Pop Pop Pop Goes the Fourth

BOSTON — Standing on the Cambridge side of the Charles River, under one of the 10 giant amplifiers mounted on portable towers where it was ironically quietest, we thousands had the best view for the fireworks but the hundreds of thousands at the amphitheater seemed distant and behind trees at that.

What do you do on a national holiday while on vacation? It’s a long time to sis-boom-bah, and it’s our last day. We took a subway train to the Shops at Prudential Center and checked out Levenger. It began to rain. We ate sushi and noodle soup, having liked it the previous Friday, at Zen. She walked to the hotel to begin to pack. I walked through the Granary Burial Ground then Boston Common (she had done this while I was in the conference of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.)

On Monday the Third, my wife and I saw the full dress rehearsal, including Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and Joe Perry. All were tiny on the Hatch Shell, though we stood just outside a fence outlining the Esplanade but two giant screens displayed the stars, including conductor Keith Lockhart. So we knew what to expect the next night.

(Both performances were free, but to journey, then stand in a thick crowd to watch TV and to applaud machines proved that we moderns are desperate. For culture? No, this is the expert Boston Pops Orchestra. Which also meant it had a local sportscaster deliver patriotic speech excerpts then Dr. and Mrs. Phil to introduce numbers. The McGraws’ connection to music, Boston and even to Aerosmith was slim, probably none. We moderns are just desperate to get out of our houses, even if that means watching TV elsewhere. Even linen-level restaurants mount screens for sports and news in their bars.)

But the fireworks were live and easily seen.

What we didn’t know, just off the MIT campus, was whether the other songs were recorded. Monday’s was in real time, with some three-minute breaks for stage work or obviously commercials (silent to us, thankfully). But we thought that the 90-minute run time mean the next half-hour was for the firecrackers.

Tuesday’s began at 8:30 and ended just after 10:30, with pyro show going til 11. Occasionally over the loudspeakers we heard commentary from local TV people — only an hour was broadcast coast-to-coast — and at times silence. But at other times we heard the Pops. I think those intermittent pieces were recorded, to keep the audience entertained. (Again there we go, braving teeming holiday traffic to hear a big stereo.)

One cut caught me. It had vocals, well sung but certainly not the originals, a medley: “(Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” of the Rolling Stones, “Joy to the World” by Three Dog Night (you insist Hoyt Axton, I retort Devo’s “Satisfaction” rules), “Proud Mary” with a female vocalist a la Tina Turner (CCR too swampy?) and closing with “YMCA” of disco’s Village People. No other four songs ever should be performed successively without expecting either fan riots or mass gagging, much less in one medley. Yet the audience applauded the amplifiers. The performers couldn’t see us so why cheer? The real stars were relaxing in their living rooms, placing roses in vases on the ATMs set up next to the entertainment center cabinets.

The fireworks were to be live.

The “1812 Overture” stays fresh, even two evenings in a row, both for the splendidness of the Pop’s precision but also for the Yankee audience’s raucous cheers of this fanfare celebrating the French Revolution penned by a gay Russian. The biggest cheers came during the sing-along, to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.” All the other American tunes, and the hoi polloi went nuts over the one about whose composer I just was reading a criticism.

Aerosmith hits followed in the Pops program. The rockers got screams; the Sousa “Stars and Stripes Forever” finale got cheers. There is a difference.

My wife is the pyro nut. I like fireworks better in person than on TV (which was the selling point of CBS running the Pops on the Fourth), but in my imagination always sees hundred-dollar bills burning. Although paper lasts longer than most ‘crackers. Yet I join her for every community display. All pipe in their music; pyrotechnicians need stopwatch precision.

Nothing, however, was as wonderful as this. The explosions were appropriate, majestic, grouped and timed. They were extensive, no skimping as often seems obvious back home. The accompaniment was a mix of Pops recordings and original artists. The orchestra had “76 Trombones,” and the singles celebrated the season: Hearing the Lovin’ Spoonful on “Summer in the City” made everyone smile.

New, for us, was hearing in this context Sheryl Crow on “Soak Up the Sun.” James Blunt’s love song “You’re Beautiful” was broadened by context to coast to coast. While I wished for Bruce Springsteen on “Born in the USA,” the sacrifice was worth it to avoid Lee Greenwood’s plastic patriotism, neither on the loop.

The fireworks swelled and ebbed. As we heard the opening of Neil Diamond’s “America,” we saw a clearly defined flaring, booming, smoky climax. The song worked, though of a contemporary songwriter, not old Sousa.

Diamond. Ain’t he one, like Berlin? But, dude, he’s just old, plays casinos now. Love that America. -30-

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