Monday, September 9, 2013

Book Review: “Neil Sedaka: Rock’n’Roll Survivor” by Rich Podolsky

Writer Rich Podolsky has done it again. The book is “Neil Sedaka: Rock’n’Roll Survivor: The Inside Story of His Incredible Comeback,” released Sept. 9, 2013. In short, it’s a five-star winner. But it’s also a fast (and fun) history lesson in how rock music “got this way” and how it’s possible to soar, then crash and burn in popularity, and then rise up like the Phoenix, on wings of, well, Sir Elton John for one, and lyricist Phil Cody for another, and regain your spot among the stars in the rock and roll galaxy. That’s the book in a nutshell. But wait, there’s more!

For a few moments, Podolsky time-traveled backwards sufficient enough to pop his head back into New York’s Brill Building, to grab Sedaka by the shoulders, and then escort him into the 21st century, chatting and talking the entire trip, like two old friends who’ve known each other forever, and you, the reader, are the invisible visitor who gets to listen in without interrupting.

All along the way, Sedaka frankly shares with Podolsky some of the best up-close and personal stories about his incredible career comeback that makes for one of the most refreshing, and fascinating, reads of the fall. Who’s this book for? It’s for anyone who loves rock and roll and knows without explanation how “tra la la la la la” turned into Love (keeping you together), Laughter (in the rain) and how to go from Solitaire back to Rock Star, with a little help from some friends.

Neil Sedaka was born with the innate talent to sense exactly what it was that people needed to soothe and comfort their broken hearts. His melodies, harmonies, and gift of crafting songs has spanned five decades, plus, and yet, his life has been anything but easy. He started out with no chance in...well, you know, and he became a songwriting giant and eventual in-demand performer whose name was as well known as Connie Francis, Bobby Darin, and Cousin Brucie Morrow back in the grand old days of the 1960s.

You’d think that a decade of success would be “enough,” for anyone, but when the creative juices burn within you and won’t let you alone long enough to sleep, “that’s when the music took” Neil Sedaka to long for a comeback. But first he had to find the depths of anonymity and being overlooked and validate that life was, indeed, the pits. Still, he had his family. But for an artist, the lifeblood of existence comes from creating new work, finding it validated, accepted, and ultimately embraced by the same people who loved you first, then dumped you. Those are the ones you want back, bigger and better than before.

Neil Sedaka went through his “hungry years” alright. He was forgotten for quite a while in fact. But it’s the process of getting back up out from under the anvil of anonymity, and fighting back up the Billboard charts, while standing atop the shoulders of two men, one who was personally moved and influenced by his music and another, who really had not been much of a fan before. Pretty cool for a comeback formula, eh? Podolsky’s story reads fast, you can’t wait for the next chapter, and the next, and you appreciate the storytelling skill that Podolsky has for giving you Neil’s story in Neil’s words.

The entire comeback story is framed importantly between two impressive bookends: the Foreword by Sir Elton John, and the Afterword by Phil Cody. The Brit and the Aussie are the secret ingredients to the hitmaking machine of Elton’s Rocket Records, and Cody’s brilliant lyrics.

Songs of love, songs of romance, songs of break-up, make-up and back again kept flowing all through the 1960s, in large part due to finding a team of similarly gifted songwriters who crammed like sardines into cubicles in the Brill Building while Don Kirshner and Al Nevins tried to keep enough paper in the printer to send out the sheet music.

Podolsky’s Sedaka bio is the natural follow-up to his excellent book, “Don Kirshner: The Man With the Golden Ear,” published in 2012. Podolsky’s take on Sedaka’s story views him as something like Phoenix, rising from the ashes of being forgotten, cast aside and entirely inconsequential save as a fill-in-the-blank on the New York Times crossword puzzle to a present-day still-in-demand, lucky-to-get-him singer.

You just have to read the book to hear the theme music running through your head because you know you are going to want to know everything about this exciting tale. Phil Cody is a name well-known to every liner-note-loving reader, rock historian and music-trivia fiend. If you need a little help, think “Laughter in the Rain,” which launched Neil’s comeback path.

Then there’s “Solitaire,” which was a big hit for The Carpenters, but, with Sedaka’s wise entry as a guest mentor in the second season of “American Idol,” “Solitaire” became such a signature song for Clay Aiken, that Neil actually presented Aiken with a framed copy of the sheet music and told him that the song was now officially “his.” Now any true Sedaka fan knows all the Cody lyrics to “The Immigrant” and admit it, you choke up when you hear it. You know you do.

“Wild Phil” Cody rides again when you hear “Bad Blood,” the duet sung by Neil Sedaka and Sir Elton John, and then another endearing duet on “Should’ve Never Let You Go,” with Neil and his daughter, Dara Sedaka. Don’t forget that singing runs in the family—the late Eydie Gorme and Neil are cousins, and Dara can well stand tall on her own song stylings. It was indeed a prolific collaboration for Sedaka’s comeback to connect with Phil Cody and it produced the same “magic” in music that had been ever as much a part of Neil’s collaboration with the late genius, Howard (Howie) Greenfield.

There’s a special kind of magic where Neil Sedaka, and his music, are concerned. In reading Podolsky’s book, you start calling Mr. Sedaka “Neil” when you talk of him to others, you feel like you were right there with him and you’ve been where he was then, and you were transported to where he is now, and you are refreshed. The invisible curtain that separates “knowing” and “being known,” one music lover to another, is lifted, quite expertly by Rich Podolsky. The journey of the book flies by, a fast 242 pages all gone too soon, and when you’re done, you sit there and smile at where you’ve been, who you’ve seen, and how you feel now that you know. Indeed, it is because “that’s where the music takes me.” Bravo and kudos to Podolsky, and for Mr. Sedaka, another standing “O” because you so richly deserve it.

To get your copy of this book, click here.

This review was originally posted on

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Gary Puckett and a random act of gracious kindness

A gift of great kindness from singer Gary Puckett and his wife to Scott Jacobs' family, including his father, who passed away two days after the very special gift of a hospital-room concert from Puckett.

During an Internet search for concert footage of the 2013 Happy Together Tour, a nice accidental discovery on YouTube featured two familiar names, musician Gary Puckett and iconic artist Scott Jacobs, of San Diego, California. Delighted to discover what is undoubtedly one of the most endearing videos across the YouTube spectrum, the location is a hospital room. The focus is on a senior gentleman on oxygen support is enjoying a noon meal, smiling quietly as he's treated to a private concert by Gary Puckett.

Puckett is currently on the 2013 Happy Together reunion tour, crossing the country for the fourth consecutive year now. The gentleman in the hospital just happened to be Scott Jacobs’ beloved father.

What’s most special, aside from the obvious delight on Jacobs’ face, is (in Scott’s own words on the video notes),

"Gary Puckett, my father’s all-time favorite musician, came up with the idea of coming to play for my dad in his hospital room. He and his wife Lorrie drove four hours over the New Year’s weekend to play a mini concert the two days before my dad passed away. My father was singing, smiling, and laughing while Gary played. In fact, my dad told Gary that meeting him and having him play was worth dying for!”

For baby boomer adults, who were once children of the 60s and 70s, every day is a blessing with our beloved seniors. As their aging process continues, you’ll find adults often acting as comforters still, to their adult children who know they are seeing final months, weeks, days and moments together with those parents. In final hours emotions run high and you hope and pray that something will happen to “make it all better” for your loved ones.

As Puckett performed, “Woman, Woman” for Jacobs’ dad (see video accompanying this story), fortunately cameraphone video captured this, as well as another, song, “Young Girl,” found here. As the camera pans, watch Scott and his whole family, along with Gary’s wife, Lorrie Puckett, singing along and you’ll catch yourself smiling as you see the love overflowing in that hospital room for Jacobs’ dad.

The videos were uploaded January 10, 2013, by Scott Jacobs Studio, a video channel managed by Jacobs, a multitalented artist who is actually Harley-Davidson’s First Official Licensed Artist, which fits into one of his passions. His work is greated admired and sought after by many well-known names including musicians (The Doobie Brothers’ Pat Simmons, Billy Joel, Big and Rich, the late Clarence E. Clemons), wine enthusiasts and motor enthusiasts (Kyle Petty, Lorenzo Lamas, the late Carroll Shelby) and more. Clearly he is one of the finest artists in the world, and he’s dually blessed with a beautiful family, his wife and two daughters.

Yet no matter your fame, none of it means anything in compensation when someone you love with all your heart is in the final stages of life. Every thought is directed towards comfort and peace for your loved one, and it was indeed one of the most precious gifts of life, just at the right time, that Gary Puckett offered the entire Jacobs family. Puckett is known as a solid-gold classic rock icon with more than 50 million albums sold worldwide.

Puckett is also a first-class performer, also known in the music industry as a man of great religious faith. You just have to smile at such a precious gift that Puckett thought up, and that he and his wife drove four hours over New Year’s weekend to make happen, at just the right time. Jacobs’ father passed away two days after Puckett’s concert gift. As Scott posted in the note on the video, “I couldn’t imagine a better send-off for my dad.”

Monday, July 1, 2013

Crushing the Facebook Candy Habit: From Curious to Crushed in One Day

It started innocently. Those little icons in the upper right-hand corner of my Facebook page showed yet another invitation to play Candy Crush Saga. Not interested. I had dutifully blocked repeated Facebook games, proud of saying "no" to Farmville and Bubble Blitz. My self-righteous superiority would soon crash with my pride and my wallet, all because of a sweet, innocent game.
The Lure
"Computers are for work and the occasional shout-out to family and friends on Facebook," I proclaimed. Yet, news feed posts showed family and friends had reached Level 14 or 22 or 38. "What was that game again?" Candy Crush. "Busy, no time," I thought. When the next invitation came from an old school friend, I thought, "Great, we'll have a chance to play each other."
Change of Heart
Curious, I accepted. The multicolored array of columns and rows of candies beckoned. I bounced through the first several levels of the game with ease. Soon, I ran out of time, and life, and was informed I could buy more chances or wait thirty minutes to try again. Buy life? No way. I'd wait.
Child's Play
Throughout Friday night and most of Saturday morning, thirty minutes passed, another thirty, waiting for life, to play again. Seemingly everyone in my Facebook world was playing CCS, so ahead of me. I was in the virtual wait "hold" zone, twenty levels behind friends and family.
The "Saga" kept me company all of Saturday. I'd switch back and forth between a work project, and my new hobby to clear my mind. Impatient, my pride overtook good sense as I ran out of life-again. Finally, I succumbed. "What would it hurt to spend $1.00 to play? You're enjoying this. Let's go!" With one click the first shot at life got me through the level of jelly, brought combinations of striped candies and cleared my path onto new worlds.
Candy Crush Crash and Burn
The new levels were old levels with more challenges but I didn't care. I zoomed forward. At Level 38, I hit the wall. No telling how many times I'd clicked for life, but just like Vegas, you have to know when to walk away. I said to Barney the dog, warily eyeing the machine occupying my attention, "I'm done." He seemed to nod approval as I deleted the Facebook application. Feelings from sorrow to stupid lingered, having spent who knows how much to play a game. Thought of gamer gurus laughing at me for having fallen into their trap made it worse.
Wakeup Call
The next morning I was pulling out of my parking space at church when my cell rang. Unknown number. I answered. "Credit card services," she said. "We're calling about a series of charges to your card yesterday." "How much?" I asked. "$43.00, but they're all in weird little amounts, $1.20, $1.00, $2.40. Did you want to pay Facebook $43.00?" I said, confessionally to the unseen authority figure, "Yes ma'am, it started with a free game of Candy Crush Saga. I reached Level 38 before realizing I had to quit. Don't worry, I've left the application." She laughed. She'd heard it all before. Holy intervention!
This week the invitations to play (again) have shown up in my news feed. My friends and family are rocking right along the Candy Crush trail, but they're smart enough to play for free. Kenny Rogers sang it right: "Know when to walk away, know when to run." Candy Crush, I'm gone," and so is $43.00.

It looks so innocent, like child's play with little sweet candies staring back at you on the screen. Beware. Once you begin the game, you can't stop!
Credit: Albert Hsieh

Welcome to Houston, Sort Of: Shift Work Sounds like Fun, but Watch Out for Those Off Days

Moving to Houston was going to be wonderful as the 1980s ended. Couldn't wait to get started on my chemical process plant career. Years spent studying in musty college basement labs would finally pay off. I'd always loved the restaurants in Houston's Galleria and was fortunate to find a townhouse rental, just 32 miles away from my new job at the Gulf Coast plant. Gas was much cheaper then.
Newbie Blues
All new engineers were assigned to work with one of four operating shifts, four days on (5:00 am - 5:00 pm) and three days off, four graveyards on (5:00 pm to 5:00 am), three more days off. Promising a quick learning curve, they issued a blue Nomex jumpsuit, a coupon for plant-approved safety glass lenses in boring frames. The first pair of steel-toed work boots was free, but no attractive colors were available.
On Again, Off Again
The first four "nights on" went smoothly; much to learn, many wonderful people around sharing knowledge. On the first set of "off days," disaster struck. I'd parked the car outside the house because the garage of the rental house was filled with boxes still unpacked. The first "off night," I crashed and slept for 10 hours straight. Went outside to drive to breakfast, only to find the car wasn't there.
The community's hired security guard strolled by and asked what happened to my car. I thought he might know. He did not. I asked naively, "Do you think it was towed?" He laughed, "No, it was probably stolen. Happens a lot." Good to know. Called Houston's finest and gave them description of car and contents: hard hat, plant safety glasses, Christian music tape, library book on "Small Business Accounting," loose change in the ash tray. Somewhere a nearsighted thief could learn a second profession while driving (safely) through McDonald's for a coffee. Maybe he would be saved.
Car Number Two
Insurance sent a beautiful Chrysler Cordoba; off to work my first day back "on" I went, returning home hot and weary by 6 pm. Had not even removed my work boots before I heard a loud crash. A car had plowed into my rental car parked outside my house. The right car door opened; its passenger took off running as I grabbed my camera and started taking pictures.
The driver was a bit confused and tried several times to get away. Fortunately the crowd of seniors, children and dogs gathering nearby prevented his escape. A brave guy riding his bike stopped to block the driver from leaving. The police found 4 empty bottles of Bud Light (good, figure-conscious perps). As the driver grasped his Vicks inhaler, he appeared congested, confused, and ready to comply with the police.
Car Number Three
The good news was the police found my old car, but it was in need of repair as it had been in a wreck. The "other news" was my insurance company sent out a tiny Chevrolet to drive until mine was fixed. The next set of "off days" brought hurricane warnings that guaranteed disaster. I taped windows, prepared for the worst, and headed for San Antonio, to stay with an elderly relative who worried for my safety in Houston. The hurricane missed Houston but landed three miles from where my aunt's old building barely avoided getting hit.
Home, Sweet Home - Is Where the Car Is
I couldn't wait to get back to work, where it was safe, warm, and free of disasters. My "D" shift supervisor drew me a cartoon, with me in the center, wearing plant togs, and a list of my 'off days' disasters with caption: "God must know I'm an Aggie-what next?" Welcome to Houston, for the newly crowned "D-shift Darlin'." I survived that first month, but barely. I marked the days until my lease ended and moved to Kingwood.
                                                                             Sketch by Gene O'Quinn (11/24/1935-5/29 2014)