The Undertone: terza rima

Underneath the skin, a single notion
supports how life unfolds from start to end.
Beneath the bustle of the world’s commotion,

it floats in just a whisper on the wind.
In quiet moments, it can be detected,
first here, then there, and then it’s gone again.

This song speaks to the lonely and infected,
the disenfranchised and the left behind.
To listen is feel far less neglected,

to find relief to ease a troubled mind;
and in the falling darkness, light a candle
that saves the world from stumbling on, blind.

If you sit still and listen, you will hear
a music that transcends both hate and fear.

02 JUN 2017

You Came to Hear: rondeau redoubled

The music that you came to hear:
a sonic bridge that helps you cross
some gulf of time no longer near,
or spend as a mere hour’s loss,

so in the maelstrom sound’s great fosse
you find your sorrows light to bear,
your jagged rocks made soft with moss,
the music that you came to hear?

What in these tunes allays your fears,
makes sunshine from an endless dross
and with a modicum of beer
a sonic bridge that helps you cross

in mirthful, bright and shiny gloss
from disconnection, felt so clear,
to friends who share a sense of loss:
some gulf of time no longer near.

And when at last the end appears:
last call, that winging albatross
whose warning bursts the happy sphere,
you’ve suffered a mere hour’s loss

and gained a bright and shiny gloss.
Now, when the new day’s dawn appears
and there may seem no way across,
you can reflect back in the mirror
the music that you came to hear.

05 MAY 2017

3. Be born

Everyone that I know was at one point born – so far as I know, all joking about hatching in the desert sun under the watchful eyes of vultures aside. I am no exception. The facts are readily verifiable: at 2:55 am Eastern Standard Time, at William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Michigan in the United States of America, Robert Leroy and Nancy Ann Litzenberg found themselves in possession of a male child. Interesting to note that I recently saw a film about Jack Kevorkian that included scenes from William Beaumont, where he practiced his euthanasia for a period of time, and although I have only two experiences in that facility (my birth, and a subsequent hospitalization for tonsillectomy at age 5, neither of which I remember very much if at all, although I do remember receiving ice cream and the board game Candy Land in a hospital bed) seeing the camera sweep through the halls gave my spine a shiver in recognition of a place for which I had physical, if not psychological, memory. In reference to the circumstances of my birth, I can only offer anecdotal evidence: first, that I was born in the midst of a quiet unusually violent blizzard. Second, that the timing of my birth resulted in two things that I think may have permanently affected my relationship with my father: he was forced to miss the broadcast of the Rose Bowl featuring his beloved Ohio State – and, due to an almost three-hour delay in my arrival, he was forced to forgo deducting my expense on his taxes for a full year.

Many of those who surround my life considered themselves “born again”. To borrow a bit more from Montaigne, I think this rebirth happens once or twice throughout your lifetime, if you are fortunate. The trick with any rebirth of course is that you must at some point grow up into life. You can’t remain a child of God, creativity, nature or anything else forever, any more than having experienced a first physical birth you can remain an infant interminably. Again, like Montaigne, I think I was born again the first time when I began to appreciate what music as an inseparable force felt like. I think I may have been 10 or 11 the first time performing music transcended being a purely physical act, an application of technique to muscle memory, and became an act of conscious yoga, or union, with the universe. The first time you “lose yourself” in any activity is a sign that you are susceptible, and in some way acceptable, to magic. While I had once or twice before 7 actually felt my bicycle was leaving the ground and I was flying across the yard, the experience of playing music amidst a group of other musicians was the first time I really began to understand the possibilities.

I think I was likely born again when I began writing songs. It seems so long ago: my first efforts coincided with the deaths of both my paternal and maternal grandfathers in 1974 – incidentally, the year I received my first record albums: Elvis Presley’s Gold Records Vol. 4 and Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire. A year or so later, when my cousin Jim gifted me a two-volume 8-track tape collection that he had recorded himself, including the Beatles’ collections Love Songs and Rock and Roll Music, supplemented by various singles and Live at the Hollywood Bowl, my initial introduction to popular music was complete. The rest, as they say, is history.

Music and me

There are those who imagine “magical” places like they are scenes from the “happily ever after” part of a fairy tale: in a strange twist, they believe the hereafter, the great beyond, and the future tense of once upon a time to be like the world initially encountered by the young Siddhartha Buddha, one without care, disease, want or sorrow. But the truth is these places are just like right here, with their absence from our immediate view the only advantage given their fabulous and dazzling marketing brochures.

Music is one of those magical places. People say music is a language, a conduit, a means for connecting. Those metaphors make it seem like another world, or at least a foreign country. Extending that metaphor, people don’t really talk too much about the place whose natives speak that language as their first tongue: there’s not a lot of information on its geography, customs, and government, nor its climate, flora or fauna, be they beneficial and friendly, or poisonous and otherwise harmful.

I’ve know a lot of people who have visited, including myself, but I don’t know if I’ve met anyone who actually “lives” there year-round or calls it their original homeland.

There is no authoritative guidebook or CIA fact book about this foreign place – although to some it may seem one is necessary. A lot of people THINK they understand musicians, sometimes, but at other times must be content to shrug their shoulders, shake their heads and walk away, puzzled and confused.

Think of this as the beginning, then, of a travelogue, a descriptive narrative of these travels to the land of music. Because music, especially singing, CAN transport you to another place, where your body, mind and spirit are entirely wrapped up in a universal current. The danger is that when you come back from that place, you cannot communicate what you found there, because it does require a different language, a non-language. And getting back there is hard. It is tempting, so tempting, to fake your passport to that land, or at least grease a few officials’ palms, by artificial means. But those artificial means only make you think everyone else understands you while you’re there. And then, at some point, the artificial means can betray you, leaving you standing at the border only able to look in, but not cross over.

10 SEP 2014

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.

Keith Jarrett and the Abstract Truth

Keith Jarrett once said that the more you know about the piano, about harmony, the harder it is to decide which note to play next. Because you’ve moved from thinking of seven possible notes (the ones right under your fingers, in the diatonic scale) into a world of chromatics, modes, extended chords and passing tones, you have a lot more choices in your palette.

Sometimes, it feels like this axiom applies to information. We have much data available, not just names, dates and places of historical or “newsworthy” events, but thanks to social media, we are exposed to a lot more information about a lot of people (only some of whom historically we would have called friends, the rest mere acquaintances, relatives, coworkers, and perfect strangers). It seems like we have more data with which to plan, justify and/or execute our next moves. But while browsing online may be an education of sorts, it’s not the kind of skill set expansion Jarrett is talking about.

First off, it’s unfocused. The breadth of available topics makes pointed study impractical. To take in all the news alone, compiled from dozens of sources worldwide, dictates a mere skim of the details, a sound byte or video clip’s worth to give us enough to form a quick opinion and reshape it into a 140-character tweet. Most of us aren’t actually delving deeper, doing the additional research and investing the time to appreciate the underlying issues.

Secondly, there is so much out there that either accidentally or blatantly isn’t accurate. Misquotations, news leads based on the popularity of someone (usually any random celebrity someone, but just as likely someone who by freak luck went viral), automatic knee jerk repostings, and hundreds of varying and often contradictory opinions (too often presumed as informed, educated and/or expert opinion without the benefit of credentials or evidence of wisdom).

Third, an education like Jarrett’s is based on an objective pedagogy. A thirteenth chord is a specific thing. Likewise, a Dorian mode is just that and nothing else. In other words, regardless of what you think or feel, although your choices may be subjective, the lessons are not. With information, however, particularly the data we obtain through social media, we tend to see first that which agrees with our worldview, second that which our friends believe or repeat, and only third that originated from our “enemies”, opposites or outside our comfort zones. That’s true of all information, I suppose, from the beginning of time. But the sheer volume of today’s “big data” means that many of us never get past the first set, never seeing the counterpoint, rebuttal, refutation or otherwise completely contrary information so essential to critical thinking, conscious decision making or evolution.

Finally, and not least importantly: not everyone has wherewithal to become truly educated. In fact, few people are educated about their world the way Keith Jarrett knows the piano and music. Becoming good at something, truly acquiring a skill or knowledge base, takes a lot of work. Most people would rather listen to music than do the work required to play it at least well. To reach Jarrett’s level requires a level of effort beyond most people’s comprehension.

Let’s face it. Most people are inherently lazy, at least when it comes to enlightenment (and truthfully, isn’t the purpose of education to lighten our load, our hearts, to see beyond the endless drudgery that can be daily living – or “making a living” – to something meaningful, joyous and in a suitable context for the pursuit of happiness?). Surfing, browsing, “liking” is easy. For most, there’s no need to do the research to validate or verify an opinion. There’s no time, after all, and what’s the point? It’s only idle conversation anyway, not an “approved” or traditional way of learning. If it were, perhaps it would be a lot less popular. After all, the modern trend is to disguise something nutritious as something fun (if your kids knew they were eating vegetables, they would be disgusted). In other words, eschew anything that even LOOKS hard. It’s so much more convenient just to parrot the party, church, national, racial or otherwise acceptable line. Like the Sufi story, in the end, everyone drinks the new water and there is peace. Well, homogeneity, at least. No one’s rocking the boat, judging the emperor’s wardrobe, or questioning the status quo. It’s like a warm bath. You can safely and quietly drift off to sleep.

But someone has to man the helm, right? If not you, then who? In this quagmire of essential diversity, freedom of speech, free enterprise, and information overload, if you can’t verify and validate for yourself, you’ve lost the foundation of liberty, of evolution, of actual personal growth.

When I was a kid in the 70s, there was a lot of focus on self-realization – figuring out what you were, what that was worth, and how to go about getting it. Yes, a lot of it was about material things. But it was personal effort, personal responsibility for your life’s outcome, personal solutions to personal issues. How else can a nation or world consider itself free, except as reflected in the achievement, responsibility, independence (and acknowledged interdependence) of its individuals? And being an individual has, and always will, required individual effort. Regardless of the amount of information available. Because Keith Jarrett didn’t learn how to play the piano using someone else’s hands or letting someone practice for him.

A Song

My ears already hear the morning lark.
Listening far beyond my sight I have begun.
So we absorb what we seem to not touch;
it vibrates us, even from a distance –

and fills us, even if we do not know it,
with something live, which, until sensing it,
we never are; the music moves us on
answering our own song…
but what we hear is the breath of the whole world.

After A Walk by Rainer Maria Rilke

8 APR 2014