Saturday, September 9, 2017

Change of Scene

The fresh start. The off-the-wall idea. The skewed approach. I think there is something to be said for a change of scene, a new location that forces creative energy simply on the vibes of being in unfamiliar territory. Lately, I have had trouble psyching up my energy to work on my book, From Mountains High. It’s been an abnormally hot and dismal summer in Portland. I have no air conditioning at home, and I am easily distracted by sports on TV, by household tasks, and by my cat. I come home from work tired, and it’s so easy to plop my briefcase down, cook dinner, then fall asleep on my living room chair as a baseball game unfolds on HDTV.

Zzzzzzzz. Huh? Wait! I have a book to write and it’s already time to get ready for bed! Another blasted evening wasted!

Discouraged, I walked around my neighborhood and suddenly realized there’s a coffee house near me! And they have coffee and WiFi and acres of tables next to electrical outlets! I raced back home, grabbed my laptop, and headed over to this magic castle. I’ve been going every night for two past weeks, writing at least five pages of my book during each visit. This is awesome! Why didn’t I think of this before?

I’m not saying where this coffee house is. It’s not a franchise, and people from my parish do not hang out here. In fact, I do not recognize the regulars at all. Good! Change of scene, privacy, and incognito, to boot. Who could ask for more?

I have already staked my claim to a regular spot. My table is in a corner and facing a wall! No distractions! Sure, there are lots of overlapping conversations here, but all I have to do is turn down my hearing aids.

Facing a wall? Yes! Alex Haley wrote Roots in the cabin of a tramp streamer. Maya Angelou rented a hotel room furnished with nothing but a chair, a bed, and a bottle of brandy. If it’s good enough for these successful writers, it’s good enough for me!

I am often amazed at the perception that some people have about writers. Many think that authors write their books in complete sentences, with plot or timeline in pre-meditated sequential order, snappy prose and, if called for, a dry wit. Nothing could be further from the truth! To be sure, after the necessary research, there is a first draft, but that is hardly in a ready-to-publish state. Remember the term papers we wrote in college? After we wrote out our quotes on index cards, we lined them up in some semblance of order and then typed out our text on easy-to-erase onion paper. Most of us simply typed the research from our cards almost word for word, connecting them with expositional sentences that we cobbled together in elevated prose that we hoped would impress our teachers. The C’s and D’s awarded for such efforts attest to how unsuccessful many of us were. One of my professors used to write his comments in Latin! And he stung me with this gem: Ualens, ad somnum mihi. (It sings me to sleep.) Ouch!

But there were a chosen few who took those research cards and re-expressed them in a fresh way, connecting seemingly diverse ideas in a unique manner that indicated original thought and passion. The A’s and B’s awarded to those papers only encouraged us to keep at it, well after graduation day. And so we became writers.

That’s a rather long-winded way of saying that my first drafts always suck. Always! But at least I have something that I can shape. Think of a sculptor, who starts with a nondescript block of marble but sees some potential there. And so he or she chips away ever so carefully until a beautiful figure finally emerges.

My first draft is like that block of marble. The raw material is there. The fun begins when I start chipping away, removing unnecessary verbiage until something concise, beautiful and even poetic emerges. With my new book, I am still in the raw material stage but I’m beginning to see the beauty, and it excites me and keeps me working through the night.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Beatles Top 100 on Sirius-XM

Satellite radio giant Sirius-XM launched a much-needed Beatles Channel in May 2017 and it became an immediate hit, judging by comments from my friends who love it. I know I enjoy the ability to jump into my car and hear the Fab Four 24/8*. All Beatles! All the time!

Oh, sure, I have ALL their albums, and I must have heard each and every Beatles song at least 50 times each, if not more, over the course of my entire lifetime. But there is something cool about the way the station juggles early songs with later songs and back again: “This Boy,” followed by “Helter Skelter,” followed by “Eleanor Rigby.” The transitions are jarring but that only makes the music sound fresh again.

So it was with great interest that I heard about the channel’s Beatles Top 100 poll. Listeners were to vote online for their favorite songs by the group, and the Top 100 list would be revealed over the Labor Day weekend, in the grand tradition of the way radio stations of my youth did this very thing with an annual “Best Songs of All Time” poll.

Alas, I was too busy and forgot about the poll and did not register my votes. Oh, well. I would at least enjoy listening to the Top 100 over the long holiday weekend. It was indeed a fun countdown program, hosted by Peter Asher of Peter & Gordon fame, who worked for Apple Records as a producer and A&R man. He is also the brother of Jane Asher, Paul McCartney’s longtime girlfriend, so Peter knows the Fab Four intimately and regaled the listeners with plenty of insider stories. But as the program inched toward the Top 10, I was shocked at the results:

10. Yesterday
9. Let It Be
8. Something
7. Strawberry Fields Forever
6. Here Comes the Sun
5. While My Guitar Gently Weeps
4. Abbey Road Medley: Sun King to The End
3. Hey Jude
2. In My Life
1. A Day in the Life

What?? No early Beatlemania hits? The iconic “She Loves You” clocked in at a lowly #45. “I Saw Her Standing There” was a respectable #21. But the song that started it all in America, “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” was only a distant #38!

And so it went. “Eight Days a Week” at #48. “Ticket to Ride” at #37. “She’s a Woman” at #92! And my absolute favorite childhood Beatles song, “I Feel Fine,” the epitome of pre-teen joy, was only #52!

They say that people who don’t vote have no right to complain about the results, but I’m complaining. Who are these people? How dare they think so lowly of the songs that defined a generation and changed the world? I would love to see the voter demographics. This Top 10 is consistent with comments about the Beatles that I have heard from today’s young adults who seem to truly appreciate the mature output of the post-Sgt. Pepper Beatles but don’t understand the hysteria and screaming fans of the group’s seminal “boy band” period. Hey, without “All My Loving” there would be no “Strawberry Fields.”

So I’m guessing those who voted hail from the ranks of today’s twentysomethings who care more about good songwriting than record industry hype. But they don’t understand that the Beatles were not the product of the record industry. It was the other way around. The record industry of the early 1960s was pushing a more mellow crooner’s vibe: Paul Anka, Bobby Darin, Neil Sedaka, Fabian, and their ilk, after the brief demise of the rock’n’roll frenzy created in the 1950s by Bill Haley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard and, especially, Elvis Presley who, in March 1960, was just coming off a stint in the US Army. The record industry was trying to tame the teenagers of the early 60s with easy-going singers through whom they could control youthful consumer habits. Then the Beatles came along in 1964 with the British Invasion and turned that whole mellow vibe upside down with loud guitars, a driving backbeat, long hair, and “yeah, yeah, yeah.” The Beatles literally re-created the record industry in their image. The label executives, clearly taken by surprise, were gasping and panting to catch up.

So, hell yeah, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” deserves to be in the Top 10!

Now don’t get me wrong. I love the songs in this poll’s Top 10. Each one of them deserve their place on this list, but notice that none of them are hard rockers, with the exception of George’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” which is more of a mellow rocker. And yes, “The End” does indeed rock, especially the guitar jam that follows Ringo’s drum solo. But that is only one short song in a multipart suite. By the way, let the record show that I would have voted "Hey Jude" as Number One, not “A Day in the Life,” although I am fond that song and would have voted it as Number 2.

I just refuse to accept that there can be a Beatles Top 10 list without the exuberant youthful joy of “She Loves You, yeah, yeah, yeah.”  

Lesson learned. Next year, I will vote early. And often!

*24/8, as in “Eight Days a Week.” Get it?

Wednesday, August 30, 2017


How do they do it? I’m talking about frequent flyers. Tens of thousands of people fly at least once a week for business. My friends Jesse Manibusan and Steve Angrisano fly at least four times a month, ten months out of the years, for their road ministry of evangelization.

I’m old enough to remember watching television coverage of the Beatles as they walked down a ramp from their chartered plane at airports in major cities around the world while thousands of screaming teenagers greeted them at the terminal. Those kids wouldn’t even be allowed to do that in these post-9/11 times.

Flying has always been a part of the rock’n’roll dream. Musicians who have reached a certain level of success need to fly so they can bring their music and message across the country and beyond. Popular rock bands and pop singers fly with relative comfort, but most people slog it out with the madding crowd, waiting in long check-in lines, going through security (in my case, with a fragile guitar), and standing in yet another line to board the plane.

When I first started doing this Catholic music thing in the mid-1970s, I was flying from Los Angeles to Boston in a roomy 747, with plenty of leg room to stretch out and a fairly decent in-flight meal like Chicken Cordon Bleu. The plane was full but not overly packed. Nowadays, passengers are stuffed into a 737, shoulder-to-shoulder like sardines. It feels like my knee is touching my chin, and if I stay seated for too long on a cross-country flight my legs start to get numb. For a meal, we’re lucky if we get a tiny bag of honey-roasted peanuts.

I needn’t go on. Anyone who flies knows exactly what I’m talking about. Why do we do it? The simple answer is: to get from here to there as quickly as possible. For us Catholic composers and artists, we’re only trying to get to the people we serve. That alone is worth the inconvenience of airports and airplanes.

Case in point is the gig Jesse Manibusan and I had this past weekend, August 27, 2017. We entertained the military families of Joint Base Lewis-McChord at Fort Lewis near Tacoma, Washington. We toyed with the idea of driving there from Portland, but Jesse was coming from San Francisco and it was easier for him to fly to Tacoma directly. It’s only a two-hour to three-hour drive for me but I just didn’t feel like driving that 143-mile distance alone. So I booked the 30-minute flight on Alaska Airlines. It was really a choice between a rock and a hard place!

Oh, sure, the flight itself was uneventful and quick, but dealing with the usual airport lines and the security and the waiting was a huge headache. And, oy, the walking! The Alaska commuter terminals are way out in the boondocks at both PDX and SEATAC. I was trudging my bags and my bass guitar across long distances that never seemed to end.

But the soldiers and families Jesse and I met at the base more than justified the hassle. We helped lead music at the 9:00 and 10:30 liturgies, working with choirs of young people for each Mass. 

Afterward, there was a barbecue for the first interfaith summer picnic at Lewis-McChord. The base houses soldiers and their young families, often while the father or mother are deployed overseas. There must have been one thousand people on the outdoor picnic grounds, enjoying delicious barbecue by the Knights of Columbus and getting to know one another. The Catholic and Protestant chaplains were very pleased by the turnout and the comradery.

Jesse and I played with a band of base musicians and our friend Tony Gomez on percussion. We entertained the families with our own songs from Fish With Me, plus favorite songs by the Beatles, the Monkees, the Temptations, Ritchie Valens, and even Journey. Keeping in mind the ecumenical mix, we also did some contemporary praise songs that are common to both Catholics and Protestants. The little kids were awesome with the hand gestures, and it was great to chat with their parents and hear their stories.

It was 9:30pm on Sunday evening by the time I returned to Portland. I’m no spring chicken anymore and I was physically drained as I trudged across the terminal, guitar in tow. At one point, a young woman noticed I was limping slowly and dragging my feet. She asked if I needed any help. I smiled and thanked her for her kindness, even as I thought, “Gee, do I look that bad?” But it was a great weekend, spreading the Good News with Jesse and bringing good cheer to families who sacrifice so much for our country.