Theo Greenblatt- “La, La, How the Life Goes On”


In the passionately uneven slope of an eight-year-old hand, the words “I love Davy” are penciled from left to right, top to bottom, over every inch of the back of the album cover. The capital Ds have a Palmer-method loop at the bottom corner and a flourish at the top, reminiscent of a sideswept lock of hair. On the front cover, framed in green, Mike, Peter, Davy, and Mickey, in polka-dots, stripes, flowers, and plaid, respectively, and all with that sideswept forelock, gaze warmly downward from under a towering leafy tree. Davy is smiling a little impishly; the rest wear expressions calm and benevolent as nuns. The trademark logo of their band name squeezed into the shape of a guitar looms at the top of the photo under the words “More of the.” More of the Monkees, yes, more, more, more.

This eighth birthday gift was accompanied by an official membership in the Monkees Fan Club, replete with membership card that I duly signed (in case my identity or devotion might be called into question) with the also-official yellow pen with the Monkees logo in red. My other gifts that year, although nothing meant more than More of the Monkees, included a bright orange, plastic trinket box (1967 was the year for bright orange), a small wooden cat, painted in green stripes similar to the color of the record album, and a pencil canister, also cat-themed, and striped orange and yellow. In this I stored the pencils with which I so ardently wrote out my feelings for Davy, and of course my fan club pen.

These gifts evoke the age in which they were given, more than the age to which they were given: bright colors, shapes, and patterns proclaiming their modern renunciation of the outgoing era. At age eight, I did not receive dolls or toys or games. I received music and collectibles; trendy, quirky, cute—but more like teenage cute than eight-year-old cute. I understood without anyone saying it that I was leaving something behind, that eight was somehow miraculously close to being an adult.

 This made it reasonable for me to be in love with Davy Jones; or, to be on a first name basis at least. I don’t know what made Davy so lovable except that he was definitely cuter than the other Monkees; surely I wasn’t the only eight-year-old to notice that. And there was that English accent and the fact that he was short enough to seem younger than completely grown, in the same in-between zone as…say, me. (When, at the start of “Daydream Believer,” the other Monkees shouted the track number impatiently, “Seven A!” and Davy responded forlornly, “Okay, don’t get excited, it’s ‘cause I’m short, I know,” girlish hearts the world over melted in sympathy for his being a bit of an underdog.) When no one else was home, I would pony around the living room to “She” and “I’m a Believer” and “Look Out Here Comes Tomorrow.” Oh, I was looking out for tomorrow with a vengeance; tomorrow, when I would be pretty much a grown-up.


The pristine front cover of the Beatle’s White Album, when bestowed with some ceremony at Christmas, was already marred by the following words, written spikily and with apparent haste in black magic marker:

FoR Theo MiKi & MAMA from D.O.D.

My father had recently–since he had moved out, that is–begun referring to himself as D.O.D, short for Dear Old Dad. He was very fond of neologisms, making up words and phrases and trying to get others to go along. This one didn’t catch, although he stubbornly maintained his own usage of it for some time. We didn’t think of my father as old; old was cardigan sweaters and pipes and easy chairs. In fact, my brother and I were awkwardly aware that my father didn’t think of himself as old, either, which was evident in the way he conducted his new bachelor life, apart from us: The sunlit pad with the oriental rugs and brass bed; the roommate, a Vietnam veteran nicknamed Baby Jim (another clear misnomer); the sudden takeover of rock music (he had left a job teaching middle school math to sell ad time at a radio station). These indicated a relationship to age that was in considerable opposition to the images conjured up by the phrase “dear old dad.”

The pristine cover of the Beatles White Album was at once a reminder of purity and an invitation to transgression. Since my father had already broken the purity spell, I must have decided to take similar liberties. Today the cover reads:

FoR: Theo, MiKi, & MAMA with Love, from D.O.D. (Dear Old DAd).

It is my handwriting—printing, rather, for consistency—and my inclination to grammatical correctness that wrought these changes, at some later date. While I was busy inserting the correct punctuation marks, I inserted also the desired and previously missing expression of affection. I must have hoped new readers would assume that my father had given the gift “with love,” rather than with the casual carelessness that writing on this particular album cover implied. Unfortunately, the shade of the magic marker corrections is even now just slightly, but unmistakably, darker black, giving the lie to such assumptions.

            Opening the yellowed double album, its edges bound in dry, crinkly masking tape, I find the liner notes—once a single poster-size sheet with photos on one side and lyrics on the other, now worn to a set of album-size squares, stained and frayed, that must be fit together like puzzle pieces in order to read the lyrics of complete songs. The name of my friend, Darien, with whom I shared many Beatles listening hours, is penciled upside down in the corner under “Honey Pie.” We thrilled to the magical-sounding nonsense syllables of “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” a song we thought must be meant for children because of those lyrics, although we didn’t understand why the word “bra” was in there (a garment that neither of us had as yet any use for) in such an out-of-context way, and we argued over whether it was “tha” life or “thy” life that “goes on” even though the sheet said plain old “the.” We were puzzled and intrigued by the gender switch at the end that left Desmond, not Molly, at home to “do his pretty face,” and we vaguely anticipated a future in which such alluring mysteries would all be revealed to us: the violence of Rocky Raccoon (minimally confused with Rocky the squirrel of Rocky and Bullwinkle fame) and a warm gun; the pathos of the weeping guitar and the heart-rending extended vowel of Julia; the titillation of Sexy Sadie and “doing it” in the road—oh, yes, we knew what that meant… more or less.


Bold Peter Max-like graphics spell out the words, “Jimmy Cliff in The Harder They Come,” rainbowing over a leopard and stripe-clad black man with shades and a cap, a six-shooter in each hand, one of them pointed straight at you. Below him, a collage of brightly colored figures: a soulful, eyes-closed singer with mic in hand, a Rastafarian in lime green on a motorcycle with dreads blowing out behind him, a white mustang convertible, a box-shaped high-rise, and a scattering of dilapidated wooden shanties. This is the soundtrack album for the film, The Harder They Come, which quickly became legend in the hippy Cambridge of my youth.

Another legend, this one initiated and perpetuated by my father, was that he had “brought this film” into the US from Jamaica. At the time, I pictured him with his handlebar mustache and mirror shades, white bellbottoms and bracelets, strolling onto the plane with one of those flat, round, metal film canisters under his arm, ready to take America by storm. I can’t verify his claim about the film, but I do recall being presented with the album on his return from a trip to Jamaica. It was stamped “promotional copy, not for sale,” as were all his musical “gifts.” I imagine this one was handed out as swag in a pot-hazed Kingston hotel room by some record company stiff, my father high-smiling his approval with half-closed eyes.

The movie itself, a gritty, grainy, anti-Hollywood but wholly stylized, Robin Hood story of Jamaican shanty-town life, played for all of my adolescent years as the midnight movie at the Orson Welles Cinema on Mass. Ave. I don’t know how many times I saw it. Since the movie glorified pot-smoking (for an eager and, in our case, precocious, audience), the tradition was, of course, to get high first; my memories of attending are consequently foggy. It was rated R, which somehow didn’t prevent young teens from going. We were already stoned, we were out on our own at midnight; was there really much further damage to be done by a little violence and nudity on screen? Perhaps this was the thinking. The hypnotic music and the rich, evocative rhythm of the island accents wooed us: “You can get it if you really want,” crooned Jimmy Cliff over and over, and we believed him.


            “To Theo, the girl with the blue eyes and exciting thighs. Love, Ray.”

These words are handwritten in black pen on the plain white sleeve of a copy of the Dead Kennedys’ “California Über Alles” 7-inch single. The small letters are printed clearly, the writing schoolbook youthful, except for the name, Ray, which is in cursive. The single came in a durable clear plastic sleeve that contained a glossy black and white paper folder, covered on both sides with images and lyrics. The images look cut and assembled ransom-note style. Like newsprint photos reproduced too many times, the details are spotty, choppy, determinedly enigmatic. A whited-out face cradled by a telephone receiver, a barely discernible but familiar picture of two men dragging a body by a noose. The band name’s font is angular and edgy, maybe some local artist’s original; the song title is in Olde Germanica—a political statement in the visuals as much as in the music, the lyrics, the name.

I had a whole box full of these singles, at one time. I was hawking them to independent record stores in the Boston area, at the request of the aforementioned Ray, who was the guitarist in the band. I knew him as East Bay Ray, although on the “California Über Alles” single he is listed as “Ray Valium.” “East Bay Ray” was a more truthful pseudonym as he lived in Oakland, and it had the rhyme going for it. “Ray Valium” was perhaps a little mellow for someone whose hit song imagines Governor Jerry Brown as a hippy version of Adolf Hitler.

I met Ray at a club called the Rat, when the Dead Kennedys were touring the East Coast, maybe for the first time. It was late, after the band’s last set, and they were packing up to travel to New York that same night. Ray and I struck up a conversation. An aura of romance, a little magic, sparked between us, ironic in the beer- and smoke-saturated air of the basement nightclub; a feeling like we knew each other already. He was leaving in minutes but we exchanged phone numbers. Two days later, when the band had a few nights off, he hopped a train from New York back to Boston and stayed with me until their next gig.

In the glory days of punk, you could pretty much trust anyone with spiked hair and a black leather jacket. We all knew each other, or we knew people who knew each other, even from as far away as California, so Ray didn’t seem like a stranger. We stayed in touch for quite awhile after that, writing long letters and occasionally talking on the phone. The romance peaked with another visit a year or more after the first, in which the mundane overran the magic. Dirty socks and bad breath. Who would pay for the pizza? A sizable long distance phone bill was left behind, along with some body lice. Some time after that we made friends again by mail and phone, but the feeling of fateful knowingness, of kismet—that did not survive.


The cassette liner has nothing handwritten on it. In block Hebrew letters, the words, “Chaim Moshe” and “Ahavat Chai’ai” (“Love of My Life”) are printed in yellow against a turquoise background. Below that, a headshot of the curly-haired Moshe in a red and white wide-striped shirt. The short end of the cassette wrapper lists nine songs and the distributor’s name (Rubeni Brothers) and a phone number, all in Hebrew. While the paper is heavy and glossy, the smudgy print quality is reminiscent of color Xerox. On the cassette itself the words are worn completely off in the center, the place where your thumb and forefinger would grab it to insert or remove it from the machine, so that it reads, “Chaim      My Life.”

On the eve of my marriage to Arieh, a cotton farmer, on a kibbutz in Israel, this was my musical passion: what translated as “Bus Station music,” because the homemade and bootlegged cassettes, popular in the 1980s, were sold primarily at the Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv. The musicians, mostly from more Eastern cultures, especially Yemen, had settled in Israel and infused their traditional instrumentation and vocals with an Israeli sensibility and nationalism. The lyrics were silly, cheesy, overly romantic; songs about mothers and homeland and, of course, unrequited love. It was the Middle-eastern equivalent of country and western music, which I have never liked, but my new penchant might have somehow reflected the nostalgia I felt for my own distant mother country.

It wasn’t the music of Arieh’s youth, which was more Western-sounding and folky, gravelly-voiced white men with acoustic guitars; though he was born in Israel, his heritage was distinctly European. But he indulged me, glad we had shifted our communication from my language to his and could share the music. Together we watched the blurry music videos that were broadcast over and over on television as a prelude to Israel’s participation in the annual Eurovision song contest. Chaim Moshe was a close contender, but lost the coveted spot in the end. Passing through the Central Bus Station on his way home from military reserve duty one Friday, Arieh stopped and bought me this cassette as a consolation. It was one of very few gifts I received from him in our ten years of marriage. Gift-giving is minimal in socialist kibbutz culture, and he was not a sentimental man; not, in other words, given to inscriptions of either a loving or salacious nature on, say, the insert of a cassette.


A sheet of plain white copy paper, sheared to fit into the four-inch square clear cover of a blank CD; two of the edges show those little hang-nails left by dull scissors or a too-tentative cut. At the top in black fine-point marker it says “THEO’S MIX TAPE!!” next to an arrow-pierced heart, tiny feathers shooting off the arrow’s tail. Below that, the songs are listed in a mostly linear, hen-scratchy hand, a haphazard mix of upper and lower case letters. The list isn’t bulleted or punctuated, the songs are just written one after another like one long, breathless sentence, with the artists’ names underlined. The ink switches to blue ballpoint halfway along and then to a more faded black, the lines getting closer and denser as they descend. The last word on the page looks as if it’s trying to escape to the other side, where the list continues for two more lines. It ends with: “MADE WITh LOVE —RON XXOO to THEO 3/5/10.” The word “love” is underlined three times.

The blue and silver CD, a paltry reminder of its revered and weighty vinyl predecessor, is thin as a wafer cookie and slightly flexible. The three lines provided for writing the content are blank. If I lose the accompanying list, there will be nothing to distinguish this particular disc from the dozens of others littering my desk, tucked into drawers and bookshelves, and sliding around on the floor of my car. I should perhaps have written on it myself, but superstition prevents. What would I write that wouldn’t be somehow a trespass?

Just as the roundness of the more modern CD echoes the original vinyl—although flimsier, less elegant, more utilitarian—so this handwriting resonated for me with the possibility of an older form of angst-ridden but irresistible romance. The romance was also a little flimsier, less elegant, and yes, more utilitarian, having originated through an online dating site called Plenty of I was drawn to Ron’s polka-dot shirt and the well-stacked bookshelf in the background of his selfie, his use of multisyllabic words (idiosyncratic!), and the mention of Mission of Burma among his musical tastes. 

            Some of the songs on the mix tape were familiar, some not. Several came with obvious messages: “I Love You Because” and “Hopelessly Addicted to You,” while others were more obscure. Ron’s musical acumen was far greater and also more esoteric than mine. I played the CD over and over, listening, parsing, deciphering, trying to understand exactly why this particular lyric or beat was meant for me; what the giver meant to give with, and beyond, the sound of the music. At fifty, there was an undeniable charm, an unexpected girlish pride, in being wooed this way, having someone write Xs and Os, draw hearts and arrows, choose songs to represent emotions both experienced and hoped for. But I also knew that, like one of those songs warned, “the future flies on fragile wings, is open to attack.” The notes of the CD, both linguistic and musical, hinted more at some forgotten yesterday than at the “tomorrow” promised by the Monkees. And I still haven’t completely figured out how tha life goes on.