The_Rembrandts_-_The_Rembrandts_coverIn September of 1991, my friend Kevin introduced me to the music of The Rembrandts. Their only album had been released the previous year, and contained the hit, “That’s Just the Way it Is, Baby.” I had heard that song on Z104, but never thought much about it. But when I stood in my kitchen that evening in early September while Kevin played me excerpts of the other songs on that album, I was enthralled. The voices of the two singers blended beautifully, and their sound reminded me of a cross between The Waxing Poetics and The Beatles. The chord progressions were simple, the lyrics were not particularly profound, but something about it drew me in. It made me feel happy, really.

I drove all over Virginia Beach that Fall, listening to that tape in my car. To and from school, to and from work, to and from the houses of various friends. It was great driving music. I still have this vision of driving on Stratford Chase Drive, coming home from school on a sunny October afternoon, with the windows open, noticing the colorful Fall foliage on both sides of the street, while listening to “Show Me Your Love,” which was my favorite song on that album. A few months later I was asked to play guitar and sing at the “Miss Kempsville” pageant, held in the high school auditorium. Not knowing what would be a fitting song for such an occasion, I chose to sing “Everyday People” by The Rembrandts. I slightly altered the words to make it about the pageant. I sang it to Elaine after she was crowned winner.

Two years later, when I met my future wife, I discovered that she enjoyed The Rembrandts as well. And on January 1st, 1994, as I drove the eleven hour drive to Sarasota, Florida to meet her family, I listened to that same tape I had purchased in 1991. Over and over. And it made me smile.

Of course, they would soon become known for doing the theme song for the NBC Sitcom “Friends,” but I never really felt like that was The Rembrandts. Kevin, Shelley, and I listened to them before they became part of mainstream pop culture, and my memories of their music involved actual friends instead of just a show about friends.

It’s strange how some musical groups simply fade away. It’s been over a decade since The Rembrandts have actively performed or produced anything new. And yet the memories I associate with their music have never faded away. As I listened to “Show Me Your Love” while driving to work today, I couldn’t help but smile as I thought of singing it with Kevin in 1991, and with my wife in 1994. Good music, good memories. I think I’ll listen to it again right now.

john-denver-3It seems unlikely that four Virginia Beach teenagers would enthusiastically attend a John Denver concert together in 1988, but that’s precisely what happened.

The music of this once-iconic folk singer was supposed to be for our parents’ generation. Aimee and I were in 9th Grade, Myke and Neil were in 10th. And this was 1988. People our age either listened to Paula Abdul and Tiffany or Metallica and Motley Crue. Not John Denver. Not only was he not cool, he was past his prime. He was 45-years-old at the time. His biggest hits had come and gone more than a decade earlier. He wasn’t even getting airplay anymore. Especially not in an east coast beach town. But his music had been an ever-present part of my childhood, and for whatever reason the same was true of these three friends of mine I knew from the school band. In Junior High, Myke, Neil and I frequently listened to his music when we hung out. On my 14th birthday they threw me a surprise party at Beth’s house, and Neil gave me a cassette tape of John Denver’s Greatest Hits (until then I only had the record, and it belonged to my mom). I played it in my walkman all summer whenever I rode my beach cruiser to one of their houses. When school started that Fall we somehow discovered that Aimee loved his music, too. It was as if the four of us now had some type of secret nerd club, except it wasn’t secret. We simply loved his music.

So when my mother came home from work one evening and told me she heard John Denver would be coming to Norfolk in December, I immediately called Myke, Neil, and Aimee. We went to the mall and bought tickets the next day. And then on a chilly mid-December night, Aimee’s mom drove the four of us to Norfolk Scope. We had decent floor level seats. The show started right on time. It did not disappoint. John had a powerful stage presence. He was personable, funny, and a great story-teller. Several of the songs were performed against the back drop of a giant screen with footage of John’s various adventures around the globe. The entire first half of the concert consisted mostly of his well-known hits: Rocky Mountain High, Matthew, Take Me Home Country Roads, Rhymes and Reasons, and of course, Annie’s Song. He also sang a few songs from the album that had just been released, “Higher Ground.”

My favorite part of that first half of the show was when he sang his long-time hit “Poems, Prayers, and Promises.” It struck me as very fitting, as it had to do with enduring friendships:

We talk of poems and prayers and promises
And things that we believe in;
How sweet it is to love someone,
How right it is to care;
How long it’s been since yesterday,
And what about tomorrow?
What about our dreams
And all the memories we share?

During the intermission we walked around the arena and talked about how much we enjoyed the first half of the show. Not surprisingly, we didn’t see anyone our age, so we did what all normal teenagers did: we made fun of how the people from our parents’ age group were dressed. Then the lights started to dim so we made our way back to our seats.

For the second half of the concert, John and his band were joined by a local children’s choir, and they sang several Christmas songs. It was quite celebratory, and actually quite moving.

For the last song, John put down his guitar and walked over to the black grand piano on the stage. He sat down and took on a serious demeanor. The crowd of 15,000 people fell silent. He proceeded to tell us of how there were many people in the world, particularly refugees, who would not be able to experience a joyful holiday season, and that we would do well to remember them. He sang a song he had recently written, called “Falling Leaves.” It was beautiful. And after he sang the last verse, he announced that he was going to sing the first verse again, and this time he was inviting everyone to stand and hold hands and sing it with him. And so there we stood, Aimee’s mom, Aimee, Myke, Neil, and me. Holding hands and singing:

Thank you for this precious day;
These gifts you give to me.
My heart so full of love for you
Sings praise for all I see.

It was an amazing way to end an already amazing night.

Nine years later, in October of 1997, Shelley and I had The Today Show on as we were getting ready in the morning. As I was making my way from the kitchen to the bedroom I glanced at the television and noticed footage of John Denver performing. Shelley was blow drying her hair, so I couldn’t hear what was being said about him. I felt a twinge of excitement, wondering if perhaps he was going on tour again. When Shelley turned off the hairdryer, I heard only these words from Katie Couric: “The legendary singer and songwriter was 53.”

I said out loud, “Was 53? What does that mean?”

Then I saw the ticker tape at the bottom of the screen: “Singer John Denver killed in plane crash.”

I was stunned. I literally couldn’t believe it. I felt a sinking sensation in my chest. I turned the channel to find it was being talked about on Good Morning America and CNN. I called out to Shelley, “He….. died…” She came into the living room. Holding her hair brush, she looked at the television screen in disbelief, then turned to me and said, “I’m sorry, honey.”

A few minutes later, Shelley left for work. I was in graduate school at the time, and I had a lot of studying to do that day. I gathered my books, went over to my desk, sat down, and cried. I couldn’t believe the death of someone I had never met was hitting me so hard. And yet in a real sense I felt I had met him. My mind raced with memories involving his music. I thought about when I was in Junior High and would learn to play John Denver songs on the guitar and perform them for my little sister. I thought about the summer of 1992, when my friend Gordon and I would drive his SUV to Sand Bridge with the windows open while we loudly sang along to the John Denver songs blaring from the stereo. I thought of the summer during college when I lived in Colorado, and how I fell in love with the Rockies that were such a big part of John’s music. I thought of how Shelley and I had danced to Annie’s Song at our wedding. And I thought of the night in December of 1988, when four teenagers stood in the same room with John Denver, held hands and thanked God for the gift of such a precious day. I should do that every day.


In his best-selling memoir, Kitchen Confidential, renowned chef Anthony Bourdain writes this about his work in the alimentary world:

“I’ve long believed that good food, good eating, is all about risk. Whether we’re talking about unpasteurized Stilton, or raw oysters. . . food, for me, has always been an adventure.”

I love this, and not just because I enjoy food. I love it because it sheds light on what Jesus meant two thousand years earlier when he told his twelve disciples to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” 

On the surface, this prayer appears to be simply a request, or, as theologians have traditionally called it, a “petition.” To some, it may even seem like a rote, or even boring prayer. But, if you choose to pray that prayer, you will soon discover that you are not simply making a rote request, but entering into an adventure.

So, the question is, why is praying this prayer an adventure?

The best place to find the answer to that question is Psalm 104. This beautiful piece of ancient poetry shows us two reasons why asking God for our daily bread is an adventure.

The first reason is because it leads us to gratefully acknowledge God’s gifts.

In Psalm 104, verses 14 and 15, the writer says to God:

You cause grass to grow for the livestock
and plants for people to use.
You allow them to produce food from the earth-
wine to make them glad,
olive oil to soothe their skin,
and bread to give them strength.

The tone in these verses is that of a person who is grateful for the tangible material gifts God gives to his creatures. But notice how ordinary these gifts are: plants, earth, wine, oil, bread. This is why we can say acknowledging God’s gifts is an adventure, because it requires us to look closely at the ordinary aspects of life, and assures us that when we do, God reveals himself. Robert Capon writes, “Only miracle is plain; it is the ordinary that groans with the weight of glory.”

A 16th Century German pastor named Martin Luther made the point that when we ask God to give us our daily bread, God doesn’t answer that prayer by magically making bread appear on the table. Rather, he works through the farmers who plant and harvest the grain, and the people who transport the flour. He works through the bakers, and the local merchants who sell and deliver the bread. Luther concludes his point by saying, “These are the masks of God, behind which he wants to remain concealed and do all things.” 

Every time we celebrate Communion, I read aloud to the congregation these words: “Our Lord Jesus, on the night in which he was betrayed, took bread and gave thanks.” The word for “gave thanks” is eucharisteo in Greek. It’s root word is charis, which means “grace.” So, even Jesus, on the night in which he was betrayed by a friend, the night before he would face a brutal death he didn’t deserve, still gave thanks for the ordinary gift of bread, and served it even to the very person who would betray him. That’s grace. The presence of God’s unconditional love mediated through something seemingly ordinary.

What are the ordinary gifts in your life that you are thankful for today? Are you disappointed that you seldom experience extraordinary and exciting moments in your life? Could it be that you are overlooking the sacredness of the ordinary things around you at this very moment?

Bob Dylan wrote and sang these words:

In the fury of the moment,
I can see the Master’s hand;
In every leaf that trembles,
In every grain of sand.

That’s what it means to gratefully acknowledge God’s gifts.

So, the first reason asking for our daily bread is an adventure is because it leads us to gratefully acknowledge God’s gifts. But the second reason is because it leads us to generously share God’s gifts. 

Later in Psalm 104, in verses 27 and 28, we read:

All creatures depend on you to give them food as they need it.
When you supply it, they gather it.
You open their hand to feed them,
and they are richly satisfied.

Notice the plural forms of the pronouns used: they gather it, you open their hand to feed them. Receiving daily bread from God is a communal activity, meant to be enjoyed and shared together. Remember, the prayer is “Give US this day OUR daily bread.”

This actually hearkens back to the book of Exodus, when the people of Israel needed food to survive in the wilderness and God rained down “manna” for everyone on a daily basis. Six days a week everyone was required to go out and “gather” up the manna. Chapter 16 of Exodus describes it this way:

“Some gathered a lot, some only a little. But when they measured it out, everyone had just enough. Those who gathered a lot had nothing left over, and those who gathered only a little had enough. Each family had just what it needed.”

This isn’t a political statement. It’s simply saying that the people of Israel made sure everyone had what they needed to live, and the society was better off because of it.

I saw a living example of this when I was a teenager. In the beach town where I lived, there was a nightclub called “The Fire Escape.” It’s exterior blended in with the others bars at the ocean front, but something was different about the atmosphere inside. The policy, posted on the door, read: “No cover charge, No ID, Come On Up!” Literally, everyone was allowed to come in on any night of the week and hear live music and partake of various foods and beverages, sold at an extremely reduced cost. The only rule was: no alcohol, no tobacco, no coarse language. And so, on any given night, clean-cut church teenagers came to hear live music with a Christian message, and homeless people would come to get warm. Button-down Pastors came to work behind the counter serving popcorn and soda, while drunks came in to pass out and sleep off their intoxication. Young professional Christian singles came to look for other likeminded people to date, and prostitutes came in to get away from the johns who were demanding their money. It was truly a diverse and almost frighteningly beautiful place. One evening when my my band performed there, my youth pastor introduced us to the manager of the club, an animated blonde Christian woman who could have been my mother. She asked if we would like to start volunteering there on a regular basis. When we told her yes she asked to meet with us the next day in order to brief us on what to expect. I’ll never forget what she said to Marc, Randall, and me as we sat at the square wooden table in the middle of the black and white tile checkerboard dance floor that day:

“Don’t come here thinking you’re more privileged than the others who are here each night. Everyone who walks into this place, including the three of you, have the same thing in common: the need to be fed physically and spiritually. This place exists to meet that need.”

I am convinced this is what Christianity calls people to do; bless others because we have been blessed. Indeed, someone once summed up the church’s mission as “beggars telling other beggars where to find bread.”

St. Basil the Great wrote this:

“The bread that is spoiling in your house belongs to the hungry. The shoes that are mildewing under your bed belong to those who have none. The clothes stored away in your trunk belong to those who are naked. The money that depreciates in your treasury belongs to the poor!”

Now, how we do this is going to look different for everyone. But that’s why it’s an adventure. The fun part is that we get to work together to creatively share the gifts of God with those in need. And the good news is we don’t have to have our lives all together in order to do it. We can go into the world as broken people, poured out in love for others, just as Jesus gave himself when he broke bread, poured out wine, and offered it to others for their survival. Give us this day our daily bread. In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Jewish Mother

If you lived in Virginia Beach during the final quarter of the 20th Century, it would have been nearly impossible not to know about a restaurant called The Jewish Mother. Located a block away from the ocean front, The Jewish Mother was a New York style deli that also served as a venue for live music. It was established in 1974, the year I was born. One of the owners was Jewish, and named the restaurant in honor of his mom. It was a great place. Everything about it was hipster before being hipster was hip. My earliest memory of The Jewish Mother dates back to the summer of 1985. My family and I went there for a Sunday afternoon brunch. The chalkboard out front listed some of the items they were known for serving, such as lox, bagels, omelets, and pastrami. Upon entering the restaurant, each patron was given a box of Crayola crayons and encouraged to write or draw on the walls. After more than a decade of this ritual, the result was a one-inch-thick wax mural of several different colors and themes covering every square inch of the vertical interior of the building. It was strangely beautiful. While we ate, a local classical guitarist named Robin Welch played a variety of tunes while seated on the stage. I was captivated by his style, and hoped to one day play my own guitar on that stage.

Six years later I finished my junior year of high school. Shortly after my seventeenth birthday at the end of June, Mike, who was one of my closest friends, mentioned to me that The Jewish Mother had a weekly “Open Mic Night” for musicians. He said he recently played there with his band, Ambidextrous Rex, and had a blast. So, I immediately called Marc, who I had been playing music with since October. After practicing for a week or so, we showed up one night and put our names on the list. My mom and her fiance, my sister, and Cathy met us there. We were about 45 minutes early, so we ordered dinner and ate while a local band called “Blind Venetians” played. When they finished their set, the MC for the evening announced that Open Mic Night would be starting in 10 minutes. Marc and I were first on the list. The MC introduced us and the crowd gave a smattering of applause. We walked onto the stage, sat on wooden bar stools, adjusted the two boom microphone stands, plugged our guitars into the sound system, and began to play.

We were allowed to perform 4 songs. So, our setlist consisted of three covers and one original:

  1. “Melissa,” by The Allman Brothers (though we did the Indigo Girls version)
  2. “All Along the Watchtower,” by Jimi Hendrix (again, we did the Indigo Girls version)
  3. “Every Rose Has Its Thorn,” by Poison
  4. “But Even This Heart,” by Marc Pittman and Dale Buettner. We had written it a month earlier but had never performed it publicly. Marc wrote the music and asked me to write the lyrics. All he asked was that I entitle it “But Even This Heart.” It was code, actually. An acronym. But Even This Heart.

Beth was a girl from First Colonial High who was special to Marc at the time. I only met her once. She was petite, with long blonde hair, a nice smile, and a really tall boyfriend. She came to the show that night. With her tall boyfriend. And we sang that song. She applauded, but I don’t think she ever knew it was about her. Nonetheless, we enjoyed playing that song. I remember the tune, and I remember how to play it. Unfortunately all that remains in my memory of the lyrics are the second verse and the chorus:

Everyday I wake up and pray that someday I’ll be with you.
Oh, my darling, I wonder if you even know there’s nothing that I wouldn’t do for you.

So, my darling let me tell you this:
If you ever need a friend I’ll be there,
Forever and ever.
But even this heart can bear
To wait for you.

My mom, a mere 43 years old at the time, was our biggest cheering section that night. She clapped with vigor and told the waitress several times that her son was the one with the black acoustic guitar. I soaked it up and will never forget it.

We played again the following week. This time Kevin and Cathy came, as did Marc’s dad and Cathy’s mom. The MC that evening was Robin Welch, the classical guitarist I had seen six years earlier. It turned out Cathy’s mom knew him, which I thought was cool. He was funny, and did a great job creatively introducing each act. He introduced us and we took the stage. We opened with a song I wrote, called “Rumors.” It was fun to play–  upbeat, in the key of G, with an aggressive strumming pattern. And Marc, an amazing lead guitarist, rocked that song with impressive riffs from start to finish. He put his whole body into those lead parts. I stuck to chords and lyrics. I remember very few of the words to that song. I do remember that it had a hint of an angry edge to it, and was a plea for all people to love each other rather than gossip about each other.

Next, we played “Melissa.” True, we had performed it the previous week, but we loved doing that song. It had interesting chords, a nice melody, and it just felt like a good summertime song. It was hard not to sing it with feeling:

Knowing many, loving none,
Bearing sorrow, having fun,
But back home he’ll always run,
To sweet Melissa.

For our third song we sang “Lay Me Down,” by The Connells, an eerily enchanting ballad about dying:

Sing to me sweetly as I turn sour.
Lay me down remembering.
Let the wind and the rain play their part in that dreadful hour.

And so as I pass, I too feel the power,
Laying here under the trees.
Three days before, I danced in a summer shower.

We closed with another original I had recently finished writing. It was called “Song for Cathy,” a ballad in the key of C, thanking her being my friend. I only remember the chorus:

So, I’ll sing a song of love
And I’ll give my life to God above,
and thank you for being my friend.
I’ve tried not to run from the fact
’cause wherever I go the truth comes back
that I’m in love with you,
I’m in love with you, my friend,
to the end.

In my mind’s eye, I can still see what each person at our “fan” table was doing as we performed that night. Cathy kept her gaze on Marc and me the entire show, smiling and lip syncing to every song. Every couple of minutes she sipped her glass of Coke through a clear straw while her reddish-brown curly hair slightly fluttered from the draft of the AC vent above. Kevin’s mullet did the same while he drank coffee from a white ceramic mug and bobbed his head to the rhythm of each song. Marc’s dad and Cathy’s mom periodically leaned in and made comments to each other while they watched us. It meant a lot to me that they came that night. I know, as a seventeen year old boy, my thoughts and emotions were constantly all over the map, as my mother would attest. So I found it cathartic simply to write what I was feeling, and then publicly express it to others through music. It was like therapy, in a way, or even somewhat like confession. Plus, I got to hang out with Marc and bounce the lyrics off of him as I wrote, which was always fun. It was an honor to have performed with him at that quirky deli by the Atlantic Ocean.

A week or so after that second performance, Mike and Elizabeth invited Cathy and me to join them at The Jewish Mother to see Lewis McGehee perform. Lewis was a well-known musician in the area, and had once toured with Bruce Hornsby. Mike had been taking guitar lessons from him and had been telling me how amazing he was. And so, the four of us met at the restaurant one Friday night around 8:00. It would be another 30 minutes before Lewis started his first set, so we ordered appetizers and drinks and talked. I could tell Mike enjoyed being around Elizabeth. She was a kindhearted Episcopalian girl he knew from church camp. She liked listening to Indigo Girls and reading Jospeh Girzone. I never got to know her very well, but I enjoyed hanging out with her and Mike a few times. Last I heard she lives in South Carolina in the same town as my sister.

When it was time for the show to start, Lewis McGehee walked onto the stage along with Michael McCarthy, his percussionist who also sang harmony for most of the songs. Lewis strapped on a sunburst Takamine acoustic, and Michael took his place behind a percussion contraption that looked like some type of Rube Goldberg machine. I spent the entire show in awe. The sound these two guys produced was almost unreal. I was particularly moved by their renditions of James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain” and Bob Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman.” I liked Lewis’s music so much that after the show I bought his most recent tape of original songs, “Distant Voices.” I listened to it repeatedly for the rest of that summer. Lewis still plays several times a week all over the Hampton Roads area. I hope to see him perform again someday.

Mike, Cathy, and Kevin were three of my closest friends that summer. But in the coming weeks and months, life brought about some of its periodic changes. Cathy went to northern Virginia for the month of August, and we drifted apart for a time. Mike had already graduated, so once school started I only saw him once every few weeks. Kevin joined the Marines, and I rarely saw him. It just wasn’t the same. I vividly remember pondering all of this one Friday afternoon in the living room of my house in Kempsville. I wanted to write about it but I just couldn’t describe what I was feeling. So I went over to the stereo and popped in Lewis McGehee’s “Distant Voices” tape. It was on the final song of Side B. The song was called “Mostly Me,” and the final verse grabbed hold of me and took my breath away:

Now this blue ink just can’t explain
Why this old boy ain’t been the same lately;
‘Cause there ain’t enough hues in the color wheel
That could rightly paint the way I feel today.
And though I’ve tried to make it rhyme
This pen can’t write what it can’t find.
Words won’t do,
Time can’t renew.
Something is lost,
But I guess it’s mostly me.
Yes, I guess it’s mostly me.

I would not have been able to more accurately describe what I was feeling. I missed my friends. Thankfully, I still had Marc, and we continued to write and perform music together. Randall soon joined as a percussionist, which really transformed our sound. Those two guys brought much happiness to my life for the remainder of that year, which turned out to be a great one.

Years later, in 2008, after leaving a disappointing Warrant concert at the boardwalk, my brother and I, along with my sister and her husband, walked to The Jewish Mother for a drink. As soon as we were seated my sister said, “I still remember coming here 17 years ago to hear you play.” The memory she evoked brought tears of joy to my eyes, and we toasted to good memories, good friends, good music, and good food.

In 2015, I learned Mike and Cathy had both recently lost their mothers. Strangely, that same day I found out The Jewish Mother had closed down for good. When I learned all of this, it weighed heavily on me. While I know my grief was nowhere near what each of these families had suffered, I still felt as if a part of me had died. The mothers of two of my best friends from my youth, and the iconic landmark where I spent time with those friends, were gone. I suddenly identified with the line in that 1980 Dan Fogelberg song:

“Just for a moment I was back at school, and felt that old familiar pain.” 

Some of it was sorrow for the suffering my two friends and their mothers experienced. Some of it was guilt that I wasn’t there for them when their mothers passed away. Some of it was just plain nostalgia for the memory of being together at The Jewish Mother during a simpler time. As my wife and I laid in bed that night, I could tell she knew something was bothering me. I opened up to her, and with tears I told her about the strange and confusing sense of loss I was feeling. She stroked my hair and said, “These things happen, honey. We’re all getting older. But you know as well I do that a day is coming when pain and loss will be no more.”

Her words were like a healing balm to my soul. They reminded me that the Faith I profess regularly in the Apostles’ Creed contains a promise that eventually all things will be made new and will last forever. In fact, the Man who stands at the center of this Faith would have grown up hearing his Jewish Mother read to him from the Book of Isaiah, which describes the new heaven as a place filled with good memories, good friends, good music, and good food. A place that never closes down, where friends never drift apart, where mothers never die, and where the food and wine are plentiful, delicious, and free. In the mean time, we rekindle old friendships and forge new ones. Listen to old songs and write new songs. Laugh a lot, live with passion, and let your words be a healing balm to the souls of all who hurt.


In recent months I’ve come to realize that it’s difficult to separate ourselves from the influences of our younger years. I’ve also come to see the beauty of reflecting on those influences. In my own life, music was a shaping influence from an early age. So when my long-time friend Jim Nowland and I recently conversed about an old Virginia concert venue known as The Boathouse, I started to think about a particular band I saw there in 1991. They were called The Connells. They were a Raleigh, North Carolina-based alternative rock band, with a sound slightly reminiscent of R.E.M., but less dark.

I was first introduced to The Connells by my friend Randall. We were both 16 at the time, juniors in high school. He was at Princess Anne, I was at Kempsville. It was late October. Randall and I, along with several dozen other rowdy teenagers were on a church youth retreat at a place called Eastover in Surry, Virginia, a quaint little place on the James River. Our youth director told us we could bring whatever music we wanted to listen to in our free time. So, Randall brought a boom box, and several cassettes. One evening I went into our room to wash my hands before dinner, and Randall was washing up while a song I had never heard was blaring from his boom box. The song was called “Something to Say.” I liked what I was hearing. And when the next song started, I was mesmerized. It was entitled “Fun ‘n’ Games” and was the title track of The Connells latest album. It started off with a simple but aggressively strummed chord progression on an acoustic guitar. A second acoustic guitar accompanied it with harmonics. My English teacher at the time was Mrs. Denson, and when I wasn’t staring at her, I was learning a lot about the significance of words, particularly when it came to the images artfully crafted words can evoke. So it struck a chord with me when I heard Doug MacMillan sing the first verse in his soft, distinct voice:

Let me tear down into your heart
Let me take a seat and stay awhile
Let me steal a glimpse of your eye
Let me pin it up and stare awhile

I found it haunting, yet beautiful. “Who is this?” I asked. “The Connells,” Randall said. “They’re from Raleigh and are pretty popular.” He played me a few more songs; “Uninspired,” “Fine Tuning,” and “Lay Me Down.” I was hooked. I scraped together ten bucks and the next weekend I went to Mother’s Records and Tapes and bought the tape. I loved every single song on it, and learned to play most of them on the guitar. A couple months later my friend Mike came over to the house. He was holding a cassette tape with a blue cover and different colored words splashed upon it. He said, “Check this out. It’s the latest album from The Connells. It’s called ‘One Simple Word.'” He popped the tape into my red boom box and played the song “Stone Cold Yesterday.” I loved it immediately. It had more of an electric sound than their previous albums, and was very upbeat and celebratory. Then he played the song “Waiting My Turn.” That particular acoustic ballad took me to another world, it was so beautiful. I learned it on the guitar that afternoon and a couple weeks later my friend Greg and I performed it in our high school library for an event that was taking place that day. Performing their songs would become a regular activity for several of us after that. Later that year when Randall, Marc, and I put a band together, we always opened our shows with Fun ‘N’ Games. And at the high school talent show, Mike asked me to play and sing “Lay Me Down” with his band, Ambidextrous Rex. We had a blast performing it. A.J. Booth, the MC of the show, told us he loved it, which made us feel good.

That summer, which was memorable for many reasons I’ll write about another time, Z104 announced that The Connells would be coming to The Boathouse in July. So, Randall, Jerrod, Cathy and I bought tickets that afternoon. When the day of the concert came, Randall drove us all in his navy blue Ford Escort Wagon. We stopped at Wendy’s on the way. Randall was driving so it was his job to give the order at the drive-through. He rolled down his window, and when the voice of the girl working there said the words, “May I take your order, please?,” Randall said, “I’ll have..” And then the rest of us in the car started yelling as loud as we could. We were teenagers, after all. We did stuff like that. When the chaos and laughter died down, Randall gave the order: “I’ll have four waters, please.” A silly thing to do, I suppose. But to this day we still laugh about it.

When we arrived at The Boathouse we ran into several of our friends. Randall and Jerrod saw people from Princess Anne and First Colonial. Cathy and I saw people from Kempsville, including Mike. I spotted the drummer, Peele Wimberly, leaning up against a post near the merchandise area while chatting with someone. I made my way over to him and introduced myself. We talked for a couple of minutes and then he said he needed to get backstage and prepare for the show.

Ten minutes later, the lights went dim, and the band members came onto the stage. They opened with the title track of their newest album: “One Simple Word.” Mike Connell’s guitar loudly rang out the first chord, and Doug MacMillan immediately belted out the first line in his amazing  tenor voice:

“Got the rest of the day, and I’ll share it with you.”

The drums and the bass guitar kicked in, the stage lights went bright, and the crowd erupted. The four of us who were there together raised our hands and shouted with joy. And for the next two hours we danced, sang, and shared a big paper cup of Pepsi. Hey, we were young, frugal, and not as germ conscious in those days. Don’t judge. We’re still alive.

Half-way through the show, Doug MacMillan strapped on an acoustic guitar. I yelled to my friends “Finally! He’s going to do ‘Waiting My Turn’!” But, no such luck. Instead, he played a song by The Beatles, entitled “Misery,” and I must say it was truly amazing. It was followed by a stunning performance of “Set the Stage,” one of my favorites from One Simple Word. It was a thrilling night. And when the show finally ended, we walked through the gravel parking lot to Randall’s car and he drove us all home. As I laid in bed that night I could still see the band on stage, playing, singing, and filling the air with good things. I drifted off to sleep with a feeling of happiness inside me. The next morning Cathy came over. Before going to lunch we listened to “Set the Stage” on my mom’s stereo just to try and make the euphoria from the previous night’s show last a little bit longer.

Two-and-a-half years later, during Christmas break of my Sophomore year of college, I made the nine hour drive from Knoxville, TN to Virginia Beach. The phone rang the morning after I arrived. It was Randall. “The Connells are in Virginia Beach today and will be signing autographs at a local music store at noon.” I called Greg and told him. The three of us met up, piled into my tiny red Nissan, and drove to the event. When we got there the band members were seated around a table next to a Christmas tree. Randall walked up to get their autographs and I snapped this picture:


I continued listening to their music throughout college. After college, Shelley and I moved to Raleigh, where I worked on my Masters Degree and served as a ministerial intern at Redeemer Presbyterian Church. One night Shelley came home from a baby shower at the home of a parishioner and said, “The party tonight was in a really cool neighborhood in the city. It’s called Boylan Heights.” When I heard those words- Boylan Heights- I was instantly reminded of The Connells second album with that same title. “Where The Connells used to live?,” I asked. “She smiled beautifully and said, “Yeah, that’s right.” For the rest of the evening I was humming “Choose a Side,” which was my favorite song on the Boylan Heights album.

As the years rolled on I eventually wore out or lost those Connells cassette tapes. But, in 2010 their music was finally released on iTunes. I felt like a kid at Christmas. I downloaded all of my favorites and listened to them repeatedly. I still listen to them. Almost daily.

Sadly, in 2011 The Boathouse was gutted and demolished. Just before the final wrecking balls would level it, however, my friend Jim snapped what was probably the last picture ever taken of the stage, which I will always treasure. The post on the far left is where I met Peele Wimberly.


After it was gone, local music columnist Paul Unger described The Boathouse as “a place that would melt your face with live music, and where you could count on running into ten of your friends on any given night.” I’d say that’s pretty accurate. It certainly was on that hot night in the summer of 1991 when The Connells played.

But it was more than that, too. As a minister in the theological tradition of the Reformation, I believe all good things come from God. Some might say this is a stretch, but as I reflect on the experiences my friends and I had with the music of The Connells, I believe something sacred was being planted in our lives. Specifically, the experience of joy. That’s what I still feel when I hear those songs. Joy. One simple word.

And now, for your listening pleasure, I give you the song “One Simple Word.” It’s best if you play it loud. And dance. And share a big paper cup of Pepsi with some friends. It’ll bring you joy.

Beale Street Night Shot

While I was working out at the gym this evening, I heard Marc Cohn’s song, “Walking in Memphis.” I couldn’t stop smiling as it played. It brings a chain of memories to mind, all of them humorous, at least to me.

I first heard it in 1991, when I was seventeen and living in Virginia Beach. A group of friends were at the house one evening and someone starting singing it.

My friend Kevin, a talented singer in his own right, said, “I don’t get that song. ‘Walking with my feet ten feet off a beer?’ That doesn’t make any sense.”
Marc chimed in, “No, goofball. It’s Beale. Ten feet off of Beale.”
“That still doesn’t make any sense. What’s a Beale?” Greg asked.
Chris and John then informed us that they had been to Memphis the previous year, and Beale was a street downtown.
“Ohhhh…” a few people said in unison, indicating that it all made sense now.
Cathy then interjected, “You know the piano part in that song? It’s actually just the chords to the song ‘Heart and Soul’ played with a slight variation.”
We were learning all kinds of things that night.
A few months later, Kevin joined the Marines. After boot camp they stationed him in Memphis for training.

Fast forwarding to Spring Break of 1993. Freshman year of college. Scott, Craig, Steve and I decided to drive from Knoxville, Tennessee to Dallas, Texas. The first night we stopped in Memphis. We walked on Beale Street, and we saw the statue of W.C. Handy, referenced in the song:

“W.C. Handy, won’t you look down over me.”

Then we spent the night in West Memphis at the most awful hotel I’ve ever seen. We stayed up most of the night laughing. The next morning we got in trouble by the manager for having four people in a two person room. We had to fork over another 10 bucks. Thanks, Memphis.

Fast forward to May of 1996. We were seniors in college and were looking forward to the annual letter from Walter Halen, the manager of the campus bookstore, announcing when he would be buying back our used textbooks. One day several of us went to the mail room and found the letter in our mailboxes. Mr. Halen stated that he would be buying back books the next day, and that he would be “looking out” for us seniors because he knew we could use the extra money. We noticed he signed the letter, “W.C. Halen.” My wife, Shelley, then lifted her hands to the air, tilted her head back, and belted out in perfect key: “W.C. Halen, won’t you look down over me.” I couldn’t stop laughing.

On to June of 2007. By that time I had been a Presbyterian minister for eight years, and our annual denominational meeting was being held in Memphis. My colleagues Andy and Aaron and I traveled there together. On the first night, we went downtown. It was bustling with people. We walked into a restaurant on Beale Street, and a musician was playing the guitar and singing “Walking in Memphis.” The hostess took us upstairs to the roof, where we ordered potato skins and beer. As my five pastor friends and I stood on the balcony above overlooking all of the happenings on Beale Street, I said, “Hey, do you realize where our feet are right now?” They all shrugged. “They’re ten feet off of Beale!” We stayed there for hours, telling stories, talking about our ministries, and enjoying the music all around us.

Funny how a song can spark so many old memories and start so many new ones.


On a humid night in August of 1989, I went with my brother, Scott, along with my friends Chris and Lori, to the rough-and-tumble concert venue known as “The Boathouse” in Norfolk, Virginia, to see the band Warrant. They were the typical glam metal hairband of that era, and the concert was not without its share of shenanigans such bands were known for producing. But one thing struck me that night: The lead singer, Jani Lane, was an extraordinary vocalist. He was skinny, tattooed, with long bleached blonde hair and startling blue eyes. And man, could he sing. Most of the songs were characteristic of late 80’s metal bands, having to do with alcohol, parties, and not-so-thinly veiled references to sex. Near the end of the show, however, the rest of the band left the stage but Jani remained. He strapped on a white acoustic guitar and began playing a power ballad he wrote, entitled “Heaven.” As he sang that song, the sea of people cloaked in jean jackets, frizzy hair, acne and booze fell silent, fixated on Jani’s every move and word. I recall seeing a few tough rockers shedding tears as they held up their lighters during the chorus:

Heaven isn’t too far away
We’re closer to it every day
No matter what you’re friends might say
We’ll find our way

In watching Jani sing that song, it was clear that there was more to him than spandex, beer, women, and fame. You couldn’t help but believe that he was deeply longing for a better place beyond all of those things, and was searching for a world that could offer him a peace that passed all understanding.

19 years later I saw Warrant in concert again. This time they were playing a free concert at an outdoor stage in Virginia Beach. And it was so sad. Jani was overweight, off key, and noticeably disoriented. More noticeably, his countenance displayed such unhappiness. My brother and sister and I left before the concert was over because it was too uncomfortable to watch.

Three years later Jani died of acute alcohol poisoning. It turns out he had been a very troubled man for quite some time, and had been feeding his addictions to try and take away the pain that was so deeply imbedded in his life.

A tragic story, and not an uncommon one. It’s tempting to criticize the choices Jani made, or to feel superior to him for living a more upstanding life than he did. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in seventeen years as a Pastor, it’s this: Jesus came into this world to be close to people like Jani.

Psalm 34 states, “God is close to the brokenhearted, and he saves all those who are crushed in spirit.”

Wouldn’t that apply to Jani Lane? Isn’t it the job of the church to incarnate the grace of God and the hope of Heaven to those who struggle with guilt, depression, and other tormenting forces? The truth is, we all have our demons to battle. In fact, we all have our own addictions we run after to try and numb our pain. Many of our addictions are less noticeable than Jani’s, but no less damaging to our souls. I’ve sometimes been addicted to being liked, being right, and being successful. And I can tell you it’s a reckless and dangerous way to live. The point is, I need the Hound of Heaven just as much as Jani. I need to be reminded, through the Word and through the Eucharist, that Heaven isn’t too far away, and we’re closer to it every day. Thanks be to God.

Jani, my friend, this one’s for you.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 203 other followers