Archive for January, 2020

The Way Things Go

Monday, January 20th, 2020

composing a letter to the aliens

Last week’s blog entry recounted the origin of the song “Sugar Mornings” from my new album of songs Lounge Act In Heaven. Since posting that article I got an email from a fellow in Virginia asking if the song ‘The Way Things Go’ is true. So…here are some origin tidbits about ‘The Way Things Go,’ Track #1 on Lounge Act In Heaven.

One of my favorite things about writing songs is the myriad ways in which the songs arrive. Sometimes I’ll be improvising on the piano, I’ll start to sing without knowing what words I might use, and out comes a line or two of a song. This beginning may not grow into something more, but sometimes the words and melody are compelling enough to pursue. Or I’ll be somewhere without a musical instrument, writing a letter or a story or just thinking, and a line will come to me that seems made for music. Lately I’ve been inventing catchy chord progressions on the guitar that inspire me to sing, and this has resulted in two new songs.

I composed the rhythmic pattern of guitar chords for ‘The Way Things Go’ in 1995 when I was forty-six. I had just moved to Berkeley and was recovering from a difficult ten-year marriage. The first words I wrote to go with that pattern of chords told a bitter tale of betrayal and broken promises. The song was not so much about my marriage as it was about a mythical relationship made of parts of several relationships I’d been in where money or the lack of it trumped love every time.

Singing that bitter ode was cathartic for me, but I was not inclined to share the song with friends or audiences for a few years because I was pretty sure anyone but me would find the song difficult to listen to. When I did finally perform the song a few times for other people, the song proved to be the massive bummer I thought it would be, so I retired the words and hung onto the pleasing chord progression.

Fast forward to 2019. Playing guitar again after a ten-year hiatus, I rediscovered the chord progression that would become ‘The Way Things Go’ and after just a few iterations of the progression sang, “Ricky and Kathy were lovers in high school, then Ricky went away to war.”

The hair on the back of my neck tingled pleasantly and I knew I was onto something. I wrote the rest of the words over the next few weeks and loved the song so much I was going to name my album The Way Things Go until Lounge Act In Heaven came along and won the title contest.

Would I say the lyrics of ‘The Way Things Go’ tell a true story? Yes. A true story composed of truths from many stories, some about me, some about people I’ve known, some about people I’ve imagined, and some about people I’ve watched from afar. I also think the song is very true to our time.

The Way Things Go

 

Ricky and Kathy were lovers in high school

Then Ricky went away to war

Kathy fell in love with a used car salesman

Five kids by 24

 

Ricky came back from Afghanistan

He didn’t know how to be,

So he wandered down to Hollywood

Landed in a situation comedy

 

I’m not making this up

That’s the way things go

The way things start is never how they finish

I thought you’d like to know

That’s the way things go

 

Now Ricky played the part of Larry Dorfman

A guy with a checkered past

Larry’s wife Camille a stewardess,

teenagers Lisa and Chaz

 

And as long as he was Larry Dorfman

Ricky knew how to be

But away from the set of the sit-com

He was all at sea

 

This is all completely true

That’s the way things go

The way things start is never how they finish

Don’t you know

It’s the way things go

 

Well that show ran for seven seasons

And Ricky became a big star

Mansion in Malibu, New York penthouse

Million-dollar car

 

Then they made him a super hero

In a billion-dollar flick

He fell madly in love with his co-star Vicky

Otherwise known as Vick

 

This is all completely true

That’s the way things go

The way things start is never how they finish

Thought you’d like to know

 

Now Vicky as it happened was a mystical master

with a bent for Psychology

And she knew from the minute she met him

Ricky didn’t know how to be

 

But she loved the size and the color of his aura,

loved the way they clicked in the sack

So she made it her life’s work to heal him, yeah

To bring old Ricky back

 

This is the truth!

That’s the way things go

The way things start is never how they finish

Don’t you know it’s the way things go

 

Now the irony of Vicky healing Ricky

Was that once Ricky knew how to be

He quit making movies and bought a farm

And started planting trees

 

He and Vicky had a baby named Venus,

They adopted another three

Tino, Gina, and Esmeralda

And they all learned how to be

From their mom and dad,

Some pretty good ways, such as

 

Be loving and kind to each other,

share what you have to spend,

make love not war, use solar power,

treat the earth as your mother and friend.

 

Yeah that’s the way to go, yeah.

That’s the way to go.

You start things right, you’ll have a good finish,

At least I hope that’s so

It’s the way things go

But you never know

Sugar Mornings

Monday, January 13th, 2020

the improvisor

Last week’s blog entry recounted the origin of the song “You Are The One” from my new album of songs Lounge Act In Heaven. Readers continue to let me know they’re enjoying these song origin stories, so now I’ll tell the story of the instrumental ‘Sugar Mornings’, Track 7 on Lounge Act In Heaven.

When I was in my mid-thirties I made my one and only attempt to write my autobiography. I thought I should first write something about my parents’ lives to set the scene for my birth. Then I realized to do my folks justice I should write about their parents, too. But to understand my grandparents, the reader would need to know about their parents, my great grandparents, and how they got to America and California. When I found myself mired in a seventeen page description of life in a Jewish village in Poland in the 1870s, I gave up the autobiography and returned to fiction.

I feel a little bit this way about ‘Sugar Mornings’ because the life from which the music sprang is most of the story.

My parents were children and teenagers during the Great Depression. Thus though they were fast moving up from barely scraping by to middle class by the time I was born, they continued to live frugally and raised my siblings and me to be frugal, too. When each of us turned twelve, we were expected to earn our own money for things other than food, basic clothing, and the utility bills. My older sisters became zealous babysitters and I pulled weeds for neighbors and babysat, too.

To say that my parents were neurotic about money is a grand understatement. As a teenager, I was well aware that my parents were by then wealthy compared to most Americans, yet they pinched every penny and were painfully ungenerous to their progeny. This had a huge impact on my siblings and me and would shape the courses of our lives.

When I dropped out of college at nineteen, I reckoned the less money I needed in order to survive, the more time I would have to work on my stories and novels and songs. So for the next ten years I lived on next to nothing and could get everything I owned onto a Greyhound bus with me whenever I needed to pick up and move. Save for a couple idyllic years of living in communes in Santa Cruz, I rarely had an easy time making ends meet from week to week.

Then in 1978 Doubleday published my novel Inside Moves. And though the book was nearly remaindered (taken out of print) before publication day, Inside Moves had a big pre-publication paperback sale followed by a movie sale. (You can read the remarkable history of Inside Moves on the Inside Moves page of my web site.)

And so for the first time since dropping out of college I had so much money I didn’t have to worry about paying the rent and having enough money for groceries.

In 1979 I rented a little cottage in Santa Cruz and gave myself fulltime to writing and composing. Heaven. What’s more I fell in love with a woman who I fervently hoped would return the favor. And though she did not, my infatuation with her inspired several songs including ‘Sugar Mornings’.

The title came from a letter I wrote to a friend, the letter lost, the gist remembered. I call these mornings when I wake free of worry, sugar mornings, the sweetest mornings I’ve ever known.

I wrote lyrics for ‘Sugar Mornings’ at the time I composed the music, but after all these decades I only remember the first few lines. “Sugar mornings and midnight dreams, lying here by myself it seems, kinda crazy that you are there, faraway and…”

This past summer, the summer of 2019, forty years after composing ‘Sugar Mornings’, and just a few weeks after I brought out my album Dream of You, I was noodling around on the piano one evening and stumbled on the beginning of ‘Sugar Mornings’. I hadn’t played the piece in many years and might have let the tune sink back into the depths had not Marcia heard me playing and said, “I hope you’re going to put that on your next album.”

To which I replied, “I will if you’ll play a cello part.”

She said she would play a cello part and that inspired me to learn ‘Sugar Mornings’ again. I do not read music, so everything I compose must be practiced many times to take hold and not be forgotten. After much hunting around and many dozens of run-throughs, I was able to play ‘Sugar Mornings’ again with confidence and élan.

Peter Temple came to my house to record the piano parts for Lounge Act In Heaven. We then gave those piano parts, including ‘Sugar Mornings’, to Gwyneth Moreland who came up with delightful accordion parts for all the songs. When her part for ‘Sugar Mornings’ was recorded and roughly mixed with my piano part, I gave the mix to Marcia and she composed her cello part. After we recorded Marcia’s cello part, Peter and I mixed the three parts, played the new mix for Marcia, she made suggestions, we refined the mix again, and so forth. Eventually we came up with the version of ‘Sugar Mornings’ you can hear on Lounge Act In Heaven, what one friend called “a sweet nostalgic soundtrack for the opening and ending credits of a classic French film yet to be made.”

You Are The One

Monday, January 6th, 2020

Portuguese Beach scale

Last week’s blog entry recounted the origin of “Light Song” and how I came up with the title for my new album of songs Lounge Act In Heaven. Readers seem to be enjoying these song origin stories and I enjoy remembering how these songs came to be, so I thought I’d tell the story of the song ‘You Are The One’ which is Track 11 on Lounge Act In Heaven.

By the way, there is a stirring piano/accordion instrumental entitled ‘Lounge Act In Heaven’ on my CD Lounge Act In Heaven. Track 3.

So… in 1995 I moved from Sacramento to Berkeley and took possession of a large old house on Evelyn Avenue, the diminutive front yard featuring one of the tallest eucalyptus trees in Berkeley. Forty-five and recently divorced, I was excited about starting my life in a new place with clean air and cool summers. I was able to afford the rent on the old house because I signed the rental agreement in 1994, a year or so before rent control ended in Berkeley and rents skyrocketed. This was also at the very beginning of the Dot Com boom that would change Berkeley and the Bay Area forever and force most low-income artists in the Bay Area to move elsewhere. In other words, I snuck in shortly before I couldn’t have possibly snuck in.

I loved living in Berkeley for the first few of the eleven years I eventually lived there. There was no need for me to own a car, delicious ethnic cuisine abounded, and my creative juices were flowing again. I had stopped writing songs for my last several years in Sacramento and I surmise the songs had been mounting up all the while in my heart/brain/spirit because upon arriving in Berkeley many songs burst forth.

‘You Are the One’ was born as a bass line/chord progression played on the guitar. I loved the jazzy feel of the notes and chords, and after a few months of playing the sequence dozens of times every day, I could have lengthy conversations with my friends while playing the progression and never losing the beat. (My friends seemed to enjoy having a guitar soundtrack underpinning our conversations.)

Once the progression was second nature to me, I started singing wordlessly to the music. After some months of singing along using non-word vocal sounds, I had a melody I liked. The first actual words arrived at the end of a verse. “You are the one everybody wants to be with tonight.” I wasn’t sure what the words were referring to, but I liked how they sounded and I liked how they might mean all sorts of things.

One night in September I was sitting in my living room playing the progression and listening to a strong wind off San Francisco Bay blowing the thousands of leaves of the aforementioned gigantic eucalyptus tree in my front yard and I sang, “Listen to the wind as it blows through the trees, listen to her, listen to me.”

Intrigued, I got out pen and paper, wrote the line down—and the rest of the words quickly followed.

A few days later I got a call from an old friend asking me to come to Sacramento to perform in the annual Kerouac reading that would take place in early October. When I lived in Sacramento I participated in this annual homage to Jack Kerouac and his Beat cohorts several times. However, I was no longer interested in those writers, save for Philip Whalen, so I declined the invitation.

The next day that same friend called again and said, “We could really use you on the bill. I’ve kind of already put your name on the fliers and posters and T-shirts and in the press release and… you don’t have to read any Beat stuff if you don’t want to. Just do one of your stories and sing a song.”

Feeling a little nostalgic for my old stomping grounds, I agreed to perform.

When the gala day arrived, I borrowed a car and drove to Sacramento, arriving in the rain at an old warehouse where a hundred or so poets and artists and musicians were gathered to listen to a handful of latter day Beats read Kerouac and do some of their own stuff, too.

We four headliners drew straws and I was up first. I placed the not yet completely memorized lyrics to ‘You Are The One’ on a music stand in front of me and said to the wonderfully attentive audience, “This is a brand new song called ‘You Are The One,’ and for some reason I want to read the lyrics to you before I sing the song.”

Why this got a big laugh I don’t know, but it did, and then I launched into the progression and sang the song. And one verse in, a very good string bass player waiting in the wings started playing a groovy bass accompaniment and a couple gals in the audience joined in with high harmonies on the recurring line ‘You are the one everybody wants to be with tonight,’ and we brought the house down.

During the long intermission, I was approached by several people who said they loved the song, which was nice to hear, but even more interesting was that three of those people, two women and a man, each said they felt I was singing the song especially for them, though I didn’t know any of them. And because I had no solid notion of what the song was about, I was eager to learn what they felt the song was saying to them.

They all said essentially the same thing, which was that the song is a call to overcome our self-doubts and step into our full power so we may bring our gifts to the greater world.

I have subsequently performed ‘You Are The One’ for many audiences, and many people have confided that they felt the song was asking them to overcome their fears and doubts so they might bring their concealed talents to a larger audience.

th_whenlight-351

In 2008, Marcia and I made our first CD of songs together When Light Is Your Garden on which we recorded a slow ceremonial version of ‘You Are The One’. I love that version, especially Marcia’s cello solos, but I have always wanted to record a faster version with a great vocalist singing with me, and that’s what we did for the Lounge Act In Heaven version, Gwyneth Moreland singing with me and playing accordion. I also play lead guitar on the Lounge Act version, which was a big deal for me because… well, first I had to overcome my self-doubts and step into my power.

You Are the One

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

 

Listen to her and listen to me.

We can see what you can’t see.

We have felt your healing touch.

We have known your healing power.

And we believe this is your golden hour,

That you are the one everybody wants to be with tonight

 

Listen to your heart, listen to your brain.

Can you hear what they are saying?

Can you bear the knowledge that you were born

To bear the torch of hope?

Oh I know there’s a part of you that would rather live in secrecy,

But you are the one everybody wants to be with tonight.

 

Listen to the sweet song of the rain.

Listen to the howl of that old night train.

Listen to your feelings.

Listen to this song of our love for you.

You are the one everybody wants to be with tonight.

 

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, do not be afraid,

You are the one everybody wants to be with tonight

loungeact-front