Frank Gutch Jr: Christmas and the Doppler Effect Plus Notes and Coffee (er, Cherry Slice)

It is almost Christmas and, as usual at this time of year, I am looking backward.  It hasn’t always been this way but the older I get the more it is,  As a child, like most children, Christmas was a fun and magical time, but to most children all of life is.  There is something about the young— they have hope and fascination for the simple things and are able to see the joy in watching ants or slugs or anything alive just live.  They wonder about the varieties of trees and why fish lay eggs and frogs too— so many eggs!  In the first grade, I used to walk way out of my way when coming home from school just to walk by the mill pond up the hill because of the clumps of frog eggs clinging to the reeds and grasses along the edge.  They were teaching us about life in school and had a fishbowl with a handful of fertilized eggs and, class by class, the teachers would have us file by once a day to see life’s progress.  To a six- or seven-year old there was pure enchantment at watching the eggs go from embryo to tadpole to frog.  No one else seemed to pay much attention, but children were enthralled.  Children, in fact, know way more than you think just because they pay attention.

When you are young, you look forward.  There is no past.  But when you age, at some point it develops into the present.  You become obsessed with yourself— well, most of us do.  All of a sudden, we have real lives not dominated by parents and the school system and other authoritative entities.   We have to get jobs and pay rent and whatever it takes to stay alive.  That train you heard from a distance is then right behind you and ready to pass.  It is loud and constant and sends a shiver up your spine because what is up ahead is somewhat unknown.  The future is a black hole in your mind and you wonder about marriage or career or obstacles which could be in your path.  The path— that all-important road to success or failure.

As the train passes and the sound diminishes, you become the future.  You either make it or not, depending upon goals and expectations.  And you begin to look back at all of the turns you could have made that you didn’t or the steps you took or didn’t.  The click-clack of the tracks diminish, replaced by just the horn (oh, for the days of the whistle which you only know from old movies) which fades into the future which is, in reality, your past.

I look back these days, more than anything.  I have reached that point at which the future is no longer mine.  I do not want to watch my world crumble before me (and I am sure it does for all of us, even when enveloped in riches).  I watched my father’s life crumble.  At first, it was unnoticeable, friends dying or moving away a fact of life.  When he reached the tipping point, it slowly became a reality.  Dad was aging and a lot of his friends weren’t.  Death and illness took its toll not just for the dead or ill but on Dad.  His life slowly disappeared.  I realized it one day when the city street crew began to replace a water pipe, digging a hole, first with a backhoe and then with shovels and pickaxes.  Dad would get up, put on his coat, make sure he had plenty of cigarettes and then head outside to watch.  He stood next to the hole, workers already chest deep, and smoke and talk.  Those workers became his last real new friends.  For a number of years, they would stop and talk whenever they saw Dad outside.  One day, one of the guys asked if he could have an apple which was rotting beneath the Gravenstein apple tree Dad was always trimming.  Dad said no and went in the house to bring out an empty sack, grabbed his apple-picking pole, and picked a bag full off the tree.  They got to talking and the subject of grafting came up.  The guy wanted to know if he could have a slip of a branch to graft on one of his trees.  That developed into a long friendship because there is much more to grafting than just sticking a small branch into a slit in another tree’s lopped off arm.  Dad taught him about grafting and he taught Dad a few things about beekeeping and other things.  When Dad had a stroke, we had to leave the house that we had lived in since I was in the fourth grade.  I took him over to say goodbye to his friends and there were tears.  The train whistle was in their ears while Dad’s was diminishing in the far distance.  I hear now what he did his last number of years.  He never professed to liking Christmas much, but I think he secretly enjoyed it tremendously.  For one thing, it was Momma’s favorite time of the year and if Dad did nothing else, he tried to keep Momma happy.

I don’t rightly know why I bring that up except that our family always celebrated Christmas with aplomb.  It was all Santa Claus when we were young and then it turned into food and music and then later into the occasional holiday get-together which never quite recaptured the magic of when we were all together all the time.  When I started working in the record business, I began coming home right after Thanksgiving, my time before and after being taken up with the Christmas rush.  Retail, you know.  But I would take a week off and come down from Seattle and take Momma out to get the tree and help her decorate.  On Saturday of that week we would exchange gifts.  My sister, who spent most of her Christmases in Los Angeles (she worked for a high-profile ad agency), would come up with a decent present idea for Momma (one year we bought her a big Kitchen Aid mixer because Dad was no longer strong enough to beat the makings of divinity into the final consistency and Momma burned out more than one regular mixer trying to make it).  And I remember getting Dad industrial strength jumper cables one year because he trapped and was seemingly always running into people in need of a jump.

Yeah, I am definitely choogling toward the end.  I still hear the train, but sometimes my heart is back waiting for it to catch up.

I woke up to a video from Salton Sea this morning.  A couple of years ago, it showed up in my newsfeed and I was quite impressed.  The guy behind the band is named Mark Strong and I have been following him for a few years.  He is one of the few musicians who rely upon synthesizers and keyboards I listen to (along with the super-talented Dan Phelps).  I had mixed feelings when I first saw the video.  It tries to balance the good and the bad, I think, and does an impressive job.  If nothing else, it emphasizes the good and bad in life.  I have spent too much time worrying about the present.  I would rather build a snowman.

You really want to know what I would like for Christmas?  A Cherry Slice!  I had always thought Cherry Slice was a cherry drink.  I had had Orange Slice and it was basically orange soda.  Little did I know that Cherry Slice was a cherry cola!  I LOVE cherry coke.  When I was in high school, Snappy Service used to make it by squirting cherry syrup into a coke.  My sister, who loved cherry coke as much as myself, one day asked them if they could put an extra squirt in.  Cost you a nickel, they said.  Damn if that wasn’t worth that nickel and more!  And Cherry Slice,  my friends, is as close to that taste as I have ever gotten.  They served it at Seattle Thunderbirds games.  Junior hockey.  I drank it the year I discovered it.  Next year the company was out of business.  Same thing happens with restaurants.  I am forever passing restaurants and saying, I have to eat here.  By the time I am ready, they are gone.  And that train keeps getting closer to the end.

Speaking of Christmas songs, Rick Krueger just released one that is so folk it is freaky.  Usually, when musicians compose anything about Christmas, they lose the feel.  Not so with Krueger.  He not only captures the feel, he tells the story.  The more I hear this guy (he has a new album titled Life Ain’t That Long, which it ain’t), the more I like him.  Very Harry Chapin/James Taylor/Harry Nilsson.

This morning, someone posted a track by Chicagoan Bill Quateman and I felt a rush come over me.  Quateman released a monster of an album back in 1973 which I was sure was going to be a smash.  I have no idea what happened, but it didn’t.  It did become a cult classic thanks to radio stations like KZEL in Eugene and KSHE in St. Louis, but it basically died on a vine.  Whilst scouring the Net today, I ran across a live tape of Quateman which I never thought I would see.  Not only that, but the opening act was Aliotta Haynes Jeremiah, another excellent act from the late-sixties or early-seventies.  For your perusal…

We should have had KZELs and KSHEs in every market.  A head nod to both those acts.  By the way, that superb guitar you hear on Keep Dreaming is Caleb Quaye.  The dude had a touch.  I hope he still does.

I mostly loved Christmas my whole life.  But later, when I got into the record business, the real Christmas was replaced by the business Christmas.  Back in ’74 when I was working for Licorice Pizza on Wilshire Boulevard in L.A., I hurt my back and because of it was given the job of writing reorders while people stood in line.  It was a simple matter of writing down label and number.  I couldn’t straighten up so I walked pretty much like a broken seven.  I got a lot of sympathy, though, and a couple of girls even offered to walk on my back for me.  Damn, I miss those days!

I went to high school with a guy named Pat Witcraft.  I met him in Little league and we ended up going to the same grade school and junior high and, later, high school.  He was a quiet, unassuming kind of guy who stayed in the background most of the time.  The older he got, the more introverted he became.  One day in high school, I walked into the band room to use the piano and there he was, pounding away on the keys.  What the hell, I said.  I didn’t know you played piano, and I’m sure he mumbled a comment that made him think he didn’t.  But he was there every night for awhile and even though I needed to use the piano, I let him.  That Spring, he asked me if I thought he should enter a talent show the high school was putting on.  I told him to do it.  He sweated bricks the afternoon of the school assembly (at least I think the event was in the afternoon— if not, he was sweating bricks that evening).  It was typical high school stuff— skits and singing and whatever it was that we did as high school kids back then.  Except for Witcraft.  He walked out and sat down at the piano and pounded that sucker to pieces.  No real songs, just whatever came out as he moved his fingers over the keys.  He won, of course, as he should have.  I think most of us were taken aback.  He had never really talked music before except to a few of us who were in bands or deep into music.  He just showed up one day and BAM!

After high school, Witcraft headed to California— I think, Los Angeles.  One day he showed up at the house I was living in with my friend Sid Spear, who played bass in our band.  I talked with him awhile and learned that he had just had a few songs published.  He had been working with Daniel Moore, whom I knew from seeing his name on a few 45s.  Witcraft played it down, but I could tell he was pumped.  A handful of years later, I heard that he had died.  Way too young.  I won’t go into details, but it floored all of us.  He was a good kid who had turned into a good man.  The pic to the right is Pat when he won the talent contest.  The next was taken the last time I saw him.  It was taken at a rented house out near Spencer’s Butte in Eugene.  I have no idea why the crowd was there.  That is my old drum kit.  I loved it but I was never any good.  No discipline.  I could have been a contender if maybe I could have mustered some, but no.  I have always been a jack of all trades and a master of none.  I think it was the way I was born.  (In the last photo, Pat Witcraft is standing on the right)

I got out of the Army the summer of ’71 and immediately fell in love.  She was very young and I was not the best candidate for a relationship, but it happened.  She was a spoiled little rich girl and put about as much into the relationship as she could, which in retrospect was whenever it was convenient.  We got along okay and we did love one another but it was another case of right place wrong time.  We lasted maybe a year but it didn’t feel right.  I hitchhiked up to Portland the next summer and broke it off with her.  I thought she knew it was best.  She did.  The last couple of months she racked up a hefty long distance phone bill for me, calling her new boyfriend while I was at work, and acted like it was no big deal.  It wasn’t, except I had to have the phone cut off.  Going to school on the GI Bill did not make for deep pockets.  It took me two years to pay it off.  No hard feelings, though.  I just decided to pack up and head for Los Angeles in hopes of scoring a job with a record company.

That winter was the only the second time I did not have Christmas with my family.  Two years before, right after Basic, I walked into a shitstorm at home.  Dad and I had a huge argument about the Viet Nam War and, without really saying it, he invited me to leave.  The next morning my pal Sid drove into the driveway and I grabbed my duffle bag and left.  It was a shit move but I felt cornered.  That war was hell on some of us and torture for the rest.

So Debby and I spent Christmas together but not alone together.  (That is one hell of an album, by the way, should you have missed it)  Her friend Becky and Becky’s boyfriend Rich was there, as were various drop-ins.  We ran an equal opportunity hangout and never locked our doors.  For decorations, we bought this teeny little tree and placed it on our spool table, which was pretty much the focus of the living room (I spent most of my time in the corner by the turntable, music freak that I was).  It was a really nice Christmas for us all but I could sense the fabric tearing.  I began to think about heading to L.A. and started separating myself from Debby.  By Spring, I was ready.  I had to make haste, though, because I was already having feelings for a girl I had met through Debby and did not want complications.  Stephanie was always very supportive of me in my struggles (emotionally, I could be trying) and was out of my league, anyway.  I think self-preservation took over at some point.  By the time I hit L.A. I was thinking it could have been a colossal mistake, but I leaned into the wind.  Stephanie was sharp as a tack and beautiful, to boot.  I knew she could take care of herself.

I realized now that Stephanie was there when the train rolled right in front of me.  It was loud and brash and the horn hurt my ears, but I felt alive.

I am sure the music had a lot to do with it.  Besides my friends and family, it has been the biggest constant.

I loved Christmas.  I loved the giving and getting of record albums and the sharing of music.  I practically lived at The House of Records when I lived in Eugene and Licorice Pizza in Los Angeles.  Hell, working at those stores was like being with  family.  It didn’t take much for customers to become friends— a shared interest in an artist or band was enough.  Now, you almost have to fill out an eHarmony form.

I walked into a bar in North Seattle one night to have a beer with a friend.  I grabbed my bottle and headed over to the ramp which overlooked the dance floor to see the band.  The two ladies standing there looked at me like I had just fallen in to a pile of cow shit. One made a statement like, “Don’t you wish,” and they headed off.  I wanted to follow them just to tell them that I did not wish, but I turned to watch the band.  They sucked but you could dance to them.  Later that night I danced with an older lady I would have wished with, but she was out of my league too.  I went home wondering where my league was.  I guess I still haven’t found it.

And now, time for the last 2017 edition of…

Notes…

The first thing I ever heard from Hannah Miller was a beautiful track titled O Black River.  It knocked me out and what she has been doing since has knocked me out too.  Here is a teaser from her new album.

Brock Zeman has a new one coming out next year too.  What a career he is making for himself!

More topnotch stuff from I’m With Her

Heroes of Toolik.  I like it!

Sarah Clanton.  Nice.

=FGJ=

Frank’s column appears every Tuesday

Contact us at dbawis@rogers.com

dbawis-button7Frank Gutch Jr. looks like Cary Grant, writes like Hemingway and smells like Pepe Le Pew. He has been thrown out of more hotels than Keith Moon, is only slightly less pompous than Garth Brooks and at Frank bottle capone time got laid at least once a year (one year in a row). He has written for various publications, all of which have threatened to sue if mentioned in any of his columns, and takes pride in the fact that he has never been quoted. Read at your own peril.”

3 Responses to “Frank Gutch Jr: Christmas and the Doppler Effect Plus Notes and Coffee (er, Cherry Slice)”

  1. Patti Nichols Says:

    Merry Christmas Frank. Hope it is wonderful and that we get to see you again. I. The new year. Patti

  2. Peter Montreuil Says:

    Another great column! Well written and thought provoking. Thanks, Frank.

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