Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Mona Lisa Musta Had the Highway Blues

I began to listen to Dylan in my senior year at Oberlin, a liberal arts college in the Midwest. From fifth grade on, much of my life had been focused on music. I played the cornet in the band and orchestra, sang in choirs, and did the bugle calls at the beginning and ending of the school day, as well as at Boy Scout summer camp. The adults I looked up to most in life included the organist and choir director at our church when I was very little, the band director in my junior high school, and Rafael Mendez, a trumpet virtuoso in the 1950's. I selected Oberlin because it has an outstanding Conservatory of Music and I knew that meant there would be a lot of great musical performances to attend while I was there.

But I didn't go there to study music for two reasons. First, my cornet playing was not good enough to compete with the skill level of the students admitted to the Conservatory at Oberlin. And second, I believed it was my patriotic duty to study the hard sciences, to help my country win the space race and overcome the shame of Sputnik having beaten us into space. It was up to the smart kids to help us win back our technological advantage in the world. And I was a smart kid, so the responsibility fell on me.

Things were pretty black and white during my childhood in the 1950's and early 1960's. I was raised in a church which set out clear standards of conduct to be followed. I concentrated on math and science in school, where there was always a right answer and a wrong answer. I was in the Boy Scouts, which reinforced our church's teachings about what constituted right and wrong behavior. I got into ham radio where clear rules were set out by the FCC and the procedures for making contact with other hams were clearly delineated from decades of tradition and the law. I was a good student and a good kid. I learned the rules, followed them and did what was expected of me.

But during college, life began to get a little more complicated, a little less black and white. By the time I started college the mighty struggle for equality spearheaded by the great Martin Luther King had begun and MLK had just given his "I Have a Dream" speech just a few weeks earlier. Less than three months into my freshman year, our nation's president was assassinated. We watched his suspected killer being murdered himself on live black and white television. Civil rights workers were being blasted with fire hoses, as well as murdered, in the South. By the end of my sophomore year, our nation had escalated its advisory role in Vietnam to an active campaign of bombing North Vietnam. Not long after that, the nation began drafting more and more men in my generation into military service to fight in Vietnam. As college students we were protected from being drafted, but once we graduated, the chance of our being drafted would increase considerably.

So throughout my college years, protests and demonstrations became more and more common. During my freshman year at Oberlin, the first protests were over trivial issues of whether men and women should be allowed to visit each other in their dorm rooms, while much hotter protests went on in the South over racial equality. Gradually demonstrations over racial equality spread further throughout the nation and then protests over the draft and conduct of the war in Vietnam became commonplace. 

Life was no longer black and white. Everywhere you turned, there were now two sides you could be on and everything in between. Life was no longer orderly, like it had been in the 1950's. Chaos was becoming more common. 

In my personal life, I met and fell in love with the first love of my life during my freshman year and we dated steadily during much of my first three years of college. But during my junior year, she ended our relationship. I'm sorry to say that I have no recollection of her reason for doing this. Like the chaos in the world, there was now chaos in my personal life. My saving grace was that I was studying hard in my major and getting uniformly good marks, slightly higher than a straight A average, as Oberlin allowed a teacher to award an A+ to a student on a test or course.

I was likely going to be able to get into a top grad school, so that part of the plan was still in place. But I had lost my first love and I was devastated. I had switched from the hard sciences to an easy major, psychology, because the hard sciences were, well, just too damn hard! I had selected that major when I was in turmoil over having gotten a D on a physics test, something I had never experienced before in my life. My mind and feelings were in chaos over this unexpected turn of events. I decided to switch to psychology, because clearly I needed to understand my mind, which was full of conflicting thoughts and feelings. I excelled in the subject, but it had no answers whatsoever for the chaos in my personal life, mirrored in my mind. 

During the early part of my senior year, I finally discovered Bob Dylan. The Cleveland radio station played Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands one night and I heard it in the psychology lab of one of my classmates. This was music like nothing I had ever heard before. I had participated in music all the way through my high school years and I had attended three years of great classical music performances in college so far, and this was like nothing I had ever heard.

This was not music from the past. This was music newly created which impinged upon me with an immediacy I had never experienced. It was soothing some of the feelings I had been experiencing in the chaos of my mind over the loss of my girl. The lyrics brought amazing images my way, usually too quickly for me to assimilate or understand them all. I began by listening to the current album at that time, Blonde on Blonde, which ended with the Sad Eyed Lady song that first grabbed my attention. This is still my favorite Dylan album. And after playing Blonde on Blonde over and over many times, I began to obtain and listen to the earlier albums. There were only six others at the time!

Almost immediately I was assaulted with the song, Ballad of a Thin Man, and the challenging line, "Because something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is. Do you, Mister Jones?" This described me perfectly. I was Mr. Jones! This music was stabilizing my life and sanity and shaking me up to the core at the same time. There was no question in my mind that something very different was happening in my world because of this music. But I had no clue whatsoever where this might be leading. I didn't understand most of the songs, but I couldn't stop playing them, because they were expressing how I was feeling, and I had no way to express those feelings in any other way.

I was still totally at sea, but now I had a life raft to hold on to, as the waves threw me about.

But gradually as I played Blonde on Blonde over and over, I began to realize there was a song I understood, Visions of Johanna, which begins with, "Ain't it just like the night to play tricks when you're tryin' to be so quiet? We sit here stranded, though we're all doin' our best to deny it." There it was. My life in the very first lines of the song. The sound was just gorgeous, which gave me a good feeling, some reassurance, while it proceeded to deliver the awful truth about my life, maybe all life. Life was not black and white, a fairy tale that will proceed along according to script, if one studies all the proper books and passes all the necessary tests. No, it was full of seeking and not attaining, of ambiguity, of shades of gray, of unrealized visions of perfection.

Music had been transformed for me. It was no longer about technical excellence in performance and a glorious sound that just made you feel good. Meaning had entered the scene. For the first time in my life, I was drawn in to music in which the meaning of the lyrics was not a straight forward matter. They were not black and white, simple to get, right there in the words. There was ambiguity, layers of possible meaning, and visual images that came tumbling out with the music, one on top of another. It was too much for my simple mind to comprehend.

But the music was so gorgeous that I did not dismiss it when I realized I did not understand it. I could tell it was worth pursuing, that it would help me endure my life, maybe even begin to understand some of my life, or perhaps accept aspects of my life. This music was not trivial. It addressed the most important questions in life, but in a real way, with language from the streets, not stuffy pronouncements from the masters of the classics or the lofty heights of the pulpits.

The life raft became a rock in my life. For the next forty-five years of my life, Dylan was always there. And like much of the world, I discovered that "popular music" had been elevated to the level of great art, exploring all the issues addressed by all previous artists. For any mood, there has always been a Dylan song or album that would fit it perfectly.

And as I sought to understand the songs more deeply, I eventually began to realize that what I was coming to understand was more about myself, or life in general, not just about the song. The songs were not written about me, but the songs so beautifully plumbed the depths of the human condition, that when I got down to the core of the understanding, there I was, there we all were, frail humans struggling to be our best, beset with all manner of difficulties and shortcomings.

There were no simple answers. But in presenting us with amazing images of our own predicaments in life, we could see ourselves, and with that came hope, and often even a proper course of action in a difficult situation.

An example comes from a song Dylan wrote thirty years after my struggles with the loss of my first love. The song is Love Sick, written in 1997. It is a song that deals with how I was in those days of my junior and senior years in college, love sick. The early part of the song describes the feelings of being love sick so perfectly. "My feet are so tired, my brain is so wired, and the clouds are weeping." And then, "I'm sick of love, but I'm in the thick of it. This kind of love, I'm so sick of it." At my core, I was in that condition for years.

Variations of that last section become the chorus, three variations in all. There's no getting around it, no denying it. It is so full of pain, and the pain is so familiar, as we've felt it ourselves for years. By the third time through, the anguish has grown so strong that he admits that, "I wish I'd never met you" and "I'm trying to forget you." Of course we've been there too, many times over. As we listen, we are feeling exactly what we have felt many times before.

And he concludes with just where this has led us many times before as well, "Just don't know what to do" (Yes, we've been there, thrown up our hands in despair) and then, "I'd give anything to ..." and in the original performance on the Time Out of Mind album, there is the slightest little pause, enough time for us to complete the line in our head.

The very first time I played the song, the conclusion of the song was unexpected, illuminating, revealing, honest and poignant. After all this pain and anguish, surely this final desire would be to be rid of her for ever more, wiped from our consciousness forever.

But Dylan delivers the truth, like he always does.

"I'd give anything to ... be with you."

Of course! Let's be honest. More than anything else, we don't really want to forget her, we don't really wish we had never met her. The truth is, we'd give anything to be with her!

The first time I heard this, it was like the stories you hear about the Zen master who clobbers the student across the side of his head to wake him up. BAM! Snap out of it, quit your dreaming, this is no fairy tale, this is real life, your life. You'd give anything just to be with her!!

And once again I had learned something important about myself and about life.

This is what happens when one experiences great art. And this has happened to me over and over as I have experienced Dylan's music, lived with Dylan and grown with Dylan. And I no longer consider myself to be Mr. Jones. With Dylan's help, I have come to get at least a clue about what is really happening here. Without question, Dylan has been one of the biggest influences in my life, leading me over and over to the truth about life in general and my life in particular. His life work has enriched my life many times over.

© Ron Chester 25 June 2011 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Lakota Dark Clouds

                     Lakota Dark Clouds

I got on my horse and we headed north
Never guessin' what might come forth
As we trotted along into the Black Hills mouth
I began to wonder, should we be goin' south?

Above us were loomin' those Lakota Dark Clouds
Bearing down upon us, yes, Lakota Dark Clouds

Drummin' in the distance, had heard that sound before
Smoke was risin' from that distant plateau floor
Our scout returnin' began to come in view
Sitting Bull was spotted, what're we gonna do?

All 'round us we're seein' Lakota Dark Clouds
Growin' bigger, oh yes, Lakota Dark Clouds

Coyote calls were heard as the sun began to set
Fears were growin' but the real danger not yet met
Wind was howlin' down the narrow canyon walls
To keep on goin' would take some real big balls

In the twilight, still see those Lakota Dark Clouds
Gettin' darker, oh yes, Lakota Dark Clouds

Sittin' on our bedrolls, eatin' beans warmed in the fire
Gettin' home alive, our only real desire
Nervous whispers and restless sleep that night
While changin' lookouts, guarded the moonlight

In the dark, still feelin' those Lakota Dark Clouds
Seems like always with us, yes, Lakota Dark Clouds

Startled awake by a soaring hawk's daybreak call
Climb back on horses, feelin' small, but sittin' tall
Must keep movin' forward, as quiet as we can
Crossed the line of safety for ordinary man

Now turquoise skies, are there no Lakota Dark Clouds?
Pray we make it through, safe from Lakota Dark Clouds

Trails are gettin' rugged, begin to feel hemmed in
Ledges all around us, thinkin' 'bout next o' kin
The map showed a clear passage to our far off goal
But we're in a box canyon, the walls dark as coal

Look up, rollin' in are those Lakota Dark Clouds
They're back again, oh yes, Lakota Dark Clouds

Reachin' the ridge, head down to the forest below
Many foot paths trampled, we hope by wild doe
It all seems too quiet, no singin' by the birds
Look off in the distance, see no buffalo herds

All around are growin' those Lakota Dark Clouds
No doubt about it, ah yes, Lakota Dark Clouds

Natives all around us, we had no place to go!
Bull, no longer sittin', came t'ward us, awful slow
Now no chance of runnin', as captured in their trap 
Sitting Bull had waited, we landed in his lap

Our hearts sank low, done in by Lakota Dark Clouds
We'll never escape now from Lakota Dark Clouds

We felt a strong proud presence, on us it did pull
Made the great 
Sun Dance Alliance, here Sitting Bull
He warned of his vision, soldiers falling nearby
Peered into my eyes, "like grasshoppers from the sky"

We're now at the mercy of Lakota Dark Clouds
Will they make us suffer, those Lakota Dark Clouds?

Having heard our sad story and pleas for escape
He considered our future, we're now in bad shape
Looks after these people in their island of trees
We all stood there a shakin', while tryin' to freeze

For all 'round us we're feelin' Lakota Dark Clouds
Far above and beyond us, Lakota Dark Clouds

We had entered the sacred center of their world
For nine thousand years, here Indian lives have swirled
"But you're not the enemy we'll soon be facing 
Trespassing white man soldiers, we'll surely be chasing"

Ancient lands looked over by Lakota Dark Clouds
Dark forests of life under Lakota Dark Clouds

"The Great Spirit gave us Pahá Sápathis land
Hunting grounds to nourish, so here we make our stand 
Go back to your world, your families to grow
And here supernatural powers we'll show"

Ancient truths intoned under Lakota Dark Clouds
Our lives don't belong under Lakota Dark Clouds

Sitting Bull bowed before us, and we can depart
Relieved, we thank him, from the bottom of our heart
Need not be welcomed, anywhere we wish to go
Create our own future, while not makin' a foe 

Around we admire these Lakota Dark Clouds
Home to proud people under Lakota Dark Clouds

We mounted our horses and followed their guides   
Headin' south with great gifts of buffalo hides
More tribes still a'comin', Alliance would grow
Secure ancient homelands, invaders reap what they sow

We learned a good lesson from Lakota Dark Clouds
Proud people protected by Lakota Dark Clouds

©  Ron Chester 2010  ALL RIGHTS RESERVED


Monday, May 31, 2010

Is Live Music the Key to Peace and Love?


The Woodstock Music & Art Fair of 1969 was one of the biggest events in the 1960's, establishing the cultural importance of the flood of new music and alternative lifestyles that had been developing for years, and then celebrated with its own documentary film, soundtrack albums, books, commemorative festivals, a museum, and untold references to the event in the popular culture.  Although the event originally generated $1.4 million dollars in debt, countless promoters have been trying to duplicate its success ever since. 

When the event occurred I was just about to begin my graduate studies at UC, Berkeley.  When word came that one of our friends, Bill, from our recent days at Oberlin College, had attended the event and described it in glowing terms, my small world of recent Obie graduates was jealous of Bill's good fortune.  It seemed so unfair. Here we had all moved to Berkeley, the center of the new counter-culture, and now our thunder had been stolen by an event on a dairy farm in New York!

Less than four months later we got our own chance to be involved in a historical event of music and coolness, thanks to the Altamont Speedway Free Festival organized by The Rolling Stones and presented on December 6, 1969 not far from our new home in Berkeley.  The timing of the event just barely got it included in the Sixties.  And though it became historic, it was not for its coolness or "peace and love," but for its violence, shown in a documentary film of its own, as the symbolic end of the hippie era, a conclusion to the youth culture of the Sixties.        

We all went, as it was free and promised an incredible lineup of acts: Santana, Jefferson Airplane, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Crosby Stills Nash & Young, The Grateful Dead and The Rolling Stones.  How could we go wrong?  Surely this would trump Bill's good fortune on the East coast and confirm our wisdom in moving West.  The first sign of what was to come was when we had to park our car by the side of the road miles from the venue and start walking.  In fact Stephanie Gutieri and I hitched a ride, sitting on the trunk of a car inching its way forward in the gridlock.  Stephi is the one who had gotten me into Dylan only three years before at Oberlin.  The ride must have taken about an hour, which we mostly passed playing a question and answer game of "Who Am I?"  As it turned out, this was the high point of the day for me and is still one of my fondest memories of Stephi.  Rest in peace, dear Stephi.  I miss you and have for many years!

Once we got to the event, we staked out less than nine sq feet of space with our blanket and then endured the day, feeling claustrophobic and threatened by the bad vibes rolling through the audience all day long.  And it was only later that we learned that a man had been killed right in front of the stage, no more than fifty feet from our cramped location.  To his credit, Bill never rubbed it in with any of us.
But this is not a history lesson about the Sixties.  This blog is about the transformative experience a live musical performance can provide, when the "numbers were burning."  Amazingly, this even applies to Altamont, now known as "an infamous rock concert."  The Stones performed last and by the time they appeared we were worn out from the long day of cramped quarters and bad vibes.  And though the violence interrupted their "Sympathy for the Devil" song, with Jagger then urging everyone to be calm, the band restarted and played on, even as Meredith Hunter was killed in front of them at the foot of the stage during "Under My Thumb."  The band was afraid that if they stopped playing a full-scale riot could develop.

Their decision was a wise one.  The one thing that finally unified the crowd and brought peace to the day was the charismatic and electrifying performance of Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones. Imagine this, the very next song they performed after the killing of Hunter, was the first ever live performance of "Brown Sugar," yes, a world premiere they had saved for that day.  And somewhere along the way, during the rest of their set, Stephi and I, as well as all those around us, finally gave up our guarded enclave and rose to our feet for the rest of the show.  Jagger had turned around the bad vibes and gotten the audience with him and only him.  Finally we were all in the moment, witnessing a powerful performance and letting the good vibes of the glorious music wash over us.  For the last songs of the set, "Satisfaction" and "Honky Tonk Woman," we were fiercely dancing around, like all the rest, culminating in perhaps the most ironic song selection ever to end  a concert, when the band finished with "Street Fighting Man."  

This is one of the best examples from my own life of how the performer and the audience interact to create the experience and how the power of music can bring peace to the unruly mob, as suggested by Dr. Karl Paulnack.  As I write this on Memorial Day, when we honor our fallen soldiers, I wonder whether it would be more effective to invade foreign shores with armies of artists, rather than soldiers.

The Latitude Festival is an example of what music festivals have become.  Also presented on farm land, but in England, it strives to be an all-encompassing festival for all the arts, with performances on its various stages "from the worlds of comedy, literary, poetry, cabaret, theatre, film, art and dance."  That's a tall order to fill, but they seem to be fulfilling their promise, as all tickets for their fifth season had already been sold out, two months before the festival was to begin in July 2010. 

Park in one of their lots and then transport your tent and other camping gear to your weekend home on the farm using one of their rented "cloth barrows" or skip the trouble of bringing your own stuff and buy a ticket for one of the campsites with "ready pitched and fully equipped tents for hire" in the Tangerine Fields.  Surely the Beatles would have found these ideas to be truly delightful.

A wonderful synthesis of pastoral beauty & the bright colors of the arts.

And surely this festival offers something that no other venue can offer: neon bright pink and orange sheep.  Getting cold at night? Cuddle up with some lovely pink wool.

Which brings me to the origin of this festival in July of 2006.  One of the performers presented in their inaugural outing was the great Patti Smith, a woman from my own generation, who helped create the punk rock movement of the 70's when she started reciting her poetry to the chords of an accompanying guitar, and later singing them with a full rock band.  

By 2006 she had already been named a Commander in the Order of Arts and Letters by the French Minister of Culture and less than eight months later she would be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, recognizing the importance of her significant contributions to music.

On July 15, 2006 Patti Smith and her band performed on the second day of the first ever Latitude Festival.  Fortunately her performance of "Gloria" is now preserved on YouTube, placed there by John Macaulay, who shot the video.  Many audience videos of live concerts are difficult to watch, often marred by bad positioning, noisy crowd near the taper, jerky cameras and lousy sound.  In this case the filming was done from an excellent position very close to the front providing engrossing closeups of the performers throughout and the noisy crowd adds to the passion of the performance, rather than detracting from the recording.

Two minutes into the performance, the audience begins to catch fire, which inspires Patti to greater passion and by five minutes into the song she and the audience are performing the song together.  Just short of six minutes in, the taper is rightfully drawn into shooting video of the audience, not just Patti, as they have become performers as well, and then she is enthusiastically thanking the audience. "Thank you!!  I'm at the place of my ancestors. I'm bucked down!" and the rest is pure love and joy.

She thanks her always guitarist, Lenny Kaye, and then "Be! We the People!" And at the very end she thanks the crowd again with, "Attitude, ya got the good attitude!"

Is there any better example on YouTube of what the Spanish call El duende, the spirit of evocation?  As Wikipedia says, "It is what gives you chills, makes you smile or cry as a bodily reaction to an artistic performance that is particularly expressive." 

You notice that by the end, both the performers and the audience were creating this moment together.  And Patti appreciates that fact and thanks them for their participation.  She maintains no professional distance, as the "legendary performer."  She is just like them, as she acknowledges with her "We the People!"

Now I consider this video very unusual for having captured this magic in a tiny window on our computers.  You can begin to feel what it must have been like to be there.  I laughed and cried while I watched it.  But here is the part I want to emphasize.  I have seen Patti Smith perform a number of times and every time I have been inspired by her performance.  So it gets back to my repeated encouragement for everyone to get up from behind their computer monitors and go see the live performance of music.  Patti Smith would be a good place to start.  She is one of the best performers I have ever seen for really connecting with her audience and encouraging their participation. She is real, just one of us, though bursting with talent and always totally life affirming.
Peace and love to all on this Memorial Day!

Monday, May 17, 2010

The Glorious Sounds of the Many-Tongued Mimic

A major proposition of this music lover's blog is that witnessing music performed live, in person, is far superior to experiencing music in any other way.  But who has the time or means to go to the symphony or a club every day to satisfy their need for a live musical experience?

If one lives in Northern California, one could be fortunate enough to have an alternative in the spring.  That is, if a Northern Mockingbird, Mimus polyglottos, decides to take up residence in one's neighborhood.  Mimus polyglottos means "many-tongued mimic," a name given this bird because of its wonderful ability to mimic the sound of many other species of birds, as well as neighborhood cats, dogs, car alarms, rusty swinging gates, whatever.

Now that word "mimic" has a rather disparaging connotation, doesn't it. As though they weren't creative enough to come up with their own sound, so they had to just copy the ones they heard around them.  To me this seems a little unfair.  After all, did the neighborhood Robin or Cardinal come up with their own sound?  I don't think so.  They copied it from dad, or it was already built into their dna.  Same for every other species.  But along comes the Northern Mockingbird and he starts to belt out the songs of all the other birds.  Hey, that's pretty amazing.

Elvis made a pretty good career out of singing songs that were all written by others, and now they call him "The King!"  So let's give the Northern Mockingbird some respect.  It's all about how one performs the sounds in live performance, right?  Well our Mr. King bird does pretty well on that score.  Each of the songs of these other birds is repeated by Mr. King several times, and then another song is taken up and repeated many times over, before going on to another.  One can listen to this performance for quite a long time and not hear him start over with a song he has done before. On top of that, he may spread his wings and flutter up in the air in a circle and come back to the branch he launched from, while continuing to sing, and not missing a single beat along the way.  Elvis wiggled his hips, but did you ever see him do that?  Not I, not even on the Ed Sullivan Show.   

And here's the best part of all.  He often sings like this in the middle of the night, when all the other birds are sleeping or watching the late show, or whatever.  He doesn't take a break.  He's out there on the highest branch he can find, singing away at the top of his voice in the stillness of the night for hours on end.  
But is it music?  You betcha!  Perhaps you read my article about the deaf percussionist, Evelyn Glennie, who said her aim in life "is to teach the world to listen. . . allow your body to open up, allow your body to be this resonating chamber. . . just experience the whole journey of that sound." The medium of music is sound.  The composer John Cage said, "There is no noise, only sound."  And musicologist Jean-Jacques Nattiez said, "the border between music and noise is always culturally defined.  By all accounts there is no single and intercultural universal concept defining what music might be, except that it is 'sound through time'."

For me the sound of the Northern Nightingale singing through the middle of the night is glorious sound through time.  For me that is music to my ears! And it has the other qualities that make the live performance of music special to witness.  You hear it in the moment the sound is created and then it is gone.  Take it in fully, "experience the whole journey of that sound," as it is there now, but perhaps not for long.  The particular sequence of sounds, the sequence of bird songs that are sung, the rhythm, tempo, dynamics, timbre and texture of those sounds are unique to that one performance, never to be repeated again.  That is what makes live performance so exciting.  It is not ordinary.  It is special, created in that moment, heard in the moment, and then it is no more.  So enjoy it while you can!

Did you notice him do his little dance of flight in the middle of his performance?  Now listen to the incredible variety of sounds in this next one.

And finally here's a chance to go to school and really learn about this amazing performer.  At 3:30 in the video, they even identify which species of bird song the mockingbird is singing as it goes along.  So if you are lucky enough to have a Northern Mockingbird take up residence in your own back yard, as I have this spring, that one creature will create the sound of an entire forest of different bird species, all by himself.

Often I like to take a walk around my neighborhood late at night, after most people have retired for the night. There is no traffic on the street, no people walking about, and one can be alone with one's thoughts and the stillness of the night.  The jumble of the day can fall away and one can more clearly see the way ahead.  Two nights ago I finished up a lovely hour long chat with my Facebook friend on the Northumberland Coast of Northern England. I had been thinking about capping off the evening with a walk, but as I got up from my desk I heard my many-tongued mimic wailing away in the back yard. So instead of the walk, I stepped out onto the porch and sat down and listened.  Mr. King was singing his heart out without a moment's pause, and his singing was the only sound to be heard in an otherwise totally silent night. I just sat there, in the same spot that was Marcia's absolute favorite place to sit, and I just took in the performance.  It was marvelous.  I know Marcia loved the green grass, the trellis and vines, the flowers and lush foliage of the yard, as well as the squirrels, hummingbirds, and cats that made it their home.  But I don't actually know whether she ever enjoyed a performance of a night time Mockingbird from that favorite spot.  I hope so.        

Perhaps the glorious sounds of this bird has won itself some respect after all.  Of course one of the classic tales in American literature is the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Harper Lee called To Kill a Mockingbird.  In the book, Miss Maudie explains that mockingbirds never harm other living creatures.  "They don't do one thing but sing their hearts out for us."  So to kill one would be to kill what is innocent and harmless, and Atticus warns that "it's a sin to kill a mockingbird."   
Mockingbirds have not always lived only in the wild, as they were once popular as pets.  In fact Thomas Jefferson had such a pet, which he named Dick.  He didn't know about "The King" back then.  This aspect of the lives of mockingbirds was described in the traditional lullaby, "Hush Little Baby" which had lyrics that said:

Hush little baby, don't say a word,
Mama's gonna buy you a mockingbird.
And if that mockingbird don't sing,
Mama's gonna buy you a diamond ring. 
In 1963 Inez and Charlie Foxx cashed in by recording their version of this song, simply called "Mockingbird," which became a big hit in both the US and the UK.  Since then the song has been covered by the great Dusty Springfield, as well as by Carly Simon & James Taylor, Toby & Krystal Keith, and Katie Melua.  It was also featured in episodes of the TV series "Will and Grace" and the film "Dumb and Dumber."

Of course now you want to hear this song.  And YouTube is waiting to serve up any one of them to you.  The Dusty Springfield performance at the 1965 New Musical Express Poll Winners concert is the best.  But in the spirit of our many-tongued mimic, I've decided that it's most appropriate to give you a version of pure mimicry, perhaps the best example of lip synching to be found on YouTube, the work of amy and kass.

That's all folks!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

How I Discovered My Passion in Life

Let me start by saying I wasn't trying to discover my passion in life. Of course I had heard many say that one should find and follow one's passion in life to be happy and successful.  There are books written on the subject, blog posts and websites with lists of questions to ask one's self to discover it, as well as courses offered on the subject by websites and even churches.  I had no urgency about finding my passion, as I had been working successfully for over thirty years in a career that I enjoyed and it always kept the wolves at bay.  I had a lot of interests in life which occupied whatever free time my work allowed.  Mostly my life was goal oriented, following the path to accomplish that next purpose.  So I had never tried any of those approaches, as there was apparently no need.
But my approach to life began to change in the summer of 2009 when Marcia got her diagnosis of cancer, not long after I learned that one of my very best friends in college had succumbed from a heart attack.  Life had become more precious and my generation no longer enjoyed a really long future, the immortality of youth.  One began to think more seriously about what to do with whatever time one might have left.  Then on November 1, 2009 when Marcia passed on, I found myself in new, uncharted territory.  Suddenly all that mattered was to deal with our loss, as the mourning process began.  There was no purpose to achieve, no clear path to follow, no timetable to meet a deadline.  Thankfully, Marcia's suffering had finally ended.  Nothing could be done to bring her back.  But how would I deal with this?  
At her memorial service, I listened in my grief to her friend and minister of forty-three years and his wife tell about her life, stories going back to 1966.  Then her son gave a beautiful, emotional, chronological account of her life, story after story after story that illustrated the strength and character of his mother, who he clearly loves and respects very much.  There we all were, her friends and family, enjoying these stories, learning all kinds of interesting things about her life, and remembering those parts we had experienced directly.
As I looked around the room, I could see we were all genuinely grateful to hear more about her life and to discover things we hadn't known.  But it suddenly dawned on me that there had not been a single story told that I had not already heard, directly from Marcia!  I had known her for nearly forty years, but only intimately during the last decade of her life.  I realized that during those ten years, Marcia had shared with me everything she considered precious and important about her life.  A huge wave of gratitude came over me as I realized how lucky I had been to share that time with her.  This feeling was a blessing, but quickly an even stronger, transcendent feeling of pride and joy welled up inside of me, as I realized the particular bond we had developed was a gift she gave only to me, a very strong and intimate connection, which I will always keep close to my heart and will never ever forget.
This brought me a huge amount of relief and peace.  I resolved to always honor her memory, and attend to whatever came my way in this mourning process.  The grief had been replaced by the wave of gratitude.  I  still thought of her every day, but I was in no hurry for that to change, or to "get over it" in any way.  I would just see how life would go now.  I was open to any thoughts or feelings I had about her, was willing to accept any communication I had to her, or from her, and remained open to any other ideas that might come my way.
And it was with that open attitude that I planned to celebrate her birthday on January 24, 2010.  I've already written about that evening when I listened to Mahler's "Farewell to Life" and realized that I needed to experience more live classical music in my life, which led to my planning the series of concerts that I have been attending.  And now I've written about the first concert with the performance of The Planets (don't forget the Corn Nuts), the magnificent performance of Mahler's Resurrection Symphony and the transcendent moment I experienced upon the completion of the Rachmaninoff 3rd Piano Concerto.
But now it's time to go back to February 10, 2010, the evening before that first concert in the series.  I had made the final plans with my Chiro Friend for getting to the concert hall for the show.  She had never attended a symphony orchestra concert, so I had briefed her on what to expect.  I told her she could wear a ballroom gown, but then relented and admitted that concerts were no longer quite that formal.  In fact, I assured her that I would probably not even wear a tie, just a nice sweater.
So the night before the concert I decided to pick out what I would wear from my closet.  I slid open the closet door and began to pull out sports jackets for consideration.  As I looked over the shirts, I began to think about ties and I had this strong feeling that one goes with the other.  So I pulled out some ties and found myself selecting which tie would look the best with the shirt and jacket I had chosen.  I set them aside, so they were ready for the following evening.  Okay, I was going to wear a tie after all, in spite of what I had told my Chiro Friend!  Somehow, that felt very good.  I went to bed looking forward to the next day and the start of my concert season.
Only I couldn't get to sleep right away, as I thought about how I felt as I picked out those clothes.  A comfortable, familiar feeling had come over me.  I was feeling very much at home, in a safe frame of mind.  What was this feeling?  Was it because I was going to wear a jacket that Marcia had bought me many years earlier?  No, it went deeper than that.  I was pulled back to 1964, getting ready for one of the dozens of concerts that I attended as a student at Oberlin College, where we always wore a jacket and tie, both at concerts and at dinner every evening.  Decades later I had been experiencing that same delicious anticipation from getting ready to see another live performance of music.  It was a dance I had been through so many times, which always led to a very positive and enjoyable experience.
As I had been going through the mourning process, I had been paying close attention to my feelings and seeing where they would lead me.  And that's what I did again that night.  Only this time, parts of my life began to fall into place like a puzzle.  The feeling I had when I began the process of dressing for a concert was the key that unlocked the door and all the connections came tumbling out.  I began to look over parts of my life, the important parts, and my life began to make sense, in a way that had never occurred before.  As more and more of these connections came to mind, I began to get more and more excited, as the epiphany fully took hold of my consciousness.
Far too excited to sleep, I finally switched on the light and pulled out the notebook by my bed and started to write, summing up my life, as I now clearly saw it, in one single line.

   2:43 AM       What ties my life together: MUSIC!       2/10/10
This was followed by five pages of single spaced writing, listing one example after another of that realization, covering events from all periods in my life, going all the way back to before I started grade school.  I finally stopped after listing fifty of these examples from my life.  My understanding of my life had taken a quantum leap forward.
I had discovered the thread that ran through my entire life.  I had discovered my passion in life.
The mourning process had gotten me to open up my attention, to let it reach out in all directions, not just the path ahead.  And finally I came to see what held my life together.  I had always concentrated on the path to my goals.  The beautiful green trees were always there, but they didn't lead anywhere.  It was the path that lead somewhere and so it was the path that needed to be followed.  Or so I thought.
Those trees had always been there.  They were so much always there, that I didn't realize this was anything unusual or special about my life.  They were so much a part of me that I didn't even recognize that they define who I am.  It wasn't until February 10, 2010 that I finally got a look at the forest from above.  And then I realized that it was a forest, not just a path passing through pretty green trees.
Of course the forest is the music, my love for music, my passion for music, that holds together all phases of my life and makes it uniquely MY LIFE.  Realizing this has changed everything.  I have given myself some time to let this sink in, perhaps to make sure that I'm not just delusional.  I'm not.  This is important and real.
As I said at the outset, I wasn't looking for this understanding.  And if the question had been posed to me, "What is your passion in life?" I would have said, "I don't know."  Or maybe I would have said that I was passionate about a lot of things, and I'm not sure that One Single Passion in Life is possible, or worth trying to discover.  Marcia once wrote that I am an "honorable and passionate man."  I liked that, because I knew I could feel passion and express passion at times, and it felt really good to do that.  But how could there be a Single Passion in my life?
But there can be, if you realize that the passion can be as big as a forest going out in all directions and off into the distance.  And there are a lot of paths down there among the trees, but what is most important is the beauty, strength and stability of the forest.  Even though I wasn't looking for it, I'm very glad I found it.  And now I encourage everyone, including you, to take a look around and notice what is always there in your life, that makes you YOU.  And if you're fortunate like me, and you discover your passion, I think you'll find that it brings a lot of order to your past and it orients you in a positive way that you may not have previously experienced.  And if this does happen for you, tell me about it in the comments.  I would be very interested in your experiences.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Redemptive Power of Music

Yesterday an important new talk was posted on the TED TALKS website.  It is a talk given in Long Beach in February 2010 by Robert Gupta, a violinist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, about his experiences with his musician friend, Nathaniel Ayers.  He describes how he personally witnessed "the redemptive power of music" work its healing magic on Mr. Ayers.  Please watch this short video right now, before I continue. 

Were you moved by his story and his conviction to always make music with his friend?  I certainly was!  Gupta was very eloquent when he summed up his experiences with this man and how it relates to music.

"And I understood that this was the very essence of art.  This was the very reason why we made music.  That we take something that exists within all of us at our very fundamental core, our emotions, and through our artistic lens, through our creativity, we're able to shape those emotions into reality.  And the reality of that expression reaches all of us and moves us, inspires and unites us."
And in the line that TED used for the title of the Gupta talk, he said the following.

"Music is medicine.  Music changes us and for Nathaniel, music is sanity."
Correctly, the title of the talk generalizes the last three words, by removing the specific reference to Nathaniel.  This applies to all of us.  I don't suffer from a mental illness, but as I was going through the mourning process after the loss of Marcia, I realized the medicine I needed to add to my life.  Which I stated in the following way.

"I need to experience live classical music more often. It makes me stronger, more sane. I will be better, with more of it in my life."
 And clearly I was totally right to draw this conclusion, as shown by the fact that I experienced healing moments during both the performance of Mahler's 2nd Symphony and the performance of the Rachmaninoff 3rd Piano Concerto.  

In the TED Talk by Evelyn Glennie, she said, "Music really is our daily medicine."  And you may recall that Dr. Karl Paulnack says that "Music is a basic need of human survival."  So there is a lot of agreement on the importance of music and I started this blog to report on my life in music.   

Now as it turns out, I had already heard something about the life story of Nathaniel Ayers, as I had seen the piece 60 Minutes did on him.  When you watch that video below, you'll get to see him playing his cello and trumpet and you'll get to meet the journalist, Steve Lopez, who discovered him on the streets of Los Angeles and wrote many columns, and then a book which became the film The Soloist, about those experiences.  You will also see Ayers interacting with Gupta and other members of the LA Philharmonic.
You will also see his sister, Jennifer Ayers-Moore, describe the devastating after effects of the shock treatment that Ayers was subjected to, in an attempt to restore his sanity, after he first became ill at Julliard.

"I remember when he came out, he had this look on his face, it was . . . almost like a zombie.  She [their mother] expected him to go in and come out a different person.  And that . . . it just didn't work out that way."

You may recall that Gupta mentioned that Ayers now refuses treatment, having been treated so long ago with "shock therapy and Thorazine and handcuffs."  In the 60 Minutes piece, the journalist and his sister are left hoping at the end that he will eventually accept treatment from one of the so-called "new, more effective drugs."  It seems to me that Ayers learned his lesson then and it's time the world recognizes he now benefits from a humane treatment, in his work with music and his musician friends.

So the journalist voiced his wish that, "This man is well on the way to recovery" only to discover that, "The next day, he's the devil."  But the musicians clearly get that his redemption has come and will continue to come through his work with the music and the musicians.  How much easier would his path had been, if he had not been so seriously harmed by the shock treatment?  Well the musicians and Ayers himself are the heroes of this piece, saving the planet, one soul at a time!!

And notice that Ayers does not view himself as a victim, in spite of the harmful treatment he received.  On the contrary, in one lucid moment in the video, he states, "Music is saying, you know, life isn't that bad . . ." and in another, "It's very good to be alive right now."  And think about this.  How many people on the rough streets of Los Angeles has Ayers himself helped by performing his own live music?  My guess is that it is more than a few.    

And so we end with a performance on the cello by Nathaniel Ayers, accompanied by Joanne Pearce Martin, Principal Keyboardist for the Los Angeles Philharmonic.


Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Remembering Bill Bacon

Monday night, March 22, 2010, I met the Dancing Cellist at Davies Symphony Hall for the third in my current series of concerts.  Our seats were in the first row of the 1st Tier on the left side of the stage, so we had a bird's eye view of the orchestra, with a clear view of the hands of the pianist, Denis Matsuev, for the Rachmaninoff 3rd Piano Concerto.  I had brought along my binoculars, so I could get good close-ups on any of the performers.

"The Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30 by Sergei Rachmaninoff (colloquially known as "Rach 3") is famous for its technical and musical demands on the performer. It has the reputation of being one of the most difficult concertos in the standard piano repertoire."
The Rach 3 was the reason I bought tickets to this concert.  When I was a student at Oberlin College, one of my best friends, Bill Bacon, was a piano student at the great Oberlin Conservatory of Music.  Bill was consumed by one purpose at that time.  He wanted to learn to play this difficult piece.  I'm sure that was the first time I had heard of Rach 3 and maybe even the first time I had heard about Rachmaninoff.  That was back in 1965, long before the movie Shine had introduced the piece to millions all over the world.  Bill was excited because the great piano virtuoso, Vladimir Horowitz, had recently returned to the stage at Carnegie Hall.  And I'm pretty sure that it was the Horowitz performance of  Rach 3 on RCA that Bill had in his collection.  So that's how I first heard the great concerto.

I always meant to go see the film, Shine, but somehow it never happened.  I understand it is a true story about a talented Australian pianist, David Helfgott, who learned Rach 3 for a concerto competition, but suffered a mental breakdown in the process.  Sadly, that seemed to be the process Bill was going through at Oberlin as well.  He became depressed and dropped out of the school sometime during my sophomore year.  But he continued to hang out in our section of the dorm until the end of the school year, as he had a girl friend, Cheryl, who was still a student.  In the end, they moved to Chicago together and the last time I saw them it was when I visited them in their apartment there.  I remember the apartment had been furnished with an ancient and very black and crusty gas stove, which Bill had proceeded to take apart and refurbish to a grand and nearly new looking condition.  I think all that manual labor had been good for Bill and he was justifiably proud of the restored stove.  He and Cheryl seemed happy together.  And then we parted and went about our separate lives.

I never knew what became of Bill, or whether he ever learned to play the Rachmaninoff 3rd Piano Concerto.

So when Denis Matsuev, a large handsome Russian, came out to perform the piece, I had Bill in the back of my mind.  Bill had told me what a difficult piece the concerto was to perform, so I felt a sense of danger as the music began.  Would this young man be up to the task?  Well he certainly was!  I have played the concerto on my stereo many times (dozens, hundreds of times?) over the years and know the sound like an old friend.  There below me on the stage, Matsuev and the Mariinsky Orchestra, conducted by Valery Gergiev, were performing the music just like I had heard it so many times in my home. Only this was far better, as it was a live performance in a wonderful concert hall.  The feeling of danger quickly subsided as Matsuev tore through the piece with no sign of distress or difficulty.  He made it look easy.

And so I relaxed and just reveled in the glorious sound, sometimes with my eyes closed, sometimes while watching his fingers fly across the keyboard.  It came to a most amazing conclusion, with a flourish of virtuosity from the pianist and a crescendo from the orchestra in support, all ending with a glorious crash, that sent a chill down my back.  Wow!  I had not expected such a dramatic conclusion and it felt great to feel a chill down my back again from live music.

And just like that, Matsuev was up and taking his bows from an excited audience. Cheers and cries of "Bravo" rolled across the concert hall as we clapped and clapped.  The conductor and orchestra took their bows, then left the stage and returned two or three times and finally Matsuev came back out without the conductor.  I had been taking it all in and enjoying the celebration that accompanies the end of a fine musical performance.  Life was good.
And so Matsuev sat back down at his Steinway for an encore.  He announced what he was going to play, which from the 1st Tier sounded like "Music Box," (but was actually "Musical Snuffbox"  Op.32 by Anatol Liadov) and proceeded to perform this new number, a delightful, mostly quiet piece that contrasted nicely with the virtuosity of Rach 3.  As soon as his fingers touched the keys and the music began, I was nearly overcome by a sudden intense feeling of grief mixed with joy.  If I had been home alone, I would have just burst out in tears, with loud sobbing.  But with Matsuev playing quietly down below me, I had to restrain myself, so as not to disturb the attentive audience.  I slammed my eyelids shut, as my eyes filled with tears, and I reminded myself to breathe, and keep on breathing, deeply.

As the Music Box played quietly down below me, the sudden surge of feelings began to subside, like a wave pulling back from the shore.  I opened my eyes and watched the end of the encore and the applause that followed.  An excited peaceful feeling returned.

What was that?!  I think my body had been experiencing the loss of my friend, Bill, and when the concerto was concluded so successfully it allowed all the tension about the difficulty of the piece to be released, which led to the feeling of joy, but it was accompanied by the long ago submerged grief over the loss of my Oberlin friends from my life.  The suddenness with which it appeared was rather disconcerting, but the experience was healing, as the feelings made their way out.

Once again I had experienced a transcendent moment at a live performance of music in San Francisco!