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Sugar Mornings

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.”

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Light Song

after storm sky


Last week’s blog entry recounted the origin of ‘A Wedding Song’, one of the twelve songs on my new album Lounge Act In Heaven. Having heard from readers that they enjoyed hearing the history of that song, I will now describe how the title Lounge Act In Heaven came to me and also tell the origin story of ‘Light Song’, the last song on the album.

(Aside: I grew up in the era of concept albums, when the order of songs was very important to both recording artists and those listening to their albums. Thus today I still put lots of thought into the order of the songs on my albums, though the streaming downloading web-crawling algorithms care little for that sort of thing.)

In the spring of 2019, I produced my CD of songs Dream of You on which I collaborated for the first time with Gwyneth Moreland, a marvelous singer and accordion player, Mendocino music celebrity, and my neighbor. A raft of new songs were inspired by our collaboration and I invited Gwyneth to come hear the new songs and try some harmonizing, and to see how her accordion playing sounded with my guitar and piano playing.

We began with five guitar songs for which her delightful accordion playing and singing were just what I was looking for. Then we moved to the piano and I played and sang two of the piano tunes. Again, her accordion and singing seemed ideal for those songs. And then I began to play ‘Light Song’, a song I wrote many years ago but had never recorded, though it is one of my all-time favorites.

I began to play the slow ceremonial progression, Gwyneth found a lovely accordion accompaniment, and then something rare and wonderful happened: Marcia emerged from her studio with her cello and joined us—the music of our trio as beautiful as anything I have ever heard.

The next day I wrote to my friend Max and said, “While playing ‘Light Song’ with Gwyneth and Marcia, I felt I was in a lounge act in heaven.”

I wrote the piano music for ‘Light Song’ circa 1994, the year before I moved to Berkeley from Sacramento. My inspiration came from a modern dance concert I attended in a small theatre in Davis. I was so taken by one of the dances that I went back the next night to see that particular dance again.

The name of the dance and the accompanying music elude my memory now, but I remember the dance was marvelously ceremonial, four women entering in stately procession, priestesses, each of them slowly and gracefully finding her place on the stage.

I was under the spell of that dance for the next several weeks and improvised many piano pieces I imagined as accompaniments to ceremonies. Out of those improvisations came the processional ‘Light Song’.

A decade later, while I was living in Berkeley, my mother died and came to me in a dream at the moment of her death. She was young and beautiful as I remembered her from my childhood. As she approached me, she metamorphosed into two translucent discs, each the size of a small butterfly that fluttered to the ground and dissolved into the soil.

In describing the dream to a friend I wrote, “Maybe there is no end, only transformation.”

Over the next few years whenever I played the music for ‘Light Song’ I would improvise lyrics, and the first line to stick was, “Here there are no endings, only tides of change.” But it was not until I moved to Mendocino in 2006 and became a denizen of the redwoods that the rest of the lyrics came to me.

th_Ceremonies-489

In 2011 I created an album of ceremonial piano improvisations entitled Ceremonies, my most successful album to date if Internet radio plays are indicators of success, but I did not include “Light Song” on that album. Something kept me from recording ‘Light Song’ until just the right elements arrived to join my voice and piano—Gwyneth’s voice and accordion, and Marcia’s cello.

 Light Song

here there are no endings

only tides of change

here the path goes ever wending

through the forests born of rain

 

there’s a shadow of a raven

gliding over fields of stone

life and light have found each other

we are none of us alone

 

come with me and join the dancing

add your voice to evening’s song

find a place to watch the turning

of the day to night and dawn

 

give yourself to silent wonder

shout your feelings to the sky

bless this chance to share the gift of life

never mind the reasons why

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Coney Island Dream

Coney Island

dear Todd,

I had a very pleasant dream this morning. You’d written a short play in which a bunch of guys crammed into a cab and were driven to Coney Island (from someplace else in the 5 boroughs). Lots of talking between the guys. I’d agreed to play a small role (I was a teenager), but when I read the play I couldn’t really hear it. “Do people really talk like that?” I wondered.

But when I arrived at rehearsal, all these wonderful character actors had been cast, guys of various ages, and when they said their lines, wow, it was completely convincing and funny and smart (philosophy of the Regular Joe). I was the only inexperienced one. I hoped I’d remember my lines, but I had so few and everyone was really nice and reassuring. After the read through, we were all trying on vintage summer costumes, loud shorts and patterned shirts and caps. What a crew! I knew you were going to be really pleased with how it turned out.

Then there was a sort of espionage area, and finally I ended up looking at black & white photocopies of photos that my young pal Tyler had taken. He spread them out on the floor, and I was giving my 2-cents, thinking the photos were brilliant. I was young, and it was in the past, but not MY past. I could be young without any of the unease of youth, and I was in a past that seemed so mild because inside myself I knew about the future: I knew some bad things then would get better, and I knew that many naive hopes people had would be flattened, but this made me not so naive, which was actually restful. This past didn’t feel like an old song that can suck me back into the puddle of my old self. I woke up happy to be in the present again, but almost as if I get to have a slightly different past than the one I had yesterday!

love,

Max

dear max,

I love this Coney Island dream of yours and how you felt when you woke up. And I’m pleased to know I wrote a delightful play on the astral plane. I use the expression astral plane in reference to dreamland because some years ago…

As you know, I used to live in Sacramento. Seems like several lifetimes ago, but I have it on good authority I lived there for fifteen years during this lifetime. When I lived in Sacramento, in the days before digital photography, I took my rolls of black and white film to a photo lab and they would produce negatives and proof sheets from which I would choose photos to print.

One of the people who worked at the front desk in the photo lab was a woman named Harriet. She was single and very appealing to me, and had I not been married, I would have pursued her. My wife and I eventually divorced and I moved from Sacramento to Berkeley. A few years after moving to Berkeley, I went to Sacramento to visit old friends, and on the spur of the moment I stopped by the photo lab to say hi to Harriet.

She seemed genuinely happy to see me, and when I told her I missed her, she replied, “I would say I missed you, too, except I see you almost every night on the astral plane.”

“Really?” I said, pleasantly surprised. “And… um… what’s going on there?”

She frowned and said, “You don’t dream about me?”

“Not that I’m aware of,” I said, sorry to disappoint her, “but whenever I go to the photo lab in Berkeley, I think of you.”

“That’s sweet,” she said, forcing a smile. “Gotta run. Thanks for coming by.”

I wonder if my telling her I didn’t dream about her had the effect of ending our astral relationship, or if our relationship on that plane was strong enough to withstand any disappointment she might have felt about my not dreaming of her.

While living in Berkeley, I chanced to hear a radio show featuring a woman who was a well-known interpreter of dreams. People were calling into the show to tell her their dreams; and after listening to the dreams, she would ask the callers clarifying questions, the callers would do their best to answer her questions, and then she would give her interpretations. I was fascinated by her takes on dreams, which were often quite different than mine.

The last caller was a woman who said, “I’ve never remembered a dream, not even a tiny fragment, and listening to your interpretations, I feel like I’m missing out on something really important.”

To which the dream interpreter said, “I’m sure in the course of your life you have interesting experiences, and you witness things that might happen in a dream, and you can interpret those experiences as you would dreams. For instance, we could interpret the dream of you listening to a radio show about dreams and deciding to call the show. Your call is selected out of the hundreds of people calling in, and the dream interpreter suggests you interpret your experience of calling and getting through to her as a dream.”

“Okay,” said the caller, her voice trembling. “What do you think this dream means?”

“I think it means you have a strong desire to understand your inner thoughts and feelings, and by taking action to address that desire, doors of understanding will open to you.”

Speaking of dreams, my new CD of songs is entitled Dream of You. Here are the lyrics to the title song, which you can listen to on Youtube, download or stream from iTunes, or you can buy the entire album of nine songs from me for five dollars.

Dream of You

Woke this morning from a dream of you

And I wondered if you might be dreaming of me, too.

We were on that beach so very long ago

Holding hands, singing songs and walking slow,

only this time you say yes instead of no.

 

So we get married, get an apartment,

You write songs and I write movies.

We play our guitars in cool cafés

And live the life of urban groovies.

One of your songs gets covered by a star,

I sell my script about a car that can think and feel and understand.

We make lots of money and start a rock n’ roll band.

 

You have an affair, I have two,

And for a dicey year or so it looks like we’re through.

But then we fall in love again while touring in Spain,

get into therapy, heal lifetimes of pain,

and when we finally make it through

we start all over again.

 

We move to a little town by the sea,

Have two great kids, Susie Q and Lee,

And you write songs, and I write movies.

That’s when I woke up and you were not there

Because you didn’t say yes, you said,

“No my friend, I would not dare.

No my friend I would not dare.”

 

But sometimes I wonder how things might have gone

if you’d said yes instead of no and we had carried on

holding hands and walking slow,

and when I take you in my arms you say yes,

when I take you in my arms you say yes.