Wednesday, December 22, 2010

My Brain At Work

John, esq.:

Woke up this morning after a terrible night of cat yowling and insomnia. I wanted to get up early, go to the gym, maybe play some music as I prep for an impending recording session...instead I finally tore myself out of bed sometime after 10, feeling sore and absolutely loathing everything.

I shook it all off; showered got dressed and made some tea. Kids were in front of TV/riding bike/sick in bed. So I went to the study, and looked at the lyric I sent you yesterday for the Wal-Mart song and thought: "Well that rewrite...hmmm." Verse's the verb/verb combination across the third and fourth lines that still niggled. Is "skirt" the right word? Well, sort of. But, duh, the better RHYME with "build" is, of course, "gild," but my brain says: okay, yeah better rhyme; but can I defend the word choice, is it really the better word?

Well of course I can defend it; and, yes, it is the better word.

We skirt the laws and starve the state / We build the walls then bar the gates

We gild the laws then starve the state / We build the walls then bar the gates

I like the parallelism of sounds -- much tighter now; and it adds some extra layers to the lyric, if you're into that sorta thing.

This is my brain at work.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Wedding Strummer

When the Priest Gives You "That Look," You Know It's Time to Stop Playing

Friends of mine got married Saturday. They're a delightful couple, as their self-produced website shows through innumerable cute, darling and downright cuddly photos.

They'd asked if The Late Joys would perform at their post-vows reception but we couldn't get it together, which, given the size of the reception shack (and lack of space therein) worked out for the best. But I agreed to play some songs as part of the wedding nuptials themselves so off I went to College Station with the task of plucking some Christmas-themed songs while Shawn and Katie evolved into ShawnandKatie.

On the set list, a quartet of tunes to accompany specific sections of the ceremony. And Wagner's "Bridal Chorus," more popularly known, for ye of few weddings/little opera, as "Here Comes The Bride."

Having never played any of the five titles before, let alone as instrumental solos in a Catholic church before a hundred or so reveler/worshippers and their priest -- and HCTB was in tablature (finger picking for you non-classical guitarists* out there), just to add to the degree of difficulty -- my levels of nervousness, angst and dread rose daily as the blessed day approached. It's one thing to perform as the frontman for the band. And I find it easy to strum and sing on my own in front of an audience who, mostly, wants to listen to said strumming and singing. It's quite another thing, however, to be the featured solo musician in a wedding ceremony in a strange town in a strange church brimming with total strangers.

So how did it go?

Well the drive to College Station from Austin, if you haven't made that particular trip, is both a rural Texas delight and a peek at the accerelating decay of rural Texas. Forget the bit from Austin to Bastrop; Highway 71 is about as urban-meets-industrial as you can get on a modern inter-city corridor, with the few remaining fields begging for buyers to turn them into airport-convenient hotels and parking lots even as the cows stand around and chew.

Bastrop, rhymes with "gas stop," is just that -- a main road through a town that must have houses in it somewhere -- boasting Central Texas' three major home improvement stores each within spitting distance of each other and nestled among all manner of cookie-cutter big, medium and little box outlets, national chain eateries and auto dealers. Oh, and the pecan stand with the Bunyunesque LED sign. (Answer: Lowe's, Home Depot, McCoy's -- you could pretty much walk from door to door to door, except this is Texas, where we drive from door to door.)

Ah, but then you turn onto Highway 21 and head along the cool, moody pine tree lined road for a tranquil, woodsy spell, until the land opens up once more and it's rough fields with derelict jetsam and flotsam, peppered with ramshackle double-wides, light (or make that decaying light) industry and the odd hamlet-near-gas-station for a good 70 miles until you get to the outskirts of Bryan, Texas, at which point light industry gets shouldered off the route by heavier industry. For a college town that, to go by maroon bumper stickers seen around Austin, professes absolute hatred of all things to do with burnt orange UT (and, gulp, Austin), College Station is a remarkably low-key place, and rather pleasant. At least from the moving automobile.

At the church, then, I set up in the choir along the right-hand wall as you survey the dais. Out of the way. Out of sight lines. Behind the organ. Just in case. I practiced the songs again. And again. Finally the guests began to arrive. A word with the priest before the ceremony yielded enough information that I thought I knew what I was supposed to play and when. The rub, it turned out, was for how long I was supposed to play.

The first tune on the dance card was "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing," music to cover the entrances of the families, groomsmen and bridesmaids. Oh, and the ring bearer and flower girl. Father David, for that was the priest's name, suggested I start plucking that melody at about two minutes before the hour, to get the attendees primed for the grand arrival of the celebrated couple and kin. So at two minutes to two o'clock, I began to perform quietly, while stealing glances toward the back of the church for the parties to process down the aisle.

At about 10 minutes after two I saw Shawn making his way down the side aisle toward me. I have spent enough time in the theatre to know that when the star/co-producer of the event approaches 10 minutes after curtain, something is amiss. What was amiss was Shawn's miss: Katie was still in the clutches of her makeup artist and hair designer at the hotel; could I just keep playing for the 10 minutes or so until she and her party arrived? No problem. So, "Hark!" went into a melodic loop-de-loop, sometimes louder, sometimes softer for about 10 minutes until I noticed a woman stalking down the same side aisle in my direction. A member of the advance team, she reported no progress with the hotel-bound Katie's hair and would I just please keep playing anything to keep the seated masses entertained. No problem. I trolled the catalog of my own songs for those with relatively decent melody lines that I didn't have to think too much about and started to pluck and strum my way through song after song after song. After song. After song.

Almost an hour after I first began to play the ladies in waiting and Katie finally showed up, the priest flashed me the "go" sign, if priests flash anything these days, and I hearkened back to "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing." Round and round I looped as the various personages strode down the center aisle. Finally, everyone in their places, I stopped. Only to realize the diminutive flower girl and ring bearer were still mid-stride and I'd left them to march up to the dais in breathtaking silence.

Then Father David signaled to me once more and There Came The Bride. I haven't played tablature style since I was 12 years old. I had found a readable version of the tabs for Wagner's pop classic and had been practicing it for weeks, but it is such a foreign way of playing the guitar, seeing as I'm largely self-taught and have practically no technique to speak of. But the opening strains of the tune were clear as was the final flourish, never mind whatever took place between them, and -- finally -- I could put down the guitar and just sit for a spell.

The next number on the performance list was "We Three Kings," set to go, according to Katie, with the "exchange of gifts." Seeing as this was a Christmas-themed wedding, I thought to myself, "I wonder who's bearing gifts?" It wasn't until they started to exchange rings that it dawned on me that those were the gifts and I'd missed my cue to play what was probably the strongest song of the five I'd been entrusted with. Thankfully, from the church's bell tower rang out some sort of melodic performance for a Saturday afternoon, and that served as the underscore for the ring swap.

The next number was "Silent Night," to be performed, according to my directive, "during communion" and which was to last until "everyone goes through the communion line."

At this point I should point out a couple of things. First, I'm Jewish, so all I know about communion is that Catholics line up and the priest offers them a cracker and a sip of wine as part of the Mass and that these denote the body and blood of Jesus Christ and has to do with things everlasting, of which my ignorance is one. The second thing is that I've never actually been to a Mass, which meant that I was intrigued to witness it for the first time and that I had no earthly (or heavenly) idea just what was about to unfold, nor how it might affect my performance.

Father David signaled me to start the song as two children bearing chalice and dish of wafers approached the dais, gave the items to the priest and took their spots. I continued, as quietly as I could, to perform as underscore to the priest's prayers and preparations, until he shot me a look and shook his head in so understated yet punishing a manner I realized I was crossing into excommunicative territory even for a Jew. To any musicians who might get a similar church gig and arrive uneducated to the ritual of holy communion: When the priest gives you "that look," you know it's time to stop playing.

Once the ritual blessings received priestly airing, the good father turned to me and indicated I should start again, and I was damned sure to play and keep playing until the last pilgrim had tasted immortality and retaken his pew.


The last piece, the least imposing, was "Joy To The World," which I struck up a moment after Shawn and Katie were pronounced man and wife and turned to their adoring families and friends for the march up the aisle and out of the church to much applause. When the major players had left the building I stopped, relaxed for the first time in weeks and then quickly packed up my gear so I could head out to the reception and serve as emcee and DJ for the afternoon's party. Compering was a piece of cake compared to what I'd just done.

Suffice it to say that nothing gets people onto the dance floor like "YMCA" and if I have to pick my favorite moment of the day, it had to be when one of the sets of grandparents (I don't know whose) got up to dance to "Great Balls of Fire."

Katie and Shawn are a delightful couple; I'm honored and grateful that they asked me to play guitar for their wedding and serve as emcee for the reception. Thank you!

*You may add me to that list of non-classical guitarists out there!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Monday, September 13, 2010

Room Renovations a la IKEA

As a neighbor pointed out, once you choose to fix one room, automatically you are forced to fix four more. In our case the fixed room was the so-called "Children's Retreat" or den or erstwhile "TV room," now the "library." Many bookshelves, two desks, a mini-armchair and various lamps (and mucho$ dinero$, though not an unreasonable amount) later, the girls have their own work spaces, the computer desk is free to be just that and the room no longer hosts the TV, its gargantuan wardrobe or the mismatched shelves. The openness, the designedness of the room is a breath of fresh air.

While not boring you with the details, suffice it to say that, like a mystic square/Sam Loyd puzzle, our house undertook several "moves" as we slid various bits of furniture around to accommodate our new library. If you include the garage, beneficiary of at least one bookshelf and some unsympathetic "archival object" management,* we have condemned five rooms to varying degrees of freshness though in all honesty two of them are looking much improved. The other three are works in progress, but the end is surely nigh. What next? The dreaded garage sale, of course!

Oh, and the response? Small boy is fascinated with things new and things to be constructed/deconstructed. Younger daughter delights in having her own little workspace. Older daughter is a teenager now and grunts approval or disapproval depending on influences beyond our ken, though I think she likes the changes.

Perhaps photos forthcoming. 

*I trashed a bunch of old crap.

Friday, May 28, 2010

The May Ultimate Thursday Open Mic at Cafe Caffeine

May Day! May Day! Indeed...

For some reason it felt a little like the Gong Show last night, and I was the gong. Well, as the event organizer I was sort of gonged, but as a performer things turned out all right.

If April was slow, last night was almost a dead stop: regulars Southernmost Smoke and Gary DeVries showed up, as did a couple of college guys (Michael and Daniel -- apparently they don't give out last names with final grades). And we had a youth activist poet, too. Ordinarily I'd try to maintain a songwriters only protocol, but we needed voices on stage, plus this was a young woman poet, and we need women's voices as the OM tends to be male dominated.

Smokey got things rolling or, rather, I did, with my song, Texas Angel, a bluesy number on which Smokey played along. I don't think I've ever seen Smokey so chipper. He explained his nickname to me for a start. He went to college in Key West, the "southernmost" city in the U.S., farther south than Brownsville (with whom there's some sort of "how low can you go" rivalry, latitudinally speaking). Friends gave him the moniker to use for his business: Stone and, uh, pipe carving. Now you know where the "Smoke" comes from, right? Smokey did a couple of classics: San Antonio Rose and the Tennessee Waltz, plus a couple other harp numbers in between, then he skedaddled to meet an infirm friend.

Our female poet/activist, Lindsay Coley, took the stage next for a pair of poems ("Youth" and "Old Enough To Kill" the latter about young soldiers who can't get served in bars 'cos they're not 21). After youth activist poetry more active youth: The young men of college and no last names took the stage for original and recently "learned" songs. The best was an original number about Facebook. Whatever that is. Ah, young people these days! In Smokey's day they carved pipes for a living; now them youngsters are all connected to Senator Stevens tubes (Die Stevenstube!).

Gary D. played a trio of tunes that are familiar to regulars; he sings so damned well! Sort of like Paul Simon if he'd worked some blue collar or manual labor gig for a living and played music with Simon Garfunkel on the side.

And, sadly, that was it for the guests. Three of our regulars phoned or e-mailed me earlier to say they couldn't make it; the others? Whither the others? So I got up and played. A lot. I strummed Elvis Costello's (The Angels Want To Wear My) Red Shoes for our audience member from Phoenix, a professed Elvis fan. I hope I got the right Elvis (Red suede shoes...toe-MAY-toe...toe-MAH-toe...). After that I did a bunch of songs The Late Joys don't perform: new tunes (Sweet Pretenses, Little Swimsuit), acoustic versions of former LJ blasts (Bloody Little Numbers Game, Haymarket Rain) and some really old stuff that surfs well under the radar (Extra Ordinary, We're Going Steady Now). I did the slow, original version of Just Like Gravity, and when the recently transplanted Phoenician requested I play a song in the current LJ repertoire, out came Everybody's Going Away. Toss in Land of 1,000 Girls and you can see why on the one hand I was having a good time performing, while on the other I was wondering where the heck everyone else could be last night -- they missed so much stage time. Ah well, we'll catch them next time 'round.

Speaking of next time 'round I have some ideas on garnering a bigger crowd of musicians for June (assuming there is a June O.M.!). And that's beyond guilt-tripping all the no-shows into playing!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

A Lapse in Maintenance

"What rapidly became clear after the theft was that the museum's security system had failed catastrophically."

That's the line from the Guardian's coverage of a daring, and sad, art heist last night. What strikes me, even more than the loss of our cultural heritage -- though that is thoroughly depressing in and of itself -- is the sense that we're not taking care of the things that are most precious to us, instead allowing supposed security systems and fail-safes to lapse into insecurity and failure.

What is up with our systems of checks and balances? Is this the logical evolution of the Bush administration's eroding of said Cs and Bs? Not really: Even that low point of governance appears a mere symptom of a larger, more intransigent ailment of mankind: laziness. I'd venture to say it's greed, which, indeed, motivates the omission of proper oversight: an oversight of oversight! Except that so many of the recent disasters we've faced (the man-induced ones, not nature's) seem to be the result of people just not doing their jobs, jobs that demand discipline, attention to details, a system of checks to ensure that life goes on without catastrophic incident.

I mean: oil derricks go unchecked and explode (to say nothing of a recent history of needless spills and explosions). Planes go unchecked and crash. Trains derail on unchecked tracks. And now this. It's a "serious attack on humanity." Well, yes, but humanity seems to prefer shortcuts and inaction when it comes to ensuring our culture, environment, our very existence is protected. Humanity could care less: it's attacking itself! Or, more to the point: We're attacking ourselves!

Is it because our attention spans have waned and we don't want to -- or can't -- take the time to ensure everything is in proper working order? Is it that we feel we are above the quotidian tasks of checking and rechecking systems to ensure safe operations? Is it that we just don't care enough? It's someone else's problem? I'm disconnected from the results of my oversight? What is going on?

Catastrophic failure of our security systems, whether protecting invaluable artwork, delicate environments or precious lives, should be exceptional. Nowadays is anyone surprised by such lapses?

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

A Recipe for Matzoh Ball Soup

It's forking brilliant!

[I shared this with a friend recuperating from surgery. But you don't have to go under the knife to benefit from the healing properties of matzoh ball soup!]

Open a bottle of red wine. Let stand for a little while or until your patience runs out. Pour a glass. Drink. God, I do love to suck down some red wine while I cook! Right: The soup.

Toss a few bone-in, skin-on chicken breasts in a large pot of water (you can also use a whole chicken if you like). Add salt, pepper, garlic powder and paprika. (How much of each? Good God man, do I look like a measuring spoon to you? Put in enough of each and not too much of any.) Bring the lot to a boil. Keep your bird or bird-bits on the boil for, say 20 minutes. After that you could let the pot stand and cool or, if you're in a hurry, pull the boiled chicken out of the broth and place to the side/in the fridge. You're gonna get your hands on it sooner or later and the last thing you need is retributive chicken burns.

While the chicken cooks, dice/chop/emasculate some potatoes, onions, carrots, celery (maybe mushrooms, too, or leeks; whatever you fancy in a soup, this is your soup!).

ALSO, while you are letting the bird boil, you can prep the matzoh balls. Here's how. In a mixing bowl lay three eggs -- sorry! "add" three eggs -- a tablespoon (large dollop) of olive oil, salt, pepper, garlic to taste and a bit of boiling soup broth.* Mix (it's a mixing bowl, for fork's sake!). Add Matzoh meal a bit at a time. Mix. Keep doing this until you are happy with the batter (too dry? add more soup!). But whatever you do, do not stoop to using pre-fab matzoh ball mix in a box. I don't care what rabbinical supervisory blessed that sawdust. Use real, unadulterated matzoh meal, blessed or not. How much matzoh meal do you add? Good question. I add it until the batter is sorta firm and your fork has to work a little harder to get the stuff to move around the bowl. Not exactly bread batter thick but at least a little stiff. In a hurry? Skip to ** below. If not, cover and let stand in the refrigerator. My dad swears this makes the balls hard, and he likes his balls hard. HEY! Keep it clean, you: This is my DAD we're talking about. I've found that no matter what you do your balls take on a life of their own and attain the firmness that Yahweh always intended and you can do nothing to change them. So it is written. (Yield approximately 8-12 balls, depending on how greedy you are.)

*If you have lots of time, let the soup cool then scoop up some of the fat off the top and use it for the matzoh balls instead of the broth. Oh my forking god that is good!

Remove the chicken from the pot replete with recently boiled bird broth and shred the meat from the carcass. If that's too gruesome you could just shred the meat and ignore from whence you are shredding it. Or pull it off the bone and cut it up, la la la, no carcass here, la la la. I don't care: Just make sure you put the meat back into the broth having turned it into bite-sized morsels of some fashion. Add all those veggies to the re-chickened broth.

**Bring soup to a boil again. When it boils, drop little balls of matzoh dough into the roiling waters. HINT: To keep the batter from sticking to you and thus dropping as perfect little spheres into your soup, wet one of your hands. No, there is no Talmudic rule as to which one. How do you make little balls of matzoh dough? Use a spoon, scoop up a little batter (approximately the size of an adolescent golf ball), roll it in your wet hand and drop it into the boiling soup. Yes: Splattering, boiling broth is hot. Try not to scald yourself! If scalded, there's probably a rabbinical supervisory blessing you could utter or at least a good bit of Anglo-Saxonry to thwart your focusing too much on the pain.

If you have lots of time, extend all the steps above by another bottle of wine or by a factor of three or four episodes of "NCIS" or something more brutal (if you have HBO, that is). The longer the soup sits, the longer the balls cool, the more time everything has to "flavor-up," if I might be so bold.

Serve the soup to slavering guests hot, but not boiling hot (see that bit about scalds above -- you want everyone to eat with a tongue that can discern your soup from sewer water). You might serve with Tabasco, if you dare, and red wine (whatever you didn't drink while you cooked). L'chaim and bon apetit!

A final word on matzoh ball soup: As with everything of Jewish origin, this soup gets better and better over time, or so my wife tells me. Day two will taste better than day one, day three better than day two, and if your soup lives to be as old as Methuselah, you probably ought to throw it away.

Friday, May 14, 2010

On The FA Cup Final (Tomorrow)

From the Guardian's daily teatime take on football, "The Fiver," this makes me laugh. Then sigh.

"Tomorrow we must decide whether we would like a team built on money from Great British charities, small business-owners and taxpayers to bask in glory, or whether we would prefer the trophy to be hoisted aloft by a side constructed using what amounts to another nation's natural inheritance, given away during a dark and weak hour in the country's past and since monetised, exported and converted into so many superyachts and full-backs"

The whole thing appears under the sub-head: "Every Ash Cloud ..."

Thursday, April 1, 2010

And You May Ask Yourself, Well, How Did I Get Here? (Part One: From Cradle to Cacti)

8-Track Tapes, The Fab Four and Match of the Day

In the words of another famous, yet more treacly old song, "Where do I begin?" I begin -- or began -- in Poughkeepsie, in 1965, if you really must know. If you hung with the notorious gangs of the day, the Bibs and the Cribs, your mom was at Vassar or your dad worked for IBM. For little old me it was the latter. But, Poughkeepsie, I never knew ye (sniff...). Scarcely eight months had Gerbered by and the parental units opted to follow the dusty wagon train to the far West. Yup, they packed up the Chevy and moved to Arizona. Swimming pools. Cacti.

My mom was petrified; my father, a survivor of invasions by the Nazis and the communists in his native Budapest took it all -- and us with him -- in stride. So began my youthful southwest sojourn. I grew up in various suburbs in and around Phoenix, southern California and I even spent 365 days in El Paso. El Paso, I never knew ye.

And all this while there was music. Dad dug the classics: Beethoven, Mozart, Liszt, Brahms, Bach, all those Strauss-ers and anything opera or even barely operatic. He pushed his stereo up to 11 when listening to the Dies Irae from Verdi's Requiem or Wagner's "The Ride of the Valkyries." And then there was the host of Broadway and other sundry musicals among the parental vinyl: Cabaret, Fiddler on the Roof, Man of La Mancha, Mary Poppins. It was living-room music: If you strayed into the living room chances were there was something spinning on the turntable, and it was loud.

* * *

I love music of various styles, periods, moods and meanings, though I trend towards a monotheistic zealotry when it comes to favorite acts. I can spend months listening to one band's work (hell, I can listen to a single album, a single song) to the neglect of all else. My first taste of rock-and-roll monotheism, beyond Sesame Street's greatest hits,* was The Beatles. No surprise: That religion still holds sway over me.

It began when friends of my folks bought my sister and me (I was six) the Beatles' Red and Blue albums. On 8-track cassette. Remember those? Never mind. I listened exclusively to those two double-albums for the next few years. Oh, and Carly Simon's greatest hits, also on 8-track. There may have been a Beach Boys album in there, too. And whatever resounded from the living room on any given weekend. Semi-mostly-exclusively, then. Anyway, if you want to know which musical root of mine is longest, strongest and nurtures me 'til this very day, 'tis The Beatles.

When I finally picked up a guitar, I played from the Fab Four's canon. Exclusively. From three holy song books of limited accuracy. For five, six, seven years. And even then all I did was strum the chords as written. Never bothered to figure out the intricacies of the actual guitar parts. At least not until college; but that part of the story's coming later. Did it matter then? Nope! Nirvana in familiar chord changes, singing along to increasingly frayed and folded musical charts in those songbooks.

This eclectic mix of Beatles, classical music and show tunes taught me that great songs have great hooks, compelling stories and intricate (or interesting) structures; and the best music moves you and sticks with you and acts as a shamanic guide to memories that, ordinarily, would have evaporated long ago, except for that soundtrack in your head. I can still walk into the living room and flip through my dad's record collection, hear those favorite tunes, cower at the volume. I can hear the click of the 8-track swapping tracks on Red and Blue albums (and interrupting Carly's crooning -- what dolt couldn't figure out how to get an entire single song on an entire single track?).

* * *

What cemented my complete longing to absorb everything Beatles had nothing to do with music at all. I turned on the TV one Saturday morning and, instead of a cartoon, there was a soccer (sorry, football) game on. It was PBS broadcasting Match of the Day (this was back when there was only a single match broadcast in its entirety, unlike the feast of footie available on the airwaves today). A team all in red was elegantly, powerfully running a blue and white team ragged on its way to winning the game. The reds' overwhelming ability -- a ballet of force and subtlety -- amazed young me. I was hooked. I learned the team were Liverpool FC -- Liverpool! -- where the Beatles were from! Such synthesis! Such convergence! Aye, I was hooked, reeled in, fileted, deep fried and served with a heaping side of chubby greasy chips on a newspaper wrapper with salt and vinegar condiments. Liverpool. Home of great football and great music. This I divined from the 'burbs in old Phoenix in the mid-1970s. Such a prodigy.

I suppose had I truly prodigidized (word, no?), I'd have sought out more Beatles and more Liverpool and found a way to get there, to be there. Well, in a way, that came next, almost.

Maybe I'll get around to writing the next leg of the journey (the next course of the feast?) sooner rather than later? Stay tuned.

*I can remember a particular fondness and affinity for a rocking little number at the end of the Sesame Street album, an actual pop song, produced and sung like one and featuring one of the humans, no muppets. I'd sing it under my breath in the front yard of our first Phoenix home as far from the house as I could get without being seen from the street, 'cos I was shy. "Some day, little children, on a day I'm thinking of...there's gonna be a world of people, yeah, and they'll live in peace of love...Yeah they'll live in peace and love some day, to last a hundred lifetimes through...And you know who's gonna make it happen? Little children I'm depending on you..." Hmmm, guess that song had more of an impact than I realized.

Monday, March 29, 2010

The March Ultimate Thursday Open Mic at Cafe Caffeine

I hosted what turned out to be a full slate of performers last Thursday night at the Ultimate Thursday Open Mic at Cafe Caffeine. The lineup included a quartet of gentlemen (two Jims, a Greg and a Rane), who took a few slots over the course of proceedings and played in various lineups supporting one or other of 'em. Highlights included "Do Geese See God?" a song crafted entirely of palindromes, some deft blues harp, the delightful number, "Automatic Robot Answering Machine" and the wise assessment that although we grow up with the lesson that "Sticks and stones will break your bones but words can never hurt you," words can, and will, hurt and you can make hay outta that realization in song. Repeat performers from February's U.O.M. include Louise Richardson, whose middle-English Chaucer poem was backed by ace harpist, Smokey, who did some songs of his own, too, later returning to jam with Douglas Roberts for a blues number. Don Phelps arrived to play some blues with Arizona themes, and banjo neophyte William Scoular opened with some nice picking and even better wit. David Jones was back with more Flavola-flavored songs, aided by Brad Johnston on accordion (see photo); Brad swapped to guitar to play a new tune he's working on then picked up the accordion again to help me finish off the evening as backing keys on a moody "Ghost Town." I closed the night with a decent rendition of "Black and White," which invariably makes me hungry to relearn some Phil Ochs numbers. We'll see what comes of that!

David and Brad's band, Crystal Flavola and my outfit, The Late Joys, share the early double bill at The Carousel Lounge this Thursday night. Music starts at 7pm; y'all can be home in time for The Daily Show! Come on out this week or, better still, come out this week to hear us play then bring your musical instrument to April's Ultimate Open Mic, scheduled for the 29th, and play some of your own stuff. I'd love to see you there!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Robi at the E Street Cafe

While on vacation in Encinitas at my folks' place I thought it'd be good to play a solo gig at a local SoCal venue and the E Street Cafe obliged with a Monday night spot on the spiffy little stage at the smart cyber cafe. Besides the regulars and stragglers and anglers, surfers and coffee sergeants, my parents' friends arrived in quantifiable numbers for what turned out to be a rather good gig. Thank you, Yancey, Brian and all the folks at the E Street Cafe!

To make some "ambient noise" for a couple hours I plugged into an amp for vocals and strummed my guitar. The guitar, my acoustic Gibson (the relatively new one), I purchased maybe a dozen years ago from just up the road in Encinitas. A homecoming of sorts. My parents took up the front table and peopled it with their pals, lots of Hungarians; auld home night. It was nice to be able to chat with those who wanted to hear the deep background to my tunes and just as nice to hear those "ambient" listeners in all nooks of the room applaud on occasion. Best received songs? Black and White, Everybody's Going Away, Honestly.  Felt good the whole evening, honestly!

The two set lists in full:

Set One
Land of 1,000 Girls (Scruffy the Cat)
Haymarket Rain (the "local" version)
Cheap Luxuries
Sweet Pretenses
She's Got A New Spell (Billy Bragg)
Little Swimsuit
We're Going Steady Now
Ghost Town
Just Like Gravity
Everybody's Going Away

Set Two
A Tilt Of The Cap, A Handshake And A Beer
Windsor Road
(The Angels Want To Wear My) Red Shoes (Elvis Costello)
Infinite Kiss
Black and White
Like Big Girls Do
Twisty System
(What's So Funny About) Peace, Love And Understanding (Nick Lowe)

Monday, March 8, 2010

Ankle Gah!

Played soccer with my Sunday league team yesterday. This is a photo of my right ankle this morning.

You can actually see the stud marks from where the other guy (literally) put the boot in. To be fair, though it hurt when I got "tapped," it wasn't an extraordinarily bad challenge. We just got the ball at the same time and he got a bit of me as well. I played on a little longer and then subbed myself off for the rest of the game, to be safe, 'cos it hurt a little more than your average knock. I could walk on it (heck, I ran on it for the little while I was still on the field) and I drove the 40 minutes home well enough. No big deal, right?

When I was 19 I broke my other ankle while playing keepy-uppy with a soccer ball, all on my own, on my parents' rutted driveway. I turned it in a divot and heard the crack as my ankle buckled. I limped into the backyard to report the injury and my grandparents, of the shake-it-off school of utilitarianism, told me it was probably just a sprain and the best thing to do for a sprain was "walk on it," which, dutifully, I did. When I awoke the next morning and saw the swollen discolored joint I freaked, then spent six hours at the ER getting an x-ray and, finally, a cast. That was in June right after my first year in college. I had scored a summer gig as a clerk in the fulfillment department at Cheese Lovers, a mail-order service, where not only did we find ways to get people their favorite cheese-mocking processed products delivered to their doors, we sold catalogue-issue gemstones of dubious provenance. That was my desk: the gemstone fulfillment sub-department, shared with some other college-aged guy whose name long ago alighted on one the distant-most branches of what passes for my memory. The so-called gems were merely polished rocks with fancy names or so we believed (we might have given too much credit to the folks in charge), and we reveled in the vanity of the gulls who bought this junk. Better still were the hate letters we received (and kept on display) condemning us to eternities in Hell and worse for duping the poor dopes who bought our crap.

The fulfillment sub-department was an anonymous room on the second floor of a typically anonymous office building in a typically anonymous complex near Islip, a town in the middle of Long Island that has an airport to give it some sparkle. Our building had no elevator. So in my newly minted cast I had a daily climb up and down the concrete steps. Up to work; down for lunch; up to work; down to leave.  Breaks were also taken outside, where the mostly middle-aged women congregated for their gossip and nicotine. I tended to stay upstairs, saving me a climb. I'm glad I wasn't a smoker. What a drag.

My grandparents would have been extremely proud of me yesterday. For not only did I run/walk/drive on my injured joint, at my daughter's birthday party I spent a good 90 minutes ice-skating on it. This morning's relative surprise (I could tell even in my morning blindness that one ankle appeared larger than its twin) led me to the after-hours clinic, x-rays and the initial diagnosis of a sprain. Some radiologist will review those x-rays later today and render a final verdict. I hope he or she is not paid by the degree of the diagnosis!

Monday, March 1, 2010

The (Debut) Ultimate Thursday Open Mic at Cafe Caffeine

Before it fades into the mists of my ever-diminishing memory, a brief recap of the first Ultimate Thursday Open Mic at Cafe Caffeine, which I hosted last week (2/25 if you're keeping track). Besides a small coterie of friends who helped me out by appearing and performing some terrific tunes were a few locals and one fellow, Redeye Carl (or "RC"), who happened to be in town that day having traveled from the Houston area. RC kicked off the evening with some finger picked, bluesy numbers. Following RC came the "Cougar Jones Band," a trio of guitar, (Rickenbacker) bass (1970s vintage, blue, yum) and hand-held drum, the name of which I've inconveniently forgotten, but Brad Johnston would know...(Brad?). "Not all our songs are in minor keys," offered Cougar, and the combo proceeded to play Jerry Jeff Walker's "Hill Country Rain."

Louise Richardson, local light -- or light opera? -- took the stage for a 15-song medley she sang a cappella in about six minutes (previewing her musical that debuts at Cafe Caffeine in April)! We got her back onstage for an encore later in the evening and I defy you to find anyone else in the history of music to end a rhyming couplet with "Raisinetted" (from a cinematic number she sang).

The next local to hit the stage was "Smokey," short for "Southernmost Smoke," who performed on harmonica. The man's encyclopedic: Not only in terms of knowing the history of the instrument but the way he played it, bending notes and creating a theramin effect by waving his hand wildly about the air near the harmonica. I was a little concerned when he left and then returned for "today's paper," as the rough-hewn harpist looks a little like the sort of fellow who'd use it for a blanket. Not, I'm told, the case. I'm looking forward to hearing him play next month.

David Jones and Brad Johnston performed songs new and slightly used. They're part of the local outfit, Crystal Flavola, which, they say, is gearing up to start gigging again in a neighborhood near you in the coming months.

A fellow named Gary Devries dropped by and borrowed a guitar for a couple of dulcet tunes, and then Scottie Hickman and I took our turns with tunes new and slighly used. We'll be joining the other Late Joys on Saturday night at Jovita's for the band's sorta-annual birthday gig.

Once we'd gone 'round once there was time for most of us still in the cafe to have another turn. I closed the proceedings with a sloppy "We're Going Steady Now," but it felt good to play; take that!

Things I learned: clearly I need an alias. The night effervesced with the likes of "RC," "Cougar," "Smokey"...all fine monikers of a rather rough-hewn Texan nature. I'll take suggestions if you've got 'em. Plus I think I should dress up a little. The evening couldn't really get any more informal, but it'd be nice to introduce the performers as a slightly more dapper MC. We'll see. Maybe I'll wear a hat.

I reckon next time (3/25 if you're still keeping track) we'll have some more performers; I hope to see you there, too: Sign up is at 7pm, and the open mic runs from 7:30-10pm. Cafe Caffeine has a fine selection of beers, coffee, food and a congenial atmosphere. Don't miss it!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010


Yes, we all want to live on Pandora, as Na'vi, in communion with all living things, full of confidence and humility as we interact with all that intersects our lives. Elongated, elegant, sinewy, sensual, dragon-taming blue creatures with poison-tipped arrows making quick, humane kills? Why not?

My more earth-bound response to the movie: My eyes felt cold as I watched in relatively glorious three-dimensions. I don't know that the extra dimension did anything to enhance my viewing experience, though the panaromas of Pandora and the flora and fauna looked...uh...out of this world. A magical place, certainly. Could the movie have succeeded in plain old two dimensions? Yeah. In fact, in terms of composition, I'd argue that the audience in our three-dimension-ready specs was spoon-fed where to look even more than in a stodgy old two-dimensional endeavor. (The audio, too, offered more heavy-handed spatial thuds: Off-screen sounds behind us didn't necessarily lead to consistent entrances and exits, be the noise-maker bug, magic seed or chunk of capitalist metal.)

Oh, but these are quibbles, as are any complaints about the derivative script, the lack of surprises plot-wise, the hackneyed characters, the violence. (Are we really like that? Don't answer!) The overarching beauty of the idea of a world out there that beats ours and our petty ways by a factor too great truly to comprehend makes Avatar worth watching, absorbing. Commune with that. Then figure out how to treat Earth, just a little, as if it shared the magic of Pandora. Because it still does.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Open Mics and Me

When I first arrived in this hallowed land of musicians, clubs and all those trappings of the world's "live music capital" I sought out open mic nights to try my tunes out on the unsuspecting populace, the lucky beggars. Of course, open mics are mostly frequented by the musicians who perform and the joint's lucky/unlucky bar staff. Still, OMs offer aspiring musicians a stage, a generally convivial -- if slightly skittish -- audience, a supportive MC (usually) and something of a performance atmosphere; it's a happy medium between a full-bore spotlit gig and strumming your latest tune in your bedroom to your girlfriend/boyfriend/cat.

I focused on two venues in particular: The Cactus Cafe and the Austin Outhouse, both because they were between UT, where I was attending graduate school, and my house, where I was attending to all things un-academic. The Outhouse is long gone, having made way for the expansion of Flamingo Motor Cars  (that brown, rounded building on the left was the Outhouse.) The old broken neon sign lived on for years, but I think that, too, is gone. Everyone and his guitar-strumming aunt knows the impending fate of the venerable Cactus.

The way open mics work, and certainly the way they worked in the early 1990s, cough, is that you showed up and signed up in the order you arrived for your 15 minutes or three songs, whichever was shorter. I can't recall anyone going over their allotted time, though one or two shaggy dog troubadours came close, "Alice's Restaurant" an evident influence on the weak willed. It's still like this for the most part: show up at such-and-such a time, claim your slot, sing. A time-honored scheme.

But sometimes the muckety-mucks who run the OMs tamper with the formula.

To whit: A few years after my first forays I returned to the Cactus and discovered that musicians had to put their names into a hat as part of a random drawing for the limited number of slots (that the MC was taking 30 - 40 minutes right in the middle of the night didn't help). The drawing occurred as the night wore on, too, not at the start of the evening. You could arrive at 6:30 for the 7:00 sign-up only to discover as midnight drew closer that you weren't going to get on stage. No thanks! I switched my allegiance to the (then) newly opened Ruta Maya International Headquarters, which still does an OM, though I see it's a lottery now, too, sigh. I wonder if the MC draws names before the OM starts? At least then you'd know if you were playing without having to wait and wait and wait...

Is there some lack of trust of the musicians? I always saw us as a polite, orderly little fraternity, taking note of who was there when we walked in the door and who came after us. I remember no fussing at all about whose turn it was to sign up for a slot. People who arrived too late took it in stride that they weren't going to get on that night. Yeah, yeah, musicians can be jerks, but not open mic-ers, whose biggest fault is usually going for those vocals just a tad too hard or apologizing unnecessarily if a song doesn't go the way they want. 

I guess I can put all this to the test when I start to host an open mic night at Cafe Caffeine, the Ultimate Thursday Open Mic.* I plan to run it the old-fashioned way, with sign-up on a first-come first-served basis. So you can choose your time then call everyone you know to come see you play. Yeah, I'll do a slot, maybe the first one, or maybe the last. I'm looking forward to hearing what I anticipate will be a variety of genres and skill levels as I make the acquaintance of a slew of Austin's talented strummers, pluckers and warblers. Plus I intend to drag some of my friends in for those prime mini-sets to hear their new material. I'll post the few rules soon.

First open mic is Thursday, February 25. Sign up at 7:00pm. See you there!

*Because it's the last Thursday of the month, naturally!

Friday, February 5, 2010

I Don't Want To See You Around

I mentioned in an earlier post that there were two songs that emerged from my primordial creative ooze in late December/early January. Sweet Pretenses was one song. This post is about the other.

I was listening to KUT on the way to work, in the truck, as usual, and a Jon Dee Graham song was playing, don't ask me which one. He was reusing/repeating a set of chords and I was sort of humming along and blurted out what turned out to be a promising opening line to a song. So I turned off the radio and embarked on some improvisations as I drove.

At commute's end, what had I got? The first line to a song and a repeated payoff, the punch line to each couplet:

It's brutally cold and the cops are out
You better buckle up and you better slow it down
I don't want to see you, I don't want to see you around

I should add here that it was brutally cold that morning and the cops were indeed out in force, ticketing drivers on Mopac and Loop 360. I sang that line as a reminder to myself to keep it in check as I drove the all-too-familiar route to work. The payoff? Well, I guess I just felt it was time to express a need to be alone. Though I'm still not sure that's what the protagonist really wants.

Now what? Well, two things started to work themselves out between me and my muse (not my "nurse," Andrew S.!): One was that the song felt like it was a slow-burn kinda thing, starting spare and getting more and more robust, leading to a real rocker of a break. I figure with the band we can build from a finger picked, quiet growl to a bit of a roar before we settle back down. Part of making that happen was to sing the payoff after every couplet, sort of reinforcing the admittedly misanthropic impact of each misanthropic verse.

The second thing is this sense of rottenness I'm feeling about how we're living our lives these days. Or not living them. What is it? Unfulfillment? A lack of cohesion between us as friends, lovers, neighbors, people? I don't know. I just know that "I don't want to see you around" feels right in this setting.

Which brings me to the rest of the song. And my struggle with its bastard love-childness.

Now, if you've followed my song writing at all you know that I really want the lyrics to stand alone, sans music, because they're really strong and can withstand that sort of exposure. That's the goal, anyway. And it works more often than not, I think. I'm not at all sure this song's lyrics stand up to such scrutiny, though. They're a bit Samson-esque -- post-haircut.*

Why? I figured out the music pretty quickly, but the words weren't coming. I know the song is about someone whose partner leaves, probably with cause. Or maybe not. Feeling vague about it, I opted for a highly artificial process to kick-start the lyric writing. First there's the rhyme scheme, which I kept identical almost throughout the tune. The challenge was to stick religiously to "old"/"out"/"up"/"down." Of course, I took a liberty or two.

It struck me the protagonist was a gambler, or should be, hence the forced conceit. Nothing like a song about someone who's a loser on two fronts. Or is it three?

Musically, and you'll just have to wait until the band comes 'round to performing the song, I went full throttle with a "plan," where I tweaked the chord structure by one chord in each round: two couplets and their punch lines.

The overall, nagging feeling is that the song may be too artificial, too contrived, and yet it sings well and it feels pretty good when I sing it. Which goes a long way, for better or worse, to making it seem as if it's actually okay, that it's stronger than it first appears on the page. Maybe it can hold up the temple after all. I'll let you be the judge.

It's brutally cold and the cops are out
You better buckle up and you better slow it down
I don't want to see you, I don't want to see you around

The die has been thrown, you want to cash out
But you gotta ante up before you lay your cards down
I don't want to see you, I don't want to see you around

You say it's getting old so now you're getting out
First you bundle up and then you dress me down
I don't want to see you, I don't want to see you around

One thing before you go did you ever have a doubt
That I would screw it up, you placed your bet I'd let you down
I don't want to see you, I don't want to see you around

I heard the door close as you saw yourself out
I know I rode my luck I rode it straight into the ground
I don't want to see you, I don't want to see you around

We were good as gold, I heard you say it out loud
But you gotta keep up your appearance in this crowd
I don't want to see you, I don't want to see you around

It isn't what you know it's how you're found out
I could make it up somehow but, baby, I'm too proud
I don't want to see you, I don't want to see you around

You left me all alone with my shadows and my doubts
I should pay that debt but I'm beyond that now
I don't want to see you, I don't want to see you around

I'm sitting in the cold trying to work it all out
I fill another cup but my sorrows won't drown
I don't want to see you, I don't want to see you around
I don't want to see you, I don't want to see you around

The rocking break finally arrives here

It's brutally cold and the cops are out
You better buckle up and you better slow it down
I don't want to see you, I don't want to see you around
I don't want to see you, I don't want to see you around
I don't want to see you, I don't want to see you around

*I guess that means don't be surprised if the lyrics undergo some sort of alteration (a perm?) in the coming months!

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Sweet Pretenses

No decent recording of this yet, though at a ruinous 6/8 it reminds me of "Satellite," by Elvis Costello (the one he sings with the help of Chrissie Hynde on "Spike"). I started off calling it "Nothing Much In It," but that was before I stumbled on the last, apt phrase. Because I'm so wordy, I'm toying with plopping "Nothing Much In It" as a sub-head, not that it matters, but then these days ALL modern works of fiction (or non-fiction; or semi-fiction; or duplicitous truth) call for an explanatory sub-head...we'll see.
Dunno if it's going to be a Late Joys song yet, as it's rather delicate. But if I swing that gig in Southern California in March you can bet I'll give this a troubadour's best effort! Here are the lyrics:

There’s nothing much in it between love and disaster
Was it only beginning? Was it all in the past?
In less than a minute, in one or two sentences
You’re at your limit; you’ve dropped your defenses

Did you get what you wanted? A little more clarity
Were you better not knowing? Had you taught yourself not to see?
How could you have missed it, all of the evidence?
Oh what a gift if you’d never come to your senses

You jog on the treadmill, push the cart up another aisle
It’s a matter of inches but it feels like a million miles
You’re second guessing your second guesses
It felt much better when they were all sweet pretenses

There’s nothing much in it between truth and denial
It’s a matter of inches but it feels like a million miles
You’re second guessing your second guesses
It feels much better when they’re all sweet pretenses

Update: Got the gig in SoCal. E Street Cafe. 3/15/2010. More anon.

Monday, January 18, 2010

New Tunes

Maybe it's the new year. Maybe it's because I'm starting to write lists, as everyone in the know suggests for success. Maybe it's because Scottie brought a new song in and I'm just that competitive. Maybe I just lucked up.

Whatever the reasons, and I'm sure there are a more than one, two new songs have emerged in the past few days from the primordial ooze of my creative juices. Two more are sliming ahead in their own evolutions. By month's end I might just have four new songs, which is three more for the month than I targeted on my new year's list. And a daunting target for next month!

I have to admit I'm in a rather dark place lately. Lots of friends are going through tough times. We're all getting older. The things that hit me hard, the things that want to become song material, come from what might seem like staid suburbia, but there's so much pain out there burdening so many good friends it insinuates itself into my consciousness and, when I put pick to guitar, what emerges reflects (shadows?) all those shifting landscapes. What we thought we knew, the lives we thought we were leading, nothing is turning out the way we expected.

I'll post soon on both new tunes.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Robi's Page of Gobbledegook: Robbledegook!

Let's just for a moment assume I have something to say. Let's say it may or may not have something to do with my band, The Late Joys, for which I toil in the realm of social media to the neglect of any non-musical creative output. Let's say this might be a good place to scribe all that other stuff. Maybe let's give it a try.

I'm verbose. Perhaps that's not explicitly the correct usage for writing reams and reams of self-imagined fluff, folly, facts and fantasies (to the great disappointment of Mr. Orwell). Yet type-type-typitty-type-type I go. The digital counterpart to "'blah, blah,' I go." Which I do, too. And if much of what ultimately airs and inks is gobbledegook, and if it hails from Robi, is it not "Robbledegook?"

Expect, then, that this forum is a place for me to jam on words, thoughts, ideas, dreams and all the unsung prose and poesy that's getting crowded out by the musical me.

So just for a moment, let's pause and take a deep breath...and then, as the Feelies once sang, "Let's go!"