Lessons in Life

*originally published in Sound Waves Magazine April 2018

Growing up, I had a love of music that I will attempt to explain here. It all started in a Catholic church in Groton, Connecticut and the Folk Group Mass. I had been going to church since I had been swaddled and the ancient hymns performed usually out of tune by a failed opera singer and a failed concert organist had been ingratiated in my brain. When the family moved from Florissant, Missouri to Connecticut in 1975, we realized things were a tad different in The North. Hippies were everywhere. Acoustic guitars and long-haired tie-dyed clothed cool people took over the repetitive music portions of the weekly ceremony, and I fell in love. Songs like “Morning Has Broken” and “Jesus Christ Superstar” fit into the service like jelly on peanut butter and I dug it. I was too young to join the folk group, but I wanted in on the action. Somehow.

I started timidly. I asked for a pink 45-RPM record player. I would take my paper route money, any money I could find actually, and purchase the hit songs of the day. Listening actually became quite a favorite activity of mine. I would sit on the floor of my room for hours on end. I wore out Beach Boys, Carpenters, and Barbra Streisand records and the worst pop songs ever recorded like, “The Night Chicago Died,” and “Billy Don’t be a Hero,” and “Sylvia’s Mother.”

But I learned. The Beach Boys taught me how to sing harmonies, Karen Carpenter taught me how to control my voice, and Babs taught me how to make every word and every note count. I used to play tiddlywinks with the insets of the holes in the 45s. I would set them up on the floor shaped into little neighborhoods where I would one day live, where everybody had 45s playing different songs, at the same time, in a symphony of ridiculousness. I remember just sitting on the floor for hours, and with six siblings in the house, no one even noticed. Besides, my parents were forever cranking the Ray Conniff singers on their big album record player. Their music was not my music. Not cool enough, sorry.

When it was time for bed, I would play my clock radio all night long, tuned to whatever station played Barry Manilow and Bread. Those melodies permeated my subconscious every single night throughout my growing years. Even now, I can name those tunes in three notes. I could win a million dollars if that ‘70s show Name That Tune was still on.

Since I had two older brothers, I also learned how to be a cool listener. I would hang out in their room, lie on the floor, stare at the ceiling, and groove to Led Zeppelin, Genesis, Boston and Pink Floyd. I still like to get high listening to the greatest ending of any song ever – “Freebird.” Just kidding. About the getting high part.

But when I watched Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music it really started to click with me. That movie is like a master class in what music is all about which simply is: do-re-me-fa-so-la-ti-do. I could finally visualize how all the sounds on those wonderful 45s were made, and I wanted to know more. I wanted to know everything. I wanted to be in the folk group at church.

So I gathered up some confidence and told my parents I wanted to learn how to play music so I could join the folk group at church. They did what all well-intentioned Catholic parents would do when faced with such a request. They signed me up for accordion lessons! The checkered panted, collared-shirt-buttoned-up-too-tight, thick mustached dude showed up with this monstrous bag of piano keys, and began his lesson. I didn’t have a clue what he was saying or how he was making sound come out of the thing. That thing sat untouched in my room until the next lesson, and the non-learning went on. I explained to my mother that I just wanted to sing and play guitar with the cool long-hair people at church. These pleadings, and pretty much all outrageous requests for the next nine years, were usually answered with the emphatic Hungarian phrase: Uyum Puffum Vogluk kutchya kate a semmed kitick! Didn’t know what it meant, other than, forget it! I would stomp up to my room and slam the door, or sometimes run away which meant, throwing some underwear and some candy in a paper bag and walking down the street to my friend Sara’s house. My younger brother Paul, on the other hand, would handle undesirable answers to requests by sticking his hand onto a hot pile of spaghetti and holding it there for as long as he could.

But eventually, they gave in. “Well, if you’re going to use the lessons for playing in church, that’s alright with us,” they said. I guess you could call this my first lesson in “How to Manipulate a Situation to Your Advantage.” I was eight years old.

Somehow an acoustic guitar was purchased and then I couldn’t believe my eyes, I got to take guitar lessons from none other than Peter Frampton!

Well, he was Peter Frampton in my mind anyway, and he could do no wrong, not with that long blonde hair anyway. He was the Frampton Comes Alive version, not the 2017 version mind you. Turns out, he wasn’t really Peter Frampton, and he eventually opened up a very successful music store in Groton, Connecticut called Ron’s Guitars. He asked me what song I wanted to learn first. “I want to learn them all,” I said. So first he taught me “Angie” by the Rolling Stones, which I can still groove on if called upon by the way. I was amazed at how my fingers could create the harmonies I had learned from the Beach Boys’ voices. You just had to press your fingers on the wood in the right formation – and voila! Majors, minors, diminished, sevenths, ninths. I purchased a huge poster illustrating the fingering of every chord there was and practiced them all. I still have the poster. After about three months of guitar lessons from Peter Frampton, the family fortune ran out, and I was on my own. These were the only professional musical instructions I have ever taken. The best teachers are the ones who don’t just teach skills, but impart wisdom on you or encourage you to think for yourself, and that’s the most important thing Ron did for me. After our lessons were over, I continued to teach myself and still do to this day.

Oh, and thanks Mom and Dad, for that guitar. And well, for everything.


Holiday Muffin Pondering

*originally published in Sound Waves Magazine December 2017

I woke this morning to an overwhelming sense of optimism.  My pre-programmed cynicism toward the impending gluttony of the holiday season and all things doom and gloom had vanished without a trace.   Sounds crazy I know with everything that’s going on in our world, but if you look back through history, has anything ever been completely right in this world?  Individually, it’s all how you look at it. Today, all of a sudden it’s clear to me, that I think we all do what we can to make the world a better place.  If we stay generally positive, get pissed off when we have to, work for change when we see something awfully wrong and do our best with whatever talents we have been given, our little worlds can be personally rewarding which as a whole, makes the world a better place.

So this morning I decided that no matter what, I was going to make chocolate banana toffee muffins even though I have a hundred other things to do:  columns to submit; set lists to prepare; promo packages to drop off; gigs to get; melodies and lyrics to get out of my head; strings to change; equipment to unload; trying to find last year’s winter coat; changing some men’s old-fashioned attitudes toward women; that sort of thing.  But by golly, something had to be done about the brown bananas!  I simply will not waste a brown banana!

I prepared the mixture, got flour all over the place and popped the little beauties into the oven.  While they baked I pondered further about my little world.  How long should I wait to put up the Christmas decorations?  How many parties should I attend?  Who should I splurge on?  What do I do for my Jewish friends?  What do I do for my Atheist friends?  If I give something to the garbage collector, will he just be insulted?  How broke should I go?

Although my back was already aching from all the hams and turkeys and cookies and dishes I had slaved over through Thanksgiving, I was determined to bake these muffins even if it killed me!  I loaded up a second batch.

That’s the power of the human spirit you see.  Sometimes you gotta just say screw it and forge ahead.

While the muffin aroma filled my yet to be decorated home, my mind wondered again.  Should I perform Joni Mitchell’s “The River” at holiday gigs or is it too depressing?  Is “Run Run Rudolph” simply ridiculous or do people like it?  Should we just incorporate the sound track from the movie “Elf” and call it a day?  When John Lennon’s “This is Christmas (War is Over)” is playing do you really just want the SONG to be over?  Should I wear a Santa hat or elf ears on stage?  Should I literally arrive with bells on so I jingle with every strum?  Do people really WANT to rock around a Christmas tree?

In a musician’s world, these are very important issues to resolve.  Yes, yes there are many other things to contend with and we often wonder:  can music change the world and does it have to; are we making a difference in the lives of others in any way; or in my case, can baking chocolate banana toffee muffins make my world a little more grand?

We’ll see how long this strange but lovely optimism lasts and if I ever come to any conclusions worth telling you about.  I’ll keep you posted, and see you at the shows!  By the way, most people didn’t even like the muffins.  But I did.  Happy Holidays everybody.


Get Outa Town!

*originally published in Sound Waves Magazine March 2017

When you get nice and comfortable with your musical act and have a substantial fan base filling up the bar stools at your gigs, you mistakenly believe that these fans will be your fans forever. Here’s how it works when you’re a “bar” musician. Single people go out to meet people and maybe by chance your band is playing where people go to meet people. But once single people meet another single person they’d rather hang out with doing other things, they eventually stop going to bars. Two empty bar stools. Couples you manage to get and keep as fans eventually get married, have kids, and can’t get babysitters, so they don’t come anymore either.   Two more empty bar stools. Even if Bruce Springsteen was playing in my town every weekend I still wouldn’t want to go see him every weekend. I could be out of money, or sick, or taking care of someone who’s sick, or sick of his songs. So, your fan base is always changing, in other words, is always diminishing. I believe the solution to this unavoidable calamity is to get yourself outa town in order to reach out to new people who a) have never seen you before so you’re kind of like a novelty, b) they haven’t hooked up with anybody yet so they actually still go to bars and c) to keep your sanity and belief in what you are doing. Playing in new towns is like getting a new Barbie camper – with so many new landscapes to explore. I can re-use my outfits and meet so many new Barbies and Kens.

One of my favorite regions to play is down South in Georgia and South Carolina. I take an earned vacation from my day job and use it as an excuse to play gigs down there. What’s cool about down South is, they think because I’m from the North, that I must be some cool New Yorker with a cool accent, when in actuality, I’m just a bored New Englander who really just needed to get outa town because the bar stools are empty at my gigs.

I played this bar in Lexington, South Carolina which is the only bar for 50 miles. You would think on a Tuesday night that the crowds would be rather light. Not so! The owner asked me to start early, and play later. Ya’ll dig? The owner said, “Ya’ll let me know when you’re gonna be ‘round these parts agin, ya hear?” Easy money right there.

I played a bar in Georgia where it was all about the tip jar. Because I was from the North, people thought I drove all the way down there just to play that bar, so they were quite generous. We called it the “Love Bucket,” and man oh man, did they fill it. Two nights in a row I made enough money in that jar to pay for the whole trip. One elderly gentleman in a worn-out cowboy hat said, “I’ll done give ya one hundred dollers if you play me some Johnny Cash.” I happily obliged.

I went on vacation one year to Madeira, Portugal and met some nice musical people who even invited me up on stage to jam. It was disconcerting that they could sing in English and I couldn’t sing in Portuguese or do any of that Fado stuff, but they seemed to be OK with it. Through Facebook, we arranged an actual gig together for the following year when I would return to Madeira.

The night arrived, I was in town, and I was drinking heavily with my friends. The island of Madeira is an ancient, secluded place where kings and diplomats and sheiks hang out to let loose. Nestled in the North Atlantic near the Canary Islands, it rises up like one big mountain like something out of Jurassic Park. There’s a Pizza Hut on the island that gives out free samples of Madeira wine, which is more like a port, and potent as heck. Actually, this magical port is served everywhere, and if you don’t watch yourself, you can really get trashed, in about 20 minutes. There’s also this crazy drink called a poncha, which is more than a drink. It’s an event. People get together down back alleys and side roads and have a poncha. They eat peanuts and drink and drink and drink this concoction of fire water (really potent alcohol), honey, sugar, lemon rind and fruit juice. It’s like a scorpion bowl on crack. Yes I had one, or two.

On the island, there are also Irish bars, English pubs and Italian restaurants, all competing for the tourist dollar. We were happy to oblige. We tipped outrageously, which they thought was just hilarious. “Americanos – wasting their Euros again!” There was one local bar where all the cops hung out. They smoked weed right at their table, and passed the stuff around like it was completely legal or something. (I think it is.)

The gig time arrived, I walked up the steep cobblestoned incline to the venue (every road is uphill in this place!) and huffed and puffed right on past. I was plastered! I’m sure they did just fine without me. We’re still friends on Facebook.

But my very favorite place to play in the whole world is on my brother’s veranda in a cute little town in Georgia, which is also the hometown of Gregg Allman. Everybody in town knows Gregg Allman, and has guitars or pictures signed by Gregg Allman. When you play guitar on a veranda in Georgia, everybody comes over and it’s a p-ar-ar-tay. The pay isn’t good, but it’s good for the soul. Time to pack the camper!


A Musician’s Carol

*originally published in Sound Waves Magazine December 2016

 Ghost of Music Past

“Suzy darling, do you remember when you were 8-years old?” said the cheery-eyed apparition who appeared out of nowhere.

“Heck no! I’m lucky I can remember what I had for dinner last night!” Suzy said.

“Try harder.”

“OK. Give me a second. Oh yes, yes, I see it now. Are you doing something to my brain? I can see it clear as day. I’m saying, ‘Mommy, Mommy pleeeease can you tell Santa or whoever buys the presents around here that I really really want a guitar for Christmas? You were right. Barbies are boring and rather sexist.”

“Well I’m glad you’ve come to your senses about the barbies dear, but absolutely not. You may NOT have a guitar dear. Girls don’t play guitars. We’ve paid in advance lots of accordion lessons for you.”

Suzy’s little brother Paul, who had been idly playing with some Legos, chimed in.

“If I don’t get a Superman from Santa this year I’m putting my hand on a hot pile of spaghetti and leaving it there forever!” he yelled. Suzy rolled her eyes.

“Mother please, honestly, for someone of such intelligence, where do you think I’m going to get in life playing an accordion?”

“I’ll see what I can do,” she said.

“Very good Suzy,” said the phantom. “Now, do you remember when you were 16-years old?”

Suzy thought a moment. “Oh yes yes I see,” she recalled. I was on stage and the lights were in my eyes and I was kind of like a star and I thought it was the grandest place on earth and that this is what I will do the rest of my life. I will work hard at it just like my schoolwork and attack it like a beast.”

“Excellent Suzy. You always knew that if you had a gift, it was your job to give it away.”

And the ghost was gone.

 Ghost of Music Present

“Ug! Lugging this equipment around is absolutely destroying my back! Man I hope they cancel because of the snowflakes,” Suzy thought to herself. “Nobody’s going to show up anyway. Everybody just wants to drink at home and watch Netflix or plug in their Amazon Fire Sticks or stream YouTube videos of cats. Or they all have to get up early and run a marathon for charity. Or they’re snap-chatting. What’s the point! This time of year is the worst. Between work parties and pie baking and chestnuts roasting and waiting for ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ to come on TV, it’s just downright useless. My music has officially become irrelevant. I simply cannot bear the thought of performing one more time in one more empty bar.”

“Jeez, what a whiner,” the ghost said. “Things are worse than I thought. Let’s see what I can do.”


 Ghost of Music Future

“We could belabor this point for hours,” the grumpy old men said. “Whether it was the musicians who refused to play out anymore or the club owners who canceled all live music, is not the point. The point is, there simply is no more music to be heard anywhere. It’s all gone. Digital samplings squashed together from the music of the past is all we got. Ain’t what it used to be I tell ya.”

A wrinkly old woman with a sparkle in her eye and a smirk on her face stood up in front of the men and said, “My dear boys. Everybody knows the whole world went haywire when that girl started writing those articles in some magazine complaining about the music business all the time and everybody started to believe it was a waste of time and money. Then one day, she stopped playing gigs altogether and stashed her guitar in the attic. Everybody else just sorta followed suit. Before you knew it, all school music programs were canceled and every music store shut down. You couldn’t even find a church choir on Christmas Eve. Oh if not for that wretched girl! What a Scrooge!”

“HA HA HA. No! It was all because of Kanye West!” and they all laughed and laughed and smoked their pot.

“Let me see if there is something I can do about this sad state of affairs,” said the ghost.

 The End – Thanks to the Ghosts

At band practice, present day. Some musicians are determined to write a song together.

“Oh Don! You remind me of Brian Wilson in that movie ‘Love and Mercy’ when he’s telling the cello players to play that super low note over and and over again in ‘Good Vibrations,” Suzy said lightheartedly.

“Yeah right. My bass doesn’t go any lower,” said Dave.

“I can tune down,” said Don the guitar player.

“Who cares about the notes! Let’s move on people! Let’s finish this thing,” said Kevin the drummer, while rolling on the toms.

Suzy was irresistibly intrigued. “This is awesome. You know what? I think we should write a song about Brian Wilson and make it so everybody can sing along to it. Then we can record it and give it away for free, just because! We can sing it all summer long!”

The band hoots and hollers in unison.

“Let’s do it! Merry Christmas to all! God bless us, every one!”

The ghosts hover high above the chilly but cheerful basement stuffed with an assortment of musical instruments, scribbly noted loose leaf papers, guitar picks and drum sticks.

The band mates hear a whisper somewhere in the back of their minds.

“Very good boys and girls. You’ve come to know that while some 8-year olds dream of being Superman, playing music together is actually the thing that feels like flying, and it’s all worth it,” said the ghosts. “We’re depending on you.”

Why Do We Do It?

*originally published in Sound Waves Magazine February 2016

Today I speak to you – YEAH YOU – you in your smelly, moldy, mouse infested basement, you in your bedroom in your bathrobe, you playing guitar six nights a week in the corner of a bar while people get drunk and ignore you, you lead singing for any band that will ask you, you writing songs and hoping to record them and change the world one day, you writing songs while you’re on the road starving to death in your van, you tracking and mixing for bands you can’t stand to listen to, you with the hairbrush in front of the mirror, you who thought taking flute lessons and playing in the middle school band would make you smarter. All of you.

Yes I’m talking to all you musicians out there nobody’s ever heard of.

Why do you do it?

Maybe you do it because you think it’s your ticket out of the 9-5. Maybe you do it because it’s the only thing that makes you feel alive. Maybe you do it because it’s the only thing that keeps you sane in this crazy terrible world. Maybe you do it because Mommy and Daddy made you take piano lessons and now you’ve got this talent that shan’t be wasted. Maybe you do it because you still hate sports and all that stuff about concussions. Maybe you do it because the roar of the crowd makes you cry. Maybe you do it because you still think it will get you girls. Maybe you do it because you believe this is what you were born to do even if it kills you.

And you keep doing it don’t you.

When I was 18 and living in L.A. trying to be a rock star, with absolutely no clue on how to go about becoming a rock star in L.A., I used to marvel at the lights and the energy on Sunset and Hollywood Boulevards while gazing longingly at all the fake and true rock stars and their super long hair. I ate Ramen noodles and scoured the papers for auditions. I lost 30 pounds and got really tan. I secured a real audition finally at a night club in town for a band of some sort at 4 p.m. on a Tuesday. The joint is closed so I knock. And knock. A burly guy comes to the door and asks what the heck I want. I explain I have a very important audition that’s taken me weeks to obtain, and I’m all the way from the east coast so please let me in now.

“You 21?” he asks.

“No. I have a very important audition though.”

“Drinking age is 21. Come back when you’re 21.”

“No seriously. I don’t care about your warm stale beer. They are expecting me and it’s extremely important.”

“Get outa here.” And he slams the door.

On my dreams.

It’s funny how when you’re 18, you think you’re this brilliant game-changer who’s got it all figured out, when in actuality, you know absolutely freaking nothing. For example, I didn’t know the drinking age in California was 21. I didn’t know that in order to play in a band in California, in a bar, you better be 21. I didn’t know that, looking down Hollywood Boulevard at night, at the rows and rows of talented, beautiful, glamorous would-be-nots, that I was really just one step away from a seedy and certainly illegal future if I didn’t get some work soon. I had been out there about three months, and those limp noodles were getting a little old.

So I came back home. Not a rock star.

Now what to do? Maybe you have a similar story. Maybe you would NOT have come home. Maybe you would have kept plugging away. Maybe you still are.

Last month, I learned you’re never too old to go back to school. I received complimentary tickets to see Aretha Franklin at the Mohegan Sun Casino because I throw twenty dollars in a slot machine once a year. I don’t go to many concerts because secretly, I usually just sit there mad because it’s not me up there. (OK, spoiler alert, my secret’s out.) But Aretha can sure teach you a thing or two.

Still Doing It

One of the biggest complaints we musicians have is, in order to keep gigging, because we’re not Taylor Swift or Pharrell or Aretha Franklin, is we have to do covers so people in the audience don’t look at us like we’re complete aliens. “People want to hear stuff they know,” club owners often say. And we get that. Actually, some bands have completely given up on their own originality, because “people want to hear stuff they know.” I want to scream – “If you want to hear stuff you know, just play the juke box!” But it’s not that simple of course. People also want to see a “live band” for reasons ranging from “groupie envy” to “bass thumps in my chest”, to “super sexy guitar player syndrome.” But my point is, when you go see a super famous person, like Aretha Franklin, and she sits down at the piano and does her own glorious, super personal, Gospel-like version of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, I, as a musician, ponder. She’s doing a cover. She most certainly has not been asked by Mohegan Sun to do a cover because “people want to hear stuff they know.” No way. She’s doing it because that song is first of all: awesome; second of all: it means a great deal to her; and third: she not only makes it her own but completely owns it.

My point is, you musicians out there who have made it through the last paragraph of my ramblings, is – don’t be afraid to show who you are on stage, no matter what the club owners say, or the guy slamming the door on you says. The audience is there to see your talent in full form (or else they would simply turn on the juke box.) Mix it up. Surprise them. Don’t hide your creativity and originality. It’s probably why you do it.