4

274: Tim Hardin, ‘Reason to Believe’

Posted by jeff on Dec 1, 2017 in Personal, Rock, Song Of the week

Tim Hardin’s ‘Reason to Believe’ has always struck me as The Perfect Song.

It’s a completely realized emotional vignette, life on a 45 (1966, pre-FM rock radio). He knows she lies to him. But he also knows that she’s the very essence of love, and he consciously chooses to close his eyes to her deceit.

The structure of the song, the lyrics the performance, the arrangement – all precise and wrenching. No dramatic shows of emotion, no fireworks. Everything is direct, to the point, sans histrionics. “Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus, by use all gently, for in the very torrent, tempest, and (as I may say) whirlwind of your passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness.”

It seems to me that the juxtaposition of the searing emotion and the restraint of the presentation are the key. The guy is falling apart. What does he wear on his sleeve? The second time he sings “knowing that you lied” he takes it up an octave. Well within his range, no strain. Just a little bleep on the emotionagraph. But his voice cracks from the weight of the pain.

Less is more.

Tim Hardin has perhaps the finest career I know of based on the fewest accomplishments. Two significant LPs in his mid-20s, a drug-ruined mess by 30, dead at 39, far fewer than a dozen great songs. But there is that handful of great songs that are so incontestably fine, beautiful gems, that he earned himself a place in the rock pantheon way before he started burning himself out. ‘Misty Roses’, ‘If I Were A Carpenter’, ‘How Can We Hang On to a Dream?’, ‘Black Sheep Boy‘, ‘Lady Came from Baltimore’, and ‘Reason to Believe’. His songs are AM-length, barely two minutes long. But he managed to do more in two minutes than many others did in decades of writing and recording.

Each song is a paragon of honesty and restraint. Beautiful and precious, but without a millitrace of the maudlin. I guess it was hard to be so honest.

I’ve been puzzling over a certain aspect of my own mind/life that I’d like to share with you. Perhaps by trying to explain it, I’ll understand it a bit better. Or perhaps you’ll find it interesting, or even identify with it a bit. Or maybe you’ll find it the issue really obvious and you’ll explain it to me.

It’s certainly not the text. I’ve never been lied to by a lover. My many disappointments in life do not include having been deceived. Tim Hardin’s story has nothing to do with me on an experiential level.

But the color of the emotion? That’s me.
Like in Stanislavski’s Method Acting—you need to portray Romeo’s loss of Juliet? Draw from your sadness over your cat that OD’d on chocolate last week. Find an emotional corollary. It doesn’t have to be the same experience. Just to have the same color.

I know that in my days as a playwright, I always strove for the understated in all facets. I even loved the engineering character of being a “playwright”: literally, a builder of plays. My producer/director buddy (Hi, Howie!) would always push me to paint in stronger colors. To push conflicts more towards the fireworks that the stage and the audience love so much. And I would always respond that a silence can always be so much more eloquent than words.

I always felt that I fell into playwriting by mistake. I should have been a lyric poet cum guitar, a Tim Hardin or a John Sebastian or a James Taylor. The great understaters. To emote and die just a little in my closed room, just me and guitar. But circumstances sometimes trump inclination.

My favorite color? Brown. My wardrobe pretty much ranges from amber through buff and chestnut and khaki and tan all the way to umber. Earth colors. I guess I somehow equate restraint with honesty.

My mother passed away almost ten years ago. She was a strong personality, opinionated, gregarious, public in her deportment, a writer. Me, too. She was a successful newspaper columnist for many years. My style of writing is much more similar to hers than is comfortable for me to admit.

I resemble her physically, mentally. But she was a very difficult person, so much so that I think that perhaps the greatest drive in my life has been to differentiate myself from her. To avoid some of her modes of behavior that are my natural inclination, but of which I disapprove. My disdain for certain ways that she behaved and thought and spoke and wrote is so strong that I can’t comfortably allow myself to appreciate even those traits that I know were indeed admirable.

Hyperbole, for example. In my writing and speech, I often exaggerate. Greatly. But my intention is that the exaggeration is so patently false that the reader will understand it and be amused. My mother would exaggerate less flagrantly, but she meant it. I feel she was trying to get away with bullshit. Successfully. She had about ten thousand times more readers than this blog does (without exaggeration). Her hundreds of thousands of readers bought it. But to my mind, she was speaking falsely, and I disapprove of that.

My question to myself is this: To what degree am I – the abstract skeleton of my mind and my heart and my soul, the most real me – formed by the musics, the books, the films and television that I am drawn to?
To what degree are the emotional and moral and behavioral choices I make in my life – the acts which comprise and define me in the real world – dictated by my aesthetic sense?

I have a hunch that I spend more time examining artistic creations of different sorts, especially music, than most people. I don’t necessarily deem that a good thing, just a predilection that I’m reconciled with, because it’s who I am. I’m pretty sure that there are many intelligent, sensitive people who enjoy music more than I do, even if they ‘know’ less. Because they know less. Because they’re capable of turning off their research brain and just enjoying it, which has always been a weakness of mine. I’ll stand on the side and analyze the band, maybe go backstage and chat with them about the arc of their oeuvre, rather than get out on the floor and dance.

If I’m playing with my grandchild with Bill Evans in the background, I’ll work to focus on the kid, because I deem that more important. But it’s a struggle, because my mind’s inclination is towards music. That’s the internal dialectic I’ve worked with all my life.

Do I go where I go, seek what I seek in life because that restraint in Tim Hardin’s creation is an aesthetic I choose to emulate and practice?

Or do I think ‘Reason to Believe’ is a perfect song because it conforms with the values of the person I am?

I really don’t know. I’m not even sure if the question is clear to me, let alone the answer. If it makes sense to you, let me know. I’m puzzled.

In the meantime, I’ll try to listen to some music I value – like ‘Reason to Believe’ – while trying to lead a life according to the principles I believe in. Quietly, with restraint, hopefully honestly.

 

If I listened long enough to you, I’d find a way to believe that it’s all true,
Knowing that you lied straight faced while I cried–
Still I look to find a reason to believe.

Someone like you makes it hard to live without somebody else.
Someone like you makes it easy to give never thinking of myself.

If I gave you time to change my mind, I’d find a way to leave the past behind,
Knowing that you lied straight faced while I cried–
Still I look to find a reason to believe.

(break)

If I listened long enough to you, I’d find a way to believe that it’s all true,
Knowing that you lied straight faced while I cried–
Still I look to find a reason to believe.

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6

271: Laura Nyro, ‘Walk on By’ (Bootleg Collection)

Posted by jeff on Sep 20, 2017 in Personal, Rock, Song Of the week

It’s Erev Rosh HaShana, the eve of the Jewish New Year. I’m (supposed to be) all geared up to stand before my Maker, give account for whether I’ve been naughty or nice during the past year, and to pray very very very hard for a positive review in the book of life for the upcoming year (ה’תשע”ח, 5778 by our count).

To tell the truth, it’s a bit hard to be writing about rock music as that Book of Life is being dusted off, the Celestial Inkwell refilled, the Quill of Fate sharpened. I need to write a posting about Penitence (you’d be surprised how impenitent rock stars tend to be), the Cycle of the Year (b-o-r-i-n-g), or at least Jewish peoplehood.  And y’all people were so nice about the piece I posted a few weeks ago about Laura Nyro’s stunning live bootleg version of ‘Stoney End’. So here goes:

Spring, 1970, Kent State. “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”. Bill went Westwards. Mike went south. I went to the East.

I became tribal. We all needed a belief to cling to. 1970 was a seller’s market, and a lot of new beliefs, cults, religions were hitting the shelves. I decided to go for The Hoary. I figured if my direct ancestors had been practicing our particular breed of ritual and practice and deportment for 3000 years, that was a good enough starting point for me. So I chose to strap myself to the Jewish tradition, all the way from Adherence to Zionism.

So I tend to perceive the world through Jewish and Israeli eyes (and in our case, ears). I’ve been doing my bi-annualish Laura Nyro binge on her early years (nothing new there), her first album (excavating treasures from underneath the layers of mucky arrangements), and especially the bootlegs from that period.

And I’ve been listening to Laura as a 19-year old Jewish girl pounding the piano and singing her Jewish heart out. As far as I know, Laura ignored her ancestry (she was ¾ Jewish, only her paternal grandfather was Italian), as did most of the other Jewish girls I knew in 1968 (including Carole King, Janis Ian, Carly Simon, Lesley Gore, Bette Midler, Cass Eliot, and Barbra Streisand).

That doesn’t stop me from retrospectively listening to Laura through parochial ears. I would think that even a Martian observer would detect a certain irony here—so many people ignoring or denying how much their common ancestry has informed them. To be perfectly honest, perhaps the galvanizing moment of my life was sitting in an SDS meeting (as a beer-carrying observer), listening to Messrs Klein, Rothman, Blackman, Cohen and Steinberg bashing Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.

Laura has a Jewish soul. Not a solely Jewish soul. Soon we’ll get to her Motown in My Soul. But the passion, the compassion, the drive to describe and define and analyze—I see these as part of the Jewish character.

So I decided to present you this week with a Rosh HaShana gift – a collection of live bootlegs of Laura performing songs which never appeared on her official studio albums (maybe for Vol. 2 we’ll  – all covers, mostly Motown-ish, garnished at the end with a few standards. The order is chronological. For my ears, and I hope for yours, this is a treasure trove of obscure delights:

1. ‘Walk On By’ (Fillmore East, June 20, 1970 )

Written by Burt Bacharach/Hal David for Dionne Warwick. SoTW 034 tells the whole story.

2. ‘Up On the Roof’ (Fillmore East, June 20, 1970 )

Written by Carole King/Gerry Goffin for The Drifters. I told the whole Carole King story in SoTW 234: Carole King, ‘Up On the Roof’ (Live, 1971). Someday maybe I’ll write yet another post about why I think Laura owns the song more than The Drifters or even Carole King herself.

The only song in this collection which did appear on an official album (“Christmas and the Beads of Sweat”), I believe the only cover she recorded other than “Gonna Take a Miracle”. I cheated. Sue me.

3-4. ‘Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing’/’Natural Woman’ (Fillmore East May 30, 1971)

3 Written by Nickolas Ashford & Valerie Simpson for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell.

4 Written by Goffin/King with Jerry Wexler for Aretha Franklin.

5. ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow’ (Japan, 1972)

Written by Carole King/Gerry Goffin for The Shirelles. The whole story is in SoTW 182: The Shirelles, ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow’

6. ‘Come and Get These Memories’ (Japan, 1972)

Written by Holland-Dozier-Holland for Martha and the Vandellas. SoTW 062 tells the story of another hit of theirs.

7. ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’ (Japan, 1972)

Written by Nickolas Ashford & Valerie Simpson for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell.

8-9. ‘I’m So Proud’/’Dedicated to the One I Love’ (NYC, June 27, 1990)

8 written by Curtis Mayfield for his group The Impressions.

9 written by Lowman Pauling and Ralph Bass, made famous by The Shirelles and The Mamas and The Papas.

10. ‘Baby, It’s You’ (“Late Sky”, unreleased studio recording, 1994-5)

Written by Carole King/Gerry Goffin for The Shirelles. Later recorded by The Beatles.

11. ‘I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself’ (“Late Sky”, 1994-5)

Written by Burt Bacharach/Hal David for Dusty Springfield.

12. ‘He Was Too Good to Me’ (“Late Sky”, 1994-5)

Written by Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart in 1930, eventually becoming a jazz standard (here by Chet Baker).

13. ‘Let It Be Me’ (“Late Sky”, 1994-5)

Composed by Gilbert Bécaud in 1955, a hit for The Everly Brothers in 1960 and for Betty Everett and Jerry Butler in 1964.

14. ‘Embraceable You’ (“Late Sky”, 1994-5)

Written by George and Ira Gershwin in 1928, eventually becoming a jazz standard (here by Judy Garland).

 

So that’s my Rosh HaShana gift to y’all. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

If I may be so haughty as to address The World on behalf of the Jewish people, we have tried throughout the millennia to contribute to the world we live in. As the prophet Isaiah says (42:6):

I the LORD have called you in righteousness, and shall hold your hand and keep you and give you as a people’s covenant, as a light for the nations.

אֲנִי ה’ קְרָאתִיךָ בְצֶדֶק, וְאַחְזֵק בְּיָדֶךָ; וְאֶצָּרְךָ, וְאֶתֶּנְךָ לִבְרִית עָם–לְאוֹר גּוֹיִם.

Over the last 100 years, we’ve contributed not a little to popular culture (Vaudeville, Hollywood, Broadway). More specifically for our concerns here, we’ve given you ¾ of Laura Nyro, and 8 of the 14 songs here.

Wishing everyone, everywhere, regardless of race, creed, color, gender or musical taste a very good year, a Shana Tova, full of health, happiness, pleasant surprises, and great music.

 

 

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3

268: Damien Rice, ‘The Blower’s Daughter’ (Natalie Portman’s Aunt)

Posted by jeff on Aug 11, 2017 in Personal, Song Of the week

 

Irish singer

Damien Rice — ‘The Blower’s Daughter’

Damien Rice is an Irish singer-songwriter, a former busker with three commercially successful, aesthetically appealing albums under his belt featuring close-miked, acoustic, naked songs, including ‘The Blower’s Daughter’, the haunting theme song for Mike Nichols’ 2004 film “Closer”.

Mike Nichols (ne Mikhail Igor Peschkowsky) was sent alone to America at seven with his three-year old brother to escape the Nazis. He’s the auteur not only of “Virginia Woolf”, “The Graduate”, but also of the disquieting film “Closer” starring (and they really are all stellar) Julia Roberts, Jude Law, Clive Owens and Natalie Portman, the latter two nominated for Oscars for their roles.

It’s an elegant, unsettling film I found more even more evocative, distasteful, and memorable in the second viewing (Law: “You kissed me!” Roberts: “What are you, twelve?”). Four beautiful actors portraying serially shifting couples, a morally repugnant ménage à quatre driven by three self-satisfied professionals and one enigmatic waif of a stripper. I just might suffer through the film a third time.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is all we have to say about music this week. Full disclosure: ‘The Blower’s Daughter’ was nothing more than a tenuous (at best) excuse to talk about Natalie Portman’s aunt.

Buckeye princess

I went through high school with Leslie Stevens.
That’s a misrepresentation.
Leslie Stevens graced Woodward HS with her regal presence during the years I happened to be registered there.
Leslie will be remembered till eternity by everyone who was there as the epitome of beauty and grace.
(For the record, if anyone remembers me, it’s as “that loud kid who was always making bad jokes, all the teachers’ most unfavorite burden.”)

I don’t remember ever speaking to Leslie, even though we participated in a goodly number of stage productions together. Or rather, I somehow snuck onto the stage which existed solely for her to stand spotlighted in its center. I suppose we also took classes together, but those data cells have long since faded. Not so her face, her smile, her body in mid-dance, her aura. Those memories I’ll take to the grave.

What could a mere commoner (a coarse one at that) say to such an aristocratic presence?
“Did you do your geometry homework?”
“Your scene was stunning”?
“Your dance was breathtaking”?
“Your beauty is proof of God’s existence”?

Aaron sent me some clippings from the Bulldog Barks, including my review of “Rubber Soul” the month it was released, my first venture into the non-existent (1965) field of rock journalism. That means I’ve been writing about music for 52 years. I suppose I deserve some points at least for stamina.

In one of the pictures, I’m standing next to Leslie Stevens. If asked, I would deny ever having stood next to her. I suppose I went catatonic, so the event was never recorded in my adolescent ‘brain’. But the picture is there, proof of just how reliable my memory is.

Aaron played George to Leslie’s Emily in Thornton Wilder’s masterpiece “Our Town”. I played George’s father, Dr. Gibbs. I of course had no scenes with Leslie. Fathers-in-law in Grover’s Corner didn’t talk to their perspective DiL. (I’m fortunate enough to have a lovely one with whom I speak frequently and warmly.) Of course, Mr Webb has that great scene with his son-in-law-to-be; but, alas, such was not the fate of the lad that was me.

In the play, George kisses Emily. In other words, Aaron kissed Leslie. Aaron, full disclosure: I’ve never really gotten over that.

Skip forward some 15 years, to the early 1980s. I’m doing reserve duty as a medic in the Israeli Defense Forces in a clinic in an old British Mandate army camp in Jerusalem, right in the middle of Mea Shearim, the ultra-Orthodox bastion. It’s late, it’s boring, and I’m playing Jewish Geography with the army physician on duty, a Dr Hershlag.

“Do you have kids?” he asks.
“Yeah, a daughter and a son. You?”
“A baby daughter, Neta-Li (נטע-לי). So where are you from originally?”
“Ah, Cincinnati.”
“Cincinnati? My wife’s from Cincinnati!”
“Really? What’s her name?”
“Shelley. Shelley Stevens.”
“Nope, didn’t know her. I knew a Leslie Stevens in high school.”
“That’s her sister! Hey, soldier, are you okay?”

Skip forward another dozen or so years, still BI (Before Internet). My high school friend Marc is sitting in my living room in Israel.
“Did you know that Leslie Stevens’ daughter got into the movies?” he asks.
“Not too shocking,” I reply. If she’s anything like her aunt, it’s no surprise, we concurred.
“Her name is Natalie something.”
I guess I had read about the child star of “Léon”, that she was Israeli-born. I processed this for a moment and responded:
“Not her daughter. Her niece.”

I’ve been probably more enthralled by Natalie Portman over the years than most humans, and that’s saying a lot.
It’s not just because I find her to be Beauty Incarnate. Everyone knows that.
It’s because she’s a dead ringer for Aunt Leslie. Not just those cheekbones. Not just the shape of her smile.
It’s the deportment. The regality. The perfection.

I’ve seen pictures of her parents. I’m sure they’re both very nice people, but her genes are those of her aunt.
This I know.

I was recently watching the opening shot of “Jackie”. I see that face and I say casually to myself, “Oh, there’s Leslie! My God, she’s beautiful.” And then I catch myself. It’s not Leslie, it’s the niece.

“They” often say that a man often resembles his maternal uncle. I know it’s true in my case. I saw him rarely during my life, but I always felt an mystic genetic bond with him. The coloring, the posture, the teeth, the penchant for telling shaggy dog stories. How often I would make some remark or gesture, and my mother would turn to my father and say “It’s Shim.”

Sister, niece

That uncle-aunt/nephew-niece relationship can be a landmine. Almost Parents, but who really cares? I know I always expected my uncle to understand me and care about me a lot more than he did, and it caused me no little disappointment at various crossroads throughout my life. But at least our relationship wasn’t as pathological as that of Uncle Charlie and Niece Charlie in Hitchcock’s masterful “Shadow of a Doubt”.

I have no idea what the relationship is between Leslie and Neta-Li, if there is one. I have no idea if the rest of the family is as acutely aware of the dopplegangery going on there as I am.

I do know one thing. That no matter how much the entire world thinks that Natalie Portman is The Most Beautiful Woman in the Universe – and I don’t disagree – I know she’s a copy. A divine copy.

But I know that you, Leslie, wherever you are, however you are, even if you weigh 350 pounds, have more wrinkles than a sea anemone, are drying out from multiple addictions and personality disorders, whatever ravages Father Time has wrought upon you—for me you will always be the most beautiful girl in the world.

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5

090: The Cyrkle, ‘Red Rubber Ball’

Posted by jeff on Apr 6, 2017 in Personal, Rock, Song Of the week

Back in the days when I played a lot of guitar (well, to be more precise, I played a great quantity of very little guitar), this strange thing would happen. I’d hear a song, it would appeal to me, I’d write down the lyrics by running the cassette 3 seconds at a time, figure out the chords as well as I could (I was pretty good on the basics, till you get into the minor 7/Augmented 17+s), transpose it into a singable key, figure out some picking or strumming from the very limited repertoire of my right hand, and have a go at it. If it felt good, I’d pursue it, practice it, 20 or 30 or 40 times, and try it in front of an audience (usually starting with my wife while she was making dinner, striving desperately for a “That’s nice, Jeff.”). At that point, it still belonged at least some degree to the original from which I’d pinched it. But after a while–let’s say after playing it 100 times–it became mine. Even if it was a Beatles song which was hardwired in my brain, note for note of every instrument, my treatment gained its own autonomy, and became a living, breathing entity in my brain. It became the default version in my mind’s ear.

In 1964 a frat band called the Rhondells from Lafayette College in Easton, PA (not to be confused with the Rhondels from Virginia Beach, VA) was playing a seedy, pre-gambling resort in Atlantic City. They were heard by Nat Weiss, a would-be entrepreneur who actually did book The Beatles’ Carnegie Hall and Shea Stadium concerts in 1964 and 1965. Weiss got the band some gigs in Greenwich Village, changed their name (apocryphally upon advice from his buddy Brian Epstein and Brian’s client John Lennon) to The Cyrkle.

After Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel recorded their first LP, a derivative collection of folk standards with a couple of Simon originals thrown in, Paul split for London. Unbeknownst to him, a Columbia Records producer had overdubbed drums and an electric guitar, resulting in the career-making hit “The Sounds of Silence”. Paul had no idea this was going on, and was having a great time with a girl named Kathy and writing a couple of songs with a Bruce Woodley of the Australian band The Seekers (‘Georgy Girl‘). These songs were never recorded officially by Simon and Garfunkel, which makes no sense at all, because they were stars without a catalogue of songs to perform. Don’t blame me, I just bear witness to the events.

By the way, this was the time I saw S&G perform in Meadville, Pennsylvania, just the two of them, acoustic, playing their hits ‘SoS’, ‘Homeward Bound’ and ‘I am a Rock’. I walked into the dressing room to interview them, my frizzy hair all a-frizz, when very short Paul looked at his partner and said, “Hey, Art, this guy looks just like you.” They were warm and open interviewees, but mega-stardom was still a year or so away.

S&G went on tour, with Cyrkle member Tom Dawes playing bass in their band while his co-founder bandmate Don Dannemann was doing reserve duty in the Coast Guard (I’m guessing you might not have known that fact). Brian Epstein was managing The Cyrkle by then, which gave them no small degree of aura. Paul offered his two songs to Tom, who recorded them under the supervision of master producer John Simon. ‘Red Rubber Ball‘ reached #2 on the charts; and the very lovely ‘I Wish You Could Be Here‘, teetering between maudlin and moving, made it onto their rather unmemorable album (yes, I owned it, and once upon a time knew it by heart). They toured as the opening act for The Beatles in the US in 1966 (now that I think of it— that’s when I saw The Beatles. I must have seen them! I have no recollection of The Cyrkle. I’m really, really sorry, guys. But I guess you probably got enough out of that tour for my not remembering you to not make a serious dent in your memories or bank account.) They had one more hit, the lovely ‘Turn-Down Day‘, which I remember air-guitar singing in a Pepsi Cola factory with my friend Aaron. See, I do remember some things.

And I certainly do remember the song ‘Red Rubber Ball‘, because I performed it about a trillion times. It became a sort of signature song for me in the teenie-weenie cyrkle of venues I used to play back then.

So here you go, all you bulging and balding baby boomers: ‘Red Rubber Ball’ as performed by The Seekers (I recommend skipping this one), by Simon and Garfunkel in a live recording released on the “Old Friends” compilation in 1997 (don’t miss this one), by Jeff Meshel (use your discretion), and by good old Cyrkle, the version everyone remembers and knows and loved, way back in good old 1966.

If you enjoyed this SoTW post, you may also like:

078: Paul Simon, ‘The Late, Great Johnny Ace’

043: The Left Banke, ‘Pretty Ballerina’

Jeff Meshel’s Music (only if you’re really compulsive)

Lyrics

I should have known you’d bid me farewell

There’s a lesson to be learned from this and I learned it very well

Now, I know you’re not the only starfish in the sea

If I never hear your name again, it’s all the same to me

And I think it’s gonna be alright

Yeah, the worst is over now

The mornin’ sun is shinin’ like a red rubber ball

 

You never care for secrets I confide

For you, I’m just an ornament, somethin’ for your pride

Always runnin’, never carin’, that’s the life you live

Stolen minutes of your time were all you had to give

 

It’s a story from the past with nothin’ to recall

I’ve got my life to live and I don’t need you at all

The roller-coaster ride we took is nearly at an end

I bought my ticket with my tears, that’s all I’m gonna spend

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