Saturday, December 10, 2005

Was 'Allentown' Billy Joel's best song?

Billy Joel
Originally uploaded by Brite light photos.
JAMESTOWN, N.Y. - I'm not exactly sure when 'Allentown' was recorded by Billy Joel, but I remember the first time I heard it - living here safely in California - and it struck me that it could have been written about Jamestown.

Of course, using Jamestown instead of Allentown would have totally screwed up the lyrics, so I'm glad it went the way it did.

When I left Jamestown in 1970, in a blue VW bus with a wife, a three-month-old son, and a psychotic black cat named Mr. Kitter, I was leaving what looked like dying factory town. In the bars (yes, I was occasionally in the bars in Jamestown, seeking information and career advice, of course) the fear was palpable among the drinkers and advice givers about shops closing down and/or moving to the south where they could pay lower wages and maybe less benefits.

This was all in the wake of the Art Metal scandal, about which I know only a little except that a number of fairly close family acquaintances lost their pensions - completely. They didn't even get a chance to be privatized.

But "Allentown" strikes a chord even today and when I listen to it, I see flashes of some of the factories I worked in (briefly...very briefly) and how it seemed that wasn't what I wanted.

When I worked Van Stee Corporation, half the workers all were missing a digit or two from industrial accidents. "Lefty" was more meaningful than a simple sobriquet for someone who used their left hand.

At 57, I'm still occasionally plagued by the same question I had at 20: What will I do when I grow up?

Maybe just write screeds like this and hope that some day I'll be able to strum "Allentown" on the acoustical guitar.

Hell, I'm doing great with "Hail, Hail, the Gangs all Here" and as soon as I can limber my fingers up enough, I think "Frankie and Johnny" is within reach.

Watch out Billy. I'm movin' up on you.

Today's song?

Tell me you couldn't guess...

by Billy Joel

Well we're living here in Allentown
And they're closing all the factories down
Out in Bethlehem they're killing time
Filling out forms
Standing in line
Well our fathers fought the Second World War
Spent their weekends on the Jersey Shore
Met our mothers in the USO
Asked them to dance
Danced with them slow
And we're living here in Allentown

But the restlessness was handed down
And it's getting very hard to stay

Well we're waiting here in Allentown
For the Pennsylvania we never found
For the promises our teachers gave
If we worked hard
If we behaved
So the graduations hang on the wall
But they never really helped us at all
No they never taught us what was real
Iron and coke
And chromium steel
And we're waiting here in Allentown

But they've taken all the coal from the ground
And the union people crawled away

Every child had a pretty good shot
To get at least as far as their old man got
But something happened on the way to that place
They threw an American flag in our face

Well I'm living here in Allentown
And it's hard to keep a good man down
But I won't be getting up today

And it's getting very hard to stay
And we're living here in Allentown

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

How the Santa Claus hat gave me away

Santa and the Bear
Originally uploaded by Brite light photos.
LAKEWOOD, N.Y. - I wandered my suburban Sacramento neighborhood over the weekend, dog on leash and Santa Claus hat firmly on my head and got more invites (and offers of a wide variety of alcoholic beverages) than if I had been strolling with Pamela Anderson in a string bikini.

Ok, maybe that was a slight exaggeration.

But it reminded me of how when we were growing up in Jamestown, the Christmas season was festive, inclusive and, well, just a lot of fun. No school, no teachers, no tests. And for me, no job.

It also reminded me of Christmas Eve following our senior year in high school (or maybe it was the next year, good grief), when I was tooling around in my mother's Pontiac, stopping at various people's houses with a screw-top container of Manhattan cocktails I had mixed to exactly the proportions my Uncle Howie McAvoy required for his.

Keeping them cold in the trunk of the car was no problem.

At some point in that sojourn, I stopped by the Lakewood Rod & Gun Club - maybe to see Jim Carr - and one of the waitresses plunked her Santa Claus hat on my head after I had flirted with her for an hour to let me take the hat with me. (If I remember correctly, she was about 40, and her husband was sitting at the far end of the bar, completely swacked and not amused by me.)

But, as Jimmy Stewart says in the movie, Harvey, "the evening wore on," and I kept wearing the Santa Claus hat through several open houses at people's homes and a late-night Cuban sandwich at the Triangle Restaurant before showing up back at my Lakewood house just in time to load up my grandmother, mother, and sister to head off to the Sacred Heart Catholic Church and midnight Mass.

I can still hear my grandmother as she opened the car door to get in:

"Evelyn, he's drunk as a skunk."

I believe I was probably well over whatever the legal limit was then for alcohol, but my mother simply shrugged and told my grandmother to get in and off we skidded to a high Mass at midnight.

That was the longest religious service I have ever attended. Stand up, sit down, kneel.
Stand up, sit down, kneel. Stand up, sit down, kneel. Stand up, sit down, kneel. Stand up, sit down, kneel. Stand up, sit down, kneel.

Jaysus. Keeping my balance was real challenge.

I think had I been wearing one of those awful furry snow hats (with the ear flaps) my grandmother would have only thought I was unfashionable, not three drinks over the line.

(It wasn't until Christmas Day that I learned my mother had slipped a few Manhattans herself Christmas Eve and decided no lecture was required for me. It's also why she didn't grab the wheel.)

I kept that hat for years and wore it most Christmas Eves, attending open houses and whatever saloons I wandered into with my friends.

I also kept up the Manhattan tradition - and the visiting friends on Christmas Eve - for quite a few years here in California, though I discovered that serving a drink like a Manhattan to native Californians is a recipe for disaster.

Margaritas are more the style here. The blood is a lot thinner.

But carrying around a blender in this neighborhood is going to be a problem, I can see.