November 22, 2011

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

Did you hear the one about the guy who wrote hundreds of songs but never shared them with anyone? Well, until recently, that guy was me. I have begun the task of transferring years of words and music from my brain to my hard drive. Here is a song called "We've Died," which is about the feelings of loss that I felt when my second marriage ended a few years ago. It's not purely autobiographical, but the emotions are real.

It was Elvis Aaron Presley who pulled me into the world of music. I can only speculate, but his death in 1977, when I was only four, was accompanied by an unprecedented amount of media coverage, and I believe that was one of my first brushes with the concept of death. Radio stations played his music around the clock for weeks, and I listened. Although Elvis was not a songwriter, he employed some of the best songwriters of his era. Elvis' greatest contribution was the embracing of so many different genres of music. Rockabilly, bluegrass, country, pop, gospel, blues, r&b, even world music, "It's Now or Never," anyone?

Once I was hooked to E's ear candy, any thoughts of being a normal little boy were soon discarded, as I stocked up on Elvis records, magazines, and bubblegum cards. I even had a little statue of The King on top of my dresser, replete with fake little rhinestones. You never saw a kid get so excited as when I discovered his movie oeuvre. Yeah, those flix are cheesy, but c'mon, it's The King!

Childhood obsessions fade, and mine did eventually, and for many years I was very uninterested in listening to music. How do you top Elvis? I do remember really enjoying an 8-track collection of novelty tunes my brother brought home. My parents played records and tapes around the house, but I was more interested in drawing, reading comics, watching tv, and playing with my friends.

Then The Beatles happened. No kidding. 1988, and the Beatles happened to me. Totally out of sync with my generation's own musical revolution (Sorry Madonna and Whitesnake), I discovered that everything I knew about The Beatles was wrong. They weren't just four mop-top having, grey suit wearing, head bobbing freaks singing "Yeah Yeah Yeah!" and making girls faint. Their sound evolved year by year, becoming more complex, tearing down walls, building bridges, and illuminating truths with maddeningly catchy melodies. If Elvis had handed me the key, then the Beatles had flung the door wide open!

The Beatles had been influenced by other artists and so I traced that path. Ray Charles, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Little Richard, Carl Perkins. All revelations. The Beatles had contemporaries and I listened and learned from them. The Beach Boys, The Who, The Kinks.  The Beatles had influenced artists so I followed them, too. Squeeze, Elvis Costello, XTC. All kinds of threads emerged. I followed labels. Motown. Stax. Sun. My tastes became more eclectic. De La Soul. Randy Newman. Frank Zappa.
I worked my way into the present day, careful to avoid fake hype, refusing to buy something only because it was new and commercially successful. I demanded authenticity! Screw Vanilla Ice, give me They Might Be Giants! Milli Vanilli no! Joni Mitchell yes! Backstreet sucks. NRBQ rocks. Other people my age wanted music to dance and make out to, I wanted music to help guide my life, to give me the answers I was seeking. And it did.

It elevated my consciousness, conveying an aural history of mankind, putting me in touch with emotions I did not know I had. I felt as though I had climbed to the top of the mountain. I found nirvana, and it wasn't Nirvana. It was the truth in beauty, and the beauty in truth. Most impotantly, the music I was drawn too reinvigorated my soul, giving me joy to combat the sorrow. Did you know the blues was a music of joy?

This then is the goal of my music. To tell the truth and make it beautiful. No genres, just catchy melodies capturing life. Stories of love, stories of loss. I won't be dressing up in egg shells. I'm not trying to be a gazillionaire. I only hope that one or more of the hundreds of songs I have written and continue to write might make someone a little less jaded, or in touch with their life's purpose, or a little less unhappy. I won't be working hard to manufacture an image that shallow people can accept and idolize. That's not what a good songwriter does. I am only hoping to write a song as good as a Beatles song, a song that might be sung after my day is done. If that song can put my daughters through college one day, that will be gravy.

I am standing on the shoulders of giants.

November 20, 2011

Grateful, Not Hateful

As Thanksgiving Day approaches, I have been pondering all the reasons I have to be thankful, and there are many. Among the greatest blessings I count is an optimistic disposition, one that has enabled me to stay strong through many setbacks. This quality, optimism, seems to be rare. When I am out in the world I feel as though I am surrounded by cynics and negative thinkers. People who have had misfortunes befall them, and now feel it is their duty or right to project their suffering on others. Randy Newman wrote a great song about this subject called "I Want You To Hurt Like I Do." I've never wanted anyone to hurt like I have. And whenever I have hurt, I have made it my top priority to honestly work through my feelings to reach equilibrium as soon as possible, figuring I am no good to myself or anyone else if I allow negative thoughts to weigh me down. Sing it, Curtis...

The Impressions "We're a Winner" 

Hate. It's out there. Where does it come from? Is it a moral failing of mankind, a biological phenomenon, or a supernatural force? Is my lack of understanding or unwillingness to participate in the concept of hate a sign of naievete or evolution? Like anyone else, I have been the recipient of hate feelings. I'm sure there have been times when I have thought hateful feelings but somehow those feelings have always been trumped by a desire to forgive and forget, rather than act out in a rage.You know what's weird? Sometimes when people have directed anger towards me and I have failed to reciprocate with anger, it seems to have made them even angrier. What is that about?

Hate by Robert William Service

I had a bitter enemy,
His heart to hate he gave,
And when I died he swore that he
Would dance upon my grave;
That he would leap and laugh because
A livid corpse was I,
And that's the reason why I was
In no great haste to die.

And then - such is the quirk of fate,
One day with joy I read,
Despite his vitalizing hate
My enemy was dead.
Maybe the poison in his heart
Had helped to haste his doom:
He was not spared till I depart
To spit upon my tomb.

The other day I chanced to go
To where he lies alone.
'Tis easy to forgive a foe
When he is dead and gone. . . .
Poor devil! Now his day is done,
(Though bright it was and brave,)
Yet I am happy there is none
To dance upon my grave.

Of course, I use the word "hate" sometimes, or I should say I misuse it. I might say " I hate brussels sprouts," but that's just a shorthand way of saying "Brussels sprouts are not a food that I care to eat, ever, ever, ever." Sometimes, I get migraines and I will claim to hate them too, but all I'm really saying is that the pain I feel is unpleasant and I wish I never had to experience it. Let's face it, most of the people and things we purport to hate are really just annoyances. That rude driver who cuts us off in traffic, the rain that plagues our parade, the apartment dweller who lives aboves us and likes to play his balalaika all night long.

A sequence from Optic Nerve #6, by Adrian Tomine

Well, you might ask, what about Hitler? Surely, he was at least one man that is worthy of all the hate one human race can muster?

Long pause....thinking...

Hitler's actions were unconscionable, wicked, horrid, obviously the deeds of a madman. I am glad his plans were thwarted by brave soldiers and citizens, many of whom sacrificed limbs and even their own lives to remove him from power. I feel tremendous sadness for the innocents that were decimated by Hitler's own dogma of hate and intolerance, beautiful souls that had their futures stolen. But hating Hitler? Hating was Hitler's stock in trade. Hating is what Hitler did, and it is not what I do. I would never shed a tear over Hitler's death, and I surely feel great relief that he no longer menaces mankind. I could, in a shorthand way, absolutely state " I hate Hitler," but I think I would really be saying "Hate and the architects of hate must be challenged and defeated by love and the practitioners of peace." The old "hate the action, not the person" theory.

I wonder if I'll get hate mail for admitting a reluctance to practice hate on someone whose behavior was so inhuman?

I'm not claiming a moral high ground. Maybe I was just born minus the hate chromosome. I think there is ample evidence to suggest that children can be taught to hate, brainwashed to believe that some people are inferior because of their skin color or gender or wealth level. I wasn't taught to hate. My parents were deeply committed to the Golden Rule: treat people the way you want to be treated. Ironically, they were largely unsuccessful in practicing that philosophy towards each other. But their countless arguments did teach me that nothing fruitful ever comes from personal attacks or hateful rhetoric. Their hate sprang from frustrations, financial hardship, fear of an uncertain future, the same kind of scenarios that are playing out on a larger scale in today's 1%, 99% America. It must surely be tempting to a person who has been out of work for a year, a person for whom the planning of his or her every meal is an exercise in frustration, a person who can scarcely afford to provide the very basics to his or her own child to be filled with rage an anger and to want to direct that rage toward the people who have gamed the financial system to ensure that they will live in absolute opulence, without the slightest care for the plight of the very people they have exploited to create this reality for themselves.

Why is it then that the hate I have seen in Zuccotti Park and elsewhere comes not from the downtrodden citizens, seeking to exercise their inalienable right to publicly express their frustrations, an idea at the core of our American system, but from the purveyors of pepper spray and rubber bullets whose salaries are paid by the very people they are using these weapons against? From the beginning of the Occupy movement, the media has largely portrayed the demonstrators as radical socialists, dirty hippies, lazy hipsters, thieves, and rapists. The comment sections on these hatchet pieces are filled to the brim with hateful comments against the 99%, but in truth, the anonymous nature of such forums makes it hard to tell how many of these blistering barbs are authentic, and how many are paid for by the machine that has been engineered to keep Americans divided so that we might continue to be conquered. If you had a small child to feed and no money, would you not consider typing hateful comments eight hours a day for say, $1,000 a week?

 "It is easy to hate and it is difficult to love. This is how the whole scheme of things works. All good things are difficult to achieve; and bad things are very easy to get." Rene Descartes 

As an optimist, I believe that hate is not our future. It didn't work for the Nazis 70 years ago and it's not going to work for Americans now or at any point in the future. I think the Occupy movement would do well to reject hate in thought, speech, and action and to extol the winning qualities of love, peace, and brotherhood no matter how associated they are with the "dirty hippies," no matter how ridiculed those concepts are by the well-oiled machine of hate. 

I believe hate is a kind of slavery, and love is the key to freedom. 

Norman Rockwell's The Four Freedoms

And as Thanksgiving approaches, I am thankful that I still believe that.

Love, John

November 7, 2011

"A Lotus of Countless Petals"

Jerry Beck at Cartoon Brew, a wonderful resource for animation fans, recently posted a great find, a half hour video autobiography of artist Eyvind Earle. Mr. Earle wrote and narrated this account of his life before he died. He is perhaps most well-known in this country for his work for Disney in the 1950's. The amazing backgrounds in Sleeping Beauty are one example of his work. In the film, Eyvind recalls the many hardships he faced on his road to becoming a master painter, and shares some inspirational philosophies on art and life.  

                                                       Watch Eyvind Earle: My Life

Eyvind Earle's Ocean Cliffs (1991)

Say not, "I have found the truth," but rather, "I have found a truth."  Say not, "I have found the path of the soul."  Say rather, "I have met the soul walking upon my path."  For the soul walks upon all paths.  The soul walks not upon a line, neither does it grow like a reed.  The soul unfolds itself, like a lotus of countless petals.  ~Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet, 1923

I find it very comforting that David Letterman is still hosting a late night show, although I confess I have not made it a top priority to tune in very much in the last decade. If you never had the opportunity to watch his antics on Late Night with David Letterman in the early to mid 1980's, then, by all means, YouTube some of these clips at your earliest convenience. The show had a kind of magic "anything can happen" atmosphere surrounding it. The ensemble seemed like a very close knit group, and Dave was the wry ringmaster, a latter day Carson with Ernie Kovacs ambitions.

This full-length episode from August, 1985 is not typical of the Late Night format, being an affectionate parody of every variety show ever made, but it should give you a sense of the kinetic, wacky, and above all fun atmosphere that Dave and his motley crew generated on a nightly basis. I do wonder if this episode contains the first instance of Dave speaking the immortal words "I been hypmotized!" It seems very spontaneous.

The Golden Years
by Billy Collins

All I do these drawn-out days
is sit in my kitchen at Pheasant Ridge
where there are no pheasants to be seen
and last time I looked, no ridge.

I could drive over to Quail Falls
and spend the day there playing bridge,
but the lack of a falls and the absence of quail
would only remind me of Pheasant Ridge.

I know a widow at Fox Run
and another with a condo at Smokey Ledge.
One of them smokes, and neither can run,
so I’ll stick to the pledge I made to Midge.

Who frightened the fox and bulldozed the ledge?
I ask in my kitchen at Pheasant Ridge.

From Ballistics by Billy Collins. Copyright © 2008 by Billy Collins.

From Fantastic Worlds # 6 ( November 1952, Standard). Artist unknown.

Extra Mangy Bone-us Link Treat!