Archive for March, 2018

Hey Baby

Monday, March 26th, 2018

th_nighttrain-768

Petit point for Night Train cover by D.R. Wagner

“Listen to the wind as it blows through the trees, listen to her and listen to me, listen to your heart and listen to your brain, listen to the sweet song of the rain. Oh my darling, I know this is hard for you to hear, but you are the one everybody wants to be with tonight.” from Todd’s song You Are the One.

My recent article about singing to the seals at Big River Beach and remembering my first paying gigs as a musician elicited several fascinating comments, so I thought I’d write a little more about my music. By the way, we’ve disarmed the Comments feature on my blog, so if you’d like to communicate with me about my articles, please send me an email.

So…having supported myself in minimal style for a couple years as a singer/songwriter in my early twenties in Santa Cruz circa 1973, I moved to Menlo Park and got a job as a janitor and teacher’s aid at a day care center in Palo Alto for children of single working mothers. My girlfriend G and I had broken up in Santa Cruz, but G rejoined me in Menlo Park, and after a year of saving our pennies, we moved to Eugene, Oregon where we lived in a converted garage while G attended the university as a music major studying piano and composition. Shortly after we arrived in Eugene, I sold my first short story for what was a fortune to me in those days, nine hundred dollars, and that allowed me to focus entirely for some months on writing short stories and a novel.

My relationship with my girlfriend was not mutually supportive. Which is to say, until I had some effective psychotherapy when I was forty, I routinely partnered with women who disapproved of me and my life choices, yet depended on me to encourage and support them. Why did I do this? To summarize volumes of emotional history, I was programmed by my disapproving and punitive parents to partner with disapproving others, and I didn’t know how else to go about life.

Lest you think I exaggerate my malady, check this out. For the entirety of our three-year relationship, G was adamant, and frequently shouted adamantly at me, that I was using my singing and songwriting and the adulation they brought me as emotional crutches to feel okay about myself and if I really wanted to face the truth about who I was, I would get rid of my guitar. So after we’d been in Eugene a month, I sold my guitar.

Now as it happened, we also had a piano in that garage because G was studying music theory and composition and wanted a piano handy for theorizing and composing. Because I make music as reflexively as ducks swim, I frequently played her piano. I don’t read music, but I had been improvising on pianos since I was sixteen, so in the absence of a guitar, I played her piano several times a day. This drove G bonkers because she struggled to compose anything she liked, while I reeled off hours of groovy-sounding music with no conscious knowledge of music theory.

Nine months into our Eugene sojourn, G and I broke up for good and I moved to Medford, Oregon where I worked as a landscaper for two years. While living in Medford, I was contacted by my old high school chum Dan Nadaner who was a fan of my guitar playing and singing. He had written some rhyming verses for the soundtrack to a little film he made called Stripes and asked me to sing his verses in the manner of a country tune while accompanying myself on guitar. (Watch Stripes on my web site.)

To make that recording for Dan, I borrowed a small steel-string guitar and a little cassette recorder from my friend David Adee. Dan was pleased with how I sang his verses, and after making the recording I bought that guitar from David. Having gone two years without a guitar, songs began pouring out of me and I wrote several new tunes in the next few months. A year later, in 1977, I moved from Medford to Seattle, and while living a lonely life there, I wrote a nostalgic bluesy love song called Hey Baby.

In 1980, having had a large success with my first novel Inside Moves, I was attending a party in Sacramento, songs were being shared, and when the guitar came to me, I sang Hey Baby. When I finished the song there was much hooting and applause and a woman asked, “Who wrote that? Wasn’t that in a movie?”

I said, “No. It’s one of my songs.”

“Sounds famous,” she went on. “That’s like a song you hear in grocery stores, you know, the instrumental version of a classic.”

As of this writing, Hey Baby is not famous, but I never forgot what that woman said about the song, and her praise emboldened me to play Hey Baby when I gave readings at bookstores and cafés, and the song eventually became a mainstay of the one-man shows I performed for some years.

Fast forward to the first year of my first marriage, 1984. My wife introduced me to Rickie Lee Jones’s first album, which I enjoyed, but there was one song on that album I absolutely with every cell in my corpus loved—Night Train (not the blues standard, but Rickie’s song with that title.) After listening to her Night Train countless times, I wrote a novel entitled Night Train that sprang from dreams inspired by Rickie’s song.

In the novel, the down-and-nearly-out narrator Charlie is haunted by the one success he ever had, a hit song he wrote called Hey Baby upon which hinges everything that happens in that wild crazy chase love story.

I eventually published Night Train with Mercury House, a San Francisco publisher, and they took the book out-of-print shortly after publication. Thus few people ever heard of my Night Train, though the following review by Tom Nolan ran in the LA Times in 1986.

“In his fourth novel, Todd Walton, author of the critically praised Inside Moves and Louie & Women, delivers an unusual and gripping tale that begins like a hard-boiled crime story and becomes something resembling science fiction. Walton evokes a paranoid romanticism reminiscent of Craig Nova, Don DeLillo or Thomas Pynchon as he tracks the fate of Lily and Charlie, two down-and-out musicians on the run from an army of ‘very well-connected’ thugs out not just for blood but for spirit. Fleeing by car, foot, air, bicycle, train, covered wagon and dirigible, the two make their way with Lily’s baby from Sunset Boulevard to a mountain retreat in Oregon. Eluding all manner of physical and mental danger, Lily and Charlie take their final stand with a commune of utopian artists.

“Their odyssey is seedily realistic, wildly surrealistic, often erotic and only occasionally a bit precious. What seemed like a simple pursuit story has become an engaging parable of the responsibilities of creativity, the nature of self-worth, the redemptive power of love—perhaps the Meaning of Life itself. And the message, as Charlie reads it? ‘No matter how far down you get, you got to get up.’”

And now, thirty-three years gone by since Night Train was briefly available in a handful of bookstores, I love recalling the myriad threads that came together to make that book—Hey Baby a tune I wrote for my favorite singer in those days: Bonnie Raitt. And though I never got the tune to Bonnie, in my imaginings, her version of Hey Baby makes the song an instant classic, thereby fulfilling the long-ago prophecy of Hey Baby becoming a soundtrack for grocery shopping.

Night Train is available as a Kindle and iBook, and used copies of the hardback abound online.

Seals

Monday, March 19th, 2018

waiting

Tilly, Molly, and Flynn photo by Todd

Harbor seals have spotted coats in shades of white, silver-gray, black, or dark brown. They grow to six feet in length and weigh up to three hundred pounds. Males are slightly larger than females. They are true crawling seals, having no external ear flaps. True seals have small flippers and move on land by flopping along on their bellies.

A few days ago I met the Golden Retrievers Tilly and Molly, and their Chihuahua-mix pal Flynn, along with their humans Sally and Robin at Big River Beach for a morning constitutional—walking for the humans, chasing tennis balls for Molly and Tilly, trotting along being sociable for Flynn.

Whilst flinging tennis balls for the retrievers, we spotted a big harbor seal in the waves offshore, the surf raucous, and to our delight, this seal dazzled us with expert body surfing, something I had not previously observed the seals doing at Big River Beach, though I have fond memories of watching harbor seals surfing the waves in Santa Cruz.

In California, harbor seal pups are born between February and April and weigh about twenty-two pounds at birth. Pups are born knowing how to swim and will sometimes ride on their mothers’ backs when tired. Pups are weaned at four weeks. Adult females usually mate and give birth every year, and may live thirty years.

I used to be a zealous body surfer, and I know the exact moment I gave up the sport. I was in my mid-twenties, living on Lighthouse Avenue in Santa Cruz back in the days when you could rent a four-bedroom house near the beach for a couple hundred dollars a month. When the weather was good, I would walk or run the four blocks to the beach just north of Lighthouse Point and body surf if the waves were good. Just south of the lighthouse is the world famous surfboarding spot Steamer Lane, where spectators can stand on the point and be incredibly close to the surfing action.

One late summer day I arrived at that oh-so-convenient beach, smiled in delight to see what looked like perfectly-formed body surfing waves, ran out into the surf, dove under a few breakers, and found myself caught in a powerful current that dragged me way out to sea as if I were floating down a fast-flowing river. By way out, I mean the people on the beach were ant-sized by the time the current released me. The water was very cold, I had no wetsuit, and I felt fairly certain I was going to drown.

I flopped onto my back and tried to swim back to shore, but I kept encountering that outflowing current. I tried to swim parallel to shore, but I was quickly growing too weak to make much headway. And then, miracle of miracles, my friend Bob Smith, who had come to the beach with me on that day, arrived on an air mattress he’d borrowed from a sunbather when he saw what was happening to me, and I clung to that air mattress and kicked with Bob, and we got to shore where I collapsed in exhausted ecstasy, so happy to still be alive.

Pacific harbor seals spend half their time on land and half in the water. They can dive to 1500 feet and stay underwater for up to forty minutes, though their average dive lasts three to seven minutes and is typically shallow. They sometimes sleep in the water. They feed on sole, flounder, cod, herring, octopus, and squid.

Harbor seals like to watch people playing Frisbee on the beach. One day at Big River Beach, I fell into an impromptu Frisbee exchange with another beachcomber, and a seal popped her head up out of the water to watch us. Then another seal popped up beside that first seal, and eventually there were four harbor seals in a little group watching the disc go back and forth between the two humans, those four beautiful heads moving synchronously from left to right, like spectators at a tennis match.

The worldwide harbor seal population is estimated to be 500,000, with 34,000 in California. They are usually found in small groups, but sometimes congregate in the hundreds.

My favorite connection to the seals at Big River Beach involves singing. Shortly after almost drowning in Santa Cruz, I started a musical combo called Kokomo. The group was composed of: Todd playing guitar and singing his original folk rocking bluesy songs, Jon playing violin and mandolin and singing harmony, and the occasional bass or dobro player noodling along with us. After Jon and I rehearsed a few of my songs, I called around to the various venues in Santa Cruz where such ragtag combos performed in the 1970s, lined up some auditions, and off we went.

Most of our auditions involved going into the prospective bar, pub, or café in the late afternoon and doing a couple tunes for the manager. The first place we auditioned was Happy’s, an upstairs bar in an alley off Pacific Avenue. When Jon and I arrived, there was a quartet of early drinkers at the bar and the bartender/manager on hand to listen. We launched into a groovy tune of mine called Should Be Better In the Morning, and when we finished, one of those early drinkers slapped a dollar bill on the bar and slurred, “For you do dat again.”

So we did the tune again and the bartender said, “You free tonight?”

I said we had another gig, which was true in the sense that we had to get busy rehearsing more tunes so we could play for forty-five minutes without repeating ourselves, and voila, we had our first gig: every Thursday night at Happy’s until further notice.

Then we went to Positively Front Street, a much bigger tavern, a stone’s throw from the municipal pier, and we auditioned for Terry, the owner/manager, and a lovely young woman and a handsome young man who were Terry’s pals. We played Should Be Better In the Morning and followed that with a skanky blues called Loose Woman, and Terry said, “Friday and Saturday nights, twenty bucks plus tips, all the burgers and fries and beer you want.”

The young woman and young man introduced themselves as Mouse & Timber. They had been the Friday/Saturday night act at Positively Front Street for the previous year, but they were moving on to a casino lounge at South Lake Tahoe paying three hundred a night, plus tips, five nights a week, plus a free hotel room. Timber said, “You guys would kill at Tahoe. Come on up and we’ll get you a gig.”

We never did get up to the casino, but we eventually rehearsed twenty of my tunes along with a few Hank Williams classics and a handful of other standards for lonely drunk people, and for most of the next year we were the house band on Friday and Saturday nights at Positively Front Street and the Thursday night attraction at Happy’s.

And once I’d earned actual dollars for singing, the world would never be the same. Making money for singing is like making money for being human—which can be both wonderful and confusing, depending on, as we used to say, how together you are.

Speaking of which, there I was a couple years ago, standing on the shores of Big River, inland a couple hundred yards from where the river meets the sea, and I sang out over the smooth surface of the water and a seal popped up to have a look at me. When she heard me singing, her eyes grew wide, she dove under the water, and a moment later popped up again with two friends. Ere long there were seven seals listening to me sing my song Real Good Joe, Hank Williams’ Cheating Heart, and another song of mine called Beautiful.

And though I would like to say those seven seals especially liked my songs, the truth is, just as with the mob at Positively Front Street, they favored Hank Williams. How do I know? Oh you can just tell when your audience really locks in with you.

Person

Monday, March 12th, 2018

sharp

sharp photo by Max Greenstreet

When I taught writing, long ago, one of the most illuminating exercises I gave my charges was to have them write a little something in First Person, and then rewrite that little something in Third Person.

When Todd was in his forties, nearly thirty years ago, he gave writing workshops for adults and oversaw a Creative Writing program for teenagers. One of the more helpful exercises he gave his writers was to have them write a paragraph in First Person, and then have them rewrite the paragraph in Third Person.

Then I would ask my writers to change the tense of the paragraph.

Todd is in his forties, a novelist making his living by leading writing workshops and overseeing a Creative Writing Program for teenagers. He especially enjoys asking his writers to write a paragraph in First Person and then have them rewrite the paragraph in Third Person.

Then I might ask my writers to turn their paragraph into a fairy tale.

Once upon a time in a kingdom by the sea, there lived a scribbler name of Todd. A goodly fellow in his forties, his hair going every which way, Todd was not having much luck gaining patrons for his verse, so to keep food in the larder he set up shop as a teacher of writing. His teaching method was to deploy clever writing exercises that tricked his students into waxing poetic rather than staying stuck in the mundane. And by golly, his method worked.

Another related exercise was to have my writers write a brief story about someone going somewhere to get something.

Michael wakes up craving coffee and something sweet and doughy. Finding he is out of coffee beans and anything resembling a pastry, he dresses warmly and sets forth on this cold winter day for Muffins Galore, his home away from home, conveniently located just around the corner from his studio apartment.

Entering the deliciously warm little bakery, the display cases brimming with muffins and cookies and scones, the air redolent with the divine admixture of coffee fumes and just-baked bread, Michael forgets he is eighty-three, and for a long delightful moment thinks he is twenty-five again, the pretty young woman behind the counter his age peer, his life just beginning.

“I’ll have a bran muffin and a large coffee,” he says, smiling at the young woman—the sound of his raspy voice bringing him abruptly back to the present.

“As per usual,” says the young woman, winking at him.

Story written, I would ask my writers to rewrite the piece using short sentences.

Michael wakes in his lumpy bed. His studio apartment is freezing cold. January he thinks. I hate January. His back aches as usual. With a groan, he arises. “I crave coffee,” he says aloud. Michael lives alone and often talks to himself. “And something sweet and doughy.”

“Damn,” he says, finding no coffee beans in his little refrigerator.

He decides to go to the bakery around the corner from his place. Muffins Galore. He dresses slowly. Getting his socks and shoes on is his greatest challenge. Warmly attired at last, he sets forth into the wintry day.

The blessedly warm little bakery is Michael’s home away from home. He comes here two or three times every day. He sighs contentedly when he sees the display cases brimming with pastries. He breathes deeply of the coffee-scented air. For a short infinity, Michael forgets he is eighty-three. He thinks he is twenty-five again. He imagines the pretty young woman behind the counter is exactly his age. He is suffused with warmth and happiness.

“I’ll have a bran muffin and a large coffee,” he says, smiling at the young woman.

Hearing himself speaking, he is brought back to his present reality.

“As per usual,” says the young woman, winking at him.

I was put in mind of these exercises when I recently had a telling experience with the novel I’m writing, tentative title Flagon With the Dragon. I wrote the first hundred and fifty pages in First Person, Past Tense, and while reading those pages for the first time, I felt the narrator loomed so emotionally large that the other characters were insignificant by comparison, which was not what I’m ever after when I write a story or a book.

So I rewrote those pages in Third Person, Present Tense, and the several main characters were transmogrified into emotional equals (though entirely different from each other) and the story took several surprising turns that never would have happened had I stayed with First Person. What fun!

Having slowly made his way through the thick sheaf of pages of his new novel, Todd realizes his First Person narrator looms so psychically gigantic that the other characters in the novel pale by comparison. This inequality of emotional weight, so to speak, is the quantum opposite of what Todd wants for the characters in this novel, which is, or so it seems to Todd, a study in synchronized rebirth.

Whilst taking his morning constitutional, Todd has another realization about his writing. All the novels he ever sold to big mainstream publishers were First Person novels, yet he much prefers the last ten novels he’s written and failed to find publishers for, all of them Third Person novels. He concludes this is a largely irrelevant line of inquiry except for confirming his preference for writing books in Third Person.

Returning to his studio after his invigorating stroll, Todd decides to rewrite what he’s written so far of his new novel in Third Person, Present Tense—tentative title Flagon With the Dragon.

CUT TO: FIVE DAYS LATER

Todd sets down his pen and applauds the unseen forces of the universe for inspiring him to change the person and tense of his new novel so the several main characters are now on equal emotional footing, though wildly different from each other. What fun!

Used copies of Todd’s book of writing exercises, The Writer’s Path, abound online, and Todd has a small trove of new copies for sale. Email inquiries welcome.

Democracy

Monday, March 5th, 2018

headland sky by Ian of Zo

Headlands and Sky photo by Ian of Zo

“Mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself.” Conan Doyle

In 1972 I was living in a twelve-person commune in Santa Cruz, part of the commune movement that sprung up spontaneously across America as the housing component of the cultural revolution known as the Sixties. And from 1968 to 1975, I was very excited to be part of that housing component and hopeful about the positive social, political, and cultural impact that widespread communal living could have on American society.

The first commune I lived in was an eight-person affair I started with a friend. I left after a year of frustration because my fellow communards were extremely reluctant to subsume their individual needs, even a little, for the betterment of the collective. We gave lip service to that idea, but aside from shared meals, it was largely every man or woman for him or her self.

So I was excited to join a commune with much more collectivity built into an operating system that quite effectively served twelve members and our many guests. I planted a huge vegetable garden and organized the eager volunteer gardeners, we shopped and cooked and cleaned collectively, and the entire group met once a week to discuss practical and emotional problems.

I felt there were a few duds in the dozen, but overall the communal living experience was economical, ecological, healthy, and emotionally satisfying. Four heterosexual couples and four singles, two straight, two gay, composed our twelve, and my only secret complaint was that most of my fellow communards were not particularly creative.

After a year and a half in that commune, my girlfriend and I were on the verge of breaking up, and our dyadic divide coincided with two members of the commune moving out, thus creating two vacancies to be filled through our well-established selection process. Our commune was famously successful in Santa Cruz, we were right on the beach, and we had dozens of people applying for those two spots on the roster.

Eventually we winnowed the applicant pool down to four finalists, three men and one woman. One of the men was Ted, twenty-five, boyishly handsome, charming, a fine musician and actor, a graduate student at the university, and one of the most brilliant, funny, interesting people I’d ever met. The other two men were boorish stoners and I was baffled every time either of them made the next cut. The woman, Tina, was twenty-four, a zealous gardener, poet, yogini, dancer, professional cook, and bright and funny.

I assumed we would immediately and unanimously elect Ted and Tina, and I was so excited about them joining the collective that I kicked off our final group discussion before we voted by extolling their many virtues and speaking of Ted wanting to host a Drama night and Tina wanting to help me expand the garden and lead a daily yoga session.

To my horror, only one of the five women in our commune voted for Tina, and only one other man joined me in voting for Ted. All the women voted for Ted, and all the men voted for Tina, but since eight votes were required to win a place in the commune, Ted and Tina were not invited to join, while the two boorish stoners got the nod. Two weeks later, I broke up with my girlfriend and moved out of town.

But before I moved away, I spoke privately to each of the men who voted against Ted, and I spoke privately to each of the women who voted against Tina; and I asked them why they voted against such wonderful people and for such boorish dopes?

Three of the women admitted to being threatened by Tina’s charm and talent, and especially by how much the men liked her. One of the women said she felt Tina was too good to be true and didn’t trust her. One of the men said Ted was “hyper”, another of the men said Ted was “too intellectual”, and the third male dissenter said he was intimidated by Ted’s talent and by his girlfriend’s attraction to Ted.

Thinking about that turning point in my life—I might have written a hit song with Ted and married Tina and had three kids and moved to Denmark—I am reminded of when George W. Bush was running against Al Gore. In a large national poll conducted a month before the election, seven out of ten American men said they would rather have a beer and hang out with George than with Al, and in that election 75% of all male voters, Democrats and Republicans, voted for George, and 75% of all female voters voted for Al.

And that reminds me of one of my favorite scenes from the movie Blazing Saddles when Gene Wilder is explaining to Cleavon Little why the townsfolk won’t accept an African American as their sheriff.

“What did you expect?” says Gene to Cleavon. “A welcome sign? Make yourself at home? Marry my daughter? You’ve got to remember these are just simple farmers. These are people of the land. The common clay of the new West. You know…morons.”

And that reminds me of a recent and shocking study conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center that found only 8% of high school seniors across America today identify slavery as the main cause of the Civil War, while 57% say tax protests caused the Civil War. How can this be? And isn’t it interesting that this phenomenon exists throughout the United States, not in isolated areas of the former Confederacy.

I am often chided by friends for being a conspiracy theorist, so I will not elucidate my theory about how and why one of the most important historical facts in American history is not properly taught in our schools. I will say that this monstrous educational lapse cannot, in my opinion, be accidental. Who would be best served by misleading entire generations of Americans about the cause of the Civil War?

And that reminds me of when I watched Jimmy Carter debate Ronald Reagan prior to the 1980 Presidential election, the last Presidential debate I ever watched. I howled with delight as Jimmy made a fool of Ronald at every turn in the debate, and I danced out of my house overjoyed that Jimmy would soon be re-elected, only to read the next day that multiple polls revealed well over 90% of Americans, Republicans and Democrats, felt Ronald easily won the debate.

Which is why, conspiracy theories aside, it didn’t surprise me even a little bit when Donald Trump was elected President of these United States.