Archive for August, 2018

Pre-recording Recording

Monday, August 27th, 2018

monster box

Monster Box photo by Marion Crombie

I wake up thinking about you, go to bed doing the same.

The monsters in my nightmares spend the whole night

whispering your name.

Long ago when I played seriously competitive playground basketball with big athletic men, one of the guys I played with was a very tall muscular man known as Tiny.

Every time I arrived at the playground and Tiny was there, he would greet me with, “Yo Todds. Where you at, my main?” Then he would lock eyes with me until I gave him a meaningful answer. “Doing okay,” or “Hanging in there,” would not suffice for Tiny. He really wanted to know what I was thinking and how I was feeling. After I gave him my answer, I would ask where he was at because I knew he was keen to tell me. Thus when Tiny and I played together, on the same team or opposing each other, we had a sense of where we both were at.

Where I’m at right now is in what I call an interim phase. How about you?

I have completed my new novel and I’m waiting for my designer graphics wizard Garth to send me the first iteration of the book formatted for printing. I will then read the book one more time as I proof the pages, we will design the cover together, and ere long the finished files will be sent to photocopy maestro Ian at ZO, the finest and only copy shop in Mendocino, and some days or weeks hence I’ll have copies of The Magic Pen to share with my small band of devoted readers.

I have written eight novels, a novella, two plays, two screenplays, and three hundred essays in the last six years, a prolific time for me, and I look forward to seeing what the astral conveyor belt delivers next.

By the way, if by some fluke you haven’t yet read my most recent novel The Recipes of Alexander Skåll, copies are still available, you can read the first two chapters on my web site to whet your appetite, and here are a few of the responses I’ve gotten to The Recipes of Alexander Skåll.

“Yet another masterpiece Mr. Walton! I am not sure which I hunger for most, the Fish Taco Recipe or your amazingly, colorful and complex characters! I love them all—getting ready to read the book again (I am still hungry )…cannot get enough! Bravo!” Wendy Mull

“What a marvelous story! I’m always sorry to say good-bye to your characters.” Richard Marks

“I just finished reading The Recipes of Alexander Skåll and declare the book a masterpiece. I enjoyed the story from beginning to end and found it extremely moving…had tears in my eyes many times.” David Jouris

Meanwhile I am preparing to go into the recording studio to record thirteen songs, eleven for guitar and voice, two for piano and voice, this upcoming recording a rough draft, so to speak, with which Marcia and I and a few collaborators will be able to hear and practice additional music parts and vocal harmonies for what will eventually be the final recording.

To prepare for this pre-recording recording, I practice the songs every day, honing my playing chops as well as my vocalizing chops. I have lost a few notes at the high end of my singing range since the halcyon days of a sweet falsetto, which is no doubt why I hear female vocalists harmonizing and soloing and supplying higher notes and female tonalities on many of these songs.

In order not to drive Marcia bonkers with repeated performances of these songs, I either wait until she goes off into the world before I practice, or I go the end of the house furthest from Marcia’s office/studio and sequester myself in the resonant bathroom, which also affords me a view of a guy in the mirror playing guitar and making funny faces as he tries to hit those aforementioned high notes. Marcia says she can barely hear me back there, which empowers me to cut loose.

I also sometimes practice outside for an audience of redwoods, hummingbirds, ravens, Japanese maples, chipmunks, chard, collard greens, and sky.

I am using two guitars for the album, a small guitar with a timbre I love for the folk-song-like songs of the collection, and a full-sized guitar with wonderful overtones and neato harmonics for the jazzier tunes. I enjoy switching from one guitar to the other, their unique voices inspiring and refreshing. This is the first time in my life I’ve had two guitars. Who knew?

A few of the songs I’m going to record are ones I’ve recorded before, but I have new ideas about how I want to perform and arrange them. Several of the songs are older songs I’ve never recorded, and I like these songs so well I wonder why I didn’t record them in the days when I was doing lots of recording. And a few of the songs are newly written.

As I practice these songs, old and new, I see more and more ways they connect with each other, and I’m beginning to think of the order they will appear on the album. This is an old-fashioned outdated concept left over from the days of analog recordings and vinyl record albums, from a time when songs were not also little movies with the song as soundtrack. In those long ago days, the order of the songs on an album was an important part of the listening experience.

I do have some groovy ideas for little movies to go with my songs, but the creation of even one of those little movies may very well be beyond me.

Wasn’t gonna go to Mary’s party,

Wasn’t gonna go, I was feeling too low.

Called her up to say I wasn’t coming,

That’s when you answered the telephone.

Something in your voice caught my attention,

Something in your voice rang like a bell.

Next thing I knew I was on my way over,

Riding that bike like a bat outta hell.

Best Laid Plans

Monday, August 20th, 2018

the far fields tw

The Far Fields painting by Nolan Winkler

To accomplish your task, you must have a clear intention of what you wish to accomplish. You’ve probably heard those words or a close variant multiple times in your life. I know I have. Seems obvious, and yet I wonder if we might also truthfully say: to accomplish your task, you need only go forth with the intention of doing something and the universe will provide you with myriad opportunities to accomplish all sorts of things, and by accomplish we mean have a neato experience that may result in a tangible something like an apple pie or a pile of money or a new car, or may not result in a physically tangible something but might provide you with a valuable insight or change of heart.

Going forth with a willingness to participate in the dance of life is the primary plot device of most Sufi tales, and the recurring message of those tales is that God, the universe, is waiting for us to take action so she can react to our actions in the manner of a brilliant improvisational dance partner. No wonder I love Sufi tales.

For instance, this morning after a long bout of rewriting the latest magnum opus, I had the very clear intention of going out to the orchard to cut down a huge shrub that overshadows two of my apple trees and is growing so fast that by next year the cutting down will be a Herculean task rather than a couple hours of hard work if I do the cutting down this year.

So I get my most excellent Japanese pole saw, my most excellent Japanese loppers, my razor-sharp Japanese hand clippers, and sally forth to the orchard to peruse the massive shrub and plan the excision. The day is sunny, our first such day in nearly a week, the coastal fog heavy of late, and I am feeling strong and ready, my tools sharp, my intention clear.

I approach the shrub and discover that the several three-inches-in-diameter trunks I wish to cut are on the outside of our deer fence adjacent to the nameless dirt and gravel lane that services three of our neighbor’s houses, none of those houses visible from our house.

So I exit the orchard through a gate in the deer fence and head down the nameless lane where in the distance I espy my neighbor Dave stretching a tape measure across the dirt and gravel track. I walk fifty feet beyond the shrub I intend to cut down, greet Dave, and learn he is building a fence along his property line and wants to make sure he is siting the fence far enough back from the lane.

We agree he’s doing a boffo job, his siting perfecto, and I look back the way I came and see a massive blob of redwood boughs sticking out from a gang of redwoods on our property, the blob hanging way too low over the lane, an obstacle to large delivery trucks, and I am reminded I’ve been intending to have this blob of boughs removed for several years now, but assumed I could not do the job myself because the boughs are attached to the trunks of the redwoods higher than I thought I and my hand tools could reach.

But today, for some reason, armed with my most excellent pole saw that can be extended to twenty-feet in length, and with Dave’s encouragement, I decide to attack the blob. A few cuts along, Dave departs for the golf course, and I realize I could use the help of my marvelous pole lopper, which I fetch. After an hour of sawing and lopping, I have excised the blob and created a great mass of fallen boughs now blocking the lane.

At which moment, unbidden, Marcia arrives and helps me haul the boughs to our driveway for dismemberment into kindling for our wood stove and green waste for the county compost pile. Whilst hauling the boughs, Marcia studies the lane and discerns three large manzanita branches emanating from our property and invading the air space quite low over the lane and threatening telephone wires. So I decapitate those branches and whilst decapitating them discover the Doug Fir I noted growing amidst the manzanita two years ago that was then a scrawny six-feet-tall and is now a robust eighteen-feet-tall and promising to be thirty-feet-tall next year. So I cut the fir down, too.

Following a water and snack break, I spend a couple hours converting the redwood boughs and fir tree into kindling and green waste, and as of this writing the troublesome shrub is still standing.

One Sufi-tale ending to this story might be that at dusk, in search of huckleberries, I return to the orchard and hear the most beautiful singing I have ever heard. I look around the orchard to discover the source of the song, and there in the shrub I intended to cut down is a large nest made of many small redwood boughs, and in the nest are three golden baby birds singing like angels, newly hatched golden baby angel birds who never would have hatched from their eggs had I carried out my intention to cut down the shrub.

As I listen to the angelic singing, I realize Dave was not really Dave, but a spirit being disguised as Dave sent to protect the eggs of the golden birds, and I also discover that when lopping the redwood boughs, I unknowingly lopped in half a terrible dark-skinned viper that might have one day killed me or Marcia or both of us, and surely would have eaten the eggs containing the golden birds. I eventually make a really cool belt out of the viper’s skin.

Another possible Sufi-tale ending might be that I return to the orchard the next day to cut down the troublesome shrub and find a powerful goddess disguised as an old woman sitting in the shade of the shrub. Grateful for the shade and plums and blackberries she’s helped herself to, she grants me three wishes. I choose wisely and my wishes set in motion a swift reversal of global warming and human over-population, while ushering in a renaissance in literature and cinema.

Even so, I still plan to cut the troublesome shrub down because I want my apple trees to thrive. But I’ll wait a few days to do the deed, which will give the baby golden angel birds time to fledge and fly away.

behold the blue, tw

Behold the Blue painting by Nolan Winkler

Lyrics

Monday, August 13th, 2018

09AUGnewplace

new place diptych by Max (click on image to enlarge)

So I was in the post office a few days ago mailing a package to North Salem, New York, and the clerk helping me was not Lara or Robin, our beloved regulars, but a substitute, a tall slender woman with gorgeous teeth and dark blonde hair piled high on her head.

She put my little package on the scale, typed in the address, frowned, and said, “You’ve either got the wrong town for that zip or the wrong zip for that town.” And I thought What a great lyric. Perhaps the chorus to a song about love going in the wrong direction or being only half right. But which half? Or maybe the song isn’t about love, but about figuring out what parts of ourselves to keep and what parts to let go of, a song about finding a new place to come from, creating a new vision of who and what we are in the world.

“Shall we assume you got the town right?” she asked, arching an impressive eyebrow as she typed in the town name. “That zip is…” And she gave me the zip code for North Salem.

“I got this address off his web site,” I said, appreciating her use of “shall we assume” rather than “do you want to assume”. Shall we assume meant we were in this together, guessing together, being right or wrong together. I felt grateful to her for sharing the responsibility with me for choosing the town over the zip.

My profuse thanks seemed to both please and annoy her—she was pleased to be thanked and annoyed I had taken so long at the window that a line was now snaking out the door where no line had been before I got there.

I need to backtrack a little here and mention that when I first stepped up to the counter and smiled at the substitute, not only was there was no line, but the first thing I said to her was, “I’ve never seen you here before. Are you real?”

She was somewhat taken aback by my question, but quickly recovered her aplomb and retorted, “Oh I’m real. Subbing today. I usually work at Little River.”

I said other silly things, the kind of absurdist ironic comedic things I say to Robin and Lara when they handle my postal needs, and as I was walking away from the substitute, I felt a pang of remorse for having been something of a smartass to this perfectly nice person who was just trying to do her job in a place where she didn’t usually work.

Happily my remorse was not long-lived and I returned to musing about her impromptu lyric: You’ve either got the wrong town for that zip or the wrong zip for that town.

I find the word that clunky. Sometimes we can’t avoid using that, but if we can, we should. This rule applies to prose, poetry, lyrics, letters to friends, letters to the editor, and grocery lists. Avoid using that whenever plausible. Ditto the word it. Its are a scourge upon the written page. In my opinion, its are far worse than thats because thats actually sometimes serve important grammatical purposes, whereas its are usually obfuscating and annoying and misleading. These are, of course, merely my opinions about its and thats. You may love its and thats and use them constantly. Fine. Be that way.

So…with the elimination of thats in mind, how about You’ve either got the wrong zip for the right town or the right zip for the wrong town.

Or we could drop the contraction of you have and get down with You either got the wrong zip for the right town, or the wrong town for the right zip.

Is this a Motown song? Country? Hip hop? Sondheim? Salsa? You choose.

No matter the genre, these lines beg for subsequent lines to rhyme with them and add layers of humor, irony, nuance, poignancy, piquancy, and a certain je ne sais quoi to the unfolding song. Aye there’s the rub. A certain je ne sais quoi. These things don’t grow on trees, you know. They can’t be bought from je ne sais quoi web sites. Je ne sais quoi must be unearthed from the inner recesses of the lyricist’s mind and brain and spirit, as diamonds must be mined and potatoes must be dug.

Another thing: just because a clever lyric falls into our mental purview doesn’t mean we have to write a song using said found lyric. (See Found Poetry) Just because you find a twenty-dollar bill doesn’t mean you have to immediately buy something, items of food or a scarf or new colored pencils, though why not? We might just appreciate the lyric as a passing run of words tickling our poetical songwriting synapses, fleeting amusement, momentary respite from the usual blither.

And this is where I got to regarding You’ve either got the wrong zip for the right town or the right zip for the wrong town. My poetical synapses had been tickled, but I wasn’t greatly inspired to use the line in a song. If you would like to use this lyric or a variation thereof, please do.

So…having written the preceding 875 words, I decided to celebrate by going to the Mendocino Farmers Market where I scored a dozen fabulous heirloom tomatoes and the first small-farm watermelon of the season, brought to the coast from the hotter inland climes, along with a coastal-grown cauliflower of such majesty and perfection I was torn between eating the blessed thing or placing the white majesty on a pedestal to admire until rot ensued. Eating won out over admiration and she was refrigerated.

I got home from the farmers market and here was an email from Max bearing his neato diptych with which I prefaced this article, the words accompanying the visuals reading: I am trying to locate a new place to come from. The place I came from isn’t working anymore.

I know. Right? How could I not try mixing those words with the substitute postal clerk’s impromptu lyrics? Here is what I’ve got so far. Imagine these words sung by Bill Withers with a groove reminiscent of his “Use Me”.

I got the wrong town for the right zip,

I said the right zip for the wrong town,

Place I came from ain’t working no more

Need a new place to come from now

Dream Songs

Monday, August 6th, 2018

Dream Songs

Basketball Guitar photo by Todd

“One does not dream; one is dreamed. We undergo the dream, we are the objects.” Carl Jung

For two consecutive mornings recently I woke from dreams in which I was playing basketball and sinking improbable shots. Having had basketball dreams since I started playing basketball when I was twelve, what I found most interesting about these recent basketball dreams was that I was making shots instead of missing. In most of my previous basketball dreams, the ball would almost go in, but not quite.

In the first of these recent basketball dreams, I am in a professional basketball training facility, standing at mid-court watching pro ball players shooting around at one end of the court. A ball comes to me and I hold it for a moment and think about shooting, but instead of shooting I pass the ball to one of the enormous pros. I then turn away from the pros and go to the other end of the court where a few non-pro players are shooting around. I take a few shots and make them all, and as I continue to shoot, the court starts to change into a store with aisles of shelves. I am in one of those aisles about thirty feet from the hoop when I confidently launch a shot that swishes through cleanly. Feeling marvelous, I look around for a witness and see a boy running by.

“Did you see that shot I just made?” I ask him.

“Yeah,” he says with little enthusiasm. “Awesome.”

The second basketball dream takes place in a vegetable garden connected to a basketball court in a high school gymnasium. I am standing amidst the vegetables with a tall wooden archway looming between me and the faraway hoop. I fling the ball over the arch and watch with delight as the ball falls from on high and passes cleanly through the hoop. I make a second such shot, which prompts the approach of a woman who is concerned I might be interfering in a high school game I shouldn’t be involved in.

Where are Freud and Jung when we need them?

In other subconscious news, having recently taken up the guitar again after a ten-year hiatus, I just wrote my first new guitar song and found the process delightful and mysterious. I call this subconscious news because a large part of songwriting for me has to do with seeding the brain/body/spirit consortium with ideas for melodies and story lines and then seeing what the consortium comes up with over time.

Which is also to say, I think most dreams are the consortium’s attempts to create symbolic movies out of what we’re dealing with in our lives, both in the immediate sense and in the longer arcs of experience that compose our lives. The blueprints for these symbolic creations, I believe, are the ingrained ways we think and feel about ourselves.

I also think some dreams are clairvoyant communications from other people; that we actually co-dream and thereby receive information about each other via the astral plane.

So. After much noodling around, I found the chord and rhythm pattern for my new song, and then for several nights in a row I played the pattern multiple times before going to bed. I woke the following mornings to intriguing images and phrases and memories, gifts of the subconscious, and I would then try fitting those gifts to the chord and rhythm pattern of the song.

The recurring tonalities of those morning gifts were humor, nostalgia, playfulness, joy, and melancholy.

So check this out.  A few nights ago I went to bed feeling confident the song, You Say Yes, was done and ready to be sung a hundred times to get it well-learned before I record it. I was smiling as I went to sleep, happy with my new tune, and the next morning I woke to the song playing in my head and…

The lyrics were in Present Tense.

I’d written those lines and worked them dozens of times in Past Tense.

I jumped out of bed, ran to my office, picked up my guitar, sat down with the lyric sheet, and sang the song in Present Tense, and every previously-not-exactly-right syllabic relationship was magnifique.

Man oh man. Woman oh woman. What a kick.

Another of the songs I’ll be recording along with You Say Yes is a song I wrote in my early twenties when I was crashing in my friend Scott’s squalid apartment in New York City, one of the few songs from long ago I still play, a ballad called Agnes June.

Scott was studying composition at the Manhattan School of Music, and through Scott I met several aspiring composers, one of them Hans, a jocular German fellow lavishly supported by his socialist government to study abroad, his particular interest opera. When Hans learned that I played the guitar and wrote songs, he asked to hear some of them, and after I performed a few tunes for him he asked if I would be interested in writing words for a series of operatic lieder he wanted to compose for a talented soprano he was working with.

“If I use your lyrics,” he said, gesturing expansively, “I will pay you a hundred dollars per song.”

I was flattered, felt entirely over-matched, but was desperate for money and agreed to give it a try. Hans was delighted. We had three meetings at groovy cafés where Hans footed the bill for much-appreciated meals. At one of those meetings, we were joined by Neta, the Swedish soprano. She, too, was being nicely supported by her socialist government to study abroad, and we had a lively discussion about the kinds of lyrics they were hoping I would write for them.

“Sorrow,” said Hans, smiling ecstatically. “Youthful sorrow.”

“But joyful,” said Neta, nodding emphatically. “Joyful sorrow.”

“The poignant juxtaposition of joy and sorrow,” said Hans, tapping the table. “Bitter and sweet, tragic and comic.”

“The moodiness of youth,” said Neta, sighing. “You know how when we were teenagers we could go from ecstasy to misery in a heartbeat? That sort of thing.”

“We want the listener to smile and weep,” said Hans, beckoning the waitress to bring him another beer. “Cry and laugh.”

I spent several days sitting on various park benches working on lyrics for Hans and Neta—Scott’s apartment too depressing—and then presented Hans with the words for seven songs. He said he would get back to me, and a few days later he took me to lunch and said, “I like all your lyrics, love two of these, but Neta was hoping for something more free form. These are intriguing story songs, but not modern. Not contemporary. These are ballads from another time. They ask for beautiful melodies, but atonality and abstraction are in vogue now. I should have been more explicit. I apologize. You obviously worked very hard. I would like to give you a hundred dollars.”

I foolishly turned down the money, stowed the sheets of lyrics in my guitar case, left New York not long after, and carried on with my vagabond life for a while longer before settling into hippie life in Santa Cruz.

When I got a new guitar and a new guitar case, I was transferring stuff from the old case to the new case and came upon the lyrics I’d written for Hans. Most of the songs struck me as trying-too-hard junk, but the one called Agnes June sang to me as I read the words.

All these decades later, I understand Agnes June as a story from my life at that time, disguised as a classic ballad—sorrowful and joyful.

I was married in the snow to a girl named Agnes June.

We loved all through the year, under sun and under moon.

She could sing like an angel, like a birdie, too.

When the sky was gray, Agnes Junes would sing the blues.