Progress Report #114

April 6, 2018

So where’s the book? I’m currently making my last pass through, cutting certain things (small things), modifying the language here and there, and changing names. I just finished Chapter 14 and have 28 more to go. Usually I get one chapter done per day, but sometimes half a chapter, and occasionally two chapters. I can see the end now, but it doesn’t invigorate me. I’ve just entered my 13th year working on this and I’m tired. Instead of dashing to the end, I stop, catch my breath, rouse myself, and start forward again. When I began writing one part of me wanted to say everything, while another part of me knew that that wasn’t possible. It’s interesting when you have to decide what not to say. I’ll write again when I’m done–a month or so.

Onward and upward.

Advertisements

Emma Gonzalez

March 25, 2018

Emma

There isn’t anyone that I hold in higher regard right now than I do Emma Gonzalez. It’s extraordinary how she got pulled so quickly into the national spotlight and how much strength and poise she has shown there. But the very qualities that make her so riveting—her courage and her focus—also put her danger. In this madhouse we live in today the dangers are not simply those who would inflict violence on her if they got the chance, but those who would lead her into traps where she might get compromised, trivialized, or turned into a parody of herself. She’s young and the temptations can be strong. I hope the people around her are looking out for her. I’m rooting for her to be around a long time and to be effective.

The World’s Most Powerful Criminal Organization

March 17, 2018

The Republican Party has turned itself into the world’s most powerful criminal organization—a criminal organization with a vast arsenal of nuclear weapons. It no longer has any ideology. Its former ideology, which was really only ever egotism, got pushed and pushed to the point that it became total selfishness. And naturally enough, one of the biggest, if not the biggest, egotists on the planet came to lead them. None of this can end well. Evil has to suck away the energy of whatever good there is in order to keep going. At some point, the entire edifice collapses. I watched this get started under Reagan. I kept saying to myself, “this has got to be stopped before it gets really dangerous.” But it never was stopped. And now we’re in what almost seems an unbelievable, unreal situation. I say “almost” because I’ve been predicting it for so long. The only thing different from my vision was the ludicrous, buffoonish aspect of the man who came to lead them. I always pictured it being someone more blatantly sinister, like John Bolton or, say, Mike Pence…

Within You, Without You

February 28, 2018

harrison2

I’m recording a collection of songs (called Street Songs) as a supplement to my book (called Street Song). One of the songs is the George Harrison song from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, “Within You, Without You.” One day, around 20 years ago, I was curious to know which scale he’d used to create that Indian sound and discovered it was C Mixolydian. The scale is used a lot in folk, mountain, and bluegrass music, and I thought it would be amusing to play it as a hillbilly tune. But “Within You, Without You” contains some unusual, non-hillbilly meter, and I didn’t have enough interest at the time to work it out—until this recording project came along. Once I’d come up with a suitable rhythmic and chord structure, I recorded it—me on guitar, my sister Beth Lyons singing a duet with me, Peter Lacques on harmonica, Matthew Lacques on mandolin, and Bruce Kaphan on Weissenborn, a kind of lap steel guitar. I loved how it turned out and will make it available when my book is finally published. It was a group effort. The musicians came up with some great ideas, taking my original concept well beyond anything I was capable of.

Some people disparage the original recording of “Within You, Without You.” One reason given is that it’s not rock and roll, which is a pretty dumb reason. It’s excellent music, but there are a lot of rock fans who don’t really love music—just rock and roll. Some criticize it as faddish—that it’s just Indian-sounding pop music. But that doesn’t hold water. When Harrison wrote and recorded the song, he was a serious student of Indian music. (He remained one his entire life.) At the time, he was, by his own admission, neglecting  guitar in favor of  sitar, taking lessons from pupils of Ravi Shankar as well as from Ravi Shankar himself. He wrote the piece with an understanding of the forms of Indian song. He played on it without any of the other Beatles, just some Indian musicians and an orchestra whose parts were arranged by George Martin. In recently released outtakes you hear him guiding the Indian players. He’s not asking them for something “Indian-sounding.” He knows the scales he’s playing and how to count time in their tradition.

Another complaint some people make is that it’s too “preachy.” I think that’s something people say when they don’t want to hear a strong truth. Every word in that song is true—more true, I think, than anything Bob Dylan ever wrote.

Within You, Without You

We were talking about the space between us all
And the people who hide themselves behind a wall of illusion
Never glimpse the truth, then it’s far too late, when they pass away

We were talking about the love we all could share
When we find it, to try our best to hold it there with our love
With our love, we could save the world, if they only knew

Try to realize it’s all within yourself
No one else can make you change
And to see you’re really only very small
And life flows on within you and without you

We were talking about the love that’s gone so cold
And the people who gain the world and lose their soul
They don’t know, they can’t see, are you one of them?

When you’ve seen beyond yourself then you may find
Peace of mind is waiting there
And the time will come when you see we’re all one
And life flows on within you and without you

Having lived with that song for more than a year, I’ve come to appreciate it more rather than less. It’s a great song—one of the greatest I’ve ever heard. Harrison had a creative idea that grew out of what he was experiencing, and he made it work. It’s something of a miracle that millions of people were exposed to it when it came out. We live in a time where its sentiments are seen as naïve or too idealistic. But that’s either going to change or we’re going to do ourselves in.

Egotism and Freedom

February 22, 2018

Wayne LaPierre says that gun control advocates hate individual freedom. Like a lot of right wingers, he mistakes egotism for freedom. They are not the same. People who are tied up in egotism are not free. They are slaves to all kinds of paranoia and suffer terribly when it comes time to die. To die gracefully you have to be able to let go of life. An egotist can’t do it. He inevitably finds death a terrifying experience. To be genuinely free requires a tremendous amount of internal work—work that men like Wayne LaPierre refuse to have anything to do with. They are the real slackers.

Progress Report #113

February 16, 2018

I’m currently working on the final chapter of Street Song, which is presenting me with some expected difficulties. The previous 41 chapters, “the story,” were told in a voice where the narrator (me) never knows much beyond what he is experiencing at the time. This was not a plan. Something inside me resisted using the voice of the omniscient narrator. So this final chapter, which I’m calling “The Afterword,” is told by me as I am today looking back at what I’ve been through, explaining certain things, and drawing conclusions. I need thoroughness and concision at the same time. Difficult to do. I hope to be finished by the end of April. We’ll see.

For the last year, I’ve been working on a collection of songs (called Street Songs) to go with the book. The book is fairly saturated with descriptions of and stories about music, and it occurred to me that you can’t really describe music with words. So I approached one of my readers of the work-in-progress, Bruce Kaphan, an outstanding musician, composer (he did the music for Judy’s latest film Pelican Dreams), and recording engineer, and worked out an agreement with him to do some songs in his studio, Niagara Falls. The original intention was to keep things fairly simple— more than just me and my guitar, but not much more. But things have gotten more elaborate. Two songs in particular have a somewhat large sound. I’ve always been curious about how recording works, and I’m getting some good lessons in that regard.

In my late teens and early twenties, I wanted to be a musician (or a rock star, whichever came first), but never got beyond singing in the streets and in bars during band breaks. It’s difficult to explain here how it happened, but I ended up on the street at the same time my musical ambitions ended. But even after I quit playing seriously, I used to go down to City Lights Bookstore and stand in front of the doorway and sing for spare change. One of the songs I used to do was the Bob Dylan song “I Pity the Poor Immigrant.” At the time I was quite bereft—even afraid for my life. To me, I was the immigrant in the song—someone who’d left his old life behind but was having grave difficulties finding a new one. I sang it as if I were praying. It’s in the book, and it’s an easy one to play, so it was one of the first songs I recorded over a year ago. It was just me and my guitar, played simply and starkly. At the time, Bruce suggested he add a harmonium (harmonium is a small organ-like keyboard) and a tambourine. I thought it was a perfect idea, but we moved on to other songs and the track was neglected—until yesterday. We finally dusted it off and resumed work. I was expecting the harmonium simply to add a little instrumental texture—sound. But Bruce knows a good deal about harmony and he added extensions to the chords that gave the song colors and feelings it didn’t have before. I was so incredibly moved—laughing sometimes because I was so happy with what he was doing, at the edge of tears sometimes because it was so solemnly beautiful. Very simple, but just right.

Alabama

December 9, 2017

One of the pivotal moments of my youth was reading an article about the firebombing and beatings of a busload of black and white Freedom Riders in Anniston, Alabama. I was shocked by what had happened there, and it burned into my mind a negative image of the Deep South—particularly Alabama and Mississippi. They seemed like evil and dangerous places to which I would never, ever go. Later, through listening to Delta Blues and the “Americana” music of The Band, I became fascinated with the mythology—both white and black—of the small Southern town. I considered it the richest mythology to have ever come out of America and they ended up making me want to see the place for myself. Around ten years ago I finally toured the “Blues” Delta in northern Mississippi. I had an interesting time. It was like visiting another country. One day, outside of Greenwood, which is very near Money, Mississippi, the place where the African-American teenage visitor from Chicago, Emmett Till, was tortured and murdered by local whites, I met a black man who’d moved there from New York City. That seemed a rather extraordinary thing to do. I guessed that the situation there must have changed a lot. I hadn’t been seeing any of the dangerous looking good old boys and wondered if they’d “died out.” He assured me they were still around, that all I had to do was look. After that I did start seeing them. I have no explanation as to why I wasn’t seeing them before. I feel them getting increasingly bold now. If Roy Moore is elected to the Senate, Alabama will once again be a place I deem too dangerous to visit or even pass through.

Progress Report #112

December 7, 2017

Today I finished the final draft of Chapter 40, which marks the end of the bulk of my story. I have two more chapters, one of which is a brief look at the years following Chapter 40, and another that I’m calling an Afterword—a summing up. But the hard part is over. It’s a very strange feeling to be at this point after having struggled with the material for nearly 12 years. Once I’ve finished 41 and the Afterword I’m going to a print-on-demand company so that I can read it as a bound book. I don’t like reading on a monitor or even on 8 1/2 by 11 manuscript pages. I want to see it as a real book. My main task, I think, will be to look for things I’ve said a few too many times, along with redundancies. So to all those who keep asking me—yes, I am going to finish Street Song. I’m very close now.

Progress Report #111

October 10, 2017

In late July I took a much needed break from my work-in-progress, Street Song, and returned to it in mid-September. I wasn’t feeling quite as fresh as I’d hoped to be, but I do feel better. A lot better. Since resuming work, I’ve finished chapters 34, 35, and 36. That’s a much faster pace than usual, and it’s largely due to some preliminary work I’d done. I started Chapter 37 today. When I finish that I’ll have only six chapters to go. The end is getting closer and closer, and, damn, does that feel good. There’s a temptation to rush through to the end, but I don’t dare. I have to take my time, paragraph by paragraph, page by page, until it’s finished. When I was feeding the parrots there was a point where I couldn’t remember how I felt before my involvement with the flock. It’s the same with the book. I don’t remember what I was like before beginning work on this seemingly endless project. I’ve said this before, but as difficult as it’s been, I feel good about it. Whenever I reread what I’ve written, it feels like an accurate depiction of what I went through. I’ve been saying that I have from 10 months to a year to go, but I feel now that it could be less than that. We’ll see.

For anybody in the area who’s interested, I’ll be reading from the manuscript on November 3rd at the Beat Museum here in North Beach. There will be two other readers, Terry Tarnoff and Phil Cousineau. The reading starts at 7 pm.

Progress Report #110

July 16, 2017
PapaJohn

Papa John Karas “making sure that the fish can swim.”

I’ve started work on Chapter 33 of a planned 43 chapter book. One of the remaining chapters has already been written, which leaves ten chapters to go. Without forcing it, the pace of the writing has accelerated, and even though I’m mostly vacationing between July 31 and September 8, I anticipate finishing within a year. I’m exhausted, but happy with what I’ve been doing.

My favorite aspect of the creative process is the unexpected development that seems to come from a source beyond my own mind—certainly beyond my conscious intentions. Music is a big theme in my book—I used to be a street singer—and you can’t really describe music with words. So I thought it would be a good idea to record a few songs to accompany the book. I’m still in the process of recording, but one stands out already, a song I wrote on the island of Hydra in Greece, when I was 17. It was based on John Karas, the Dean of Boys at my high school. A friend of mine called him Papa John, which is also the name of the song. He wasn’t a flaming liberal, but he was a decent man, friendly to the students during a time when turmoil was spreading through the country. He listened to us. I moved away from the area the day after I graduated, but heard through the grapevine later that the school’s football coach thought Papa John was too lenient, too understanding, and got him fired. Try to do something good and the forces of darkness will work to undermine you. That was the theme of the song. I retired “Papa John” from my repertoire decades ago, but the book brought it back to life. I rearranged it and came up with some musical ideas that I liked a lot. Besides my acoustic guitar and voice, there’s a subtle electric piano and three street horns blowing wild. I love it.

Judy likes the song too, and one day it occurred to me that since I have an in-house filmmaker, I ought to make a music video. So we’re in the middle of that now. We came up with an idea that actually means something to us, so it’s more than a commercial for the book. I won’t be lip-synching. I’m barely in the video at all. The subject of the song, John Karas, died more than a decade ago and never heard it. It’s a real pity. As the last line of the song goes, “I wish the best for you, Papa John.”