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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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You Are The One

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.

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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

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Hey Baby

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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.