Plague Mice

Had a cheerful greeting from this guy at Costco today, who, when I asked him to smile for the camera, went:



Here is a meditative little track for you: Plague Mice. A recent long-distance (over 10,000 mile) collaboration with guitarist Paul Greenstein [1].

We figured, since we were doing it during a worldwide plague, that those beautifully singing mice who solo along with Paul’s guitar could only be Plague Mice. We offer the tune as a hope for better times, and soon.





[1] Technical details: My parts were done on a Ditto looper, recorded on my phone, sent to Paul, Paul improvised that cool melody over the top, with the soulful chorus of digital mice singing over his guitar. Paul called dialing in that electronic, ethereal mouse chorus effect “putting eyebrows on it” , as Frank Zappa used to say.

I say nice eyebrows, man.

Music Lessons

My teacher of basic music theory and guitar harmony in high school was a talented, nasty, brutally superior classmate named Speed. (A member of his family was Abraham Lincoln’s close friend, Joshua Fry Speed, for you history bugs). Speed, who started on harmonica (which he played incessantly in gym class, to the horror of the drill sergeant) and quickly taught himself guitar, was a prolific composer, one of the greatest musicians I’ve known, and a demanding prick. When he played his complicated tunes, he’d grunt with genuine disgust every time he hit a wrong note. He was angry at himself for not being able to flawlessly play things nobody else at the time could play either. After all, he’d already been playing for a few weeks! A complicated and tormented fellow, and great musician and writer — also very funny, but also– quite brutal.

Unsurprisingly, the talented Mr. Speed was a merciless teacher. He showed me all the fancy chords he used, the 7-9 chord, the 7 raised nine, the flat nine, the eleventh, the thirteenth, the sus2 — or added nine, the seven flat fives, major and minor, the augmented chords (and I left out the beautiful sixth chords). He taught me why each one was named the way it was, demonstrated the many harmonic uses for each of these “jazz chords” (these chords are extensions of the essential major, minor, dominant seven and diminished chords that all guitarists learn). It was a great bootcamp for someone with natural curiosity about music, though I was more drawn to Crosby, Stills and Nash tunes, much simpler, which were fun to play on guitar. Speed held me to a much higher standard, a standard I always disappointed him by failing to attain. I did learn a lot of chords, and how to play them smoothly in various positions, something that came in very handy, but eventually the brutality of the “lessons” just got to me and I finally had to tell Speed to fuck off.

What I’ve learned since, so elemental, took me many years to realize. What I love about music is the dialogue between the different parts, the way each voice adds an essential element, and the active listening and nuanced response required for good ensemble playing. Music is really a beautiful conversation, when it’s grooving. How did Speed miss teaching me this basic concept? Too mad, I guess.

You start from silence, then a nod, or a count, or somebody hitting something in time. Listen to any great arrangement, there’s a lot going on, but most of the parts are quite simple. One voice may be hitting one note over and over, a pedal tone this is sometimes called. But it is hitting that note in a crucial rhythmic spot, driving the music forward. That beat provides an anchor for a harmony instrument to spread some colors over, which in turn opens still more possibilities, rhythmic and melodic both. The way things interact musically, an endless mystery that does not perplex at all– it delights.

There are “infinite” harmonies to any melody, Speed once told me. Maybe so, but it is the beautiful ones that compel us to sing and nod and dance along. And, again, all music starts in silence — and the beats of silence in the music are very precious too.

The prerequisite to making good music is relaxation, grace is required to hit the notes calmly and strongly. The crucial element of generosity in your fellow musicians, and towards yourself, cannot be overstated. Relaxed, engaged listening is essential for creative, musical collaboration. It’s hard to be relaxed playing with a guy like Speed, perfectionistic, always demanding more than you can do, sometimes more than even he can do. He had bands, with excellent, top-shelf jazz musicians, they played his stuff well, but still — there was often a joy missing, it felt to some in the audience. It felt to me. These great top musicians loved the challenge of his music, though sometimes it was just too damned challenging for the listener. I remember in one club, dramatically, the dance floor emptied long before his first set was over. The club owner suspected he had a genius on the bandstand, but he was openly perplexed about letting them come back on.

The best of Speed’s songs, there’s a darkly brilliant one called “I Can’t See You” that always comes to mind, although supremely difficult to play (on the only version I know Speed plays all the instruments) are full of soul, grace, space, cleverly interacting off-beats, and there is beautiful singing and clever wordplay among all that. I remember this track (done on a 4 track tape recorder) before the vocals, it was gorgeous as an instrumental too, but that version had to be sacrificed due to the technology of the day, which required “bouncing” of tracks for any overdub beyond number three. Anyway, you can hear all those things, the compelling dialogue between the different parts, in this song, as in any realized piece of arranged music.

I often think of this story, in relation to Speed, who always disparaged my guitar playing and musical naiveté. More than a decade ago (2011, I see now, scrolling through gmail to find the track) I sent a basic track (two guitars and piano, against a drum patch) to a genius I knew in high school, Frank Burrows, the only guy alive, when we were in high school, who could play Speed’s compositions (he’d been playing guitar a year or so by then).

To my delight, Frank orchestrated the track, literally, he arranged an orchestra of instruments over my track. He came up with many colorful, sometimes madcap, parts that made the simple ideas in my track blossom. It was brilliant, as was his hauntingly evocative C part (at 3:40, below), which ends the tune. It was as thrilling for me as sending a tune idea to Frank Zappa, or Jimi, or Django, and getting back a fully realized musical version, virtuosically played by an entire skilled band. I emailed the finished track to Speed. Speed liked it, and confessed he couldn’t tell my playing on it from Frank’s. Fucking A, I thought to meself, I finally graduated!


Aside from the ego gratification of playing music well, and having people admire your efforts, there is a much more fundamental benefit of playing music, it seems to me. The beauty of the thing itself. My playing, and Frank’s, are exactly the same in their intent and effect, whether Speed applauded them or disparaged them. The notion of appreciation must lie in the heart of the player, as it does for anything we truly love. This is also a good life lesson — kindness, always, toward the self. That is the true and only root of kindness and generosity toward others.

Think of it like this — every note you faithfully play, or sing tunefully, once it fits into the larger scheme of music, becomes a living moment of grace. There is no comparison, no consideration other than serving the music properly, making the thing you are playing sound better. There is no greater reward for doing anything than a beautiful result. With music, you have it at once, as you play it well. No need for the dough to rise, the cake to bake, the critics to nod — it’s there, in the air, light and precious as the air, just as beautiful and almost as essential to life.


A few words in defense of our country

We would all do well now to take a few moments to listen to one of our great American songwriters reminding us about the greatness of America.   Randy Newman wrote this song (the lyrics were published as a New York Times op ed way back in 2007) when the leaders he sang about were unrepentant war criminals and bunglers who many of us now think of kindly, in light of this epically churlish two-year old we have up there now.   Here the inimitable Mr. Newman sings these excellent lyrics.

I’d like to say
A few words
In defense of our country
Whose people aren’t bad
Nor are they mean
Now, the leaders we have
While they’re the worst that we’ve had
Are hardly the worst
This poor world has seen

Let’s turn history’s pages, shall we?

Take the Caesars, for example
Why, with the first few of them
They were sleeping with their sister, stashing little boys in swimming pools, and burning down the city
And one of ’em, one of ’em appointed his own horse to be Counsel of the Empire
That’s like vice president or something
That’s not a very good example right now, is it?
But here’s one:
Spanish Inquisition
That’s a good one
Put people in a terrible position
I don’t even like to think about it
Well, sometimes I like to think about it

Just a few words
In defense of our country
Whose time at the top
Could be coming to an end
Now, we don’t want their love
And respect at this point’s pretty much out of the question
But in times like these
We sure could use a friend

Hitler
Stalin
Men who need no introduction

King Leopold of Belgium, that’s right
Everyone thinks he’s so great
Well, he owned the Congo
He tore it up too
Took the diamonds
Took the silver
Took the gold
You know what he left ’em with?

Malaria

You know, a president once said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”
Now it seems like we’re supposed to be afraid
It’s patriotic, in fact
Color-coded
What we supposed to be afraid of?
Why, of being afraid
That’s what terror means, doesn’t it?
That’s what it used to mean

You know, it pisses me off a little that this Supreme Court’s gonna outlive me
Couple young Italian fellas and a brother on the Court now too
But I defy you, anywhere in the world, to find me two Italians as tight ass as the two Italians we got
And as for the brother
Well, Pluto’s not a planet anymore either

The end of an empire
Is messy at best
And this empire’s ending
Like all the rest
Like the Spanish Armada
Adrift on the sea
We’re adrift in the land of the brave
And the home of the free

Goodbye
Goodbye
Goodbye
Goodbye

visual, and a song to play

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NOTES:

Jewish criminals, as opposed to Jews not even accused of any specific crime, had a very high survival rate in Auschwitz, the world’s first mechanized death camp that was also a  massive slave labor camp.   Bayer was one of several German corporations that rented prisoners from the SS for $1 a day.  

“The leader’s word has the force of law.”  In the case of the Third Reich, that leader was an insane mass murderer who committed suicide after ranting that all Germans deserved death because they had failed him.   We also have to do something about this principle here in the United States, the shit really has gotten out of hand.

Forget all that, I just liked the way these images look.   Take out your tenor ukulele and play this beautiful hymn, popularized by Cat Stevens, a beloved star of the late sixties who, years after his conversion to Islam, was put on the NO FLY LIST by Bush and Cheney.    The tune is lovely and not terribly hard to master (the red notes are selected melody notes to keep you on track).  Remember it’s in 3/4, like a waltz without the oom-pah-pah.   You should play it in good health, as my grandmother used to say.

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Manoir de mes reves

I don’t recall the first time I heard Django Reinhardt, the visionary Gypsy guitarist and composer.   It may have been in the sitting room of my friends’ home, I remember hearing that virtuosic guitar crackling out of their phonograph one night.   Although, it sounded quite familiar that night.  Over the years since learning his name I’ve listened to hours of Django, always inventive, ingenious, always pulling new surprises, always swinging and soulful, often devilishly mischievous.   I didn’t have the reaction that Django had when he first heard Louis Armstrong (he happily sobbed “mon frere!”)  but I always loved his playing, and later his songwriting and arranging.  I am not alone in this love, there are many great players out there now playing in Django’s style, inspired by his musical example.

At some point, after his dreams of international stardom were dashed when he started talking sports and drinking with a French cabbie, lost track of time and missed the Carnegie Hall concert where he was Duke Ellington’s featured soloist, he hung up his guitar and painted.   He lived in a small town outside Paris and spent his time fishing in the river and painting.   

After a couple of years he began composing again and assembled a group to record several of his new tunes.  These were astounding and beautiful compositions, including the ethereal Anouman  [1].   His playing on the tracks is superb, as always, but he functions in the group as a kind of guitar-playing conductor for the most part, driving the rhythm, laying down colors and emotions, giving the melodies to other players.  His brief solo on Anouman strikes like a chilling premonition of his own sudden death, not long off.  It is well worth hearing.

He keeled over while drinking coffee in a cafe not long after recording those tracks.  They sent for the doctor but he did not arrive until many hours later.   Django’s last words were “so you’ve finally come, have you?”  He died at 43.

And yet…

                                                                       ii

I’ve been banging my head against the wall lately.  It is hot, and airless, which certainly doesn’t help matters.  I should buy an air-conditioner and get a good night’s sleep, but I don’t have a car and haven’t gotten it together to secure one.   I’ve been listless during this heat wave, as the planet itself melts down.   

The reasons for despair are many — the arctic ice is melting at a faster rate than predicted, we have psychopaths and shills making policy, vengeful incompetents doubling down on the destruction of the biosphere for the continued profits of their fellow earth-raping plunderers.  We have a government that serves only a tiny percentage of our citizens; we’re essentially one re-election away from actual fascism and the spineless opposition party, also corporately financed, is too fearful of political backlash to take a principled stand to hold anyone accountable, as the law requires.   

Reading history is little comfort.   We had a civil war in this country that was basically over the same issue in play now — the right of a tiny group of super-wealthy autocratic landed aristocrats to rule over blacks (and the masses of disenfranchised inferior illiterate whites) as they saw fit.  In the process of creating this genteel southern plantation society they destroyed the soil (among other things).  Millions of acres of soil were exhausted and rendered useless by the constant planting of lucrative monocultures cotton and tobacco.    America’s bloodiest war ended, the history of it was rewritten by the children of those same landed autocrats, and those same forces today are insisting, loudly and effectively, on their right to ride the rest of us, since they were born booted and spurred to do so.     

You can read about how things escalated in Germany leading up to World War II.  It’s famous: first they came for these guys, but I said nothing, because it wasn’t me — then they came for these guys, but I said nothing– when they eventually came for me, there was nobody left to speak up for me.  It’s horrible that desperate asylum seekers are treated as dangerous and despicable criminals, but right out of the fascist dictator’s playbook. 

They flee from one horrible, violent place and wind up crushed into cages, left to stink, unwashed, they are vilified, scapegoated and, it must be said, persecuted in the fabled land they hoped would provide a refuge from the horrors they fled.   We see the brutal hand of the militarized Immigration and Custom Enforcement agents grabbing these vicious aliens, ripping their children away from them, wearing masks and holding their noses at the stink in the overcrowded cages.   It gets everyone ready to consider this sort of thing normal, moves the Overton Window inexorably towards cruelty as simply the way things are, have always been.

The unhinged narcissist president and his unprincipled Attorney General, taking a short break from their full-time obstruction of justice (NO DO-OVERS!  I KNOW YOU ARE, BUT WHAT AM I?   MAKE ME!), revive the federal death penalty, opening the door to executing enemies of the state under cover of law.   If you violate the 1917 Espionage Act, for example, you can be made a bloody example of.  Nothing shuts up critics like a couple of public executions.   Public cruelty changes behavior.

On a personal level, I find myself wondering about the long pattern of estrangement from people I once considered my closest friends, my family.  In each case the person, after years, sometimes decades, of friendship, became a lifelong enemy and I can give you a full and reasonable-sounding account of exactly how this state of final war came to be.    You can read several accounts here, as I’ve written out a few over the years, but the long and short of it is, people decide, based on my reaction to their totally innocent behavior, that I must be fought to the death, that they cannot yield an inch, that I must be given no quarter.   

In my view, this is a choice they made, based on their insecurities and anger, they are, one and all, people who have forfeited my good will by not returning it, earned my eventual disdain by their hard and determined work.  They no doubt feel the same way about me.    In their view, of course, it was me, being my intolerable self, a self-righteous if talented prig with a vicious turn to my humility, I suppose, who gave them no alternative but to fight me to the death, whoever may have started the fight.   The larger, more perplexing question, is why.  Am I actually exactly as insane as my poor persecuted father?

So coming to the point where virtually all action seems futile, or at the very least overwhelming, I hear this  solo rendition of Django’s beautiful Manor of My Dreams  (the tune is often called “Django’s Castle”)   This short solo take of this dreamy tune reminded me at once of many miracles I’ve forgotten about.

When Django puts that Bb in the bass of an A13 chord, and follows it with that D-6-9 chord … words are of no use.   The way one gorgeously harmonized chord plays off against the other, makes you want to hear the other one, leaves open a lilting universe of soulful possibilities for improvisation …  there is no explaining the miraculous, really.   And playing these chords to that slow, relaxed dreamlike pulse, as I try to learn the architecture of the rest of the tune by heart and by ear, the way Django and the Gypsies have always done it, another kind of miracle. 

God bless you, mon frere.

 

[1]  Here is a gorgeous guitar version of Anouman by Stochelo Rosenberg and his great trio.   Stochelo’s playing is, as always, sublime.   Somewhere Django smiles.

Craft

I watched an excellent documentary on Frank Zappa, an eccentric musical genius and original thinker who was also a hell of a guitar player.  The film was called Eat That Question (from the title of a Zappa tune).  It struck me how devoted to his craft the almost maniacal Mr. Zappa was.

If you have something you love to do, it is a beautiful thing to hone it to the highest excellence you can reach.   That honing strikes me as a lifelong effort and it seems to me the minute you become totally satisfied with the craft you’ve attained, like, say, Eric Clapton apparently did, you go on autopilot, begin to roll backwards and start to take on a certain stink.

There is a craft, for lack of a better word,  to everything we practice.   A way of doing the thing each time we do it, with an eye toward doing it even better.   In the case of writing, for instance, it is finding a thought or feeling that is important enough for you to focus on and express.   Then you need to put it into words.   Then comes the most important part, to arrange the words so that everything is as clear to the reader as you can make it.   If you decide it’s good enough, before it is, you are not taking your craft very seriously.

(Then you will need to have another cup of coffee, shower and put your pants on, it’s already almost four o’clock.  Yee gads!)

Writing for real

I have to consider the possibility that all this writing I do is driven by a compulsion similar to what I regard as my graphomania, a sometimes uncontrollable urge to make marks on paper.   I write that sentence not to castigate or judge myself, but to view myself for a minute as others, untroubled by a need to set their thoughts and feelings down clearly in words, must sometimes view me.  

Put it this way, you can tell a complicated story to a friend who is quite interested in what you are talking about and they will always hear you out.  That same story, set out in 1,500 words, might well be unbearable for them to read.   Why is this insane bastard sending me this long section of his obsessive personal diary?   This insane bastard sings like a bird, why doesn’t he perform in a coffee house instead of madly singing to me?    We have coffee houses and clubs for singing birds, why is this bird sitting on my shoulder and singing directly into my ear?   Ewwwww…

Years ago, when I drew a lot, everywhere, somebody sitting next to me on the subway would from time to time ask me if I could always draw.   They sometimes seemed to be looking for a tip about how to draw.   I used to tell them that I always loved to draw, though I wasn’t especially good at it when I started, though I always found it great fun.   If you love something you will keep doing it and it’s natural that you’ll get better and better.   The love of the thing will keep you delighted to do it.   The delight will keep you at it and your mastery of the thing will improve.

I have often thought of this in regard to other things.   When you strike a note on a guitar, if you love the sound of the guitar, you will notice there are different ways to sound the note.   There is a great pleasure in this discovery.   If you strike the note with the soft pad of your finger the note has one sound, kind of round.   Think of the great bossa nova guitarists.   If you strike the note hard with a pick, your finger immobile on the note, you get a certain sound, you can also “attack” softly with a pick.   The kind of pick, hard or flexible, influences the sound of the note as does the gauge of the strings.   In addition to picking the note, you can hammer the note on, you can pull off to get another note.   If you fret the note below where it naturally sounds on the fretboard and bend the string up to it, you get another sound entirely, a singing sound.  You can bend the note one whole step, as blues guitarists and rock stars generally do — one distinct sound, or you can bend the note up a half step, as Django used to, a much different, and playful, sound.  There are also countless microtones you can stop on as you bend from one tone to another.   Mr. Clapton is a master of this, as is, more notably perhaps, and more masterfully, Mr. Beck,  Jeff Beck.  There is vibrato, plucking, tapping, fast picking, sliding a la glissando, harmonics, all kinds of ways to play a note.

All to say, if you love a thing, it is not work to learn more about it, to study it, to be so compelled that the thing itself is of infinite value to you.

I appreciate, more deeply than I can say, that in a robustly commercial society where all real value is monetary (and an unmonetized space, like the ad-free hold time of a business phone call, is a sadly wasted space, to those who love monetization above all else) what I have said above makes absolutely no sense.   A psychologist may agree that in terms of stress reduction, or increasing self-esteem, daily engagement in activities you do well and enjoy greatly are ‘mastery exercises’ that have mental health benefits to the individual.   Don’t found your life on them, mind you, but they have a certain value.

Found your life on your love of them at your peril, friends.   You may find yourself with excellent control of pencil, pen and brush, able to “kill an edge” with great precision in a way that will impress your friends if they are watching.   There used to be an ad on matchbooks “learn to drive the big rigs, flash a big bill-fold and impress your friends!”   If you’re doing it to impress your friends,  I completely understand.   Who am I to opine about what motivations are more noble or laudable than others?  As a teenager I deliberately set out to master a little piano, which I taught myself from what I knew on guitar, to impress girls.   It once actually worked!  She sat on my lap as I played Beatles songs with my arms around her, and the rest, a veritable magical mystery tour.

I sometimes imagine the electronic book of my life.  It would be lavishly illustrated, with some of the millions of images I continually make with no purpose except love of making the marks.  My desk is continually overflowing with them.  It is horrible in a way, this profusion of useless but largely beautiful debris.  I would select a hundred compelling images  and put them in the colorful book.  I would take a hundred pages of my best writing, maybe two hundred, place them between the pictures.   Since the technology is there, I’d add sound files, with some of the music I have come up with over the years.   You’d be happy to buy it.  You’d love it, if you were the right kind of person.

I try not to judge, though I am often unsuccessful in this.   People have very different experiences and expectations of life.  My own are eccentric in the eyes of many people, I realize that.  It comes with dancing to your own idiosyncratic rhythm section.  

I love reading well-written history books sometimes.  I love Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, a masterpiece.   She writes, about the assumption, in the Jerusalem court that tried him for his enormous bureaucratic crimes,  that Eichmann was a normal middle class German of his time:

They preferred to conclude from his occasional lies that he was a liar — and missed the greatest moral and even legal challenge of the whole case.  Their case rested on the assumption that the defendant, like all “normal persons,” must have been aware of the criminal nature of his acts, and Eichmann was indeed normal insofar as he was “no exception within the Nazi regime.”  However, under the conditions of the Third Reich only “exceptions” could be expected to react “normally.”   This simple truth of the matter created a dilemma for the judges which they could neither resolve nor escape.  (p.27)

As for the title of this post, real writing, at its best, makes you stop to wonder.  It changes, even for only a moment, how you think and feel and makes you consider your own life and the world around you in a different way.   It is wonderful shit.