I love music. Music evokes raw emotion and causes, even the casual listener, to confront that emotion and from whence it comes. I inherited my love for music from grandmother and my mother. Grandma loved songs with great melodies and sweeping arrangements. Her favorite song was “Somewhere My Love”, which is actually “Lara’s Theme” in the film Dr. Zhivago. Whenever she listened to that song, I could tell she was immediately transported somewhere else in time. I always wanted to ask her what that song meant to her, but I felt the answer would have been painful for her, so I never asked. I just enjoyed the song in silence watching her love the journey of emotions she was experiencing. To this day, I cannot listen to the song “Somewhere My Love” without tearing up. Grandma also tickled the ivories of the piano. I will always remember the piano that adorned her living room. I wish I could say that I can play the piano, but I can’t. Not really. I can hunt and peck out melodies. I have the ear, just not the skill. She told me once, “Pal, not everyone can play the piano. Some of us are here to just enjoy what others can coax out of it.” Hard reality, but thanks grandma!
My mother was also a lover of music. She played the saxophone and loved all genres of music. She introduced me to Elvis Presley, John Denver, Barry Manilow, The Beatles, The Carpenters, and Anne Murray. And I have to mention Ray Conniff. He was a composer/musician that backed many famous artists such as Johnny Mathis, Rosemary Clooney, and Marty Robbins and later formed his own group of twelve women and thirteen men to cover many of the popular hits of the day. They were called The Ray Conniff Singers. In fact, Ray Conniff is responsible for writing the lyrics to “Somewhere My Love”. My mother would buy his albums stating, “You get more for your money with Ray Conniff because you get many of the popular hits from a variety of artists on one album.” She did not care that the songs were not done by the original artist, she just wanted the music and if she could save a dollar or two, all the better. Thanks to my mother, all types of music would waft through our house. And as I grew up, my taste in music also grew and I introduced my mother to music by Kansas, Queen, The Eagles, Journey, Cheap Trick, and, of course, KISS. She always listened. And although I mentioned my grandmother and mother as being responsible for my musical heritage, it was actually my father who gave me my first album: Charlie Rich’s Behind Closed Doors. He gave it to me on cassette and I wore it out…it was that good!
To build on my musicality, I decided to sing and play an instrument. In high school, I played the trumpet, sang in the choir, and performed with my high school song and dance group. I chose the trumpet because one of my uncles played the trumpet and, to me, he was the coolest. He was only a few years older and didn’t mind letting his young nephew hang out with him and his friends from time to time. I was devastated when he abruptly died in a car accident, I seriously thought about giving up the trumpet. Fortunately, my high school band teacher talked me out of that idea. I continued with the trumpet for my first years at university. To add more music in my life while in college, I helped support myself by playing in a rock band. We called ourselves “On The Edge” and played in bars on a regular basis for a couple of years. Later in life while living in the Marshall Islands, I sang in a rock group called “The Zooks”. We had a blast as one of just a few local bands on the island. Music always has been and always will be a big part of my life.
“Even a thousand miles away from home, you don’t care if I’m asleep or I’m awake…I’m going back to Kansas City.” -Bob Dylan, Kansas City
Life here in Japan is no exception and I am blessed to have the time to really explore music. In my exploration, I often focus on one song for awhile and extrapolate certain words and phrases from that song that seem to fit my life. I don’t choose the song, it chooses me. The music creates mood as the lyrics encourage reflection and soon I am deep into the thoughts I am destined to explore. Recently, a song that chose me is “Kansas City” by The New Basement Tapes. The New Basement Tapes include musicians Elvis Costello, Marcus Mumford, Jim James, Taylor Goldsmith, and Rhiannon Giddens. They came together to write and create music for long-lost lyrics written by Bob Dylan in 1967. Some of those Dylan tunes became the album The Basement Tapes that Bob Dylan recorded with The Band in 1975. The lyrics that never saw the light of day are the words that The New Basement Tapes have created music for and released in 2014 as Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes. I was drawn to the band due to my interest in Elvis Costello. I’ve always been a fan of his music and when I read that he played a major role in putting this music together, I had to check it out. I was not disappointed…the album is fantastic!
The song on the album that chose me is titled “Kansas City”. A music critic wrote that “Dylan’s lyrics were his promise to return to the blues”. A promise to go back home to his roots in blues music and postulates the entire lyric is about Kansas City…home of some awesome blues music and musicians. I grew up in a small town in Kansas about an hour and a half northwest of Kansas City and often ventured to the big city for reasons most people visit cities bigger than the one they live; more to do! In our first few years of our married life, my wife and I called Kansas City home (Kansas and Missouri as we have lived in both). So, the song “Kansas City” is a euphemism for “home” for me, which, when extrapolated, becomes a euphemism for my dad and brother, who currently live in Kansas. The song started choosing me about a week after I learned that my wife and I were headed to Japan for a few years. I started thinking about how I would miss them before we even left the country. And how I could probably plan on calls or texts in the middle of the night due to living across the international date line. As the song so eloquently states, “Even a thousand miles away from home, you don’t care if I’m asleep or I’m awake…I’m going back to Kansas City.” As I listen to the song on my walks or as I write here in Japan, the chorus is almost a love song that promises that I will return. Like Dylan going back home to the blues…this is a reminder to myself that I will return to Kansas someday. But for now, I’ll keep Dorothy alive and utter her immortal words a few more times, “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.”
Feature photo of Greg Vessar by Joe Nestor Photography LLC
© 2018 Gregory Vessar