Tag Archives: radio

Don’t Touch That Dial

This morning I was a guest on the KZBL “Jamming with Johnny” talking about the Tricentennial CD and my song on it.

I realized that the only other time I’ve been on the radio was about 30 years ago back in Los Angeles, when RJ, Dave and I dropped in at KXLU and talked about our new Faith Assembly demo. It also made me think about the three different times I auditioned for the Columbia School of Broadcasting (in L.A., Boston and Memphis) where they were eager to have me (all three times) but the costs were just prohibitive. Interesting to think how that life might have worked out. One of my father’s favorite one liners was “You know, you’ve got a face for radio.” That and the ability to approximate a flat American accent (think Iowa or Nebraska) and you might have a great career in broadcasting. But life had other plans.

I still think about trying to volunteer DJ from time to time, but my kind of playlist would probably put me on the alternative format in the 2:00-5:00 am slot. Think about it: King Crimson followed by Hank Williams (or Hank Snow or Noel Boggs) followed by Ornette Coleman. You’d have to have your ears wide open to take that set in.

Radio’s always been what music has become over the years: a field of specialization. Like medicine, the general practitioner often takes a back seat (due to decreasing number, perhaps) to the ear, nose and throat man, the urologist. Music, and by extension the media that broadcasts it, has become so compartmentalized into specific narrow genres that allow only minor variations among their content. There’s no cross pollenating, no real meeting of the minds or hands across the table between what should be just different conversations in the same universal language. Yes, there the occasional celebrity, novelty match up duets (usually an attempt to make one or more of the duet partners more current and relevant), but for the most part, behind the scenes, at least the musicians tend to work in their own small corrals. In some ways, of course, that’s become necessary. The big studio systems (except perhaps for Nashville) started dying out in the 70s. There’s not really a Motown, Muscle Shoals, Wrecking Crew or Stax sound or scene anymore. And each genre has become a little more demanding, I think. There are specific grooves, tricks, patterns and tendencies you need to know, and know expertly, to be accepted in a specific sub-sub-genre. As a result, most musicians who make any kind of real money are often forced to specialize, to develop a kind of tunnel vision that excludes any influence from outside that narrow world.

It’s like that phenomenon “not invented here” that prevents one industry from adopting a useful and effective practice from another industry – not because it won’t work or can’t be adapted, but because unless “we” thought of it, it lacks credibility. We’re unique, and special. You can’t possibly know our needs.

Seems like the only place where inter-species mixing happens these days is in bar bands – like the one I’m in, who won’t say no to a request, especially if it’s submitted on a 20 dollar bill. Hell, we’ve even got a cd called “$20 Tips”. It’s almost like I’m living the dream my mother envisioned (a steady regular studio gig playing whatever they threw at me). Of course, it’s my part-time gig, but what did Oscar Wilde say? “A poet is a writer with a day job.”

That’s sad. Because the best music (IMHO) represents an amalgamation of styles and influences that are gathered together in perhaps totally unexpected ways to produce something entirely new. Like jazz, for example. Or hip-hop. Like mbuki-mvuki (a Swahili word that refers to shucking off your clothes and dancing in wild abandon to music playing), which through its transmutation through boogie-woogie became the butterfly we now call rock and roll.

The future of music is NOT about increasing specialization, with only token incorporation of hip, happening trends lifted from other musical traditions. If that continues, I fear that music (and following its lead, the remaining performance and creative arts) will inevitably slouch toward an insular, narrow cultural signficance and even more sadly, an increased sense of parody and caricature.

If music is indeed to remain the universal language, we’ve got to ensure that we as musicians (who are, based on my experience, the largest group of music listeners) keep our blinders off, our ears open and our hearts willing. Because to a large degree, culture is passed from generation to generation by its music. Its songs. Let’s not drop the ball – or at least, try to grab it before it goes completely out of bounds.

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Solid Gold

Shall I repeat again tonight the songs
you heard last night and many nights before,
and soulless, mouth the words you sing along,
pretending love for money, like a whore?

Are these the only tunes worth your applause,
a tired set of worn nostalgic charts
you need pay no attention to, because
the words you have all memorized by heart?

Who needs a band to churn out these stale rhythms?
What point the years of study, toil and sweat
to learn an art that fades into a living,
a dream that drowns in years of sad regret?

It’s not as if your ears have ceased to listen;
more likely that you’ve truly ceased to care
if what you get for free is often missing
what makes it worth the time spent getting there.

And what good are your minds, if not for learning
what lies beyond the same old box you know?
When the old wood is gone that you’re now burning,
there will be no more forest, lest you grow.

Shall I repeat again the same old chorus,
because it makes you think the world unchanged
from when your life was once young and euphoric,
instead of grown decrepid and deranged?

There is no spark of life in your nostalgia.
It wastes new minutes pining for the old;
destroying youth’s creations, hope and beauty,
and building for them tombs of solid gold.

20 DEC 2007

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King of Americana

Being the King of Americana
might mean nobody knows your name:
except for the local bartenders
who still serve you just the same,

while you’re sitting on the mike for three hours,
singing songs that nobody knows,
wearing out strings for a hobby that brings
in about thirty dollars a show.

Being the King of Americana,
you know at least a thousand songs by ear;
but in a three-strong crowd, there’s always one who’s loud
with something else they want to hear:

another song about scraping the bottom,
another ditty on the journey down;
and you hate it, but you play it, one more time,
just before you pass the tip jar ’round.

One more round, please, for the band,
who’ll shuffle, waltz or swing
at your command; the next four hours
they’ll play anything.

Hold your applause until you hear
the last guitar chord ring…
then give it up again
for the Americana King.

Being the King of Americana
might mean you know no one cares
about how songs are born and die
in curses, tears and prayer;

and each one takes another’s place
to catch the public’s ear.
You hope to find enough of them
to pass for a career.

One more round, please, for the band,
who’ll shuffle, waltz or swing
at your command; the next four hours
they’ll play anything.

Hold your applause until you hear
the last guitar chord ring…
then give it up again
for the Americana King.

05 SEP 2007

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My Country Gold

Thirty years ago, back when I composed my first tune,
country music wasn’t all that cool;
anyone who said so, was a fool,
and better off in engineering school.

The only exceptions: Waylon, Willie, John and June;
everybody else seemed pretty old;
and despite the records that they sold,
they seemed to leave me pretty cold.

It seems since Hank the Senior died,
you want to know the truth,
that country music lost its sense of innocence and youth;
and split itself from rock and roll
to give the city folks
something they could ridicule with cleverness and jokes.
So despite I what I knew inside,
I left that music be;
pretending that it wasn’t part of me.

Thirty years ago, when I first figured how to play
most country singers came to stardom late;
hell, Merle Haggard sung his first at 28;
mixing youth and country? Don’t hallucinate.

Who’d a thought that things would change to how they are today?
Past thirty, and you haven’t too much chance;
You’re judged by how you fill out some tight pants;
And history? Forget it. Learn to dance.

It seems to me, since Elvis died,
you want to know the truth,
that country music figured it had best reclaim the youth;
and joined itself to rock and roll
to convince city folks
they could wear cowboy boots and not
be thought of as a joke.
So despite I what I knew inside,
I left that music be;
pretending that it wasn’t part of me.

Thirty years gone by, and only me that’s still the same;
listening to ol’ Merle and Bill Monroe;
measuring the hours as they go;
too old for stardom out on Music Row.

No regrets, and country music surely’s not to blame;
I’ve no consistent action to defend;
no single kind of music as my friend;
just wonderings and lots of might have beens.

It seems to me since Johnny died,
you want to know the truth,
that country music’s cut old age and now clings to the youth;
who start from rock and and roll
and write to give the city folks
a way to reconnect with life between this great land’s coasts.
Because it’s what I know inside,
though now I’m far too old;
I still pan for that solid country gold.

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Gospel of the Jester

Sometimes, you write something that still resonates no matter how much later you rediscover it, or in how different a frame of mind you are from when you wrote it. The Gospel of the Jester is such a song for me. Written in a 23-hour songwriting binge when I first moved to Boston and knew no one, when I was writing on both piano and guitar almost simultaneously. Certainly a lot of the songs ended up sounding similar, and many of them lean almost too much in the direction of Van Morrison (good for Van Morrison, not so good for me most of the time).

Ring around the radio, listen to a dream
Close your eyes to visions that you haven’t seen
The truth is misperception and the fact is a lie
Wisps of clouds are covering the face of the sky

Ring around the telephone, pealing like a bell
Turn on your machine so if you’re home, no one can tell
Read between the lines of what has never been said
Make believe you’re make believe, go where you are led

Fall down, fall down, all fall down
Queue up for the symphony, the same old sound
Dream on, dream on jester kings
Dance your dance for the puller of the strings

Ring around the television: watch your life unfold
Put your trust in advertising; do as you are told
Your future is decided, don’t attempt to be free
Your friendly big brother runs the ministry

Ring around the roses, made from plasticware
Keep your polyester, and for God’s sake, cut your hair
Trust in the brotherhood, you’ll be all right
Don’t be afraid, we only come out at night

Fall down, fall down, all fall down
Listen to the piper’s hypnotizing sound
Dance on, dance on jester queens
Dance your dance onto the stage of the machine

You can be anything we want you to become
You can learn the language of the deaf and dumb
You can control the future, well, that is nothing new, but
You can win friends that are just like you.

Fall down, fall down all fall down
Listen to the music leading underground
Dream on, dream on jester fools
You can play the game while we re-invent the rules

Fall down, fall down all fall down
Listen to the piper’s hynotizing sound
Dream on, dream on jester kings
Dance your dance for the puller of the strings

1990

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Pop Charts

You wanna make it on the pop charts
Shrink-wrapped and sold just like a pop tart
Well, let me tell you: better get smart
it doesn’t matter if you’ve got heart

It doesn’t matter what you’re saying
and you don’t have to do the playing
Don’t take a seat, ’cause you ain’t staying
If the cash registers’ aren’t swaying

They’ll tell you it’s too complicated
or that your appeal’s understated
the boys in sales must be elated
to see your potential inflated

You wanna make it on the pop charts
Be the next big thing sold at Wal-Mart
Well, let me tell you, better get smart
Forget your brain and lock away your heart

It doesn’t matter what you’re saying
As long as stadium’s are swaying
They don’t have to know you’re not playing
Or that you’re prematurely graying

You’ll be the flavor for a short while
And then be left out on the trash pile
With nothing but a toothy, big smile
“So sorry, but you’re going out of style”

You want to make it on the pop charts
Be shrinked-wrapped and consumed like pop tarts
Well, let me tell you, better get smart
and find another path with some heart

It doesn’t matter what you’re saying
Or if you do none of your playing
It’s just an image you’re portraying
Don’t mind your bags, you won’t be staying.

02 AUG 2006

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A Song Worth Singing

“People only want to hear
the few songs that they know.”
That’s what some will tell you
drives live bands and radio:
the lowest common factor
in the drunkest, toughest crowd
who only care to listen
if it’s familiar and loud.

“People have no interest in
songs they’ve not heard before.
The same old sound is what’s been found
to get ’em past the door.
There no use playing anything
that they don’t want to hear,
because your job is not much more
than selling lots of beer.”

But hey, they’ve got a jukebox over there
that works much cheaper, and won’t really care…

If the song is worth the singing, if the words mean something strong
If the second time you hear it you might want to sing along
If the people that you’re playing for aren’t worth that something more,
Then please tell me, what am I still writing for?

“People only come to see
an entertaining show;
so that’s what we provide them,
then we pack up and we go.
Yeah, we’ll play what we want to,
someday, when our name’s in lights;
but until then, we’ll give ’em what
they think they want tonight.”

But hey, the jukebox can play all the hits;
live music’s got to have much more to it …

If the song is worth the singing, if the words mean something strong
If the second time you hear it you might want to sing along
If the people that you’re working for aren’t worth that something more,
Then please tell me, what are you still playing for?

20 MAR 2006

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