Archive for September, 2017

Magical Dancer

Monday, September 25th, 2017

Vito & Clare

Vito & Clare photo by Todd

“I have woven a parachute out of everything broken.” William Stafford

As I mentioned in a recent article, though I’ve been playing the piano every day for fifty years, and have often been paid for my playing, I can barely read music. I have tried to overcome the trauma that kept me from learning to read music—my six-year-old fingers being whacked with a heavy metal pen by a bad piano teacher—but I am still stuck at the very early stages of being able to play written-down music.

I am also a professional writer of stories and novels, though had I not first been encouraged by my friends in elementary school to write and read my stories aloud to them, and then received modest encouragement from my elementary school teachers, I’m sure I never would have been able to overcome the harsh criticism and denigration of my work by my high school and college teachers, not to mention rejections from countless editors in the employ of mainstream publishers.

Thankfully, despite the confederacy of dunces that controls much of our culture, I managed to publish several books; and though contemporary commercial publishers are largely indifferent to what I’ve written in the last ten years—my best work—I carry on because I love to write and there are several marvelous people eager to read my stories.

But how did I come to love the piano again after being so frightened and hurt while trying to play the instrument as a child?

My mother played the piano, not often, but when she played, she was happy, and that is most significant. From the time I was a very little boy, whenever she sat down at our big old upright and got out the Tams-Witmark songbooks of hits from the 1920s and 30s and 40s, I would stand beside her as she played and we would sing “It’s Only A Shanty In Old Shanty Town” and “Someone To Watch Over Me” and “Yes, We Have No Bananas” and many others. Thus my early neurological wiring regarding the piano was all about pleasure and joyful communion with my otherwise not-very-happy mother.

Neither the violence of that bad piano teacher nor the rolling eyes of my father could inhibit my love of singing or curtail my frequent renditions of show tunes and pop hits. When in high school, I had roles in musicals, and at that same time, the late 1960s, I was lead singer in a rock band I formed with a guitar-playing friend named Dave. We did mostly original songs and were not great, though we thought we were.

One night Dave was at my house—my parents gone to a party—and we were working on new songs. During these songwriting sessions, I sang and played bongos, while Dave played his Rickenbacker electric twelve-string and sang, too.

Tiring of our bongo-guitar combo, Dave said, “Play something on the piano and I’ll play with you.”

I glanced at the dreaded keyboard. “No, I don’t play that thing.”

“How about a simple pattern of bass notes?”

“No,” I said, furiously shaking my head. “I’m terrible.”

“Like this,” he said, reaching over to the keyboard and playing Middle C and then G below Middle C and then C below that G, and back up again.

With great trepidation, I played what he had played.

“Now keep that going.”

So I kept the pattern going and he tried out various groovy sounding chords on his twelve-string and…

Six weeks later we were the opening act for a rock band in a teen nightclub in the huge basement of a church in Woodside, California. I don’t know how Dave got us this gig, or why he thought we were gig-worthy, but there I was sitting at a large upright piano in fairly good tune. Dave had his twelve-string guitar plugged into his trusty little amp and I had a microphone suspended in front of me for introducing the tunes and singing wordlessly on a few of our musical inventions.

We’d been playing and developing our piano-guitar creations for hours every day after school and on weekends for those six weeks and enjoying ourselves tremendously, but I was terrified about playing in front of an audience. Dave was giddy, but not terrified.

There were about forty teenagers sitting at tables or standing at the soft drink bar, and many of these teens were high on marijuana, having toked outside before entering the club. They had come for the rock band and were talking and laughing and not paying any attention to us. There were also a few parents present and some college guys hired to maintain order.

One of those college guys introduced us with, “Here’s Dave and Todd.”

My hands were shaking as I began to play a simple pattern of notes I’d figured out for my left hand combined with a few notes played with my right hand; and after I found my groove, so to speak, Dave started playing his guitar—the room wonderfully resonant. We called our songs ragas, and they were certainly raga-like if not technically ragas.

We had no idea what anyone might think of our music, but the moment we began to play, everyone in that resounding basement stopped talking and we could feel them listening to us, which was one of the most exciting feelings I’d ever had.

Then out of the shadows came a young woman bedecked with scarves. She may have been wearing clothes, too, but all I remember are her green and red and gold scarves. She walked to the center of the room and danced a fabulous dance full of eloquent gestures and graceful spins; and as she danced I realized she was dancing to the rhythm of my pattern of chords.

Then other people joined her on the dance floor and we played that raga for a long time because the people were digging what we were laying down.

When we finished that first tune, in my memory, the applause was thunderous, though it was probably just applause in a reverberant room—and nothing ever again could stop me from playing the piano.

Know Your Audience

Monday, September 18th, 2017

Of Water and Melons

Chapbook Of Water and Melons

“Truth is a great flirt.” Franz Liszt

A few decades ago a short novel came out in America that became a huge bestseller. I won’t name the novel because I think it is a bad book, poorly written, and with a terrible message; but because tens of millions of people loved the book, I don’t want to sully anybody’s happy memories of that novel. Because I am a fiction writer, several people urged me to read this novel, and three people gave me copies. I soldiered through the first few pages, skimmed the rest, and despaired for humanity.

A year after that very popular novel came out I read an article summarizing a study about that novel conducted by scholars at a well-known university. The study documented that the vast majority of people who bought and read this popular book believed it was not a novel, but an absolutely true story, though the book was marketed as a work of fiction, and nowhere on or in the book did the publisher or author claim the story was true. The study further reported that when people who loved this book were informed that the story was not true, they reacted with either tremendous anger or enormous disappointment, or both.

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

I became aware of this phenomenon—people believing fiction is true—some years before this mass delusion about a popular novel swept the nation. In those long ago days, I frequently gave public readings of my fiction; and it was during the mid-1980s that more and more people began to experience my stories as true rather than as fiction. In response to this phenomenon, I would preface my reading of each story by declaring that the tale was not autobiographical, not inspired by supposedly true events, and was most definitely a work of fiction.

Even with this disclaimer, many people in my audiences continued to assume my stories were recollections of things that had really happened to me, regardless of how preposterous that possibility.

On one occasion I performed for a large audience at a community college in California. I read several short stories and concluded my performance by reading one of my most popular stories Of Water and Melons, which you can listen to on YouTube.

Of Water and Melons takes place during the Great Depression, long before I was born. The story is narrated by a man looking back on his life and remembering what happened when he was twelve-years-old and living a hard scrabble life with his family in the hills of North Carolina.

When I finished reading the story for that community college audience, there was a moment of silence followed by generous applause. Then came the question and answer phase of my presentation and many hands shot up.

My first questioner was a woman who said angrily, “Why wasn’t your wife more supportive of you after everything you had to overcome to become a college professor and a successful author? I think you’re lucky she left you.”

I was staggered. What was this woman talking about? I hadn’t mentioned anything about my wife, nor was I a professor. “Um…”

The woman continued angrily, “Why would she want to undermine you after you’d worked your way up from nothing to where you are now?”

And then it dawned on me that this woman had interpreted and intermixed all the stories I’d read that day as chapters of a life she imagined was my life.

“I’m very sorry,” I said, “but as I tried to make clear at the beginning of the reading, all these stories are fiction. I didn’t grow up poor in North Carolina, I never finished college, and I am not a college professor. So…”

“What?” said the woman, incredulously. “You lied to us?”

And with that she got up and stalked out of the auditorium, as did several other disgruntled people.

“A little inaccuracy sometimes saves tons of explanation.” H.H. Munro

Some years after that disquieting community college experience, I led a writing workshop for a dozen men incarcerated in San Quentin—men of many sizes and shapes and colors and ages, all of them keenly interested in me and the writing exercises I gave them.

To prove myself a credible tutor, I began the two-hour session by reading a short story entitled Poetry, which you can also hear me read on YouTube. The story is poignant and funny and thought provoking, and my reading was punctuated by loud laughter and impromptu comments from my audience of felons.

When I finished reading the story, the men gave me a round of applause; and then the very largest of them said in a deep buttery voice, “So when that happen to you?”

I explained that the story was fiction, and though some of the details sprang from experiences I’d had, the plot and characters were wholly imagined.

A fellow with tattoos covering his massively muscled arms gazed at me with wrinkled brow and said, “We know you wrote it. But he wants to know when did that happen to you?”

Sensing I was quickly losing whatever credibility I may have gained with the success of the story, I took a deep breath and said, “A couple years ago.”

“You ever see that woman again?” asked the very largest man, arching an eyebrow and nodding slowly. “She wanted you bad. And you loved her. I hope you called her. Got together.”

“No, I never saw her again,” I said sadly, wishing I had.

“That’s rough,” said a middle-aged guy with a raspy voice. “You had a special thing going there. That’s rare. Sorry that didn’t work out for you.”

“She said she was happily married,” opined another fellow, wagging his finger, “but if she was, she wouldn’t have kissed you like that. You shoulda gone for it, man. Don’t get many chances like that.”

“Amen, brother,” murmured another man, bowing his head.

“You’re absolutely right,” I said, nodding in agreement. “And on that note, let’s do some writing.”

What Comes Around

Monday, September 11th, 2017

What Comes Around

What Comes Around photo by Todd

One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important.” Bertrand Russell

So the other day Max wrote to say he loved my piano tune “What Comes Around”.

When I created the piece fifteen years ago, I played it several times a day as a form of meditation, and the playing became so automatic I assumed I would never forget how to play that particular progression of chords. “What Comes Around,” is entirely composed, unlike most of my tunes, which are designed to be at least partially improvised each time I play them.

After I recorded “What Comes Around” for my album Incongroovity in 2013, I ceased to play the tune. But when Max said he loved “What Comes Around”, I really wanted to play it again. I sat down at the piano and hunted and hunted for the first chord, but the notes eluded me. Then I listened to the beginning of the recording, and after a long hunt found the opening chord. I hoped the rest of the chords would be easy to remember, but they would not stay remembered when I managed to find them, so I resorted to writing down the notes, though not as notes on a staff but as stacks of letters (with flat signs when needed) denoting the notes.

Since then, I have been playing the pattern of chords several times a day. After a week, I can almost get through the whole piece without having to refer to the stacks of letters denoting notes. I am humbled by how hard it has been to re-learn this piece, and I think about how easy this process would have been had I learned to read music and simply wrote down my compositions as sheet music.

Why didn’t I learn to read music? When I was six-years-old I took piano lessons from a sad angry man who yelled at me when I played wrong notes, and one day he struck my knuckles with a heavy metal pen and called me an idiot when I played a wrong note. I ran from the piano, screaming in pain and fear, and I never took another lesson. When I re-engaged with the piano ten years later, I did so as an explorer without a guide or map, and have continued to explore through trial and error and repetition and improvisation for fifty years.

In the midst of re-learning “What Comes Around” I got an email from my friend Rico about Keith Jarrett and his famous Koln Concert recording. Rico had recently heard a Ted Talk about the concert and wondered if he remembered correctly that I loved that Koln Concert recording as much as he did. I wrote him back and said I had tried to listen to that album, but found the music and the performance uninteresting.

Despite my feelings about the Koln Concert, I will always love Keith Jarrett because of his part in one of the most ecstatic musical experiences of my life, courtesy of the Charles Lloyd Quartet circa 1968. That quartet was Lloyd on tenor sax, Jarrett on piano, Jack DeJohnette on drums, and Cecil McBee on bass. I heard them perform a few times in 1966 and 1967 at the Fillmore along with Quicksilver Messenger Service, The Grateful Dead, and Jefferson Airplane.

Then in 1968 the Charles Lloyd Quartet came to Santa Cruz to play at Stevenson College where I was living in a dorm and sometimes going to classes. They performed on the stage in the dining hall for an audience of two hundred jazz buffs. The quartet was in fine form and I was enjoying the show, though I wasn’t wild about the music. I was by then deep into exploring the piano in my own unconventional way that had little to do with classical jazz, of which Lloyd and Jarrett were masters.

So midway through the second set, Keith Jarrett stands by the piano and begins playing random notes on a soprano saxophone. He is not keeping time, just playing random notes with no consistent rhythm. And I’m thinking, ‘This is going to morph into some sort of recognizable tune,’ but Jarrett just keeps playing random notes, not in any particular key, for a couple of minutes. The crowd is getting restless, and I feel restless, too.

Now Charles Lloyd starts playing random notes on his tenor sax, though not in time with Jarrett’s non-rhythmic random notes. I can feel my brain trying to make some sort of sense out of what I’m hearing, but with little success.

Now the bass player starts playing random notes, too, but all his notes are very low, which creates a kind of drone bottom, and this sort of gives form to what I’m hearing. Sort of.

And now the drummer begins to play a conga drum (I think he had a single conga, but he might have had two) and though he begins to play with random untimed hits, he settles into, or seems to settle into, a definable rhythm, and suddenly the separate parts cohere and the totality is incredibly beautiful. I focus on Jarrett and he is still playing random notes, as is Lloyd, as is the bass player, but the sum of their sounds feels impeccably composed, the combinations of notes incredible. People begin shouting and singing and crying and dancing, and none of us ever want this astounding music to end.

After telling Marcia about that miraculous musical experience from fifty years ago, I’m doing yoga by the fire when it occurs to me that the drummer played conga (or congas) rather than his trap set because congas sound pitches, percussive notes, and those pitches played rhythmically supplied an essential bonding agent for that fabulous musical gumbo.

And this is why, though I have never been a big Keith Jarrett fan, I love Keith Jarrett.

Tales of the Heat

Monday, September 4th, 2017

sunflower redwood

Sunflowers & Redwoods photo by Todd

“One of the big questions in the climate change debate: Are humans any smarter than frogs in a pot? If you put a frog in a pot and slowly turn up the heat, it won’t jump out. Instead, it will enjoy the nice warm bath until it is cooked to death. We humans seem to be doing pretty much the same thing.” Jeff Goodell

After a long, wet, and very cold winter in Mendocino, we decided that keeping our woodstove going from morning until night and running expensive space heaters in our offices and dressing like Laplanders, and still not being warm enough, was not the best way to continue, so we had a Mitsubishi electric heat pump system installed.

Heat pump technology has evolved and improved dramatically in the last twenty years, and heat pumps are now extremely efficient and cost effective. Since ours is electric, and we now get our electricity from 100% renewable sources, heating our house contributes very little to global warming. The initial installation is expensive, but the monthly heating bills are so much lower than heating with propane or wood, we are very glad we made the investment. And we still have fires in the woodstove when we want wood heat and flaming ambience. We have yet to go through a winter with our new system, but summers on the Mendocino coast can be mighty chilly and we have already enjoyed the benefits of our very quiet heating system.

The day was warm when the fellows were installing the heat pump a couple months ago, and they reminded us that heat pumps are designed to heat or cool the air coming into our house. We laughed and said, “We will never need an air conditioner.”

Well, a few days ago, on the second day of the historically hot air mass settling upon Mendocino and San Francisco and most of California and the western United States, we did, indeed, use our heat pump to cool our house. And when our brains cooled down enough so we could think clearly again, we rejoiced to be comfortable and clearheaded instead of dangerously hot and semi-comatose.

From 1980 to 1995 I lived in Sacramento in a house built before the advent of air conditioning, with a full basement and an upstairs. My daily routine during the blistering hot days that lasted from May to October, was to rise at dawn to exercise and work in the garden before the heat became overwhelming, close all the windows in the house by eight AM, and leave them closed until the afternoon when the house became unbearably stuffy and hot.

Then I would cover my sofa and office chair with towels, strip down to my underpants, open the windows, and every half-hour go outside to stand under ice cold water pouring onto my head from a garden hose while I stood amidst my zucchini and basil and tomatoes and corn and beans. I was the only person I knew in Sacramento who lived without air conditioning; and most of my Sacramento friends thought my way of adapting to the heat was a form of insanity. I saw my behavior as a way to conserve resources and not contribute to global warming, which none of my friends appreciated me talking about in those days.

I moved to Berkeley in 1995 and rented an old house that did not need air conditioning because of its proximity to San Francisco Bay and being directly across the bay from the Golden Gate. Thus on hot days, I simply opened my front door and the sweet oceanic breezes came rushing in.

When the temperature spiked to 104 on Saturday in Mendocino, I had an email exchange with a friend in Palm Springs where it was a mere 102. Communicating with him put me in mind of times I spent in Palm Springs with my mother’s parents, Goody and Casey. They moved to Palm Springs from Los Angeles when they were in their late sixties, having lost their once sizeable fortune in a disastrous real estate deal.

For their first few years in Palm Springs they managed a swank getaway called La Siesta Villas, fourteen luxurious cottages arrayed around a big swimming pool. Their compensation for managing the place was a small apartment and stipend, their income supplemented by Social Security and my generous parents.

Movie stars and celebrities and rich people frequented La Siesta Villas—Natalie Wood and Dinah Shore among the many stars who came there to escape the smoggy megalopolis of Los Angeles.

“I often feel like the madam of an exclusive brothel,” Goody told me during her tenure at La Siesta Villas. “Illicit trysts abound here, all these famous people with their beautiful mistresses and handsome lovers, air conditioners blasting away to drown out the sounds of sexual exuberance. Champagne and caviar delivered at midnight. Sordid elegance!”

Goody and Casey rose very early each day to take a long walk before the temperature soared above a hundred as it frequently will in Palm Springs; and on their walks they would occasionally encounter their neighbor Liberace walking his poodles. Friendly hellos became longer conversations, Liberace was charmed by Goody, and one Christmas he gifted her with two wine glasses etched with his trademark candelabrum.

On one of my visits to Palm Springs, I went walking with Goody and we not only bumped into Liberace and I got to admire his diamond rings and famous pompadour up close, but after saying goodbye to him, we went to an Open House for a hacienda for sale and arrived just as Red Skelton was coming out.

Goody introduced herself to Red by saying, “You won’t remember, but long ago you and William Bendix posed for a picture with me at a party at Jay Sandrich’s.”

“You’re right,” said Red, smiling his famous dimpled smile. “I won’t remember.”

And then my grandmother and Red laughed together, and I laughed, too.

Goody, Red, and William