The 1970s, Sally Field, the Bandit, and Me

Normally, I listen to some strictly instrumental background music while writing. Today, however, I feel like country music, so I have Jerry Reed serenading me. Maybe next I’ll turn to some Glen Campbell, or Roger Miller. You see, I love the country from the 1950s-70s. There are some contemporary country artists I like, but I’ll save them for another post.

In 1977, every boy my age loved two things: the Trans-Am Burt Reynolds drove in Smokey and the Bandit, and Sally Field in the same movie. I must admit, though, that I wanted my Trans-Am to be orange. I even had a Trans-Am model I’d put together and painted bright orange, with the Firebird decal on the hood of course. I could see myself driving that beautiful 70s muscle car around town, even though I was still too young to drive. In the seat next to me would be Valerie Bertinelli. I was sure she’d love me if she ever met me. (Sally Field was already taken by Burt Reynolds, and I was pretty sure he could beat me up.)

In some ways, I consider myself a product of the 1980s, because that was a very good decade overall for me. But in reality, I am a 70s child. That decade was my period of growing up. It takes very little to put me into a nostalgic 70s mood. And if you think That 70s Show captured it in any way, you are wrong. Its presentation of the 70s was probably about as accurate as the 1950s as portrayed in Happy Days. I know; I was there.

I sometimes play a game with myself, trying to pick my favorite decade of music. The 1920s had a lot of fun stuff, including Paul Whiteman and some early jazz. The 1930s had all the great Depression-era movie music. The 30s & 40s gave us much of what has become enshrined as The Great American Songbook. And I could make arguments for other decades as well.

It always comes back to the same conclusion, however. If the rules can be bent just a smidge, I’d chose to split a decade. My favorite 10-year period of music would be 1975-85. I would get punk, disco, New Wave, No Wave, synthpop, and a lot of great jazz. For a great book that covers the first part of this period, check out Love Goes to Buildings on Fire: Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever by Will Hermes.

Caring for the Muse in a Troubling Time

As a result of COVID-19, I lost my job back in March. I had a small cushion, but have now reached the point where money is going to get very tight very soon. This is, unfortunately, not a unique position to be in these days, but in this case having lots of company doesn’t make the situation any less miserable.

Ideally, I would be doing a lot of writing, making art, and composing music. After all, these are all things I love, and I have often found myself wishing I had more time in which to do them. Well, now I have the time, so why am I not doing them? Truth is, I’m having a hard time concentrating on any creative pursuits while my mind is preoccupied with worrying about trivia like rent and food.

Here are a few things I’ve been doing to try to keep the muse alive, even if it isn’t currently being very productive:

  • Reading. I have to be careful of this one, but I am a real book nerd, and I can easily find myself reading to the exclusion of all else.
  • Walking. Serves the dual purpose of providing some much-needed exercise as well as giving me a break from sitting in my apartment. Also: I sometimes get good song/story/art ideas while walking. Sometimes.
  • Trying to write a page of lyrics a day, even if they are really terrible lyrics, which most of them are. Collaborating long-distance with a friend in Canada on some new songs.
  • Free improvising on an instrument (mine happen to be piano and trombone). If anything sounds worth keeping, write it down or record it.
  • Listen to music and/or podcasts that inspire me, or at least things that I enjoy.

None of these are terribly original suggestions, and none of them has solved the bigger problem of income and lack thereof. But by tending even minimally to my inner artistis spirit, I am keeping myself back from the brink of despair.

My Earliest Songs

In my last post, I mentioned songwriting. My earliest songs were little things I made up in my head as a kid. These childhood ditties were never written down or recorded, and I never even thought of them as songs; they were just thoughts I had which happened to be tuneful. There was “The Old Tin Can,” “Come Back Here, Little Kitty,” “I Wanna Get Up (Now, Now, Now),” etc. Note: I’ve only added these titles long after the fact; as I said, I never consciously composed these things, so why would they need titles?

Once I did start making attempts at actual songwriting, my earliest efforts were little piano instrumentals, carefully written down in my very first book of staff paper. The first one was called “Prelude,” in emulation of Bach. (I doubt if I had any idea what a Prelude was, only that Bach seemed to like the word.) More or less concurrently with these piano pieces, I began writing lyrics down on the pads of outdated calendar sheets I used as writing paper. (My grandpa had an office supply store which sold calendar refills—this was a few decades before iCal, Google Calendar, etc.—and we grandkids, my cousins and I, always were gifted some outdated refills that were left over at the end of the year. I know at one point I had some of these things dating back to 1964!)

The first time I put lyrics and music together in coherent form down on paper was for a song called “Space Attack.” I’m guessing I was around 12 years old. I even had big plans to record it, and tried to do my own version of multi-tracking by bouncing back and forth between two cassette recorders. Needless to say, the resulting sound quality was not great. But I had been bitten by the songwriting bug, and that bug stayed with me for many years. Between the ages of 17 and 27, which was probably my most productive period, I cranked out hundreds of songs. Many of them are still floating about here and there, but many have also been lost, and even in my memory all that remains of many are titles and fragments, if that much.

I’m hoping that someday (hopefully still a good long way off) when I am faced with death, I get one final request. My request will be that instead of seeing my life flash before my eyes, I get to hear some of those long-forgotten songs played for me.

Standing Ovations and Undeserved Praise

I made my stage debut in The King and I as one of the Siamese children. (Yes, I am white, as were most of the other kids in our production. Yes, they literally dipped us head to toe in stage makeup to make faux Asians out of us. Yes, this would be unacceptable today. That’s a topic for another day.) I was in 6th grade. When we did the curtain call on opening night, the audience gave us a standing ovation. That was in the mid-1970s, when such an ovation still meant something. Now a standing ovation is practically obligatory at every show, regardless of the quality of the performance. The gesture has become meaningless as anything other than a polite matter of course.

But that first standing ovation felt awesome! All these years later, it still stands out as a great moment in my life. Aside from being the first time I experienced the thrill of the stage, it was meaningful because it was deserved. My role was a tiny one, but I knew that even though this was just a high school production, it was a very good one. I have been involved with shows since then that also received standing ovations, but ones which were in no way deserved. They felt phony.

When I was a kid, my parents praised me to the skies, even when I didn’t deserve it. I was a pretty good young musician, but not the best in school, and certainly not the best on a statewide or even citywide level. If I lost a battle for first chair in the band, or didn’t get top score on a solo, my parents acted as if I had been cheated. I wasn’t cheated; I simply wasn’t as good as the competition, and I knew it. To be told otherwise felt like a lie, even if it was well-intentioned. The praise my parents offered was meant as support, but again, it felt phony.

There is a big difference between “You ARE the best!” and “You can BECOME the best.” The latter is helpful; the former is not. When a student (in music, sports, or anything else) hears “You are the best,” the message is “You needn’t bother trying harder; the world has to come around to you.” This is unfair to the student and also casts a negative shadow over the world for not recognizing talent. It would have been much healthier for me to hear a lot more of “You can become the best” while growing up. There the message is, “You are not the best yet, as you are well aware, but the potential is there if you work at it.”

Being told I was the best when objectively and obviously I was not led to a distrust of compliments. It also implied that I was already as good as I could ever hope to be, and since I knew others were better, it led to a feeling of hopeless inferiority. I don’t mean to bash my parents, and I also don’t claim that this is always the case. I just wish I had figured all this out a lot sooner.

Hymns

2 hymnals

A big part of my job at church revolves around the praise band. I have a fun time playing with the band (on keys, bass, banjo, whatever), but I confess that praise music really isn’t my bag. There are very few contemporary Christian artists I would choose to listen to in my spare time just because I enjoy their music. (Lauren Daigle is one exception that springs to mind, and maybe I Am They, but these are definitely exceptions.) I grew up the son of a Methodist organist and the grandson of a Lutheran organist, so perhaps it’s not surprising that I prefer the traditional hymns. Beyond personal preference, though, I’ve always been hard-pressed to put into words exactly why I find the old hymns so much more meaningful than contemporary worship choruses. Undeniably, our somewhat dated church hymnal is filled with archaic language and non-PC lyrics. And musically, most of the well-known hymns are at least at formulaic and repetitive as the songs I could hear on Sirius’s “The Message” channel.

This article from Christian Century magazine (November 16, 2010) comes as close as anything I’ve read to voicing my feelings. “I understand the value of praise choruses for those who find them more accessible than hymns. But I doubt that anyone will be singing ‘Our God Is an Awesome God’ on a deathbed. The problem isn’t…the lyrics, but its lack of gravitas.” – M. Craig Barnes

https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2010-10/closing-hymns

 

Calling: Music

Contemplative with bass

Sometimes a calling can change. That’s been happening to me lately, and I have to remember that advice we’ve all heard: You are not your job. You are not your career. And you are not your calling. Jobs, careers, and callings (yes, they do overlap, at least hopefully they do) can all change. For years, I felt a calling to be a musician. I think that is no longer true.

My mom started me on piano when I was just 4. I added the trombone in fourth grade. I picked it up quickly, what with the piano background and all, and made first chair in the grade school band and then the All-West band, which covered a wider area of the city. This was followed by All-City band, and then in high school All-State. I played lead in the jazz band. I won several awards including the Glenn Miller Competition, and was accepted into the prestigious Northwestern University music program as a trombone performance major. All along I had been keeping up my piano skills, which came in handy while performing with a series of semi-professional rock and jazz bands.

Meanwhile, music theatre had been an interest ever since I made my stage debut as a little kid in a local production of The King and I. Much of my recent work has been playing in pit orchestras for the theatre, in addition to working as a church musician, and taking occasional pickup gigs. For many years past the time most people would have put a music career down as a pipe dream, I still nursed along the hope of finding a way to make a living making music.

But for the past couple of years, something else has also been happening. I’ve been losing interest in music. After so many years thinking of myself as a musician first and foremost, this comes as a shock, and an unwelcome one at that. If I’m not a musician, then what am I? Tying one’s identity closely to one idea can lead to an identity crisis when that idea suddenly no longer has the appeal it once had.

I still love music. I hope I never stop loving it as something to listen to and appreciate, but my calling has changed. That is something I have to acknowledge. It’s not easy, but I notice that when I give myself permission to change, I feel better. These days I am feeling a calling in a different direction, one that surprises me. It’s hard to admit to myself and it’s hard to admit to other people, especially since most of my friends and acquaintances still think of me in a way that I no longer think of myself.

Change can be scary but it can also be good. When a new calling comes…er…calling, it can be worthwhile taking the call.

Strange Music

UM-26_27

I am certainly not guilt-free when it comes to musical chauvinism, but I am generally broadminded about music. This started early on; as a kid I was just as happy listening to Broadway musical cast recordings as I was listening to kiddie records, country-western, or Disney soundtracks. Well, there was a period in high school when I was something of a jazz snob. Mostly, though, I have always had very eclectic musical taste. I never understood why one was expected to like The Beatles OR The Rolling Stones, disco OR rock, sacred OR secular. These sorts of musical duels seem pretty pointless.

Not long ago I gave a talk on “What Is Music?” As examples, I played snippets from John Cage, Olivier Messiaen, Laurie Anderson, The Residents, John Coltrane, and Arthur Russell: all artists who have withstood both critical appraisal and the test of time well enough to be taken seriously by music scholars, yet all just odd enough to leave some people scratching their heads and/or covering their ears. The folks in the audience were largely in-the-box when it came to music, and my purpose was to lead them gently outside of the box a little. (I’m sure some of them left and later said to their friends and family, “You wouldn’t believe the crap I had to listen to today!”)

Whenever I find myself falling into a musical rut—which is very easy to do, especially for an old fart like me!—I force myself to try something new. I subscribe to Spotify and Sirius, and both of these services make finding new music a breeze. And there is a lot of great new music! (Yes, there is life beyond mean-spirited and insipid realty TV shows.)

For anyone wanted to reach out a bit, might I suggest turning to a guy who has had his hands in, on, around, and all through many creative and innovative musical projects: Brian Eno. He’s well-represented on Spotify both as a solo artist and as a collaborator with Roxy Music, David Bowie, U2, Ultravox, Robert Fripp, John Cale, and David Byrne just to name a very small sample.  On the contemporary classical side, one of his most interesting projects was Obscure Records, which existed from 1975-1978 and presented 10 records featuring groups and composers such as Penguin Café Orchestra, Gavin Bryars, Harold Budd, and others. These recordings are not necessarily easy to find, but they are worth the search. Most of the composers represented in the series have discographies that stretch beyond the Obscure label.

Happy listening!