Songs

My world has been defined by the written word. Newspapers, magazines, radio, television, documentary films, speechwriting a time or two, novels, plays, short stories, flash fiction, non-fiction books, and songs, lots and lots of songs. song I write in French and I write in English, and a few songs I’ve written have featured both languages.

I’ve been writing songs since I was a kid. I write them for people I love and people who’ve left. I write to tell stories that can’t be told in any other way. Sometimes my own songs make me cry. I often sing them myself when we record even though I don’t have much of a voice, and I depend on friends who can indeed sing to make me sound better. Years ago I played the open mic circuit. I may start again one of these days.

I first picked up a guitar when I was sixteen, but I never developed any real skills, so that in spite of years spent with the instrument, I’m not a good player. I can bang out a rhythm and pick out a simple melody, but that’s about it. I’ve messed around with twelve-strings, dulcimers, autoharps, bass, mandolins, kotos, harmonicas, Melobars, and even a concertina. My favorite instrument now is the pedal steel guitar, a devilish contraption that incorporates twenty strings, levers, pedals, finger picks, and a metal slide. I’m not very good at the steel either, though I’ve been told I do an interesting version of Little Wing and a passable Wicked Games.

For me, the beautiful part of creating a song is working with others. I come up with a hint of a tune, or a phrase that catches my interest (latest one, “I would sail on a ship in a bottle”), and eventually I pick up my guitar—a beaten up 1946 Montgomery Ward acoustic—and I work out a simple series of chords. I fit the words to the music and the music to the words. There’s a fascinating and complex geometry to this, and it takes time. I’ll know the song is worth doing if I find myself humming it, if the words please me enough that I’ll carry them on a folded sheet of paper in my back pocket. I’ll add and delete words and phrases for days and weeks and sometimes months.

Working with others on a song is a transporting experience. The end product never comes out as expected—it’s always infinitely better than anything I could ever imagine or manage alone. The first hint of a musical phrase comes unbidden in my head. My friends and co-creators find interweaving melodies, percussions, harmonies and rhythms. Tempos change and images are altered; a simple musical phrasing might repeat itself like a mantra. The words and notes become a flowing entity.

Whenever a song is finished, there is a vast and deep satisfaction as we recognize we’ve constructed something never before heard. There’s a bit of sadness as well. It always astounds me to remember that Western music comprises only thirteen notes. The permutations of these are almost infinite.

I’ve had the privilege over the years of associating with people far more talented than I am who saw fit to spend hours of their lives working with me to craft something we hope will be memorable.

I’m thinking of all this because last night in the little sound studio housed in my basement, I had the privilege of recording with my long-time friend Mike, and a new friend, Cyndi, and together we put the finishing vocals on the most recent tune I’ve written. Now Mike will work his magic, mixing, limiting and equalizing, blending sounds seamlessly. He will spends days refining our efforts, and soon, we will have a new song.

Mike and I and a collection of occasional singers have been meeting on Thursday evenings for six or seven years. Yesterday was our last time making music here as I am selling my house.

After they left, I began unplugging the computer, the MOTU sound card, the speakers and synthesizer, the amp, and the microphones. It struck me that an awful lot of music has come out of that room, and an amazing wealth of talent played there. There were drummers who threw sticks at me, and guitarists who could never quite master the break in Brown-Eyed Girl. Singers burst into tears, voices were raised, not always in song. People quit, some never to be seen again, others to reappear somewhat shamefaced a short time later. All who came here gave of themselves.

Thank you Mike, Cary Lee, Jessica, Crystal, Jerry, Rich, Jim, Nate, Lee, Bob, Tiffany, Becky, Audrey, Gary, Cyndi, Peter, Kim, Caroline, Al, Kelly, and the dozens of others who came to my house to make music.

It was a blast, wasn’t it?

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Today I mowed my lawn for the last time.

Wait, that sounds wistful, and I am anything but wistful. I have always hated mowing the lawn and spent countless hourwildlifes digging up sod to put in trees, bushes, a pond, a slate walkway that meanders to said pond, a couple of boulders, and a largish vegetable garden behind the garage. I have never understood the concept of lawn, though I suspect it implies an unhealthy wish to dominate nature. I am dismayed by neighbors with small yards who spend hours mowing their grass aboard tiny, noisy tractors, and do so in intricate patterns that copy those of major league baseball fields.

One man two doors down earned my respect during the last millennium by taking a Bobcat to his lawn, tearing out the grass, and then letting weeds and wildflowers bloom. The neighbors on his right, an uptight couple with His and Hers Mercedes,  were unhappy. They spent a lot of money and took him to court to prove his yard was an eyesore, and he defeated their attempts to regulate his vegetation by displaying photos he’d taken of the wildlife living there.

I emulated him and there is an area of my yard that I have let run free. It is no more than 100 square feet. Wild grapes, nettles, shrubbery of unknown origins, and even poison ivy have settled there. A few years ago, I applied and got a Certified Wildlife Habitat status for this tiny plot because it offered “food, water, cover, and a place to raise young.” I am inordinately proud of my minute attempt at returning the land to its original state. I know for a fact that a blue jay family has nested there, and I’m pretty certain there’s a rabbit burrow as well.

I will throw out my lawn-mowing shoes, a pair of sneakers so foul they are not allowed into the house. I plan to sell my lawnmower this week. I will not miss it.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Move (Again)

saleI am selling my house to a young couple with a daughter. They look very young, certainly not even thirty, and this will be the second house they buy, having flipped one a few years ago. I am amazed at—and somewhat envious of—their lack of age and their ability to afford a home in one of the more expensive part of the country. When I was in my late twenties, my then-wife and I bought a dilapidated townhouse in Washington, DC, and it needed everything. We paid the equivalent of $30,000, and back then it was all the money in the world, and then some.
The buyers think my house has potentials. They plan to tear out the kitchen and possibly the bathrooms, repartition the upstairs, and then repaint the rooms in pastels. Two decades ago, I did the exact opposite, taking walls down and opting to cover the bland eggshell paint with bold burgundies, blues and greens.
It’s all very odd.
I am gratified that the place won’t be torn down by a developer. I worried about the fish in the backyard pond, the fox that I see every few days, and the trees and shrubs I planted over the years to commemorate people I loved who’d died.
I’m under no illusion that the house will stand forever, though. It’s a typical, small suburban home of no architectural value. It was built as median-income housing in the 70s and originally sold for $49,000. In recent years many of the neighboring houses have been torn down so builders could erect McMansions with handkerchief yards, and these now command seven-figure prices. Mine does not, but it stands on almost a half-acre of land and sometime in the very near future, someone will realize that four or five townhomes could be built on the plot. I am within walking distance of Metro, three minutes by car to 66, and five minutes from 495. I give my house three or four years, tops, before it is levelled and replaced.
We held a yard sale, and I am grateful to Arielle, Gina, Stacey and Ellen for helping. All in all, we sold almost $450 of varied items. The most interesting moment came on Sunday, when a gentleman who’d been there the day before and bought a two-dollar pair of pliers, returned. He wandered about the driveway, then rearranged the tools on one table so that saws were aligned and wrenches faced the same direction. He squared the assorted screwdrivers and sorted the hammers according to size. Then he smiled, nodded, and left without buying anything.

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Move (Cont. 2)

There are forty pounds of ice, seventy-two little bottles of water, and more than three-hundred tagged items ranging in price from $25,000 to $1.50. The big ticket item is my 1989 Avanti Convertible. I don’t really expect to sell my car since, among other things, few people have that much cash around the house (this is a cash-only event), but I figure it may bring curious customers in to peruse the cheaper items. One may even buy a bicycle, at $40 the second most expensive item after the Avanti.

I’ve been putting this sale together for more than a week. Friends have helped tag the items. There will be five tables of stuff, monitored by two, three or four helpers, depending on how many show up on what may be the hottest day of the year so far. I have put signs up, and gotten a bunch of one dollar bills, a not-so-easy task since Apple and NASA Credit Unions refused to honor my request to exchange forty singles for my two twenties, since I am not a member of their organization. The people I spoke to there could not explain why the rule was in place, or how it served anyone well. They were apologetic but adamant.

What amazes me, having assembled this cornucopia of largely surplus items, is how I got them in the first place. It no longer matters. Tomorrow morning, hopefully, hordes of sharp-eyed shoppers will pick through my unwanted treasures and buy things and I am ready.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

The Move (Cont.)

Yesterday I found two of my mother’s paintings. I’ve been searching for them since April and was concerned I’d perhaps accidentally thrown them out during one of my leap-year cleaning frenzies. They were in the back of a closet, rolled up in a mailing tube and wrapped in a signed poster of the Rolling Stones. Why my mom’s naïf renditions of a time gone by kept such strange company, I have no idea.

This is has been pretty much the only moment of real joy in this move; the process, otherwise, has been overwhelming and at time plainly sad.painting

There is a contract on my house, contingent on the young couple who are buying it obtaining financing. My real estate agent is confident there should be no problems. Now that this is sale is almost a reality, the attendant actualities loom large. The place has to be empty within a month.

The French have a verb, débarrasser, which means ‘getting rid of,’ but also has overtones of satisfaction at a job well done. You might débarrasser yourself of old clothing that no longer fit, of a waffle iron that has ceased working, or a set of mismatched dishes. There’s a certain contentment attached to the disposal. You have made room for replacements that will bring a measure of happiness. You’re doing something useful.

 I can’t say I have felt this as I slog through decades of faded belongings, mementos and paperwork. The last can be measured in pounds: the legal depositions that accompany divorce and death, the contested wills, the letters and cards from friends noting my father’s passing. His accidental death made the papers, and I found clippings of the stories that appeared in The Post. I remember that the morning after he died, I fled the house through the back door to avoid a television crew. I don’t remember clipping the stories.

In a moment of lucidity some weeks before the accident, he had told me he wanted to be cremated, and that I was to take his ashes to France and scatter them next to my mother’s in the Pere Lachaise cemetery. My father was a man who hated fusses and bureaucracies. I know he never would have made this request had he known the unbelievable number of forms that required filling.

The state of Virginia, the Federal government, the airlines, the French and American customs authorities, the Mairie de Paris and the cemetery all required documents in triplicates signed by the proper authority. The French demanded notarized translations of American official papers. The Americans demanded his passport, his Social Security card, and a copy of the cremation certificate. I kept copies of all these documents and yesterday, guiltily, I discarded them. There was no relief involved.

Today the débarrassement was more banal. I purged my DVDs, keeping only such masterpieces as Amélie, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, and La Vie en Rose, as well as Mondo Cane and Strictly Ballroom. That was much easier.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Moving On, Part II

There is a beret.
I am French, so I suppose if only to uphold stereotypes, I should own a beret, but I haven’t worn one since I was a seven-year-old in Paris with the Louveteaux, the French Cub Scouts. The only French person I know living in the US who has a beret also wears a long dirty trench coat. He looks like a demented Clouzot and scares people.
I am not sure where my beret comes from. There is no label, and it does not have the feel of a genuine beret Basque. Then I remember; it was a prop for a play I was writing about existentialism, because, really, you simply cannot be an existentialist without a beret. The beret goes into the Salvation Army bag.
What to do with the box of slides and eight millimeter film shot by my father some sixty years ago? I am moving to a place where space will be at a premium. Throw away or keep? beret
In the back of a commodious closet, I find a brand new case for a Fender electric guitar. My Fender Strat already has a case, so once again, a mystery. I can probably sell the case for a fifth of what I paid for it I don’t remember when.
Mon Dieu (sorry, reverting to type). Here is my great uncle’s Légion D’Honneur certificate, dated 1928. He was a minor official and served with the French colonial government in Rabat. Behind the certificate is a beautifully framed Sharpshooter Award bestowed in 1887 to a soldier simply named Guélin. How and when did I acquire this?
The house I am soon leaving has too many closets and too many treasures. For twenty-five years, I have been shoving the stuff I don’t want to deal with into closets, which explains why I have two ironing boards, a suede fringe jacket from the Sixties, a stringless 12-string guitar missing its bridge (sold! It will be picked up later today), a concertina, a home-made mandolin, and enough microphone stands for a Stones concert. I also have about eighty of those small plastic toys that hop or slither or crawl. Most were give-aways from the fast food places where I ate when I was very broke some decades ago.
Oh. In a drawer I find a seven-inch plastic articulated Albino Bowler, which was rated one of the Top Ten Weirdest Action Figure Ever by a collectors’ website.
Don’t ask. I’m keeping it.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Changes

I haven’t written a lot lately. Events both personal and not-so-personal have left me wondering if communicating is a worthwhile pursuit. The language is betraying me. I feel as if at my best, I am making gurgling, unintelligible sounds. Things are changing rapidly and I’m on the verge of being overwhelmed.

If the stars align right, I’ll be moving within a couple of months. The prospect is daunting. It’s not so much the act of physically carrying items from one place to another—I’ll hire movers for the first time in my life—as it is going through the selection process of what is to be kept and what is to be discarded.

I’ve been in this home more than a quarter-century and when I came here from the city, I did so in a Chevy van that held all my belongings. I lived here with a wife and two step-children. It didn’t work out.

After my divorce I made this small house my own by landscaping, and putting in a small fishpond; it became a neighborhood sushi bar for great blue herons and raccoons. I uprooted greenery and planted trees to honor family and friends who passed away. I tore down walls on one floor and added walls on another. I retiled and rewired and regrouted and sanded floorboards and repainted.

Over the years, I acquired a monumental amount of stuff—much of it useless—and I suddenly realize that I’ve been outdistanced by technology. What does one do with media now considered passé? There are six hundred VHS movies and almost 800 CDs. There are DVDs and DVD players; X-Boxes; amplifiers; cassette players; large Cerwin Vega speakers once worth their weight in gold but now hardly better than firewood. I own six computers including a portable Kaypro from the 80’s. It weighs as much as a Singer sewing machine and years ago when I traveled a lot, the flight attendants gave it its own seat in business class.

I have sold a dozen musical instruments, mostly guitars of every ilk, and donated more than 1,000 books to local rehabs and libraries. Fifteen garbage bags of clothing and shoes went to the Salvation Army and Goodwill.

I have offered stuff on various electronic markets ranging from eBay to Nextdoor.com. Amazon, which somehow crashed my seller account, is now unavailable to me, and I’ve found that selling stuff on Facebook isn’t very efficient. I have given away tools and artworks and linen and an electric bass and silverware.

I have thrown away things.

Over the course of the weekend, I put bookshelves, kitchen items, chairs, gardening tools, a turkey slow-cooker, tablecloths and assorted napkins, on the street in front of the house. I’m gratified that every single item was picked up. Freecycling makes me feel like a responsible citizen.

I hesitate to lower the trapdoor to my attic. There’s stuff there too, including, maybe, a full drum set. I’m not quite ready to deal with that yet. In the large walk-in closet in the basement is a variety of sporting equipment including, for reasons unknown, hockey sticks. I have never played hockey. Ever.

The work has been hampered by the fact that I don’t feel very good. The last round of chemo seems to have unleashed a batch of unpleasant side-effects as well as a sort of chemical sadness. I bleed haphazardly and cramp up. I am not as confident as I used to be that my health will improve. This in turn has engendered a why-the-hell-bother resignation I need to resist.

I am therefor working on my newly-found danshari. I am going for minimalism because, as we all know, less is better. I will be gloriously clutter-free, with only valued and required items in my possession.

I am considering buying a Chevy van.

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment