Monday, September 10, 2012

Feeling Good About Being a Democrat

After watching the recent Democratic convention, I’m feeling good about being a Democrat. Seeing the diversity of the delegates makes me proud that we are a party of inclusion and not exclusion. The multi-ethnicity in the hall was a snapshot of how America will look in the future. I’m glad to be part of the party that embraces diversity and doesn’t fear it. I am happy to support our current President, an intelligent man who learns from his mistakes and believes that the welfare of all is what matters. That  government can be a guiding force in people’s lives. The Democrats are the socialistic and environmental conscience of our country. Enacting policies that are charitable to the less fortunate and conscious of how they affect the environment does not always bring immediate results. It takes a certain amount of faith, faith that if one makes the right decisions in the long run good will follow. This is a long range ideology based on optimism and inclusion and not  fear and exclusion. Many speakers at the convention made the point that government needs to act for the good of the whole, not just the few. I liked the convention’s theme of “growing America from the middle out and the ground up instead of the top down”. If big companies shared the wealth more among all strata of their employees, the Republicans would have a better argument. Today there is great disparity in large corporations between the upper management and the rest of the employees. Because of this disparity, to say that “companies are people”, as Mitt Romney did, does not ring true. The 99% movement wasn’t mentioned at the convention, but the spirit of the movement was there. Democrats aren’t out to destroy big companies, but to shrink the widening gap between the top few and the rest.  Democrats are for government that is smart and works on the people’s behalf. Who, if not our elected officials, will stand up for people’s rights in the face of capitalistic power and money?  I like it that the Democrats believe in equal opportunity. That they talked about realizing the dream to enter the middle class and not the dream to become wealthy. It is imperative to our country’s future that we realize when enough is enough. Amassing wealth and material possessions do not translate into happiness, but having one’s share contributes to a better quality of life. I also like that democrats are on the side compassionate side concerning illegal immigrants. I was impressed by Bill Clinton’s speech. If Obama is taking his cues on the economy from him, I believe we’ll be alright. I also thought Michelle gave a great speech. The Obama family feels to me like the 21st century’s version of Camelot. I discovered on the internet that James Taylor entertained the audience, but it wasn’t shown on television. That’s a shame because his appearance would have made a good comparison with Clint Eastwood’s fiasco. Like Clint, JT brought  a chair out with him, but as he told the audience, he was just going to sit in it and play music, which he did.  I am purposely disregarding the many one-sided polarizing bullshit speeches I heard the other night at the convention, because today I want to feel good about being a Democrat.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Content With a Latte and Occasional Oldie

  I can remember hiking with my dad. He was probably close to the age I am right now. We would be steadily working our way up the side of some mountain in Oregon and periodically I would realize I no longer heard him trudging along behind me. Looking back down the trail, there he’d be stopped, pretending to be interested in some unknown specimen of flora. I knew he had no interest in plants whatsoever. If I said anything like, “Are you resting again?” He would reply, with a voice handicapped by gasps for breath. “You’ll get old some day.” Lately I’ve been inundated with mail and phone calls from insurance brokers and HMO representatives trying to convince me that they have the information I need to help me decide what to do about my Medicare Part B, Each one assures me that they have my best interest at heart. I’m turning 65 in a few months and I’d like to get my hands on the person who let all these capitalist scavengers know about it. The truth is, I have absolutely no idea what to do about Medicare B, but I don’t tell them that. It’s all very confusing and when I start reading the material sent to me by them or the government, the words quickly turn into blah, blah, blah, blah. I was at the barber a few years ago having my hair cut. It was going along fine until he lifted up the few thin strands of hair on the top of my head and asked, “What do you want me to do with these stringers?” He must have been from the south, because he pronounced stringers, “strangers” rhyming with “hangers”. There is a time when one is going bald where you can fool yourself into thinking that you have more hair on top of your head than you actually do. This delusion is perpetuated by only looking at yourself in the mirror straight on. From this angle, there appears to be somewhat of a lush growth of hair on top. The truth reveals itself if you use an additional mirror and view your reflection from any other angle. I nurtured this delusion for years. Recently I told the 14 year old beautician at Super Cuts to just cut the “strangers” off. She did it immediately and without comment. In an instant my delusion evaporated and I turned into a bald guy. When I got home, Katie, my wife hardly noticed the change. When I pointed it out, she said I looked fine and there really wasn’t that much of a difference. My delusion ran deep. And to think I’ve been less than kind in my thoughts all these years toward men who sported comb-overs. And now I embarrassingly realize that I was guilty of a version of this desperate attempt to remain young and attractive. I am writing this blog in a coffee shop in Boulder, Colorado. The young college students all around me are working on their computers, most avoid eye contact with me, but every once in a while, one of them catches my eye and smiles. It doesn’t seem that long ago when I was a young college student like them. I know none of them have the same perspective that I do. What’s that saying, “youth is wasted on the young”? In the blink of an eye they will be where I am now. My dad realized it and tried to tell me, but like these young people around me, I didn’t get it at the time. I really have no interest in going back in time, but I don’t want to go forward either. This coffee shop’s name is The Laughing Pig. They make a hell of a good latte. The attractive young barista instantly created an intricate design on the top of the foam. It was a fern leaf that wrapped around the inner edge of the cup. When she handed it to me, she gave me a warm smile. I don’t recognize and don’t like most of the music that’s played on their sound system, but they just played an early Leonard Cohen song that I hadn’t heard for a long time. I’m tuning the music out for now and waiting for the next oldie. I guess I will continue my practice of being content with where I am right now, even if I am an aging bald guy.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Albums

Recently Rolling Stone magazine put out its special issue “The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time”. This issue is an excellent source of information for choosing good popular music from the ‘50s until today. Rolling Stone magazine has always been about rock & roll, so their album choices are mainly rock albums or albums that influenced rock music. The title of this special edition is misleading,”…best albums of all time”, you won’t find any classical music or big band music and not many country, bluegrass, jazz or folk albums. But strangely there are two Frank Sinatra albums on the list, what’s up with that? I like Frank, but why make the exception unless you also put in a Tony Bennett album or Ella Fitzgerald or Duke Ellington or any number of great singers and musicians from the ‘40s and ‘50s.
The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan have the most albums on the list at 10 each, followed by Bruce Springsteen with 8 and The Who with 7. The number one album is The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and second is The Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds”. I’m happy with the one and two spot. We now know that the Beatles were so impressed when they heard “Pet Sounds” that this influenced them to create the “Sgt. Pepper” album. We have to credit Brian Wilson with elevating rock music to a new level and creating the first album that is not just a compilation of songs, but works thematically as a whole. Number 3 is The Beatles’ “Revolver”, number 4 is Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited” and number 5 “Rubber Soul” also by the Beatles. These top choices are albums and musicians who had a significant influence on popular music, changing it forever.
What Rolling Stone Magazine does well is educate us on the roots of Rock & Roll. There are albums on the list by many artists who were a direct influence on the genre, like Robert Johnson, Little Walter, John Lee Hooker and Etta James. An omission in this category is Woody Guthrie. I think Dylan would gladly give up an album or two of his 10 to let in one compilation of Woody’s songs and maybe slip in an album by Pete Seeger, Woody’s friend and the godfather of American folk music.
There are many “greatest hits” type albums. The king of rock & roll, Elvis, doesn’t appear until number 11, probably because he didn’t produce many great albums, just great songs. “Sunrise” is a compilation of his early Sun recordings put out in 1999. The next early rocker at number 21, is Chuck Berry. “The Great 28” album is also a compilation of hit singles. Chuck should be higher on the list. Other early rockers that make the list are Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and Bo Diddley. Three blatant omissions are The Everly Brothers, Roy Orbison and Ricky Nelson. All of these guys had a huge number of hits and were true early rockers. Couldn’t they have dropped an album or two by The Beatles, who actually credit the Everly Brothers as an important influence on their singing and harmony? Or take a couple away from Bruce? Elton John has 5 albums on the list, I’m sure he wouldn’t have minded making space for Roy.
The Beach Boys have 3 albums on the list, but not one of them is from their early surfing/hot cars/hot chicks albums. Of the 3, the earliest is “The Beach Boys Today”, a good album but not representative of those early ones. They should have at least included one of their greatest hits albums to cover the early years. Included on the list is the Beach Boys album “Smile”, which to me sounds like it was written by a 6 year old on acid, probably not far off from Brian’s state of mind at the time.
Also included is the first Blood Sweat and Tears album, when Al Cooper led the group. It has some very good bluesy songs with big band back up. But the second BST album, with David Clayton Thomas, is much more consistent and has all those great hits. In 1968 it won Grammy of the year for best album beating out “Abbey Road”. Typical of Rolling Stone, edgy/hip won over popular/melodic.
The poets of the baby boom generation are largely the singer/songwriters. The top 500 hundred includes some of them. There are 3 Jackson Brown albums, his 2nd, 3rd and 4th, which I am happy about, but not his 1st, “Saturate Before Using” which belongs on the list, 2 Joni Mitchell albums, “Blue” and “Court and Spark”, but not her first 3 which are great “Songs to a Seagull”, “Clouds” and “Ladies of the Canyon”. The list includes 2 of Paul Simon’s solo albums, “Graceland” and “Paul Simon”, but doesn’t include my favorite “Still Crazy After All These Years”. There is only one Leonard Cohen album, “Songs of Love and Hate” an excellent album, but so are his first two, “Songs of Leonard Cohen” and “Songs from a Room”. Including “The Best of Leonard Cohen” album could have covered much of his early music. There’s only one Carole King album “Tapestry” and one James Taylor album “Sweet Baby James”, but there should be more.
There are 2 Johnny Cash albums, 2 Willie Nelson albums but no Waylon or Kris, and no Highwaymen albums. There are no Leon Russell albums and that is just wrong. There are no Moody Blues albums, not even “Days of Future Passed”. There are no Animals albums and no Young Rascals’ albums.
Folk music and Folk Rock were hugely popular genres in the ‘60s and ‘70s and I feel these genres are sorely underrepresented on the list. Included are albums by The Byrds, and a lot of Graham Parsons (if you were good and died young, you make the list). John Sebastian should have died young, because there are no Lovin’ Spoonful albums or any of his solo work, no America, no Doobie Brothers (with or without Michael McDonald), but somehow a Carpenters album slipped into the list, which I’m OK with, but this almost blows my theory about Rolling Stone not honoring what they consider to be “twinkie” music. There are no John Denver albums, my list would include “Poems and Prayers and Promises” and “Rocky Mountain High”. There are no Jimmy Buffet albums (it seems that out of all those voters, there must have been one or two Parrot Heads among them) and no Gordon Lightfoot. There are no albums by Joan Baez and Judy Collins, the two women who introduced us to the songs of some of our greatest singer/ songwriter/poets like Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell.
There are no albums by Dionne Warwick(what a shame to leave out all those great Burt Bacharach/Hal David songs). There are no albums by Johnny Mathis (how many of us boomers fell in love with “Misty”, “Chances Are” or “When Sunny gets Blue” playing in the background). Nobody can sing a love song as well as Johnny Mathis.
There’s album after album on the list of groups I never heard of. I can’t intelligently argue against music I don’t listen to and probably never will, but something in me doubts whether some of this music is really worthy to be on the list. In spite of everything, I think Rolling Stone gets it right a lot in the areas where I have some knowledge and a host of opinions. They included and honored many of my favorite albums and artists. One pleasant surprise was their inclusion of one of my all time favorite albums, not even remotely connected to rock & roll, at number 447 “Getz/Gilberto”. I loved it back in the ‘60s and still do. It’s a super group of jazz artists, Stan Getz on Sax, Joao Gilberto on guitar and pianist Antonio Jobim who composed most of the songs.
The top 500 list is an excellent way to sample and choose from some of the best popular music of the last 6 decades. Here are a few albums that are not on Rolling Stone’s top 500 list, but would definitely be on mine: “Famous Blue Raincoat” Jennifer Warnes, “All My Life, The Best of Karla Bonoff”, “The Austin Sessions” Kris Kristofferson, “Carney” and “Retrospective” Leon Russell, “Blue River” Eric Anderson, “Mixed Bag” Richie Havens, “My Griffin is Gone” Hoyt Axton, “The Circle Game” Tom Rush, “Diamond Life” Sade, “Wildflowers” Judy Collins, “Genius + Soul=Jazz” and “Ray Sings, Basie Swings” Ray Charles (there are so many more great Ray Charles albums), and as long as they include Sinatra, “Sinatra at the Sands” & “The Best of the capitol Years” Frank Sinatra.
Just like Rolling Stone magazine, I too have left out a ton of great music.

Monday, May 7, 2012

The Music of the 1950s

My friend, Erran, recently bought his first MP3 player. He knows I’ve liked popular music my whole life, so he asked me to give him some recommendations for songs and albums starting around 1950. He wants to catch up on the popular music he missed when he was growing up. He wasn’t exposed to the popular music of the time, because his parents exclusively listened to classical, opera and folk music, which seems to me like a great musical base to start life out with, but man did he miss a lot of great music!

I’ve been waiting all my life for someone to ask me for my music recommendations, but I have to admit, I feel a little intimidated.  Music is such a personal thing. I enjoy all kinds of music, but being an early baby boomer, I consider rock & roll to be my music. In 1950 rock & roll did not exist yet. The ‘30s and ‘40s were dominated by the big bands, 15-20 musicians playing well orchestrated arrangements with very talented singers. In the late ‘40s the big bands all but died out. I always wondered why this great music was replaced by two guitars, a bass and a drum set. Comparatively, rock & roll musicians have very limited musical ability. Some early rockers played barely more than three chords and their singing ability was of a limited range.

Doing a little internet research, I discovered a few of the reasons for the big bands’ rapid demise. Big band music is essentially dance music. The bands traveled around the country from city to city playing in ballrooms where the young people showed up to dance. In 1946, when the war was over, the American culture was rapidly changing. The young people were settling into jobs and family life. They no longer went out dancing much anymore. Television was fast becoming their primary source of entertainment. And many of the band members themselves were tired of touring and life on the road. Unions were getting stronger and the band leaders were having trouble paying band members the new union scale.

From 1946 to 1956 big band music was rapidly replaced by pop vocalists. This pop vocalist phenomenon actually started in 1942 when Frank Sinatra quit being the front man for the Tommy Dorsey orchestra and went out on his own. He was booked at the Paramount Theater as a solo act. His audience was mainly young girls who continuously screamed and hollered. One account said that some even threw their underwear at him. This was probably the first time in US history that a singer was showered with ladies’ undergarments. Frank Sinatra was not the first American heart throb. There was Rudy Vallee in the ‘20s and ‘30s before him. But I think the mobs of “Flappers” kept their underwear on. The next guy to get ladies’ underwear flung at him would be Elvis in the next decade.

Rock & roll songs did not show up in any significant number on the Billboard pop charts until 1956. In the early ‘50s black people’s music, called “race music” was separate from white people’s music. Most white people did not listen to or even hear much of the black music. Some of the rhythm & blues songs of the time were direct precursors to later rock & roll, like the 1947 song by Wynonie Harris “Good Rockin’ Tonight” or Jimmy Preston’s 1949 song “Rock the Joint”.  In 1951 Sam Phillips of Sun Records recorded “Rocket 88” by Jimmy Brenston. Jimmy got credit for the song, but he was actually part of Ike Turner’s band. This record is thought to be the very first rock & roll song.

Phillips was searching for a white singer who could capture the sound and spirit of black rhythm and blues. He found his guy in 1954 when Elvis wandered over to the Sun Studio  for the second time to cut a demo record just to hear what he sounded like. Sam liked what he heard and signed Elvis that Spring.

The first white rock & roll band was Bill Haley and His Comets. Bill Haley also wanted to capture the sound of rhythm & blues. In 1953 he had a hit with “Crazy Man Crazy” and then in 1954 an R&B cover of Big Joe Turner’s “Shake Rattle and Roll”. Haley changed much of  the lyrics from a sexually explicit bluesy song into a more palatable rock song for the white audience radio stations. But rock & roll did not begin to catch on across America until 1955 when Haley’s “Rock around the Clock” was featured in the movie “Blackboard Jungle”. The song became an anthem for rebellious youth.

There are very few musicians who single handedly change the course of popular music. Frank Sinatra was one of them and the next to come along was Elvis. Bill Haley had the rock & roll sound, but not the charisma. He was an older guy, sort of pudgy and balding. Elvis was good looking, had a great voice and used his entire body to express the music. He was the whole package. It was 1956 when he burst into the national airways. I was nine years old when I first heard him on the radio and its one of those vivid memories where I know exactly where I was and what I was doing. I was blown away.

In 1954 ”That’s Alright Mama” was on the charts, but didn’t get much national airplay. From January of 1956 until March of 1958, when Elvis went into the army, he totally dominated the rock & roll scene. No one who listened to popular music at the time would dispute his title, “King of Rock & Roll”. He was the first rock & roll star and he did it better than anyone.

Just before the rock & roll era began, popular music was dominated by white pop singers like, Frank Sinatra, Eddie Fisher, Doris Day and Perry Como. There were a few black pop singers also, Nat King Cole, Sammy Davis Junior, Lena Horne, and a few black R&B singers, Lavern Baker, Fats domino, Ray Charles and Muddy Waters. Doo Wop groups were gaining in popularity—like The Spaniels, The Platters, The Penguins and The Moonglows. In 1954 Bill Haley had a hit with “Shake Rattle & Roll” and there were a few R&B songs that were instrumental in the later development of rock like Ray Charles’ “I got a Woman” and Muddy Waters’ “Hoochie Coochie Man”.

On the Billboard top 50 popular song chart of 1955, I count only two rock & roll songs, “Rock Around the Clock” and ChuckBerry’s “Maybelline”.  In  January of 1956 when Elvis’  Heartbreak Hotel” began playing on radios across the country, rock & roll took off.

I recommend any and all of Elvis’ music from 1956-58. He was the heart and soul of rock & roll at that time. His early music is raw and simple, but the fresh and alive quality still comes across. Most of the songs by the pop singers of the early to  mid 50s sound so corny and dated to me, like Muzak. Doo Wop and rhythm & Blues are the exception. Doo Wop was popular throughout the ‘50’s and into the ‘60s and  shaped the sound of rock and pop music. Ray Charles is a category unto himself and I recommend any and all of his music from the ‘50’s.

In the early ‘50s Frank Sinatra’s singing career died out for a couple years. In 1953 he signed with Capitol records and made a comeback. I think his best songs are from this period and I love the musical arrangements. There is a wonderful compilation album called “Frank Sinatra, The Best of the Capitol Years”.

More recommendations from the 1950s will be forthcoming in my next blog. Sorry Erran. You thought you were just going to get a few song recommendations and not the whole history of rock & roll.

Friday, April 6, 2012

The Psychedelic Drive

When I was in Vietnam, I saved most of my pay with the intention of buying a brand new car when I returned home. I accumulated enough money to buy just about any car I wanted. During the considerable lulls in the war, I spent a lot of time looking through car magazines., trying to make an informed Passing timedecision. I didn’t want to buy a big car, but in 1968 even the midsized and compact cars were large by today’s standards. It was a big year for ‘muscle cars’. For around $3,000, I could buy any number of cars that were ridiculously over-powered, which appealed to some part of my young male ego. A few of the cars I was considering were: the Plymouth Road Runner/Dodge Coronet Super Bee with a 335hp 382ci V-8 or if I felt I needed to go a little faster,  the Dodge Charger with a 375hp magnum 440ci engine (wings were optional). At $3,500 this beast was pushing the limits of my finances. I also considered a Chevy Camaro Z-28, a Malibu 396 Super Sport, a Pontiac GTO with a 350hp 400ci engine or an Oldsmobile Cutlass 442 with that same engine. The Cutlass was a main contender for a long time. One of my fellow soldiers told me it had a large comfortable back seat and being just 20 years old, I had a wild and vivid imagination about what I could do back there.
When I returned to the States and was home on my 30 day leave, I abandoned all plans to buy a muscle car and bought an MGB GT instead. I had owned an MG prior to entering the Army. I loved sports cars, and the sports car image appealed to another side of my nature, the more sophisticated side that spoke French and loved literature. It was the first year MG came out with this hard top hatchback design. The back seat folded down which allowed for a surprising amount of storage space. The car cost $3,200 and with the rest of the money I had saved, I had the dealership install an eight-track tape player with custom speakers. The seats in an MG are low and the speakers were mounted high on the door panels. This gave a stereo effect that was like sitting inside of a big head-phone. I loved it.

The car was canary yellow with black interior. On the day I bought it, I was outside in the parking lot of my parents’ condo wiping it down. My parents lived in Jeffersonville, Indiana at the time, right across the river from Louisville, Kentucky. My dad was standing there keeping me company, when one of the neighbors, an older man with a big belly, idled over to us. Dad introduced me to the man and told him I was just back from Vietnam. He didn’t comment but kept looking at my new car. Finally, dad asked him, “What do you think of my son’s new car?” The guy took his time responding, “What kind of car is it?”
“It’s a brand new MGB GT. I just bought it today.” I proudly replied.
“It looks like a god-damned peanut.” Was all he said before turning and walking back to his condo. What did that fat old guy know anyway. I thought the car was beautiful.
I had been out of touch with popular music for over a year, so on a foray to a music store in Louisville, I bought some of the latest 8 track tapes. The Beatles had just come out with “The White Album”, a double album of all new music. I was very excited about it and true to the Beatles, and except for one long track, Revolution #9, they didn’t disappoint.  I think John was hitting the drugs a little too hard on that one.  I also bought the following: Wheels of Fire, the new Cream album. At the time I thought their first album, Disraeli Gears, was the best rock album of all time. I didn’t expect them to top it and I was right. The album was good but not great, The Rascals’ Greatest Hits, this was a great band.  Strange Days by The Doors. Most groups that have an excellent first album, fall short on their second, but Jim Morrison proved to be a major creative force for many albums to come, Jimi Hendrix’ Electric Ladyland another double album containing some of Jimi’s best songs.
When my 30-day leave was over, the drive back to Fort Hood, Texas proved to be a most spectacular welcome home. For about two years I had been out of touch with American culture, immersed in military life. I had not yet come face to face with the hostility of the young towards us soldiers. It was November and my route took me through Kentucky, Tennessee and Arkansas at the height of the fall foliage. I deftly maneuvered the MG through the Appalachian and Ozark mountains, the car an extension of my body, the road an extension of the car. The landscape passed by my peripheral vision as a multicolored manifestation of the music, a total psychedelic experience with no drugs involved.
I had one more year to serve and when I got out. I planned to travel Europe with my friend, Paul, and then enter college. I had my whole life ahead of me. Except for the nightmares, life was looking pretty good.

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Beach Boys, Still Spreading the California Dream

I didn’t watch the entire Grammy show this year. I’d never heard of most of the musicians and when I listened to a bit of their music, I’m fine keeping it that way. I had read that the Beach Boys were going to be on the show and wanted to see them. At the same time the Grammys were on, the latest episode of Downton Abbey on PBS was also on. I have to admit I’m hooked on this English period soap opera. So I was clicking my remote going back and forth between the two shows missing big chunks of both. I did manage to see the Beach Boys sing Good Vibrations. Whenever I watch old favorite groups from the past on current shows, I’m always afraid their age will have gotten the best of them and contaminate the performance. I was pleased that this was not the case for the Beach Boys. They did a good job with a difficult song. Good Vibrations came out of the Pet Sounds/Smile period when Brian Wilson was at his most creative. Paul McCartney said in an interview that Pet Sounds influenced the Beatles and the result was the Sergeant Pepper album. Once when I was in a Starbucks waiting for my latte, I was looking at the CDs on a rack. One album was a compilation of favorite and most influential songs chosen by other musicians. The song chosen by Keith Richards for this album was I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times from Pet Sounds. I love that song too, but never would have imagined Keith listening to the Beach Boys, much less choosing one of their songs as a favorite. The 5 members in the current Beach Boy band are Brian Wilson, Mike Love, Al Jardine, Bruce Johnston and David Marks. David Marks was an original member of the group, playing guitar and singing on the first 4 Beach Boys’ albums. He quit the group in 1963, at age 15. According to Wikipedia, Marks was a neighbor of the Wilsons and he and Carl learned and practiced guitar together creating the unique Beach Boys guitar sound. Can you imagine being asked back into the group after all these years? Bruce Johnston began touring with the group early on when Brian was freaking out. He replaced Glen Campbell who was filling in for Brian and quit to pursue a solo career. Brian, Al and Mike are all original members. The original members who have died are Brian’s two brothers, Dennis and Carl. The lyrics of the Beach Boys’ music were never as sophisticated or politically topical as the Beatles or many of the other ‘60s musicians. But the intricate harmonies were a unique insertion into the world of rock & roll. It was like  Chuck Berry and Carl Perkins rock-a-billy sound blended with  Hi-Lows or Four Freshman back up. For a whole generation of young baby boomers, the Beach Boys captured a youthful exuberance and a unique carefree California lifestyle, of surfing, hot cars and tan bodies. There were other surfer bands at the time, but the Beach boys spread the California state of mind around the country and the world. Growing up in Missouri, I thought of California as a vacation dream. It was a wonderland of beaches, palm trees and the intoxicating smell of orange groves. As if that wasn’t enough, it also had Disneyland. I only went to one Beach Boys’ concert in my life. That was in the ‘70s when I was a student at the University of Oregon. I remember them putting on a good show. My college friend and I had seats in the balcony to the side and above the stage. I watched Dennis Wilson periodically abandon the drums and drop down on a mattress in back of and below his drum set where the audience in front couldn’t see him and drink an alcoholic beverage and snort something up his nose. Halfway through the show he was so wasted he just laid on the mattress while his stand-in drummer finished out the concert for him. I wasn’t surprised when he died. This April the Beach Boys will begin touring around the country and their first concert is right here in Tucson. I don’t think I’ll be attending it though. The cheapest tickets are over $100. As my very irreverent neighbor from Ferguson Missouri “Big Daddy Roy” used to say, “I wouldn’t pay that kind of money to see the last supper with the original cast.” But I’m glad the Beach boys have mended their differences and are back out there doing what they have always done best, spreading the California dream with some great music. My favorite early Beach Boys’ song is Don’t Worry Baby. It has beautiful harmonies and is like the movie American Graffiti crammed into one song. My favorite later Beach Boys’ song is Kokomo. This 1988 recording was not written by Brian, but by a committee of people, John Phillips (from the Mamas and Papas), Scott McKenzie (most noted for his song If You’re Going to San Francisco), Mike Love and Terry Melcher (long time Columbia record producer and son of Doris Day). Terry Melcher and Bruce Johnston were once members of The Rip Chords whose most famous song was Hey Little Cobra. Terry sings lead and Bruce supplies the falsetto harmonies. Something else I found interesting about Terry is that he refused to sign a music deal with Charles Manson. Terry used to live in the house where Sharon Tate and friends were murdered but had moved out. It is speculated that the Manson family were seeking revenge on Terry for his refusal to sign Charlie to a record contract.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Performing at the Chinese New Years Festival

On Sunday the Tucson Sino Martial Arts Group performed at Centennial Hall for the Chinese New Year Festival. TSMA has been together since 2006. This was the fourth time the group has performed for this event. I am the newest member of the group, joining in October of last year, and the only senior citizen among them. Even though I have over thirty years of experience in the Chinese Martial Arts, I have never been part of a performance group.
We were just a small part of the overall performance, our time on stage lasted about seven minutes. Our part of the program was scheduled to begin at 2:30 pm but we arrived at the hall at 10:30 am to get ready. On the sidewalk in front of the hall, we went through our routine a half dozen times. We were joined by Feng, Junjie a Chinese Shaolin Kung Fu and Tai Chi master who currently lives and teaches in Phoenix. Just before noon we took our turn on stage to go over the routine one last time. The people running the show made sure all the details and loose ends were taken care of, like where we would stand on stage, the exact placement of our swords, the lighting etc.
We started training for our seven minutes of fame last November, meeting for 2-3 hours of practice at least once every weekend. The routine put together by our Sifu, Zhao, Shuping, contained an entire Chang Chuan sword set, a Tai Chi fan set and a short Chen Tai Chi routine. These three sets were surrounded and embellished by short Tai Chi and Kung Fu movements. It all had to be timed perfectly and set to music. It was apparent to me early on, that I had joined a professional group that knew what they were doing. The broadsword set and Chen Tai chi routine were new to me and I had to learn them from scratch. The Fan routine was performed by the women only. When I joined the group I was Rob & women croppeddelighted to learn that the only other non-Chinese member, Rob, coincidentally had spent years studying and teaching two of the same southern Kung Fu styles that I knew. Sifu Shuping asked us to put together a short group of movements from the Hung Gar style of Kung Fu. We chose to each do a segment from the famous Tiger and Crane form. Simultaneously Rob performed the tiger section while I did the crane part.
The entire New Year’s show lasted well over two hours. There were dancers and singers and musicians. It was quite an extravaganza. I would have liked to have watched it from the audience. The people I know who did, told me it was spectacular and well worth the admission price. I watched as much of it as I could from behind the side curtain on stage. It was exciting being back stage with all the performers.
Feng Junjie & Shi Yi on FluteBesides performing with our group, Master Feng performed a Chen Tai Chi routine accompanied by Shi Yi on the flute. My wife, Katie, who was in the audience said, “It was so beautiful, I cried”. Master Feng also performed a solo routine, a drunken Kung Fu Form. This highlighted his incredible strength and flexibility. His interpretation of the form was both inspiring and humorous.
I am not an experienced performer and have a fair amount of anxiety about it. When I was in the seventh grade I was part of our annual Middle School Christmas Pageant. While standing in the front row singing Christmas Carols with the group, I passed out cold and fell to the floor. When I woke up, all the other kids were standing over me. It was humiliating. Even as an adult, that young boy who fainted in front oIMG_8971f the whole school pops up when I least expect it.
I missed much of the first part of the show just prior to our group performance. I sat by an open door breathing in the cool fresh air and trying to stay calm. We were the sixth act to go on. The women in our group had applied their makeup, put flowers in their hair and I thought they all looked very beautiful. The whole seven minutes of our performance went by in a blur. I have no idea how we did as a group, but I do know I spaced out for a few moments and missed a few moves during the sword form. Others assured me later that it was hardly noticeable. Being in my 60s, I’ll write it off as a senior moment.
While the Centennial Hall show was still going on, the TSMA group walked over to a local Middle School to repeat our performance for the Vietnamese Lunar New Year presentation. The stage was very small. I was on the end and during the performance got tripped up in the electrical cords, lost my place and experienced an even longer senior moment. By this time however, I was so tired I didn’t care and no one seemed to notice anyway. The audience clapped and hollered loudly when we were through. They rewarded us with delicious Vietnamese sandwiches for our efforts. I ate mine with abandon. I realized I had hardly eaten anything all day. Just prior to our performance at Centennial Hall, we were fed us lunch which consisted of pizza and water. I ate one piece of greasy pizza and the fearful little boy inside warned me, not only might I faint on stage, but if I ate another piece of pizza, I might throw up as well.

Performing for the Chinese New Year’s Festival was all in all, a rewarding experience, but I’m relieved it’s over. Now our group can get back to learning and practicing the Chinese Martial Arts that we all love.
To see more pictures from the performance and other pictures by Jack Zhang go to the following link.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Our Tedious Thoughts

In the Jack Kornfield book “The Wise Heart: A Guide to the Universal Teachings of Buddhist Psychology”, Jack describes the below cartoon. I love Buddhist humor. Katie, my artistic wife, re-created it for this blog post.
Tedious Thoughts
In my Tai Chi classes, the people who have the hardest time learning the movements are those who first process the moves through their minds and then try to translate it to their bodies. As adults, we all have a tendency to do this, some more than others.  Most of  my students these days are older adults and this phenomenon seems to get worse with age. Younger people have less trouble watching and doing. Children very easily imitate what they see without having to think about it.  “Monkey see, monkey do” is not difficult for them. With many older people it becomes “monkey see, monkey think about, monkey ask questions and then monkey get very frustrated and possibly quit”.
When a person sticks with practicing Tai Chi regularly, it gradually becomes easier for them to get out of their heads and simply reside in  body awareness. Getting over the initial frustration that results from this tension between head and body is the hardest.  Abandoning the “thinking step” to learning Tai Chi allows the person to more easily “go with the flow” as we boomers used to say.
The concept of consciousness being separate from our  thoughts is  not  something most people understand.  Buddhism teaches that thinking is the cause of suffering. More accurately, out of attachment to thinking arises suffering. When we are conscious of our thoughts, thoughts then become a tool of consciousness.
We tend to believe what we think about ourselves and the world around us. Our thoughts and beliefs are interpretations of reality, but not reality itself. Thoughts and beliefs give rise to emotions. The alternative to unconsciously riding the waves of thoughts, beliefs and emotions is awareness of an alive stillness within us. Only in the present moment do we find true freedom. Even when there is chaos all around, there is a space within that is calm and still, like the eye of a storm.
Almost everyone has at one time or another experienced a deep sense of peace and joy that arises from totally letting go and being present. Like after a hard days work, when you finally get a chance to sit down and relax.
Practicing Tai Chi is only one way of cultivating the ability to get out of our thoughts and rest in this deep sense of peace, There are many other ways: religious faith, meditation, yoga or just totally accepting one’s self and one’s life.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

A Quiet New Year’s Eve In Green Valley

I woke up early on New Year’s day, 1 or 2 in the morning, and realized I’d slept through New Year’s Eve. It’s not unusual for Katie and me to go to bed before midnight on New Year’s Eve. What is unusual is not being startled awake by fireworks and people yelling and then having a hard time getting back to sleep because erratic explosions continue on into the wee hours of the morning. In Green Valley, the land of retirees, however, I didn’t hear one firecracker or one person yelling. It was blessedly quiet all evening. One could make the conclusion that New Year’s Eve is a holiday for the young. There was a time when we would at least stay up and watch Dick Clark or someone ring in the New Year on TV. But we’re not even interested in that anymore. Seeing a bunch of inebriated people jumping around and yelling is not my idea of a good time. Last New Year’s Katie and I were in Hawaii, staying at her son’s home. This was by far the noisiest celebration I have ever witnessed in the US. A ban on aerial fireworks was going into effect the next year, so people in Hawaii went nuts. I hated it. It actually started many days before the 31st, building to a crescendo around midnight and then carrying on days later. On New Year’s Eve the smoke from all the explosions was so thick in Nuuanu Valley, we had to close all the windows, because we were all coughing and choking. I remember the very first time I was allowed to participate in the New Year’s Eve craziness. It was in the 1950s in Ferguson, Mo. My parents decided to let my sister Karen and me stay up. Dad told us that when midnight came, we could go outside and make as much noise as we wanted. He gave us each lids from pots and pans and instructed us to hit them together like cymbals and yell at the top of our lungs. I couldn’t believe we would actually be allowed to do that. Our dad was always telling us crazy stuff and invariably mom would put a stop to it. But when I looked over at mom, she just smiled at me in approval and took a sip of wine. Just before midnight, we stepped out onto the front porch. I looked up and down the street and to my surprise our neighbors were all standing out on their front porches too, well almost all of our neighbors anyway. I noticed a few dark houses, like our next door neighbors, Mr. & Mrs. Howard, who were in their 70s, and the family down the street who belonged to that strange religion. At 12:00 we all began yelling and knocking our pan lids together. I thought it was great fun and over much too soon. The worst New Year’s Eve of my life and the one that soured me on the holiday from then on was in 1967 in Vietnam. I stayed in my hooch that evening quietly drinking and smoking a joint with one of my buddies. At midnight we stepped out the screen door to watch countless tracer bullets and flares fill the dark sky. The sound was intense, not unlike when we were under attack. I didn’t enjoy it. Someone shot one of our Vietnamese interpreters, Chang, that night. For years I assumed the culprit was our redneck supply sergeant. He was crude and prejudiced. He called all Vietnamese “gooks” and along with our first sergeant was behind the movement to not allow our interpreters to eat in the mess hall. I stopped eating there as well in protest, but nobody cared or even noticed. In just several weeks from that night, we would experience the ’68 TET offensive and be the intended victims of a much bigger and more lethal barrage of aerial ordnance. A few years ago, I attempted to get in touch with anyone from my former unit over the internet. I received one reply from a guy who worked at my base camp at that time. He was in communications and knew many of the same people I knew. He told me he was actually there when Chang was shot. A bunch of them, including Chang, were up by our headquarters hooch and at 12:00 all began to shoot their rifles into the air. One of the sergeants, not the supply sergeant, lost his balance and fell over while firing his rifle. The automatic weapon sprayed the whole area and this guy told me it was lucky they weren’t all killed. However, one of the bullets hit Chang by accident. They immediately arranged for him to be medevac'd to the Division hospital. All these years I thought the evil sergeant did it on purpose. I’m always glad when New Year’s is over. Waking up at 2:00am New Years morning and experiencing the quiet made me thankful I’m at this stage of my life. It seems like a long time ago when I banged those pot lids, yelled like bloody murder and thoroughly enjoyed it.