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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Having a picnic with Mark & George

Don't read this if you think it's wrong to have a picnic on a grave.

Yesterday I met Mark Hamilton, my brother George's best friend and band mate, for a picnic on George's grave.

I spread an old purple chenille bedspread on the grass and we sat down, opened up our McDonald's bags, ate our fish sandwiches and talked about George and the weather, Mark's bus-driving job, George's music, our dogs....

Why do we smile on a grave? Maybe because we know we were lucky to have George for the time we did. Or maybe we're just automatic photo-smilers...?
It was very ordinary. After we were done munching our grub, Mark pulled out his beautiful acoustic guitar and George's ancient notebook of songs. Mark keeps the notebook in a plastic envelope to protect it. The cover is still green, but the pages are curled and brown at the edges.

George's notebook includes complete summer tour schedule arrangements with plans for four sets of songs, plus pictures that he drew of the band's future boat, jet, and van. DIAMONDS, the band name, is scrawled across all the vehicles.

It's been 34 years since George died. He was 13 years old and Mark was 15 at the time. They were going to be rock stars. They'd already gone through a couple of band names and played a few gigs in public. Mark told me that George was probably such a musical natural because he was named for two Beatles.

"Well, the 'George' was for our grandfather," I explained to Mark. "But I'll take credit for his middle name. I asked my parents to choose 'Paul' because I was a Beatlemaniac." George was born on January 16, 1965, at the height of Beatlemania.

Mark started picking at the guitar. The notes were soft and I looked at the granite gravestone. I felt myself soften. Mark sang the first song in George's book. I joined him. The song wasn't bad. As we continued through the book, I could hear some influences of Beatles and Led Zeppelin. It was 1978 when George wrote the songs, after all. I'm sure there are KISS influences - George and Mark loved KISS - but I don't know enough about KISS music to tell.

I have been a writer my whole life, but I've never written a song. (Well that's not quite true. There was that one tune when I was in eighth grade and struggling over which boy I liked best. I sang it before bed: "Whom shall I kiss tonight? I guess I love you all the same...." I can still remember the tune; it was very Sandra Dee-esque. A linguistic detective might note that the "Whom" in the lyric signals the future English major.)

Anyway, I'm amazed that George was only 13 and a half years old when he died - going into the eighth grade - and he had written at least ten songs. I have copies of them. In the green notebook, the song titles are written in red ink and the lyrics in blue. Each song includes its length in minutes and seconds, and most include chord notation. The titles are: "I need you," "Lights of fortune," "War," "Tribute to love," "Writing a song about you," "Did you ever?" "Summer harmony," and "Cromagnum man" (his spelling). Other songs I've found on separate pages are "I was on the town" and "Phoenix."

George's lyrics are about love... and marriage. My favorite is "War," which seems prescient:

By George Grenier

I'm sittin' at home, all free and clean
A guy drives up in a black limousine
I was afraid at the sight of that car
for on the door it said war

War, all blood and death and dying
War, all the good and innocent people crying
War, I don't need it, I don't want it
War, I want to get out, that's what they shout
You'll be dead before you reach the city

If I'm gone, before you wake,
remember I'll never forget you, 'cause if I'm going to die
I want to say goodbye, because I'll always love you...

George died in a car, in a collision with a semi. I hate semis. The vehicle in his song "War" is a limousine, but the association of a vehicle and death in the song has always chilled me. And then George bids us all goodbye and love at the end.

At the end of "Summer harmony," George's words are:

If it don't work out, I will try
my best to marry you before I die

Those are the words that choke Mark up when he sings and remembers his friend who clearly wanted to grow up and get married some day. George had a rock star dream, and it included a wife.

I think George's set list gives an idea of where his head was musically:

First set
Cold Gin - KISS
Writing a song about you - Diamonds
Maybe I'm amazed - Beatles
Jungle love - Steve Miller
Got to choose - KISS
Summer harmony - Diamonds
Lucy in the sky with diamonds - Beatles

Second set
Do you feel like I do? - Frampton
War - Diamonds
God of thunder - KISS
You never give me your money - Beatles
Lights of fortune - Diamonds
Came in through the bathroom window - Beatles
Carry that weight - Beatles

Third set
Venus and Mars - Wings
Rock show - Wings
Did you ever - Diamonds
Venus and Mars (Reprise) - Wings
Sgt. Pepper's lonely hearts club band - Beatles
Tribute to love - Diamonds
Jet airliner - Steve Miller

Fourth set
Cromagnum man [sic] - Diamonds
Without you - Nilsson
First girl - Diamonds
Space man - Nilsson
I need you - Diamonds
Writing a song about you - Diamonds
Strutter - KISS

The notebook includes George's plans for a Diamonds album, with four original songs to a side.
His liner notes include these:
Bob Axt - bass and vocals;
George Grenier - lead guitar and vocals;
Pat McGavick - drums and vocals,
Mark Hamilton - rhythm guitar and vocals.
Photographer John Lampertious.
Special effects - Bob. O. and Dan B.
Lighting - Jim B. and Mark K.
Fan club - Pres. Dan B.; V. Pres. Mike T.
Produced and managed by George Grenier/Mark Hamilton
All songs rights reserved 1978-79.

I'm not sure what "special effects" were, but I know that George and Mark liked to play with fire. Scary.

The note about song rights reserved gets me. 1978-79. George never saw 1979. But he sure dreamed big.

So may we all.

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