Thursday, September 25, 2008

Sinatra, that Old Realistic and memories

In my other life, I write a weekly column for a newspaper group in the Illinois/Iowa Quad Cities.

This week's column deals, in part, with my Navy years. You can read it online at the Rock Island Argus, or right here.

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Sinatra, that Old Realistic and memories

Rock Island Argus 09/25/08
Frank Mullen III

It's cleanup week in my town, time to haul out the unused, the derelict, those gewgaws whose last-century luster has faded. In a few days a truck will collect from the roadside whatever has survived the parade of bargain hunters.

A half-hour ago I put my old stereo system out by the driveway, and it's gone already.

I hope a kid took it.

I was a young sailor when I bought the Realistic stereo components at a Norfolk, Virginia Radio Shack in 1979. The turntable plugs into a metal amplifier with three--three!--tone controls. The bookshelf speakers are the size of microwave ovens and the weight of Toyotas.

Old Realistic still works fine, but its retirement date has come.

Enjoy it, kid, but be forewarned:

My stereo was factory-wired for melancholy.

I've always been a fan of Frank Sinatra. I bought the setup because my portable record player was too small to reproduce The Voice. Listening to "Sinatra at the Sands with Count Basie" on this new rig for the first time was like sitting on stage with the band. I swore I could hear the third trombone player snickering at Frank's lame jokes.

But it wasn't this ring-a-ding, hipster Sinatra that sounded best on the Realistic; it was the late-night barroom balladeer. The stereo came into my life just as my first wife left it, and many a night I slid a record on the turntable, and suddenly it was fifteen minutes until closing time and Sinatra was asking the bartender for "One for My Baby (And One More for the Road)."

I wasn't the only Frank who knew heartache.

Old Realistic also played my high school favorites: the Beatles, yeah, yeah, yeah, and the Beach Boys, whose harmonies splashed around my apartment like an endless wave.

But the stereo's finest sounds came when moonlight washed over the speakers, when "In the Wee Small Hours" was playing and Sinatra's heart was breaking mine.

Through the '80s the stereo accompanied me to naval bases up and down the East Coast. It has outlived many of the performers it brought into my living room. Two Beach Boys and two Beatles are gone. In the '90s, I hooked up a radio tuner to the stereo just in time to hear that Frank Sinatra had died.

My rock 'n' roll idols were big stars, but Sinatra was a giant. While the young Beatles were still learning to tune their guitars, Sinatra was showing that an album can do more than promote a few sappy songs; it can take the listener on a journey.

Perhaps you've never heard one of his recordings. But every time you hear a singer sell a love song so hard that you can't help buying it, you're hearing the echo of the man who taught generations of singers how to phrase a lyric. Think J. Lo has been around forever? Sinatra had a hit record in every decade from the '30s to the '90s, his voice growing deep with time, ripe with age.

CD players didn't exist when my stereo was designed, but you can plug one into the amplifier, kid. Crank it up.

But some evening while your favorite rock group is rattling the bedroom walls, you may unconsciously shake your head as though you heard something.

You did. It was Frank Sinatra under a streetlight on a distant corner, singing "I'll Never Smile Again."

Take care of Old Realistic, kid. There's a lot of good music hidden in that metal box, if you'll just listen.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Ah! Men!

Now and then I search the web for videos of the USS Blue Ridge, on which I served with the 7th Fleet Band.

And I find them: sailors climbing down ladders, joking in the passageways, streaming down the gangplank for liberty call.

The old tub looks just like she did two decades ago, with one exception: a lot of those sailors are women.

I don't object; whatever makes the Navy better and stronger is good. Women have come a long way since my day, when most bands had only a few junior women. Those of us who enjoyed the Navy Band's performance in Memphis this year noted that many of the senior sailors, the MU1s, were women. If the Navy has decided that including women on ships at sea makes for a better fighting force, I'm all for it.

Still, I've always got a kick out of Martin Mull's viewpoint on ships and gender. Here's his psuedo sea chanty "Men," dubbed over some movie footage.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Picking the Commander-in-Chief

In these dangerous times, you hear the question everywhere: when choosing a president, how important is military experience?

I think it's crucial. In fact, it's the only thing that matters. 

Frank Mullen for President