Posts Tagged ‘improvising’

Hey Baby

Monday, March 26th, 2018

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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.

Hungry Deer

Monday, August 8th, 2016

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Birdbath & Friends charcoal and acrylic by Nolan Winkler

“For when you see that the universe cannot be distinguished from how you act upon it, there is neither fate nor free will, self nor other. There is simply one all-inclusive Happening, in which your personal sensation of being alive occurs in just the same way as the river flowing and the stars shining far out in space. There is no question of submitting or accepting or going with it, for what happens in and as you is no different from what happens as it.” Alan Watts

With that in mind this morning, I go out to water our apple trees.

When we bought our house and surrounding two acres four years ago, the place was a deer park, the seven dwarf and semi-dwarf apple trees badly mangled by the deer and dying from lack of water. Our first large expenditure was to have a sturdy deer fence installed around the southern three-quarters of an acre with the house as part of that barrier.

We pruned and watered and fed the apple trees, and today four of the original seven are now robust and productive, one gave up the ghost, and the remaining two are still quite distressed and would like new basins free of redwood roots, more food, and more water.

This year the crop on four of the trees is spectacular and we attribute some of this to our monthly deep watering throughout the dry summer months. To that end, we installed a second water tank two years ago so we would be assured of a goodly supply for the orchard and our vegetable garden. The deer are as plentiful as ever hereabouts, and groups of them can often be found standing at the fence gazing longingly at the bounty they once had access to.

This morning, I open one of the sturdy gates leading into the orchard and leave it ajar a mere three feet. I set a hose at the base of one of the apple trees, head back to the gate, and here is a doe twenty feet on the wrong side of the fence making a beeline for the dwarf Red Delicious.

Fortunately, I opened the big gate outward, so the doe is easily cajoled into going out the way she came in. She must have entered mere seconds after I did—the entire incident lasting less than two minutes. I check to make sure no other deer have entered the protected zone, close the gate, and return to the house to set a timer lest I forget the hose is running.

Sitting at the piano, improvising on the theme of apples and deer, I look out the window with a view of the land we’ve left unfenced and see two does and two adorable fawns nibbling on anything digestible they can get their mouths on. Anything. They seem scrawny to me, the fawns especially so, and I recall our neighbor who feeds the local deer and goes to Idaho to hunt elk, telling me the forage hereabouts is not so good this year and the deer are not just hungry but stupid hungry and therefore more likely to get hit by cars.

The timer rings and I return to the orchard and decide to leave the hose running on that first tree for another half-hour. While I’m here I do yet another thinning of the apples lest various boughs break under the weight of the abundant fruit. I fill a big bucket of half-sized apples—reds, greens, goldens, yellows—and dump them on the north side of our house where the deer visit daily.

In my office, working on a poem, it occurs to me that I gave those apples to the deer today, rather than saving them for our neighbor’s horse who produces manure for our garden, because the doe that entered the orchard this morning communicated her hunger to me. Seeing the scrawny fawns was further impetus to feed the deer, not that a few apples will make much of a difference to their longevity, but I’m a sucker for fawns, so…

An email from Max in New Hampshire arrives, a missive jiving splendidly with my musings about deer and apples and music and poetry and Alan Watts writing about the universe being indistinguishable from how we act upon it.

“This evening I made an unexpected store run to pick up a couple of items, the prolonged dusk thrillingly muggy (unusually heavy humidity for our spot in New Hampshire) and inviting in the big thunderstorm I’d seen predicted for tonight. I had a most pleasant time zipping to the store and back, accumulating little moments—like in the grocery store produce section when I asked the young man wearing a white hairnet who was putting out produce if they had any ears of corn, and he looked at me with such gentle wonder and asked, “Ears?” and I made an ear-of-corn shape with each of my hands and he smiled and said, “Do you mean corn-on-the-cob?” And I said yes! He led me to the ears of corn and I thought maybe nobody calls them ears of corn anymore. But somehow this was delightful. Just the intrigued way he asked the question, “Ears?” like this was a whole new idea about corn, foreign to him, yet charming somehow. Anyway, the quick shopping done, I drove home with the windows down, feeling the excitement of the storm about to break, listening all the way home to the inspiring piano stylings of Mr. Todd Walton and boy did you sound fantastic! Everything seemed so right. And just as I was about to walk in the front door of our building, huge drops of rain started plunking down. By the time I arrived on the 5th floor, the rain was drumming down on the skylights above the hallway to our apartment, a great percussion accompaniment to my approach to the door. Perfect timing.”