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.
Tuesday, June 3, 2008
My friends, Neil and Kathy, embarked on a transatlantic cruise in April, spent about three weeks in Scotland (where Neil grew up), flew into Manhattan for a few days, and are returning home to our little corner of Texas this afternoon. As their friend I hope they had a good time and everything went smoothly, but as a lover of stories I realize that the best told tales often involve some sort of conflict, or major inconvenience.
For instance: My first, and so far only trip to Europe took place in September of 1995. I was living in Nashville, TN at the time, and a guitar player I met got us a gig playing in Montreux, Switzerland for the entire month. I'd always wanted to go to Europe, and we sounded pretty good as a duo, so I had a lot to be excited about and grateful for. I didn't know him that well, but we shared a similar sense of humor and he seemed like a good guy.
A few days before we left for the trip he started acting like an ass. I put it down to pre-trip jitters. Maybe he didn't like to fly. The day we left his girlfriend dropped us off at the airport and we said our goodbyes. When the ticket agent said "Next!", the guitar slinger (that's how I'll refer to him) remained in line. I motioned to him to join me. "Hey, Guitar Slinger, come on, this way we can sit together." Guitar Slinger looked at me with disdain, and said "I don't want to sit with you." I chalked it up to nerves, and thought no more about it.We flew into Detroit, where we would take a connecting flight to Amsterdam, grab another connection to Geneva, and then be shuttled to Montreux by an employee of the casino.
On the flight to Detroit, Guitar Slinger was sitting next to the only empty seat on the plane. I'm a shade under 6'3", and at the time weighed in at around 190lbs, so I was pretty envious of Guitar Slinger. He was sitting about four rows ahead of me, and for the duration of the flight I watched as he stretched out luxuriously on his two adjoining seats as I was basically forced into an upright fetal position, wondering why bad things always happened to good people.When we got to Detroit I ducked into an airport bar to have a smoke and struck up a conversation with a pretty young woman on her way to Poland. She was going to spend a few months living with family members she'd not even met before. We wished each other a safe journey and I walked to the gate to board my connecting flight to Amsterdam.
When I got there I scanned the room for Guitar Slinger, but couldn't find him. They had not started boarding the plane yet, but it was imminent. Just then I saw the crowd part on one side of the room. Guitar Slinger, all 5'10" and 350 or so pounds of him, came hurtling towards me. He was soaked in sweat, his hair plastered to his round head, and a wild, panicked look in his eyes. "I left my ticket on the plane from Nashville! Tell the gate agent to hold the flight while I go back to look for it!" Yeah, they were gonna hold the flight, throw off their schedule, and inconvenience the 300 or so people on board for Guitar Slinger.
I told the gate agent what had happened. She informed me that he'd have to pay a $60 lost ticket fee (Hey kids! Way back in ninety-five $60 was about five tanks of gasoline!) and catch the next flight.
Good old Guitar Slinger! While stretching out in his spacious accommodations he'd inadvertently left the ticket under a magazine. The flight attendants on the Nashville plane wouldn't let him get back on to look, and told him that they had just readied the aircraft for the next flight, were about to board, and that he was basically shit out of luck. A beautiful woman that was flying stand-by got Guitar Slinger's seat, which on this particular flight happened to be right next to mine. The beautiful woman was on her way to Rome, and we had a wonderful time talking about life, travel, art, and music. We said goodbye in Amsterdam and wished each other well.
Tomorrow: Karma still isn't done smacking Guitar Slinger around....
Monday, June 2, 2008
I've heard for years that if you want to be a writer you should just write, many successful novelists have mentioned that bit of wisdom in countless interviews. I have been limiting myself with a too narrow focus, thinking I must write in order to produce, rather than writing for the simple joy I feel when creating something.
A few days ago, in preparation for an upcoming trip to Paris, I stumbled upon Misplaced In The Midwest. Here was a guy not only trying to accomplish many of the things I aim for, he was actually making it happen.
He started his blog as a daily writing exercise, which is what I should have done from the start.
So thanks, Misplaced In The Midwest, I'm totally copying you.
I imagine myself on the treadmill, then imagine my physique six or eight months later. Looking good! I’m sporting a new, hipper wardrobe to accentuate and celebrate the slim devil I have now become. For some reason, my hair is darker and fuller and I’ve also moved to Paris, apparently, because I’m surrounded by 17th century architecture as I stroll confidently down cobblestone streets, the other men jealous of the attention I’m receiving from their wives and girlfriends. Strange women stop to chat me up, and bat their eyes coquettishly just before I deliver the disappointing news that I am happily married, and not the type to stray. Bravely, they turn away, giving me one last lingering glance that says, “Someday, if I’m very lucky, I will find a man such as you.”
Reluctant to give up this beautiful daydream, I decide to catch a quick power nap in order to embellish the scenario a bit while resting up for my sure to be vigorous workout. Three hours later I snore myself awake, tossing the drool soaked throw pillow to the other end of the sofa on my way to the kitchen to grab a diet cola and a salty snack. Chips, maybe. I’ll workout tomorrow. One more day won’t make a difference.
A more effective way:
Our oldest daughter just graduated college and took a job teaching English in Vienna, Austria. She leaves in September and returns next June. We decided to join her over the Christmas holidays, with a side trip to Paris. Last week I started thinking with actual sincerity about getting on the treadmill, then started muttering about how boring it is to exercise. Then I imagined myself seven months from now while on our family trip to Europe. My wife and two daughters are out exploring the glorious city, having the time of their lives while I am holed up in the hotel room, face down on the bed, too tired to move after an hour of walking up and down cobble stoned streets. I fall asleep dreaming of skinny Frenchmen luring my wife and the girls with promises of private guided tours of the Paris few Americans ever get to see. Three hours later I snore myself awake in an otherwise empty hotel room while rooting through the mini-bar for something salty. I snapped myself out of this impending nightmare and got on the treadmill for half an hour, keeping cadence with the self-flagellating phrase, “Fat bastard, fat bastard.”
I have to say, I think I’ve found the proper motivation. It’s been a week now and I’ve only missed one day.