Me and this old guitar

Herbie was stolen in Michigan City, Indiana, somewhere around 1978. (I don’t remember why I named my first guitar Herbie.) I left him in the Firebird, along with my leather coat and some other items, when we stopped at a motel overnight, and in the morning Herbie and the coat and I-don’t-remember-what-else were gone. I think of Herbie from time to time, and I have four or five cassettes full of songs I composed and multi-tracked with that nylon string guitar, as well as three or four others where he shared duties with the 12-string I bought in the summer of 1975.

One of my sweetest memories is not long after the theft, when I was visiting my best old New Jersey friend and sharing his nylon-string guitar. He finished playing, looked at the guitar and then at me, and held it out to me and said, “This is yours.” Or maybe he didn’t say a word and the look and the gesture told me he was giving it to me. Come to think of it, I remember it the second way. It’s one of the best gifts I ever received and one I still use to this day.

Friday morning I did something I have not done in literally 13 years: I hooked up a microphone, picked up this guitar, and recorded songs. I marked the files “demo” so I wouldn’t be tempted to share them in this form and to remind myself that I want to create more polished recordings of the songs. I have only recently started playing the guitar again — I have not even raised callouses on my fingertips yet — so these recordings feature only the most rudimentary strumming and thus do not represent the best possible versions of the songs. The main purpose, other than to recapture the fun of recording music, was to preserve the songs and a snapshot of the morning of Nov. 17, 2023.

In case this session someday becomes legendary (my goodness, I have an overblown vision of myself), let the record show that the songs were “Song for My Daughter” and “Tomorrow and Tomorrow,” the first two songs I’ve written in a decade; “Alcohol Alcohol” and “Cozi Won Chu,” two songs I wrote in 1985 during an especially fertile and feral time; and a cover of “Sweet Cherry Wine,” which I consider one of Tommy James’ most underappreciated compositions.

These five are the first nominees for a new album I’m beginning, working title “Songs for My Daughter.” Songwriting has always been a hobby of mine, and I always enjoyed piecing albums together with multi-tracking — 20 distinct albums between 1973 and 2010, which I inflicted on family and friends who patted me on the shoulder and said, gently, “That’s nice.” But I had fun, so I kept on doing it until one day I realized I would never be a star singer-songwriter, which is the silliest reason to stop having fun.

I imagine myself throwing a few dozen new recordings against the wall to find 10 to 14 that stick, which will form my 21st album — w.p. bluhm’s “Hackney Diamonds,” don’t you see. For today, I enjoyed my make-believe recording session, I was pleased that my singing voice still can occasionally hit the right note, and I made a recording of my new songs for posterity in case of the unexpected — I am still arrogant enough to believe posterity would care, believe it or not.

Listening: Now and Then

“The last Beatles song” was anything but. It was the surviving bandmates getting together to finish a song that John Lennon started in the 1970s, and it was a lovely gesture, and the song is nice, but really?

I prefer to think of the last Beatles song as the finale of the last album they recorded in their prime: It was a triumphant and fitting song called, appropriately enough, “The End,” with the cheeky little fragment “Her Majesty” tossed in just to show that they were still the Beatles, because they couldn’t do something that grandiose without a sly wink and a nod.

If you’re going to come as close as you can to a reunion, though, the work they did on “Now and Then” — as well as “Free As A Bird” and “Real Love” in 1995 — is pretty cool, and the results do not embarrass the memory of that legendary band. If it were up to me, to tell the truth, I would go back and remix the 1995 songs, armed with the new technology that allowed John Lennon’s voice to ring out clearly from the acoustical depths of a 1970s-era cassette.

When “Free As A Bird” was released at the same time as The Beatles Anthology, a friend remarked how great it was to hear new Beatles music again. During the mid to late 1960s, the release of a new Beatles song was a cultural event surpassed only by the release of a new Beatles album,  and they almost always surprised and delighted.

An echo of that excitement led me to tarry on my way into the day job Thursday, when the radio announcer announced he was going to play the new Beatles song just before the top of the hour. I had been on a trajectory to get to work five minutes earlier, so I took a couple of extra turns. I did enjoy the “new” song, although not as much as the 1995 releases, but the technology that drew out Lennon’s voice is really amazing.

I love anything that reminds us of how great the Beatles were. It’s timeless stuff that holds up well, 60 years later, against any of the recordings that came before or since. 

I do want to point out one little thing, though. Coincidentally, probably the second-biggest rock band of the 1960s put out some new music a couple of weeks ago. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to suggest that Hackney Diamonds compares to the best of The Rolling Stones a lot better — a LOT better — than “Now and Then” compares to the best of the Beatles.

The venerable LP just keeps on playing

I posted this photo on Facebook showing my copy of the new Rolling Stones album, Hackney Diamonds, and with the caption, “Oh yes, music reproduced the way it is supposed to be.”

A friend challenged that statement, saying she’s never been able tell any difference in audio quality between vinyl long-playing records and CDs, for example. That made me realize that my love for the LP is not necessarily just its ability to preserve good music, at which it of course excels.

I began my response, “I hear you, but somehow the vinyl album I bought in 1968 has survived and plays just fine 55 years later.” 

The music industry has tried to replace the LP with cassette tapes, which can be accidentally erased or get tangled or just wear out, and more quickly than LPs, especially if you take good care of them. Then came CDs, which can malfunction out of the blue, and iPods, which aren’t supported anymore, and now streaming services — but we’ve seen that a streaming service can decide not to carry what we want anymore.

I thought about one of my favorite rock and roll songs, “Devil With a Blue Dress/Good Golly Miss Molly” by Mitch Ryder, which has an awkward edit toward the end of its stereo version that eliminates the first half of the last verse. I hate it! The only way I can listen to the original song as I heard it on the radio is to put the old 45 rpm disc on my turntable.

One of the albums that frequently occupies that turntable is Portfolio of Ahmad Jamal, a 1959 two-record set featuring the jazz pianist’s trio in performance. I have played the album so many times that the gatefold cover recently disintegrated, but treated properly, the records reproduce those performances almost flawlessly after 64 years.

In recent days I’ve been playing new records by the Stones, Daisy Jones and the Six, Merry Clayton, and a very talented pair of sisters from Sweden who record as First Aid Kit. I’ve also listened to the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band that I got for Christmas in 1967 and the three-record set Will the Circle Be Unbroken that I bought in 1972. Except for the occasional, barely discernible ticks accumulated over a half-century of wear, you can’t really tell which recordings are brand new and which are decades old.

That’s why I concluded my defense of vinyl, “The quality of the audio is only part of it — as a music storage medium, it’s unparalleled.” The evidence of the last few decades can’t be disputed: As alternate formats have come and gone, the LP is still standing and, if anything, is seeing a renaissance.

The main disadvantage my beloved turntable has to the other formats is the inconvenience of getting up from my easy chair every 15 to 20 minutes — or 3 to 5 minutes if I’m listening to singles — to change records. But at 70 years and six months old, getting up from my chair on a fairly frequent basis is good for my health anyway.

Listening: 76 years since Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play

The stereo and mono versions of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

If, in 1967, it had been 20 years ago that Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play, it has now been 76 years. This spring marked the 56th anniversary of the release of arguably the Beatles’ finest hour.

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is the first Beatles album that was released in the United States with the same track list as the United Kingdom. The suits at Capitol Records did not trust the customers to accept the U.K. versions; also, if you only put 11-12 tracks on an album, you can release more albums and hence make more money than if you put 13-14 songs on the album. 

When the Beatles renegotiated their recording contract prior to Sgt. Pepper, they stipulated that Capitol had to stop doing things like removing three songs from Revolver or starting Rubber Soul with one of the songs they had withheld from Help! instead of “Drive My Car.” And so North Americans finally got a full blast of the Beatles as the Beatles intended — and what a blast it was.

In recent years some folks have downplayed Sgt. Pepper and argued that Rubber Soul and Revolver were even more groundbreaking, and now that a generation of U.S. fans have been exposed to those two albums as originally envisioned, I can see where such a case can be made. But in the context of the times, when Rubber Soul and Revolver were cannibalized to make extra albums like Beatles VI or Yesterday and Today, it really wasn’t until Pepper that we experienced the full impact of a Beatles album over on this side of the pond.

And so here’s a toast to the album that changed, if not everything, at least a significant percentage of how we looked at, and listened to, popular music in the 1960s. There was music before the Beatles and after the Beatles, and there was music before Sgt. Pepper and after Sgt. Pepper. From the opening sounds of the crowd chatting as the orchestra tunes up, through the smashingly mind-boggling 37-second chord that concludes “A Day in the Life,” this album is a master class in how to reinvent pop music.

It’s a great album, and after all these years, I have to admit it’s getting better — getting so much better all the time.

Watch what you say

“In space, no one can hear you scream.”

“You can’t say that.”

“I just did.”

“But it’s a trademark; you can’t say that.”

“I’m not trying to promote my scary new movie about a space monster.”

“Doesn’t matter; it’s copyrighted.”


“You’ll think differently when you hear from their lawyers.”

“Oh, come on. It’s just a fact: There’s no air in space, so there’s nothing to carry sound, so if you managed to live long enough to scream, no one could hear you.”

“Well you can say it that way, but the way you said it first is protected by copyright.”

“I wasn’t saying it to sell anything. The copyright is for a movie tagline. If anything, when I say it, people will think, ‘I remember that movie, it was good. I should see it again.’ It’s free advertising for them.”

“I don’t know. I’m still worried you could get sued.”

“You know, of all the things I’ve learned over the years, one of the truest is that most things I worry about never happen anyway.”

“Oh my gaw. You are crazy. Do you want to have lawyers all over you?”


“That’s a Tom Petty song!”

“What is?”

“‘Most things I worry about never happen anyway’! It’s in a song!”

“So what?”

“So you can’t say that! It violates the copyright!”

“That’s so stupid. But I guess what a fool believes, he sees.”


Somewhere you feel free

Wildflowers by Tom Petty is my go-to album when I don’t know what I want to listen to. It’s like comfort food for the ears and heart.

You belong among the wildflowers
You belong in a boat out at sea
Sail away, kill off the hours
You belong somewhere you feel free

The album has sentimental meaning for me, who never stopped wanting to buy an album in vinyl. The late 1980s and early ’90s were horrifying for me as a music lover, because more and more music was only available on cassette or CD. One day in early 1995, I walked into a music store and was shocked and delighted to discover a small area devoted to new vinyl. Among the records for which I spent $100 that day was Wildflowers.

I had several moments of delight while listening to that album for the first time. One is simply the title song of Wildflowers, which opens the album. It’s just a sweet and perfectly delivered little folk song that I have listened to, over and over, for more than 20 years now. Then there was the moment I was listening to “To Find A Friend” when I had the thought, “If the Beatles were still together, I bet they would be doing songs like this one,” only to glance at the credits and discover that Ringo Starr was playing drums on the track. Then there was the brilliant moment of wisdom tucked into “Crawling Back to You,” when he sings, “Most things I worry about never happen anyway.”

Two years later I had a specific desire to find a Tom Petty album, perhaps a wish that I could re-experience the fun of listening to Wildflowers. I went into my now-familiar record store but, alas, Petty had no new material. I did see that Johnny Cash had issued a followup to his now-legendary American Recordings album, called Unchained, and I thought what the heck, let’s check it out. I was really liking what I heard and checked the credits, where to my surprise and delight I found out I had purchased a Tom Petty album after all, as he and the Heartbreakers were essentially Johnny Cash’s backing band on the project.

To me these 15 songs represent Tom Petty’s finest hour. I still love listening to this album.

In the Attic: I Picked You

Oh, man. There I was driving down Highway 41 with tears streaming, listening to the old Seekers song on the radio and hearing the lyrics in my heart for the first time.

There is always someone
For each of us, they say
And you’ll be my someone
Forever and a day
I could search the whole world over
Until my life is through
But I know I’ll never find another you …

But if I should lose your love, dear
I don’t know what I’d do
For I know I’ll never find another you

When you’re going to visit the woman who has shared your life for the past 26 years in her hospital bed in a cancer ward miles from home, the last thing you need — or maybe the first thing — is lyrics like that. I was kind of embarrassed and relieved that people don’t generally look at other drivers and think, “Huh, I wonder why that white-haired bearded guy is blubbering.”

Red has been fighting to get out of that bed for about a month now with the help of the greatest team of doctors and nurses and support staff I have ever met at Froedtert Hospital in Milwaukee. Some days are heartbreaking, and some days are full of hope, as you might imagine. 

One of my alter egos is w.p. bluhm, the imaginary singer-songwriter who has assembled 20 albums over the years but hasn’t been active much over the last two decades. A remarkable series of events in 2009 resulted in w.p.’s last spurt of creativity, when I wrote a dozen songs in two or three months, including a love song for our new puppy, “Don’t Cry, Willow.”

When I started putting together the album that became w.p.’s 20th, Ten Thousand Days, I realized I had new songs about a variety of topics — including a puppy love song — but I had not written a love song about my life’s partner. 

Well, I thought about Red, and our pastor had just preached about some study that when it comes to finding a mate, men are looking for respect and women are looking to be “chosen.” I wasn’t sure if I agreed with that concept, but the song pretty much wrote itself:

I can’t your white knight to the rescue, my dear,
But then again, you never needed one.
I can’t be Prince Charming to sweep you away,
But we both know just what we’ve begun.
You see through my flaws, but you see with fresh eyes;
You’re rock solid steady, yet you always surprise.
I picked you of all the women in this world
‘Cuz you stand beside me, and you stand up to me.
I picked you of all the women in this world;
Most surprising of all, you picked me.

I couldn’t see being with someone like you —
You’re common-sense earth tones, and I’m pie in the sky —
But now I can’t imagine a life without you
Or why I would even try.
You see through my flaws, but you see with fresh eyes;
You’re rock solid steady, yet you always surprise.
I picked you of all the women in this world
‘Cuz you stand up for me, and you stand up to me.
I picked you of all the women in this world;
Most surprising of all, you picked me.

You came into my arms from out of nowhere;
I don’t recall searching — I just found you there.
You see through my flaws, but you see with fresh eyes;
You’re rock solid steady, yet you always surprise.
I picked you of all the women in this world
‘Cuz you stand beside me, and you stand up to me.
I picked you of all the women in this world;
Most surprising of all, most surprising of all,
Oh, most amazing of all: You. picked. me!

This is more of a demo than the arrangement I hear in my head, but it’s the only version I have for now. As for the sentiment, it is more true than ever: I know I’ll never find another Red.