Archive for March, 2015

Hey Nineteen

Wednesday, March 25th, 2015

young todd with beard jpeg

Todd 1969 photo by Richard Mead

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser March 2015)

Hey Nineteen, that’s ‘Retha Franklin

She don’t remember Queen of Soul

Walter Becker and Donald Fagen

Digging around for photos of my grandmother, I came across a black and white picture of me taken in 1969, a still shot from a student film made during my second and final year of college at UC Santa Cruz—when tuition was next to nothing. My decision to quit college was made easier than it would be today because housing in 1969 was cheap, work was easy to come by, and the economic obstacles to experimenting with being an artist were minimal, certainly compared to the economic realities of 2015.

In the photograph, my thick brown hair is going every which way, my kinky beard full and black, my black-framed glasses the same ugly frames millions of myopic young American men wore at that time. I am wearing a black suit and tie because in the film I play the part of a violin teacher, my student such a terrible player that his squawking music drives me first insane and then causes me to have a heart attack and fall to the sand.

For reasons never made clear to me, the violin lesson is taking place on a beach, the blond violinist short and fat and wearing only enormous white diapers. After I fall dead, the grinning violinist walks into the ocean and disappears under the onrushing waves. I saw the three-minute film several times in one night in the filmmaker’s dormitory room, a couple dozen young men and women gathered to eat chips and salsa and drink cheap wine and watch the opus.

The consensus, heavily influenced by the ingestion of illegal substances, was that the movie was a work of surpassing genius and the filmmaker destined for international acclaim. I have no idea where that filmmaker is today, but on that night, he was hailed as a god.

My roommate played the part of the diapered violinist in the film, and was in reality a tone-deaf violinist. When he practiced in our room during the day, everyone in the dormitory would flee to the library or forest or cafeteria. And on those few occasions when he dared played at night, angry people would pound on our door and threaten to kill him if he didn’t stop.

One of those angry people was a pre-med student living alone in the room directly below us. A clean-cut fellow with black-framed glasses, he always wore pressed beige slacks, a white dress shirt, a striped tie, and a beige sweater. He rose at dawn every day, showered, shaved, dressed, and then rushed to the cafeteria to wait for door to open so he could eat breakfast at seven, after which he would race to his Organic Chemistry lecture and lab.

I was often playing Frisbee in front of the dorm when this hardworking fellow returned from a long day of pre-med travails, and he would sometimes stop to watch us flinging the disc and say, “Don’t you guys ever study?”

One night at a dorm party, he got very drunk and grabbed a young woman who screamed bloody murder as she fought him off, and it took four of us to pull him away from her and subdue him. The next morning, he rose early, donned his uniform, and was first in line at the cafeteria.

Some months later, this dedicated pre-med student did not emerge from his room for breakfast or to attend classes. Nor did he emerge the next day. His door was locked and he did not respond to entreaties to come out. The campus police were alerted and they opened his door with a master key. The poor guy was sitting at his desk, unmoving, his Organic Chemistry textbook open in front of him. He was not dead. He was simply sitting there, his mind on hiatus.

The police took him to the campus medical clinic and from there he was taken to a hospital. Two days later, his mother and father arrived to get his things. His mother reminded me of the mother in the television show Leave It To Beaver—perfectly coiffed and with every stitch in place. His father looked just like him, only thirty years older, and wore the same pants and shirt and tie and glasses. Some of the guys helped them load his things into their car while a buddy and I played Frisbee.

The next day, two new guys moved into his room. One of them was a fanatical chess player, the other a jazz buff. They were both Sociology majors, rarely went to class, and thereafter John Coltrane and Herbie Hancock became staples of the quad.

It’s hard times befallen Soul Survivors

She thinks I’m crazy, but I’m just growing old

Walter Becker and Donald Fagen

I was under the spell of Nikos Kazantzakis for my two years in college. I read all his novels, and Zorba the Greek three times. To culminate my absorption of Kazantzakis, I was slowly working my way through his epic poem The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, a massive work divided into twenty-four rhapsodies and consisting of 33,333 seventeen-syllable verses.

The messages I kept getting from Kazantzakis were: Get faraway from academia, follow the dictates of your heart and intuition, beware the overly-analytical, strive, sweat, make love, make music, write, travel, gather stories, and become a master of at least one thing, two or three if possible.

I finished reading that gigantic poem a month before I was to return for my third year of college, and I wept as I read the last few pages. Odysseus, the Odysseus Kazantzakis imagined, had been my constant companion for two years, and now he was dead. The book had been a bridge for me between childhood and adulthood, as had those two years of college. Now it was time to hit the road and, as Kazantzakis suggested, see what kind of trouble I could get into.

Goody’s Song

Wednesday, March 18th, 2015

Goody jpeg

Goody photo by Todd

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser March 2015)

The truth is not ashamed of appearing contrived.” Isaac Bashevis Singer

As recently reported, Marcia and I are getting more airplay for our music on KVRF, a radio station in Palmer Alaska, than we’ve had anywhere else in these United States, and our song getting the most play recently is “Goody’s Song” with lyrics based on a poem by my grandmother.

In 1979 I turned thirty, moved to Sacramento, bought a fixer upper, my novel Inside Moves was being made into a motion picture, and my second novel Forgotten Impulses was about to be published. In the midst of this hoopla, my grandmother Gertrude, known to friends and family as Goody, sent me a poem she hoped I would turn into a song. I loved Goody, and she had just lost her husband, my grandfather Casey, so I said Yes.

Her verses rhymed, sort of, but were syllabically inconsistent from one line to the next, and she used several gigantic words that simply would not sing. Nevertheless, I made a few feeble attempts to set her poem to piano music, and then gave up.

“I’d rather regret the things I’ve done than regret the things I haven’t done.” Lucille Ball

Two months later, I got a call from my brother Steve who lived near Goody in Menlo Park. “So,” he began in his no-nonsense way, “how’s Goody’s song coming?”

“Er, uh, oh, yeah. Goody’s song. I’ve been so busy that…”

“She doesn’t have long to live,” said Steve, not buying my excuses. “It’s all she talks about. Write something. Soon.”

So I dug up Goody’s poem and spent an hour at the piano searching for chords and a melody to carry her heartfelt lines, gave up again, went for a walk, and had a revelation. The song was not a piano song, but a guitar song, a lament worthy of Tammy Wynette. The words would need to be simplified and the rhythm of the lines made consistent, but the gist of the poem would remain.

I returned home, got out my guitar, and taking liberties with the original poem came up with:

I made a terrible mistake when I left you.

But what can I do about it today?

Ran at the first sign of trouble,

Now you’re telling me to stay far away.

I was so lucky when I met you,

Now I just can’t seem to forget you.

Please take me back, help me find that loving track.

What was I thinking of

When I made so little of such a great love?

I was a terrible fool to have left you.

What can I do about it today?

I ran at the first sign of trouble,

Now you’re telling me to stay far away.

But I’ve learned my lessons,

Won’t you help me out of this mess I’m in?

Please take me back, help me find that loving track.

What was I thinking of

When I made so little of such a great love?

I ran and ran and ran and ran,

Now I want to run back to you.

A month later, after five takes in a recording studio with a drummer, guitarist and bass player, Steve and I went to Goody’s apartment to play her the song. But before we rolled the tape, Goody made a speech. Picture a diminutive eighty-year-old woman, four-foot-ten in high heels, with curly silver hair and a twinkle in her eyes. Born to orthodox Jews in Detroit in 1900, her father a cantor, her mother the breadwinner selling groceries from a little shop, Goody had always wanted a career in show business and never stopped believing that one day, somehow, she would be discovered and become a star.

“I have a premonition about this song,” she said solemnly. “Even before I hear it, I know it will be great.”

Because Goody was a fantastic joke teller, my brother and I thought she might be setting us up for a punch line, but not this time.

“This song is the fulfillment of my dream. The spirit of my father lives in this song. It will be a beacon of hope for generations to come.”

We played the recording and Goody wept as she listened, and we hoped she was crying because she liked it.

When the song ended, Goody proclaimed, “Now if we can just get this to Johnny Mathis, all our troubles will be over.”

“You know, Goody,” I said, glancing at my brother, “this is not really the kind of song Johnny Mathis tends to record.”

And without missing a beat, Goody said, “Well, then that other guy who’s always on Merv Griffin. Mac somebody.”

“Mac Davis?” prompted my brother.

“Yes,” said Goody. “Get it to him and all our troubles will be over.”

“My one regret in life is that I am not someone else.” Woody Allen

Goody died six months later, having outlived Casey by a year. We tried and failed to get the song to Mac Davis and Bonnie Raitt and several other famous recording artists, but “Goody’s Song” became a staple in my repertoire and an audience favorite. And every time I sang the song and told the story of how it came to be written, someone would ask if I knew who it was Goody wanted to run back to, since she wrote the poem when she was in her late seventies.

I didn’t know the answer until thirty years later when Marcia and I recorded “Goody’s Song” for our album So Not Jazz, the version currently getting airplay in Palmer Alaska—Todd playing guitar and singing, Marcia enriching the song with her fabulous cello playing.

Goody wanted to run back to Goody—the Goody she was before she surrendered to the cultural imperatives of her generation, married, had kids, and suppressed her desire to be an actor and a singer.

“Goody’s Song” is downloadable from iTunes and Amazon and CD Baby. You can purchase So Not Jazz from Todd’s web site UnderTheTableBooks.com or from Marcia’s web site NavarroRiverMusic.com

Meeting Spock

Wednesday, March 11th, 2015

leonard_nimoy

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser March 2015)

“My folks came to the U.S. as immigrants, aliens, and became citizens. I was born in Boston, a citizen, went to Hollywood and became an alien.” Leonard Nimoy

Leonard Nimoy, known to hundreds of millions of people as Spock, died recently at the age of eighty-three. My brother was a huge fan of Star Trek, the television show, and is a gifted impersonator of movie and television celebrities. In high school, he founded the student club STUD—Star Trek Underground Devotees. STUD meetings were essentially showcases for my brother to perform his original wacky versions of Star Trek episodes in which he imitated with uncanny verisimilitude every member of the crew of the starship Enterprise. His Spock was virtually indistinguishable from Nimoy’s Spock.

I could do a credible Bones, the chief medical officer, and a pretty good Scotty, who ran the impulse engines powering the Enterprise, but my Spock and Kirk lacked nuance. When my brother was so inspired, he would enact hilarious scenes involving the entire Enterprise crew, and keep his audience, however small or large, laughing for the duration, his imitations nuanced and then some.

“The miracle is this: the more we share the more we have.” Leonard Nimoy

In 1967, my freshman year of college at UC Santa Cruz, I became enamored of Senator Eugene McCarthy who was running for President of the United States against Lyndon Johnson. He was pro-farmer, pro-labor, anti-corporate, and vowed to get us out of Vietnam as soon as he was elected. I joined thousands of other college kids in America and became Clean For Gene, which for young men meant cutting our long hair and shaving our mustaches and beards, and for young women meant wearing bras and donning skirts and dresses instead of jeans and halter tops. You may recall it was Eugene McCarthy’s strong showing in the New Hampshire and Wisconsin primaries that prompted President Lyndon Johnson not to seek re-election.

When Johnson withdrew from the race, Robert Kennedy entered and soon made famous the idiotic rallying cry, “There is light at the end of the tunnel.” Though not politically correct to criticize Robert Kennedy, who was assassinated shortly after winning the 1968 California primary, those of us who were devoted to Eugene McCarthy loathed Bobby Kennedy for entering the race against our hero.

But before that California primary vote, we Clean For Gene college kids worked hard to turn out the vote for our man. To that end, the McCarthy campaign asked us to come to Los Angeles and canvas neighborhoods to explain to voters why McCarthy was a better choice than Kennedy.

I traveled with a carload of fellow fanatics to Los Angeles where we spent a few days walking precincts for Gene. We were young, naïve, and full of hope, but more than this we did not want to get drafted and sent to fight an unwinnable war in Vietnam and die for a bunch of morons serving the military industrial complex. If McCarthy won, we would be safe to keep exploring the counter culture paradigm that came to be known as The Sixties, or so we hoped.

Hundreds of recently shorn and nicely dressed young adults convened at the McCarthy For President headquarters in Los Angeles and were asked to fill out questionnaires to determine where in that great sprawl of humanity we might best be deployed. Because I spoke fairly good Spanish, I was assigned to a predominantly Latino precinct. But before they turned us loose on the voters, we went through an orientation process in which several smart people explained the campaign literature and gave us tips on how to entice suspicious people to open their doors to us. And for inspiration, the orientation session climaxed with Leonard Nimoy dashing in to give us a pep talk and shake our hands before we hit the streets.

Leonard Nimoy had been a staunch Eugene McCarthy supporter from the beginning of the campaign, but Leonard, in his own way as highly intelligent as Spock, knew that Kennedy entering the race meant McCarthy had zero chance of victory. Nevertheless, he gave an earnest pep talk and thanked us profusely.

I then had a hellacious time—hilarious in retrospect—canvassing a Mexican American neighborhood where every single person I met was deeply committed to Robert Kennedy because Roberto was hermano of the deceased demigod John F. Kennedy. Thus the following drama played out dozens of times on that seemingly endless day.

Todd knocks on the door of a well-kept little house. The door opens. A man or woman frowns at Todd and says, “Si? Que quiere? No hablo Ingles.”

“No problem,” Todd replies in Spanish. “I speak Spanish. Here are brochures written in Spanish extolling the virtues of Eugene McCarthy, a friend of the farmer and the immigrant, a great man of peace, who is running for President.”

Thinking Todd insane, the man or woman reverently intones the name Kennedy and turns to look at a wall on which hang three large framed portraits, one of a hypothetical Jesus Christ, one of a hypothetical Virgin Mary mother of Jesus, and one of John F. Kennedy.

Persistent to a fault, Todd explains why McCarthy is vastly superior to Kennedy. The man or woman listens politely, says Gracias, and closes the door.

“I consider myself more spiritual than religious.” Leonard Nimoy

Returning to McCarthy headquarters the next morning, my cohorts and I filled out questionnaires otra vez, sat through another orientation, and once again Leonard Nimoy dashed in to give us a pep talk. Perhaps it was my dread of walking another precinct where everyone worshiped Kennedy, but Leonard’s pep talk struck me as hollow and disingenuous, and I was seriously thinking of giving up politics and going to the beach or catching a flick, or both.

Then some other exhausted dweeb called out, “Hey Leonard, do some Spock.”

And with great sincerity, Leonard responded in a voice half-Leonard and half-Spock, “This is not about me. This is about you doing whatever you can to make a positive difference in our society.”

Tons of Books

Wednesday, March 4th, 2015

buddha

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser March 2015)

“Life is a long lesson in humility.” James Barrie

When I was a kid we used the word tons to mean lots. I have tons of baseball cards. You have tons of friends. This week, however, I really did move tons of books, eighty big heavy boxes, of my self-published opuses Buddha In A Teacup and Under the Table Books, from the warehouse where I was paying to store them, to our house, which now resembles a UPS shipping center.

Thus concludes a humbling chapter in my publishing history. I have now published seven books with big publishers in New York, three books with medium-sized publishers, and I have self-published two books indistinguishable from books published by big time publishers. Most recently I brought out coil-bound photocopy editions of my novels, a most enjoyable way to go.

I published Buddha In A Teacup in 2008 and had three thousand case bound copies printed, that’s hardback without a dust jacket. I just brought home the last four hundred copies. Not bad for word-of-mouth. The book won the American Indie Award for Fiction, the Bay Area Independent Publishers Award for Fiction, a Silver Nautilus Award, and was a runner-up for the prestigious Ben Franklin Award.

In 2009, I published Under the Table Books and had two thousand case bound copies printed. I just brought home 1400 copies. This book also won the American Indie Award for Fiction and the Bay Area Independent Publishers Award for Fiction. All those awards and three dollars will get me a latte at Moody’s.

Things I learned from self-publishing books: no newspaper or magazine in America will review self-published fiction. Only bookstores run by people who think you have a strong local following will carry self-published fiction. Most people believe self-publishing is proof you have a screw loose.

“I know not, sir, whether Bacon wrote the words of Shakespeare, but if he did not, it seems to me he missed the opportunity of his life.” James Barrie

Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Beatrix Potter and tons of other famous authors self-published their fiction.

A few weeks before last Christmas, Marcia and I were in Santa Rosa and came upon a man sitting at a table on the sidewalk selling coil-bound photocopies of a children’s book he’d written called something like Melvin the Christmas Dragon. And I said, “Forget about bookstores. I’ll have a book stand.”

“There is something in humility which strangely exalts the heart.” Saint Augustine

Ten-years-old in 1959, I wanted more money than the twenty-five cents a week my parents gave me to complete what I felt was an insanely long list of chores. To earn extra money, I pulled weeds for a woman who lived two doors down. She paid fifty cents per bushel basket of weeds pulled. Unfortunately, her weeds were not large and it took me hours to fill that basket. I couldn’t wait to turn twelve so I could start babysitting. Twelve was the age you had to be in our neighborhood to babysit. My older sisters made a dollar an hour babysitting and came home with tons of money from watching television and snacking while the little kids were sleeping.

In the meantime, I wracked my brain for ways to make money. One day I saw some kids selling lemonade and making tons of money. We had tons of lemons on our trees, I knew where my mother kept tons of sugar, and water was free. I would make tons of money with a lemonade stand! I announced my plan to my parents. Dad gave a ten-minute lecture on the stupidity of magical thinking. Mom said, “The lemonade will cost more to make than you’ll make selling it. Besides, I don’t want you making a mess in the kitchen.”

My friend John lived across the street and had a mother right out of Leave It To Beaver. Almost everything I said made her laugh. I proposed to John that we go into business together. John did not need money—his parents gave him as much as he wanted—but he was excited about going into business with me because I was ten and he was eight.

John’s parents, quantum opposites of my parents, thought selling lemonade was a fine idea. John’s father said, “I have just the thing. A big barrel.”

So we went into business. We painted the barrel white and decorated it with red and blue stars and circles and half-moons. We made a big pitcher of lemonade, added plenty of ice cubes, secured a large supply of paper cups, and set up our stand at the mouth of John’s driveway. We charged ten cents a glass. We worked from eleven in the morning until late afternoon four days a week for most of that summer.

Because John’s parents paid for sugar and paper cups, and John’s mother made the lemonade so we wouldn’t wreck her kitchen, we made tons of money. Well, several dollars anyway.

“Miracles are not contrary to nature, but only contrary to what we know about nature.” Saint Augustine

After four days of driving back and forth from Mendocino to Fort Bragg and severely taxing the springs of my old pickup with tons of books, I finally got the last of those incredibly heavy boxes stacked in the last remaining available space in our house—Marcia’s closet. To celebrate, I made a cup of cocoa and checked my email. Nothing. But then something came through: a most excellent publisher wanted to bring out a paperback edition of Buddha In A Teacup. I pinched myself, rubbed my eyes, and read the email again. I wasn’t imagining things.

I had wanted to bring my books home for the last two years but never had the emotional fortitude until now. Which reminds me of what Mr. Laskin says at the end of Under the Table Books. “I refer to it in my book as chumming for synergy. There is nothing the universe appreciates more than action. Do you know why that is? Because action is the mother of the whole kit and caboodle.”