I live 3 doors away from Berkeley Fire Engine Co. 6 and the Berkeley training facility for firefighters. For years I’ve enjoyed hearing the yelling of commands, the ratcheting clank of extension ladders, the reassuring sound of the trucks as they head off to help in various fire and medical situations. There’s one firefighter who practices bagpipes in the courtyard – I like that. The sound of occasional chainsaw practice is not my favorite thing (not conducive to writing elegaic melodies). But watching this video I have a new and deep appreciation for their chainsaw work.
I don’t recall hearing their sirens before dawn last Monday when they raced off to Santa Rosa. They themselves had no idea what they were heading for – the journey there is quotidian, chronicling the everyday nature of their work. But upon arrival, things get hairy. One of them filmed (and edited) their experience, and it’s heartbreaking, terrifying, amazing, brave, and uplifting. Check the links at the end for ways to help.
I was 14 when my older sister (17) got a job as a nanny in Wyoming and was gone for the whole summer. Her room in our home in Palo Alto was a 6×6 foot space in the garage that was the ultimate teenagers’ hideaway. It had been built as a darkroom by the former owners, and when we bought it my dad had cut a hole in the wall for a window and installed a cot and some shelves. With her gone, I found refuge there, away from my younger sister and brother (ages 4 and 1 at that time).
She had left behind her nylon-string guitar. In my copious summer free time I picked up the guitar, and, using only the top three strings, would write little melodies. (I couldn’t for the life of me figure how you got your fingers all the way around to play the other strings). Unlike the piano in the living room, which somehow did not lend itself to ‘goofing around’, the guitar, and that tiny room, allowed me to just find my way into music.
After a few weeks, I hungered for more. My sister had also left behind her Joan Baez songbook. Not my usual fare, but I noticed that each song had little chord diagrams which showed you where to put your fingers to make chords. It was so simple! All of a sudden I could make C and G and D chords! I was in heaven. It wasn’t rock and roll, but at least it was a guitar, the instrument of rock and roll!
Then I took the guitar over to the piano, and found the same notes that were in guitar chords existed on the piano. You could make chords on the piano! Brilliant! Music was suddenly simple and grasp-able, and, most of all, fun. The fun hasn’t stopped yet…
Hey, it’s me – I’m made in America! Granted, I contain a lot of foreign parts, but they were imported decades ago, back when foreigners were allowed in. I’m American! It’s Made in America Week!
This week, don’t listen to foreign music – Listen American! Every song I write, every single note, was composed here in America. Sure, some of those notes and words were used before, somewhere else in the world, but I put them together, proudly, right here in the good old USA.
If everyone would just listen to American music this week, American Songwriters like me wouldn’t have to sell so many t-shirts and mugs to make up for lost revenue in the recent shift to music streaming. I used to get $2.25 every time one of my CDs (made in the USA) sold, and I used to get $0.66 every time someone downloaded a song from Apple (American!) or Amazon (American!). I made a decent hard-earned dollar and paid my bills!
Did you know that YouTube (American…) pays me $0.000026 every time someone listens to one of my songs? It’s hard to count that many zeros. Try this: Last month, 71,154 people enjoyed one of my songs, and I got $1.85. That ain’t a gallon of gas or a cup of coffee. If every red-blooded American listened to my songs once this week (300 million or so) I would make $7,800! American Songwriters could make money from Americans listening to American songwriting, if only we all listened til our ears bled!
Until America is made great again, and our elected officials change the laws so that American songwriters can make a decent wage again, here’s a little something we can all do:
If you’ve been really enjoying someone’s music on Spotify, Pandora or YouTube (the artists don’t have to be American), pay them something. You could pay for a download, or buy their CD. Just buying one song for $0.99 gives that artist the monetary equivalent of 38,461 listens on YouTube! It would be downright patriotic to put one of your hard-earned American dollars towards the music (and musicians) you love.
And remember, if you live in the USA – every deed you do, every thought you think, is Made in America!
During the 60’s we spent every Christmas day at my grandparents’ house in Los Gatos, CA. Cousins from out of town were sometimes there with their moms and dads. It was noisy and fun. When Grandaddy picked up the phone to call his siblings in Denmark, we all had to be very quiet. It was so expensive to call overseas, we were made aware of how extravagant it was. He spoke first to the operator, and when the call finally went through, he spoke a strange language, loudly, into the phone. He smiled, he laughed. My mom remembers him crying. When he hung up, things returned to normal noisy celebration. He was just Granddaddy again.
He came to United States as a boy, by himself, in 1921. He was not a refugee. His mother, father, brother and sisters continued to live in Copenhagen, while he, at the age of 14, decided to go to work onboard steamships, first as a cabin boy and then as a doctor’s assistant. When he was 16 he jumped ship in San Francisco, and lived the rest of his life in the Bay Area. He was an illegal immigrant.
His life as an American was ultimately successful. He fathered a large family, and became a respected businessman. He was a funny and engaging public speaker. A warm grandfather. That’s the man I knew.
After he died in 1979, his sisters gave me a box of letters he’d written to Copenhagen from the time he left home. In them, his homesickness is laid bare. He loved his siblings, and his mother especially. He wanted so much to see them. But during the 1920’s he was illegal – he could not travel outside the U.S. He fell in love, married, and soon became a father. He earned U.S. citizenship and dreamt of bringing his young family to visit Denmark, but the depression of the 1930’s descended and there was no money. Then came the war. When the Nazis invaded and occupied Denmark, communication became censored and sporadic. His letters to Denmark are full of worry.
It wasn’t until 1947, two years after the war ended, that he was able to book passage on a freighter to Europe to finally see his family in Copenhagen again. He’d found success with a truck leasing company during the war years, and had enough money to bring his whole family, and mountains of food and clothing for his war-deprived siblings. They docked in Rotterdam, and took trains through the bombed-out cities of Europe to his old home of Copenhagen. They stayed for 4 months, until business called him back to the U.S. In the coming years he was able to visit Denmark again a few times, and every Christmas he treated himself to a phone call.
Why did he leave Denmark as a boy? A restless nature? A spat with his father? A yearning for opportunity? We don’t really know.
I recently took a Lyft ride in LA with a Bangladeshi immigrant. 35 years in the U.S., a citizen, owner of 2 successful liquor stores, proud of the Bangladesh community in L.A. He taught his children Bangla, they enjoy talking with their cousins in the old country, but they are fully American. He said he loves to travel ‘home’ every year, but that he doesn’t fit in there anymore. He’s too American now. But, he says, every hour of every day he thinks of home. It’s a constant ache. He is never fully at home in America.
I imagine my grandfather suffered similarly.
We are born somewhere, we grow up somewhere, it becomes a part of us. Why do some people emmigrate? Why do some people stay when opportunity is scarce, or danger imminent? Even within a country, people could move to a new region or state to find work. But then there’s home. While economic opportunity (or lack thereof) or escape from danger are powerful motivators for moving, home is a gravitational force. If we leave home, it will still, like gravity, tug at us.
If my residence was based on economic self-interest, I should be in LA or NY. The job opportunities are much better there for my line of work. And I’ve spent a few months living in each of those cities, but they’re just not home to me. I even tried living in my Grandfather’s country, Denmark – I loved it, yet I felt more comfortable when I got back to the U.S. If circumstances forced me to, I could learn to live somewhere else. And it would become a kind of home to me. But I would always miss where I came from.
I seem to be finally passing out of stage 1 of the 49 stages of grief, and am getting back to putting dinner on the table in a timely fashion. A couple weeks ago, while I was still zoned out in stage 1, rather than fix dinner I spent a few hours going through the voice memos on my phone. I use voice memos to record music and lyrical ideas, and there was quite a backlog from years past.
Most of the material was forget-able and delete-able, but there were a few good ideas, and an especially fetching one from 2013. I began transcribing that idea, when I noticed the date on it – my dad’s birthday. On his birthday in 2013, he was in upstate New York at a facility that was supposed to be great for Alzheimer’s care (it wasn’t). I was home in Berkeley caring for my wife and child who were going through the stomach flu, and trying to pack up our house for a pending move that coming weekend. My piano was in my studio where much of our belongings, and things like the washer and dryer, had been moved for storage. I guess I must have gone back there with a box of stuff to store, and sat down for a moment to play something in honor of my dad. I recorded it on my phone, but then forgot about it.
But the curious thing, is this is yet another piece for right hand piano, like the one I wrote just after my dad died. I don’t usually write for one hand – I’m a two-fisted guy. Perhaps I couldn’t find a place to put down the box of stuff, so wrote this while holding the box? Or maybe my dad was, in some ways, my right hand man, and this is the universe trying to get me to realize the metaphor?
Well, it’s mildly cosmic. The music is not a typical happy birthday kind of piece, but he was going through a tough time in New York, and I was stretched thin, so it expresses that day in 2013. And I like it now.
My dad had passed away 2 weeks before, I was still in a fog from that. On Tuesday I was coming down with a cold, by Tuesday night had the shivers, fever. Wednesday morning awoke to the election results. Triple whammy. Flu, grief, and more grief. In this state, I couldn’t do much, didn’t feel like doing much. Looking for a place to sit, I sat at the piano. Too much energy to use both hands, so just let my right hand start plunking. And this is what came out. Sadness, dissonance, exhaustion, but still a whiff of hope mixed in.
I feel as if some far-off inheritance that I’d been expecting, but not depending on, has been taken away. You know, some kind of solidity that gives you a sense of security, that allows you to step out and take risks, knowing that the ground will still be under your feet after you’ve fallen and gotten up.
Such a vain and shallow man, who can spew such hatred in so many directions, who thinks so little of anyone except himself – he won? That so many could vote for him, either just to shake things up, or because he’ll move things in a more rightward direction, or because they really do share his hatred and disgust? It shakes my faith in America, in my country.
I’m so very sad. And afraid. Afraid the economy is going to tank. Afraid of nuclear missiles. Afraid for the glorious diversity that is my family, my neighborhood, my city, my country. Afraid that my health insurance is going to be cancelled, that my social security will be gone, that everything from here on out will be a fight for basic decency. Afraid for the whole world. And, did I mention sad?
This morning I listened to the radio, a review of Leonard Cohen’s new album “You want it darker” came on. It’s not like it lifted me up, but it did make me feel not so alone:
“If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game
If you are the healer, it means I’m broken and lame
If thine is the glory then mine must be the shame
You want it darker
We kill the flame”
After a long decline into Alzheimer’s, my dad passed away on Wednesday. Peacefully. As a young man he was incredibly dynamic. In middle to older age he was wound up pretty tight. The first years of memory and control loss were fierce and difficult, but a few years ago he sloughed off all bitterness and became a remarkable warm and happy person, a pleasure to be around. As sentences and then words abandoned him, I would run out of things to say to him after a while. But I would sit at the piano and play through a fake book, or just improvise, and he would dance, howl, and smile. He liked it when I went wild – clusters and forearm bashes and wrong notes tickled him.
This past week he was confined to the bed in his room, with no piano around. So I brought a guitar, and sang some songs, sometimes made things up. There was a lot of waiting, too much time to fill with talking, so the music helped me and my mom (and, we’re hoping, my dad). The wheezing and clunking of the oxygen machine was constant. When he passed, the machine was turned off, the room quiet. I kissed his head, one kiss for each of his 4 children (I was the only offspring present then), and reminded him how he lived on through us and his grandchildren. Then I was moved to play a last song for him. The music is from a production of Truman Capote’s “Holiday Memories” at the Aurora Theater. My dad came to all my local productions – he sat through all the radical left-wing Brechtian stuff I cut my teeth on in the 70’s, came to quite a few Bobs concerts in the 80’s, and attended the variety of stuff I got up to in the 90’s, including “Holiday Memories”. Can’t say why this is the song, why I needed to sing it… It just happened that way. As my nephew said: Love in all directions 🙂
This is one of my favorite early songs my son wrote (age 9). The guitar lick is classic rock style. Again, he sang it to me, I played it. He wrote it, baby. He produced it – that opening bit where it goes from small and tinny to full-blown stereophonic splendor is all his idea. Then when it came time to sing, he rocked it hard, so hard – from 2:00 out he’s possessed. It’s not like we ever even thought about Monster Trucks in our house, but he latched onto something in coming up with the lyrics. Is it really about Monster Trucks? Who knows. Who cares. Listen and bleed…