Posts Tagged ‘Seals’

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.

Seals

Monday, March 19th, 2018

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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.