Long Island

Those Lights Were Bright on Broadway

Billy_Joel_-_TurnstilesIn the liner notes to his live album Songs in the Attic, Billy Joel writes that the performance of “Miami 2017 (I’ve Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway” “demands the gothic reverberation of a vast railroad terminus, such as Madison Square Garden.” Of course, that’s a reference to Penn Station, which is underneath the Garden, the concert venue in which the song was performed. I’ve always loved this song and I consider the studio album from which it came–1976’s Turnstiles, an album that also includes “Say Goodbye to Hollywood,” “New York State of Mind,” and “Prelude/Angry Young Man”–to be one of his best albums.

Then again, that probably comes from a place of nostalgia and not any judgment of quality because Turnstiles was the first non-Greatest Hits Billy Joel album that I ever owned. I got it on cassette for my 13th birthday after having asked for a Billy Joel album, and my dad picked it out because of the songs he recognized on the cover (and possibly because the “nice Price” sticker meant that it would cost less than the average cassette. We went to Fire Island for a week that summer and because it was overcast and unseasonably cold, I spent most of my time in our hotel room reading what few comics I had brought with me (including a copy of Batman #439 that I bought at a drug store) and listening to this one tape that I had brought with me. That tape would stay with me for at least another fifteen years when my last Walkman finally died and I put everything on my iPod (I still have a handful of cassettes left–that, however, is a different story for a different day).

Of all of the songs I listened to, I would say that “Summer, Highland Falls” and “Miami 2017” were the two I listened to the most. Since the latter is the closing song onf the album, I would constantly rewind side B so that I could hear it over and over again.

Why, at 13, in 1990, was I listening to a Billy Joel album from the year before I was born and not the latest heavy metal/hard rock/rap album? I can’t explain it aside from saying that I was a kid from Long island who liked to play the piano. I can, however, explain why this song in particular resonated with me. It has two things that I love in a song: a story and it starts off soft and then gets loud before ending soft (this is one of the reasons I like “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “American Pie,” and “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant”).

the first thing you hear, even on the live cut (which is superior to the studio cut because Songs in the Attic really captures the energy of an MSG audience) is an air-raid siren. Then, there is the piano, which starts with some fast finger work and then goes into a rhythm that almost feels processional. This stays this way through the first verse:

I’ve seen the lights go out on Broadway
i saw the Empire State lay low
and life went on beyond the Pallisades
They all bought Cadillacs and left there long ago.

They held a concert out in Brooklyn
To watch the island bridge blow
They turned our power down
And drove us underground
But we went right on with the show.

After that, the drums kick in and the music becomes defiantly more rock and roll. And what I appreciate about it is that even though there is a guitar part in there, Joel keeps letting the piano take the lead and uses the piano as the percussion instrument it is. Now, a person who has more academic prowess in music can probably argue against that, but what Joel is doing–and what Elton John often does–is really using the instrument to its potential and putting some muscle behind it.

And he deftly matches the music with the lyrics. The opening lines are written as if a man is reminiscing, and the line “And life went on beyond The Palisades” suggests how whatever happened in new York was isolated and everyone moved on, which if you think about it sounds like an apt description of the New York City of the 1970s and early 1980s. This is the time in which the city gained a reputation for being a hellhole and beyond its borders was derided as such if it wasn’t being ignored altogether.  Joel makes this point in the Songs in the Attic liner notes, saying, “1975–New York Daily News Headline–‘Ford to New York–Drop Dead’! (Remember Madrid–No Pasaran!) More science fiction now than then.  A legacy for my unborn grandchildren.”

Then we get to the plot of the story. Some sort of apocalyptic event happened and “they” literally blew up the bridges connecting Manhattan to Long island and in an act of rebellion, “we” held a concert in Brooklyn and kept playing even though the power was turned off. Of course, this could be a metaphor for an underground resistance because rock and roll has always been about rebellion on some level.

And there is carnage. Harlem burns, and things are overall destroyed. The lines about Brooklyn and the Yankees get huge applause from the New York crowd (of course) and while we never get the identity of who “they” are, we are told that whatever it was was an attack or a catastrophe. And I’d fault Joel for telling and not showing here, but if you think about it, this is the language that a person relating an event like this would use. There is always a “they” and we often employ euphemisms in place of very specific description. Despite that, we still have this sense of all of these things that happened and that at the end of it all when we look back a few decades later, there is nothing left.

more importantly, nobody remembers and we have to keep telling the story so that it doesn’t fade, which is what we see in the song’s finale:

You know those lights
Were bright on Broadway
That was so many years ago
Before we all lived here in Florida
Before the mafia
Took over Mexico.

There are not many who remember
They say a handful still survive
To tell the world about
The way the lights went out
And keep the memory alive.

What he is doing here is bearing witness–by telling the story, we keep the story alive, and while I guess you could say that there’s an odd prescience about the line about retiring to Florida (as so many of Joel’s generation have done) and the mafia taking over Mexico, I find that the most important part of this is the sentiment of continuing to tell the story and the idea of never forgetting.

Furthermore, the way this song is structured, it mirrors a flashback through a memory. When you have a memory like this triggered, it comes at you like a flash, and can crash down on you. So it’s not so much a story as it is a flood of moments that attack almost as literally as the event happened.  As Joel himself says, “Miami 2017” is a piece of science fiction in verse–and it’s an underrated one at that.  Because even though 1977 in New York City didn’t play out exactly like this, it wasn’t called “the hottest year in Hell” for nothing and there are still people who are around to reminisce and remind everyone of a time when walking through the crossroads of the world meant taking your life into your own hands.

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Modern Diner

1:43 a.m.
(Conversation on a Diner Napkin)

Rain falls to the sidewalk
beside a lonely crowded roadside diner,
where I’m wondering what it was about her
that could have stopped the world for so long.

The exact handwriting, shape of numbers–
lines a paper napkin
with her phone number
in faded gray pencil and that smudge
always a backdrop for conversation.

And smiling.

I remember smiling
and she did the same
even though the music stopped
and the words were erased
by the rain ticking off my umbrella
into the night.

I wrote that poem for a creative writing class. in the fall of 1997.  It’s not a particularly great poem, nor is it based on anything that actually happened or anyone I know.  I am pretty sure that the inspiration was more along the lines of an imaginary idea, a fictional story where two people enter a diner and one leaves heartbroken, the only thing left to show for it is something scribbled on a napkin–notes, a phone number, maybe something much deeper.  It didn’t matter.

But the geographical inspiration was very real.  Sitting on Main Street not too far from the intersection with Greene Avenue, the Sayville Modern Diner was just about everything you would expect from a restaurant with the word “diner” in its name–a greasy spoon filled with vinyl-covered booths, the sounds of silverware clanking on thick earthenware dishes, and the smells of a grill that had seen countless omelets and cheeseburgers.  It was not haute cuisine by any means and even though the menu was pretty extensive, any time I was in there, I ordered one of two things:  some sort of omelet with a toasted bagel, orange juice, and coffee; or a cheeseburger deluxe.  Well, that’s not 100% accurate because there were those times when I was feeling extra fancy and got a hot open turkey sandwich, but really it was those two items, which are diner standards.

The Sayville Modern Diner circa 1996.  Taken from a 1997 calendar.  Photo by Pat Link.

The Sayville Modern Diner circa 1996. Taken from a 1997 calendar. Photo by Pat Link.

While breakfast after midnight is something you can get in quite a number of places outside Long Island (I have a number of memories involving late-night runs to Denny’s outside of Baltimore), I have to say that there are few if any places without the word “diner” in their name that really know what a cheeseburger deluxe is.  And yes, there are better hamburgers out there, burgers with higher quality ingredients and all sorts of creative sauces.  I love those places, don’t get me wrong, but there is something about the simple perfection of a single patty on a bun served with fries, onion rings, and a pickle (with the option of topping it with lettuce, tomato, and onions).  You don’t need anything else.

Of course, the food at a place like the Modern Diner is not the reason you go to a place like the Modern Diner.  I’ve noticed that diner culture has been fetishized over the last few years because of the culinary hate crime that is Guy Fieri, but turn away from his shtick and walk into a diner and you find something incredibly genuine that cannot be mass-produced.  Oh, it’s been tried–I’m sure there are still a few Silver Diner restaurants left at local shopping malls, but that place felt more like bad theme park kitsch as opposed to an actual diner.

That’s because a real diner feels worn in.  It’s the type of place where you can go in, get a booth, and aside from getting food and refills, you can be ignored.  You can allow yourself to disappear into that booth as long as possible.  The Modern Diner, when I was a kid, had this brown and gold decor that clearly came from the 1970s and at some point in the Eighties, they remodeled with the same dull magenta color you’d find in your average doctor’s office waiting room.  I’m trying to remember if they remodeled one more time and for some reason keep picturing a seafoam green motif, but I’m not sure.  Decor aside, if I was with my friends, those booths were the entire world for an hour or two.

Sometimes, the conversations were memorable; most of the time they were complete mundane.  Looking back, I feel that time spent there was our part of a ritual that had existed since time immemorial.  You’d make plans to go out and no matter what you did that night, you’d wind up at the diner.  Billy Joel put Brenda and Eddie there.  Garry Marshall had The Fonz set up shop in the bathroom.  George Lucas had Steve Bolander drown his sorrows in a vinyl-cushioned booth.  Barry Levinson wrote an entire movie called Diner that remains one of the all-time great friendship films.  Even when I (badly) wrote teenage characters, I’d have them hang out at the greasy spoon, giving them a moment of pause in a hectic plot or providing a place where moments of truth were had.  They are moments of importance, or in the case of the poem above, moments that are fleeting.  It’s something that is easy to recognize yet tough to capture in exactly the right way.

The Monday before this post went live, the Sayville Modern Diner served its last meal.  The owner, a former classmate of mine, apparently decided to sell, leaving the diner to be turned into a sushi/Asian fusion restaurant.  While I hadn’t been there in nearly a decade, I can definitely say I will miss it, even though there are other diners in town and other diners on Long Island, meaning that the idea of the diner will continue even though this one has closed its doors.

Pop Culture Affidavit Episode 50: The Weirdest Year of Your Life

Episode 50 Website CoverIt’s the 50th episode of Pop Culture Affidavit! For this special episode, I take a look back twenty years to the year I graduated from high school. Along the way, I look at how senior year of high school is represented in movies. It includes stops at, among other things, American Pie, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Can’t Buy Me Love, and Paper Towns as well as a host of personal memories about my own senior year of high school (which ended on June 25, 1995). Was high school the best time of my life? Was it a waking nightmare? Was it a little bit of both? You’ll have to listen to find out.

You can listen here:

iTunes:  Pop Culture Affidavit

Direct Download 

Pop Culture Affidavit podcast page

 

June 17, 1994: The Most Important Day of the Nineties

The cover to the 1994 Regents exam in English.

The cover to the 1994 Regents exam in English.

Had the events of the evening of June 17, 1994 not proceeded the way they did, i am sure that I would have remembered the day anyway.  It wouldn’t have had the national significance that it does; still, it’s not every year that the Rangers get a ticker tape parade because they won the Stanley Cup.  In fact, that day wound up marking the end of two significant periods of my life hours before O.J. and A.C. managed to take the Los Angeles Police Department and every television station in the country up the 405 for 50 miles and a few hours.

At 8:30 that morning in the Sayville High School gymnasium, I sat down to take my English Regents.  This was both the culmination of three years of novels, plays, literary essays, and compositions at the hands of my English teachers as well as the very last Regents I would have to take.  That may not seem like much, especially to people who did not grow up and attend public school in New York State, but those who did know exactly what I mean when I say that I considered the end of my Regents-taking career to be a cause for celebration, if however minor.

Regents were what kept us in school until late in June (well, that an starting after Labor Day and having a week off in February) and were a ritual for high school students since the New York State Department of Education started them way back in the 1930s (a quick look at the archives, shows tests on homemaking in the 1950s and 1960s).  Coming sealed in plastic and bearing titles like “The University of the State of New York Regents High School Examination Comprehensive Examination in English,” the tests were more than a rite of passage–they were one of the most important rituals of our academic careers.  Starting after Easter, our book bags were further weighed down with Red Barron’s books full of old tests, which we’d take and then pore over to see what we were doing right and what needed improvement.

A Barron's Regents review book, courtesy of Amazon.com

A Barron’s Regents review book, courtesy of Amazon.com

And English wasn’t particularly hard, although I’m sure my students would blanch at the sight of it.  Whereas current students in Virginia take SOL exams in reading and writing that are passage-based and have one simple five-paragraph prompt-based persuasive essay, my generation had to endure spelling,  definitions, two essays (a literary analysis piece and a composition), and a listening section.  That’s right–a portion of our test required us to sit and listen while our teachers read a passage and we had to answer multiple-choice questions based on what we heard.  I’m sure that such a concept would send today’s average anti-testing advocate/expert into a blood-vomiting rage.  Personally, I never thought twice about it, but then again I was one of those students they’d accuse of having Stockholm Syndrome or something because I dutifully took my Regents exams and did well in school.

Anyway, I remember chugging through the multiple choice, choosing one of the two literary essay prompts (which have both made their way onto my 10th grade advanced English final in recent years) and writing a composition that I think I titled “Notes From a Rest Stop on the Information Highway.”  It was my attempt at wit, I guess, and it seemed to work because I did well enough to continue on my path to graduating with honors a year later.

A page from the spelling section of the 1994 Regents English exam.

A page from the spelling section of the 1994 Regents English exam.

I wasn’t thinking of any of that while taking the test, of course, because the Rangers parade was going to be on television and the Regents exam was the only reason I hadn’t asked my parents if I could take the train to the city that morning (same could be said for my friends as well because we all had to take the Regents).  So like everyone else, I watched it on television.  To this day, the Rangers hoisting the Cup as they drove through the Canyon of Heroes followed by the presentations at City Hall seem surreal.  I wasn’t wearing my jersey–I had finally thrown that in the laundry after superstitiously refusing to wash it throughout the playoffs–but I was glued to my television set the way I was eight years earlier when my dad taped the 1986 Mets parade for me.

The Rangers hoist the cup on Broadway.

The Rangers hoist the cup on Broadway.

Of course, the television would be more important later that night.  But I didn’t know that; did anyone?

Stone Temple Pilots were supposed to appear on Letterman.  I don’t think that’s why I stayed home, but at some point in the afternoon, I made a mental note to stay up late and turn on The Late Show after I was done with whatever Friday night plans I had made–which, knowing my life in 1994 was probably renting videos and watching them in the basement–so I could see one of my favorite bands.  But of course, that didn’t happen.  Well, the STP performance actually did because Letterman taped his show in the afternoon, but it never aired.

At some point–I don’t remember when–I turned on the television and saw live footage of a white Ford Bronco speeding down a Los Angeles freeway followed by police.  The news reporters said that driving the Bronco was Al Cowlings and his passenger was O.J. Simpson. (more…)

Pop Culture Affidavit, Episode 29 — Now I Can Die in Peace

Episode 29 CoverTwenty years ago, the New York Rangers won their first Stanley Cup since 1940.  Join me as I reminisce about that amazing run and talk about my life as a Rangers fan as well as share the memories of some of my friends.

You can listen here:

iTunes:  Pop Culture Affidavit

Direct Download 

Pop Culture Affidavit podcast page

And in case you’d like to relive the entire season, here is “OH BABY!” the Rangers highlight video from 1994:

 

 

A Banquet, a Song, a Date, a Mug

December_1963_oh_what_a_nightA few months ago, I was doing the dishes after breakfast, and after putting my coffee mug in the drying rack, I heard it crash to the floor.  I sighed and grabbed the broom and dustpan, and while sweeping it up, got annoyed.  I was annoyed at myself for not being careful, but also annoyed that a mug I had owned for twenty years was now gone.

The black coffee mug with a gold rim and “Sayville High School ’95” was the favor from my junior banquet, which took place on April 18, 1994. I honestly don’t know why it was called a banquet and not a prom–I suspect it had something to do with the seniors not wanting the juniors to call our dance a “prom” because my high school was all about that petty sort of crap–but it was the first formal school dance I ever attended.  In fact, if you want to get technical, it was my first date.

It is shocking to absolutely no one that I was an incredibly late bloomer.  Oh sure, I knew as early as elementary school that I liked girls, but at sixteen, I had not evolved socially beyond the awkwardness I had around girls when I was twelve.  I could control my behavior and wasn’t as obnoxious or immature in the presence of a pretty girl, but I still had ridiculous crushes on girls who were way out of my league, and even as late as college it took signals brighter than the average Times Square billboard for me to pick up on the fact that someone found me even marginally attractive.  In fact, at that point, my pursuit of the opposite sex amounted to asking out my crush in the ninth grade (and getting rejected) and getting friendzoned by someone prior to Christmas break, so the idea that I’d actually get a date for a dance was pretty ridiculous.

The junior banquet, though, was the social event of the year–at least for me, anyway–and because of that I felt that finding a date was necessary.  Okay, there was no stated obligation to find a date, but I definitely felt some sort of pressure to make sure I had a companion for the evening.  Maybe it was because my friends were getting dates or maybe because the dance was formal.  Personally, I blame our class’s choice of a theme song:  “Oh What a Night.” (more…)

Bowling, Burgers, and Birthdays

Sayville Bowl Interior

The interior of Sayville Bowl.  Image courtesy of MapQuest.  Year unknown.

I went to a kid’s birthday party a few weeks ago.  Normally, these are held at one of those huge playland places that have ball pits, inflatables, kiddie habitrails, and that have names like Bounce and Play or Adventure Central.  This party, however, was at the local bowling alley, and as I watched my son bowl (well, more like drop the ball in the lane and rush back to the chair so he could see the computer animation), I couldn’t help but think of the number of bowling birthday parties I attended as a kid.

My birthday parties–and most of my friends’ birthday parties–were pretty standard back in the 1980s.  We’d go to the birthday kid’s house, play a few games, eat pizza or hamburgers and hot dogs, drink way too much soda, and finish off with Carvel cake.  Then everyone would go home with goody bags that matched the decorations–cups, plates, paper tablecloths, etc–for Star Wars, He-Man, or whatever the party’s theme was.  Sometimes, the party would be a sleepover and we would put the parents through hell because hours of fun and hours of soda and candy equals no actual sleeping at the sleepover.  The parties were straightforward and always fun.

But bowling parties were a reality and we considered them some of the most memorable at the time, even if they don’t measure up to the standards of today’s epic theme parties and play apparatus.  Bowling at a birthday party in the early 1980s was some of the most fun you could have as a kid for a few hours, and Sayville Bowl was the typical AMF bowling center whose decor would remain so unchanged for years that when I was in high school and college it seemed like 1979-1983 were being preserved for posterity.  I don’t remember being a particularly good bowler–it was a lot of gutterballs and not enough Superman III–but I remember having an enormous amount of fun anyway.

Sigh … it’s never Superman III. (more…)