I had three close friends, all classmates at Governor George Clinton School, Hank, Eddie and Mikey, although I always felt that Mikey was Hank and Eddie’s friend more than mine. Sometimes William, wry, but shy, would join us, my friend more than Hank and Eddie’s. We met after school to play card games and board games and word games and finally chess. (I learned to play chess from Rabbi Winters, when I went to his house for Bar Mitzvah lessons. Needless to say, while I was okay at chess, I fumbled through my Bar Mitzvah.)
On week-ends three or four of us 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 groves of academe for an hour on their bikes was bothersome enough), or to the old cider mill at the top of the really steep hill on Cedar Avenue which Hank and Mikey could manage to pump their way up but which defeated Eddie 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 – with its room-temperature cider on the cusp of fermentation and sugary, dust-infused cookies, and with its old guest book opened to a page signed by Vassar student Edna St. Vincent Millay.
If 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 exists outside our individual observation of it, etc., or play kriegspiel (blind chess, which requires three chessboards, two chess sets and a referee who sits on the bed and keeps track of the moves of the two players, out of sight of each other on the floor on either side of the bed), 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. The tape frequently broke. What there was no gadget for was untwisting the tape after the reel had fallen to the floor and, defying the laws of gravity, balance and entropy, rolled across the room, wobbling on its narrow axis, trailing its shiny quarter-inch wide ribbon of caramel-colored film behind it. I once tied a pencil to the end of it and dropped 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 Eddie’s house, where we lay on the floor in the Greenbergs’ living-room and listened to records. The Greenbergs 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 Greenbergs installed one of those new 33⅓ rpm turntables, one of their first acquisitions was an LP of the Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto with Horowitz and Koussevitzky.
Mikey’s parents had a shelf of 78’s, brought with them when they fled the Nazis – classical music and schmaltzy cabaret songs which they listened to on special occasions with great solemnity. Hank’s parents liked to show off their collection of Broadway show albums. For my parents, though, listening to records was too passive a pastime.
Everyone had a piano in their living-room, but the Greenbergs’ seemed to be the only one intended for other purposes than for practicing piano lessons, and there was always sheet music scattered around the piano end of the room. At one point, a book of barbershop quartet arrangements appeared. We chose the easiest, “My Grandfather’s Clock,” Hank taking the melody, Mikey and Eddie, in close harmony above and below, while I sang bass. We practiced until we knew we were good enough not to be made fun of by our peers and patronized by adults. The plan had been to move on to a more difficult song once we had mastered “My Grandfather’s Clock”, but that song was so satisfying in itself that we never did and, besides, the Langers, William’s family, as avant-garde as ever, had just acquired a wonderful new board game called Scrabble.
If you were to ask me to sing “My Grandfather’s Clock” today, I 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, but we sang the music straight, as written – not only because we were not really capable of inventing elaborations but because, smart Jewish boys that we were, we knew that approach would add to the joke.
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.)