Rich Wilhelm

Posts Tagged ‘Cliff Hillis’

The Moments

In Cliff Hillis, fatherhood, Laurel Hill Cemetery, marriage, Uncategorized on May 30, 2016 at 9:45 am

My younger son Chris and I were cruising down the Schuylkill Expressway early on a recent Saturday morning, one of the only times you can legitimately use the word “cruise” when describing a trip down that legendarily congested road. As we headed east, our friend Cliff Hillis was advising us to hang on to the moment, once it begins. Not to get stuck in the moment, but to catch a glimpse of the ephemeral nature of life and to realize when you are in the process of having a moment that you’re never going to forget.

Cliff wasn’t physically with us in the car, but his Song Machine CD was. Chris is slowly embracing pop music, one song at a time, so it took some repetitions of the first few tunes on the CD before we got to “Hang On To The Moment.” Once we did though, I realized that hanging on to the moment is one of the primary items on my agenda right now.

Chris and I were headed to Laurel Hill Cemetery, making “Hang On To The Moment,” a appropriate soundtrack. Imagine the infinite amount of life moments represented in a cemetery holding more than 80,000 permanent residents!

We were on the way to witness the removal of the General Meade tree, a Norway Maple more than 160 years old. This tree had shaded the grave site of General George Gordon Meade ever since his funeral in 1872. The tree was beautiful but had reached the end of its natural life.

Think about the moments that tree silently witnessed. Of course, the Meade funeral was the most famous. Meade’s body was brought to the cemetery via the Schuylkill River and President Ulysses S. Grant delivered a eulogy. But the tree was witness to hundreds of other, smaller, funerals over the course of its lifetime as well.

Once we arrived at Laurel Hill, Chris and I observed the early stages of the tree removal and then took a walk deep into the south section of the cemetery. At one point, we were as almost as far away from Laurel Hill’s gatehouse as you can get, while still being in the cemetery.

We visited the small mausoleum of William C. Dulles, a 39-year-old lawyer who had the misfortune of boarding the Titanic in 1912. Here was a man who was forced to become suddenly and grimly aware of the limited amount of moments in one’s life. How did he react? Very little is known about Dulles, so we don’t know what those last moments of his were like. We only know what is noted, somewhat oddly, on his tomb: “Died from Titanic, April 15, 1912.”

Not far from Dulles lies Charles Vansant, the first victim of the infamous Jersey shore shark attacks of 1916. He was just 25 years old when he waded into the surf with a dog 100 years ago this July 1. Again, not much is known about Vansant these days, only that his quarter century of life moments ebbed that summer day, as he was surrounded by shocked family members and onlookers.

While in the south section, we also visited the stump of another recently removed tree. It was under this one that fictional character Rocky visited the grave site of his also-fictional wife, Adrian, and contemplated the moments they shared.

So, yes, a walk through Laurel Hill can be a reminder to hang on to the moment. But of course, you shouldn’t need a  graveyard stroll to get what Cliff is saying in his song. Each time our life changes in some way, we’re invited to hang on to the moment.

The day I met Donna.

The day Donna and I got married.

The days that our sons Jimmy and Chris were born.

The day my dad died.

These, and some more private to mention here, are the days when I was being gently told to hang on to the moment. I’ve tried to listen and do just that, but the moments get so slippery after awhile, it can be hard to hang on, especially as the mundane details of everyday life threaten to swallow up every waking moment, including those when one ought to be sleeping.

During the next two weeks, we will celebrate the end of Chris’ middle school career and Jimmy’s high school graduation. Moving on to high school and college will surely bring changes for our boys–changes that we can tell have already begun–and life will never be the same for any of us.

It is an exciting time. A sad time. A scary time. A time of change and growth and opportunity. A time during which I want to wrap my wife and our sons up in a huge hug that lasts a long time, even as Donna and I wave the boys in the direction of their futures and just tell them, “Go for it, whatever it is.”

And it’s a time to hang on to the moment.


Singles Night

In pop music, record collecting, records, Uncategorized on April 10, 2016 at 1:06 pm


Last night was Singles Night at our house. It was kind of a big deal.

The occasion? My friend, singer/songwriter Cliff Hillis, released a brand new 45 r.p.m. single, “Love Not War” b/w “The Buddha’s Belly,” this week. Both excellent tunes and well worth hearing (go to Cliff’s website to learn more).

Cliff had a big to-do at a local café on Friday night to introduce the single. Sadly, I was too busy falling asleep to attend the show, which by all accounts was fantastic. However, I did drop by Cliff and his wife Beth’s place yesterday and picked up the single. And, while the idea of a 45 in this millennium might seem retro (speaking of which, check out Beth’s excellent website!), Cliff is, in his way, a thoroughly modern guy, since he’s including a download of his complete seven-song Love Not War e.p. with the 45. It’s the best of both worlds.

I played both sides of Cliff’s single a few times yesterday, then declared that we’d be having a Singles Night. I rustled up a cool stack o’ wax from my vinyl collection and we listened to ’em one-by-one.

And that’s the beauty of the 45 r.p.m. single, which I seriously consider to be one of the most important cultural inventions of the 20th century. Introduced in 1949, singles became of the bedrock of popular music, allowing fans of many musical genres to grab their favorite songs in a convenient format, at a reasonable price. It’s no accident that rock’n’roll exploded within 10 years of the invention of the 45. Rock music, and all permutations thereof, owe their existence to the humble 45.

In addition to Cliff’s new tunes, we reached back to 1987 to hear “Radio Americana” by Johnny Rhythm and the Dimestore 45s (see: you could buy 45s in a dimestore. How cool was that?). This is one of my friend Ed Masley’s — aka Johnny Rhythm — great early tunes (and believe me, he’s been writing great tunes ever since, with his previous band, The Frampton Brothers, and his current combo, The Breakup Society). “Radio Americana” is a song about how corporate radio stifles the musical variety heard on the airwaves. While satellite radio may have alleviated that problem to a degree, a spin through terrestrial commercial radio — I (Heart) Radio, anyone? — will point to the notion that Ed’s song is as relevant as ever.


Singles Night was great, but it was while drinking coffee this morning that I listened to what I believe is still the crowning achievement of the 45 as an artistic medium: “Penny Lane”/”Strawberry Fields Forever” by the Beatles.

Artistically, of course, this Beatles single is a triumph: we are talking about artistic breakthroughs for both Lennon and McCartney. But, what is so thrilling to me about “Penny Lane”/”Strawberry Fields Forever” is the conceptual beauty of the record. Two songs, both delving deeply into the childhood memories of the composer.

“Penny Lane”: stately, almost baroque, filled with physical detail, a catalogue of precise memories, Paul’s memories of the external world surrounding him a child. Above all, McCartneyesque.

“Strawberry Fields Forever”: swirling, psychedelic, almost no physical detail, a catalogue of internal feelings, John’s impressionistic reflections on the internal world of his childhood. Above all, Lennonesque.

Two songs, seemingly worlds apart from each other, brought together on the lowly 45 r.p.m. single, and making perfect, profound sense together. Pop music as art and memoir and, yes, as pop music, all at once.

Here’s our playlist from Singles Night. Hopefully we’ll do it again sometime soon.

“Radio Americana”/”Doin’ Time” — Johnny Rhythm and the Dimestore 45s

“Love Not War”/”The Buddha’s Belly” — Cliff Hillis

“Penny Lane”/”Strawberry Fields Forever” — The Beatles

“Narrator” — Hindu Love Gods

“Perdido” — Three Suns

“Cool Places” — Sparks and Jane Wiedlin

“Friends” — Whodini

“I Gotta Hole in My Heart That Goes All the Way to China” — Cyndi Lauper

“She’s Always in My Hair” — Prince

“The Big Hurt” — Miss Tony Fisher

“Kiss Me Deadly” — Lita Ford

“Rock the Boat” — The Hues Corporation

“Elenore” — The Turtles

“Eight Miles High” — Hüsker Dü

“Let The Music Play” — Shannon

“Make a Circuit with Me” — Polecats

“Harlem Nocturne” — Earl Bostic




The Best Song I Heard in 2014

In Music/Memory, Music/Opinion on December 31, 2014 at 10:21 pm


The best song I heard in 2014 was “(Sitting on the) Dock of the Bay” by Otis Redding. “Dock of the Bay” is the best song I have heard every year since the first time I spun my hand-me-down 45 r.p.m. Volt single of the song on my toy record player, way back around 1970.

The best new song I heard in 2014? There is only one clear winner in that category.

“Dashboard” by Cliff Hillis.

Shown just below is the video for “Dashboard,” directed by the great Rob Waters of W Films. Watch the video and then keep it in your mind as you read what I have to say about the song. And, yes, my wife Donna and I are among the cast in the video.

There are several reasons for my love of “Dashboard,” the primary of which is this: “Dashboard” is an exquisitely crafted song, poppy but with moody undercurrents. Cliff co-wrote “Dashboard” with Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Scot Sax, who I also happen to know. But, again, I’d enjoy Scot’s music even if I didn’t know him. Having listened to both Cliff and Scot’s songs over the last few years, I feel qualified to say that “Dashboard” is an immensely satisfying collaboration between the two songwriters. It’s a Hillis song, for sure, but then there are lyrical and musical moments that remind me a bit of Scot’s work. I just get a sense that there was some serious creative activity going on between Cliff and Scot on “Dashboard” and it shows.

Next, I think “Dashboard” is a beautifully played song thanks to Cliff (guitar, piano, ebow bass, vocals) and his Forward Thinkers bandmates Greg Maragos (bass, piano, keys) and Pat Berkery (drums). Opening with insistent guitar strumming and the lyrics, “Put your feet up on the dashboard, I don’t mind…” the song/story gradually unfolds, telling the story of two people driving somewhere, beginning a journey. It could just be a vacation, but the piano coda that closes the song seems to indicate, without words, that the journey on which these two people are embarking is going to be a transformative experience.

So there you have it: a well-written, well-played, well-sung song that I have been fortunate enough to see Cliff perform, with varying degrees of accompaniment, several times this year. All of this is more than enough for me to confer “Best New Song I Heard in 2014” on Cliff Hillis’ “Dashboard.”

Those are the clear, logical, linear reasons why I love “Dashboard.” But there’s more.

As 2014 progressed, each time I listened to “Dashboard” I felt like the song was nagging at me a little bit, as if it was daring me to a recall a “Dashboard” moment that existed in my own life. Finally, as I was driving through Valley Forge National Historical Park one autumn afternoon, it hit me. My “Dashboard” moment.

When you listen to “Dashboard,” it’s easy to imagine that what transpires is happening between just two people. Probably, though not necessarily, two romantically involved people. Driving on the open road, with no one else in the car. That’s not exactly how my “Dashboard” moment went down, but it was a “Dashboard” moment just the same.

It was August 2005. We were about 36 hours away from a family vacation to Maine. Late on a Thursday evening, the sudden and unpleasant appearance of water in our basement threatened that vacation, which was desperately needed by everyone in our family.

After a frantic Thursday-night-into-Friday-morning and an equally crazy day at work, I arrived home to the constant whirring of several dehumidifiers going about their business downstairs. Despite this, we determined that the vacation was a viable thing that needed to happen and late on that Friday night we got the hell out of Phoenixville. Driving up the ramp to the Pennsylvania Turnpike seemed like a sweet escape from our soggy, noisy house.

Once we hit New Jersey, it rained the entire ride up the NJ Turnpike, as we made the occasional stop at NJ Turnpike rest stop–the stops named for Woodrow Wilson and Joyce Kilmer!–in a futile search for decent coffee. We had told our older son Jimmy that we’d see the Empire State Building as we drove through New York but he and our younger son, Chris, were long asleep by the time we approached Manhattan. It was just as well that they were sleeping–in the rainy weather, there wasn’t much of a view.

For reasons that I don’t entirely remember, I decided that the George Washington Bridge, rather than the Tappan Zee, would be our gateway to New England. If Wikipedia is to be believed, the George Washington Bridge is the busiest bridge on this planet, with traffic patterns that may or may not have been altered by politicians in recent years.

The GW was certainly busy that Friday night–which had by this point turned to very early Saturday morning–in 2005. The approach to the tolls was jammed and we were stuck in the thick of it. Eventually, we got through and made our way onto the busiest bridge in the world.

That’s when it happened. My “Dashboard” event, eight years before Cliff and Scot wrote the song that would retroactively bring the moment back to me.

Crossing the GW that night, ever so slowly, could have been an unbearably miserable experience. Having either kid be awake during that hour would have been tortuous for every one of us, but Jimmy and Chris snoozed happily during the entire crossing. Finally heading out of New Jersey, Donna and I probably relaxed a little bit, knowing that the vacation that almost didn’t happen was now going to happen. We listened to music quietly and maybe we talked (“We can talk but if not then that’s just fine”-Hillis/Sax).

No one put their feet up on the dashboard. But I’ve never forgotten that quiet time that Donna and I spent together stuck on the busiest bridge in the world with the hope that the boys stayed asleep. Which they did.

It was our “Dashboard” moment and when it plays now as a movie in my mind, the final scene pulls back from Donna and me, quietly smiling at each other, and the sleeping boys in our car to reveal the hundreds of slowly moving cars surrounding us on the George Washington Bridge, as that insistent piano coda plays over the fade to black.

Visit Cliff’s website. Go on, now!

Patrick F. O'Donnell

writer, editor, general wordsmith and scribe

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