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Forty-five years ago, right at this time of year, one of the million warped, delectable pop-culture treats that made the Seventies so great was starting to take shape — and it was happening less than a 10-mile crow’s-fly from my grandparents’ house at 1107 Hope St., Stamford, Connecticut.

My grandpa (spoiler alert) had no idea this was going on, of course. And if he had known, he surely would have disapproved.

But it’s a good story, and those never go out of fashion. So pull up a chair (electric, perhaps?) and come back in the day with me …

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If you wanted to craft a summary of the American dream, you could do worse than this (hypothetical) want ad:

WANTED: Five working-class kids from Phoenix, Arizona, seek luxury property near New York City where they can live, work, play, and bring their successful shared enterprise to a whole new level. Property must be large enough to accommodate support staff and girlfriends, yet private enough to avoid scrapes with the neighbors.

Mansions within driving distance of New York don’t come cheap, but the young men in question felt they could afford it.

They’d just broken big with a pair of Top 40 albums and a hit single, as well as a must-see, headline-grabbing theatrical stage presentation. More and greater success seemed right around the corner — and indeed, it was.

Let money talk for long enough on the real-estate market, and a suitable location will present itself.

In this case, the property in question was the Galesi Estate, a 42-room mansion in Greenwich, Connecticut, renting for either $2,000 or $2,500 a month, depending on whose memory you believe.

With heavy doors, massive fireplaces, a hidden passageway and a generally eerie aura, the estate was well-matched to its new tenants’ gothic tastes. They quickly took to it as a place to work, unwind, escape their ever-growing notoriety, and explore other dimensions (in the manner of the day).

And in late summer and early fall of 1972, the tenants began recording new songs in the reverberant ballroom of the estate … plotting out unlikely, over-the-top tales of nightmares, necrophilia and physical decay amidst the country-club swank of southwestern Connecticut.

(Greed was a running theme too, inspired by the tenants’ sudden wealth, and by their interactions with Greenwich teenagers who had their own luxury cars complete with drivers.)

You know the five young men from Phoenix under the name their lead singer took with him when he went solo: Alice Cooper.

And if you are of a particular age and mindset, you know the fruits of their Connecticut labor as Billion Dollar Babies — the only U.S. Number One album that Cooper (the band or the singer) has ever achieved.

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Exactly how much of Billion Dollar Babies was recorded in Greenwich is difficult to tell.

Musicians who try to record in unusual locations sometimes end up going back to the sound quality, and the more disciplined settings, of professional studios. It’s known that follow-up sessions for Billion Dollar Babies took place in studios in New York and London — where, among other things, Donovan’s larkish and completely unexpected appearance on the title track was recorded.

At least one of the album’s most popular songs is a full-on product of Fairfield County, according to drummer Neal Smith.

To capitalize on the 1972 presidential campaign, the single “Elected” was released in September of that year — five months before the full album, and before any of the sessions outside the mansion were held.

A roaring, vainglorious, twelve-cylinder mess, “Elected” was the perfect pop song for the race-to-the-bottom year of Arthur Bremer, Tom Eagleton, and campaign-authorized ratfucking (their term, not mine) … and America’s failure to send the song any higher than No. 26 only underlines how messed-up that season really was.

Great rock n’ roll, it seems, can be made anywhere, even in 42-room mansions in Greenwich, Connecticut.

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Alas, even at their moment of greatest triumph, success and indulgence were already starting to crack Alice Cooper apart.

The original group could muster only one more disappointing studio album (also recorded in part at the mansion) before splitting. In April 1974, a year to the month after Billion Dollar Babies hit U.S. Number One, the band was playing its final live shows together.

Like all good horror stories, reports of what happened to the Galesi Estate vary somewhat in the telling.

In the Cooper band’s absence, a fire caused by electrical wiring either destroyed or greatly damaged the mansion. Alice Cooper the singer was spending more and more time in Los Angeles by then, golfing with Bob Hope, drinking with John Lennon, and laying the groundwork for the scary-outside, cuddly-inside celebrity persona that has sustained him to this day.

None of the other band members struck it quite so rich after the ride was over, but one of them sank roots in Fairfield County and prospered. Drummer Smith went back to school and enjoyed a successful second career as a Realtor, selling high-end homes a few towns east of Greenwich.

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To bring this back to my grandpa (and you knew I would), I’d love to posit the notion that he walked past some of the Alice Cooper band members in the grocery store during their Exile on Easy Street.

But there seems to have been something of a wall between upmarket Greenwich and Stamford, even though the two communities border each other. My dad says:

Growing up, the luxury of Greenwich seemed a world away, and I doubt if I was in Greenwich more than a dozen times in my life, most of those for gigs or jam sessions.

(No jams at the Galesi Estate, of course.)

And my mom:

During our time Stamford was definitely blue collar. Changed RAPIDLY after we left. I also spent almost no time in Greenwich except for my violin lessons and my teacher lived almost on the Greenwich/Stamford border. Never went to downtown Greenwich or drove any of the roads. Upper class to say the least – hasn’t changed.

It seems unlikely, then, that anything would have drawn my grandpa in Coop’s direction, or vice versa.

Cooper the singer has said the band had tenuous relationships with its Connecticut neighbors anyway. One suspects they didn’t mix much with the locals — especially when they could spend free time in New York City instead.

And whatever impression of Alice Cooper that my grandpa had would have been negative. A snake-wielding long-haired young man in leather pants and black eye makeup, singing songs like “Hallowed Be My Name” and “I Love the Dead”? Not his bag.

(During the band’s time in Greenwich, my grandpa’s favorite newsweekly and former employer mentioned Cooper in its Oct. 30, 1972, issue, in an article called “Vaudeville Rock.” I can’t read the whole thing, so I don’t know whether it mentioned the group’s unusual choice of residence, or whether my grandpa ever knew that these repugnant, notorious freaks were his not-quite-neighbors one town over.)

In reality, the roughly nine-mile road distance between 1107 Hope Street and the road the Galesi Estate fronted on might as well have been 900 miles. And the Cooper band might just as well have been building a nuclear bomb there, for all it meant to my grandfather.

That doesn’t bother me, though. I still like to imagine my grandfather picking his tomatoes or hosing down his porch while, a scant few miles away, Neal Smith was laying down a thumping drum track or Alice Cooper was belting out a gravelly vocal that would play on radios around the world.

And who knows?

One of those Indian-summer nights on Hope Street, when my grandpa’s half-dozing ears noted the rumble of an unfamiliar, powerful engine above the usual traffic murmur, it might just have been a Yankee Doodle dandy in a gold Rolls-Royce.

You want sources? Here, and here, and here, and here, and here.

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My dad was a semi-pro musician during his high school and college years (and after), and this activity shows up regularly on the early years of my grandpa’s monthly calendars.

I’ve written before about my dad putting phantom “jobs” on the calendar as a way to claim the family’s only car on a weekend night.

Lest anyone think he was just a schemer, we’ll go in the other direction this week, and write about one long-ago late-summer Saturday when he worked his arse off.

(As much as playing music for money can be considered working, that is.)

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August 22, 1964. Yanks split a doubleheader; Mets lose.

Just to set the scene: At the time of this calendar entry, my dad is 21 and a few weeks away from heading off to his senior year of college at RPI.

He’s got his own car by this point — the infamous Shrimp Boat. And he needs it to fulfill this busy agenda:

-First comes an 11 a.m. wedding at North Stamford Congregational Church  (now North Stamford Community Church), where my dad was a substitute summer organist during the summers of 1962 through ’64. Three summers later, my parents would be married there.

-Next up is a wedding from 1-5 p.m. in Fairfield, about 18 miles up the coast from Stamford. While the first job of the day would have involved church organ, my dad is fairly sure he played tenor sax for this one. I’m guessing he was playing the reception, not the wedding itself.

(The timing between an 11 a.m. gig and a 1 p.m. gig seems awfully tight. My dad was apparently counting on the Shrimp Boat, and everybody else, not to break down on I-95.)

-Finally, my dad drove about 10 miles back down the coast for a 6-10 p.m. gig, again on tenor sax, at Chatham Oaks, a long-established banquet facility and catering hall in Norwalk. No doubt a beer or two kept the tunes flowing.

“Joe” on the calendar was local bandleader Joe Denicola; you’ve met him and his bandmates (including the immortal Shaves the Drummer) in this space before.

My dad was not in the habit of packing his days so tightly, and in fact was surprised when I told him about this calendar entry:

I thought I remembered the only triple-header I ever did, which was in 1962 and started at Springdale Methodist Church with their fair. But apparently I did it again in 1964.

This was pretty tightly scheduled; playing two 4-hour gigs plus a wedding service within 11 hours with maybe 25-30 miles between each gig is no mean feat!  And if it was really 8 hours on tenor sax, wow …  I can’t do 20 minutes now.  Ah, to be young!

As you can imagine, my dad was well-rewarded for his long day:

I think a safe number is between $75 and $100 total.  I remember a number of $25/gig.  Organ for wedding service might well have brought a little more.  But gas was 25 cents/gallon, cigarettes were 25 cents/pack, and a 6-pack of the Schaefer or Rheingold was around $1!  This was a good day’s work for a 21-year-old, make no mistake about it!  Minimum wage was around $1.25/hour.  I think I was making $1.40 – $1.50/hour at Parker Instruments that summer, so it’s a given that I brought home more that day than I had for the whole previous 40-hour work week.

Some of the other specific details of the gigs — like the exact event being celebrated from 6 to 10 — are lost to history.

Still, the calendar tells the story of a footloose young man with a song in his heart and a willingness to travel.

Or something like that.

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One year — 1961, to be specific — in the life of the Blumenau family of Stamford, Connecticut, as jointly interpreted by William H. Blumenau (calendar entries) and Charles A. Berry (text):

American history and practical math
You’re studying hard, hoping to pass

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January 23-24.

Cruising and playing the radio
With no particular place to go

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January 27.

She just don’t have the appetite
For gas somehow,
And Dad, I got four carburetors
Hooked up on it now.
I tried to hook another
To see if I’d do a little good,
But ain’t no place to put it
‘Less I perforate the hood

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February 2.

If she’s in the mood no need to break it
I got the chance and I oughta take it
If she can dance we can make it
C’mon, Queenie, let’s shake it

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February 11.

Well I looked at my watch, it was 10:05
Man, I didn’t know if I was dead or alive

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February 23.

Don’t care to hear ’em play the tango
I’m in no mood to dig a mambo

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February 25.

I go to court tomorrow morning
And I got the same judge I had before
Lord, I know he won’t have no mercy on me
‘Cause he told me not to come back no more

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April 7.

Sweet little sixteen
She’s just got to have
About half a million
Framed autographs
Her wallet filled with pictures
She gets ’em one by one

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April 9.

Nothin’ outrun my V-8 Ford

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May 1. (The new car in question really *was* a V-8 Ford, if memory serves.)

In the heat of the day down in Mobile, Alabama
Workin’ on the railroad with a steel-drivin’ hammer

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August 10.

Ring! ring! goes the bell

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September 6.

I must admit they had a rockin’ band
Man, they was blowin’ like a hurr-i-can

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September 21.

All day long you’ve been wantin’ to dance

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September 27.

Roll over, Beethoven
And tell Tchaikovsky the news

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October 2.

The engine with blood was sweaty and damp
And brilliantly lit with a brimstone lamp
And imps for fuel was shoveling bones
While the furnace rang with a thousand groans

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October 31.

I was campaign shoutin’ like a Southern diplomat
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November 7.

Gee but the teacher don’t know how mean she looks
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December 5.

It’s got a backbeat, you can’t lose it
Any old time you use it
It’s gotta be rock ‘n’ roll music
If you wanna dance with me
If you wanna dance with me.

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December 30.

Thanks for everything, Chuck.

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One of the most popular and enduring pop songs of the Seventies is now old enough to look in the mirror and sigh at its encroaching gray hairs.

This month marks 40 years since the Four Seasons — Sixties hitmakers in the midst of a surprising Seventies resurgence — released the single most people know by its subtitle: “December 1963 (Oh, What A Night).”

According to the song’s Wiki page, it was originally set in 1933 and was meant to recall the end of Prohibition.

But various parties involved with the song, including Frankie Valli, urged songwriters Bob Gaudio and Judy Parker to reconsider the lyric. And, instead of a meditation on the narrator’s first legal bender, the song turned into a warm recollection of a first romantic encounter.

(In 2015, the narrator is probably old enough to watch Viagra commercials more intently than he watches the football games that surround them.)

“December 1963” would hit Number One on the singles charts in the U.S., the U.K. and Canada early in 1976. And — buoyed by remixes, covers, party and wedding spins, and general nostalgia — it’s remained popular since.

I’m not the world’s biggest fan of the song, me. (No, this guy might hold that title.)

But, as a person who admires pop-music productions the way some people admire Renoirs, I have to concede that Frankie Valli and company built themselves quite a single.

This is also one of a group of pop hits (“Silly Love Songs” is another) that I can remember hearing on the radio in my parents’ big Plymouth Satellite during long holiday road trips to Stamford. So it has a pleasant childhood connection.

For Hope Street purposes, “December 1963” nicely spans the time period of my grandfather’s calendars: The ones still in storage start in January 1961 and end in December 1975, when the song came out.

I thought I’d look back at the calendar for December 1963 — or at least the portion of it I took pictures of — and see what the Blumenau family of Stamford, Connecticut, was up to during that fateful month.

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Of course there’s nothing intimate or personal on the calendar that month. Just the usual errands — plumber’s appointments, trips to the dentist, appointments to babysit, times to unload unwanted household trash.

(I’ve never heard “junkie” as slang for “junkman” before. But it’s consistent with other New England slang I learned during my years near Boston — “statie” for state cop, “packie” for package store, “Eastie” and “Southie” for East and South Boston respectively. Nowadays, I’d like to think someone would recycle that water tank, but who knows.)

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Of course there is a Christmas tree — an angular streamlined jobbie of the sort Charlie Brown might have seen on his famous errand two years later, yet not high-end enough to satisfy my aunt.

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And then there’s this potpourri of seasonal action. A son comes home from college and sees the dentist; a materfamilias goes to the doctor; the daughter of the family makes a few bucks overseeing someone else’s brats on a Saturday night; the sun goes down pisser early on the shortest day of the year; and the weather is by turns cold and winter-sloppy.

(I am reminded that I have written before about that Dec. 21, 1963, calendar entry. Three years later, the pain of that week’s news from the other end of Fairfield County is still fresh … and we, as a country, have not moved perceptibly forward. My grandfather would shake his head in frustration, and so do I.)

The rest of December 1963 I didn’t bother to take pictures of, which suggests there was nothing of interest on the calendar. Just everyday action even more mundane than that I captured.

Wiki’s page for December 1963 suggests the month was generally quiet in terms of news items, as well. A few births that became noteworthy later (Brad Pitt, Donna Tartt, Sergey Bubka, Lars Ulrich) and the first Beatles singles in the U.S., but nothing that would have really stirred people at the time — especially compared to the events of the prior month.

So, while the narrator of the Four Seasons’ single might have had a memorable month, December 1963 was not otherwise noteworthy for most actual non-fictional Americans.

The Sixties would go on to get a whole lot more eventful … but that’s another story.

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We return to my grandpa’s journal of job-related facts and random trivia for another nugget.

I always enjoy finding some topic or trivia fact of my grandfather’s that interests me too.

The factoid about stacked Life magazines from my last post wasn’t really one of those; I don’t have a personal relationship with Life magazine.

I do have a personal relationship with music. I play it sometimes. I listen to it a lot. I like learning about the technical details of making it, and about the lightning flashes of creativity that also make it happen.

My grandpa was in the same place. So I imagine the tidbit at the heart of this post grabbed his brain in much the same way it grabbed mine, and inspired some of the same thoughts and questions:

aabovemiddlec

Non-musical readers might wonder what the big deal is about the A note above middle C (as in, the middle of the piano keyboard). To them, it might seem like just one among the 88 notes on a standard piano.

That particular note has a special importance to musicians and those who build and tune instruments.

A at the frequency of 440 hertz has been endorsed (though not universally adopted — more on that later) as an international pitch standard for the tuning of instruments. It’s such a significant note, in fact, that it has its own Wikipedia entry.

Hundreds of years ago, there was no single tuning pitch, and the intonation of instruments could significantly vary even within the same city. The use of tuning forks did not help, as they were not all standardized at first.

There was also pressure over time to shift pitch upward. This favors stringed instruments (they sound “brighter” and more appealing at higher pitch) but challenges vocalists, who have to push to hit the notes.

Finally, movements arose in the 19th and 20th centuries to set a single consistent tuning pitch, known as “concert pitch.”

(The three preceding paragraphs are condensed from another Wiki entry on concert pitch, which fascinated me, and I think would have fascinated my grandfather if he’d had the chance to read it.)

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This all might seem arcane; and indeed, it is possible to enjoy music without thinking much about concert pitch.

Rock bands, especially those without keyboard players, have long been known to tune to non-standard pitches, principally for the comfort of their singers.

My dad, the saxophonist-slash-engineer, points out that variations in concert pitch are more serious business to people who play wind instruments. A clarinetist in an orchestra that changes from 440 Hz to 442 might have to have his or her instrument altered, and a larger change might require the purchase of a new clarinet.

My dad adds: “Somehow a “sharper” sound is preferred by some folks.  If you get used to a sharper tuning, old tunings (like the baroque tunings which I suspect almost anyone can detect as significantly “flatter”) sound somehow more lugubrious and ponderous.”

So variation in concert pitch might be most noticeable to classical musicians who need to adjust to differing standards … and to classical fans who buy two recordings of their favorite piece by different orchestras, play them back-to-back, and notice a curious difference in pace and intonation.

To some classical listeners, concert pitch is more than a trivial interest: It can be a yardstick of whether a reissued recording is faithful to the original performance.

Check out this Stereophile magazine review from earlier this year, in which the reviewer retracts his earlier endorsement of a Cleveland Orchestra recording because the reissue is mastered to 445 Hz instead of 440 — rendering the recording faster and sharper than the real-life performance.

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If you’re still reading, you’re probably wondering whether you can hear any difference in standard pitches. Let’s find out, shall we?

Here’s an A above middle C at 440 Hz …

… at 432 Hz …

… at 442 Hz …

… and at 415 Hz.

If you have trouble hearing the difference — or just want to have some fun — try running two of the pitches at the same time. You should hear audible “beats” between the two pitches.

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I’m not sure my grandpa knew the full, convoluted history of concert pitch.

If he had, he might not have been so struck by the Metropolitan Opera’s adoption of 442 Hz as a “new standard,” because he would have known that 440 Hz was by no means universal.

Although 440 Hz was endorsed as a U.S. standard in the late ’30s and an international standard in 1955, some major orchestras here and abroad continued to use concert pitches as high as 443 Hz — and still do.

Other sources argue for the use of 432 Hz, claiming it is more soothing and attuned to the spheres. (This post is long enough already so I’m not going any deeper into that, but you can Google it if you want.)

And those who play period instruments have adopted different concert pitches for different uses, which go as low as 415 Hz and as high as 470. (The low end of this range is the “baroque” tuning mentioned by my dad a couple hundred words ago.)

In August 1971, Time magazine — my grandpa’s former employer, and one of his favorite news sources — reported on the disagreement in an article titled “The Pitch Game.” I can’t read the whole thing without subscribing, but I’m sure it fascinated him, and I’m sure it reminded him of the nugget he’d written down in his notebook eight years earlier.

My dad suggests my grandpa took notice of the whole subject not because it affected his listening habits, but for other reasons:

I think he was generally interested in what he considered significant changes to standards in the world.  I think a pitch change might have been in the same ballpark as leaving the gold standard, replacing the voting machine, changing the size or makeup of a baseball, making a penny out of steel instead of copper (1943), these sorts of things.

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 I found this subject interesting as well, 980 words ago.

But now I feel like cleaning out my brain with a little 4′ 33″. That doesn’t require adherence to any particular concert pitch.

Wonder if my grandpa ever heard of John Cage?

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