Posts Tagged ‘Music’

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.”

Giving Up the Day Gig

February 2, 2014
The Early Beatles

The Early Beatles

We’re coming up on the 50th Anniversary of the Beatles’ appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show (February 9), and there’s a fair amount of noise being made about that right now. I was one of those who was affected by that night in a major way. I was twelve then. Before the show, I was one way; after the show I was another. I loved the Beatles’ music, and it launched me on a path that I stuck with for nine years.

A couple of weeks ago, I finished a book called Tune In, a new biography of the Beatles by Mark Lewisohn. The book is more than 1500 pages long (which doesn’t include the extensive footnotes and back matter), but covers their career only up to the end of 1962! There are two more volumes in the works. Positively Churchillian. Lewisohn’s goal has been to throw out all the old ideas and myths about the Beatles and to start all over. His research is incredibly thorough and he goes into depth on the world they grew up in. He’s a decent writer, too. (There is a shorter 800 page version, which is more widely available than the 1500 page “director’s cut.”)

The thing I learned about the Beatles that struck me hardest was just how dedicated they were to playing music and not doing anything else. The most common piece of advice given to any aspiring musician, or to any artist, is “Don’t give up your day job.” What I’ve always seen though is that the great ones took the risk. They bet everything on doing their art and nothing else. Sink or swim. The Beatles did this to a degree that I hadn’t previously known. In England, as in most countries, one’s place in society is decided at a very early age. There is virtually no freedom to drop out for awhile and see what happens. (There’s less and less of that here now, too.) Each of the four Beatles rejected a trade or a safe place in society. What they wanted to be—a professional music group—didn’t even exist then. There were only solo artists. So while everybody was telling them that what they were trying to do was futile, they kept at it resolutely. I think that this ultimately was the source of their strength and magic. Hard to do.

Levon Helm

April 25, 2012

I was one of those people whose life was immediately changed by the Beatles’ appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. I was one way before I saw them and another way after. For the next ten years I completely immersed myself in rock and folk. The songs were my literature and, in a way, my religion. The musicians were my heroes. Over the years I gradually became disillusioned. There are very few left that I have much enthusiasm for. A week ago, one of the few I still respected died: Levon Helm.

I liked Levon because it was always the music that mattered to him. He wasn’t into show business or being a star. He was into being a player. And he did what musicians are supposed to do (but rarely do anymore): He listened to the other players. You could see him listening. Nothing escaped his attention. There’s a lot on the Internet about Levon right now, and I don’t really have much to add. Just this story and a link:

I used to sing a song called “China Girl,” which was on one of his solo albums after The Band broke up. I no longer have the album, and it’s out of print. Every now and then I want to play it on the guitar, but I’ve forgotten most of the lyrics and a chord or two. On the day Levon died I thought to check whether anybody had ever posted the song on YouTube. Someone had—a live version taken from a television show—and what I heard floored me. To me, it’s a real find. It’s so much better than the album version, and I’ve been playing it over and over and over. It’s not that it’s such a great song. As a song, you could say it’s kind of mediocre. (He didn’t write it.) But Levon gives the song something that makes it great. His performance has joy and it has triumph. It’s how I want to remember him. You can watch it here if you like.