Tuesday, November 18, 2008
I've been trolling the web for over a year trying to find an affordable wind turbine for the house we're building. One of the 1.5KW turbines I researched had an MSRP of $7500 and a 40 year break even point, if I installed it myself. The company selling this particular product recommended that the installers charge between $7500 and $20,000 for the install alone, based on degree of difficulty. This is a company that only cares about the green they can put in their pocket, and is apparently convinced that there are enough fools out there to help them rake it in. Let's hope they're wrong.
Pacwind sells the 3KW vertical axis wind turbine featured on Living With Ed for less than $5000, but has recently experienced some quality control and customer service issues. At least they are closer to having a product with a reasonable break even point.
What is a reasonable price for a 3KW wind turbine? I'm not convinced that any of them have more than $1000 invested in parts and labor, including the inverter needed to tie the system into the power grid. If you are a wind turbine manufacturer, and you put a 50% mark-up on your product, they will fly out the door, you'll get rich, and as a bonus will play a big part in saving the environment and weaning this country off of foreign oil. That doesn't seem like a bad deal.
We're building in Hays county, Texas. Hays county recently outlawed gray water recovery systems, due to the large number of people installing them incorrectly and causing the run-off to discharge into the creeks and aquifers.
We are having a rainwater recovery system installed, instead of drilling a well. The costs will be the same, but the impact on the environment will be much less.
Way out of our league, for now. We'll build the house solar panel ready, and hope the rumors of a big price drop in the next few years actually happens.
We're insulating our new home with a soy based foam. The foam, along with the aluminum roof, will cut our electricity costs dramatically, by a whopping 70%!
Tuesday, November 4, 2008
I was a child during the civil rights movement of the sixties, unaware that it was even going on. We were never taught to hate in my house, and it was a shock to me as I got older and became exposed to the hatred and racial bias around me. Why do so many hate because of skin color? It's as arbitrary to me as hating someone because of the color of their eyes, or hair.
We've still got such a long way to go, but tonight was a wonderful, giant step forward on our journey; not only as a nation, but as human beings. As my wife and I whooped at the announcement of the election results, and later cried tears of joy at President-Elect Obama's acceptance speech, I could only believe that tonight God has truly blessed America.
Friday, October 31, 2008
In the middle of this particular circle we have the former war hero, who has somehow resorted to such low tactics that his words are now widening a rift in this country that we've been trying to close for over two hundred years. A man that loved his country so much that he almost made the ultimate sacrifice for it once upon a time. Now he's like the deranged, estranged husband that "loves" his soon to be ex wife so much that he's got a gun to her head, threatening a murder/suicide.
The other combatant has thrown a few punches, mostly defensive and always above the belt. Unlike the usually one-sided schoolyard brawls, this time the smart kid, the one that's trying to fight fair, is actually winning.
I'm growing tired of this metaphor, but I'm down right exhausted with the way the Republican Party has conducted themselves over the last decade. Politics has always been tough, but the last ten years of brutality that the GOP has inflicted on the American public is approaching treason.
Yes, treason. It has harmed our country and made us weak in the eyes of our enemies.
I remember when I actually admired John McCain, and in fact would have seriously considered voting for him over Al Gore had he gotten the nomination back in 2000. The Bush campaign snatched victory away from the war hero by appealing to the lowest common denominator of the GOP and starting a rumor that McCain fathered an illegitimate black child. That's all it took, and the racist idiots that fell for it were strong enough in number to hand the nomination to Bush. Now it's eight years later, and McCain and his lipstick wearing pit bull are using some of the same smear tactics against Barack Obama.
I don't agree with all of Senator Obama's plans for getting this country out of crisis, but at least I've actually heard his plans, and I think he will do a good job as our next president. All I've heard from John McCain is fear mongering.
Senator McCain, I don't live in fear, and you don't scare me.
Friday, September 12, 2008
Hurricane Ike is currently a Category 2 storm, expected to strengthen to a cat 3 before making landfall sometime in the wee hours of Saturday the 13Th. It's one of the largest storms on record, almost as big as Texas. I helped my friend Neil hook up the generator this morning, the wives have plenty of chocolate and potato chips, I stocked up on water and diet cola yesterday, and the dogs have enough food and treats to last a few weeks. Now we wait.
I grew up on the Texas Gulf Coast, and am a little sad to leave it. I've always marvelled at powerful displays of nature, and how most people come together in times of peril despite any differences they may have. Price gougers and looters are always the exception, despite the endless news casts posing them as the rule.
Corpus Christi is just a three hour drive from our new home, so I'll be able to get my saltwater fix when the urge hits me the strongest.
Monday, August 11, 2008
We've been packing for a couple of weeks now. The first week we felt like we accomplished something if we loaded two or three boxes a day. Now we're in the home stretch, and in the past several days alone we've filled at least a hundred boxes. Most of my stuff was packed weeks ago. I've always been somewhat of a minimalist, so much so that a Buddhist monk would probably look at my few meager possessions and think, That poor bastard.
My wife bought this place after her divorce, and raised two extraordinary girls in it. They're both young women now, and were well on their way to adulthood when I entered the picture seven years ago (this makes it very hard for me to take any credit at how well they turned out). The oldest is going to be a college professor, the youngest is still deciding between psychologist and anthropologist. One night, when we were still dating, the power went out. We had a full house; The Professor and her boyfriend The Artist, both 19 at the time, Indiana Jane, 15, and the two of us. Indiana Jane and I lit a few candles. As we walked around the house we both remarked at the large number of decorative candles in pretty much every room. Most of them had never been lit. Indiana Jane and The Professor convinced their mom that now was the time. When we were finished we appeared to have the only house for miles with electricity. As the warm glow of the soft candlelight cast shadows onto the front lawn, the five us us sat on the sofa and talked quietly, smiling as we occasionally looked around the room at what we had done. That's my favorite memory of this house.
Thursday, July 24, 2008
After getting the trout into the oven I'd put a pot of water on the stove. Once it began to boil, I'd go out to the garden and grab an ear of corn, shucking it on the way, until there was a trail of husks leading to the back door. I'd drop the ear of corn into the boiling water and wait somewhat impatiently until dinner was ready.
I've mentioned that I go a little nuts when I find something I like to do. I was subscribing to a few gardening magazines at the time, and one of the articles I read mentioned that corn kernels were full of natural sugar when on the stalk. Once picked the sugar began converting into starch, which meant the fresher the corn, the sweeter the taste. The author of that article was not wrong. That was the sweetest corn I've ever had.
If I started everything correctly, the trout and corn were ready at the same time. Light, flaky trout accompanied by garden fresh corn on the cob is simple, tasty, and one of the best meals I've ever had.
Wednesday, July 23, 2008
I haven't fished in years. I'm the type of person that goes a little nuts when I find something I like to do. The last time I fished on a regular basis was when I was living in the desert town of El Centro, California. El Centro is a farming community in the Imperial Valley, and although it is in fact in the middle of the desert, the valley is green because the farmers there are able to irrigate their crops by diverting water from the Colorado river. The irrigation canals were full of large mouth bass, and I fished the canals six days a week with my buddy Curtis. The one day each week that wasn't devoted to bass fishing found us about a hundred miles away on Mount Julian, fishing for rainbow trout on Lake Cuyamaca.
We went every Wednesday for about a year. We'd leave El Centro at five in the morning, and arrive at the marina on Lake Cuyamaca a few minutes before the ranger station opened at seven. On spring mornings there was usually a thick fog over the cool water; in the winter the park surrounding the lake was covered by a blanket of snow. Personal watercraft weren't allowed on the lake, so for twenty dollars we'd rent a small john boat with an ancient 5hp Evinrude from the rangers and head out.
They stocked the lake with rainbow trout on Tuesdays, by the time Curtis and I arrived the next day the trout were acclimated to their new surroundings and ready to eat. We'd catch our limit of five each by noon, turn the boat in, clean the fish (rainbow trout are ridiculously easy to clean), and settle in for a nice lunch at the marina restaurant. By one o'clock we were back on the road, headed to El Centro.
We were good fishing partners, both of us quiet anglers with little or no need for conversation once we were out on the water. Curtis was Chippewa, and had the reverent sensibility most Native Americans share when it comes to the outdoors. With peaceful surroundings and a silent nature, it's easy to get lost in your own thoughts; almost like being in a trance. One morning when we were out on the lake Curtis whispered my name (later he told me that he'd said my name five times before it registered); because of the whisper I had the presence of mind to move slowly. I looked at Curtis, and with the slightest nod of his head, he motioned toward the shore. I turned my head until I could follow his line of sight, and saw a mountain lion at the waters' edge, taking a cool drink. We stared at it for perhaps ten or twelve seconds, until the second sense possessed by most living things kicked in. It felt us looking at it, and briefly returned our gaze before turning on its haunches and bounding up to the top of the hill, disappearing over the rise, covering a distance of about thirty yards in just a few leaps and bounds.
Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Monday through Friday I'd get up at six and walk to my first job, getting to the grocery store by seven so I could buff the floors and help prepare for the eight am opening. I'd work until noon bagging groceries, then walk to school for my afternoon classes. School let out around three thirty, and from there I'd walk to the fast food joint and flip burgers from four in the afternoon until ten at night. I'd usually be able to catch a ride home from there, where I'd change clothes and go for a four mile run. During the day I did hundreds of push ups and sit ups whenever I had a few minutes to spare at one of my jobs. Weekends were a blast, as I only had to work for eight hours or so each day, and had the rest of the time to myself.
About half way through the school year I bought a used truck from one of my friends. This gave me loads of free time, so I filled some of it by lifting weights three times a week. By the time graduation rolled around, I was doing 250 sit ups every day, and many, many push ups. I'd do a quick hundred push ups when I rolled out of bed in the morning, and then do 75 clapping push ups in the afternoon, before I clocked in at my second job. At night, after I finished my four mile run, I'd do 50 one-handed push ups, each hand, before jumping in the shower and getting ready for bed at around midnight. I would also on occasion challenge one of my friends to a push up contest. I should have looked like a young Adonis, but in fact still had love handles and a layer of baby fat. Today I can barely do ten regular push ups.
I graduated and took a low paying job working about eighty hours a week. I stopped exercising completely for six months, then the truck broke down and I replaced it with a ten speed bicycle. It was exactly nineteen miles from the apartment I rented to where I worked, and I was back in shape in no time. Another six months went by, I reached burnout, quit my job and stayed in my apartment for a month, learning to play the guitar.
For the next seven years I played the guitar for a minimum of three hours a day, no excuses. For instance: A few times I went straight from work to hang out with some friends. We'd stay out late, and I'd get home at around three am. I had to be up at six in order to make it in to work on time, but since I had not yet practiced the guitar, I'd pull it out of the case and play until it was time to get ready for work. Now, unless I have a gig, I can go an entire week and not even pick up the guitar.
Monday, July 21, 2008
(C) John D. Loudermilk
They took the whole Cherokee nation,
Put us on this reservation,
Took away our ways of life,
The tomahawk and the bow and knife,
Took away our native tongue,
And taught their English to our young,
And all the beads we made by hand,
Are nowadays made in Japan,
Cherokee people, Cherokee tribe,
So proud to live, so proud to die,
They took the whole Indian nation,
Locked us on this reservation,
Though I wear a shirt and tie,
I'm still part redman deep inside,
Cherokee people, Cherokee tribe,
So proud to live, so proud to die,
But maybe someday when they learn,
Cherokee nation will return, will return, will return, will return, will return.
Like many East Texas boys, I've got a little Cherokee blood in me. Not enough, perhaps, to lay claim to being a "Native American", but enough to be very proud of that part of my heritage. I've always identified with the native people, and as a small child never wanted to play the part of the cowboy during our neighborhood make believe shoot-em-ups.
I had just turned eleven when Paul Revere and the Raiders made "Indian Reservation" a hit song. It resonated deep inside me, like many good songs do, but had the added element of connecting with me in a way no other song had connected before. It spoke to an ancient part of me, and at once I was proud and a little sad.
Friday, July 18, 2008
What an eye opener. The real estate agents that attended our open house demonstrated why our particular agent is tops in her field:
They left the garage door open (our garage is currently filled with antiques), the back gate open, all of the closet and several of the cabinet doors open, basically just trashed the house while we were away for a few days. Most of the comment cards read as if they were filled out by slow witted third graders (a real example: "Too much small").
What happened to us? It used to be that most people took pride in their work and tried to do a good job. Now, all you have to be is adequate (not talking about our realtor, she was great) and you stand head and shoulders above most of your competition. Everyone else seems to be out for the fast, easy buck.
Thursday, July 17, 2008
"I do the dishes about once a week," said Irv. Dave mentioned that he too, did the dishes about once a week, sometimes twice. Having moved into an apartment a few months before, I felt compelled to join the discussion.
"I do the dishes everyday."
Dave and Irv were amazed, and asked me to repeat myself, in case they misheard.
"Yeah, I do the dishes everyday."
There was real admiration on their faces until I mentioned that I did most of the cooking, too. Sort of like when you were a kid and you realized that Superman didn't exist after all. Then it hit me. We were having two different conversations.
"Oh. Ya'll meant Doin' The Dishes. Hell, I haven't even had a girlfriend for at least a year."
The three of us stared quietly into the fire, two married guys and an bachelor, each of us probably thinking what an idiot I was.
Wednesday, July 16, 2008
Many people have the mistaken belief that the Ashe Juniper is a foreign species, brought here between eighty and fifty years ago, depending on who you talk to. The truth is, they're a native species, mostly confined to box canyons until about a hundred years ago when European settlers first started trying to tame the Hill Country. Before this part of the world became populated year round, Mother Nature would unleash an occasional fire to keep them in check. When the towns and farms started popping up, we kept the fires in check, and the Ashe Junipers took over.
It's a touchy issue. One endangered species depends on the bark of the Ashe Juniper for survival, several others are being edged out of existence because of the Juniper's thirst. The trees are ideally suited to drought conditions, going dormant during dry spells and greedily sucking up every drop of precious water they can get during the wet season. They proliferate until the rest of the native plant life is squeezed out. The iconic Live Oak tree often falls victim to the dense population of Juniper.
Yesterday I heard about the owner of a chain of fast food restaurants. He told his realtor he wanted the worst thousand acres in the Texas Hill Country. The realtor delivered, and soon the fast food king was the proud owner of a Juniper forest. He immediately began clearing his acreage, and now has six natural springs on his property, the precious life-giving liquid bubbling up from the once parched earth.
We've got a few Junipers on our property, down by the creek. The previous owner cleared most of them already, leaving only the ones that were hardest to reach. We'll do a little more research before removing them.
Tuesday, July 15, 2008
I was the first one there, of course, and killed time by wandering around the perimeter of the building, wondering if I'd ever be famous enough to get a gig at a place that size. I rounded a corner and saw the opening for the underground bus barn. As I considered (and then rejected) the idea of walking into the building, a Buffalo Springfield bus pulled up beside me, the air brakes hissing as it came to a stop. I glanced around, but did not see anyone else nearby. When I turned my attention back to the bus the doors opened, and the first person off was Bob Dylan.
About twenty people materialized out of thin air, asking Bob for his autograph, some pestering him with questions, others professing their undying love and devotion. The best way to describe what happened next is to say that Bob just shrank, crawling into himself like a nervous turtle. He remained silent as he signed the scraps of paper thrust towards him, nodding his head to the noise of his fans, or maybe just keeping time to a song that only he could hear. I was not one of the autograph seekers. I merely observed, believing with the conviction of a babe in the woods that someday I would meet Bob on equal footing.
"Will," he'd say. "I really like your songs."
Later that night when Bob took the stage, he was a much more animated version of his previous self.
"Hey, how's everybody doin', (mumble, unintelligible) alright!"
Bob was excited, and plowed into his catalog with the fervor and energy of a child evangelist on a caffeine jag. He is notorious for changing the arrangements of his songs, and at one point in the evening, three quarters of the way through a tune that no one in the audience had so far recognized, it hit us; he was playing "Blowin' In The Wind."
You haven't lived until you've seen over twenty thousand people simultaneously fumbling for their lighters, anxious to add their personal ray of light to a song that changed their lives, and perhaps, the world.
Monday, July 14, 2008
Minimalist by nature, out of the seventeen times that I've changed cities, I've given away most of my household goods on at least a dozen occasions. Most of the time I'd leave with nothing but my guitar, a few clothes shoved into a suitcase, and a couple of boxes of books, music (Lp's, tapes, Cd's), and song lyrics, and a handful of keepsakes. My wife, on the other hand, has saved damn near everything she's ever laid her sentimental hands on, from the time she was about six years old. I can already feel the first twinge of lower back pain.
Friday, July 11, 2008
Christmas was sometimes a pretty tough holiday when I was a kid. My stepfather worked as a union electrician, and went on strike every two or three years. Santa never skipped our home, but I did notice that some years he was considerably less generous than others. Occasionally the season was pretty good.
One year, when I was about ten, my mom woke me up in the middle of the night.
"Wanna know what you got for Christmas?!"
I had already figured out the deal with Santa, and excitedly agreed to this rare privilege. Mom grew up poor, and on her best Christmas probably received less than her children did on our worst. This year Christmas was especially good, and Mom was so happy she just had to tell someone. We snuck out of the room I shared with two of my brothers, and Mom showed me some of the toys I was getting. I couldn't believe my luck. It was the best Christmas yet, gift-wise. Mom let me play quietly with one of the toys for a few minutes, then it was back to bed so that she could re wrap my presents and hide them until Christmas morning.
Mom was a kid when she had me. Married at eighteen and a new mother at nineteen, looking back I marvel at what a kid she was for most of my childhood. She was and is a great mom, but when I become impatient, and start focusing on the destination rather than the journey, I remember that I come by it honestly.
Thursday, July 10, 2008
My friend Stosh was with us that night. His real name was Chris. A year earlier, when I transferred in to the squadron and was getting to know everyone, someone told me that "Stosh" was Polish for "a good man". I still don't know if that's true, but it certainly fit Chris. He was one of the best guys that anyone could hope to meet.
People were throwing their hats on stage. Willie would pick one up, wear it for a few minutes, and then toss it back out into the crowd. I was wearing the only cowboy hat I owned, a beat-up straw Stetson that was bent, ragged, and sported a bullet hole in the crown from my first time shooting a pistol. I was twenty and thought it would be cool to have a hat with a bullet hole in it. Stosh turned to me and said he was going to propose to his girlfriend. I congratulated him, but didn't really know what to do or say beyond that, so in an attempt to let Stosh know I shared in his happiness, I announced that I would toss my hat on the stage as a celebration of this new milestone in his life.
It flew onto the stage like a Frisbee, almost as beat-up as Willie's guitar, Trigger. He placed it on his head and left it there for a couple of songs, before taking it off and whipping it back into the crowd.
"We have to get it back! That's your hat, man."
What have I done, I wondered. Stosh was right. We saw the area the hat landed in and worked our way through the crowd. We found the couple that got my hat. They were in their early fifties, life long Willie Nelson fans, and weren't about to give it up.
"I'll take real good care of it, son." He was a big man, and looked me in the eye with sincerity.
There was nothing else to do. Stosh and I walked back to where the rest of our group was waiting for us. It's been over twenty years, and I've never owned another cowboy hat.
Wednesday, July 9, 2008
This is the part of the business that really turns my stomach. I'm shy by nature, and sometimes find myself being overly modest as a way of compensating for the self promotion required to stay gainfully employed. The last thing I'd like to be known for is conceit. A few years ago I found a workable solution. This is a verbatim sample of the bio I sent out to several venues:
Blah blah blah. Hype! Blah blah blah blah blah. Hype! Hype hype hype! Major name dropping. Hype!
Then I added a few made up quotes. This one was my favorite:
This guy is gonna be huge!
Weight Watchers Magazine
My instincts were right, and a wonderful thing happened. Nearly every venue that received a bio hired me. I'd call a week after getting it mailed out, and once I got the booker on the phone the first part of the conversation would go like this:
"Hi, this is Willie Atkinson, I..."
"Man, I love your bio! When can you play?"
I only sent the bio to ten venues, and nine of them hired me. It may be time to start using it again.
Tuesday, July 8, 2008
Monday, July 7, 2008
Years later I was an extra in the movie "Rough Riders." One day I passed Sam Elliott on my way to the makeup trailer to get a haircut (I was supposed to be in the Army) and he smiled, his deep voice booming.
"Good morning, sir."
That was the first thing I learned on set, that Sam Elliott was a regular guy, and polite. The second thing I learned is that Mike's advice was right on the money.
There were two food lines, one for the extras and another for the cast and crew. The extras were fed baloney sandwiches and store brand potato chips. When I saw that, I remembered Mike's advice and strolled over to the line outside the catering truck. They were serving a choice of a steak lunch, or grilled swordfish with a mango salsa. I stood in line with the actors and crew and feigned boredom. Occasionally I'd look at my watch and sigh, as if I couldn't believe that I actually had to stand in line. When my turn at the window came I ordered the swordfish and walked back over to the table where some of my fellow extras were sitting.
When the inevitable questions about my upgraded meal were asked, I explained my friend Mike's philosophy of looking like you belonged. The next day two of the other extras joined me in line. They were both nervous, and it showed. Furtively they stole glances before averting their eyes back to the ground. They whispered to each other a few times, with terrified expressions. After a few minutes one of the crew approached them.
"You guys are extras, right? This line is for actors and crew only."
My would be compatriots scuttled off to the other chow line, with baloney on stale bread in their immediate future. I looked at the crew member that busted them and smiled a bemused smile, while shaking my head as if to say,
"Can you believe those guys?"
The crew member smiled at me and walked away. I ordered the steak, medium.
Friday, July 4, 2008
Thursday, July 3, 2008
Now the girls are in college and we're putting the house on the market. In the last few weeks I've been a painter, landscaper, plumber, janitor, furniture mover and electrician. My least favorite was my experience as a plumber, which resulted in a face full of scalding hot water.
I enjoyed the landscaping. It gets brutally hot and humid in this part of Texas, and the outside spaces have suffered from my neglect. Yesterday I spent four hours pulling weeds, trimming roses and hacking away at the wisteria. Soaked in sweat, sore from using muscles I haven't used in a while, the rhythm of the work invited daydreaming. Tomorrow I'll finish up the landscaping and our home will be a showplace once again, ready to lure the next buyer. An open house is like being on a first date. The house is dressed a little better than usual, not a hair out of place, and on its best behavior.
We'll miss our friends and neighbors, but we're ready for a change. My wife has been in this house for eleven years, the longest she's been in one place during her adult life. We'll have a new place to explore, new people to meet, new friends to make. Old friends will visit, and life will go on.
Wednesday, July 2, 2008
Many of my contemporaries are very talented at working the room when they are off-stage, and in fact, consider themselves to be onstage from the time they enter the venue until the time that they leave. They'll walk from table to table, introducing themselves to complete strangers and thanking them for coming out to the show. They'll mention their website, gather email addresses and phone numbers, offer to autograph Cd's and pose for photos.
I can be as gregarious as the next person when I'm on stage. I'll tell stories between songs, joke with the audience, and on a good night give a performance smooth enough to convince almost anyone that what I'm doing is the easiest thing in the world. As soon as I exit the stage the introvert takes over and I feel exposed. My eyes hit the floor, and I shuffle off to a corner of the room to steal glances at the crowd while wondering if I've made a complete fool of myself. If anyone approaches me off-stage with a kind word I'll mumble a thank you and try to extricate myself from the conversation as soon as possible. I'm sure that on more than one occasion someone has mistaken my shyness for conceit.
There are many like me, other singer/songwriters, actors, you name it. Many people are in the entertainment industry because they want to be "rich and famous", but some of us are in it because we've found that one thing that helps the world make sense for us, and we can't imagine life without it. For me it has always been music.
I used to ride my bicycle to school in the first grade and make up two songs on the way there. I thought everyone did it. When I got a little older I realized that making up songs was something kind of special, and assumed that I would one day be a writer of some sort. It felt right. It felt good. I've spoken with actors who've had a similar experience the first time they got roped into doing a school play. From the moment they started pretending, it made sense to them. In a strange way it helped them to feel more connected with other people.
That's what music is for me. A way to connect with my fellow human beings. When I got out of the Navy I moved to Austin, TX with the intent of becoming a professional songwriter. I imagined that the way I would become established as a tunesmith was that other musicians would hear my songs, record them, and once word got around I could just stay home and write songs full-time. So I started booking a few gigs and waited for the other musicians to beat a path to my door. One night I was playing in a club across town and noticed a table full of people who looked vaguely familiar. I leaned over and asked them where I'd seen them before and they replied that they'd heard me earlier in the week at a club on Sixth Street.
"What brings y'all to this side of town?"
"You mentioned that you would be playing here, so we came out."
For most entertainers this would be a wonderful thing to hear. It freaked me out. For some reason it had never occurred to me that anyone would see me as an entertainer. I was a writer, looking for someone else to be the front man. I had a few more gigs booked for the upcoming weeks. After I honored my commitments I did not perform in public for the next six years. I only came out of my self-imposed exile because I missed making that human connection.
Tuesday, July 1, 2008
Last Thursday I met with a friend that I sometimes co-write with. We threw a few ideas at each other, a verse here and a chorus there, pieces of inspiration that haven't yet made it to full-fledged song status. Today I was looking over all of the notes I took from that meeting and wound up with most of a song. I'm riding the coattails of my friend's muse on this one, so he'll have edit privileges and ultimately the final say on the completed tune, but it feels pretty damn good so far.
Many writers will tell you that they don't enjoy writing, but they do enjoy having written. In my case, once the words start flowing again there is nothing else like it. There have been far too many dry spells in the past for me to complain about the process. I started this blog last month to force myself to write something, anything, five days a week. I did it, and occasionally not without a few moments of mild panic when I realized that it was approaching midnight and I still didn't have a clue as to what the subject for the day was going to be. As a result, I've written almost twelve thousand words in the last month, and it feels good. Maybe no one is reading this, maybe no one will ever read it, but at the very least I have honed my writing skills a bit, especially when it comes to prose.
I've always wanted to write a novel, but the song form is hard wired into my brain. Give me the most convoluted plot you can think of, and chances are I can condense it down to a three and one half minute narrative, and it'll rhyme. Maybe you can even dance to it.
So now I've written prose for a month, and I can see how it's a real possibility for me to actually complete a novel.
Monday, June 30, 2008
Cal 20 sailboat. I'd usually get home around seven am, crawl into bed, and hear the doorbell ring at about seven thirty. "Hey man, you wanna go sailing?"
He kept the boat in the marina at Pleasure Island, near Port Arthur, TX. There were many refineries on the way to the marina; we had to drive a gauntlet of toxicity to get there. We'd stop at the marina store so Ray could get a six pack of Heineken beer, it was the brew of choice back on Grand Cayman and Ray was all about giving me an authentic experience. Once, as a joke, I paid ten bucks each for a couple of yachting hats and Ray and I did our best to try to out Thurston Howell the Third each other.
Once aboard we'd crank up the Jimmy Buffett cassettes, and Ray would teach me how to sail.
"Hoist the mains'l! Hoist the jib! Helms alee! Prepare to come about!"
That's pretty much all of the sailing terms I remember. We'd glide out beyond the jetties into the Gulf of Mexico, and I remain as amazed now as I was back then that you could move that fast with the wind as your only engine. It was thrilling and peaceful all at the same time, and as I became aware of the sound of the wind shoving against the sails and whistling through the rigging the music faded into the background, and I felt the serenity of an honest man at the end of a long days work.
Ray and I tried to figure out how to sail and listen to Jimmy Buffett for a living, but we were too chicken to smuggle. Ray was a newlywed, and his wife had deep roots in the Golden Triangle area of Texas, so moving someplace where the water was blue enough and the sand white enough to make a living running charters was also out of the question. So we'd sail until the late afternoon, and I'd get back to my little apartment and catch about three hours of sleep before I made the drive into work. The next morning Ray would ring my doorbell, and off we'd go again.
Friday, June 27, 2008
"Hey man, you wanna go to the beach?"
I always want to go to the beach. Larry told me to grab my guitar and enough clothes for two days, but wouldn't tell me where we were going. I assumed he'd snagged a beach cabin for the weekend, and a few minutes later the little duplex I was renting was locked up and we were on the road.
We headed east. There's a line in an old Jimmy Buffett song, "I'd never been west, to New Orleans, or east of Pensacola," and I'd never been west of Galveston, or east of Mamou, Louisiana, but I knew that was going to change on this trip. Larry's lips were sealed, and a few hours later he announced that we were going to make a stop in New Orleans. It was Larry's first time this far east as well, but we found Bourbon Street without a problem.
It was an eye opener, both of us lapsed Baptist boys in a town full of people that clearly loved to party. We made our way down the south side of the street, barkers standing near the front doors, trying to entice us to enter the various strip clubs. "Free head with every beer," one yelled. That dude's voice even sounded nasty, and we declined. We passed several street musicians. On an opposite corner two guys with guitars were playing "Dueling Banjos". We kept going until we ran out of clubs, and crossed the street to check out the other side. About twenty minutes later we passed the guitar players. They were still playing "Dueling Banjos." We noticed that they had a few bucks in bills and change in an open guitar case.
"You know more songs than that. Let's go get your guitar."
I'd been playing for about a year at this point, and had recently bragged to Larry about how good I'd gotten. I couldn't back down now, so with butterflies in my stomach I followed Larry to the car. I grabbed the guitar and we headed back to Bourbon. We set up a respectful distance from the other musicians, and I closed my eyes and began to play and sing. In those early years I squeezed my eyes shut tight whenever I performed, even if I was completely alone. I just felt too vulnerable when I sang, and had not yet learned how to disassociate myself from the emotions of the song. Now I wish I'd never learned how to disconnect.
I performed on Bourbon Street for about an hour, until Larry nudged me and said we needed to grab a beer and get back on the road. When I opened my eyes I saw several bills and a lot of change in the bottom of my guitar case. We stopped inside a bar and ordered a beer. There was a guy on stage playing John Denver songs. I love John Denver, but his music seemed strangely out of place in this party town. We heard two and a half songs before the musician took a break, and when he got off stage I asked if I could play a couple of songs. I was feeling confident from my earlier performance on the street corner.
I played the most up tempo songs I could think of, and the tip jar on the stage began to fill up with ones. After I finished the musician offered to split the tips with me, but I declined. It felt wrong to take the money, like it would have been an acknowledgement that I'd showed him up in his own town. He thanked me, and Larry and I left the bar and hit the road.
"Man, that was great! Do you know how much money you made?"
I counted the money I pulled from the guitar case, and it was almost twenty dollars. When I gave Larry the total he shook his head and laughed.
"You had your eyes closed the whole time. Whenever there started to be more than a few bills in the case I was afraid we'd get robbed, so I started taking most of them."
Larry reached into the right front pocket of his jeans and pulled out a wad of ones, with a few fives and a ten dollar bill mixed in. I'd made over two hundred bucks! I was exhilarated, thinking for the first time in my life that it was going to be easy to play music for a living.
Larry wouldn't give me any real clues as to our final destination, just that our next stop would be as far east as we would go. Before too long I heard the clicking of the turn signal on Larry's car. We were in Biloxi, Mississippi, and drove along the Gulf of Mexico until we found a cheap motel. We checked in and went up on the deck to watch the setting sun make the crests of the waves sparkle like jewels. I still had one more song in me, and as I began to sing, Larry joined in with me, both of us sporting triumphant grins:
"Juuust, sit right back and you'll hear a tale,
A tale of a fateful trip,
That started on a tropic voyage,
Aboard this tiny ship.."
That's right, we sang the theme song to Gilligan's Island, two young men on our first road trip, exploring the world beyond our home.
Thursday, June 26, 2008
A friend wanted me to sing at her wedding, and asked that I write a special song for the occasion. She gave me about six months advance notice, and would call once a month to see how the song was coming along. "Almost done," I'd say. "Just doing a little tweaking." The truth was, I had not even started the song because I had a little writer's block.
A few days before I needed to leave for Green Bay, Wisconsin to perform at the ceremony, I hopped in my car and started driving north, because I was desperate and remembered that I had started some of my best songs while driving. I was living in Nashville, TN at the time, and about an hour later, having crossed the state line into Kentucky, I got a few ideas and turned the car around. By the time I pulled into my driveway, the lyrics were done and I only needed to work it out on the guitar. Two days later I drove to Green Bay.
Annette's fiance met me in town, and I followed him back to their place. That night Annette's sisters and her friend Mary cornered me and demanded to hear the song. "We don't want to cry during the ceremony," they explained. "It will ruin our make-up." The song was about love, of course, but also mentioned loss, as Annette's mother had died recently from a sudden illness. Her fiance had also lost a parent, and the girls cried during that first performance, vowing to be strong during the ceremony.
The day of the wedding came, and the bride's sisters (Tina and Kim) and best friend Mary were dolled up in all of their chiffoned finery. I took my place near the bridesmaids, and during the appropriate time started fingerpicking the opening bars to the song. The girls were doing great, not a misty eye among them. Then I got to the verse about loss, and I heard Kim's urgent whisper to Tina.
"Look at Dad!"
We had forgotten to prepare the widower, and who could blame us? He looked to be more bear than man. He was a big guy, well over six feet tall, barrel chested, bearded, tough looking. He was also in tears. The bridesmaids lost it, and began to cry. There was also a catch in my voice, but I recovered and finished the song.
Wednesday, June 25, 2008
Around that time the local radio stations started playing a song called "You've Got A Lover" by Shake Russell. Wow! Here was someone else in the world that knew exactly how I felt. I was still bummed out about my situation, and too shy to do anything about it, but some of the sting was gone. I was not alone.
"You've got a lover, but it's not me,
He can't love you like I can,
There will be others yes I understand,
Will they love me, like you can."
Several years went by and I was introduced to Shake at a party. We eventually became friends and did a few shows and wrote a few songs together. I've never told him how his song helped me through that rough time in my life. Shake's a modest person, maybe even shyer than I ever was, and I don't want to embarrass him. Still, it would be nice if he knew.
That was an old school, pre-Internet connection. Now things are a bit easier. A few clicks of the mouse and you can go around the world a few times, courtesy of the links pages on some of your favorite websites. Six degrees of separation is now closer to three or four. Thanks to the Internet old friends have gotten in touch with me, I've heard great music that was inaccessible before, and made connections with good people whose path I may never have crossed otherwise. Today I received a nice greeting and a compliment from a Portuguese playwright with a generous spirit. Someday I hope to attend a play written by my new friend.
Tuesday, June 24, 2008
My wife, a Minnesota girl, has never been crabbing. This came up earlier today when we shelled out ten bucks for a pound of snow crab legs at the supermarket. It shamed me a little, reminding me of how far removed I've become from the food I eat. Degree of difficulty is no excuse. Comedians like to point out that fishing is barely a sport. Crabbing is easier. One of the first things I remember being able to out-smart were blue crabs, and as I think about it now I realize that besides being a great excuse to get outdoors, crabbing offers up a neat little life lesson, as the greed of the crab and the patience of the angler are both required to have a successful outing.
Chicken necks are the bait of choice for most recreational crabbers; we'd tie these to a piece of string and wait for it to twitch. Once we felt that little bit of pressure on the other end of the line, we'd slowly pull the string out of the water, until we could see the crab emerge from the murky depths below. The crab's appearance was our cue to stealthily move the net behind the crab, out of its field of vision so as not to spook it, and then into the ice chest it went. This method works because crabs are gluttonous little crustaceans, and will not let go of a tasty morsel until their beady insectile eyes register an imminent threat.
Of course, now it's a good idea to check water quality levels before availing yourself of nature's bounty. Around the time that I was putting my first organic garden to bed, one of my little brothers was fishing in the canal behind our house. One of the refineries discharged something into the water, and moments later every fish in the canal simultaneously floated belly up. "Well," my brother thought, "I guess I won't be fishing here anymore."
Monday, June 23, 2008
Two weeks later Ron got the flu. When he finally made it back into work, he looked pale and sounded rough. Not one to pass up an opportunity to be an ass to my friends, I teased Ron a little bit.
"You must be really frustrated."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, you go to the gym, you eat healthy, you don't smoke and got a flu shot, but still got sick. On the other hand, I don't go to the gym, I smoke, I eat junk food and didn't get a flu shot, and I feel great!"
Fast forward to last night. Despite the occasional donut or order of fries, I eat pretty healthy. If there is an option, I'll shell out the extra bucks and go organic every time. Last night I prepared a dinner of organic baked potato and organic, free range chicken thighs, baked on a rack with the skin removed so that the fat could drain. I started feeling queasy soon after the meal, and went to bed earlier than usual. A few moments later I was in the bathroom, my body rejecting (and ejecting) the free range organic chicken with extreme prejudice.
I was up every hour on the hour until about eight this morning, and spent most of the day in and out of consciousness. Whatever it was, a bad 24 hour virus or a touch of salmonella, I am back to feeling like myself, and remembering how I teased poor Ron and why I believe in karma.
Friday, June 20, 2008
The reason I ask is, I've noticed over the last few years that my fellow Christians seem to be getting meaner and meaner. I found a website today that inferred that the reason the average age of death for rock stars was 36.9 years was because "The fear of the LORD prolongeth days:but the years of the wicked shall be shortened." Now, that is in my old version, it's Proverbs 10:27, but I don't see anything in the Bible that categorized all musicians as wicked. This website lumped every musician on it's list into the wicked category, including Harry Chapin, a man who devoted most of his time and money to causes like ending world hunger. I seem to remember reading something about Jesus feeding a few people, too.
This website (I'm not linking to it, I don't want to give them any help spreading their poison) and so many others like it are keeping more people out of church than the Devil himself. God only knows why they are on that particular path. Maybe it's because the politicians have gotten involved.
My country has hammered it into our heads that it's patriotic to be a Christian. That would probably work out great if we were talking about upholding the Golden Rule, but we aren't really that different than so many other countries around the world that have used God's name to commit some of the most horrible acts in history. We've lost more American lives (men and women, sons and daughter, wives and husbands) in Iraq than we did on 9/11. If you still believe that Iraq was connected to 9/11 you probably did not get this far down in the post, which brings us to perhaps the main problem: I'm preaching to the choir. We all spend more time talking with those of us with a like mind than to those with opposing viewpoints, for the simple reason that it's hard to stay calm when someone you otherwise admire believes something so foreign to your experience, and way of thinking. Tempers flare, and we lose it. Bush got re-elected because the Republican Party appealed to our lowest nature. FDR said we had nothing to fear but fear itself. Bush said "Boo!" and by falling for that tactic, we got what we deserved. Buddhists everywhere are laughing at us.
I think we need to work on our self-esteem, because I believe we deserve better. Not as a nation, but as human beings.
Thursday, June 19, 2008
It took four of us an additional five days to travel down the Ohio, then up the Cumberland back to Nashville. We navigated through several locks and saw parts of the country that only a very few ever get to lay eyes on. Many stretches of river were completely uninhabited, and on one night in particular our little riverboat was the only source of man-made light for miles and miles.
We were on the Captain Anne, the smaller of our two vessels. The Anne was a two deck paddle wheel driven boat, with a wooden ship's wheel for steering. There was a pilothouse on top of the second deck, and on the night we were the farthest from civilization, I climbed on top of the pilothouse roof and lay on my back to do some stargazing. I could see billions of lights, the dark velvet sky the perfect backdrop for stars that looked like diamonds. It was an ideal setting to contemplate where I was in life, and where I hoped to go. I had just returned from an amazing experience in Europe, with audiences that treated musicians like professionals, instead of unrealistic dreamers. While I knew that I might not have been able to have this experience if I had not moved to Nashville, it was obvious to me, and had been for a long time, that I was too far out of the mainstream to make it as a writer or as an artist in the country music capitol. I missed Texas, and knew that the music scene there was a much better fit for me.
A few days later, on a crisp October evening we pulled into our dock at Riverfront Park in downtown Nashville. It was something I'd done hundreds of times, and suddenly I felt as if I no longer belonged. I was going home to Texas.
Wednesday, June 18, 2008
The other activity the canal was good for was testing our home built boats. The abundance of scrap wood in our blue collar neighborhood, coupled with the childlike enthusiasm and lack of any real skills we brought to the task, guaranteed wet bottoms and stern lectures about drowning from our worried mother after each and every launch. This was a woman constantly terrified that at least two of her five children would never make it to the teenage years, much less adulthood, and with good reason. Not a single one of our boats stayed above water for more than a few minutes.
Despite the dire assurances that you could indeed drown in two inches of water, we all made it to legal age. I probably haven't talked to any of my brothers about boats since I was twelve, but whatever possessed me then to set off into the great unknown upon a vessel of my own making is still alive and well and living in my soul this very day.
There is now a world of boat building knowledge at my fingertips, and I have lusted in my seafaring heart over many a fine craft built in garages and barns all over the planet. There are many websites devoted to building one's own boat, and I have allowed myself to become paralyzed by choice. Do I want a canoe or a sailboat? Do I build something fast and dirty or do I bite the bullet and spend the time and money required to make something that will last?
I suspect that I will start with the down and dirty, something of my own design, for the simple pleasure of putting something in the water that will hopefully last long enough to get in one or two afternoons of fun.
I can see myself pushing off from the beach, waiting for just the right break in the waves while my wife paces nervously, cell phone in hand and finger poised above the "send" button, having already punched in the number for the Coast Guard. Ah, but bad boat building makes strong swimmers, and she need not worry. Down and dirty or built to last, I'll always return to shore.
Tuesday, June 17, 2008
I'm usually adventurous, although most people mistake my willingness to have new experiences as bravery. It isn't that I don't have respect for the fragility of life, I'm not stupid. I don't put myself in harm's way. I also don't sit at home and wish that something good would happen to me. Most of us need to make things happen. We have to be the catalyst for change.
One of the adventurous things I did that the people in my life often misconstrue as bravery is show up for a month-long gig in Switzerland with twenty US dollars in my pocket, and nothing more. This was not a fearless move. Part of my compensation for performing in the Casino de Montreux was a nice apartment to stay in and two square meals a day. Payday was on the fifteenth of the month, so all I had to worry about was selling enough of the cassette tapes I slapped together at the last minute to keep myself in cigarettes, chocolate and pastry. I never went without.
That was an adventurous time in my life. The dream gig was preceded by a move to Nashville a year earlier. I left all of my friends, all of my familiar haunts, to find out if I had what it took to be a staff writer for any of the major music publishers. After a few months I realized that my material was too far out of the mainstream to induce any serious interest from the handful of companies that paid enough of a draw to live on. I wasn't willing to compromise the songs I had already written, or the songs I would one day write, in order to fit inside an arbitrary mold that many in the music business based their careers on. I stayed two years after that realization because I loved the energy of the town, and I had a fun day job. I was a deckhand on a paddle wheel riverboat during the daytime sightseeing cruises, and at night I was one of the entertainers. I was surrounded by other musicians. My time in Nashville marked one of the most prolific periods I have ever experienced as a songwriter.
Last week we received a postcard from Indiana Jane. It read, in part, "I'm having the time of my life! No regrets!" Today, when we picked her up at the airport, she repeated that statement. Now she has some amazing stories to tell for the rest of her life.
Monday, June 16, 2008
There was a young teenager at the door, asking if we needed someone to cut our grass. I could see his lawnmower on the street near the mailbox. He was shirtless but polite, and obviously on foot, so I knew that he must live nearby. I said yes and he got to work.
He was small, and looked to be about twelve years old. I later found out that he was fourteen, and saving his money to buy a game console. He was soft spoken and did a passable job. After he was finished I had him come inside to meet my wife. I told him not to be afraid of the dogs; they like to jump up on people as a greeting, but are very sweet animals. We made arrangements to have him come once a week.
I've never been prejudiced. I don't judge on appearance or background, and tend to give everyone I meet the benefit of the doubt. Some friends of ours in the neighborhood mentioned that there was a gang living in the house across the street from them. This information was passed on by a police detective that knocked on their door a few months ago to ask them a few questions about their new neighbors. It never dawned on me that this polite young man could be living in the "gang house", as it has come to be known. A few hours later my wife remembered the story about the gangsters, and asked me if we should be concerned.
Today I was having coffee with my friends, and asked them to point out the gang house. Sure enough, they pointed to the home that my new yard guy said he lived in. "Oh man, I can't believe you let him into your house!" They proceeded to catch me up on all the latest activity. There doesn't seem to be anyone in the house over the age of twenty one. The woman that lives next door to the gang house has had her windows broken on two occasions, she's found stolen motorcycles in her backyard that the police had to retrieve, and when she complained to the gangsters that both of their pit bulls were defecating in her yard, she came home the next day to find her front steps covered with dog shit. Recently there have been a number of cars pulling up to the house on weekends for a few seconds before roaring off. The general consensus is that the gangsters are probably selling drugs in our neighborhood, and as I've mentioned, it's a nice neighborhood.
I know that I'm naive sometimes, but from what I've heard this kid hasn't done anything wrong. It's the adults, or more correctly, the soon to be adults, that have caused all the problems. It could very well be that this young man has seen the direction the rest of his household is heading, and wants to walk the straight and narrow.
Or it could be that I've invited a junior gangster into our home and allowed him to make friends with our dogs.
Friday, June 13, 2008
When I was in the Navy my roommate J.T. and his girlfriend Monica wanted to do something special for my birthday. They discussed it for a few days, and decided that the best gift they could give me would be a memory. They were exactly right. We were temporarily stationed at the Marine base in Yuma, Arizona for the summer. On the night of my birthday they put me in the backseat of the car and blindfolded me. I rode in silence, grinning, listening for clues and trying to discover a hidden meaning behind every bump in the road.
After about twenty minutes the car stopped, and they helped me out of the backseat. Monica took my arm and led me for about fifty yards. I could hear the trunk of the car open, and then a few moments later, slam shut with an authoritative finality. I heard J.T. hurry by us a few moments later. My feet left the pavement after the first few steps, and I could feel soft grass beneath the soles of my shoes. "We're almost there," she said, the excitement in her voice making it hard not to rip the blindfold off, but that would have spoiled the surprise. We stopped walking, and Monica helped me sit.
She removed the blindfold, and there before me was the eighteenth hole of a local golf course, the target flag waving gently on top of the pole. Spread before us on the green was a blanket, three champagne glasses and a bottle of Asti Spumante, the long green neck leaning out of the top of a bucket of ice. That was twenty-three years ago and I still remember the brand. We talked and toasted each other until the bottle was gone, then continued our conversation under the brilliant, starlit summer sky until the sprinkler system kicked on, and the three of us ran, laughing, back to J.T.'s car.
I still haven't forgiven myself for losing touch with J.T. and Monica. People lose touch, it's a sad fact of life, but I can't help feeling that I should have tried harder. They split up just before I left the Navy. The last I heard J.T. had gone back to St. Louis. I know Monica is a fellow Texan, but I'm sure she has a different last name now. She was a beautiful girl and ready to settle down.
Maybe someday, through some miracle of this hyper connected world we now live in, J.T., Monica, and many others that had a hand in creating these wonderful memories I keep in my head will stumble across this blog and drop me a line.
Thursday, June 12, 2008
In the end, romance won out over sensibility, and we booked a side trip to Paris. Now we just need a place to stay. I'm pulling for a short-term apartment rental, because it's harder to imagine yourself living in an exotic locale when you are checked in to a hotel. I've always been more of a traveler than a tourist. I like to shop in the same places that the locals shop, eat in their neighborhood establishments, and in general just be someone else when I am there, wherever "there" may happen to be. It has always made the trip more enjoyable for me.
That's not to say that I won't snap some pics of the Eiffel Tower, or visit a museum, but it's a better journey when I can take my time and meander. I'll also drop off a few promo packs to several of the clubs in Paris, and am working on getting at least one gig for this trip.
In regards to the local cuisine, I'm a man in touch with his appetite, and as far as I'm concerned, France is my excuse to indulge in the three C's. I will be ingesting great quantities of croissants, cheese, and chocolate.
Wednesday, June 11, 2008
Research isn’t as easy as I hoped it would be, for there is an almost paralyzing number of websites out there for people interested in building green, and with the nature of Internet search engines it’s sometimes hard to separate the wheat from the chaff.I’ve spent most of my life trying to be as green as possible, and still have a life. When I was sixteen I planted an organic vegetable garden, mulched with hay to keep the water bill down. Of course, I was in Port Neches, Texas at the time, and the air, dirt, and groundwater was poisoned by decades of runoff and discharge from the nearby petrochemical plants. Looking back, I probably ingested more poison that harvest season than if I had just bought everything at the local grocery store.
Now we know better, at least most of us do. More and more average people are paying attention to where their food comes from, and how it was treated. I’ve been boring the hell out of my family and friends for the past five years or so that organic food was going to save the American family farm. Even supermarkets have organic alternatives now, and they are increasing the number of green items for sale on an almost weekly basis. My wife and I have been buying organic as much as we could for several years, and the first thing we noticed was that organic tastes better. A lot better. Most times it’s also much more nutritious.
Organic farmer’s markets are popping up all over the place, and the demand for green living is no longer limited to the pantry. Architects specialize in green design. Bamboo has become the wood (even though it’s a grass) of choice for flooring. More of us recycle. Electric cars are back in vogue, and this time it looks like they’ll be here to stay.
Our new home will have a rainwater catchment system, a gray water recovery system, passive solar hot water, solar panels, wind turbines, and will be constructed of as much natural material as possible. We’ll also have a greenhouse and a small orchard. In short, we plan to be as self-sufficient as we can without living like Trappist monks. We’ll still have the big TV, air conditioning (My wife is from Minnesota. She does not do sweaty.), and all the other modern amenities that make life grand. We just want to do it without adding to the problem.
Tuesday, June 10, 2008
I don’t mind, really. Bolivar will be waiting to greet me in early September, when you have all gone back to work and forgotten about her until next year. Did you take the ferry over from Galveston? I’ll bet you did. Did you get a little thrill when the captain blew the horn, announcing your departure from the dock? Did you get out of your vehicle and walk to the very front so that you could feel the salt spray in your face, and marvel at how much cooler the air is when you are out on the water? Seagulls are a dime a dozen, but the pelicans sure are something, huh? They look just like they are supposed to look, with the huge pouch under their bill, and that wise, seen it all look in their eyes. You probably saw a few pods of dolphins off of the bow, if you were paying attention. Now there’s a thrill for you! Did you hear the theme song to “Flipper” when you saw them? No? I guess that’s just me, then.
When the ferry approached Bolivar, and the captain asked you not to start your vehicle until the ferry was fully docked, did you get that mix of excitement with a little undertow of sadness? Happy to be on the peninsula, sad to leave the ferry? It’s a temporary feeling, because now the deckhand is waving you off, and you are speeding towards the beach.
There’s the lighthouse! It’s great to see the old girl, but she really needs a coat of paint, doesn’t she? Someone should do something about it. She’s privately owned now, but money is tight everywhere. If you knew the owners you could put them in touch with me, and I’d help stage a benefit concert to get the ball rolling.
You’ve passed the lighthouse now, and are looking for the turn that leads you to the beach. Almost any turn will do, because you can drive on the beach in Texas. The road I follow only has a handful of cabins on it, for now. My heart always flutters a bit when I make that right turn, windows down so that I can smell the salt air. My eyes widen with pleasure when I get close enough to see that first strip of green water sandwiched between the blue Texas sky and the golden sand.
It’s loud. I always forget that, and when my Jeep leaves the pavement and takes the sandy path between the dunes I can hear the waves rumbling onto the shore and I smile so much that my face begins to hurt a little. Does that happen to you?
A few hours, a few days, a few weeks even, and it’s already time to leave. I hope you made some good memories, found some interesting shells, maybe even a sand dollar, my personal favorite. When I was a very small boy you could find conch shells on the beach, but now you can only discover them in souvenir shops.
Now you’re back on the ferry, and before you know it you are underway. The seagulls are hovering above the stern, waiting for someone to toss them something tasty, the dolphins are racing you to the other side of the ship channel, and all too soon you are being reminded to not start your vehicle until the captain has fully docked in Galveston. Maybe you’ll stop at one last shop, or even drive slowly down a few of the side streets, wondering what it would be like to live in one of the old Victorian houses, before reality and your sense of responsibility takes over and you sigh before turning the vehicle back onto Broadway, getting one last glance at this jewel of an island through a veil of oleander leaves before you head over the causeway bridge to your life on the mainland. You’re a little browner, perhaps, well rested and centered, ready to tackle the world once more.
Monday, June 9, 2008
She’s old enough to be our mother, and treats us all like her favorite child. Merry Ellen is a serious fan of live music, particularly original music. A few months after we met I thought I should write a song for her, as a thank you to all the times she came out to hear me perform, usually with two or three Merry Ellen groupies in tow. Many times she was the reason I wasn't putting on a private show for the bartender.I wrote the song for purely unselfish reasons, and as it often happens with unselfish acts, I was rewarded many, many times over for having written the song. She's followed me to Nashville for gigs at the Bluebird Cafe, and once, in a serendipitous convergence of life and luck, she planned a trip to Europe with her son shortly before I got a gig playing in Montreux, Switzerland.
"Oh, David", she said, "Let's swing down to Montreux and see Willie on our way to Paris."
I wasn't really on their way to Paris, but he's a dutiful son, so David drove eight hundred miles out of his way to make his mom happy.
Well she sits there in the front row, where there’s room to tap her toes,
She’s the number one music fan, everybody knows,
She’s helped so many people, she’s the rock we all lean on,
She’s also soft and fuzzy, her name is Featherstone,
Merry Ellen will you come to hear me play tonight,
I’ve been working on a new song, I believe I’ve got it right,
I’ll sing all your favorites too, anything you say,
Merry Ellen will you come to hear me play.
She follows Shake and Jack, Michael Brim and Bill Ward too,
She’s even come to hear me and Dave Holder a time or two,
Bow Brannon, Terry Ridgeway, Gary Morris and Rusty Weir,
We all love it when somebody says, “Merry Ellen’s here,”
You can see her with the top down, hair blowin’ in the breeze,
On her way to who knows where, to hear some melodies,
If you’ve never had her spiced pecans you’re missing quite a treat,
Homemade by Merry Ellen, and almost as sweet,
Merry Ellen will you come to hear me play,
Merry Ellen will you come to hear me play.
Happy 79th birthday Merry Ellen!
Friday, June 6, 2008
I miss the triumvirate. About seven years ago two of my musician buddies, Michael and Brad, invited me out for Mexican food on a Sunday evening. We had such a good time, talking about the music business, and our lives in general, that we decided to make it a weekly thing. This was nice. One of the downsides to being a musician is that if you are working regularly, you never get a chance to listen to other musicians. You normally have a gig when they have a gig. Occasionally you’ll be on a double bill, and can hang out after the show, but more often than not you pack up your equipment at the end of the night and wind down any way you can.
For the next several months, we gathered at a little Mexican restaurant on Sunday evenings at around 6:30. The restaurant closed at eight, so we’d pay our bill and head over to another place that had a bar and stayed open until midnight. At the restaurant the three of us would talk about music, at the bar Brad and I would try to keep the conversation going while Michael would flirt with Tanya, the pretty young bartender. She wasn’t interested in any of us, but if anyone had a shot it was probably Brad, as he was a little closer to her age than Michael or I.
One night Michael’s advances were a little more aggressive than usual, and Tanya, while being a little trooper about it, was obviously starting to get a bit tired of the attention. At this point we’d been coming here for about three months, and through a few stray comments here and there, I had an idea that she was barely twenty-one, the oldest of her siblings, and had young parents. In a sudden flash of insight I asked,
“Tanya, how old is your dad?”
“Ohhhh, Michael! You’re three years older than her dad!”
Guys give each other grief all the time. That’s all I was doing then, giving my buddy a hard time and maybe giving Tanya a little relief as well. While Tanya certainly appreciated the result of my observation, I’m afraid my remark to Michael hit too close to home. In fact, he had a look on his face like I’d just punched him in the stomach. I still feel bad about that.
Michael got over the remark and the three of us continued on for several more months before I caved in and accepted a regular Sunday night gig at a sports bar a few miles down the road.
Thursday, June 5, 2008
I was scrounging around for new venues to play in Houston, Texas, and at one point picked up the yellow pages and dialed every number listed under the “Coffee Shops” heading. As I was booking myself into one of the java joints, the owner mentioned to me that she had a mostly lesbian clientele, and asked if that were a problem for me.
“I don’t think so. Lesbians like music, right?”
She assured me that they do, and we scheduled a show. Six weeks later I arrived and set up my equipment. I was early, so after sound check I had about a half hour to relax and get to know the young woman that was running the counter. She was really nice, and although she wouldn’t be around when I started to sing, I had a good feeling about the evening. If she was a good representation of the other lesbians, everything was going to be all right.
I started playing just as the crowd began to grow. I finished my first song to dead silence. About ninety percent of the crowd consisted of lesbians on dates, and as I thanked them for coming out (to the show, not their parents) they just stared at me. I started the second song, and everyone in the room began talking to their tablemates. I finished the second song with a flourish, and was again rewarded with dead silence and blank stares.
One of the perks to doing this for a living is that even if the audience doesn’t really “dig” you, they are going to be polite and offer at least a smattering of perfunctory applause. How many professions get an ovation of any kind, standing or otherwise? Can you imagine clapping when your CPA saves you a few bucks on your taxes? And what about when things are going great? No one ever tries to get a chemist’s autograph, or pose for a photo with the guy that sold them a reliable used car.
This group was not polite. I received no smattering of applause, not even a sarcastic comment. They just stared when I spoke, and talked when I sang. They hated me, and it was a little unnerving. I would have preferred to be booed.
It was a three set gig. Forty-five minutes per set, with a fifteen minute break in between. In the middle of the second set I’d had enough, and sang a song I’d written a few years earlier, but never performed. This song is called “Lesbians In Love”, and although the lyrics poke fun at a clueless guy that has the hots for a lesbian, I was certain that the song would piss my lesbians off. I finished the song to a thunderous response. They loved it! Not only that, but nineteen separate lesbians got up from their tables and walked to the stage, each dropping a buck or so in the tip jar!
Okay, I thought. Finally! I broke the ice and I can now enjoy the rest of the gig.
Not so. The lesbians immediately went back to talking amongst themselves while I sang. They continued to stare at me blankly when I spoke. I turned on the charm, and they were immune. Impervious. Cold.
So the third set I did what every musician in the history of modern music has longed to do after the gig from hell. I sang my heart out. I closed my eyes and played for me. I performed the entire last set of the evening with my back to the audience. I'm not speaking in metaphor. I don't mean that I closed myself off emotionally. I mean I turned the boom mike around so that I was facing the corner, and I sang for forty-five minutes with my back to the audience.
After the show I loaded my PA system into my car and went back inside to get paid. The guy behind the counter was nice, but had apparently been paying less attention to the show than the lesbians had.
“Hey, man. Nice sound! When can you come back?”
I told him I’d have to go home and check my calendar.
Wednesday, June 4, 2008
"He's going to miss his ride to Montreux. Maybe he'll have to stay in Geneva overnight, and will need a change of clothes. Or maybe he got superstitious and bailed on the gig, thinking he missed his flight for a reason."
Ultimately I left his suitcase riding the carousel alone, like the unpopular kid at the playground waiting on a ride home that would never come. I found out later that Guitar Slinger had ordered a stewardess to tell me to grab his bags and bring them to Montreux. This was back in Detroit as he watched me board the flight he was supposed to be on (see previous post).
I never got the message.
After I went through customs I saw a man in a Chauffeur uniform holding a sign with our names on it. I walked up to him and used the only French I knew:
"Parle vous anglais?"
Then I had an idea. My gig bag was made in the U.S.A., and had a tiny American flag stitched into the seam. I pointed at my name on the sign the driver was holding, then pointed at myself, and my surroundings. He smiled and nodded in comprehension. Then I pointed at Guitar Slinger's name, then the American flag stitched onto my gig bag. The driver's eyes briefly widened in shock, then almost immediately narrowed in acceptance.
He shrugged his shoulders, grabbed my bags, and threw them into the passenger van he was driving. Off we went to Montreux.
Guitar Slinger arrived in Geneva six hours later, strolled through customs with nothing but his guitar on his back, and took the train to Montreux. His luggage arrived three days later.