Monday, April 09, 2018

Tantalized

You are floating in near-darkness. You have been here a long, long time. A cruel punishment for what was ultimately an act of love.

The fruit dangles in front of you, as it always has. The cool water buoys your body. You are hungry and thirsty, but you know the deal: It's not for you. It will all be taken away the moment you twitch your muscles.

You sigh, and crumple your dry, aching throat to swallow your own ropy saliva. It hurts a little.

After a time, you hear an echoing voice, simultaneously stern and oddly caring. "Tantalus, there is a way out. You must eat and drink it all. It is the only way."

You bend your neck to the water.

Miraculously, this time, it doesn't vanish. You gulp it down, feeling its cold finger stretch through your body, into your cramped stomach.

You crane your sore neck to the fruit, which remains in place. But when you take a mouthful, you taste only phantoms. It burns your cheeks, your gums, the roof of your mouth, the back of your throat. It feels like razor blades against your tongue. You can barely swallow it, and when you do, your stripped mouth continues to sting. The water seems to curdle in your gut.

"Tantalus, you must eat and drink it all."

The tree suddenly looms impossibly large, swollen with every fruit you have ever wanted, and some you don't. How will you possibly eat it all? You look down at the wine-dark sea in which you float, and wonder how many mouthfuls it will take.

Seven weeks? 2 years? 5 years? The rest of your life, such as it is?

You gulp. Tears roll down your face. It's this or...what? Nothing? Is this tortured gorging better or worse than the endless deprivation? If nothing else, at least it is different.

In the distance, you see the tiniest pinpoint of light. As you swallow, you think it grows larger. You're not sure, but maybe. Yes. It has to be, right? You cannot be sure. You will never be totally sure again.

You steel yourself, and take another bite.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Running

I pull my Nitzer Ebb cap down over my headphones and zip up my TuneTo.com fleece vest. I step outside. It's in the high 40s and raining. Time for a run. As my MP3 player kicks on, I will my feet to move, walking briskly for a few minutes on the path towards the ocean cliff before breaking into a slow jog. The cold air and the rain lash into me. This run is going to be tough.

***

I have been running since I was a child. I recall my mother encouraging me to do it, probably as much to get me out of the house and her hair and to burn off some youthful energy as anything else. I found that while I did not necessarily have an aptitude for it, I liked it. I liked the sense of achievement and the lack of competition with others. Running is just you, your will, and shoes.

***

After a few minutes, I'm warm enough that I can up the speed a bit. My lungs fill with the ocean air. I watch the birds wheeling into the sky. I pass by people, fluorescent nylon billowing in the wind, hands on hats, leaning sideways. I nod, give them the Prisoner's "Be seeing you" salute and run past. The ocean is teal and gray. My headphones play "Karabali" by Herbie Hancock, and I am instantly transported to 1984. The nostalgia and memories hit me almost as suddenly and tangibly as the wind and rain.

***

I think of being in the back of the family car, listening to this album, and wondering what chords and notes were able to summon these kinds of feelings and images. I think of my runs through McLean in the summertime, with and without music. Sweating in the heat. It feels like a dream, or like it happened to someone else and they told me about it. I think of the routes I ran. Did I really run that far? I remember sunsets and evenings at home, listening to music. Thinking about the future.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, my favorite vacations are on some level attempts at recreating some of my most favorite or intense times from my youth. The "Zero Summer" of 1990 was one of those times, a time of peace, creativity, happiness, and a sense that anything is possible.

And so I find myself returning to similar circumstances: A modern house, set against stunning nature. Water nearby. Sleeping in. Runs in the daytime. Delicious food in the evening. Bouts of creativity. Thinking about the future.

***

My run takes me along the cliff face. The ocean rises and falls below, occasionally exploding into surf and spray as it hammers the rocks. I enter into a cathedral of trees, all bent and blown into arches. I run through them a long, dry tunnel and respite from the squall. I check my watch. 25 minutes. This is a good halfway point.

***

For me, running is like meditation, with mental benefits that match or exceed the physical ones. Once I'm warmed up, I am able to attain a kind of mental clarity unmatched by nearly anything else I have experienced. I write songs. I think about problems.

***

I pause, turning slowly, before starting my run again. I emerge from the tree cathedral and the sun is blazing. No more rain for now. I gaze out at the sea, emerald and glittering in the sun, as my feet skip along the trail. Today, I am occupied by thoughts of the future, and attempts to avoid thinking about the same. I breathe hard. Don't stop. Keep going. Move.

It is good to be alive.

Monday, February 12, 2018

David Gabriel (1960 - 2013)

David Gabriel
I was writing to someone about singing today, and decided to look up my former voice teacher, David Gabriel. I was hoping to share some of my recent recorded work with him.

I was shocked and saddened to learn that he died 5 years ago at the age of 53.

I found David through the Music Connection in Los Angeles in the mid-90s, and I studied with him until I left Los Angeles in 2000, visiting his office at Hollywood and Vine once a week. We fell out of touch then, in that early pre-internet-for-everything time.

David was a fantastic teacher, with the perfect mix of kindness, patience, and mastery. He helped me understand what my voice was capable of (4 octaves!), and how to use it in an expressive, flexible, and sustainable way.

Before I started studying with David, I couldn't sing very long or very hard, and I wasn't even sure if I had a good voice or if I should be singing at all. David took me seriously starting from my first lesson. He was understanding of how sensitive people can be around their singing voices. He always made me feel like I could do it, and that the keys were practicing and understanding what your voice could do.

By the time I left, I knew that I had the technical skills and tools to sing at my own full capacity, and that the remaining barriers were stylistic and expressive. I may not have known exactly who I was as a singer, or how to make people feel something when I sang, but I knew I could do it, and was confident enough in my abilities to be able to tell people "I am a singer."

Over the years I studied with him, we got to know each other better and learned more about our respective lives, including the various tough times we both went through. David was a fairly private person, but he loved talking about his kids. It was years before he told me some of the other people he coached, perhaps most notably Axl Rose, but including a surprising number of other professional musicians across a wide range of genres. David was both modest about his work and protective of his other students' privacy. He also let me know that they weren't any better or worse than any of his other students. They all had challenges, problems, insecurities, and vocal things to work on.

If my singing is any good at all, it is because of the tools and training he gave me, and how those allowed me to perform and study on my own.

Thank you for the voice, David. I use it every day. I only wish you were still around to hear what I have been doing with it.

Monday, February 05, 2018

Grandmother Kirk

My paternal grandmother died this morning at 9:44 AM, CST. She was my last surviving grandparent, having lived into her 90s and outlasted her cohort by several decades.

We were not close. Despite the fact that I was her oldest grandchild, I saw her a total of perhaps six times in my entire life, and one of those was when I got married the first time. For reasons that are both complicated and simple.

I think of my father, and the complex mix of feelings he is certainly experiencing. I talked to him today for a bit.

I think of my own mortality, and the increasing challenges of age. Every new insult, lump, and twinge analyzed, considered. The question "is this how it is from now on?" lingers longer and longer. Most of the time, it will be fine. Probably. Then not.

All grandparents gone. A whole generation down. My parents are in their 70s and fortunately both in good health (knock, knock).

I wonder how much time I have left myself.. And how much of that will be enjoyable, between global warming, global dumbing, and personal infirmity. I hope it's enough, and I hope that I am wise enough to balance that time between living, enjoying living, and planning for the future.

I am still alive. I am OK. I wrote a new song today.

How are you doing?

Monday, January 01, 2018

48/17

I did not write on my 48th birthday, breaking a long-running streak of annual check-ins. It just seemed pointless, and I felt I had nothing to say or discover that I did not already know, or that anyone would care about.

Singing "Mr. Positive" at my 48th birthday.
Photo by Mark Jordan.
The rest of 2017 replayed and reinforced those feelings, and looking back there is much cause for unhappiness.

I write the following from a physical and mental location that can accurately be described as "my happy place".

My fury still burns for all who enabled Trump: The dupes, cynics, and self-serving cowards who voted for him. The lazy fools who did not vote at all. The useful idiots that voted for Jill Stein and Gary Johnson. Most of all, the corrupt-in-every-conceivable-way GOP and GOP-controlled Congress who continue to smash away at decency, goodwill, cultural norms, and the rule of law to achieve their ends.

While much of the legal damage being done can be reversed with time, it will take much longer to repair than it has taken to smash. Judges, laws, respect, trust. Real damage has been done.

One is torn between adopting and implementing the tactics of "the other side" with a fresh viciousness in order to "win" (at the cost of losing so much) or continuing to act with principles and dignity and suffer more short-term losses. 

When I think of our political future, it smells like blood and fire and sounds like an angry mob. History will not be kind, assuming we last long enough to write it.

Little respite was found in the arts. I listened to and watched much of what the new gatekeepers said was important and noteworthy. 

A bright spot was the new album from Slowdive, which suggested it is possible for old bands to simultaneously recapture what is best about their old albums while moving forward. Album closer "Falling Ashes" provided an eerie/beautiful soundtrack for the fires which burned so much of California.

U2's new album, however, was perhaps the polar opposite: a cartoonishly bad album by almost any standard, and the kind of thing that casts negative, unflattering light on their previous work, by showing how fragile and meager their abilities can be. At this point, U2 are nearly at the Rolling Stones inflection point of having been a terrible (or worse, mediocre) band longer than they've been a great one.

I find much current and popular hip-hop unlistenable. Perhaps it is because I am old, but the lyrics lack internal consistency, and what words can be deciphered are nihilistic and narcissistic (and not even in a cool way), lacking even the power to shock in any meaningful way. It's depressing like late-period hair-metal, with poses and imagery offering endless variations on tired and uninteresting themes. When an act stumbles across something approximating a "sound", they and everyone else reproduce it until it is meaningless. It doesn't even sound good, swerving from tinny and pinging to massively overcompressed. And it all quickly starts to sound the same.

Taylor Swift's latest album suggests that her aw-shucks mask seems to be slipping and showing the sociopath underneath, and not to good or interesting result. Her professionalism is solid, but her overwhelming desire to succeed means her songs are a Frankenstein's monster of current sounds and parts, bereft of soul and meaning.

The flipside here would be something like St. Vincent's new album "Masseduction", which finally allows her to subvert and comment on pop music and desire by becoming a sexy pop star and making a great pop album. 

The attention and energy dumped into superhero movies and Star Wars and its attendant mythology has stripped me of any real desire to see these kinds of films. Still, I am sure I will diligently trudge to the multiplex. I remain astounded at how the public continues to demand Big Media pander to them more, and how upset people get about the details of said pandering when it isn't exactly perfect, like children demanding pancakes and then screaming because they're not perfectly round or shaped like Mickey Mouse.

There's a larger point to be made about the lack of cultural literacy. The public "reads" content and critiques it on the basis of how well the characters conform to the public's ideas and ideals about how "real people" could and should behave. It's as though the public has never considered that these are not real people, but simply cardboard cut-outs being waved around in a frame for storytelling purposes. Treating them like real people, and grading the authors on their verisimilitude is absurd.

And perhaps one should ask further what the purpose of the storytelling actually is. (In most cases, the primary purpose is for you to give them your money/attention/time/data and the secondary purpose is to program your values and validate the values that have been programmed).

In fact, much of the fury and debate around these fictive endeavors was that their imaginary, created worlds did not conform enough to people's desires about what the world "should" look like, either by being insufficiently conforming to canonical ideas or by insufficiently demonstrating commitment to real-world political ideals and positions. 

Yes, there is probably some "good stuff" on screen, especially when calibrated by the standards of those who grew up with 3 big networks and lazy sitcoms. It's still just a way to kill time while time kills you. "This show changed my life", they say. Really? How? What did you do differently the next day?

I look at the wall of shows on Netflix and it reminds me of the sinking feeling I used to get in video stores. Or when I look at the endless rows of suggested albums in Spotify. There's too much. And it's all nothing. 

If you want to get really depressed, read the "criticism" or, god forbid, the recaps. 

At a higher level, 2017 showed that, at the moment, the culture cares far more about the artist than the art. Tear down the Picassos, because he was an asshole. But celebrate mediocre-to-bad art if it was created by people we like, with the right credentials or background or politics. As the public asks whether artists should even be allowed to use certain words or images or ideas -- or even have studio space -- we edge closer towards a world of truly corporate art. Rather than challenging or surprising us, we demand the content do the opposite: Comfort and conform and reinforce. 

2017 also marked the triumph of capitalism. In a time when people have no shame, the weapon wielded by both sides is economic exile: We'll have you fired from your job. For what you did on your own time. For your thoughts. For whatever. 

It's OK, though, you can GoFundYourself and if you do it right, end up ahead.

All of this darkness and bleakness is against a backdrop of what was mostly a good year for me, and somehow that made it all worse.

The author in Tokyo, October 2018.
I'm healthy as can be. In good shape. I like my job. I finished an album or two's worth of music that I cannot wait to release...to no one. I made a few new friends and tried to help my old ones. I had a nice coffee this morning.

The sun pokes through the gray skies and glitters against the churning ocean. I read over this and wonder if it's too dark, too bitter. Maybe. That was 2017 and 48 for me. Maybe too dark, too bitter. But there you go.

2018 is right around the corner. See you there.