Ultimate Star Wars

It’s hard to believe that this year marks the fortieth anniversary of the original Star Wars movie. I was only eight at the time, but still clearly remember the awe of watching it in the theater. I can’t possibly be this old!

Anyway, to mark the movie’s anniversary, the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra is putting on a special event: they are performing the movie’s musical score, while the movie itself plays on an enormous screen. There are two showings; one was last night, and the other is tonight at 8pm. While driving to Chicago last month, I happened to notice a billboard advertising it. Once I got home, I jumped on the internet to get more details — and then bought a pair of tickets for last night’s showing.

All I can say is: if you’re reading this and you’re anywhere near Kalamazoo, you should try to get tickets for tonight’s show. If that’s not an option, then I highly recommend you keep your eyes open for a similar performance in your own town. It was worth every penny of the price of admission (we got $50 tickets, which were neither the least nor the most expensive), and worth every minute of the two-and-a-half-hour round trip drive.

I took my 15 year old son, who is a big fan of the Star Wars franchise. Each year, we try to arrange at least one special outing for each of the kids to do alone with me; it might be a trip to Detroit for a Tigers game, a day trip to Chicago (easier when we were living in Illinois), a trip to the zoo, or so on. He agreed that this would be an excellent choice for this year’s “thing.”

We arrived quite early, which gave us time to explore Western Michigan University; the performance was being held at Miller Concert Hall, on campus. We walked all over, and got something to eat before the show. We took our seats shortly after the doors opened at 7:30, so we were able to watch and listen as the orchestra warmed up.

Our seats were in the third row, toward the left. This put us a bit closer to the screen than I would’ve liked, but on the plus side we were very close to the orchestra. From the opening notes, I knew that having to crane my neck a little was going to be but a minor inconvenience; the music was so fantastic, it blew me away.

I don’t know any other way to describe it. If you’re like me, you’ve probably lost count of the number of times you’ve seen this movie. You can probably say half or more of the dialogue along with the actors. (I had a friend who could even do all of the “radio chatter” for the final assault on the Death Star.) You know every twist of the plot. But having a live symphony orchestra perform the Oscar-winning score? That made it almost a new movie. It certainly made for an unforgettable experience.

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One thing in particular that I’ll never forget: this is the first movie I’ve ever attended in which not a single person left once the credits began rolling. At first, probably out of habit, a couple of people started to stand up. But nobody walked out. Everyone remained riveted on the orchestra, until the very last note. And then every person jumped to his or her feet, giving a thunderous ovation. My son and I looked at each other, and I mouthed a “Wow!” He commented, “That was so good!”

At last night’s show, the symphony director announced that they are planning to put on similar live shows for the other two films in the original Star Wars trilogy. I’m not exactly sure about the timing; they might be planning to do one per year. I just hope they’re not going to wait for the 40th anniversary of each film before putting on those performances. But either way, I plan to be among the first to buy tickets.

And I bet every other person who was there last night plans to do the same.

Flying

Early on a spectacularly sunny Friday morning in July of 1991, I steered onto eastbound I-90 and officially put Seattle in my rear view mirror. My heart raced, and I think I let out a little whoop.

The whole thing still seemed unreal. My first real car, the trunk jammed to the gills with all my worldly possessions (including my just-minted college diploma), a couple of pillows on the back seat (so I could just pull over and sleep at rest stops), a Rand McNally atlas spread out on the seat next to me, and 2,300 miles of open roadway ahead to my first real job, in suburban Detroit.

And all across the country, as radio stations faded to static and I rolled the dial to find new ones, one song played more than any other: Tom Petty’s Learning to Fly, one of the biggest hits of the summer. I loved the tune, and every one of the lyrics seemed to resonate with the enormous leap I was taking into adult life.

To this day, Learning to Fly is one of the few songs that always makes me stop scanning on the car stereo. From the opening chords, it never fails to take me back to that sunny July weekend when I watched the whole country roll by. As the music swells, my mind fills with the breathtaking view cresting Lookout Pass into Montana (the moment I finally understood why they call it “Big Sky Country”). With the lyrics and chord progressions, all my hopes and dreams return in a flood, blurring into the memories of Wyoming and South Dakota landscapes. I’m back in that magical weekend, when all of life was still open ahead of me. That magical weekend, when no dream seemed impossible.

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So, as I raise a glass and mourn the passing of the great Tom Petty, you know which song will be looped on my Spotify account tonight.

September Soundtrack

September is one of my favorite months. The really hot temperatures have largely subsided, but the weather is still very nice. The first leaves on the trees are beginning to turn and tumble to the ground. Harvest is rolling in, and we’re feasting on fresh vegetables every night. Freshly-butchered chicken is on the grill any time we want it. The lambs are growing up, reaching their potential. Fleeces are filling out. Football is back. The baseball season – and playoff hunt – is going down to the wire.

September is also a time of melancholy and of introspection. Summer seems to have vanished in a flash. Much of the year is gone, but much remains to be done. And September is often a month of transitions and new beginnings, especially with school starting. Feeling the cool morning air, I’m often taken back to the beginnings of new school years in my youth. Just yesterday, when my daughter and I were out on our bikes and got passed by a large tractor, the smell of unfiltered diesel exhaust connected straight back to what I remembered from 1970s school buses. It was like no time at all had passed, as I was immersed in a familiar — and reassuring —childhood aroma. The bus is here. It’s going to take me home.

So, I don’t find it surprising that there seems to be more popular songs about September than about any other month. Yes, there are lots of songs about holidays or seasons that happen to take place during other months. But tell me … right off the top of your head, how many songs are there about December as a month? (Songs about Christmas and Winter Wonderland don’t count.) I really like GNR’s “November Rain,” but how many other popular songs even mention that month by name? Even the hit songs about summer don’t usually mention any particular month.

There’s something about September that has inspired quite a lot of emotional expression in music.Let’s count down the list of my own personal favorites:

#7 September (Earth, Wind and Fire). Attend any major league baseball game at this time of year, and I bet you’ll hear this one blasting over the stadium sound system at least once between innings. There’s nothing quite like it to get you on your feet, clapping your hands, and hoping your team can still win enough games to snag a playoff slot. And even if you’re not at a MLB game … who can resist the song’s terrific, psychedelic seventies music video? There’ll never be a cloudy day as you rock out to this one.

#6 See You in September (The Happenings). This one has been recorded several times, by different artists, but this version from 1966 is my favorite. Living in the days of instantaneous (and constant) communication, it’s easy to forget that it wasn’t always that way. I still remember saying goodbye to friends for the summer, and knowing you weren’t going to see them again for months. No Facebook updates. No emails. No tweets. Getting a letter or two in the mail was a really big deal. This song captures, really nicely, the angst of being separated for a few months (even the glorious months of summer) from a young romantic love or crush, and wondering what the person will be like when the new school year finally starts. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I certainly had my own experiences with this 25-30 years ago … and song brings back a lot of memories of those earlier days.


#5 Come Monday (Jimmy Buffett). Admittedly, it does not mention “September” by name, but it’s the only song I know of that specifically mentions Labor Day. I always have it my head all weekend at this time of year. This is by far my favorite Jimmy Buffett tune, as I think it so nicely captures the feelings of sadness as summer comes to a close. I set it to loop over and over again yesterday as I cleaned my office and prepared to make a fresh start after the holiday weekend.

#4 September Morn (Neil Diamond). Now we’re getting even more emotional and introspective. But what I like most about this song is how — like the smell of diesel exhaust — it always takes me straight back to the crisp mornings of fifth grade, watching from the window of a big yellow school bus as the semi-rural scenery rolls past. The song came out in 1979, and the station my bus driver listened to played Neil Diamond all the time. When I hear those mournful strings, I can practically smell the black vinyl of the bus seats, and feel the coolness of the window against my nose, as I wonder what the new school year will bring.

#3 Wake Me Up When September Ends (Green Day). Billie Joe Armstrong wrote the song about his father, who died of cancer in September of 1982, when Billie was ten. The sense of loss permeates it; anyone who’s suffered a significant loss will find this song resonates deeply. The artistry with which he connects the loss of his father with the general sense of loss many of us feel in September is simply masterful.

#2 September (Daughtry).  This is almost my favorite song on the list. It’s by far my favorite official music video of any song on this list (and one of my favorite music videos, period). The introspective lyrics, about time going by but memories still remaining, mixed with images from old home movies (clearly shot around the time of my own childhood) always give me chills. What I personally find most powerful comes late in the song, when he says “you know we had to leave this town.” For those of us who grew up with the sense that we had to leave our hometown to find all that life had in store for us, and don’t really have regrets, but do sometimes reflect on what could have been had we chosen differently … this really captures the emotions all tied up in the experience.

What I find especially moving is the visual he chooses for this section: speeding through a tunnel. Every time I watch it, and hear “you know we had to leave this town,” I go straight back to the Interstate 90 tunnel running east out of Seattle. Early on a summer morning in 1991, that was me — starting a cross-country trek in my burgundy-colored 1983 Volvo coupe, college diploma and all other worldly possessions jammed in the trunk, getting ready to launch my career in political polling.

#1 The September of My Years (Frank Sinatra).  Sinatra has long been one of my favorite performers, and no one has a voice quite like his. I became a fan of his at the age of eleven (long story), and I’m still a fan today. All I’m going to say is: the older I get, the more I appreciate and truly love this song. I can’t think of any other commentary to make. Just close your eyes and listen, and you’ll know why it’s my favorite song about my favorite month:

Hope you all have a terrific September!