During that Golden Age, I had three close friends, all classmates at Governor George Clinton School, Eddie, Peter and Stevie, although I always felt that Stevie was Eddie and Peter’s friend more than mine. Sometimes Mark, wry, but shy, would join us, my friend more than Eddie and Peter’s. We met after school to play card games and board games and word games and finally chess, which was taught to each of us in turn by Rabbi Winters when we went to his house for Bar Mitzvah lessons. (Needless to say, while we were okay at chess, we fumbled through our Bar Mitzvahs.)
On week-ends we took bicycle excursions to the miniature golf course beyond the railway overpass, just past the field where carnivals set up once or twice a year and where I once saw an encampment of gypsies, or to Vassar College, where we enjoyed making pests of ourselves (not that we were delinquents; we knew that three loud, bantering, waggish 10-year-olds touring the campus for an hour on their bikes was bothersome enough in the groves of academe), or to the old cider mill at the top of the really steep hill on Cedar Avenue which Eddie could manage to pump his way up but which defeated Peter and I, both of us overweight, who had to walk our bikes for the last hundred yards, with its musty museum of oddities, the most important and prominent of which was a rearing two-headed calf, its room-temperature cider on the cusp of fermentation, its sugary, dust-infused cookies, and its old guest book opened to a page signed by Vassar student, Edna St. Vincent Millay.
When we gathered at my house, we would sprawl around my bedroom and have metaphysical conversations about whether time was the fourth dimension or if anything existed outside our individual observation of it, etc., or fool around with my tape recorder. An electrical engineer friend of my father’s had given me a professional Ampex reel-to-reel machine. It was about eighteen-by-sixteen-by-sixteen, weighed a ton, and spewed an ozone exhaust that hung in the room for hours after my friends had left. I even had a tape splicer – a small metal guide with a diagonal slit – and a box of razor blades and special splicing tape for when the tape broke, which happened frequently. What there was no standard method for doing was unravelling the twisted tape after the reel had fallen to the floor and, defying the laws of gravity, balance and entropy, had rolled across the room, wobbling on its narrow axis, trailing its shiny quarter-inch wide ribbon of caramel-colored film behind it. I once tried tying a pencil to the end of it and dropping it out the window hoping it would just spin its way straight.
We would write and record radio plays which, we thought, were the height of wit, and experiment with sound effects, but we never used the tape recorder for music. Music was reserved for Peter’s house, where we lay on the floor in the Rosenbergs’ living-room and listened to records. The Rosenbergs collected classical music, things like Mendelssohn’s Scherzo from Mid-Summer Night’s Dream conducted by Toscanini and Prokofiev’s March for Three Oranges conducted by Stokowski. When the Rosenbergs installed one of those new 33⅓ rpm turntables, their first acquisition was an LP of the Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto with Horowitz and Koussevitzky.
Everyone had a piano in their living-room, but the Rosenbergs’ seemed to be the only one intended for other purposes than practicing piano lessons. There was always sheet music scattered around the piano end of the room and, at one point, a book of songs arranged for barbershop quartet appeared. We chose “My Grandfather’s Clock,” Eddie taking the melody, Stevie and Peter, in close harmony above and below, while I sang bass. We could read music enough to pick out a melody on the piano, so it was not difficult.
We practiced until we knew we were good enough not to be made fun of by contemporaries and patronized by adults. The plan had been to move on to another song once we had mastered that one, but we were so good at “My Grandfather’s Clock” that learning another song seemed as if it would be just gilding the lily. And besides, Mark’s family, who were always in the avant-garde, had just acquired a wonderful new board game called Scrabble, and our attention was diverted by that.
If you were ask me to sing “My Grandfather’s Clock” today, I still would sing you the bass line. If you asked me to sing the main melody, I probably could, but I would have to think about it for a moment.
I searched the Internet all o’er trying to find a barbershop quartet version of “My Grandfather’s Clock”. The only one I could find – and I actually had to go and order a CD – was a virtuosic showpiece sung by the winners of the Barbershop Harmony Society’s 2009 International Quartet Championship. They and, it seems, most other performers of the song, treat it as a novelty song and make sure to include clock sound effects. We recognized the old-fashioned, folksy humor in the lyrics, and sang the music straight, as written. We were capable of inventing elaborations but, clever Jewish boys that we were, we knew that the dead-pan approach was the best joke of all.
Here is a garland of six versions of this really, really boring song.
(The Radio Revellers were a British group from the 1940's; this is from a children's album. Harold Williams was "a leading Australian baritone and music teacher," according to Wikipedia. Hara, Araki and Ueyama play a handbell version of the song arranged, I suspect, by Morton Feldman, although there is no acknowledgement. Crossroads is the hot-shot award-winning barbershop quartet.)