RSS Feed

No Easy Story to Tell

I do a lot of genealogy.

I began after being inspired by my uncle who, back in the 70s, began researching one branch of our family. Genealogy was tough business back then. He had to do hard copy research, planning trips to various county courthouses, and Washington D.C. in order to pour through microfiche and archived documents.

After passing on himself in the 90s, his work sat dormant until one of his sisters self-published a book on his work. Upon reading her manuscript, and cogitating on it for some time, I decided to take up the task of completing his journey through time. The television show ‘Finding Your Roots’ provided additional impetus. After all, it was 2007, and the Internet could bring all of the documents to me. So I opened an account on Ancestry.com and, using his work as my foundation, set to work.

Sometimes, when I feel like it, I’ll spend the entire day exhuming the remnants of individuals long since forgotten. The task may be a more convenient one, but is no less difficult. Names were rarely unique in any given period. It is amazing how many people were named ‘John Henry’ or ‘Francis Marion’ back in the 1800s. Throw in an uneventful surname such as ‘White’ or ‘Smith’, and the field broadens rather than narrows. Sometimes documents must be browsed rather than accessed alphabetically. Sometimes there’s no index to these documents. Sometimes individual court books hold thousands of records. Also during these periods, court documents were hand-written, and sometimes it may have been late in the day and the stenographer wanted to go home, and with speed, their handwriting became atrocious.

As with many others, genealogy often goes from a past-time hobby into a full blown compulsion. Determining where to stop becomes difficult. With every generation back that one goes, the workload quadruples. Many families consisted of at least eight children in those days.

After three years of fruitless attempts in finding my maternal 3nd G grandfather, I finally discovered that my 3rd G grandmother had given birth to my 2nd G grandfather illegitimately, and that the family surname was that of his mother, rather than that of his father.

Consider, if you will, that everyone of you reading this has sixteen 2nd G grandparents. And that every one of those people is responsible for your being here.

Consider that I have successfully researched back to my 9th G grandparents in some branches. It becomes easy to see how having over 8,000 people in one’s family tree is nothing special.

I can recall one Summer day at my paternal grandmother’s house. All ten of my grandparent’s adult offspring were there – along with their spouses – and were either sitting on the front porch, or in ladder-back chairs out under the tall Willow Oaks. Over a dozen grandchildren were easily present. I recall one of my aunts talking to the others regarding my uncle’s time-consuming passion.

Finally one called out across the front yard to him, “What do you expect to find out anyhow, Tip?”

He gave a boyish grin and replied, “Aw, you don’t ever know, we might be kin to somebody rich and famous.”

I recall the hearty laughter which followed.

With that Summer day long gone, not only has my grandmother been swallowed, but her old house, my father, and all but two of his siblings, and even a few of my cousins. Soon enough, all that will remain of that day will be my memory of it.

My uncle would be vindicated, were he still alive, and all of his siblings in awe of his objectivity, for thanks to his humble quest, I have determined that everyone gathered there that day were cousins to both the rich and the famous, for instance: Coca-Cola magnate Asa Candler, along with Lem Motlow, who inherited the Jack Daniel’s Distillery. As my cousin likes to say, ‘Everytime someone has a Jack & Coke, it’s a family reunion.’

I also discovered that they were all the 7th great-grandchildren of a woman named Sally Field and her husband Thomas Jefferson – grandparents of the father of our country – who was named after his grandfather.

However, I happen to feel the closest kinship to my 5th cousin novelist William C Falkner. I wonder if he might agree that, for many people, sometimes the simple truth proves no easy story to tell.

Advertisements

Love Is Only For the Young

I have written only a handful of love songs. Those songs are now close to forty years old. Politics is the only subject on which I have written no song whatsoever. Music and politics should never be mixed, and if anyone wants to know why I think so, leave a comment and I’ll cover the subject in a future post.

Today however, I am writing about love. Nasty emotion, love.

Very few of us, if any, ever have the opportunity to realise it. When we are lucky enough to grasp the emotion in its pure state, it is usually in connection with our children, or lacking that, a pet, or last, and probably most rampant, with our imagination through music. I personally believe that outside of these three things, everlasting love does not exist.

It has taken me sixty-one years to figure this out. Of course, being the objective guy that I am, I could change my mind tomorrow. But I doubt it.

Perhaps when I was younger, I was too optimistic. Then again, perhaps it is just experience and age which has made me too damned cynical.

Whatever the case, I was crushed by what I identified as love at almost every point in my life. I’ll bet that most of you will agree that you too were crushed, rather than validated. I’ll also bet that every old love song brings on a wistful gaze to most, calling to mind a love that used to be.

I contend that broken hearts rule the world, not love.

In the end, most of us die with a broken heart. Either a spouse has torn us in two, having passed on before us, our friends have all disappeared, our beloved pets have long since departed, or the place in which we were born and reared no longer exists.

Life insures two things: That, having been born strapped to a dying beast, we will one day not exist; and that before this day comes, we will have our souls ripped out by someone who we will never have again.

Enjoy the now. It is truly all that we have. Today’s joys will be tomorrow’s tears.

Why Musicians Speak Cryptically

Cryptically. Yup, that’s a word.

When I was a young teen, I’d read interviews given by seasoned musicians and was often left wondering precisely what the hell they were talking about a great deal of the time. Folks like Eric Clapton would refer to getting ‘lost’ or ‘out there’ and I wondered if it wasn’t some vague drug reference.

I began playing guitar at seventeen, and was, for much of the time, sorely aware of how poor my playing was. I was super-conscious of every little hiccup, always thinking about what I was doing, and as a result often made major mistakes, sometimes even forgetting the words to my own tunes.

By the age of twenty-nine, I was beginning to feel the urge to follow another path and leave all of my influences behind. This did not happen overnight, but began to make itself apparent only when I ceased to care about what these influences were doing anymore.  I began to play with rhythms and chord voicings which appealed to me, rather than spending time attempting to figure out what someone else was doing. Later still, I began to feel that words and vocals were somewhat unnecessary. I would sometimes ‘hear’ nice melodies in my head, but there were no particular vowels or consonants that would seem to fit, so I would stumble through a the process of picking these melodies out. This was at once awkward and time consuming. Having had no formal training in music, I decided to learn all of the major and minor scales, bit by bit.

I practiced for an hour a day for over a year, seemingly getting nowhere, although I could easily tell that I was gaining in dexterity. I absolutely could not remember all of the minutia.

One day while another guitar player friend was over, my son Sterling walked into the studio and asked me to figure out a song for him. It was She Talks To Angels by the Black Crowes. He handed me the CD and I plopped it in and hit play and picked up my acoustic guitar.

“Oh well, there’s your problem, the guy is in an alternate tuning.” I reached up and re-tuned first one string and then another, still engaging in the subject at hand with my friend, and absent-mindedly began to play the song, “Here, just do this.” I told him, showing him the fingerings.

It was at this point that my son motions toward me, looks at my friend and says, “How the hell did he do that?” to which my friend responds, “I have no idea.”

I looked at them both. “Do what?” I asked. I didn’t know what they were referring to.

“Have you never played that song before?” my friend inquired. I responded that I had not, that I’d only heard it at various times, but did not listen to the Black Crowes. He just looked at my son and shrugged.

Some days later, I was listening to an Aimee Mann CD when something I’d never heard caught my ear. I grabbed my Tele, plugged it in and began to fiddle around as my mind wandered aimlessly. I don’t know how much time had passed, but after some amount, I ‘woke up’ to what I was doing. Then it hit me. I’d been sitting there playing my ass off without even thinking about it. This was light years away from where my journey had begun.

After so many years, I finally came to understand what others were referring to when they’d talk about going into that ‘place’ in their mind. I call it the Zone, and it’s a completely sober experience. It’s a place in between your ears that doesn’t have eyes, or conscious thought. It is akin to driving down the expressway and then ‘waking up’ after having driven several miles. We’ve all done it. It’s kind of dangerous and thrilling all at once, but somehow or the other, we have maneuvered an automobile at a given speed between two lines without really being able to recall precisely how much time has passed.

This is the Zone. When one enters this place while playing guitar, one is not consciously thinking of what one is doing, the fingers develop a mind of their own. This is where the best stuff happens.

Here’s the best tip: Always be recording when you’re playing. It’s like taking photos while you’re on vacation, believe me. You want to have this on tape in order to prove that you really went there. You won’t regret it.

If you’ve never visited the Zone, there’s always a first time.

My Thoughts Since the Passing of Walter Becker

It seems we rarely give pause in respect to the passing of time, until we reach a certain point in our lives, and only then do we regard it peripherally. Additionally we give little thought to the passing of time in the lives of others as well. Especially those figures who are of the semi high-profile sort. As much as some of us like to think that we know about what they do, in the end, we find that we know very little, and that in reality they were little more than punctuation in our own lives.

The weight of this observation didn’t hit me until this past Sunday evening as I lay in bed. I had, as one could guess, been preoccupied with listening to music the majority of the day, and had not listened to the news until switching on my radio that night.

As soon as I heard the announcer mention the name of Walter Becker, I knew what words were to follow. Walter was one whose name would rarely be mentioned in context with anything else within the past forty years. One had to know who Walter was in order for his name to be familiar.

Walter looked like the guy you’d see in the seventies, sitting outside the mall waiting for a ride. One of the most unassuming bottom-to-top-to-bottom-to-top-again success stories in modern American music, Walter lived out his life in obscurity, in plain sight.

It occurred to me that this man had lived and died within a period of 67 years, and all that I knew about him could easily fit into a thimble. Even though throughout the years, I had painstakingly reverse-engineered his guitar leads and his bass licks, and had attempted to capture his ultra clean, rich lead tones to no avail.

Had Mr Becker not partnered with Donald Fagen during college, both men may have easily faded into the backdrop which is composed of the rest of us, and aja, one of my ten favorite albums of all time would never have materialised.

With the death of Glen Campbell last month, and now that of Walter Becker, the passing of time has become all too apparent to me.

We never know when we’ve caught our last trout, or completed our last composition.

When I’m In the Hole Every Direction Is Uphill

I am writing this primarily for the benefit of other sufferers so that they know that they are not alone.

—————————————————————

Well – it’s one of those days, and has been for the past three days now. A storm front has been pushing in from the West, and it has been taking its sweet time. I feel as if I’m walking around with a lead blanket thrown over me, and even though the sun is bright, I cannot enjoy it, because it makes my eyes sting, and suppresses me as if I was having the lamp of an interrogator shown squarely into my face.

This is what I refer to as being in the Hole. Yeah, I know, Alice In Chains had a song by the same name. But this hole is not a drug-of-choice induced hell. I didn’t elect to go into this hole, I was pushed by an unknown force. I was dragged kicking and screaming into it.

But if you’re one of us, I’m not telling you anything that you don’t already know about. I’m just here to tell you that I understand, and to reassure you that you are not mad. The Hole is real.

The problem with it, is that I never know where the edge is until I get there, and I never know how far I’m going to go in.

For the past three days, I’ve started out with the ‘Okay, I can do this’ attitude. But right in the middle of it, I slide directly down the dreaded ‘Okay fuck this’ slope of desperation within the span of a minute.

The only recourse is that damned bed. How I hate that freaking bed.

I’ve grown to where I even dread eating, because I know it is going to hit me like a sledgehammer. I like food, and I like to eat, I just hate what it does to me anymore.

This is what makes it so damned hard to plan anything. And we can try to explain it to others, but the usual response – the eye rolling, the sighs, and the ‘I’m tired too, after working all day’ lines – serve no other purpose but to anger, and farther isolate us.

And we begin to worry. Even close family members may become preoccupied with work, or find reasons to leave us alone. As they grow more distant, they do not realise that, when we are having bad days, ignoring and avoiding us makes our depression more difficult to manage.

We begin to wonder if cherished loved ones won’t suddenly abandon us on the days we need them most. We may even begin to fear that those same individuals may one day leave us completely. We have no reason to feel this way, and that, too, angers us.

We all know that no amount of work has ever left us feeling this drained. And we all know that when we wake up in the morning, we aren’t going to feel much better than we did the night before, irrespective how well or long we sleep.

Sometimes we wish we’d never wake up, because this kind of life leaves one very little to look forward to, especially when those who claim to love us push us away with their apathy.

Many days, we are left only to one another, and ofttimes, distance forbids us from sharing thoughts, tears, and the day with one another.

I do not know who many of you are; others, we have consoled one another late into the night on social media platforms. Our faces do not matter. Only our understanding. Because we are the only ones who truly believe one another without reservation.

Our club is not one of pride, and our bond is not one of secret handshakes, but of desperation.

If you are having one of those days, take heart. I go into that hole often. As lonely as it can sometimes feel, you are not alone.

What Is True Will?

You’ll often hear ads on television and radio which promote motivational speakers. These speakers often focus on the use of ‘will power’ in order to get monumental tasks accomplished. Thousands of posters, and countless memes have been dedicated to the use of positive thought and will power.

But what is will power, and is anyone actually in possession of true will?

How many times can you recall yourself saying something to the effect of, “I’ll never do that again”, or “From now on, I’m going to______________”? But how many times did you find yourself doing ‘that’ again, or forgetting the vow you solemnly made to yourself ‘from now on’?

These sorts of shattered illusions are what expose the true measure of our will.

When I was twenty years old, I made a short list of objectives that I fully intended to accomplish by the time I was thirty. I didn’t reach any of the goals. Not a single one.

But my intentions were good, of course. It seems that we always start out with the best of intentions in whatever we endeavour to do. Right before things go straight to hell.

So for the next thirty years, I was determined to see if there was one thing in my life that I could see through from beginning to end. One thing – surely couldn’t be too terribly difficult to accomplish. What, then, was the one thing that I was certain that I could devote the rest of my life to? Well, the one thing that I valued among everything else was music. I had begun my quest as a songwriter around the same age that I’d made my list, and it is true that I had not abandoned the journey. The fact was, that I had yet to be come successful at it. My dream was to be able to play several instruments tolerably, engineer sound, and produce my own material. Bands such as Todd Rundgren and Steely Dan were huge influences in this respect.

Success is a term that is generally associated with money and being well-known, respected among one’s peers, and the like.

Nonetheless, I persevered, and although I had learned a great many things in relation to the field – I was working in a retail establishment which sold musical instruments and sound equipment – I had still to make the strides that I had intended by the time that I was forty. Often it was necessary to remind myself why I had begun in the first place.

Throughout the course of rearing two children, and working all kinds of day jobs, I redoubled my efforts to set money aside for musical gear, and recording equipment. I also set aside one hour a day to practice at my craft, this was apart and completely different from the actual playing of music, which would consume even more of the time that I had precious little of.

By the time I was fifty years old, I had become connected to my Muse, and was writing profusely. The musical path that I had begun was a bit of a surprise, but I followed my Muse wherever it led without question. I completed my studio, which I christened Good Intentions, and chose ‘Hell Paving Company’ for the name of my publishing domain. It cannot be said that I was not acquainted with the irony of it all by this time.

In 2014, I tore my studio down with the intent of erecting it in another, more suitable room of the home. All of my gear sat in a corner collecting dust for the next three years. Chronic Fatigue is a cruel mistress, and my life had been slowing to a crawl since I had contracted it in November of 2007.

Then one night last month, while lying in bed, I was listening to the 20 odd sketches of tunes that I had recorded into my Android. I stared over into the dark corner that hid all of my recording equipment.

“Starting tomorrow, I’m going to start putting my studio back together, even if it kills me.” I told myself. The task was daunting.  But I knew that if I died before getting the tunes – which the Muse was still being so charitable in supplying me with – properly recorded, I would go to hell. Hell is a completely different place for writers. I imagine it to be a place where only poorly maintained manual typewriters exist, paper is at a premium, and the thoughts come too quickly to transcribe.

Mainly, however, I couldn’t bear the thought of leaving these tunes orphaned. Nobody except I had heard them, and my task was to get them recorded and give everyone else a chance to hear the wonderful imagination that the Muse is so blessed with, for you see, I do not feel that these pieces of music are mine. I have been assigned a task, and it is up to me alone to complete these pieces.

Eight days later, although my back and shoulders were killing me, the studio was together, and I found myself becoming painfully reacquainted with the plethora of cables and the routing of which I had all but forgotten.

Today I fired up all of the components, and with the exception of the ancient synthesizer, everything seems to be working. Maybe if I just jiggle the handle….

So I have discovered that perhaps there is indeed a bit of true will left inside of me at the age of 61. And that I may have, in fact, discovered the meaning of true success.

 

The Chronic Fatigue Cycle of Life

I’ve felt horrible the last four days.

I’m lucky to have a peanut butter sandwich on days like those. Cooking a full meal is akin to climbing Mount Everest. If it weren’t for boiled eggs, oatmeal, and milk, I’d probably dry up completely.

This morning however, I woke up at 5:00 without a headache. This, in and of itself, already puts me in a more positive frame of mind. After cleaning litter boxes and filling food bowls, I sit to rest, and vape while I quaff two cups of coffee. These are the only two ‘treatments’ that I rely on to get me into ‘work’ mode. Sometimes they make a big difference. I don’t trust doctors or the FDA anymore. How can they prescribe something to treat my condition, when they claim that they don’t even know what the hell has caused it?

I look at the studio equipment that I disassembled over a year ago. I really want to put that thing back into the operational mode, but today there are more pressing matters to attend to. The house has gone to hell over the last four days and I simply have to clean up.

I start the dishwasher, and drag a load of clothes into the laundry room. As that process plays out, I run my big, yet lightweight microfibre floor duster, then draw a big pan of hot water, and add plenty of bleach.

I have a big kitchen, a big den, the laundry room, and a bathroom to mop.

I’ve been in the ‘process’ of tiling the floors for the past two years. A few years back, my son helped me take up all of the carpet, because vacuuming that nonsense was becoming close to impossible for me.

I have three portions of the kitchen in a sort of ‘grid’. I mop one grid, then rest, vape, and drink more coffee while it dries. Then move on to the next portion. I have the entire floor done within an hour. Sufficiently warmed up, I start on the den, which is also where I ‘live’. My bed and everything is in there.

The rhythmic back-and-forth motion of mopping is beginning to make my back ache and tire, but I do my best to ignore the pain.

Half-way through the den, the washer signals that the laundry is ready to go into the dryer, but it really is nice outside today, so I haul the bed linens out to hang up and dry. Sun dried bed sheets are one of the finer things in life.

Another hour later, the den and bathroom floors are finished. I rest up and look at the studio equipment again. I’ve got at least twelve sketches of new tunes recorded into my phone, and I feel pressed to get them properly recorded.

I haven’t produced a new CD in almost three years, and am beginning to think that the format is a waste of time and energy. Owing to the fact that I am a visual artist as well as a songwriter, it only follows that I feel it necessary to do all of the cover art and liner notes myself. I’d like to just quit production of CDs, however the artist in me eschews mp3 files, and feels that in order to truly release songs, they must at least be recorded to CD to count as a ‘work’. I come from an era that the purchase and ownership of a physical product was part and parcel of a ‘music collection’.

I reflect on my immortality, and hope to the heavens that I do not die, leaving a bunch of orphaned tunes on my phone.

After putting another load into the clothes washer, I sit down at my desktop to work on a generation of my on-line genealogical tree that has been giving me a problem, but this is not what I really want to do. I see enough of this on days that I can do little else. Besides, the light from the screen hurts my eyes.

I need to get back to work. After folding the dried clothes, I empty the dishwasher, and then sit down to rest and vape. Darn it. Where did the time go? It’s a quarter to eleven, I’ve drained an entire pot of coffee, and I need to cook something. Won’t everyone be surprised when they get home! Oh, boy! A hot meal.

But I’m already feeling the effects of my efforts, and I’m thinking that tacos sound extreme enough for what is left of my energy reserves, so I start cooking the meat and chopping the onions. Repetitive motion tasks seem to be the worst. Onion chopping kills my arm now. The onset of fatigue is so quick that it still leaves me incredulous, but there was a time that I was capable of butterfly curls – 50 reps of 25 pounds – without breaking a sweat. Glory days.

After eating, I’m shot. Food affects me like a Valium, and sleep becomes unavoidable. While lying in bed and checking my Twitter feed, I glance across the room at my recording equipment once more. How many times in the past few years has this scenario played out? I can only hope that tomorrow will be as productive as today was, but experience has taught me that tomorrow I’ll most likely feel as if I’ve been beaten with a rubber hose because of today’s efforts.

If I’m lucky, I’ll feel better in a few days and will be able to begin the cycle all over again, but my chance of ever getting the studio back together looks slim from this side of life.

By the way – in the event that something unexpectedly happens to me, the code to open my phone is PEnnsylvania 6 – 5000. If there are any tunes on there, I would like to think that one of my musically inclined colleagues will take it upon themselves to finish those tunes for me.