Sunday, April 22, 2018

Re-Visiting Some Old Friends on World Book Day

Green light at the end of my patio
Great books evoke feelings in us that are different today than they were yesterday, and that will probably be different tomorrow.

Well, maybe not literally tomorrow, April 23 -- which happens to be World Book Day.

But what better occasion to examine the changing relationships we've had with the books in our lives?

I'll go first -- and name three, beginning with...


"Lolita"

Which -- unlike you or me -- hasn't aged very well.

As I've written before, I was half the age of Vladimir Nabokov's protagonist when I first read "Lolita." It enthralled me. When I last read it, I was about the age of Nabokov himself when he wrote his love letter to the English language. It repelled me.

(You can always count on a blogger from New Jersey for a fancy prose style.)

In the intervening years, my wife and I raised two daughters. This taught me two things: 1. Life is precious. 2. People aren't as smart as they think they are.

"Genius" is a word that appears many times in Nabokov's book. I get it. "Lolita," this Lolita, is a Work Of Art... as the reader is reminded with every turn of the page.

These days I view this "genius" as simply #FakeLanguage masking real-life horrors of women being beaten and demeaned. There is no great poetic love there. It's all just an artifice of pretty words about pedophilia played out in prostitution, threats and manipulation, as Lolita cries herself to sleep every night.

Still, literary genius is real, and it can sneak up on you when you least expect it, like...

"Slaughterhouse-Five"

Which has grown better with age.

Re-listening to it recently, I found myself unstuck in time.

When I first read it in college, I thought Kurt Vonnegut Jr. was trying too hard to be clever, and I simply found it silly.

Still, I gave the book another chance in Audible format, because I've lately grown to love listening to books on my workday commutes down and up Route 287 in New Jersey -- which is otherwise a soul-sucking exercise.

The actor James Franco was narrating, describing a movie about American bombers in World War II. Protagonist and time-traveler Billy Pilgrim was experiencing the movie backwards. The passage described the bombs being sucked back into the planes, and the cylinders being dismantled. Female workers separated the dangerous contents into minerals, and specialists in remote locations returned these minerals to earth, "hiding them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again."

I had to pull over to the side of the road, because I was so totally and unexpectedly touched and amazed.

Which is the way I feel every Memorial Day weekend, when I re-read...

"The Great Gatsby"

This is my true, beloved and ageless friend. This slight book by F. Scott Fitzgerald, which recently turned 93 years old, never fails to renew my love for great writing and the power of imagination.

As I've also written before, it's not a plot-driven thriller. Instead, it's episodic and dream-like.

There's something uniquely American about this book... and something uniquely resonant about a tale that begins right as summer begins and ends right as summer ends.

When I used to drive my daughter back and forth from college in Washington DC, we sometimes listened to "The Great Gatsby" together during the car ride. The magic of the words seemingly dissipated traffic because we never quite made it to the end of the book by the time our journey ended.

Things often ended abruptly in the smouldering hotel suite at The Plaza -- when there was still the possibility Gatsby might end up with Daisy. My daughter and I were always just as happy that the story ended right there.

As far as we're concerned, Gatsby never went for a swim before they closed up his pool.

And as far as I'm concernced, America is still -- even after all these years -- a land where anything, even "happily ever after," is possible.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

A Book About a Big Company That’s Bigger Than Itself

What did it take to get the U.S. stock market up and running just days after the 9/11 attacks? What was Steve Jobs like as a business partner? How does a company close a $130 billion transaction, or choose a new CEO, or disrupt a successful business to stay successful?

“Verizon Untethered” provides an insider’s insight into these questions.

It’s a readable primer of interest to business students, technology geeks, or anyone curious about the collective impact of individuals who work together with a common purpose.

Many stories in this book are from the point of view of Ivan Seidenberg, the longest-tenured CEO in America before his retirement in 2011. The book also includes insights and stories from several dozen business leaders of Verizon and its predecessor companies, dating from 1983 up to present-day CEO Lowell McAdam. The text is interspersed with rare photos, and commentary from consultant Ram Charan about business "lessons learned" that are more relevant in 2018 than ever.

Scott McMurray is the author, but I suspect much of the book’s readability is due to the efforts of Joellen Brown, who is cited in the acknowledgements as helping to provide historical context, research materials and several reviews for accuracy.

Joellen, my friend and former colleague, recently retired as chief speechwriter for Verizon C-level executives and head of the company's executive communications team. She is a masterful editor. Based on her involvement in this project over the past two years, I asked her recently what she thought were key takeaways from this book.

She noted:

  • The development of the wireless business, almost from birth, and the parallels between wireless's early years and the current challenges in growing Oath, telematics, and other new businesses.
  • The audacity of some of the strategic choices (e.g., Fios, AirTouch, even the aborted TCI deal). Hindsight sometimes turns bold moves into sure things... worth emphasizing that risk-taking has always been part of the strategic DNA of the company.
  • The quest to make networks matter, and the longstanding belief that technological leadership would translate into competitive advantage.
  • The role of culture in the building of a company. Or (maybe this is the same point) the primacy of culture over personality/individual ego.
  • What makes a merger work? The book is full of mergers and acquisitions that work, but also plenty that didn't. What's the difference?

Joellen Brown, center, with Lauren Tilstra and me, 2017.
Finally, she asked about Verizon’s “essential character”: “If you could transport yourself back to 1984, what would you recognize as familiar to the Verizon of 2018?”

With full disclosure, let me try to answer that.

If one takeaway from this book is, “Verizon is not your father’s phone company,” I know that for a literal fact. My father worked 35 years for New York Telephone, NYNEX and then Verizon, and I have worked 33 years for NYNEX, Bell Atlantic and now Verizon. Still, it has never seemed that I have worked for the “same company,” even over the course of my own career, since whatever-the-company-is has changed so radically over that time.

“Verizon Untethered” is the story of that radical change, told from the perspective of people I’ve been honored to know and work beside.

There’s irony in this story too. Verizon has been changed by outside forces that it itself has hastened and enabled. The infrastructure and new technologies deployed by Verizon and its predecessor companies have been the prime catalysts for sweeping changes in the way we all live, work and play.

So to answer Joellen’s question, I would say simply:

Verizon, existentially, has always been a part of something bigger than itself.

The people who work there realize that – they always have, and always will. That connected-ness has added value to the world, added value to customers, and added value to our personal and professional lives.

In that spirit, all proceeds from this book are being donated to the VtoV Fund, which provides emergency assistance to Verizon employees unable to live in their primary homes after a natural disaster. There are no administrative fees; every penny goes to someone in need, and the Verizon Foundation provides a match for every dollar donated.

In the end, “Verizon Untethered” isn’t a history book about a company. If history has taught us anything, it’s that companies come and go. This book tells stories about people, and the things some people do to try to make a positive difference in the world.

---

“Verizon Untethered” (publication date: May 1, 2018) is available for pre-sale now at Amazon and other book distributors.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Baseball's Best Lesson: There's More Met Than Yankee in Every One of Us

Double rainbow over Citi Field, 2017
It happens every spring. Baseball enters our lives to teach us new lessons.

What have I learned this year?

It’s simple, but profound -- and originally expressed best by author Roger Angell: There is more Met than Yankee in every one of us.

This lesson begins with my boyhood awe and wonder, when my Dad took me to my first major league baseball game. He had elaborately tipped a cigar-chewing fat man in a ticket booth on 161st Street in The Bronx, and we wound up with field-level seats.

As we emerged through the concession area to face the field — me, a little boy holding his Dad’s hand — my first view of the impossibly green, cavernous Yankee Stadium field gave me goosebumps.

It’s perhaps the closest I’ll come to ever seeing Heaven. It was perfection.

Contrast that to another day soon afterward: my second visit to a major league game. My eccentric Uncle Charlie wanted to take me to the new Shea Stadium, built on the site of the 1964 World’s Fair.

He escorted me there on the New York City subway, which I had never been on before. I saw sights and sounds on my first ride on the No. 7 train — especially on the elevated section through Queens — unlike anything I had encountered growing up in the New Jersey suburbs. Years later, at an arts film festival in college, I had a flashback to this subway ride when viewing Fellini’s “Satyricon.”

Uncle Charlie opted for the cheapest tickets available. We wound up in the top, nose-bleed section of Shea, and we climbed the steeply-pitched stairs as if we were scaling a mountain. During the game, I gripped both sides of my seat, white-knuckled, fearing I’d fall over onto the field far below. The wind howled and, not far above, giant planes made booming noises after takeoff or landing at LaGuardia.

It’s little wonder that I was a Yankee fan from that time on.



I have many fond memories of the team, culminating on Oct. 16, 2003, when my friend John Bonomo and I attended Game 7 of the AL Championship Series against the hated Red Sox. Aaron Boone, the current Yankee manager, perfectly ended a perfect evening of baseball with a memorable game-winning home run.

As years went by, however, something happened — to me or to the Yankees — that changed my perspective. When I went to the games, the fans seemed… entitled… well-off… and a little self-satisfied. It was just like looking into a mirror of who I had become myself. This has always been my greatest existential fear: that I would become just like everyone else.

Yankee baseball became a science or, worse, a business… and years followed featuring “grind-it-out” at bats, with every hitter working deep into the count, and each game a four-hour marathon.

One day, I found myself sitting with my feet up in an easy chair shouting at the YES channel, “Oh for Heaven’s sake, someone just take a swing at a first-pitch fastball right down the middle of the plate.” It was then I realized that rooting for the Yankees was turning me into a joyless old man.

---------

Stalking Mr. Met
Enter Mr. Met.

Mr. Met insidiously entered my life when I met my wife Nancy, a lifelong Mets fan. At a Halloween party in Lake Hopatcong, NJ, on Oct. 25, 1986, Nancy and I wore Hawaiian shirts we had purchased on our honeymoon, as we huddled to watch Game 6 of the World Series on a small TV while standing next to a stranger dressed as the Grim Reaper.

The Mets rallied for three runs to beat the hated Red Sox in the bottom of the 10th. As soon as announcer Vin Scully uttered those 12 immortal words — “Little roller up along first… BEHIND THE BAG. It gets through Buckner!” — I embraced my new wife and high-fived the Grim Reaper with pure joy.

Cue Ingmar Bergman.

So began a wonderful new chapter in my life, punctuated by the soundtrack of a Mets game on TV or radio during subsequent summers — through good times and in bad. When the Mets built their new home, Citi Field, a few years ago, Nancy purchased a memorial Fanwalk brick for her sister, a devout mother who died too young from cancer. She was also a lifelong Mets fan. There’s a replica brick displayed in our living room today, inscribed: “You gotta believe! In memory of Eileen. Love, Nancy.”



I’ve been to a few Yankees games since 2003, but many more Mets games. I was disappointed when I visited the new Yankee Stadium a few years ago and found it majestically enclosed around itself, like a museum.

In contrast, Citi Field is bright and open, filled with eccentric Uncle Charlies... happy, diverse people. The stadium has interesting nooks and crannies, fun promotional days (our living room also has an odd collection of bobble-head Mets dolls on display), and Nancy and I were once featured on the Kiss Cam. It’s like a carnival.

I love every silly thing about Mr. Met -- and I've stalked and photo-bombed him through the years. I love the song "Meet the Mets" and Citi Field's Home Run Apple. I love the team's engaging social media presence, and smart, irreverent SNY TV announcers. I love that nothing about the Mets, save for a Noah Syndergaard fastball or any pitch delivered by Jacob deGrom, can be described as majestic.

And, as a fan, because the Mets have endured more heartbreak than the Yankees, it makes celebrating with them even sweeter.

---------

This spring, for the first time in my life, I took off from work and went to a ballgame on Opening Day.

I took Nancy to Citi Field on the subway. We rode the MTA’s museum train, billed as “the train of many colors.” Train workers snapped photos of this No. 7 train as we started our journey at the Hudson Yards station. We sat in one of the 50-year-old trailing “redbird” cars, the same kind of car I had ridden with my Uncle Charlie.

As we traveled through Queens, a full mariachi band — including a full-size standup bass — went busking from car to car. It was still just like Fellini’s “Satyricon,” but with a better soundtrack. When we arrived at the Citi Field station, the MTA’s creaky old PA system played “Meet the Mets,” and Nancy knew all the words.

It was a joyous day. The Mets beat the Cardinals, but that was almost beside the point. The game renewed my spirit. I tweeted about it; I posted photos on Instagram. When my friend John questioned why I post items like this about the Mets, I told him I still consider that night in October 2003 a highlight of my life, and I still do root for the Yankees. There’s just something about the Mets that resonates even deeper with me these days.

Angell summed it up best in his book “The Summer Game.”

He wrote that cheering for the Yankees’ “perfection” is “admirable but a trifle inhuman.” The Mets’ “stumbling kind of semi-success can be much more warming.” He concluded that “exultant yells for the Mets were also yells for ourselves, and came from a wry, half-understood recognition that there is more Met than Yankee in every one of us.”

As I've learned, those are very wise words.

If there is a Heaven and I've got a ticket, I'd happily hold my Dad's hand again -- and this time tell him how much I loved him -- and enjoy a baseball game together at the old Yankee Stadium.

But these days... with Dad gone... here on Earth... I'd rather spend my time at Citi Field.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Blue Moon, Now I'm No Longer Alone...



These days, my two daughters sleep under the same roof only once in a blue moon. Literally.

Early Saturday’s blue moon – already the second of 2018 – was the last chance to see a blue moon in New Jersey until 2020.

Early on Easter Sunday morning, I’m writing this at the dining room table as both daughters are asleep in their bedrooms upstairs. Here’s photo evidence that someone else visited in the middle of the night…


It seems even the Easter Bunny knows that my daughters have grown up to become two incredible… and very different… people.

A blue moon is technically when two full moons appear in the same calendar month.

That’s nothing.

As a dad, I appreciate that having your children together in one place – happy, dreaming, warm, fed, loved -- is a heavenly event filled with more awe, wonder and rarity than anything the moon can muster.

As the smell of breakfast bacon rises from the kitchen, our old dog has curled her body to block the front door to try to keep anyone from leaving today. I know how she feels.

Yesterday, I experienced my own version of the Harrowing of Hell, which is Christ’s descent into the underworld on Easter Saturday to bring salvation to all the righteous who had died since the beginning of time. I braved traffic on the FDR to retrieve my younger daughter.

I didn’t rescue her by driving to Manhattan. She rescued me by coming to New Jersey.

Happy Easter to all!

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Remembering MLK in Paterson, 50 Years Ago


Yesterday a local newspaper feature story inspired me to visit a modest church on Auburn Street in Paterson, NJ.

It's the site where, nearly 50 years ago today, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke for 20 minutes before traveling to Memphis, where he delivered his memorable, prophetic "mountaintop" speech on April 3 -- and where he was assassinated on April 4.

According to Richard Cowen's story in The Record, King's next-to-last speech on March 27, 1968, drew thousands of people who jammed the sidewalks as his motorcade, arriving from Newark, "finally turned the corner onto Auburn Street and made its way to the old wooden church where the sound of gospel music swirled through the rafters like incense."

The rest of the story about that late March night in Paterson is an outstanding example of local journalism, complete with a photo gallery, video and podcast. It reminded me of the fact-based, detailed front-page story in The Washington Post on Saturday morning before the March for Our Lives in DC (where King's 9-year-old granddaughter stirred a crowd of hundreds of thousands).

In fact, this same Saturday, some streets near Auburn Street (which has been officially renamed Freedom Boulevard, although there are no markings of this) were closed on the day of my visit because of a march to honor gun-death victims.

It was simply coincidental that this annual march in Paterson -- held on the Saturday before the Christian holiday of Palm Sunday -- was taking place on the same day as student-led protests held throughout the world to call for an end to gun violence and mass school shootings.

This is Paterson's heart-breaking reality: The modest Bethel A.M.E. church on Auburn Street/Freedom Boulevard was fenced-in and locked, and a resident quoted in Cowen's story noted that she does not feel free living here, due to the high crime rate of the area. She will not allow her son to walk to the library by himself, even though it is less than five blocks away. (Also, within a short distance from comfortable, upscale suburbs.)

Across the street from the church, a sign states that a park in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s name is "coming soon." However, this plot of land and sign have been unattended for four years.

Just last week, according to The Record, the city tried to auction one of the two lots set aside for the park -- until Councilwoman Ruby Cotton, who represents the neighborhood, put a stop to it.  

Said the Rev. Allan Boyer, the church's current pastor: "I'd like to see a park for kids, with some cherry blossom trees, and some quotations from King, so they could learn about him." 

Meanwhile, Cotton has committed to building the park.

I believe she will succeed, and I'm going to see what I can do to help. After viewing yesterday's video of King's granddaughter, I have a little hope.

I believe that next March I will return to the same corner to take photos of some cherry blossoms.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

A Visit to Princeton... In Real Life

Yesterday, 41 members of the mighty Black Glass Gallery, a social-media-based photography community, gathered on the Princeton University campus on a cold afternoon... just to take photos and spend some time together in real life.

BGG's Princeton meetup; photo by Dawn Barry Pechinsky.

I'm the guy without a hat on, next to hooded Jimmy whose hands are on the light pole. Unlike many of the pros and artists in this photo (whose work you can view at www.blackglassgallery.com or by searching #BGGmeetup on Instagram), I'm not a photographer in real life.

Still, the virtual gallery's real owner, Suzanne, has always been kind and supportive -- and with the aid of an iPhone, a Canon Rebel and some advanced, yet simple-to-use editing software, I can be a virtual photographer too.

The photos below are mine, including two views from the Princeton Chapel choir loft, some natural greenery on St. Patrick's Day, and the iconic Holder Memorial Tower:






I had intended to post a writeup here as a sort of virtual campus tour.

But, here in 2018, I also realize there are whole-campus, 360-degree virtual reality tours online, with VR representations of real student guides. There's just such a guide to Princeton among the 600+ campuses (including more than a dozen other colleges in New Jersey) featured on YouVisit.

I can't compete with that in a blog post. This post is "analog digital," just a handful of images of a beautiful cold day in March 2018... like the bronze man in J. Seward Johnson's "Out To Lunch" statue in Palmer Square who's reading something that isn't a Kindle.


Sunday, March 11, 2018

The Best Music You May Never Have Heard

Chris Freeman of Parsonsfield, King of the Alternative World
Last Thursday, at the Mercury Lounge, I saw folk-rock future. Its name is Parsonsfield.

With apologies to Jon Landau, on a night when I needed to feel young, the band made me feel like I was hearing music for the very first time.

This was the fourth time I’ve seen Parsonsfield perform, and each night I’ve headed for home afterward feeling renewed. It’s a wonder:

  • the same energy;
  • the same improbably clear and distinctive lead vocals by Chris Freeman;
  • the same on-stage camaraderie and joyful showmanship;
  • the same creative arrangements (interesting harmonies and tempo changes, and instruments as diverse as a pump organ, upright base, accordion, mandolin, banjo, synthesizer and handsaw).

On Thursday, the New-England-based band (I first saw them in Wellfleet on Cape Cod) performed in the East Village to mark the release of “WE” – an EP that includes the single, “Kick Out the Windows.”

---------

In a world of instant fame, often obtainable without any achievement, it’s amazing how many talented people – especially musicians – spend their careers flying under the radar.

Uncle Ange, early 1950s, piano and cigarette
Closer to home, I think of my grandmother’s brother, the late Angelo Mairani. I recently found black-and-white photos of him, along with frayed, yellow reviews of his piano playing from a New Jersey newspaper that no longer exists.

Uncle Ange played piano on local radio stations in the ‘40s and ‘50s – but there’s no record of this online, or recordings that I can find.

Still, I remember as a boy the ornate wall of sound Uncle Ange could create from my grandmother’s old piano. I remember the joy with which he played, and the joy he brought to others when he did. It was music as pure celebration -- a sound that pushed out the walls and made all our lives seem bigger and more hopeful.

Parsonsfield is like that.

Certainly, the band has already had success -- critically acclaimed and selling out smaller venues for several years. Their songs are easily found online. “Weeds or Wildflowers” was featured in an episode of “The Walking Dead,” and videos even include a cover of Mississippi John Hurt’s “Let the Mermaids Flirt With Me.”

Just watch this one-take-video performance of “Empty Rocking Chair”:



I think Parsonsfield deserves even more success, and an even brighter future.

The same applies to the band’s opening act at the Mercury Lounge (Scruffy Pearls, featuring lead singer Carly Brooke), and to Kyle Hancharick, whose earnest, soulful cover of my favorite song, Springsteen’s “Thunder Road,” gave me goosebumps during a performance at an out-of-the-way winery in Rockland County, NY.

And especially to Ireland’s Ryan McMullan. It’s almost otherworldly how good he is. I’ve seen him perform in small settings, and I was in awe. I think Ryan will do OK, though. He’ll be the opening act when Ed Sheeran tours Australia later this month.

Who is your own favorite talented, under-recognized musician?

I think Uncle Ange should be the patron saint for all of them. And I think the prayer we should offer up to him on their behalf should be the words to the chorus of Parsonsfield’s new single:

Let’s kick out the windows
Let’s write on the walls
Climb over the fences
Run down the halls
In the light dying
We’ll rage and fight
Go kickin’ and screaming’
Into that good night


Sunday, March 4, 2018

Happy National Grammar Day!

Martha Brockenbrough
(Photo by Emerald England)
Do you have March 4, 2018, (notice the comma after the appositive year) marked on your calendar as Oscar Night?

Good news: There's another reason to celebrate!

Today marks the 10th anniversary of National Grammar Day, established by writer Martha Brockenbrough (rhymes with "broken toe"), grammar advocate and author of Things That Make Us [Sic].

To mark this anniversary, I think Ms. Brockenbrough should win an Oscar for Best Original Awareness Day. I also think tonight's award should honor the memory of Syd Penner, legendary copy editor for the New York Daily News in the Jimmy Breslin era.

I've previously posted about kind, patient and erudite Mr. Penner, who, after retirement, dressed in suit and tie for a weekly visit to the offices of then-NYNEX at 1095 Ave. of the Americas in New York. He would critique and copyedit the press releases and other writing samples of then-me and my colleagues in the Public Relations department.

I treasured every red mark Syd Penner placed on my work. He pointed out grammatical flaws, wordiness, jargon. He also wasn't a fan of adjectives.

Those pages have long since been recycled. Everything went digital. I've moved offices. And, last year, I moved into an open work environment. Just like a newsroom in the Jimmy Breslin era. Kinda.

The point being, in de-cluttering my life before moving from a physical office, I came across a physical copy of the November 29, 1979, issue of The Printer's Devil (Vol. 1, No. 13). This, as noted by journalist Paul LaRosa, was Syd Penner's occasional, internal-to-the-Daily-News newsletter that celebrated stories he liked and knocked those he didn't.

(Note: Wikipedia offers an informative definition of "printer's devil," complete with a link to a related "Twilight Zone" episode, available on Hulu and starring Burgess Meredith.)

This sample of The Printer's Devil is from the late Mr. Penner's personal files. He had given it to me because I kept hounding him to tell me stories about life as a journalist in the '60s and '70s.

I offer it to you here, in celebration of National Grammar Day:



For more information and ideas on ways to celebrate National Grammar Day (no drinking games included), visit nationalgrammarday.com.



Sunday, February 25, 2018

Happy 75th Birthday, George (My Fab 4)

George, in 1974
This is George Harrison’s 75th birthday weekend. I say “weekend” because even George himself long thought his birthday was February 25th – until one day he learned he was actually born a little before midnight on February 24th. (That’s true. You could look it up.)

George randomly popped into my thoughts two weeks ago after, of all things, I had re-read Willa Cather’s “My Antonia.” I was sad the book didn’t seem as relevant to me after so many years had passed, and I started thinking of creative works that, to me, were still as fresh as when I first encountered them.

Thank God for “The Great Gatsby,” I thought. And the poetry of Yeats. And anything by Poe.
Then I thought of the music of The Beatles.

Yes!

More than 50 years later, and their music still gives me chills. Despite the untimely deaths of George and John, The Beatles are, for me, forever young and new and bright. They were simply pop musicians, and yet they changed the world for the better.

In the early 2000s, before The Beatles catalog was opened up to streaming and available on Apple Music and the many retrospectives were released – and well before Sirius XM launched The Beatles Channel – it was somewhat rare and a bit unexpected to hear a Beatles song on a car radio. On family drives, with my young daughters in the back seat, they would get to know Beatles’ songs because daddy would suddenly turn up the volume and begin to tell stories about one song or another, sometimes with a sentimental tear in his eye.

Despite this, I’m proud to say that both my now-grown daughters are still Beatles’ fans today.

Now it’s 2018, and the music of The Beatles again seems to be here, there and everywhere. On car rides without my daughters now, I especially look forward to a Sirius XM segment called “My Fab 4,” where listeners, artists and celebrities share their favorite four Beatles’ songs and what makes them special.

Here’s my Fab 4:


1. “Here Comes the Sun”


Because, after all, it’s George’s 75th birthday weekend. Because George was just 26 years old when he wrote this song, even though, by then (1969) the Beatles had already conquered the world and were about to break apart.

Of all the Beatles songs, this one – already widely revered when it was first issued – seems to have gained the most in popularity in the intervening years. It’s recently been the most popularly streamed Beatles song, and it’s easy to understand why.

It’ joyful. It’s an end-of-winter song that lifts the soul. It soars, and it takes you with it.

Not only that, I pick this song first because George is my wife’s favorite Beatle. And because it leads into “Abbey Road”’s next song, “Because.”


2. The whole freaking second side of “Abbey Road”


Life goal: a Varettoni family photo in imitation of this
Vinyl had sides, and this was the best side of vinyl ever pressed.

I love, for example, John’s strong Liverpudlian “Scouse” accent on “Polythene Pam.” John is my favorite Beatle.

John’s accent on that song reminds me that – unlike the Rolling Stones, who were nice middle-class boys acting like street kids – the Beatles were street kids acting like nice middle-class boys.

In November 1963, in one of the first U.S. major news stories about The Beatles (several months before they appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show”), NBC’s Edwin Newman noted that all four had been born during The Blitz (the horrific German bombing offensive against Britain during World War II). They grew up in the Mersey section of Liverpool, which Newman called “the toughest section in one of the toughest cities in the world.”

John always maintained that edge and – to me – it was always this element that separated The Beatles from every other great pop music group at the time. I recall John’s shockingly frank interviews in Rolling Stone magazine, which for several weeks in my early teens led me to casually drop f-bombs into my conversation in imitation. I soon stopped that practice, realizing I could never even play-act being as cool as John Lennon.

The medley of songs on the second side of “Abbey Road” is pure 20th Century musical genius – from Paul’s rare bass guitar mistake on the aforementioned “Polythene Pam” all the way to Ringo’s one and only recorded-with-The-Beatles drum solo on “The End.”


3. “A Hard Day’s Night”


Trivia question: What’s the only song in the world recognizable by its opening note?

That’s right, it’s the opening chord of “A Hard Day’s Night,” played by George Harrison on his 12-string Rickenbacker guitar.

I list “A Hard Day’s Night” here as a meme for all the great early Beatles songs… beginning with that appearance on the Sullivan show (in 1964, when Paul McCartney was only 21 years old), where, safe in suburbia in front of a black-and-white TV, a very young me marveled at the crazed audience reaction… unaware of the raw emotion that rock and blues had already tapped into years earlier and in so many other, less-sheltered places.

For me, “A Hard Day’s Night” represents a time of watching Beatles’ cartoons on Saturday morning TV, and being amazed, through the years, how their music matured and grew over the years. I was just as transfixed, and awed, years later when I first saw the videos on TV for “All You Need Is Love” and “Hey, Jude.”

In fact, in my entire life, I’ve only been flummoxed by one celebrity sighting. I was at a Verizon-sponsored table in 2002 at an Amnesty International event at Chelsea Piers in New York, and at a table practically right next to us sat Paul McCartney and his then-wife Heather Mills.

I was a blithering idiot all evening, in full fan mode. “That’s Paul McCartney!” I repeated more than once, to no one, spilling my water and fumbling with my knife and fork. In fairness, as my boss pointed out, “if you’re acting like this just because you’re in the same room with someone, Paul McCartney is probably the one person in the world I can understand.”

At one point, when Paul was asked to take the stage, I had to stand and pull a chair out of his way.

“Thanks, mate!” he cheerily said to me, touching me on the shoulder as he passed.

Ever since, my wife and daughters have always, over the years, referred to Paul, as my “best friend.”

Sir Paul, if you ever read this, I’m sure you understand what I wrote about John. Someone had to carry on – and in the humble opinion of your friend, I think “Hey, Jude” truly is amazing and “Maybe I’m Amazed” is without doubt the best post-Beatles song ever.



4. “A Day in the Life”


The Beatles somehow recorded this song on four-track tape machines – the equivalent of sending someone to the moon and back with technology that’s less advanced than today’s cell phones.

The first time I heard this song, I was in a grade school class at St. James in Totowa, N.J.

It was near the end of the school year, and one of the coolest girls in the class (Maureen Dunne? Marianne Hydock? It’s all a blur to me now…) had bought one of the first copies of the album “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

She played this song on a phonograph for the entire class to hear.

It was this song. Despite all the music I had listened to until then, it was like nothing I had ever heard before.

How many times does that happen in your lifetime? When some item is so incredibly new, and surprising – and you recognize it right away.

It happened with I saw the first “Star Wars” movie, and years later when I first held an iPad… and it happened for the first time in my life when I listened to “A Day in the Life.”

This is magic. This is what The Beatles created. Happy birthday, George.

Thanks, mate.