Saturday, September 13, 2014

Casey's Tavern

It’s been a long time since I came to see him play.  He gets together with a bunch of guys every Thursday evening at the same place, still, after all of these years.  The last time I saw him, he was playing piano at the Bel Air Hotel, where my parents, Brenda and I had a nice dinner and watched him run through all of the standards with his Louisiana style of playing.  Lloyd Hebert is from Baton Rouge, and he has a slightly hard-hitting, sometimes brash attack in the keys.  His voice is precisely the same; a hard Louisiana accent with a kind of aggressive cadence.  I am always expecting him to talk about catching shrimp or motoring through the bayou.  Yet, in his melodic piano playing, he has all color hues and subtlety of a watercolor painting.  He passes through and even makes an issue at times of major 7th notes in his playing, which gives his improvisations a layer of melancholy.  I’ve always loved that.  It speaks to me. 

I first met Lloyd at U.S.C.  I had taken a summer jazz performance session at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, and now back in the U.S.C. dorms, one of my dorm mates, who seemed to always be attached to a small Casio type keyboard he was carrying with him, did a little jazz-blues run in front of me.  I asked him to do it again. When he did, I told him to please reveal to me where he had learned this. 

“I’m taking a Jazz Performance Piano course here for a couple of extra credits.”  I asked, “You’re not in the School of Music here, so anyone can take this?”  “Yeah, I believe so,” he answered.

The very next day I went down to the music school asking how I could add on this music performance course.  It ended up being an easy addition and I arrived at my first music lesson with the then head of the jazz piano division of the music school.  Lloyd introduced himself to me and immediately asked me to sit down at his piano and play a little for me.

Right away, I sense that he was a gentle, encouraging man.  He liked what I played for him (“Misty,” or one of the standards I had learned).  I had endured one terrible piano teacher when I was in grade school, and then, through an older neighboring kid on my block I stumbled upon a much nicer piano teacher in middle school.  They were both classically trained, but since by the time I worked with the second instructor, I was more desirous of learning popular tunes, such as “Grease,” and “The Star Wars Theme,” on the piano, that’s where my focus landed.  I should add that those were very simplified versions of the songs, so I never really did Frankie Valli or John Williams any justice. 

But this new instructor for me at U.S.C, Lloyd, was dynamic right away.  An accomplished jazz musician, he taught both theory and jazz voicing’s in a way that I had never experienced.  I continued my lessons with him throughout my time at U.S.C, and then once I graduated, I took lessons from him at his house.  He lived in a modest house in Burbank with his wife.  In front were a living room with a television, a kitchen, and then two bedrooms.  Beyond that in the back of his home was a recessed area where he had his music studio.  A medium sized grand piano, his horns (he was also a trombone player), and lots of sheet music everywhere like a mad scientist in a music lab.

Sometime near the beginning of my career at the Walt Disney Company during, “Boy Meets World,” I stopped taking lessons simply due to the time that had narrowed in my life with a busy production schedule.  And yet, I would go see him play with his quartet at, Jax, in Glendale, and at various other locations around town.  But once my parents began to get ill around 2006, even my visits to his shows curtailed.

So tonight, after so many months and years of thinking to myself, “I need to go see Lloyd play,” I go to the spot where he has had a standing gig for all of the time that I’ve known him.  His group at this venue is usually more of a Dixieland band. Or at least it was the last time I visited this weight station out in the west San Fernando Valley. 

I find the last parking spot along the busy street where the meters don’t need to be fed after 6:00pm.  I make sure there is nothing sitting in the seats in my SUV that might look like something worth stealing.  Casey’s Tavern is on a busy, somewhat grimy part of Sherman Way in Canoga Park, CA. This section of the boulevard is made up of small, old business buildings; stores that might have once been nail salons and the like, but many of which are not visible from the outside, or are closed and locked, and not identifiable in the evening. 

I ask myself a question I remember asking myself the other time that I saw him here.  “Does he really like playing here?  I just can’t imagine him driving from Burbank all the way across the valley floor to this area where I wouldn’t be surprised to see a street-walker or a biker fight.”  Then my alter ego, the more level headed, less fearful, non-snooty one, the ego that appreciates people and art and the fabric of the city retorts, “How is it that I can be so superficial about these things sometimes?  What does it matter where the club is located?  All that matters is that people are getting together and making something great happen. Music. And it happens to be here.  Big deal where it is!” 

I walk down the sidewalk westward towards Casey’s, and on the way I pass an all night make shift billiard hall, again probably created from two smaller former stores with a wall removed.  I get to Casey’s, the front of which is just a tan and brown themed wood and stucco wall from the front with an old “Casey’s Tavern,” sign steadfastly protruding from the roof’s eve.  No windows facing the street.  But I can hear the thudded bass of amplified sound from inside.  “That’s the band, Lloyd is in there playing!” I tell myself. I’m excited. I’ll bet he’ll be surprised to see me. 

I enter into the club.  It’s set up differently than last time.  The club is shaped like a shoebox with an “L” near the doorway.  Eight years ago when I visited, the seating was such that people sat in the “L,” and the band was in the center of the place.  This made it difficult to see the players for some of us who were seated at the very outreaches of the “L,” because there was a wall between ourselves and the band.  But now, it is the opposite.  As I let the wooden door close behind me, the musicians are immediately to my right, and I cross along their side to get to the seating area, which is towards the back of the club adjacent to the bar.  

Right away a bar tender comes to my tall table and asks me what I’ll have.  “A Coke.”  I don’t drink and drive, so it’s always a Coke unless I can walk or take a cab. It’s a much easier rule to follow than trying to gage how much alcohol could be in my system, given the time I’ve been somewhere, eating, etc.  And tonight, I’m about fourteen miles from my doorstep.  So I’m drinking a lot of Coke tonight.

I’m seated in a good spot only about mid way back in the place, but in front of me are low tables, so mine is the first tall table in line of sight to the band.  I finally focus on the musicians.  Lloyd is sitting on a stool holding a trombone near the piano with tan Khakis, a short sleeved print shirt with soft purple colors, and he’s wearing silver rimmed glasses.  A young man with a Hawaiian shirt, probably his son who I recall played piano as well, is vamping on the piano.  There is the bass player who I recognize as being a part of their band for a long time, a drummer, a jazz blues guitarist, and then an old, short, plump man also sitting on a stool in front of the band.  This man has a trumpet in his hand and seems to have taken the position that Jack Sheldon used to at his own shows; that is, trumpeter and emcee with a few jokes thrown in here and there.  This man’s solos are not as virtuosic as Sheldon’s, and his puns not as edgy, but he fills the role well enough.

I will insert here that I was once at the Money Tree in Toluca Lake, and I hit a great night when Jack Sheldon and his band had Ross Tompkins sitting in with them.  They were musically effusive that evening.  They ended the show with Jack singing, “What a Wonderful World,” with only Ross Tompkins accompanying him.  The rest of the band stayed silent. I left there that night with my hair standing on top of my head in disbelief of what I had just witnessed. 

Tonight at Casey’s, the band is playing, “Summertime,” and the players have a jazz sound to them.  As they finish this tune and another song begins, I realize that they have generally dropped their “Dixieland only” status, that was so much a part of their identity at this venue, and they do more of a mix of jazz with a little Dixieland thrown in.  I prefer this because I am less partial to Dixieland and more to jazz.  In fact, it was exactly the last time those eight years ago that I was at this club with my girlfriend Brenda during which Lloyd, as he was heading the band that night, said one of the funniest things I’ve ever heard him say.  They were playing all Dixieland that night, and Lloyd and another player were throwing in some thirteenth notes and such, and one of the band members complained that they were getting away from Dixieland by doing that, to which Lloyd replied, “Oh Hank, you can never take a little discord, can you?”

I laughed inside hard that time, because it’s so true; true for me.  Dixieland is a much more, how would you say it, “fixed” way of playing than jazz.  There is not only less improvisation if any in Dixieland, but also, the notes are more “on the nose” if you will.  I liken Dixieland to Ragtime.  The notes are there and you play them.  They are often intricate and weave in and out of each other, but they are played straight on and pretty much straight as written. 

Jazz music allows for a lot more variation in melody, chords, and timing.  If you take a jazz standard like, “Meditation,” or, “I Love You,” the performers will play the melody over the basic chords for the piece, but then the players will add in more complex voicing’s to the chords, eliminate some of the roots (because, for instance, the bass will have the root and other basic notes in the chord covered), and even fifths or thirds will be eliminated to allow drop in’s of seconds, sevenths, ninths, eleventh’s and thirteenths.  All of this, plus the player who is carrying the melody will improvise and contort the tune’s melody.  Well, all of it makes for a wonderful soup of emotion that is created the instant that you are experiencing it; something that is really glorious when you realize what is happening. 

So, without any intent to make Dixieland extinct at all, I am glad that they are more jazz oriented nowadays at Casey’s.

As I look closer at Lloyd, I can see that he is much more frail than he used to be.  He is thin, appears more brittle, and he’s not quite in charge of the band like he used to be.  The trumpeter in front calls out song ideas to Lloyd, who then chooses from amongst them.  Lloyd moves from trombone to piano. His playing is still there, perfectly timed, but it’s slightly more faint.  Is it because they don’t have him mic’d as well tonight?  No, I think it’s because he’s slowed down a bit.  In fact, I can see that all of the guys in the band are older now, and that the ensemble as a whole is fainter in their playing; less energetic, less attack in their solos.  But all the same, I love being here because I love the sound of live jazz.

The intermission comes at about 9:00pm, and the musicians take a break.  I look around the mostly wood walls that have mirrors and old advertisements on them.  The room is pretty full, and people are now milling about. At the tables in front of me, there are people of mature age, some of whom I have to assume know some of the band members.  They sip glasses of wine and dress in a lot of white clothing; a definite indication of their retired, relaxed years I suppose. 

The bar is filled with a mixture of people, several of whom are turned around in their stools who came to see the show, and probably several locals who just like to come in, have a drink on a Thursday night, and hear some music.  The music may be more of a background accessory for them.

I turn to my right, which is towards the back of the room, and there is a tall table like mine with a young couple; a white young man with a Latina woman.  They look like it might be one of their first dates together because they are keeping pretty tightly to themselves as if to keep reminding themselves, “We’re on a date, and we’re drinking drinks, and we’re watching music.”  Something lacking in their fluidity, but they seem like they’re enjoying being with each other.

At table back from them is a quartet of three guys, also in their twenties, and a gorgeous, lively, young brunette with a casual black top and white shorts.  My peripheral vision picks up that this girl has stellar legs.  I need not look any further to verify this.  No wonder all three guys seem to be happy to be sitting at that table!

Now Lloyd happens to walk towards me.  Oh good.  He probably just noticed that I am here tonight and wants to say hi.  But as he walks, his directionless eyes reveal to me that he is just moving through the room, and I happen to be in his path.  He gets near my table.

“Hi Lloyd,” I say.
“Oh, hello.”
“How are you doing?”  I figure that in a few words, he’ll realize who I am.
“Good.  Say, what’s your name?”
“I’m Fred.  Fred Herrman.”  He seems stumped. “We recorded one of the songs on my album at Curt’s house in Burbank.  You were my music instructor at U.S.C.”
“Oh, I don’t seem remember Curt.”  He gives a kind of shug of his shoulders, an indication of, “How can everybody remember every name that they come across in life?” 

Lloyd knew Curt for a lot of years in the professional musician’s circle.  And then with a moment or two of additional thought, I realize that he really doesn’t remember who I am. 
“Well, I’m really enjoying your set tonight,” I tell him.
“Oh that’s great.”  And then he stiffly leans into me, as if confidentially, “Listen, I have to get over to that bathroom before I run out of time.”
“Haha, of course! Okay Lloyd.  It was great to see you.” And he walks to the back where the bathrooms are located.

I feel sad now.  How did eight years make him forget who I am?  He was so patient with me all of the years that he sat with me explaining why you would overlay a flat five with a diminished arpeggio, or a flat nine with an augmented arpeggio.  Lloyd showed me that implication is important in music.  That when stand close to a painting, you can see that there are swaths of colors that the painter has put down; shapes, lights and darks.  Then, when you stand back from the painting, you see that these lights, colors and shapes show you leaves and mountains and reflections in water.  He said it's the same with music.  You don’t have to put down every little note that you want to convey, but rather, you can imply ideas through your choices for the listener.   

He also told me how you have to play from the feelings that you experience throughout your life.  That when you hear a really good player, it’s because you are hearing their life reflected in their playing.  You hear the joys of their love, and their heartbreaks that tore at their souls.  And likewise, when Lloyd would play for me, “Green Dolphin Street,” or “I’ll Remember April,” I swear that I could hear his own childhood, maybe the longing for the simple days in Baton Rouge, in his improvised melodies.  I could hear the girl that he likely experienced a summer with, but who got away, and of whom he always wondered, within the key voicing’s he chose in his playing.  And I could hear his the love and security of the life he made with his wife in how he gently raised his ending of a song a half tone up, then to the four, then resolved into the original key. All of those kinds of nuances that told deep stories and were just further proof of his philosophy that dictated, “Go and live some life first and get your heart broken; and then you can come back and give people something to hear about in your playing.

I love this man, and I love what he gave to me.  His time, his passion, and his caring.  And it makes me sad to see that he is fading. 

But I will look at it like this.  I have an appreciation of music from the people who have taught me to listen, such as Lloyd Hebert.  Understanding both the feeling and the mechanics of music enhances my enjoyment greatly of it.  And Lloyd is responsible for a lot of that.  He’s gotten older, and that’s just part of life, and in that way, a part of what he's been playing about.  The old Lloyd too will assuredly work into someone’s music somewhere; maybe his son’s, maybe mine someday. The music that he plays with his band seems to keep him going and active, so God bless him for keeping on.  He doesn’t have to remember me.  I’ll keep visiting him at Casey’s and will be a part of his music.  I’ll remember April, and Lloyd.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Minding the Gap

I’m always perplexed at how some people get to know movie stars and other forms of celebrities with ease.  I’ve never had the schmoozing gene in my body, so that kind of thing doesn’t easily fall into my lap, though I can flash a great smile.  I see my share of well-knows around town since I live in the Los Angeles area.  But now and again, I’ll hear from someone that they met and spoke at length with a star at a party or event, and somehow it comes so easy to them.  I think that as much as I hate to admit it, even though I grew up in Studio City (or maybe because of it), I am a star struck guy, and I still get a little nervous around well known people.  That frame of mind puts a distance, a sort of emotional gap, between myself and someone who has been on television, or in a movie, or in the media for some reason.  They’re not just a normal person to me. 

And I think I have a point there.  They are really not normal.  They are outstanding in some way, or I wouldn’t be familiar with them.  They got to their position or status through a lot of hard work, self-determination, confidence and some luck, and I’m always impressed with people who get themselves through years of fire like that.

I was recently talking with a woman who had stayed with a man who was the head of a huge industrial company.  I won’t name his name, but the person is very well known in our society.  It knocked my socks off when she told me this.  And this woman became friends with him, traveled with him, even lived with him, and to her, it’s just like another person who had a lot of responsibility in his life at one time and was noteworthy for sure, but it wasn’t such a big deal to her.  And yet it amazed me that she even knew him at all. 

Back when one of my favorite musicians was still alive, an acquaintance of mine happened to be at the House of Blues on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood and met him.  Now, I had met my bass playing idol, John Entwistle several times through my life I’m happy to report.  But this guy I knew ended up sitting at one of those tall two-seater lounge tables, drinking and smoking with Entwistle and talking for forty five minutes.  What the hell?  How did that happen? 

There is still something about a person, a celebrity, who seems normal enough and who I might see at Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s in the evening.  And yet there's a good chance that they probably just walked off of a sound stage a few hours earlier, or that they were running a giant financial corporation or media company during the day.  This juxtaposition still puts me off balance. 

Two weeks ago on a Saturday, my girlfriend and I were walking on 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica when none other than freaking Hilary Swank walks next to us coming out of The Gap.  My girlfriend said hello and told her how much she liked, “Million Dollar Baby.”  It was humbling for me to see her in her black cut off shorts and a casual teal colored top kicking in on a weekend, and yet, knowing that she was in those two stellar movies, “Boys Don’t Cry,” and that mentioned above.  Whew!  It just blew me away!  

My favorite celebrity story happened right here in Burbank. I had a friend in from out of town (from Spain...so way out of town), and after seeing the sights around L.A. that night, we ended up at Bob's Big Boy for a late night malt.  We had just sat down in our assigned table, which had a low divider separating the small gap between the neighboring booth and ours, when my friend said that she would love to see a celebrity while she was in town.  Literally just as she was saying these words, from around her back came someone with a light tan safari jacket and a baseball hat.  He came around and sat down across the divider next to us.  It was Rob Lowe.  He had probably just finished shooting, "The West Wing," at Warners for the night and was meeting a buddy.  My friend didn't notice him as she was finishing her thoughts in her broken English.  I pointed with my finger under the level of the divider and she looked over at the man next to us, then looked back at me as if needing verification from me that it could actually be him.  My smile back gave her the answer and her olive skinned face turned a deep crimson.  "Haha!" I thought.  "Do I deliver or what?"


Monday, August 11, 2014

Growing An Album


One of the most spectacular feelings I’ve ever experienced happened while I was working at the Walt Disney Company in Feature Animation when I created a polished demo CD of music that I had written.

About ten years earlier, while I was living at any number of beaches in Southern California, I had been actively writing songs.  It actually started much earlier during my junior year in high school.  As many kids of my generation had discovered, I had found that by doubling up on recording equipment, audio or video, I could edit pieces of things together.  This included hopping from one VHS tape for video to another, and also worked with using two audio tape decks.  The editing was a bit clumsy and there would remain artifacts of all sorts; rainbow streaks on video taped edits, and unsmooth transitions of audio cuts.  Oh, where was Apple’s GarageBand at the time?

My Casio Keyboard
With some more experimenting, I began to see that I could also overlay my voice using an input microphone while copying an audiotape from one machine to the next.  Pretty quickly I began to use this process to the maximum by playing an instrument, my cheap little Casio Keyboard or a guitar that I would painfully teach myself the few necessary chords to embellish a song, and I would sing at the same time while copying whatever I had already pre-taped to a second audio cassette recorder.  This process was far from optimal as during the copying of cassette tapes, there was an audible hiss, which would grow louder with every transfer.  So implementing three transfers (three overlays) was about the most that I could do without the hiss becoming unbearable.  I continued to create these recordings while either covering songs or writing my own short songs.  Because of their poor quality, I threw them out long ago.

A couple of years later, a friend of mine bought himself a TEAC Tascam 244, 4-Track Cassette Mixer/Recorder Portastudio.  This was about a two foot wide by one and one half foot high recorder with four rows of mixing pans, pots, and faders.  You would put a plain audio-cassette into, and it would record input at about two times the speed of a regular audio cassette player, thereby improving the quality of the recording.  He also had two synthesizers, an electric bass, and a drum machine.  The first thing my friend did was to lay down keyboards, bass and drums for one of his favorite oldies, “Barbara Ann,” by the Beach Boys (and probably the Wrecking Crew), and then we put our harmonized vocals onto separate tracks.  His ability to record was at such an improved level to my ears as compared to my double cassette player transferring that buying one of these contraptions became an instant goal of mine. 

My TEAC Tascam 246
And after working the summer at Hughes Market as a box-boy, I was able to save the money to head down to West L.A. Music and buy the newest model; the TEAC Tascam 246, 4-Track Cassette Mixer/Recorder.  This newer model had now SIX rows of pans, pots and faders and a few more bells and whistles.  The other capability of these mixers at the time was that they allowed one to bounce tracks.  This meant that you could take a recorded track and then record it into a new track while adding instruments.  It was kind of the same idea as I was doing with my two cassette tape machines previously, but using the Tascam, you would maintain much better sound quality.  If you continually bounced tracks, then you would start to gain a hiss as well, but there were few times where I needed to bounce a track or two more than once.  Incidentally, at about the same time, Bruce Springsteen recorded his “Nebraska” album on the earlier Tascam 144 PortaStudio model, which I believe may have been the first model in the series.  So I figured I was in good company.

So I got to work experimenting with the recording process on my new mixer, which proved to be heavenly as compared to my prior technique.  And while I still only had a little battery operated Casio keyboard, I was able to lay down better sounding tracks.  This version I did of, “If I Only Had The Nerve” was one that I did with just three tracks; one vocal track, one keyboard track for main chords, and one for keyboard track for embellishments.  I should explain too that I went for an effeminate voice and sped up the vocal track in the end for effect on this little experiment.

My Roland D-20
I was soon off to U.S.C. and studying.  In between my classes I would write songs here and there and then realized, as everyone who is aware of what they could have, that if I bought a better keyboard, my songs might sound more professional.  So I went to West LA Music again and bought myself a Roland D-20 synthesizer, which was the lighter model of the Roland D-50.  The D-20 had 61 non-weighted keys and was capable of creating hundreds if not thousands of variations of sounds through programming, and had a drum machine on board as well.  I generally used the multitude of pre-programmed sounds to get the point across in my songs.  My only displeasure with the machine was that the keys weren’t weighted.  But it was a small price to pay for all of the new orchestral sounds I could access.

My Fender Jazz Bass
This new addition gave me a great sense of power over my song-creating because I could lay down strings, set a drum track. I also eventually bought two electric bass guitars, a Fender Jazz Bass, and a Warwick Buzzard Bass, and I taught myself how to play at least well enough to lay down parts for my songs.  The on-board sequencer could handle up to something like eight simultaneous instrument parts, which reduced the number of tracks I would need to use on my Tascam.  Now I could get a clean sound.  Three example of songs I did during this time were, “Why Did We Go Wrong?”, “Something’s Come Alive,” and “Tell Me Why.”  I must have made about thirty songs during these years, whose time span extended from about 1988 through 1995.  This period covered my years at U.S.C. through living at the Sea Castle in Santa Monica and in the Venice Canals. 
My Warwick Buzzard
My goal was always to use my rough demos as blueprints.  I had friends who when they made music were so meticulous about getting everything correct and balanced that they seemed to get themselves stalled in the mud.  I always had it in mind that the musical gear I had served only the purpose of giving a rough illustration of what I might do with a song.  I always reserved the right in my head to take those rough demos to instrumentalists and vocalists later to polish them up.  I never saw myself as a performer or a musical technician; only a songwriter.  That is, a person who composed words and music.

During the time I was living at the beach, I was also able to get private song writing instruction from a very patient women named Robin Randall who was a teacher at an adult music school, and who had written myriads of songs, including some recorded by Jefferson Starship.  She and I would meet in her mother’s Hollywood home, a dark quasi-mansion of sorts at the top of Beachwood Canyon, and we would regularly work out some of my songs on her piano.  I always had a strong sense of melody and chord structure, as well as a natural understanding of how and where to use key changes.  However, my lyric writing when I began was not focused enough for songs to be sold as “popular songs.”  Though I essentially knew what my songs were about, their lyrics would meander with a style that was on the verge of free-verse and ultimately were not clear enough. 

Robin was able to help me narrow my focus to the story or idea that I was trying to tell about in my songs. She also helped me to find ways of shortening interludes that I naturally put into songs.  I had a tendency to put several instrumental breaks into my songs, a kind of, “place musical solo here,” peppered throughout my songs.  But, like the treatment of a screenplay, a song has to be concise enough to be able to sell it to a performing artist in one or two playings.  Then, at that point, they can do whatever they want with it.  Robin greatly improved my ability to express ideas in the musical medium in this way.

By about 2002, I was working in an area of The Walt Disney Company that was called, Special Projects.  My work ebbed and flowed a bit more than it had during the full on feature productions I had been working on up until then.  So I had more time for myself here and there and decided that I had enough time and money to pull four or five songs that I had written in the past fifteen years and demo them at a higher quality level. 

I found a music producer, Dave Waterbury, who had formerly been a touring guitarist for the band, Berlin, and who had a nice studio.  He played several instruments such as keyboards, a wicked guitar, bass, and he also had great recording equipment.  So I notated out my music sheets for each of the songs and hunted around for singers, some of whom I pulled from the Musician’s Institute in Hollywood.  Concurrently, I was producing a short film called, “Jack’s Gift,” and we thought we might be able to use a song for the credits, so I wrote an additional, new song and included it in the batch of music I was producing.

I met with Dave at his studio once he had laid down some of the tracks, and they sounded great.  We pulled in the singers that I found and recorded.  It was an easy process because I had planned it all out pretty well; both the notation and the laying down of vocals and harmonies.

Ross Tompkins and me.
There was one song I had written a few years earlier as a jazz standard type of tune called, “How I Loved You.”  It was about a girl I dated at U.S.C.  I showed it to Dave, but it really needed professional acoustic jazz players.  So I hired my U.S.C. jazz instructor and four professionals he played the jazz circuit with and we recorded the song in a couple of takes.  These guys were true professionals. My heart raced as they played my tune. After this, I brought in Ross Tompkins, the piano player from, “The Tonight Show Staring Johnny Carson,” to come in and put a piano track on as an alternative.  I was very proud to have met and work with Mr. Tompkins.  He arrived in a gold Corvette and looked very tan.  That’s a day I won’t forget.

I also had a talented graphic designer friend at Disney, named John Alexander, who helped me create the CD cover templates and artwork.  He was very helpful and did a stellar job for me. 

I remember delivering my finished tracks to a CD replicating company in Burbank and being very excited about being close to finishing the whole process.  And when the boxes CD’s that I had ordered were ready, I brought them to my car, broke a box open, unwrapped the CD packaging, and loaded it into my Mustang’s CD player.  And here it was.  My project was finished.  I remember feeling a glee that I’ve never felt before.  This album was something I had totally created and had brought to fruition of my own doing in small, creative steps.  I thought to myself, “Pete Townshend has lived nearly his entire life doing this, and yet, this is my first time.”  It was very satisfying. 

In order to compare one of the songs I created on my TEAC Tascam PortaStudio with a finished demo, listen to “Something’s Come Alive,” and then compare it to the final demo of, “Come On Come On.”  By the time I put the polished demo onto my CD, I had rewritten many of the verses and retitled it.  But at heart, it’s the same song about the same subject; two people who meet and risk the fear of failure for one more chance at love.

All of the tracks are available on iTunes under the artist, “Fred Herrman.”  The five-song album is called, “Watercolers Over The Sea.”  The title is a remembrance of my time writing songs in the Sea Castle apartment and watching winter storms roll in over the ocean. 

And now, I think it’s time to write some more.  All of that old equipment that I had is long since gone.  So I just need a piano, a synthesizer, a guitar and an electric bass again…but then, I should really start with a pen and paper. 

I love the rainy days and stormy nights
The watercolors over the sea
The wind sweeping through the pane
Has made it possible for you and me

Friday, July 18, 2014

Wormhole to Arizona - A Place of Pain


I had a strange thing happen a long time ago when a girlfriend who I had been living with for three years, up and moved out on me literally without any warning.  It was very odd, and several of my family members, who had already seen some questionable behavior from her in their presence, reacted with words to me such as, "That's a very uncommon thing for a woman to do.  Usually women like to talk things out when they have issues. It was likely one facet of a woman who was already very impulsive and who had little sense of introspection."  I don't have too many negative feelings towards her anymore, other than that she had trashed me to her own family, and her friends, some of which we had shared, and also that she had begun to see someone while she was still with me.  She shouldn't have done any of that.  Because of her own complicated childhood, I think that she was destined to gravely mishandle the way in which she separated from her relationship with me, and that she was also destined (at that time at least) never to have taken a long, hard, look at herself and how she interacted with the world.  Hopefully, that either has, or will change for her.  But that's all water under the bridge now.

With all of this in the past, one aspect of the experience remains poignant to me.  It was that when this was all happening (about the fall of 1993), it was extremely painful for me.  This caused me to go into a really strange place in my head, which will be difficult to describe here since I haven't completely made sense of it even to this day. 

I am not and have never abused chemical substances in my life.  The most I have ever experimented with was pot when I was fifteen, and that was only because I had a couple of friends who smoked it now and then, so I gave it a try a couple of times.  Two friends and I also took mushrooms at Disneyland once during our time at university, which was pretty interesting.  We chalked it up as a perceptual experiment.  I have pride in myself about my lack of interest in chemical substances because I had a biological father who drank excessively, so one might expect that I might have had an inclination to have either experimented with or have leaned on substances.  But I never have had the desire to mute my own pain at all.  I have always felt that surviving through pain directly strengthens me.  Having been adopted by a mother who was a child development specialist may have helped in this regard, as I was mostly open to my own feelings throughout my life.  I wasn't perfect with handling them, but that expressive channel was always there in myself.   

During the weeks and possibly months after the woman that I lived with moved out, had I been a different person, this would have been the time to have abused substances.  Believe me, I was in such pain from this experience, that I was destroyed inside.  I felt as though someone had taken a baseball bat and swung it as hard as they could targeting the glass menagerie of my heart and internal organs, and they all lay shattered as hanging shards with no hope of reconstitution.  Any person who had an inclination to take a drink, smoke dope, snort blow, or insert a needle, would have done it then without passing "Go" and without collecting a hundred dollars if they had been laden with the painful feelings that were weighing on my entire body.  But I didn't, and I never would have.  I'm not someone who would put poison into my body in order to feel better, or jump off of a building, or use any other vice to end the pain.  Somewhere deep within me I have always had the sense that as long as I am alive, I will always have the possibility of making a better life for myself, and watching the sunset on a tropical beach somewhere, hearing the ocean surf hit the rafters under me as I lay in my beach house.  Anything and everything is possible.  This, I know to be inborn in me.  I came into this world with this.  And it was reinforced from having come from virtually nothing with my biological parents and knowing even at age four that I could survive by myself on the streets while my father was passed out from whiskey. 

But those weeks and months after she moved out from me were literally terrible for me.  I was working as a Production Assistant on,"Boy Meets World," at the Walt Disney Studios, and during my very long working hours, I remember going into the bathrooms of the old Animation Building on the lot, and also in the production bungalows, and sobbing inconsolably.  I had lost the woman that I loved.  I recall one day when I had delivered some lunch and noon-time production reports to our, "Boy Meets World," Stage 2 of the Walt Disney Studios lot.  I made it there without breaking down and crying.  Upon leaving the stage, I was walking back to the production bungalows, relieved that I had kept myself together for the fifteen minutes needed to do my work on the sound stage, and then as I was walking back down one of the faux Disney streets, I started balling because I thought that no one was around and I could let some of it out that I had been holding in.  

Then, to my horror I realized that the stage manager of our production had exited the double-doored sound stage doors right behind me, had caught up to me, and was walking to my right.  She sensed right away that I was crying, and had heard about what had happened to me.  She stopped me, put her arm around me, and said, "You'll make it through this, Fred."  I thanked her and we went on.  It was very kind of her to have done that just then because in her assurance, I extrapolated that she, like every one else, had experience their own heartbreaks in the past and understood what I was going through.  The stage manager's name was, Lynn M. McCracken, and she is someone who to this day played an important role as a casual observer in helping me know at the time that I would indeed make it through the pain.  It was like having someone way up the ranks give me a stamp of approval that I was a good guy and that I would be fine in the end. 

But to finally get to the gist of this story.  During times when I was alone and without much stimulation, such as when I was either alone on a bench somewhere, or walking by myself outside, or the worst, sitting in the little loft that my girlfriend and I had lived in together, but which she had since left, I would go to this very strange place in my head.  It wasn't a hallucination or a delusion; I'd be willing to go as far as to call it a dissociated state of meditation.  It was simply a place my mind would drift off to for lack of better distraction.

The place was in the middle of the Arizona desert at night, looking almost straight up at the cold stars in a clear sky.  It was a surreal place because it was as if I was actually standing on the sand and gazing up at the last possible hint of blue crescent twilight conceding to a black starry background over a barren wasteland of loneliness.

I've thought over the years of how I could describe the experience to someone.  The only thing I could think of, which still seems mild to me, was for a person who always had spent Christmases with their close family and friends for their whole life to be suddenly sent into the middle of a mountain range alone on Christmas Eve, and with nil warning.  

In my desert, it was as if civilization itself had dropped off of the horizon and I was there cast off as a lone human being under a vast, eternal universe.  The atmosphere was either warm with a summer evening breeze, or it was very cold, as if in the midst of winter.  I experience both of these conditions there in my head during my visits.  And the feeling I had inside was of utter desolation. 

And in the abject desert silence that I would experience with each visit, whatever warm or cold wind that might be moving across the sands would literally blow through my body without regard to my own mass as a physical being.  I was unprotected and exposed to the elements of the unbounded cosmos.  I would continue to drift off to this place for the first few months after the break up, and then my visits gradually became less frequent. 

I believe that I had a very strong reaction to my girlfriend's leaving me because I have some issues regarding my biological mother who abandoned me both physically and emotionally when I was very young.  So the experience that my girlfriend, the first woman who I had ever had a long, ongoing, intimacy with, put me through by virtue of her surprise exit from my life was magnified by this earlier experience.

And as for my mind's choice of location:  I think that I conjured it up in relation to a place my girlfriend and I had previously visited.  Maybe a year earlier, we had gone to visit her relations in a small town in Arizona.  It was a small town where her uncle worked for the government.  And somewhere either in her aunt and uncle's small town, or during our nighttime travel to or from there, I had surely glimpsed at and been impressed by the clear, starry nighttime sky there and had filed it into my memory banks, which I obviously drew upon later. 

I have to think that the place that I would go to in my mind during that period of pain was a location and a means for me to represent the loss that I felt from my former girlfriend, and also tangentially connected with harmonic shades of emotions from my early childhood, experienced and presented in a visual way for myself.  As odd and distasteful as it would seem, somehow this very stark, calm place I went to helped me cope with that pain.  But when I think of that place even now, it feels as alien to me as it did back then.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Home Drive By - Some Self Soothing

Since my parents died and their house was sold by their trustees, I've had moments where I have driven up their street as if to verify, this was my home.  It's a slight compulsion, and not one that happens all the time.  But since their death, just two and a half years apart from each other, I've done just that five or six times; maybe more.  

Just a couple of weeks ago, my girlfriend was out of town and I felt a little bit alone.  With her absence, there was a vacuum and I started thinking about my former life with my parents, which doesn't seem all that long ago, but in retrospect, was eight, ten, twelve years in the past.  My memories of my mom planting bulbs in the front yard flower beds, and of my dad sitting at the family room table, carving out a slab or grapefruit while watching a baseball or football game, are based during a time during which they were still healthy.  It was before the period when they were diagnosed with dementia and Alzheimer's disease.  And I realize that these memories I have a from further back than my emotions would lead me to believe. 

And so just recently, after getting myself some dinner, I had one of those inklings to drive over to my old neighborhood.  It was about 8:30pm when I parked my Jeep just down the street from our old house and got out to feel and smell my old street.  Most of the same houses are there from when I grew up, but many have been extended upwards, backwards or both, to increase their square footage, and many yards have had a fair amount of light-scaping added to them for evening ambiance.

I walked up the street from my car, noticing the rural type of curbing that I played on so many years; that is, no curbs.  The asphalt just ends at people's lawns, probably similar to how many streets were first laid out in the early San Fernando Valley.  Unlike other times that I have executed these visits, I asked myself to note how I would feel before, during, and after, this time. 

Beforehand, it felt like a sort of need in myself.  The idea of a drive by seemed a way that I could be closer to my parents and my earlier life because that neighborhood reeks of all of it to me.  It felt like I could satisfy the desire to be near my parents again by being on their street. I felt that I could maintain some sort of connection with the neighborhood which is, in a way, still supposed to be mine; like getting back a piece of something that I had lost. 

I walked up nearing the frontage of their house, which is segmented with a flower garden against the street separated from the asphalt by railroad ties that the owner before us had installed in 1974.  Then about five feet back on the other side of the garden, I supposed where the legal set back from what is actually city owned, is a wooden ranch fence that extends the entire width of the property, followed in back by our green lawn populated with birch trees that I didn't want them to plant.  I felt that a wide open lawn would have been better and easier to maintain rather than planting new trees.  Also, given that an old tree had once fallen onto our roof in a storm, I didn't feel the need to test the gods again.  But, my have those trees grown in this short time!  Following the lawn, more flower beds and then the front edge of our house. 

I looked at all of this in the still of the night.  The new owner had put up brighter flood lights than we had, and had also painted our brown ranch style cape cod home with a light whitewash.  I am guessing the new owners didn't ask me because I wouldn't have approved.  It's too trendy a paint job in my opinion.  Still though, as I was now directly in front of the property, everything else was still set up the way my parents had it.  The location of the trash cans, the hose, the flowers, the security company stickers on the front door window panes.  I can readily imagine pulling into the driveway, opening the front door with my key, and finding my mom in her den doing some paperwork, and my dad sitting at our round family room table with a spoon scraping out the last bit of orange Sherbet ice cream from a small bowl.  But there were two new model SUV's parked in the driveway that I've seen a few times as I have driven by.  "Someone must be visiting my parents," viscerally echoes through my head.  "Nope Fred, they belong to the owners," says the same voice in response. 

"And how do I feel now?"  I miss this house, and I miss my parents.  It's not entirely painful to stand in front of it on this pleasant summer evening.  And I'm not sure that I'd want to still be living in the house that we bought when I was ten years old, but I wish I still owned it.  It feels like it's mine, and it does tug on my heartstrings a little.  And it somehow soothes me to see it. 

Up the street by just a few houses, on either side, are two huge box type homes that have been newly built from the ground up.  They are both much too big a footprint for their respective lots and are imposing to the other, smaller, more elegant homes on the street.  Someone asked me recently after I told him about my occasional visits, "What would happen if your parents' house was razed and a new home built there?"  And I hesitated.  "I would indeed have a problem with it for a little while because of this need I sometimes have to validate my life with my parents by seeing our old house on our old street," I answered.  

I've been lucky in this respect because all of the homes that have been significant to me in my life are still there.  The places I lived in with, first, both my natural mother and father, then later with my father are still there.  The house that I was adopted into near the Mulholland Tennis Club in the Skyline development is still there.  All of the apartments I've lived in around Los Angeles (with the exception of one on Brockton Avenue in West L.A.) are still there.  So I haven't much dealt with having a house disappear and not being able to see it for myself again.  Obviously my goal is to just accept and integrate my past life with my present Fred without having to see these places, but I'm not totally there yet. 

And so after walking up past my parents' house a little, I turned around for another view of the well lit front yard.  I could just slightly see into the front entry from the street.  I was sure that the owners were on the phone or watching television as I passed by.  As I walked back to my car, I asked myself, "How do I feel now?"  I feel okay.  I feel like I got it out of my system for now, for this month.  I know it's not my last time coming by, but I don't feel ashamed of needing to see my childhood home as maybe I might have supposed before I made my visit.  I feel like I miss my parents, and I still mourn their passing because I am a human being.  And at this time in my life, this is my way to mourn and to remember them.  And now, I feel like it's time to get into my Jeep and drive home.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Dennis Wolfberg - A Legend in My Book


Sometime in about 1990, when I was still living at the Sea Castle in Santa Monica, I invited my girlfriend, and about five other friends out for the evening.  We all had dinner in West L.A., and then I didn't really have a plan after that.  We finished our food and were ready to head onto some other activity when I remembered that not far from the restaurant was a small comedy club at 11637 Tennessee Place, West Los Angeles.  It was called, IGBY's Comedy Cabaret, and was a 190 seat capacity club with small tables and chairs. 

When we arrived at the club to investigate who was on that night, Dennis Wolfberg was scheduled to perform.  I had seen him a few times on television and remembered that his observational type of comedy was very funny.  I remember thinking that it was an off night, such as maybe a Wednesday or a Thursday evening,  and that the club was a little out of the way too, being just off of Pico Boulevard near Barrington, just west of the 405 freeway.  So I was surprised that we would get to see Wolfberg so spontaneously. When we sat down, we were in about the second row of tables, and the place eventually became about three-quarters full. 

And after a warm up by Robert Lee, Dennis Wolfberg came out and did a routine about his wife's pregnancy and child's birth that made the group of us curl up fetally with laughter.  He had so finely honed his craft that when one listened to his show, one literally hung on every word that he said.  He had a way with emphasizing his speaking with a volume and clarity that reminded me of a well enunciated professor.  In addition, he would bulge his face as he accentuated his story elements.  His routines were a tapestry of brilliant writing and stage acting. 

I would later see him performing this same routine on the Tonight Show and on other television programs, so maybe our audience was part of the final testing ground for him before releasing this routine to the world.  I think that had he not passed away shortly after our encounter with him, he would have been one of the better known stand up's (make that legendary) in entertainment history.  Wolfberg was just that gifted. 

The Effect of a Fourth

The 4th of July holiday always brings back to me a memory of one 4th when I was on a bus, from Los Angeles to Phoenix, Arizona, during my search for my sister.  The reason for this specific trip was that I had just found the mother of the man and woman who had stood in as God parents for my sister at her baptism.  As I did all things in those days (around 1984), as soon as I had acquired the information about these people, I was on a Greyhound Bus as soon as possible to get over to her and meet her. 

During this outbound portion of the trip, I left on a mid day bus, so that by the time the bus got into Arizona, it was getting around 9:00pm, and being that it was the 4th of July, fireworks shows began to appear in the dimly lit skies from different parts of the city.  I recall one parking lot near a recreational field that the bus had to either drive through or near where there were a lot of youngsters tailgating with drinks and coolers and watching the fireworks.  I was sitting on the left side of the bus and I looked out of my window, separated from the activity and sound by my window, and I saw such excitement and pleasure on their faces.  I could see that there were groups of friends and families, being with each other for the spectacular show that was occurring. 

Because of the direction that my bus was going, and because the window tops were rather low on my bus, I could not see the actual fireworks, the source of which were above the roof of the Greyhound bus and about ten-o-clock above my left shoulder.  My view was of lights and colors changing and illuminating the vehicles and faces of those watching in the parking lot.  Teens and kids waved sparklers as the fireworks exploded above them while their moms and dads chatted and laughed.  This scene made an impression on me.

Though I had been to many fireworks shows with my own family and friends, somehow being separated from it all and witnessing the reverie that these folks were exuding made me feel how special these times of gatherings are; a 4th of July, a Christmas, a New Years.  When one is distanced from it all, as through a thick pane of observational glass in some scientific setting, it becomes even clearer that we as humans are so capable of intense pleasure and bonding, and that on the balance, we seek these moments for connection with ourselves.  It's nice to see so many happy people all at once.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

A Memorial for Marilyn

This past Friday was the memorial service for the matriarch of one of my favorite families.  She left behind three children, who I love, and three grandchildren.  Here are some words that I wrote, and which I spoke during the service:

Hello.  My name is Fred Herrman, and I was Trish’s high school boyfriend.  Trish and I met during our tenth grade year, though I had already noticed her in middle school wearing her government sash at a lunchtime assembly, but that’s another story.  Pretty soon after we got to know each other, she invited me over to her house to meet her parents, Marilyn and Dugan.  Being that this was my first-ever real girlfriend, I didn’t know what to expect from my new sweetheart’s parents.

I wondered to myself, would her parents like me?  Would they be critical of this guy who was dating their youngest daughter?  Would I know how to behave around them? 

And then I met them.  Marilyn and Dugan were very kind to me and made me feel comfortable right away.  As I remember it, pretty much as soon as I walked into the house, Marilyn, who had stationed herself in the Varna house kitchen, offered me a little snack, along with some lemonade.

As time progressed, I found out that these two people were very generous and welcoming and took a genuine interest in me, and I noticed that they were like this with all of Trish’s friends.  These were good people.  And as more time went on, I was invited to beautiful Bass Lake for summer vacations and was made to feel a part of the family.  And there were occasional Jackman family arguments that I witnessed too.  “Wow! They even feel comfortable enough to argue around me? Good!  They’re a crazy Jewish family just like mine! Now I really feel at home!” 

I will never forget this and I have carried these experiences around with me throughout my life.  The litmus test for anyone’s relations that I meet are, “Do they approach the very high bar of love and sincerity that Marilyn and Dugan showed me all of those years?”  And, as expected from being around people such as Marilyn and Dugan, I quickly fell in love with them.  How could I not?  They were real, and they were fun to be around, and they were always “there” for everyone.  I always loved Dugan’s endless cavalcade of stories, especially the one where he described how he had applied to, but was rejected from the U.S. Navy, because he was just plumb too short.  So he kept searching varying armed forces divisions until he found just the right one that didn’t care so much about a person’s height; The United States Coast Guard, where he was accepted and served for our country. What tenacity he had!

And for every story that Dugan told, there was Marilyn right along his wing, while readjusting a hallway chair, fluffing up some sofa pillows, or untangling the vacuum chord, throwing in a corrected fact here and there to Dugan, or rewinding him back a bit to cover some appropriate and necessary additional back-story.  A story session could go on for forty minutes or so.  But it was always fun because Dugan had a punch line buried in there somewhere, and it was worth the wait.  They were quite the story-telling duo!

And when Trish and I finally went our separate ways sometime towards the end of high school, I not only suffered the heartbreaking loss of Trish, but also of this great family.  Because, you see, all of it went together;  Marilyn, Dugan, Susan, Mitch and Trish, their family’s way of life, and all of their collective experiences that one could live vicariously through.  And that’s a lot to miss out on.

With Marilyn’s passing, I have to think of Stephen, who I was never fortunate enough to have met, but of whom Trish always spoke with glowing admiration and love.  She told me in high school that she would never cut her hair because Stephen always liked it long on her.  And now I think to myself that Marilyn can finally be reunited with her eldest son. 

My dear Trish, your mother loved you so much.  It was just as obvious as the summer San Fernando days were sunny.  Marilyn lived her life around you and all about you.  And that’s a really nice thing for an impressionable sixteen-year old to witness.  It reinforced in me that family is everything.  Marilyn was her family, and so you are this very minute the living part of her and always will be.  Her absolute success as a mother and as a person are reflected in each of her children and their respective stellar characters and passions for life.  

Marilyn always talked about you, Trish, Susan and Mitch; what you were all doing, the funny thing you had said just the other day, how she loved your involvement in school and life activities, and how constantly picky you were, Trish, about matching your clothes to your Espadrilles. I truly believe that Imelda Marcos was taught how to collect shoes by Trish.  In fact, I’ll submit this fact to Wikipedia tonight.

Saying goodbye is not easy. And believe me, I am right here with you.  As you know, my mother passed away just this last February, and my father just two years before that.  And it’s a hard thing; a very difficult thing. Because when someone you love so much, leaves you, it takes a while to really understand what you have lost.  It’s a mother (like Marilyn), or a father (like my dad), or a sister (like Kim’s Karen), or a brother (like Stephen) who you could always go to and bounce an idea off of, or call when you’re feeling a little down, or lonely.  They are the people who you can confide in and the people who know all of your back history, and who know your complicated baggage.  All of that counts for a lot in a people you trust.  And when they are no longer here, it’s really like an appendage has gone missing, and it takes a very long while to get somewhat used to it, if nearly at all.  That’s what I miss the most in my own life; calling my mom and dad, or dropping in on them just to talk and work out my own stuff while they listened. 

And one of the things I experienced after I lost my parents was to constantly ask myself, “Did I do enough? Was I there enough for them? Did I give enough of myself? Was I present enough throughout their struggles? Was I too selfish with my own time?”  Trish, I know that you are struggling with a bit of this, and I can tell you that ultimately, the answer for all of us is, “Yes, we did do enough, and yes, we were present enough.”  Our parents have always loved us for who we are, and we did the best that we could given our own complicated and imperfect lives.  “Yes Trish,” it was enough in Marilyn’s eyes, among other reasons, most importantly because she has always known how much you loved her, which I and everyone in this room know to be, with all of your heart. 

What I know for you three, Trish, Susan and Mitch, is just how lucky you are to have one-another, both through this very hard time, and throughout your lives.  Because it is the knowledge of one-another’s confidences, and history, and baggage, that makes you the family that you are. And as I myself learned from my time with the Jackman’s, in the end, family really is everything, and trust me, y’all came from a good one!  

I love you, Marilyn.  I will always remember the hugs you generously gave out, that told me, “You are at home here,” and I will always remember your laughter, with great love and affection, for the rest of my years.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Dixie Chicks - Hits That Will Never Be



My girlfriend and I play a game I made up one time when I was channel surfing our cable system.  Toward the high channel portion of our cable service, we have a load of strictly music channels.  They show different photos and facts from whichever band they are playing a song at that moment, and one night I told her to close her eyes as I moved from country channel to country channel and identify the songs she heard.  The channels range from current country, to pop country to 90’s country to classic country.  So, pretty much all of the artist are represented in the batch, save folk and bluegrass music. 

In short order, this became a competition between us.  We now both close our eyes and use our music recognition skills to recognize and call out the song before the other.  See, she grew up out in the country surrounded by country music, and I grew up in Studio City on ‘70’s and 80’s rock and roll.  So one would think that she would beat me at this game all the time.  But in the years since 1997, when I discovered how much I liked country music, I have brushed up on my listening repertoire, and so I win a lot of these games.  But we’re actually pretty even when all is said and done because there is some deep country stuff that she knows from her mom and her gramma’s years of listening that I just don’t have the reserve of knowledge for.

So last night, after we had watched a few of our DVR’d shows, before we turned off the T.V., I said, “Hey, let’s try a few,” and I went to those upper country music channels.  I think the first one was a Tim McGraw tune, then a Dolly Parton tune, then a Clint Black with Lisa Hartman tune.  We probably did about ten or twelve of them when I hit one of the channels that was beginning a song with a familiar arpeggio acoustic guitar.  Right away I recognized it as, “Cowboy Take Me Away,” by the Dixie Chicks and called it out before my girlfriend did.  “Ha! Won that one!” We both laughed, and yet, simultaneously my heart panged with sadness as it often does when I hear a Dixie Chicks tune.  I enjoy hearing their songs so much, but for the last ten years, I’ve always felt a mixture of enjoyment and sadness with their music. 

I first discovered the Dixie Chicks in 1998 the same year or two that probably everyone else did.  It was during the release of “ Wide Open Spaces.”  It was so clear to me when I heard this song and the album that this was an extremely talented, and original sounding group.  I loved the freshness of the acoustic instruments they used and the tight female harmonies.  And I thought that the lead singer, Natalie Maines’, voice cut through the other vocalists on the radio with a determination and spit that I hadn’t heard before.  They won the Country Music Association’s Horizon Award, an award that at the time I had hoped the Wilkinsons would take home.  I sensed that the Dixie Chicks were on their way to stardom.

I remember one night as I was driving up California Highway 14 on my way from Burbank to Ridgecrest to visit a friend, that I was in an area that was pitch black between Mojave and Red Rock Canyon.  “There’s Your Trouble” came on the radio, and as I sort of floated along the highway at seventy-five miles per hour, I felt energized by the Dixie Chicks’ song in the little cockpit space of my Mustang in the middle of the desert.  I have a lot of great memories of places and times enjoying their tunes.

As time went on I heard more of their music, and as people started knowing that I was enjoying country music, the Dixie Chicks were one of the groups with which friends and colleagues would connect to me.  There was a woman I worked with at Walt Disney with whom I had a lot of tension throughout our years there, and literally the one moment of enjoyment that I remember sharing with her was when she came into my office late one evening, again as a person who knew of my newly found appreciation of country music, and she showed me that she had bought a CD of, “Fly” because she had heard that song, “Cowboy Take Me Away” was on it.  She asked me what I thought of the album, which I felt was a nice gesture on her part, and I told her what a great choice she had made in selecting it and talked a little bit about the album with her.  It was a nice few moments for us.

I’ve thought about what the meteoric rise of the Dixie Chicks must have seemed like to Laura Lynch and Robin Macy, who had left the group before Natalie Maines joined Martie McGuire and Emily Robison.  It must have been the same for them as the fifth Beatle or the drummer that Keith Moon replaced in The Who.  They saw a band that they had previously been a part of ascend into the stratosphere.  The Dixie Chicks sold millions of records, were in music videos and constantly lived on the radio.  It was a phenomenal rise.

I recall hearing about it on the radio on March 10, 2003; that the Dixie Chicks were somewhere in Europe and had said something about the President and something having to do with war.  It was just a sliver of information, and I kind of passed it off as an entertainer getting political and the news media running with it for a night.  But as the days went on, this thing didn’t seem to go away, and I heard more about how the lead singer of the Dixie Chicks, while performing in Shepherds Bush Empire Theater, England, had said that she was ashamed that the President of the U.S. was from Texas, and that she didn’t like the idea of going to war.  These celebrity hiccups still seemed somewhat commonplace in my mind.  Actress and activist Susan Sarandon had said things in very public forums, such as the Oscars, and I’d heard of other celebrities saying things here and there that turned heads or got them into temporary hot water. 

But I must admit that as I was waking up to the idea that this story might play for a while in the media, I was a bit surprised that it was one of the Dixie Chicks who had gone on some sort of political rant.  The reason is that my personal conception of the Dixie Chicks had been that they were these sweet, probably conservative daughters of the south, who had decided to go into music and had formed an astoundingly great trio.  It really never had occurred to me that they might, either as a group, or individually be more liberal than I had imagined.

And while there is nothing wrong with some of this kind of contrast, I found it surprising that she would say something out loud that would so much clash with her public persona of being with this country group.  And I know by writing this that I further ingrain the idea that all country music and musicians are conservative, or that they put out a conservative image.  I know that not to be true.  I think that musicians who struggle over many years tend to experience many sides of life and as a result could have any of a myriad of varying political ideologies.  There is, however, a very large fan base that is conservative that likes country music, and of course, Natalie knew this.  And I think when we love actors or groups, we tend to make fantasies about their lives, and maybe there are ways of not shattering those fantasies for your fans all in one night.  So overall, her straight out criticism did surprise me.  I can’t deny it.  It’s like when I found out that the female cat I had been living with for a year in Venice Canals was actually a neutered male. Whoa!

What went though my mind, and I’m being totally honest here, and of which I am not quite proud, was this.  “Oh boy, here’s yet another celebrity who has decided to use her public face to push her political agenda.”  My feeling was that it’s been the fad of the last couple of decades for celebrities to push political agendas.  And a multitude of Hollywood activists flashed through my mind.  I say that I’m a little ashamed of this reaction because who am I to judge what someone wants to say at their own concert?  But I think a lot of country fans had a similar visceral reaction.  They were surprised and put off by her remarks, and they experienced an immediate change in their perception of who comprised this great band.  It’s the old, paradigm shift causing cognitive dissonance, but in an entire fan base.  

Another thing that surprised me during one mornings was that while I was listening to my clock radio go off, trying desperately to wake me up and get me out of bed and into the shower for work, KZLA, the country station was playing as usual, and then when a song that was playing finally ended, the drive-time host, Peter Tilden, came on and stated that KZLA would not be spinning any Dixie Chicks records.  I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.  Really?  Is this THAT serious?  I thought it really strange that Peter Tilden of all people, a cool Philadelphia to L.A. transplant, had to make this announcement.  He often had huge Hollywood friends calling in such as Sylvester Stallone and major stars of all kinds.  I just couldn’t imagine an L.A. radio station taking this stance.  I’ve since found out that a much higher strata of music company executive was involved in this decision-making. 

And that’s when I really started to feel bad for the Dixie Chicks.  Unlike Natalie Maines, I do believe it’s a good thing to be patriotic about one’s nation, especially ours.  The United States is indeed the best nation on this planet by way of giving people the opportunities for work and life dreams, and for people to speak as they wish without fear of retribution.  But now it seemed as though the tables had been turned on the Dixie Chicks.  They had used their American right to free speech and were getting wholly shut out of the country music industry.

And you have to remember, we were about to engage Iraq in war because of the supposed Weapons of Mass Destruction.  At the time, people were really nervous about this.  All of these ingredients made for a really bad time and platform from which to make her remarks.  Whether Natalie Maines likes this fact or not, it really was bout the WORST time she could have said this.  People in mid America had sons and daughters who would soon be shipped out to Iraq, or who were already there. They could die soon.  That was exactly Natalie's point, but I feel that her comments that night sounded like someone making a criticism that had no personal investment in any of it.  And while I know she felt she was invested and didn’t want needless war deaths, I don’t think most fans took her criticism of the President, and later, or patriotism, in a productive way.  An entertainer has to remember that they are in the business of entertainment and in the business of celebrity within whatever genre they are in.  And though I know what she said was spontaneous, I think that people who have that much fame and power need to realize that their words can have permanent consequences and impressions.  It’s the same reason why if Donald Sterling either thought before he spoke, or ran his words by his attorney first, he probably wouldn’t get into so much trouble.  But Natalie Maines did say those things, and now it seemed like the whole nation was against the Dixie Chicks because of it.  But the fact that companies were now banning their music from being played; it was just too much of a reaction in my opinion. 

I personally don’t think her speech that night was worth it.  There could have been other ways for her to become active gradually in the public eye, but the way she did it was much too costly.  It basically ended the Dixie Chicks' career.  And at the same time, I don’t understand is how this rejection by the country music industry has continued.  It really doesn’t make any sense to me.

I listened to an interview on YouTube in which Natalie Maines is the guest on Howard Stern, and during the show a caller called in from Dallas, Texas and said that he had requested that songs by the Dixie Chicks be played on two different radio stations, and he was shut down with, “We don’t play the Dixie Chicks on this station.”  Both of them!  This was 2013.  You mean, people are still so angry at the Dixie Chicks even now that the stations won’t play their music?  I mean, that is just crazy, as in the definition of “crazy.”  What do they think, that the Dixie Chicks, an American country music group that was from Texas is the ENEMY???  Pardon me, but that IS stupid!  And it’s censorship.  We lived in America where we have the ideology and legal right to free speech.  You as the consumer don’t have to buy their records if you don’t want, but to say they CAN’T be played on radio stations?  I think the music industry needs to rethink what they are doing in the business then.  The documentary, "Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing" covered a lot of the ridiculousness of the radio industry's and fans' reactions.

During a video taped Time Magazine interview with Belinda Luscombe, Maines was asked by Luscombe if she is the current hold-out from being in the Dixie Chicks full time.  She asked if Martie McGuire and Emily Robison would continue to be in the Dixie Chicks if Natalie would, and she said she thought so.  For Natalie, the way they were treated by the country music industry just hurt too much, and it proved to her that, while she had come into country music already a liberal thinking that the community had accepted her, in reality they hadn’t.  In fact, most fans didn’t even know of her political beliefs.  So she feels that the country music community isn’t for her anymore.  She seems to have lost her passion and her fire, and that’s really sad for someone so talented.  And I think again of Laura Lynch and Robin Macy, the women who had previously been members of the group, and what this must have looked like to them too.  From the stratosphere to nothing in no time, like the Challenger explosion or the Hindenberg. I wonder if in a way they were ultimately grateful not to have experienced all of that. 

Now I will reveal that sad part of all of this for me; the thing that pangs my heart when I hear their music.  It’s that musicians, or anyone who has mastered something, have spent countless years honing their craft, and when you get a group that works so beautifully together like the Dixie Chicks, the chances of that are very slim to ever happen again.  If that all gets thrown away because of a poorly time comment fueled by an overreaction and hysteria from the general public, then I really think that it is truly tragic.  And to think that there is a music industry deliberately blocking a talented trio of women from making music?  Well, that makes me close to ill.  There are a few lucky human beings on this planet who have had more than one life making music such as Paul McCartney in the Beatles, then in Wings, and then as a solo artist.  He’s really part feline, isn’t he? And there are some others, but it’s an extremely rare and unlikely scenario to have that kind of longevity that survives multiple self-reinventions.  I have also often felt this sort of sadness with the performing and music-making aspect of Michael Jackson’s life given all of the legal issues that he created for himself that took his focus away from his artistic work.  We missed out on so much potentially incredible music. Martie and Emily seem like innocent casualties in all of this to me.  They stood by Natalie, but there really wasn't any other choice for them, and they had worked so hard to build the Dixie Chicks band for so many years. 

And so during all of these eleven years, though the Dixie Chicks came back in 2006 and won five Grammys for, "Taking The Long Way Home," we could have had another thirty? fifty? hundred hits from the Dixie Chicks that don’t exists because of all of the chaos that ensued.  That is heartbreaking to me.  Because when I hear really great music, it makes my soul soar.  When I listen to the Dixie Chicks’ cover of, “Landslide,” with Natalie Maines' vocal and Martie McGuire and Emily Robison's heavenly harmonies, my heart slides.  It’s music mastery at it’s perfection.  And with all of the Dixie Chicks’ experience together and with their previous iterations with Laura Lynch and Robin Macy, they have so much music playing life under their belts.  That’s irreplaceable. And so I mourn what has been lost with every pang of my heart.

I looked up the DixieChicks.com website, that seems to sit idly awaiting some kindly hand from God, and I click on the ‘Tour Dates’ tab.  “No upcoming dates.”  Damn!

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Veil of Unreasonableness


 "Dreams" by Whisperfall

What's strange about dreams is the veil of unreasonableness that drifts in like a low lying fog.  I am speaking of those types of dreams resulting in the feeling that one has completely forgotten one's responsibility for something.  Mine often involved the idea that I am at U.S.C., have gone almost a full semester without, not only studying for a certain number of classes on my schedule, but not even having kept track of which classes I was still registered in.

The way this specific dream works is that I realize at some point, usually walking around campus, that, though I had gone to all of my scheduled classes maybe once or twice in the beginning of the semester, I have subsequently since skipped most of them and have several books and papers I should have read by now, and that the class is so far ahead of me by now that it's not even possible for me to catch up.  Not only that, but that during this lapse of time, I have squandered the weeks and months away, distracted by some other activities (not usually specified in the dream), and have only come to admit to myself that there are a whole series of lectures that I have neglected.

The thing about this, and why this anxiety dream is the perfect concoction for me, is that throughout my entire high school and university career, I seriously missed about five days total in those eight years, and most of them in high school due to my parents' insistence that I go with them to a family event or for some other reason.  I will add here that during my whole twelve years at Disney and two years at Dreamworks combined, I had taken two sick days and very few vacations.  My final check payoffs when I left the studios were great as a result.  The point is that I pretty much never missed work, never missed school, never missed a class period, and most certainly would never have lost the sense of my class schedule.  It just would never have happened with me.  And I never understood other kids in high school or adults at university who would miss a class here and there per their own choice.  It just wasn't in me to do that because of my pre-wired fear of falling behind.

So this nightmare I have of never having earned my Bachelor of Arts, or never having kept to my class syllabus, is about as far out for me and as anxiety producing is my sleeping little mind can create for itself.  And when I get to that point where I am desperately thinking about how I could catch up and read a few books and write a few papers in the remaining week and a half left of the U.S.C. semester, some part of me finally says, "This just isn't possible.  I couldn't have let this happen."  And then something (the veil of unreasonableness) lifts.  I usually come out of deeper sleep and realize that I graduated U.S.C. in the late 1988 and that, to my great relief, nothing was ever neglected other than a haircut or two and some fashion sense.

I got onto this track today because last night I started reading about a phenomenon called, The Uncanny Valley phenomenon, which explains that as something becomes more human looking, it begins to make us as humans uncomfortable because the object is almost human, but not quite right.  There is some evolutionary value to this, and it may lead to the reason why a lot of people are afraid of clowns.  And it probably finally explains why I personally don't like wax museums at all.  Those wax figures give me the creeps with their slightly askew faces and glassy eyes.  Brrrr! 

But from that article, I stared reading about dissociative disorders such as those where people believe someone they know has been made a duplicate or an impostor, called Capgras Syndrome.  There are several disorders like this, some involving a person, a place or a sense of time that has been replaced.  The going psychological theory is that the people with these disorders have alterations in their brains that still let them recognize physical attributes they are familiar with (a loved one's face, a location well known to them, a time of day), but their brains fail in being able to recognize the emotional component to those people or objects, resulting in a schism where a person feels that something looks right on the surface, but that there is something intuitively not right, or "off," with them, and they see the normally familiar person as an imposter in their their own body. 

So after reading all of this late last night (some light reading, huh?), I actually had one of my U.S.C. dreams, and it got me to thinking.  It's a somewhat loose connection between these various subjects, I realize, but it reminded me that the thin percentage of 'stuff' that helps one relate as a human being up in our front cortices really makes such a difference both in reality, and in our dreams.  Because in both circumstances a thin veil or unreasonableness sets in, but with dreams, it lifts away as one wakes up to let one know that they are fully connected back to reality.  Kind of a small but crucial transition that keeps us all human and reasonable. 

Now I'd better stop writing and check to make sure my university diploma is sitting in a drawer around here somewhere!