Church bells, Music & My Grandfather


It’s 12:00 p.m. in Berlin, and I’ve got the windows of my flat open to the garden and can hear the sparrows in the trees and the church bells tolling in the distance. Mark Twain used to complain about the sound of church bells, but I’ve always liked it. Probably because it’s something I never heard in the little seaside town I come from in Florida.

I just shut the windows. It was starting to get cold in here. And now I’m listening to J.S. Bach played by Pepe Romero on guitar. I can only write to music without lyrics in it, hence the millions of hours I’ve spent listening to instrumental classical music. J.S. Bach has always been my favorite composer, followed closely by Beethoven. After that comes Mozart, the Baroque composers: Buxtehude, Vivaldi, Couperin, etc. Where are the modern-day Bachs and Beethovens? They have to be out there somewhere. The world population was around 1 billion in Bach and Beethoven’s time. It 2010 it was 6.9 billion. If we look purely at the statistics, there should be 6.9 Bachs and 6.9 Beethovens walking among us. So where are they? Crushed by the awful weight of the corporate music industry? Lost in the sheer mass of numbers? Rendered kaput by the era?

My maternal grandfather started off as a musician. He could play by ear just about any song on any instrument he picked up. Unfortunately, none of his kids or grandkids or great-grandkids inherited the talent as far as I know. He kept it all to himself, passing it onto no one, which was a very miserly thing of him to do if you ask me, but totally in line with his personality. To call my grandfather a skinflint would be insulting to skinflints. Here was a man who, in 1987, drove down from Illinois to Florida to visit us with the windows open in the car to save the cost of air conditioning. Never mind that it was 90 degrees out and the humidity was 100%. When he got out of the car, the entire back of his shirt was drenched with sweat and he was mopping his forehead with his sleeve.

On the plus side, he did become a lavish spender later in life… when he realized he might have something to give in the way of inheritance.

Items found in his Arizona trailer post-mortem: fertilizer, handguns, bagpipes, ivory canes with knives that pop out of them, everything QVC ever sold (or couldn’t sell, let alone give away). Also, a sex tape for beginners.

My maternal grandfather was 84 when he died and republican and his name was Wallace but my dad used to call him ‘Slow Wallet Wally’ because whenever it was time to pay his part of the bill at a restaurant there would be a monumental hesitation or his attention would be drawn elsewhere or the motor-workings of his arm would fail and he’d dive into a detailed conversation about pneumatic armchairs or the passengers on the Mayflower or the beautiful eucalyptus trees of Dubai or Spanish guitars and finally my dad would foot the whole.

“Wait, you sure?”

He was sure.

So, it’s now after 1 p.m. and the church bells are calling me. Time to go out people watching in the sun. I’ll probably be back later to write more. It is my compulsion, after all.


11 thoughts on “Church bells, Music & My Grandfather

  1. Bach is number one for me too, and Beethoven next! I share your partiality for the Baroque era. (Oops I almost typed Baroque EAR haha!) I’m sure that our musical tastes veer wildly in different tracks, if we follow them out; which is healthy as heck; but it’s nice to know we blast off from the same Big Bang.

    And I love your thought “Where are the modern-day Bachs and Beethovens?” I wonder that right along with you. And since it is my self-imposed duty to answer all rhetorical questions, I’ll venture this:

    The new greats are here among us, making more masterpieces, but it’s like Kafka’s parable “An Imperial Message”—these compositions, at once, cannot ever reach us, and yet, in a certain sense, cannot fail to reach us:

    “Nobody could fight his way through here even with a message from a dead man. But you sit at your window when evening falls and dream it to yourself.”

    And I intensely love the passages about your grandfather. Their content is alive; their flow is masterful. Bravo and thank you for reminding us that (unlike our beloved B&B) eloquence is right here with us moderns.

    • Thanks for the good words, Sir. And thanks for the Kafka quote. I love it. I also love your quote ‘these compositions, at once, cannot ever reach us, and yet, in a certain sense, cannot fail to reach us.’ You need to copyright that before I put my sticky fingers on it. Hahaha!

      As for the Bachs and Beethovens, I thought about it and maybe they are walking among us. They’re just toddlers right now. Our generation got screwed. Nah, but the truth is I’m not greedy. I’m not asking for 13.8 of them. I just want 1!

  2. I am sure that I have given the people around me quite the first impression while I’m sitting here, staring at the computer with a crazy, though light, grin across my face. I enjoy reading all that you decide to write because you do have a way with words, a talent and a gift, if I might say. You’ve impressed me a bit with your interest in classical music, and I do think that everyone has a Slow Wallet Walley in the family somewhere. I know that I have a few. Thanks again for sharing with the rest of us.

  3. I shall try writing to Bach. I have a thing for Copland, but cannot write to his work (too excitable). I have a thing for classical guitar music for working.
    (Church bells can be both irritating and annoying, at home I love them but there is one place in town where two churches sound off at the same time and they are sufficiently out of sync to make you beg for them to end…)

    • hahah. I have yet to get annoyed by churchbells, but maybe it’d be different if I were squeezed between 2 churches. I’ve written thousands upon thousands of hours to Bach. Never gets old.

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