End of December 2012:
Thoughts from West Early
Jamie and I have done a recent Catholic Childhood thing and have another one coming up. So I'm reminded that our past is simultaneously an incredible distance and really not that far away. We're carrying it everywhere with us, and sometimes it's a beautiful pleasure to do that and sometimes it's a big problem.
People will talk to me about their sense of nostalgia being entwined with music, and boy, do I relate.
Isn't it wonderful to live in a time when you can hear all your favorite songs at a moment's notice? All that evidence in three minutes: little bit of Heaven and Hell right here on Earth. Other people's favorites usually leave me cold, and so I must assume that's true for all of you out there but I'll take a chance and recommend "Teardrops" by Lee Andrews and the Hearts. What have you got to lose? (A YouTube recollection)
Notes from Toronto
For the past three weeks I have been guest-performing, touring Canada with John McDermott, who is a very well-known singer up here and also pretty prominent in the U.S.A. John recorded lovely versions of The Dutchman and Crazy Mary and (I'm happy to say) will soon be recording Roger Maris.
This has been a happy experience and a musical education, as John is a lovely man besides being a major talent and I've had the privilege now of watching him work at various venues and under varied conditions. I always come away edified. I don't usually get to watch anyone's shows on such a constant basis, nor have I ever alternated working and traveling this frequently either, planes, tour busses and cars. There have been quite a few times when I've had no idea where we were (well, it is Canada) or what day of the week it was. Honestly it has occurred to me a few times that it might not necessarily be that advisable for me to try to get any more "famous" than I am right now.
I envy John's consistently high energy level and his constantly positive vibes. And that voice, man. He is doing a Christmas-oriented show and I am particularly thrilled by his O Holy Night. He also does John McCutcheon's Christmas In The Trenches, which I must say is some beautiful piece of work. John McD's guitarist, Jason Fowler, makes me want to go home and practice. And practice.
Have Yourself A Merry.
"As it's told in words for men and birds."
gouache on board - by Sue Demel
(Click for larger image)
Late July 2012:
Another damn lesson
Recently I read an article on line by this fellow who, aspiring to write at least one good, decent real country song, went down to Nashville and collaborated with some writers and kept a kind of diary on his attempts and his conclusions. He said (essentially) folks, it's not that easy. Especially if you come from a background of, say, folk, or pop, or folk-rock etc. This was the charming part, he said if you were a folksinger, say, and you tried to write a country song as you perceived country songs to be, it was like thinking you could write a French song by putting on a beret and a little fake mustache and making noises like Pepe Le Pew. That, yes, it was easy to write something that wanted to be a country song, but you had to be sincerely into that genre to write or perform country reasonably well, or really, at all. I don't know why I was struck by what he said as if it was new. I'd already had it illustrated to me out the wazoo. O Tell Me How That Came About! cries Little Wendy, playfully chewing my finger. Oh, OK, says I.
Barbara and I were working in yet another band (we shoulda called it The Yet) around Chicago, in the middle eighties. We heard that the Marlboro company was sponsoring a contest for country bands to compete in and you could win bread and also a recording contract. Well of course we weren't a country band, but we really needed the bread and we were hard to categorize, for ourselves and others, as musicians are who have come up in the folk circuit with kind-of-homespun lyrics and then had gone somewhat electric and gotten louder and started working with drums etc. So we thought: well, it isn't that big a stretch to go from whatever it is we are (whatever that was) to being a country band. We had been doing some of my tunes and tunes by other members of the band and a few covers, the usual mixture of yet another band around town, you know, the drummer wants to sing and he knows You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling, so you do YLTLF so that the drummer won't get in a snit (a small foreign car, where his drums won't fit). What the hell, we thought, we can be a country band. But maybe like, hipper. Oh God, the youth, the horror and the naivete. So the first stage of the competition was at Holstein's, a lovely lamented place. And we won! Could it have been that we were really in essence a country band all along and hadn't known it? Were we on our way? Or was it that we'd played Holstein's a bunch and the folks (hardly country types) liked us from previous shows? Well, we found out.
Next was the finals, at a sincerely country bar on the outskirts of town, whose name, thank you Jesus, is lost to memory. Oh man, how can I describe the level of "WTF are we doing here?" that hit us soon as we hit the door? Audience and performers alike, these were real country music people, with the expensive stetsons and the perfect outfits and the line dance history, and we'd never even suspected that such things existed in such profusion, with such conviction. And they knew right away, audience and performers alike, that we did not belong there. We were so not country. I mean, they could smell it. And when the other bands started to play: my God, rockin and precise and clean and in tune and musical and groovin. And the lead guitar players, my God, in each and every band they'd been to James Burton Prep and Danny Gatton U and Roy Buchanan Academy and had graduated with honors, and some of those licks sounded impossible, while all the other licks were merely tasty and slick and perfectly played. The bass players were solid, exactly the big right notes and no more and the drummers played so simply that. All these bands had it together. And the singers, where do I start? Each and every one was slammin' and of course each of their claques was there to cheer them on, and hey, they didn't need it, they were already astounding, each and every one, in their power and musicality. It was amazing what was happening out there in real country music. Like the radio, sorta, only more get-down. Or maybe it was just the way country music always sounds except the radio doesn't give you that feeling unless you turn it up way louder than the folks upstairs would like it. Lemme tell ya folks it was not fun to trot out our three wimpy little folk/countryish tunes that night, while the audience was like, Oh, let's get drinks, they'll be done soon. You will be done soon, right, guys? Oh, yeah, we were done as soon as possible. We were done before we walked in the door.
The damn lesson:
No matter what kind of music it is, don't kid yourself, you have to be really into it if you want to play it good.
Life Lessons from Me and Rudy Vallée
I have a friend who says one shouldn't dwell on one's mistakes. I certainly can see the wisdom in that, and I plan soon to really take it to heart. But before I do I want to bathe (somewhat) in my "mistakenhood", if that's a word. Because I've learned some big things from mistakes, believe me. Here's one: don't be condescending, you'll always be sorry. Here's another: the nature of condescension is such that you don't always know when you're being condescending. And so it sometimes happens no matter what your good intentions are. But that's for another day, right now I'm talking about overt condescension, which a lot of us (I, I'm afraid) can find almost irresistible.
Condescension is born of fear, which we all possess to some degree. Born of unacknowledged fear, I think, because once we acknowledge fear in ourselves it takes away all need to condescend, at least for a while.
I used to tell audiences what I was thinking. I think it was a subconscious recollection of Confession, a Catholic ritual that either does some good and is healthful for the subconscious or is an awful deception, a nasty trick played on us by unhappy clerics, I'm not sure which. Maybe it's both, what the hell. But the Catholic Church sure got me used to confession, that is, the notion that other more "official" people can relieve you of your guilt if you've done something that doesn't sit well with your image of yourself. And that once you tell your transgression and subject yourself to a little bit of ritualistic tedium (five Our Fathers, five Hail Marys) then everything's cool and you're good to go, you're shriven, like you've just got a spiritual tuneup and you can drive out of your moral garage with no smoke trailing.
So there would be these moments I would be on stage and, because there is this tradition in the kind of music I do that you should now and then talk to the audience, it would occur to me to tell the audience just what I was thinking about at the moment. Or maybe I should say: what was lately weighing on my mind. I didn't do this much, only now and again. For hey: this is not necessarily a good idea. (For one thing, I have learned, keep learning over and over, that there are rituals everywhere and it's incumbent on you to discover what they are, and act them out the way others do. The lesson of "Dexter", I think. Isn't it cool when television drama makes you think?) Me getting too straightforward, I found, made the audience nervous. Nervous, it seemed to me, exactly to the ratio of my honesty. So I learned, and a good thing, too. So now here's where I can be frank, or Michael.
So one of the big advantages to having the privilege of growing old is that you get new, presumably cooler viewpoints that would not have been afforded you if you were too soon dead, yeah? And oh yes, you get to look back and see these big mistakes. Of yours. The gift of growing old, and it is a wonderful gift, no question.
So Barbara and I lived in West Hollywood in 1970, in a little apartment, in a little apartment complex with a little pool, on Genesee, and we were recording at Universal Studios for at least seventeen years that winter and we went to see Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks (By Hook or By Crook - 1972, YouTube) at a club in Santa Monica and the opening act was Rudy Vallée and his piano player. You can look up Rudy Vallée on Wikipedia, there isn't space here for all the guy accomplished but you're welcome to take my word for it he was heavy in the 20's and 30's, many many hit records, at one point the number one singer in the country. And he was up there conducting his piano player and singing these tunes that all sounded like "Honey Pie", you know what I mean? And opening for Dan Hicks, who was, to be sure, very hot at the time, especially in CA. And Rudy V'd be telling the piano player now speed it up, or slow down, watch my hand, and are you sure that's the right key? etc.
And B and I are in the audience and I'm finding his whole thing so droll and being so amused at Napoleon in rags...and I distinctly remember thinking why doesn't he give it up? the times have so passed him by and he's so old, and gee, I wonder if it could be that he really needs the money? Well, God knows we'd heard of him, and had this picture of him hanging out with Sophie Tucker and Eddie Cantor etc. in some vaudeville heaven where people are maybe dead and maybe not, but I certainly pitied him there I gotta say and of course didn't understand what he was getting at musically at all, and read my lack of understanding as his lack, and was generally amused and perhaps a little contemptuous of him and his whole schtick because I was young and pretty and would always be and he wasn't and would never be, and I played the guitar but he had to hire a schlocky piano player and give him directions during the show. But mostly I gotta say it was that he was old. It seemed to me that he should just quietly get out of the music business because he was just so old, just too old, and it wasn't hip to be old. It was depressing, and I thought he should have seen that, and saved me the trouble of having to perceive it for him...
So maybe you know where this is going. I looked it up recently and Rudy Vallée was about a year younger at that gig than I am now. And I haven't had any hits at all. But I do get to listen to Mr.Vallée on Youtube. He's awfully good. And he's so young.
This is about two dancers I know: Sebastian LaSapio and Sammi Fo.
Sebastian first. No, a big background thing first.
I went to grammar school at Our Lady Of The Valley in Orange, New Jersey, from first grade until seventh and it remains for me a wildly eventful time, maybe because being so young I took everything in without resistance. I had nothing in the way of opinions, you could tell me anything and I'd buy it. I'd kneel in church waiting for a statue to move. I had (and still have, it seems) so much more than my reasonable share of naivete. Grammar school was a little like taking LSD...everything that happened seemed undeniable, unavoidable, you couldn't get around it. Grammar school was in your face. It was out of the question for me to have any perspective. It has dawned on me slowly that part of the bliss of adult life is that I get to refuse or at least critique certain experiences and notions; for better or worse to have my yes's and my no's all worked out and ready to roll at a second's notice. Man, is that freeing.
Yo, just as when I was a child, there were some times I would have been well served to have a damn opinion instead of this tabula rasa stuff, so there are times now as an adult that I wish this old man would abandon one or two of his damn opinions once in a while. Sometimes just knowing you have an opinion is enough to get around it, though, or at least neutralize it for a damn minute.
Other times, wow, am I glad I've gotten at least this thing straight. With the computer thing I got into looking up classmates, and I'm so grateful in this wise to be living in the future, that this (at one time inconceivable) pastime has been afforded me...life certainly has changed in this regard, huh? Back in the day if one moved away one would never know without a lot of trouble and effort what had happened to those with whom one was once so close. It's like a little crystal ball, the Internet. You used to have to hire a private detective or you went to the gypsy at the carnival. Does she still think of me? Maybe, we shall see, twenty-five cents, please.
Writing songs is a way of fly-in-amber-ing an experience so that it lingers in a somewhat maybe slanted original form...a song isn't necessarily factual all the way though, sometimes one gets (well I get) to reshape the situation closer to the heart's perceptions and desires. A bit of an alternate universe. That's-a my job, to reshape things closer, to get things righter. Or sometimes just to relax and be willing to try to show exactly how things were. Sometimes I'm after trying to be my own gypsy. But sometimes, man, it's so beyond my power.
He was in my class, though I didn't ever talk to him or hang out with him or anything. You know it wouldn't have occurred to me then to just go up to a kid and say: tell me about yourself. I certainly wish I'd been that kind of person, wasn't, though. And ours was a big class, it would've taken a lot of time (and a lot of balls) to interview everyone...when they talk about overcrowded classrooms today and give a number I always think, geez, wasn't our class twice as big as that? Man, Aloysius Rimback was twice as big as that.
And whenever there was an assembly for glee club, or a talent show, there would be: Sebastian LaSapio. He tap-danced to Lullaby of Broadway. Possibly other tunes too, but certainly Lullaby Of Broadway. He wore formal evening clothes when he did this, including a white scarf and a top hat, and carried a black and white cane. He was small and thin, Sebastian, and he had olive skin and a Goyaesque face, beautiful eyes with long lashes. There was a children's talent show on New York TV on Sunday mornings at ten called The Children's Hour, those kids were always tap-dancing to Lullaby Of Broadway and I'm sure he would have fit right in. I wouldn't have been surprised to see him on that show, except he would've prolly had to miss Mass. But I didn't really understand then, how could I?, what an effort like Sebastian's dancing took, and I wasn't moved to get all ecstatic and appreciative.
These days if I experienced Sebastian LaSapio I certainly would be much more ready to be charmed (As I was leaving Winooski, Vermont on the darkest morning a few days ago I drove past a lit-up school marquee advertising the fifth and sixth grade doing Wizard of Oz next weekend and thought: Oh man I so wish I could stay and catch that.). Watching Sebastian today I'd be gratified by his effort and think about the work that he'd put into the routine and him getting fitted for the tux and all and would have clapped a lot more enthusiastically at the end.
But anyway, that tap-dancing thing, in my head he became a tap-dancer forever; it colored my memory of him (There was a This American Life episode where they talked about things that sit in your head unexamined and when you take them out into the sun after years in there in the dark it's kind of embarrassing, like this one guy who had for years assumed that quesadilla was Spanish for "What's the deal?") and so for years when Sebastian would drift across my consciousness for one reason or another (this is embarrassing) I'd always think: Manhattan babies don't sleep tight until the dawn... I had this picture of him sitting in the dark in a trailer park somewhere with his little bitty tuxedo hanging on the wall and him a has-been because, let's face it, who tap dances to Lullaby of Broadway any more and gets work? And him, like, ruminating, Oh man, I shoulda missed Mass and done Children's Hour.
So one day I thought: Oh I could look him up. And, sadly, I got a recent obit. And of course I knew it had to be him because how many guys are named Sebastian LaSapio? And are my age and come from Orange? And dig it, he had gone to Bloomfield College and become a public school teacher and then a Teacher Of The Year a couple of times in New Jersey and a principal and a big guy in the Teachers' Association...a Star, only in education, and had a lot of kids, grandkids etc. and he'd had a very very solid, respectable, successful forty-year career. [See alumni magazine tribute.] (www.michaelsmithmusic.com/images/lasapio-tribute.pdf) And there was this picture of him and he was so happy looking and the picture was taken on the beach and the water was behind him and he looked so big and prosperous, solid and muscular, with a lot of silver gray hair and this big smile and great teeth and he just communicated Total Joy in this photo.
Not one word about tap-dancing.
And me, I got this big welling of emotion for him, though we'd never had a word together...a welling of gratitude and also, really, as I said, I was embarrassed. I was like: what? a trailer park? and a little bitty tux? Michael, you dork. To quote William Kotzwinkle: Dorky dorky dorky dorky dorky dorky dorky dorky dorky dorky dorky dorky dorky dorky dorky dorky... but I do trust Sebastian would've found my whole thing funny. And here I would like to say: bless you, dear classmate, for turning out to be so cool, for making such a great endeavor from the start and for bringing such joy to the world all your whole life long. Ladies and gentlemen, Sebastian LaSapio.
Applause, applause, applause, applause.
I was like nineteen when I met Sammi and she was maybe eighteen. Me and my girlfriend Demetra had driven from Little Falls, New Jersey to Warsaw, Indiana in the summer of '61 to see our friend Jim Weston acting in summer stock there. I had a white '54 Ford convertible that cost $400 and it made it to Indiana and back, not bad, huh? It wasn't like I ever changed the oil or anything. Different show every month at Warsaw, they were doing South Pacific when we were there. Sammi was in the company, too, she was from Michigan. She was of Hawaiian and Native American ancestry and she was easily the most beautiful girl I'd ever seen. Big dark brown eyes, long dark hair, an incredible smile and a sweet kind of foggy, caressing voice. She seemed so happy all the time, kind of bemused, very cheerful, so cheerful she made both Demmy and me suspicious until we got used to her. You certainly got happy around her. Her beauty alone was enough to brighten your day, and as it turned out she was a genuinely benevolent person.
I was working in a factory in Clifton called Kearfott, which made missile navigation systems and is gone now (from the Kearfott second story window I saw JFK on his campaign for president riding down the street in a convertible, waving).
Couple of weekends I went into NYC and saw Sammi work at the Hawaiian Room at the Hotel Lexington. She roomed with two other dancers, Ku'uleialoha and Kalani, beautiful ladies with beautiful names, how could you ever forget them? There was a party at their apartment where the three girls did the hula for everyone and they were so perfectly synchronized, it's a wonderful memory, I was sitting on the floor, above me they were like three smiling waves flowing into the shore. I felt privileged to watch them dance, especially because it wasn't a show. They were doing it for friends, for the joy of it. The hula is God's gift, you know, to make you want to keep on living in His mystery.
Sammi got work in Nevada and married Buddy Fo, (www.buddyfo.com/index.html) who had a group called The Invitations, who were kind of like the Hawaiian Hi-Lo's. They were very good, very pro. Later Sammi and Buddy moved (for him, back) to Hawaii and worked together; you can find them on Youtube, he plays and sings, she dances. He passed away maybe a year ago, and they had a memorial show for him which got put on Youtube also. The Fos clearly are loved there. [See tribute-interview with Sammi about Buddy.] The few Youtubes I've seen of them performing, at small gatherings in Hawaii, are all comparatively recent. She is still so graceful and still so beautiful. I'll always be her fan.
Sammi did one gig, however, that you will be so grateful to me for pointing out to you: When Elvis did his TV show in Hawaii and sang Blue Hawaii Sammi was the dancer on that number and it's on Youtube. (www.youtube.com/watch?v=sXp430ATiaI) Elvis is about thirty-eight and sounds great, looks beautiful and perfect. Sammi is about thirty and I won't try again to describe her beauty, her smile, and the joy and power of her dancing. You just have to see it. Sammi and Elvis and Hawaii and that gorgeous song together. Sammi gets some close-ups which are so spectacular with beauty and benevolence and mystery that every time I watch her, it makes me want to cry. And Elvis, man. I'm so glad to be living in the future to get to see this. The night is young and so are we... Ladies and gentlemen, the beautiful and graceful and spectacular Sammi Fo.
Applause, applause, applause, applause.
So I finished work on a project this week which I have essayed twice before in past years, which is: I write "personalized" songs for some of the people who subscribe to, and contribute a certain amount to, WFMT, and who ask to have this done, I'm told, of their own free will.
WFMT, of course, is Chicago's world renowned classical and folk music station, and Rich Warren of WFMT's "Midnight Special" allows and encourages me to do this. I get to contribute some specific and specialized labor to the station which gives so much to the world (and which has certainly played my songs a bunch on their folk segments).
I usually construct these things guided by written, sometimes beautifully written, input from the folks who are getting the songs composed for them, although at other times I'll have no real information to use except a name and address. It's always a challenge and a great learning experience. So I thought you might find some things I have discovered, during this endeavor, to be thought-provoking. Or by now you've dialed up My Drunk Kitchen.
When I encounter the info upon which I'm to construct a song, if the subscriber has been reasonably thorough in her/his composition my first response is usually: this person is asking too much of me, I can't get it all in there, they're nuts to think I can cope with this. Because I'm so aware that people are writing in about parts of their lives that are very personal and precious to them, I mean, why else would you want to have this stuff put in a song? And I don't want to disappoint them, and at this beginning stage, I'm so sure I will.
Well, this time I got the picture and I trust I won't be fooled again by this early response, my body saying Oh Please Don't Ask Me To Do This Today, Let's Go Get Some Ice Cream. For one thing, that's my first response to everything. Second stage, when I'm actually working on the songs, I'm like: this is so fun, I can do a hundred of these. And you know, both of these reactions, I think I can't and I think it'll be easy, aren't accurate. What turns out to be the case is, I can, but I can't toss it off. It's a lot of work to get it to the point where it's acceptable. This is THE life lesson, isn't it? If Mr. Krishnamurti or the Pope or Billy Graham or anyone who calls himself a teacher had gotten this notion through to me when I was, say, sixteen, I think I'd still be following them around for their perspicacity, and you get it free with this paragraph.
More practically, I read about the following songwriting method somewhere, possibly in Steve Gillette's fine book about songwriting. People have been doing this for centuries, you construct a lyric by writing a person's name with the letters vertically arranged and do a line that starts with every letter. Have I described this clearly? (My plane geometry teacher at Passaic Valley, the unforgettable Mr. Werner, bless him, used to say that there's no way to describe a spiral verbally, you always wind up having to whirl your finger around.) When I construct a song with the letters of a person's name as a lyric guide, something happens to my ordinarily earnest making-up-lyric function. It now can only use a certain letter, and it says oh wow, let's find something cool, within these restrictions. The restrictions take away the responsibility (yeah!). It becomes a puzzle, a game. I used this method a bunch this year and I think I got some interesting stuff.
But here's the work part: in order to have a clue as to what lines are reasonable to accept you kind of have to dive right into the (presumed) emotions of the person you're writing for, and that's so hard on your emotions, as I heard some lady say on television today: my hormones are in flux. It's like being an actor, like the Actor's Complaint. "I got so into it that my body forgot I was me". One reason why it wasn't easy to be Phil Ochs, you betcha. That damn empathy, I've been right all along to avoid it.
Oh I read something funny: Peter Sellers said if he got to live his life over he'd do everything the same, but he wouldn't have gone to see The Magus.
Happy New Year to all.
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