Posts Tagged ‘Music’

Street Song and Street Songs

June 3, 2019

I haven’t posted anything about my book, Street Song, here in quite some time. One reason is that nothing’s happening. My agent has the book and is shopping it around, but so far there haven’t been any takers. This doesn’t worry me at the moment. It’s an unusual book—not the type of book that editors are going to fight over. I put more than 12 years of work into it, and I’m confident that it will resonate with some editor who is able to see beyond the contemporary book market. That’s not to say I doubt that the book would be of interest beyond a small pocket of unusual people. In some ways, it’s a bit of a mystery story—it’s told like one—and I think it would have more general appeal than some industry people might suppose. It’s also about living a meaningful life, and the desire for that is something that never goes away. It’s inherent in the species.

Another reason I haven’t posted anything is that I’ve been totally absorbed in a project that, while starting out as supplemental to the book, has proved to be integral to it. Street Song is in part about my short-lived effort to make it as a musician. It’s also about how the music of the 1960 and 70s reflected the lives and aspirations of a lot of people. It was almost like a religion. In some senses it really was. While writing about my own performances and the songs that moved me and sometimes changed my life, I was bothered by the fact that you can’t really do justice to music with words. I got the idea then to record a few songs as a supplement to the book. A friend of mine, Bruce Kaphan,  has a recording studio, and he was one of the readers of my manuscript as I was working on it. I told him what I wanted to do and asked if he’d be interested in helping me with it. He agreed and we set to work with only a half-baked idea of what I was trying to do. I thought at first that it would be just me and my acoustic guitar doing some of the songs I used to play on the street. But from that simple seed there grew a mighty tree—something I never could have imagined. I thought I was finished with music. Over the years, I’ve only played sporadically. But I’ve been practicing every day for hours on end, and now we have 12 songs with the backing tracks finished and awaiting my final vocals. While working on the song order I found that, without doing it deliberately, the songs I chose to record tell the same story that the book tells. Here’s the list:

Street Song (one of mine)
Strawberry Fields Forever (Beatles)
Poppa John (another of mine)
Farewell (Dylan)
Jackie Wilson Said (Van Morrison)
Sweet Thing (Van Morrison)
Highway (singer/songwriter Lane Tietgen)
On a Slow Boat to China (songwriter Frank Loesser)
You’re So Peaceful (another of mine)
Within You Without You (Beatles)
I Pity the Poor Immigrant (Dylan)
The Arrow You Want (one more of mine)

It’s an unusually eclectic mix of material that covers folk, Tex Mex, psychedelia, jazz, rock, r & b, swing, blues and bluegrass.  The instrumentation includes acoustic and electric guitar, pedal steel guitar, ukulele, organ, piano, drums, bass, saxophone, harmonica, accordion, lap steel, shakuhachi, harmonium, Weissenborn, mandolin, flugelhorn, trumpet, baritone horn, dulcimer, and electronic tamboura. We should have the whole thing mixed and mastered this summer. I’m calling the collection Street Songs and my intention is to make it a free download to help support the book. I’m quite pleased with how the songs are turning out. I’ll write more about it in the near future.



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.

Progress Report #110

July 16, 2017

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.