Two weeks

In two weeks I’ll be fifty.
Where has that half century gone?
It feels the world is speeding by
this jockey on the lawn,
who used to hold the reins
and feel some semblance of control
but now just stands there deaf and dumb
while time, relentless, rolls.

I sometimes sit and wonder:
have I really done so much,
or are my past misdeeds and triumphs
really just a crutch?
Illusions of effectiveness and use
appear and fade,
while I and my small banner
watch an infinite parade.

In two weeks I’ll be fifty,
an age I never thought
or bargained I would ever see;
It’s taken quite a lot
of road and oil and rust and dirt
to get here in one piece.
One thing I know for certain:
that the traveling’s not cheap.

When I am most reflective, though,
it seems more finding out
along the way, which song to sing
and welcoming the doubt:
that we are more important
than even we want to believe,
and it’s a wasted life
if you’re just hanging ’round to leave.

19 DEC 2014



We conversate, but what’s the point of it
when what we say results in nothing new?
Instead of acts to reinforce our views
we throw up walls of words, then simply quit,

imagining ideas are enough
to put the wheels in motion, so to speak.
Oh, never mind our arguments are weak,
and for the most part, made of silly stuff

we quote and quote, ad nauseum, and feel
ourselves so clever and so in the know;
and so our endless conversations go –
like spears we thrust them onward with such zeal!

And if our words should damage, what real harm?
Why worry over consequence and such?
Our so-called, self-named victims cry so much
that caring has lost both its worth and charm.

Besides, it’s not our fault the world is mad
and will not listen to the sense we preach;
put those who disagree far out of reach,
and write them off, as evil, cruel or bad –

they waste the precious manna of our words,
so surely they do not deserve the air
we need to rule the world from our armchairs.
Let them feed on our crumbs, like starving birds!

But now, enough of that, back as you were:
what was that witty comment I just wrote?
Let’s keeping on talking; we can sugar coat
the world, and keep reality a blur.

11 DEC 2014


Cannon Fodder

When all else fails (and at some point it will),
so all that’s left to us is simply talk,
the victors will be those with basic skills
for making idle words seem like a walk

through all the rhetoric and empty lies
that promise surplus but deliver less,
and when we take offense and act surprised
remind us of our own unmindfulness.

I wonder, when that fateful day arrives,
the morning we awaken at long last,
if our frail egos will in fact survive
with sense enough to learn some from the past.

I doubt it. It’s much easier to sleep.
Besides, that keeps the cannon fodder cheap.

02 DEC 2014


So Much To Do, So Little Time

“So much to do, so little time”, or so the saying goes;
as we waste both the hours and doing, pacing to and fro.
Refusing any call to act without sufficient thought,
we fine-tune the social contract – every strophe, caesurae and jot –
while life slips by in seconds grown to decades, year by year,
and what we feel needs done becomes our hobby or career,
a never-ending sidetrack from the job always at hand,
and then the moments are no more, and we can’t understand
why we have not evolved or grown in all that span of time;
and have not learned the reason of it, nor can sing its rhyme.

The meat of life, untasted; its sweet fruits left out to spoil
awaiting us at table while we spin in pointless toil,
imagining importance in such little, vapid things,
we wake up late in winter, having missed so many springs
that we can scarce remember when the world and we were green,
nor count the wasted chances and short hours in between
our hungry, mewling day of birth and stiff and meatless end
where none of what we finish matters, not to foe or friend,
but lingers uncompleted, our great lists of “yet to dos”
reduced to tattered palimpsest and left for rats to chew.

“So much to do, so little time”: the two are never swapped;
The time ends all too quickly, and the doing never stops.
The world’s pace never pauses, slows or even skips a beat,
to celebrate a victory nor acknowledge a defeat.

1 DEC 2014


Single digit blues

I hope that I shall never see
the poor in our democracy
convinced to vote Republican
believing they’ll become the one
percent. I hope, but feel, alas,
that both the elephant and ass
are run by callous millionaires
who each say they’re the ones who care.

I hope before that tragic day
the poor man’s eye scales fall away
and see that God is nowhere in it.
We all lose the very minute
we stop doing our own thinking,
and pretend our Kool-Aid drinking
is the cure for our malaise
and will return the good old days.

I hope that I shall never see
the end to our democracy:
when in the din, all reason’s lost,
and none speak out against the cost
of trusting those with profit shares
from selling guns and signal flares,
who win no matter who will lose
and dance while poor men sing the blues.

30 SEP 2014


Generation Gap

You call yourselves Creatives,
seekers of some brave new world
where the light of tomorrow shines
and everyone is free,
constructing some great paradigm
connecting one and all
across the universe and time
through some technology.

You call yourselves Inventors,
sculpting from the gossamer
of heretofore undreamt of dreams
and other precious stuff –
iconoclasts, revisioning
the way the world should be:
unleashed from simple here and now
across eternity.

You build as if your raw supplies
were part of nothing else:
a world of waste and sloth and darkness
waiting for your touch.
Pretending it some virgin spot
you dig with pre made tools,
imagining your destiny
replaces nothing much.

And those with whom you disagree?
It’s obvious they’re old,
and harbor shadows of the past,
their light hurtful and cold.
If their ideas made sense,
why did the world end up this way?
That they failed, is no fault of yours;
they did what they were told.

And those who straddle old and new,
those hopeless dinosaurs
whose shoulders you now stand upon
without a word of thanks?
You graciously allow them space
to try and tag along,
while you refuse suggestion
as you scurry to the bank.

Creative? Without toil and sweat,
your art is fantasy;
a game of smoke and mirrors
where you hide your snob’s distain
for those who came before you,
whose creations you transform
into the shiny, plastic things
you promise will again

invoke some metamorphosis,
turn all frogs into kings,
relieve your halitosis
and give back your bounce and spring,
improve your sense of wonder
for a reasonable cost,
and make you feel you’re where it’s at
pretending you’re not lost.

30 SEP 2014


Music and me

So here it is, a possible preface to the book I’m thinking of writing:

There are those who imagine “magical” places like they are scenes from the “happily ever after” part of a fairy tale: in a strange twist, they believe the hereafter, the great beyond, and the future tense of once upon a time to be like the world initially encountered by the young Siddhartha Buddha, one without care, disease, want or sorrow. But the truth is these places are just like right here, with their absence from our immediate view the only advantage given their fabulous and dazzling marketing brochures.

Music is one of those magical places. People say music is a language, a conduit, a means for connecting. Those metaphors make it seem like another world, or at least a foreign country. Extending that metaphor, people don’t really talk too much about the place whose natives speak that language as their first tongue: there’s not a lot of information on its geography, customs, and government, nor its climate, flora or fauna, be they beneficial and friendly, or poisonous and otherwise harmful.

I’ve know a lot of people who have visited, including myself, but I don’t know if I’ve met anyone who actually “lives” there year-round or calls it their original homeland.

There is no authoritative guidebook or CIA fact book about this foreign place – although to some it may seem one is necessary. A lot of people THINK they understand musicians, sometimes, but at other times must be content to shrug their shoulders, shake their heads and walk away, puzzled and confused.

Think of this as the beginning, then, of a travelogue, a descriptive narrative of these travels to the land of music. Because music, especially singing, CAN transport you to another place, where your body, mind and spirit are entirely wrapped up in a universal current. The danger is that when you come back from that place, you cannot communicate what you found there, because it does require a different language, a non-language. And getting back there is hard. It is tempting, so tempting, to fake your passport to that land, or at least grease a few officials’ palms, by artificial means. But those artificial means only make you think everyone else understands you while you’re there. And then, at some point, the artificial means can betray you, leaving you standing at the border only able to look in, but not cross over.

10 SEP 2014


Back to the Bassics

I recently acquired a Palatino VE-550 electric upright bass. Well, I’ve been playing it a bit every day since I got it (this past Tuesday) and although I have affirmed Brian Bromberg’s statement that electric and acoustic bass are almost two different instruments both requiring equal and separate attention to master, I find myself experiencing a lot of muscle, sense and touch memory. Bear in mind, I last seriously played acoustic bass about 29 years ago (circa 1983). Never actually owned one back then, just borrowed them from elementary, junior and senior high school orchestra programs – and played pretty consistently from age 11-18. In fact, the only reason I switched to electric bass in the first place was that Dennis Mack at Kenton High School? (who recruited me when I was in 8th grade to play with the high school jazz band) decided I wasn’t loud enough on the upright, and put his electric Epiphone (it was like the Jack Casady model) in my hands.

Still played some orchestral stuff after that (even successfully auditioned for the Lima Area Youth Symphony, and played on Ohio Northern University Band Camp and West Torrance High School?’s recordings (Woody Herman’s Woodchoppers Ball and Wagner’s Elsa’s Processional from Lohengrin), but my primary focus was electric bass from that time forward. It was the electric bass that got me the Louis Armstrong Jazz Award, I reckon, and bass I ended up playing in bands (along with other things, of course). When I graduated from high school, I said goodbye to the loaned bass, and rarely looked back.

Always WANTED an upright, of course, but situations never arose making it possible. Besides, there were significant other things to acquire: multi-track recording equipment, amplifiers, digital pianos, twelve string guitars, etc.

Later, when I applied to Berklee, because I didn’t really have anything that featured virtuoso bass playing, I shot for a scholarship as a voice principal, and was accepted as such. However, after the first day of placement interviews and auditions with the voice department, I realized there were (at that time, anyway) serious limitations to being a Voice principal at a school where almost every waking moment was spent looking for a jam session. So I picked up my electric bass, strolled into the bass department and asked for an audition. They threw sight reading (charts, lead sheets and notation), ear training, improvisation and other stuff at me, which I breezed through. They were anxious to have me in the bass department (and imagine how thrilled they would have been if I’d been able to double on acoustic bass!). Unfortunately, after a wee bit of research, they and I realized that changing my principal instrument from voice to bass would cancel my current scholarship, and since the award period was closed for that year, there’s no way I would have received another scholarship (on bass). So in order to stay at Berklee, I stayed a Voice principal. Not a perfect fit for me, or for Berklee, in retrospect.

Fast forward 23 years. About a year ago I broke down and bought an electric fretless bass, and I’ve been having fun with that and been pretty successfully translating fretted to fretless. But as I said before, electric bass and acoustic bass (and here I am, with a new to me equivalent of an upright bass) are the same, but really quite different, instruments. Yes, I’m experiencing muscle and sense memory of playing; but some of that memory is remembering how I had to unlearn certain things from the acoustic in order to successfully play electric. One of the biggest things, for me, is the switch between using the fourth and third fingers (pinkie and ring fingers). Because of the difference in neck length, you use different fingers, and switch positions in different places. String bending is another thing that’s different. And to be honest, in the playing I was doing back in school, there wasn’t a lot of high register work; that’s something that I learned on electric via Ray Brown’s Bass Method for upright, ironically. Plus, the electric upright width and depth are so different from a standard acoustic bass that you have to modify the traditional stance and instrument angle, etc., to accommodate that difference. So it’s like a native English speaker who became fluent in French and now has to go back to thinking in English (or really, thinking in both languages simultaneously). And I haven’t even started thinking about revisiting bowing. LOL.

It’s slow going. You need callouses in different places on your fingers, the hand and arm angle are different, the tricks and shortcuts you learn on one instrument may or may not be applicable (or even possible) on the other. Every day it gets easier to span the gap, but not being able to transparently shift from one to the other, without the aid of mirrors, so to speak, is tough.

However, it’s good to know that this experience confirms one thing for certain: I am a bass player. It’s not just what I do. It’s who I am. And that reassurance is something in this day and age, I can tell you.


I Miss Lester Bangs

Hell, I even miss Greil Marcus and Robert Christgau; and that’s saying something.

Whatever happened to credible music criticism? How is it that so many bands that sound so damned similar (and equally monotonous, repetitive, derivative and absolutely non-unique or memorable) are all apparently critical favorites, alternative darlings and award-winners? Other than a few fringe elements, no one out there dares suggest the emperor’s clothing is a bit transparent. Hell, in the old days, even the “gods” of music got shitty reviews. In fact, there used to be a balance of reviews In most “music” magazines: reviews that lauded some and derided others. Where has all the discouragement of asinine, simplistic, rushed, underdeveloped and/or just plain ill-advised and bad music gone? With the record companies (who used to at least serve as a filter ensuring that music released was at a certain level) slowly receding into the background, and radio likewise losing its editorial voice and power of selection, the selection of available music is so large that no one has the time to weed through each week’s hundreds of new releases to find out if any of it is any good – and certainly, relying on the number of downloads, views and/or shares is DEFINITELY not an indication of quality or even listenability, because those numbers are driven by hype, novelty, audacity and/or shock value first, and then only distantly biased by musicality.

I’ve subscribed to a number of music industry publications over the years (Rolling Stone, Billboard, Spin, Creem, Guitar Player, Bass Player, Keyboard, Fretboard and Paste, to name but a few), and over time I’ve seen the number of even nominally negative reviews shrink. I suppose with reduction of print pages combined with the massive increase in releases contributes to this phenomenon – there’s simply just not enough time or space to cover BOTH the good and the bad. But certainly, magazines pretending to be the arbiters of modern taste should be providing some sort of balance, guiding their ever-revolving audience of neophyte listeners (and honestly, who but an neophyte listener needs someone else to tell them what’s cool?) away from what just plain sucks, as well as toward that which they tout as miraculous and ground-breaking.

Of course, that idea presupposes that there is, among the tons of dreck out there that as I said above sounds disappointingly alike (and as I’ve posited elsewhere about the Billboard Top 100, owes much of its song structure, dynamics and general vibe to Gordon Sumner’s late 1970’s pop-reggae hit “So Lonely”) a small percentage of stuff that is really, absolutely great. Otherwise, ALL the reviews would be negative, and could in fact be very short: SUCKS AGAIN. SAME AS BEFORE. NOTHING NEW, REALLY. TRY AGAIN.

But then again, even as recent as the early 1990s, music reviewers at least pretended to be literary, to know the history of music into which their latest discovery fit, or at least the published biography of the artist releasing. As the quality of journalism overall has deteriorated far below any heretofore acceptable (or accepted) level of professionalism, it is only fair to expect that rock and roll journalism (a dangerously quasi-gonzo genre to begin with) should likewise suffer.

But really? To foist upon a trusting and needing to know public as honest, unbiased advice a set of reviews that instead of spurring improvement, blows sunshine?

Where is Lester Bangs, when you need him?

6 AUG 2014


A Flattery More Sincere

What is the point of a tribute band? When I was young, a musician being inspired by a band led to one thing: wanting to form a band of your own, to do what your idols did. For example, I think it was Brian Eno who once quipped, “Only a couple dozen people actual heard the Velvet Underground when they first came out. But every one of those people started a band.” You hear it all the time in interviews with rock and roll legends: the first time they heard Chuck Berry, Elvis, the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, Jimi Hendrix, etc. they were inspired to pick up the guitar, bass or drums. They were NOT inspired to create a band that was a carbon copy of their inspirations – even if they started out by playing other people’s music (e.g., George Harrison got his slot in the Beatles by playing a mean version of “Twenty Flight Rock” by Eddie Cochran), the goal was not to mimic, imitate or impersonate someone else. It was to find their own sound, create their own music, become equals with their heroes. Somewhere along the line, however, things got out of whack. Of course, it doesn’t help that the record companies (or media conglomerates, as the case is today) are always out looking for the next big “something”. How many artists were groomed by labels hoping they had found the next big Bob Dylan (someone who could influence record sales, churn out tunes, create their own image)? Kris Kristofferson, John Prine, Steve Forbert, Gordon Lightfoot, James Taylor, Jakob Dylan. The next Beatles? The Byrds, Hollies, Left Banke, Badfinger, Move, ELO, 10CC, Cheap Trick, The Knack, hell bands have even been manufactured to cash in – and don’t think it started with Destiny’s Child or American Idol.

Yes, there is a learning curve wherein, particularly if you’ve got no outside musical training but simply picked up an instrument after hearing a band, you mimic and imitate to get the notes under your fingers, the feel for a riff, the rhythm of a groove. But at some point, if you REALLY want to (or feel you must) use music as a vehicle of expression, of expressing who you are, you’ve got to remove the training wheels. At some point, it doesn’t matter whether or not you can play the solo from Stairway to Heaven note for note, right?

When did impersonation become tribute? They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but I’m not so sure. I think the Presley estate had similar doubts when it started suing Elvis impersonators, perhaps triggering the migration from impersonators to tribute artists in a attempt to avoid litigation from entities with significantly deeper pockets. But why bother? In the case of Elvis, I think that those running the King’s extremely lucrative post-mortem legacy wanted to emphasize their belief that the King was one of a kind, unable to be duplicated or even reasonably facsimiled. The ability to do an impersonation or impression introduces the idea that one’s mannerisms, delivery, etc., can be mimicked. Bad news for the unique legend business, I guess. My own case (because I was in fact involved in the Elvis business for a while, singing and speaking for Elvis weddings in Memphis for a couple of years, and in fact doing an Elvis-themed show at the world-famous Antenna Club in Memphis during Death Week 1994), is a little different. I never considered myself an impersonator or tribute artist – at least on a professional level, like some people I knew, like El Vez (or a couple of those guys from Honeymoon in Vegas). But I never wanted people to believe I was Elvis; and I never was really impersonating Elvis, either. I did Elvis songs like Elvis did them, and other songs like I thought Elvis might have interpreted them, from a slightly different perspective. I learned how to sing from Elvis records; at nine years old, I was absorbing his phrasing, tone, delivery, style (which of course, he borrowed in bits and pieces from a lot of others too). I could and still can sing a song with Elvis’ inflection, vowel shape and attitude, because that’s how I learned to sing those songs. I can’t really imagine them being sung any other way. Of course, as I’ve matured as a singer and performer, I add my own thing to them. But the underlying foundation is there. Is it a “tribute” to Elvis? No more than when Paul McCartney sings a song like Little Richard, Elvis or Chuck Berry. In either case, there’s something of yourself there, beyond a mere cookie cutter note-for-note copy of the original. If there isn’t, what’s the point?

Beyond the trials, tribulations and other assorted angst, trauma and self-flagellation involved in rock and roll (and tribute bands as well as finding your own “true” voice), pretty loosely described in the Mark Wahlberg vehicle “Rock Star”, tribute artists are like virtual reality. Sure, you can pretend you’re actually there, seeing your favorite (or your parent’s favorite) band in person (e.g., the Stones, the Beatles, Journey, ZZ Top, the Eagles). But you’re not. You haven’t seen them, and when you compare your experience to someone who actually HAS seen these bands, it’s a little insulting not to mention ignorant. Especially when the irony is so thick you can actually see it in the stage lights – like when a bunch of Americans put on fake English accents to sound like an English band who were trying to sound like American bluesmen in the first place – that’s what a Rolling Stones tribute band usually gets you.

Honestly, who wants to become the best copy in the world of someone else? Who really wants to become the world’s greatest cover band? You’re not really paying tribute to the artists you’re covering. You’re pandering to a crowd that wants an alternate reality – that wasn’t cool enough, old enough, in the right place, able to afford or for whatever reason unable to participate in an experience with an original artist. But you know what the funny thing is? If you were playing original music, doing your thing, presenting your interpretations and artistic achievement, they WOULD be participating in that original experience. And in that moment, you and they would be here and now, truly alive, and not tied to some sentimental, nostalgic bullshit about how today’s music sucks, how they don’t make ‘em like they used to. Because that’s what being cool is, really. It’s not about thinking you’re cool, or wondering who is and who isn’t, or measuring yourself against some imaginary and definitely illusory and transient standard of hip. It’s about making where you are important because you are there, and because it is right now – as if you could be anywhere else.