you prefer that I say "Amn't I special"?)

I set off at o-dark-hundred -- about 8:45 am my time.  The first third or so of my trip was on the Rock Creek Trail, a paved hiker-biker trail that I can access less than a mile from my home.  About 6.5 miles from my front door, I encountered a fallen tree across the trail:

Quite a coincidence that this tree fell across the trail on the morning of "Bike to Work Day," eh?  Of course, some people say there is no such thing as coincidence.  Those people might suspect that this tree was felled by left-wing pro-automobile extremists hoping to discourage we "Bike to Work Day" stalwarts.  And those people might just be right!

You probably wonder what was playing on my iPod at this point, so I'll tell you:  "Before the Kiss, A Redcap," by Blue Öyster Cult.

At mile 11.2, I could see the spires of the Washington Mormon Temple, which was the first LDS temple built east of the Mississippi.  

A few minutes later, disaster struck.  When you're riding a bicycle and eating an apple and you suddenly have to sneeze, it's not a pretty sight.

On my iPod at the moment of that sneeze: "Popscene," by Blur.

I had planned to take a break at the halfway point of my ride, where the Capital Crescent Trail passes through downtown Bethesda, MD.  WABA had set up about 70 "pit stops" throughout the metropolitan for "Bike to Work Day" participants, and there was supposed to be one in Bethesda, directly on my route.

But when I arrived at about 10 am, there was no sign of the pit stop -- no free food, no free water, and (worst of all) no free T-shirt, all of which had been promised to me when I registered for the event.

On the bright side, I missed all the politicians who dropped by to speechify the crowd.  That's worth sacrificing a free T-shirt any day of the week.

At mile 15.6, I  pulled off the trail to grab breakfast at a nearby McDonald's.  Here's a tip for my fellow healthy eaters: tell them to hold the cheese when you order your Sausage McMuffin with Egg.  (By the way, did you know that when you order a Sausage McMuffin with Egg instead of a regular Egg McMuffin, they put the slice of American cheese so it is between the sausage and the muffin instead of between the egg and the muffin?)

After finishing my repast, I noticed that the bridge that carries the bike trail over River Road had been defaced:

"Visi" is a reference to Georgetown Visitation High School, a fancy-schmancy girls high school in DC.  Despite the fact that they have little time to spare -- stealing their parents' liquor, dressing like sluts, and questioning the authority of the Holy Mother Church keeps a girl busy! -- the class of 2013 (or "Sen13rs," if you prefer) were able to make room in their hectic schedules to vandalize the bridge.

On the iPod as I pedaled away from McDonald's: "I Want Candy," by the Bow Wow Wows -- specifically, the Kevin Shields remix from the soundtrack to the movie Marie Antoinette.

I'm sure you'll agree that my ride to this point had been chock-full of excitement, but things got a lot more dramatic at mile 22:

That's right, there was a big-ass snake right on the trail.  I think it was a black rat snake, or Elaphe obsoleta (also known as there western rat snake, or Texas rat snake). 

Here's a closeup of the snake:

One website refers to the black rat snake as "harmless," while another one has this to say:

Adults can become quite long, with a reported typical length of three feet, six inches, to six feet. . . . The record total length is eight feet, five inches, making it the longest snake in North America. . . . 

When startled, they may freeze and wrinkle themselves into a series of kinks. If they feel further threatened, they may flee quickly or vibrate their tails in dead leaves (a form of mimicry, which makes them sound like rattlesnakes). They are also capable of producing a foul-smelling musk, which they will release onto predators if picked up. They spread the musk with their tails in hopes of deterring the threat.  When cornered or provoked, black snakes are known to stand their ground and can become aggressive. In some instances involving larger specimens, they will often launch a counteroffensive and attempt to chase the antagonizer away.

This species is a constrictor, meaning it suffocates its prey, coiling around small animals and tightening its grip until they can no longer draw breath, before eating them.

Does that sound "harmless" to you?

On the iPod when I encountered Mr. Snake: the Brian Auger/Julie Driscoll cover of "Season of the Witch."

About a mile later, I came to the end of the bike trail.  Before tackling the mean streets of downtown Washington, I stopped to take a picture of my trusty 24-speed Gary Fisher Utopia hybrid, with the Francis Scott Key Bridge (which was opened to traffic in 1923) in the background.

I also got a shot of a guy riding a stand-up paddle board down the Potomac River.  (I hope he's a very good swimmer.)

On the iPod: "Baby's On Fire," by Brian Eno.

After a couple of miles ignoring red lights and dodging cars on K Street, I finally caught sight of the mothership -- my office building, which is officially known as "The 575 7th Street Main Tower at Terrell Place."

On the iPod as I braked to a stop at the building's front door:  "Mr. Soul," by Buffalo Springfield.

To get from my home to my office, I rode about 25.5 miles.  I think my bicycle's odometer slightly understates the distance I ride, but I probably ended up a few tenths of a mile short of the distance that marathon runners run -- 26.2 miles.

It took me two hours and four minutes to complete my ride.  Basically, I rode the distance in about the same amount of time it would taken the winners of the last couple of Olympic marathons to cover it.  

I didn't kill myself on my ride, but I didn't dawdle either -- I pushed myself reasonably hard.  But a top-notch marathon runner would have been able to stay with me all the way.

Keep in mind that my ride ended at an elevation that was a few hundred feet lower than the elevation where I began.  That's at least a little more of an drop than is permitted for official marathon courses.

More importantly, my elapsed time doesn't include the time I was stopped taking pictures of that snake or Key Bridge, or eating breakfast and draining the lizard at McDonald's.  (I don't think they stop the clock if a marathon runner decides to stop for a Sausage McMuffin with Egg in the middle of a race.)

Let's just call my rest breaks an edge that I deserve given my advanced age.  But even with the help of those breaks, my time was no faster than those of the best marathon runners in the world.

Doug Snyder (Jellydots)
The Jellydots is the name that Doug Snyder (an Austin, Texas music teacher) records and performs under.  His music is usually described as "kindie rock" -- that is, indie rock for kids.  

Don't confuse kindie rock with typical kids' music.  The lyrics of kindie songs usually address topics of interest primarily to children, but the music may be no more childish than that produced by bands like Weezer and the Shins.

Here's "Bicycle":

Click here to buy the song from Amazon:

Friday, May 24, 2013

Doors -- "Not to Touch the Earth" (1968)

Not to touch the earth
Not to see the sun

Keyboard player Ray Manzarek of the Doors died of bile duct cancer in Germany earlier this week.  He was 74 years old.

The late Ray Manzarek
Manzarek, who grew up on the South Side of Chicago, graduated from DePaul University with an economics degree and then attended film school at UCLA, when he met fellow student Jim Morrison.  A month or so after finishing the program, Manzarek and Morrison ran into each other at Venice Beach.  Morrison told Manzarek he had written some songs, and sang one called "Moonlight Drive."  

Manzarek was so impressed by the song that he agreed to start a band with Morrison.  Shortly thereafter, he met drummer John Densmore and guitarist Robby Krieger at a Transcendental Meditation lecture.  A few months later, the Doors were playing regularly on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles.

Manzarek with fellow former
film student Jim Morrison
The Doors' had a unique sound.  Morrison's voice was much lower than most other male lead vocalists in that era.  The band didn't have a rhythm guitarist, and they didn't have a bass player -- Manzarek often filled those roles as well as playing keyboard solos.  

On the Doors' signature song, "Light My Fire," Manzarek played a Vox Continental organ.  He later switched to a Gibson G101 (also known as as a Gibson Kalamazoo), and that's the organ he is playing on "Not to Touch the Earth," which is a song from Waiting for the Sun, the Doors' third studio album.

Gibson G101 (Kalamazoo)
In a 1977 interview, Manzarek explained why he switched from the Vox to the Gibson:

Vox was sold to somebody [in 1967] and the organs started falling apart.  I'd go out on a gig and in half a set I'd break about six or seven keys.  I eventually got a Gibson Kalamazoo.  It had a little more versatility than the Vox; it could make the sort of piano-ish sound I used on "Back Door Man," plus it had a little knob sticking up on the volume pedal which could bend the note a half-step down.  We used it on "Not to Touch the Earth."  

You can hear the sound effect Manzarek was talking about at 1:27 of the song:

The Gibson also satisfied Manzarek's need for an organ with a flat top where he could stack his Fender Rhodes "PianoBass," a 32-key electronic keyboard that replicated the lower notes of a piano and was used by Manzarek to perform the function of a bass guitarist.

Compared to the Hammond B3, which was the favorite of jazz, soul, and rock organists, "combo" organs like the Vox Continental and Gibson Kalamazoo were very simple instruments.  But Manzarek played some very complicated music on his combo organs.

Ray Manzarek in 2008
"Not to Touch the Sky" is way, way out there.  The lyrics are taken from a long Jim Morrison poem titled "Celebration of the Lizard."  The band attempted to record the whole poem (which was long enough to take up at least one, if not two sides of an LP) but eventually gave up.  

Like much of Morrison's poetic efforts, the lyrics to "Not to Touch the Sky" are interesting but largely incoherent.  Manzarek's crazy organ is more than a match for Morrison -- Ray let it all hang out on this song, brothers and sisters.

Waiting for the Sun was the Doors' only number one album.  It included a number one single ("Hello, I Love You"), but I remember it for several melancholy and romantic songs of the kind that were guaranteed to put hormone-addled teenagers into a state of terminal angst.

Click here to buy the song from Amazon:

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Jaydiohead -- "Dirt Off Your Android" (2009)

Got some dirt on my shoulder
Could you brush it off for me?

"Dirt Off Your Android" is featured on Max Tannone's Jaydiohead album, a 2009 collection of mashups combining music by Radiohead and music by Jay-Z.  As the title indicates, "Dirt Off Your Android" combines "Paranoid Android" (from the OK Computer album) with "Dirt Off Your Shoulder" (from Jay-Z's The Black Album)  Click here if you'd like to read what 2 or 3 lines had to say about "Paranoid Android" a few days ago.

There are about a zillion covers and mashups of "Paranoid Android," by the way.  The Easy Star All-Stars did a reggae cover.  A classical pianist (Christopher O'Riley) and a string quartet (The Section) have also recorded the song.  Weezer did a cover that one reviewer compared to "hearing Tupac sing a Smashing Pumpkins song."

Without a doubt, the oddest cover version to date was the one done by the percussion section of the University of Massachusetts Minutemen Marching Band.  It's worth listening to:

It's hard to imagine two more dissimilar artists in terms of musical style, but most of the Jay-Z/Radiohead mashups on Jaydiohead work reasonably well.  (Jay-Z tweeted "There are 3 or 4 REAL gems on jaydiohead," and Gwyneth Paltrow included a Jaydiohead track on a 2009 list of her ten favorite party tracks.)

"Dirt Off Your Shoulder" got a lot of attention during the 2008 presidential campaign, when Barack Obama responded to attacks by primary opponent Hillary Clinton by pretending to brush dirt off his shoulder -- a clear reference to the Jay-Z song.  (When questioned about the gesture, an Obama campaign spokesman admitted that "[h]e has some Jay-Z on his iPod.")

Ian Kinsler brushes the
dirt off his shoulder 
Pretending to brush dirt off your shoulders is a don't-give-a-damn gesture -- if you get knocked down and end up with dirt all over your clothes, Jay-Z's advice is that you just pick yourself off and brush that dirt off like you don't really care. 

Obama adapted the gesture to the dirty business of politics.  He didn't literally have dirt on his shoulder, of course.  His message was that Clinton's strategy of attacking him was just typical Washington mud-slinging.  The appropriate response?  Just brush all that dirt off your shoulder and go about your business.

Here's video of Obama's gesture:

And here he is appearing to give good ol' Hillary the finger.  (He denied it, of course, but the audience reaction and his reaction to the audience reaction sure make it look like that's what he was doing.)

Here's "Dirt Off Your Android":

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Radiohead -- "Paranoid Android" (1997)

When I am king
You will be first against the wall

I'm not sure who will be first against the wall when I am king.  There are a number of excellent candidates.  

I may never be king, of course.  But just in case, I've been practicing: "Ready.  Aim.  FIRE!!!"

Goya's "The Third of May 1808"
depicts a Napoleonic firing squad
I'm back at 2 or 3 lines world headquarters (we've got the upper two floors of the Wildly Popular Blog Building) after my extensively chronicled 12-day pleasure-business-pleasure trip to San Francisco, San Diego, and Granbury, Texas.  (If you haven't been following 2 or 3 lines recently, just scroll down and read the last couple of hundred posts -- then you'll be all caught up.)

Just before I took off on my trip, 2 or 3 lines reached a significant milestone -- "Shake Some Action" by the Flamin' Groovies became the 500th song we've featured.  Click here to read all about it.

You would think that 500 posts would give you plenty of room to fit in all the greats, most of the near-greats, and a fair number of the not-so-greats from the pop music world.

But you regular followers have no doubt noticed that there are some notable recording artists whose music has not yet been featured on 2 or 3 lines.

Radiohead (looking suitably angst-ridden)
One of the most notable of those missing groups is Radiohead, whose music was not only critically praised but also very popular (despite being somewhat user-unfriendly).  

In 2000, a British survey of some 200,000 record buyers ranked three Beatles albums (Revolver, Sgt. Pepper's and The White Album) as the #1, #3, and #5 albums of all time.  Radiohead's The Bends and OK Computer were #2 and #4 on that list.  That's pretty impressive.  (At the time the survey was taken, the band had released only three albums.)  

Radiohead remained popular through the following decade despite a major change in musical direction.  Rolling Stone readers voted the group the second-best artist of the 2000's, and two Radiohead albums (Kid A and In Rainbows) held down the #3 and #5 spots on the magazine's top-albums-of-the-decade list.

So how did I manage to write 500-plus posts without featuring a Radiohead song?

Believe me, it wasn't because I don't like Radiohead.  I have seven of their eight studio albums resting comfortably among the 48.3 days' worth of music on my iTunes account, and I listen to them often.  

But choosing just one Radiohead song to feature is like choosing just one of your children to carry out of a burning building.  (OK, that simile is a little over the top . . . but you get my point.)

The OK Computer cover
I could have picked any one of a dozen Radiohead songs for this post, but I chose "Paranoid Android" off the group's 1997 album, OK Computer.  It's a very complex song, but not quite as experimental as some of the group's later music -- so it's not as difficult for the average person to appreciate.  

(Not that 2 or 3 lines readers are merely "average."  Many of them are well below average, of course.  After all, this isn't Lake Wobegon, where all the children are above average.)

"Paranoid Android" combines parts of three different songs written by three different members of the group.  The group was inspired by the Beatles' "Happiness is a Warm Gun," which also stitches together several disparate song fragments.

Freddie Mercury, who wrote
"Bohemian Rhapsody"
Several critics have compared "Paranoid Android" to Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody."  One of them (Simon Williams of New Musical Express) went so far as to say that the Radiohead song was "not unlike 'Bohemian Rhapsody' being played backwards by a bunch of Vietnam vets high on . . . crack."  

I think Simon Williams may have been on crack when he decided to compare the two songs.  "Paranoid Android" is really nothing like "Bohemian Rhapsody."  

I'm sorry to break the news to you Queen fans out there, but "Bohemian Rhapsody" is either (1) a huge joke played by Queen on its fans, or (2) one of the most God-awful songs in history.

Here's the famous (infamous?) "Bohemian Rhapsody" scene from Wayne's World, which is one of most God-awful movies in history:

The animated music video for "Paranoid Android" is remarkably weird and seems to have absolutely no relationship to the song's lyrics -- which is not all that surprising, given that the creator of the video (Swedish animator Magnus Carlsson) did not have access to the lyrics until after the video was done.  

Despite the incomprehensible nature of the music video, MTV played it a lot.  As one MTV executive told an interviewer, "You can watch 'Paranoid Android' a hundred times and not figure it all out."  

I'm not sure what his point is.  After all, you can read something typed by a roomful of monkeys a hundred times and not figure it all out.  That's because it has no meaning to figure out.

Here's the music video for "Paranoid Android":

Click here to buy the song from Amazon:

Friday, May 17, 2013

Electric Light Orchestra -- "Mr. Blue Sky" (1977)

Mister Blue Sky, please tell us why
You had to hide away for so long
Where did we go wrong?

Here's "Mr. Blue Sky," from the Electric Light Orchestra's 1977 album, Out of the Blue.  I don't think I've ever heard a song that sounds more like a Beatles song without sounding like a particular Beatles song.

Here's a video of a 2001 live performance of the song:

Click here to buy the song from Amazon:

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Debby Boone -- "Blue Skies" (2005)

Blue skies, smiling at me
Nothing but blue skies
Do I see

Here's a video of Debby Boone recording "Blue Skies" in Branson, Missouri.  Her 2005 album, Reflections of Rosemary, is a tribute to her mother-in-law (and George Clooney's aunt), the late Rosemary Clooney, who also recorded "Blue Skies" (which was written by Irving Berlin in 1926).

Click here to buy the song from Amazon:

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Eagles -- "Hotel California" (1976)

So I called up the captain, 
"Please bring me my wine" 
He said, "We haven't had that spirit here since 1969"

I don't really like this song -- in fact, I don't really like the Eagles, who are clearly one of the most overrated groups of all time.  (It's no accident that I've featured over 500 songs on 2 or 3 lines, and none of them is an Eagles song.)  

So why am I featuring "Hotel California" in this post?  Because I'm writing about a bottle of 1969-vintage wine that a law school friend gave to me in 1977, which was when this song was released as a single.  (One coincidence may be an accident.  Two are not.  N'est-ce pas?)

Château Montrose is a famous winery located in the Médoc region of France, where nearly all of the great red Bordeaux wines are produced.

Château Montrose was founded around 1800 and quickly developed an outstanding reputation.  When Emperor Napoleon III requested a classification of the best Bordeaux wines in 1855, only five reds -- Lafite-Rothschild, Mouton-Rothschild, Latour, Margaux, and Haut-Brion -- were classified as first-growth (premier cru) wines.  

Château Montrose was one of the 15 second-growth (deuxième cru) red Bordeaux wines.  Given that there are some 8500 wine producers in Bordeaux, that means that Montrose easily ranks in the top one percent of all red wines from the region.

Château Montrose
My friend Mark had already gotten his law degree and was pursuing a master's in law at Harvard when I was a first-year law student there in 1974-75.  He and I discovered that we had a mutual interest in learning about wine, and on most Friday evenings we bought a bottle to taste and discuss.  (We ate at McDonald's quite often, and I think we usually went wine-shopping after gobbling down a Quarter Pounder and fries.)

I doubt that two people have ever turned the weekly purchase and consumption of an inexpensive bottle of wine into a more elaborate ritual than Mark and I did.  Our reference library consisted of The Signet Book of Wine (a very basic 232-page paperback).  After consulting that book and engaging in a lengthy discussion, we would come to a general consensus as to what kind of wine we wanted to buy and then head to a local wine store, where we would pester the owner with all kinds of questions before making our choice.

Mark got his master's degree that spring and headed off to New York City to work for a large law firm.  We saw each other from time to time after that -- I visited him in New York twice, and he came back to law school a number of times to visit his girlfriend, Dede, who was a student at a nearby college.  

I'm pretty sure Mark gave me the bottle of Château Montrose when I graduated in 1977.  My parents (along with my grandmother and younger sister) drove to Cambridge, Massachusetts, from Joplin, Missouri, to watch me graduate.  The bottle of wine and my other worldly possessions were packed in the trunk and unpacked when we arrived in Joplin several days later.  (As I recall, we spent nights in Washington, DC; Charleston, SC; and Birmingham, AL on the way back.)

My '69 Montrose spent the next three-and-a-half decades in Joplin, lying on its side on the shelf in a nice dark closet.  (My parents moved once during that time, and that was probably the only time the bottle was disturbed.)

The law school dormitory
where Mark and I lived
Why didn't I ever open the wine and drink it?  Good question.  I didn't visit Joplin too often -- usually just two or three times a year -- so there weren't that many opportunities to do so.  My parents didn't drink red wine, and my wife wasn't much of a drinker either.  I suppose I could have brought the bottle back to Washington, but I never did.  After a few years, I rarely thought about it.

Mark lived all over the world after leaving Harvard -- his law firm sent him to Mexico City and then Paris for several years -- and we went years without speaking to one another.  I remember talking to Mark some time in the 1990's, when he had settled in Ithaca, NY and gone into business.  (Mark went to college at Cornell, and had always liked Ithaca.)  We had one or two subsequent phone conversations, and somehow discovered each other on Facebook a couple of years ago, which facilitated more regular contacts.

The first time I saw Mark in person since graduating from law school in 1977 was last October, when he got married for the first time -- to Dede, the law-school-era girlfriend he had first met in 1974.  I've previously written about how the two of them reconnected, and about my attending their wedding, and you can click here if you haven't already read that post.

One of the gifts I took to the wedding was that bottle of '69 Château Montrose.  Since 9/11, it's not easy to get a bottle of wine on to an airplane.  But while I was visiting my parents in Joplin last September, I went to a local wine store and discovered that they sold blow-up sleeves that will protect your wine from breaking if you transport it in your checked baggage.

So I got the wine back to my home in September, and then flew it to Maine for the wedding last October.  Fortunately, it made it through all my travels intact.  

I don't think Mark remembered that he given me the wine when I presented it to him and Dede at their wedding reception.  I can't blame him -- I didn't really remember the details myself.  (He might have given it to me when he left Cambridge in 1975 rather than when I graduated in 1977 -- I don't know for sure.)  

Mark and Dede flew the bottle of Bordeaux from Maine back to Texas (where they had built a new home) a few days later in Mark's Columbia 400 airplane:

They graciously urged me to come visit them as soon as I could -- we hadn't had much time at the wedding reception to catch up.  Maybe they were really excited at the prospect of my company, or maybe they just wanted to have an excuse to pop open the Montrose.

In any event, I was able to stop off at their home for a couple of days on the way back from my recent and very well-documented trip to San Francisco and San Diego.  (Just scroll down and you'll see a whole bunch of posts about that trip.)

I arrived Friday in time for beer and pizza on their wonderful patio.  Saturday, I went with Mark to buy a big-ass gas grill for his new hacienda.  (The heavily pierced and tattooed young Home Depot employee who helped us load the assembled grill into Dede's old Ford pickup knew his knots -- perhaps he's a bondage-and-domination devotee? -- and we got back to the house with the grill in one piece.)

That afternoon, we went for a sightseeing flight in Mark's airplane -- which you can read about by clicking here.  By the time we returned, Dede and her friend Sally (who was visiting from Maine) had come back from the local butcher's with some impressive ribeyes, which they then prepped for grilling.  Once we figured out how to hook up the propane tank and fire up the grill -- I'm a charcoal man myself, so I was no help -- it was time to open that 43-year-old bottle of wine.

Neither Mark nor I were willing to déboucher le vin -- we were afraid the cork might fall apart on us.  So we assigned that delicate task to Dede:

La sommelieuse at work
She handled the task with aplomb, and then it was time to taste.

We didn't have high expectations.  1969 was not a great Bordeaux vintage, and it seemed almost certain that the Montrose would be past its peak.  And it was very possible that enough oxygen would have leaked into the bottle to convert the wine to vinegar.

Fortunately, the wine was sound.  It was very drinkable, and seemed to taste better as the evening progressed -- which often isn't the case once you open an older wine.

I couldn't begin to describe what the wine tasted like -- I don't possess a wine critic's vocabulary, for one thing.  But the bigger obstacle to my explaining to you what the Montrose tasted like is my utter lack of experience with wine that was anywhere near this old when I drank it.  I have nothing to compare the '69 to -- all I can really say is that it was like no wine I've ever had before.

I thought it was very, very good.  The wine had completely mellowed, and went down very easily -- there was no hint of tannin or oak left.  I have a feeling an expert would have found the wine bland and lacking in interest.  But to me it was smooth and drinkable and quite special.

It was special not only because of its taste and bouquet, of course, but also because of the unique circumstances.  Drinking a wine I had held on to for 35 years was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.  But sharing that wine with Mark and Dede meant so much more than the experience of drinking the wine alone.  

My trip to San Francisco (where I lived over 30 years ago) and my visit with Mark and Dede brought back so many memories.  Memories are becoming increasingly important to me -- after all, much more of my life is behind me than is in front of me.  

But no matter how old you are -- no matter how focused you are on the past -- the future no doubt has many surprises in store for you.  Mark and Dede getting married 38 years after they met is an example of one such surprise.  (I still can't quite believe that happened -- I can't begin to imagine how amazed the two of them must be at the turn their lives have taken.)

Reading about such events or writing about them is all well and good, but it's not a satisfactory substitute for experiencing them.  Sometimes I feel like I'm spending way too much time reading and writing about life and not nearly enough time living it.  I need to do something about that, and I need to do it sooner rather than later.

Here's "Hotel California":

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