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Heart Unending

Death is not convenient.  There are always so many “I should’ves” and “Why didn’ts.”  My aunt, who had been vigilant and by my grandmother’s side at all times during her final couple days, hadn’t been gone ten minutes on a quick trip to the store when it happened.  And it seems that nobody answers their phones when it matters most.

Death is not romantic.  There was no point during my grandma’s final moments at which she gazed at me or my mother.  No point at which she offered wise, comforting parting words.  There were no meaningful words for me to utter, either.  There was no fade-to-black, no curtain call, no thunderous applause.  Only tears from my mother – and speechlessness from me, her son, a man of twenty-three years who had never witnessed death and lacked the savvy to cope with it as it occurred before his very eyes.  Effectively a child, I struggled with processing this event, all the while not knowing how to console my weeping mother and trying to pacify my sister’s whimpering and trembling small dog, whom I was holding.

Several hours later, I watched as two strangers from the funeral home hauled the corpse that once housed my grandmother onto a wheeled contraption and strapped it down.  They pushed it outside and loaded the cold, lifeless body into their van as everyday luggage.

Death is awkward.  Death is matter-of-fact.  It cares not where you happen to be or what you happen to be doing at the time.  And it does not wait till you’re good and ready to face it.


My grandmother was born Elena Ceci (pronounced “CHEH-chee” or “CHAY-chee”) the tenth of August, 1933 in Rome, NY to first-generation Italian-Americans.  Like her siblings, her name was Anglicised, hence “Helen.”  (My Uncle Alex was born “Alessandro,” my Uncle Vinny “Vincenzo,” Louis “Luigi” and Angelo – well, “Angelo.”)  She and her brothers represent the last generation on my mother’s side whose first language was not English.

Through my many conversations with her, I can say with great confidence that there is at least partial truth to the popular Central New York axiom that, in those days, all the Italian-American families in the area knew each other and were likely at least distantly related to each other.

Helen did nothing to subvert the stereotypical notion of an Italian-American grandmother, with her unrelenting enquiries about our states of hunger as well as her unbeatable family recipes, which included meatballs and a seemingly infinite repertoire of baked treats, but also her warm heart that never stopped caring about the welfare of those around her.

She always seemed to put others before herself.

I remember numerous sick days off school passed at her former residence on Bedford Street.  My stepfather would drop me off there on his way to Rome Free Academy because both he and my mother were working full-time, and I couldn’t be left home alone.  On such days, I would either watch cartoons or play a dice game with my grandma – a game our family calls simply “Dice.”  But never Monopoly.

Fast forward to May 2014.  My mother, my brother and I were living together in a section of a Utica house, but we were splitting up.  My mom had decided to move in with her then-boyfriend in Oswego, and my brother was moving in with his father.  I still had an Associate’s degree to finish at Mohawk Valley Community College, so my only real option was to move in with my grandmother in my birthplace, Rome.  And she welcomed me with open arms.

This was when I feel I really started to connect with my grandmother.  By then, I had reached my early twenties.  I had matured a bit.  I was no longer encumbered with the brattishness of childhood and was past the hormonal deluge of adolescence.  In essence, I was finally able to sit and converse with her.  Instead of itching to return to my video games and get to the next level or worrying about impressing women wherever I go, I learnt to enjoy her company and become her friend.

It was not uncommon, especially in my first year of living with her, for me to join my grandma in the living room for dinner in front of the TV.  Whenever I was around in the evening, I made sure to warm up a couple chicken patties and pour a glass of milk or juice in time for Wheel of Fortune at 7:00, followed immediately by Jeopardy!  It was a pretty nice routine.  And emptying the dishwasher, taking out the trash, grabbing things just out of her reach, occasionally helping her prepare food and running errands for her was a measly price to pay for living so comfortably.

I count myself fortunate and honoured to have lived with her these past two and a half years, being her helper and friend.  I loved hearing her stories of how suave and funny and diligent my grandfather was – or of their travels to Spain and how they used Italian to converse with the locals through limited mutual intelligibility – or how she was ridiculed in school for not being able to remember the word doorknob and having to substitute the Italian word for it.

In the summer of 2015, during my first season with the Sterling Renaissance Festival, my mother and I received terrible news that my grandmother had been diagnosed with cancer in the mouth.  She had survived breast cancer roughly fifteen years prior, but doctors weren’t so optimistic this time.  It had spread so much that a goodly portion of her tongue would need to be removed and surgically replaced – and her first medical consultant told her that she could not survive such an operation.  She ended up going through with it, but at the cost of her speech and feeding faculties.  Her new, makeshift tongue lacked muscles, making swallowing and the formation of certain consonants nigh impossible for her.  My mother would return from Oswego to live with us in Rome and tirelessly play nurse for Grandma over the next year.

Alas, as we all know, cancer is never fully eradicated from the body.  Just a couple days shy of Halloween 2016, she needed to be rushed to the hospital.  The cancer re-emerged and had made it to her lungs.  She was discharged after a week, but this time with an expiration date.  She received hospice care throughout November and into her final days before checking out at 11:13 yesterday morning, the sixth of December.

If nothing else, my grandmother was astonishingly physically resilient.  That’s for sure.  And I might add that, had she given up on life a year ago (a fair choice that was absolutely on the table), she would have missed all my accomplishments.  In buying one more year of life, she saw me graduate from community college, she saw me depart for the summer to live my acting dream at Sterling and she saw me land a steady, gratifying job this fall.  I’m glad she was able to live long enough to see some closure to my efforts these past few years.  She passed with the knowledge that I found some success in my life.  For her, joy came from perceiving others as happy, so I know that she was content when her time came.

Helen was a devout Catholic.  I may not be a Christian myself, but I need to respect her resolve.  Even past the age of eighty, she was making efforts to attend mass at St. John’s and frequently made donations to the church.  I do not know what happens after death – or whether the “soul” lives on – but I do know that she drew her last breath with the sincere belief that she would be reunited with her husband – my grandfather – who died nearly twenty-five years ago.  And that is an oddly comforting thought.

In my life, I have been fairly shielded from the deaths of loved ones.  My aforementioned grandfather (and namesake) passed mere months before my conception.  I’m not acquainted with my father’s side of the family, so any deaths thereof are meaningless to me as well.  None of my friends from school and elsewhere has died.  The worst I ever experienced were the losses of pets and distant relatives.  But this one, the death of my grandmother – it hits, and it hits hard.  I have, through the years, observed helplessly as so many of my friends suffered terrible losses and commenced periods of mourning and grief.  All those things had always been foreign concepts to me.  But I no longer need to imagine what they’re like.

I’m not asking for your sympathies or your condolences.  I’m simply honouring my grandmother’s memory.  There aren’t many things I believe in, but I do believe in respecting the dead and their wishes.  The departed have no voice, but we can ensure that they’re not condemned to oblivion by reminding others of their existence – by talking about them and sharing stories about them.  The ancient Egyptians had the notion of a “second death” – approximately seventy years after your corporeal death – when the world forgets you ever were.  This blog post is but one small effort of mine toward this end of allowing my grandmother to live on.

Normally, I wouldn’t share a loss like this on Facebook.  Like, ever.  I know all too well what happens.  I’ve seen it too many times to count.  Somebody makes a heartfelt post about how “the world has lost a beautiful person” and that the person “had such a positive effect on me,” blah, blah, blah.  Invariably, the post receives a slew of likes (or other reactions).  Most people will see the post pop up in their news feeds, think, “Oh, that’s so sad,” and resume scrolling and view some funny videos and memes that their other friends shared that day.  Maybe they’ll leave a comment with their regards.  But most of them are the brief, shallow, unoriginal cookie-cutter reliables like, “I’m sorry for your loss,” or, “My prayers are with you and your family.”  As if they are trying to express concern in the most efficient manner possible so that they can escape the guilt of not having said anything and still quickly get on with their own lives.  I don’t mean to sound cold, but don’t waste your time or mine with them.  Such condolences are about as mindless as the knee-jerk reaction of telling an armed forces veteran, “Thank you for your service,” and chances are that I will respond to your comment with as much sincerity and enthusiasm as you took to type it.

Yes, I am sad this week.  But hark!  I, Joseph Scott, the bereaved, hereby absolve you of any imagined obligation you may have to wish me your sympathies and/or condolences.

If I truly were looking for attention, you’d know.  Trust me.  After spending an entire summer pretending to be an impoverished, hungry beggar, I think I know a little about the art of making people feel sorry for me.

But I’m not.  Because I’m not doing this for me.  I’m doing this for my grandmother.

Huh.  I recall a conversation I had with her some time ago regarding old age.  I brought up that many older folks are just young people wondering what the hell happened.  They’re trapped inside bodies that weaken every day, and they wish they could reclaim the physical capabilities and attractiveness of their youth.  I asked for her opinion on the matter.

Her response?

She proclaimed, in the proudest, most indignant and resolute tone of voice, “I earned these wrinkles.”

What a champ.

Freddie Mercury…25 Years Later

Today, the 24th of November, 2016, marks the twenty-fifth freddie-diamondsanniversary of the passing of the legendary Freddie Mercury.  Yep – that’s a full quarter century without Freddie.

Best known as the flamboyant frontman of the rock band, Queen, Mercury boasted an impressive vocal range and power, which, coupled with his godlike stage presence, ensnared audiences.  He was the face of a musical juggernaut that, if not dominated, undoubtedly helped shape the progressive rock, glam rock and arena rock scenes throughout the ’70s and well into the ’80s.

Freddie was an accomplished songwriter, having penned and composed many of Queen’s greatest hits, including We Are the ChampionsKiller QueenSomebody to Love and, of course, the one song that every casual listener mentions when he claims to be a Queen fan, Bohemian Rhapsody.

fullsizerenderHe was also a capable instrumentalist (even if Freddie himself believed otherwise), as proven in his deft piano-playing heard on numerous Queen tracks.  He even knew his way around a guitar as well and would join his bandmates on rhythm guitar whenever his rockabilly number Crazy Little Thing Called Love was performed live.

Mercury was a stubborn perfectionist who settled for nothing short of immaculate in the studio, and he also made it clear to fans that he wasn’t afraid of trying new things, as one can tell by the distinct change in Queen’s sound in the ’80s (for better or for worse).  He was an artist who took risks and stuck to his guns.  And, while he appreciated the support for his earlier work and achievements, he was never overly-reverent to his past and understood the hazards of complacency as well as the importance of continuing to grow.

I discovered several years ago the dangers of blindly idolising people fullsizerender-1when I learnt some harsh truths about John Lennon and the way he lived his life.  This is why I take care in the manner in which I speak of Freddie Mercury.  It may sound almost hypocritical of me to say he is not to be worshipped, but merely honoured and respected – given how much I listen to Queen music and the fact that I dressed as Freddie for Halloween this year.  That being said, however, I can see how one might be tempted to glorify his being; he was, after all, truly awesome.  And it sucks that the word awesome has been severely weakened through overuse – but I invoke its strong, intended meaning; Freddie Mercury filled his audiences with tremendous awe.

Above all else, Freddie Mercury was a man.  A mortal man, subject to the same flaws that you and I possess.  Perhaps this fact makes him all the more admirable.  Unfortunately, as a human, he was also susceptible to the same diseases that plague people.

What’s remarkable is that, despite living within an increasingly frail body after being diagnosed with HIV in 1987, Freddie would continue to record music for four more years, providing material for Queen’s final three studio albums: The Miracle (1989), Innuendo (1991) and Made in Heaven, released posthumously in 1995.  In fact, he was still soldiering on mere months before he retired to his deathbed.  Queen’s lead guitarist, Brian May, said the following of his dying friend’s attitude during his final days of recording:

“He just kept saying, ‘Write me more.  Write me stuff.  I want to just sing this and do it and when I am gone you can finish it off.’  He had no fear, really.”

May also said the following of Freddie’s last vocal performance on the track Mother Love in the spring of 1991:

“He still had astonishing power in his lungs at that point.  I really don’t know where it came from.”

Freddie’s sheer willpower to press on and continue doing what he lived to do – and to do it well – in the face of his mortality is the ultimate “fuck you” to Death – and is that which earns him my respect.

It may or may not be common knowledge that the offstage Freddie Mercury was a stark contrast to his crafted stage persona, but I feel that it’s important to mention either way.  Freddie was quiet and shy when not performing – especially around people he didn’t know well (he rarely consented to interviews).  Throughout his life, he counted extremely few as “friends” and found it difficult to be close with others.  And details of his personal life are scarce because he was always tight-lipped about it.  These are all traits to which I effortlessly relate.  When I think of the great frontmen of rock history like Robert Plant and Roger Daltrey and Mick Jagger, I don’t feel with them the human connection I feel with Freddie Mercury.

Freddie Mercury would have been seventy years old this past September.  His ashes currently reside within the earth in a location known only to his sole lifelong friend, Mary Austin, who stole away from prying eyes two years after his cremation to ensure that his final resting place and remains would never be found and defiled by obsessive fans, per Freddie’s request.  Austin continues to honour this final wish and plans to take the secret of his whereabouts to her grave.

Now, I’m not big on supporting instituted holidays, but I’ll indulge the expectations of American society this Thanksgiving day to express my gratitude for the existence of this man, Freddie Mercury, and the exquisite music he created.  He’s helped me through a few bad days.

Thanks, Freddie.  Rest easy.


It wouldn’t be a Joseph Scott blog post if there weren’t some sort of list, am I right?  Sit tight, for I am about to educate you on good Queen music.  (Or leave – that’s fine, too.)  Welcome to Queen 101.

The following list includes some of the finest and most well-crafted – and least known to casual listeners – songs in the band’s catalogue.  Really, I could have simply included their first five albums, and that would have sufficed, but, in an effort to streamline this section, I’ve elected to pick out a mere ten roses within a garden of lilies.  I think you’ll find that these beauties aptly demonstrate the diversity and innovation in Queen’s music – and why it is foolish to attempt to categorise the band within a certain genre.

*For the best music quality, I recommend wearing headphones/earbuds.  That way every part is balanced the way it was intended in the studio.

Doing All Right – Queen (1973)

From their eponymous debut album, Doing All Right was written by Brian May and Tim Staffell while they were members of Smile, the band that would become Queen.  It features a gentle, floaty, piano-led first couple of verses before picking up the tempo at 1:50.  You can hear Freddie seem to channel Robert Plant as he sings, “Should be waiting for the sun/And anyway, I’ve got to hide away.”  Then, at 2:05, the reins are loosened, and the rest of the band commences the loud, guitar-driven hard rock section.  This song is a good example of Queen’s early Led Zeppelin-inspired sound.


Ogre Battle
– Queen II (1974)

A live favourite for several years, Ogre Battle was already well-established in the Queen repertoire by the time the band recorded its first album, but they decided to wait till their cleverly titled Queen II to record it, once they had more studio freedom.  This song opens with a gong hit played in reverse to give the rising sound effect before leading into a thrash metal guitar riff written by Freddie.  This song is literally about a fight between two ogres – songwriting doesn’t get much cooler than that.  May’s guitar work here is superb and complements the fantastical lyrics quite nicely.  Freddie’s ogre screams are also a lovely touch.


The March of the Black Queen
– Queen II (1974)

Queen II was all about trying new things.  You like Bohemian Rhapsody?  Think it was an important milestone in popular music, with its distinctive multi-part structure?  I’d like for you to meet BoRhap’s older brother, March of the Black Queen.  He’s darker.  Grittier.  Seen some shit.  Heavy, gloomy descending riffs from guitar drag you down to the hellish atmosphere of the chorus as you’re charmed by impish, shrieking vocal harmonies.  You’re given some time to breathe at three minutes in as Freddie delights you with a gorgeous piano ballad section, but at 4:20 the March resumes.  A smooth guitar outro seems to wind the song down to a peaceful conclusion at 6:06…Just kidding!  Jolting piano chords wake you as the song picks back up, only to be cut off after about twenty-five seconds; it segues into the next track on the album, Funny How Love Is.


Stone Cold Crazy
 
– Sheer Heart Attack (1974)

Whenever people tell me that Queen isn’t metal enough for them, I show them this song.  This is basically speed metal before it was cool.  It’s no surprise that Metallica covered this one.  Just listen for yourself.  Queen really could do it all.

39′ – A Night At the Opera (1975)

This science-fiction folk tune is one of my absolute favourites of any Queen song from any album.  Brian May – who has a PhD in astrophysics, mind you – sings of a group of twenty astronauts who embark on a space mission to search for a replacement planet for a dying Earth.  Their mission, while successful, is met with a melancholy revelation upon the explorers’ return.  Because of time dilation, their one-year voyage was an entire lifetime for those on Earth – and all their loved ones are either substantially aged or deceased.  The fact that Dr. May was able to convey all this in two brief verses is a testament to his songwriting capability, which I daresay is equal to, if not superior to Freddie’s.  I know – blasphemy.


The Prophet’s Song
– A Night At the Opera (1975)

While Night At the Opera is best-known for Freddie’s Bohemian Rhapsody and bassist John Deacon’s You’re My Best Friend, the unsung genius of this album was Brian May.  If Queen II was a college science experiment, then Opera was a peer-reviewed lab study.  By 1975, May was tinkering with studio effects to achieve new and unique sounds with his guitar and to alter vocals.  His composition, The Prophet’s Song, is a case in point and is a heavier number about a wise seer’s vision of a great flood that will wipe out civilisation.  Freddie’s singing of May’s haunting, apocalyptic lyrics is powerful and chilling, and the overlapping technique in the vocal section from 3:23 to 5:51 is pure ear candy.  Clocking in at nearly eight and a half minutes, it is the longest song in the Queen catalogue.  This fact, combined with a complex arrangement and excellent production values, makes it easy to see why kids love the taste of Cinnamon Toast Crunch fans often call Prophet’s Song Brian May’s Bohemian Rhapsody.


The Millionaire Waltz
– A Day At the Races (1976)

Criminally unknown masterpiece.  Freddie’s piano work and vocals, John Deacon’s bass lead, May’s guitar – everything is spot-on here.  It’s crisp and tidy.  The hard rock middle section from 2:21 to 2:47 never fails to give me chills.  I can’t think of a more enjoyable piece of popular music to which to waltz.


Sheer Heart Attack
– News of the World (1977)

You’d think that this track would be from the album of the same name from 1974.  Pfft.  Too mainstream.  Queen will put their music where they damn well please.  Stick it to the man, man.  Rebel against authority!

Drummer Roger Taylor hadn’t quite finished Sheer Heart Attack for the 1974 album, and it underwent significant musical changes in the next three years – namely the adoption of a punk sound, which had overtaken England by the late ’70s.  The funny part is that Taylor felt that many British punk bands lacked talent – and then proved that Queen can do it better.

Also, the squealing you hear around two and a half minutes in is simply guitar with an effect to make it high-pitched.  Your sound isn’t messed up.


Dreamer’s Ball 
– Jazz (1978)

I love the juxtaposition of the electric and acoustic guitars in this one.  Freddie’s singing is as charming as ever, complete with those sweet trademark Queen harmonies.


Innuendo
– Innuendo (1991)

Queen’s final masterpiece.  Inspired by Zeppelin’s Kashmir, this song employs a steady drum beat under a turbulent, rising wall of sound in its verses as an ailing Freddie Mercury provides a cynical social commentary with such phrases as, “While we live according to race, colour or creed…” and, “Our lives dictated by tradition, superstition, false religion…” only to be answered in a positive, anthemic chorus of Freddie wailing, “Oh, yes, we’ll keep on tryin’!” over May’s driving guitar melody.

After the second chorus, the song transitions to a softer sound for a spell before Yes guitarist Steve Howe comes in with a flamenco guitar chord progression.  Then, just shy of the four-minute mark, Freddie takes a page out of his old playbook and leads a brief operatic section, culminating in a fast, but meaty dual-guitar solo before returning to the theme for one more verse and chorus.  Eat your heart out, Bohemian Rhapsody.


Thus concludes today’s session of Queen 101.  See you next week.


Before I wrap this up, you might have noticed that, of all the songs I included, not one of them is from an ’80s Queen album.  Most are from the ’70s, with the last one being from the early ’90s.  There’s a good reason for that.  Let’s just say that Queen hit a rough patch from about 1980 to 1989.  They got it together by the end, though.

“But, Joseph, I thought you said that it’s good for artists to try new–”

THEY HIT A ROUGH PATCH, ALL RIGHT?