Please note that none of the audio on my website is currently available due to an unannounced change in my music host's policy (thanks a lot, Divshare). Stay tuned while I try to rectify this problem. For my upcoming gigs, check out the right hand margin.
I've submitted a new short story for publication, and an idea for a CD or new original music is percolating. Stay tuned... You can also catch me most Sundays at 10:30AM at Elmhurst Presbyterian Church, 367 Spring Road in Elmhurst.
Several years ago a friend of mine said to me: “I don’t believe in heaven, but if there is one, I think I’m going.” I loved how self-assured he was despite his obvious flaws, and wish I could go through life with as much confidence, not because I’m worried about an after-life, but because I want to believe that I’m doing “enough” for my fellow man (and environment) while still being able to enjoy my indulgences.
For me, I’m constantly wrestling with the question: how good do I have to be? I don’t mean “how good” of the self-help variety, a la Stuart Smalley’s daily affirmations on SNL as depicted by Al Franken. I really mean, “Okay, so how good do I have to be so that I can spend time doing things I really want to do, and do them with a clear conscience?” If this question seems rather seedy, I’ll conceded that point, but ask that you hear me out (and bear with me as I lean on religious teachings).
The very fact that I’m asking this question probably deflates some of the good I do. In Judaism, there are eight levels of charitable giving according to Maimonides, and the worst is giving grudgingly. So now, on the days when I dread going to a nearby homeless shelter because I’d rather stay at home and watch football, not only do I walk away feeling like I haven’t done enough, I feel like what I’ve done isn’t even worthy. Say it with me: oy!
Monetarily, Judaism offers straightforward guidelines, as there’s both a minimum (10 percent of one’s net income) and a maximum:
One who wishes to donate (generously) should not give more than a fifth of his income, lest he himself come to be in need of charity. (-Babylonian Talmud, Ketubot 50a)
Of course, there’s really nothing easy about donating 10 percent of one’s income, so the maximum is probably irrelevant for most people, but one could just as easily apply this “upper limit” logic to volunteering and perhaps give credence to the idea that there’s a point at which someone’s done enough to help others.
Without delving into specifics, I volunteer and donate here and there, and sometimes I feel pathetically proud: “Well, wasn’t that nice of me?” It feels good to mentally check the box “volunteer one’s time” so that I can enjoy the rest of my day (week? month?) without the nagging feeling that I’m not contributing enough to the care of others. But of course, the reality is that I could always do more. Much more.
So how much is enough?
Well, if the story of the Good Samaritan from the New Testament is any indication, probably a lot more than what I’m currently doing. (I get a double dose of religion many weekends by attending synagogue on Friday and then hearing a Sunday morning sermon at the Presbyterian Church where I play piano. This allows me to feel doubly inadequate.) In this story, a lawyer asks Jesus what he needs to do to receive eternal life, and when Jesus asks the man what the law says, he answers in part, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” Jesus tells him, “You are right. Do this and you will live.” But then the lawyer asks, “Who is my neighbor?”
Ah ha! Well, this gets more complicated. I suggest you read Luke 10:25-37 for the whole story, but the short answer to the question is: everyone is your neighbor!
Oh goodness. This is where the anxiety starts creeping in. In this day and age of unlimited information about every ailment and calamity facing people all around the world, one could hardly blame a well-intentioned person from becoming so overwhelmed with charitable possibilities that he’s not even able to buy a coffee or a beer without sinking into a hole of self-hatred, like Steven Spielberg’s Oscar Schindler on steroids: “This coffee! Instead of buying this coffee, I could have fed a family an entire meal! Instead of watching this baseball game, I could have volunteered at a homeless shelter!”
So how good do we have to be? Harold Kushner wrote a book with this exact question as its title, but he doesn’t really talk about what’s required of each of us when it comes to helping others. He discusses familial relationships and acceptance for one’s failings. That’s all well and good. But the reality is that as I write this blog that maybe fifty people will read, I could be delivering food or mentoring a child. I might already be doing those things, but shouldn’t I do more? If yes, how much more? Can I spend a day writing without thinking that I could have done something nobler with my time? If yes, can I spend two days? Three days? Four? Can and buy myself a $400 bass amp (as I did last week) without thinking that my money could have (should have?) gone to a nobler purpose? How about a $1000 guitar? A $2000 keyboard? I already own two keyboards, you say? So why would I need another? Wow, have you got a lot to learn about musicians.
Look, for me, these are not easy questions, and there are no easy answers. I suspect I’ll never be as content as my friend who believes he’s a shoo-in for the ultimate reward, and maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe by questioning what I’m doing I make better choices here and there that lead to the betterment of others.
I sometimes play piano at funerals for people who – by the accounts of their loved ones – have done remarkable things: formed foundations, served on every society known to man, volunteered for every cause, and I leave these funerals feeling partly depressed and partly inspired: depressed because I haven’t done enough and inspired because I see what people are capable of.
So maybe that’s the answer. How good do we have to be? Better than we are, but less than perfect.
Love ‘em or hate ‘em, the band Journey made its mark in the late 70s and early 80s with rousing rock anthems and weepy pop ballads, and though the band may have been hated by critics, audiences grew with each successive release. Not only did multiple personnel changes not hurt Journey, it seemed as if the changes were destined to be, as each new member added an element that bolstered and heightened the band’s success. For a while, they could do no wrong.
And then in 1986 something happened: gone was the rhythm section of Steve Smith and Ross Valory, gone were the one-word album titles and interesting artwork, and gone was – to my ears – the band’s edge. Rumor had it that lead singer Steve Perry had taken control of the band, except specifics were hard to come by. Try searching “Journey fire Steve Smith and Ross Valory” on Google, and most of what you’ll find are brief sentences summarizing the event and little of substance even from former band members. VH1’s “Journey Behind the Music” adds nothing critical to the story, and watching the “rockumentary,” one gets the feeling that Perry controlled its content, as he’s featured far more prominently than other band members.
But a few months ago my friend Aaron forwarded a 2001 interview of long-time Journey manager Herbie Herbert by long-time Journey fan Matthew Carty. A more intriguing, entertaining read you’ll be hard-pressed to find, unless it’s a 2008 interview of Herbie Herbert by Andrew McNeice. Herbert is an interviewer’s goldmine: outspoken, knowledgeable, funny, and an old-school, hard-nosed character whose musical instincts and marketing savvy were spot-on.
Next time you have half an hour, read the 2001 Carty interview, and you may walk away with an entirely different understanding of the band, of the music industry and – possibly – human nature. I’ve read it twice, and I’ll read it again. It’s that good.
** SPOILER ALERT *** If you haven’t seen these two movies, consider reading this essay after you do.
Watching Bill Murray’s film St. Vincent last week, I was reminded of another movie: The Fisher King, starring Jeff Bridges and Robin Williams. Both the 1991 and 2014 releases are similar, not just because they’re manipulative and contrived, but because they could potentially lead one to view the more downtrodden among us differently. How? Well, that depends on how you look at things. For some, the movies might invoke a spirited response similar to that of Christopher Tookey, who wrote of the Fisher King:
"The sagacity of the saga is diminished by screenwriter Richard LaGravenese's naively sentimental approach to homelessness and insanity. Madness in this film can be cured just by knowing that someone cares about you, and homelessness is not a social problem, but a picturesque way that individuals have of coping with personal tragedy.”
Whereas Tookey feared people could stop viewing homelessness as a real problem, I remember walking away from The Fisher King with a more positive thought: that its tale of a personal tragedy might lead people to view homeless in a more humane way, concluding that perhaps it wasn’t drug use, crime, or other poor choices that led their downfall, but rather a terrible event over which they had no control.
Never mind that generalizing a film’s depiction of a fictional character as a universal truth is unfair to a medium that’s primary purpose is to entertain. After all, just because Robin Williams’s character suffered a horrendous tragedy doesn’t mean all homeless people have. But it might be a positive step when we’re confronted with, say, a panhandler, to help use the movie as an example, and consider that this person asking for money may once have been living a full and rich life only to have a tragedy propel them downward (of course, you could argue that it shouldn’t matter one way or the other. A person in need is a person in need, no matter what led to their circumstances).
St. Vincent walks a similar line to that of The Fisher King. Its egregiously manipulative screenplay has the main character – who’s been a complete ass for most of the film – conveniently throw out the remnants of his nobler past just as a neighborhood kid watches through a window, thus casting the curmudgeon in a new light. Like The Fisher King, this film seems to shout out, “Don’t judge a person too harshly – you don’t know what he’s been through.”
And as contrived as this message may be, this is exactly the default setting we should be employing in our lives. When someone cuts us off on the highway, treats us inconsiderately at the cash register or demeans us at the doctor’s office, it’s easy for us to conclude that the person we’re dealing with is simply a low-life asshole who thinks of nothing but himself. And you know what? The easy conclusion may actually be right on the mark.
But aren’t we much better served by assuming that the person who’s cut us off on the highway is in a terrible hurry because he just found out his spouse has cancer, or the inconsiderate cashier just discovered she can’t pay this month’s rent, or the demeaning physician just had to tell a patient that he’s dying. Unlikely scenarios, perhaps, but possible, just like it’s possible the homeless person you encountered lost his wife in an unspeakably horrific way, and it’s possible that the cranky neighbor who everyone dislikes is a war veteran who’s been taking care of his wife with dementia for years.
It doesn’t hurt to assume the best in people, and it could even do a lot of good. As Atticus Finch said, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view - until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” It’s a difficult ideal to live up to, but it’s certainly one to aspire to, and movies like St. Vincent and The Fisher King are helpful – if a bit melodramatic – reminders if that ideal.
A few months ago I documented an infuriating experience I had with Comcast for what should have been a simple fix (i.e., replacing a broken router). Despite the fact that a friend of mine who I hadn’t heard from in over half a year proactively reached out to me to mock my essay, I stand by it, and now Joel Stein of TIME Magazine does too, at least tacitly.
In this week’s TIME, Stein discusses his attempt to transfer his cable service to a new address, but apparently Time Warner shares Comcast’s penchant for ineptness and stupidity. After several phone calls with no resolution, Stein decided to cut the cord and discontinue cable altogether. My blog may not have much of an impact on the cable industry, but Time Warner can’t exactly be thrilled with Stein declaring,“…I really, really, really hate Time Warner Cable.” He certainly isn’t alone.
When Blockbuster went belly-up a few years back, I said to a friend of mine, “Well, I guess that’s what happens when your business model is built on treating customers like three year-old felons.” Cable companies could learn a thing or two from the likes of Blockbuster. My family hasn’t had cable TV in over 14 years, and it’s becoming less of a sacrifice with each passing year of added streaming content through Amazon, Netlfix, and the like. And now, poor customer service is jeopardizing our decision to use Comcast for Internet and phone service.
It may only be a matter of time before cable compaies take the dive, and when it does, it couldn’t happen to a nicer bunch fo guys. Except possibly the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.
I can think of few better ways to pass a late evening after the wife and kids have called it a night than by pursuing the solitary but highly rewarding activity of watching a musical documentary. Hell, the wife and kids wouldn’t get it anyhow, so why not delve into a topic no one else in my family cares about, without interruption, and walk away with a new set of musical facts to share with my fellow musical geeks…er…aficionados?
I’ve been watching a lot of these lately, mostly because I keep running into people saying, “You haven’t seen Movie X? And you’re a musician?” So I’ve been catching up, filling in the gaping holes in my musical knowledge, and enjoying the ride. In no particular order – except for the first one – I’d like to recommend the following…
1. Searching for Sugar Man (2012): Oscar winner for Best Documentary in 2012, this is an expertly executed movie, especially if you go into it with no knowledge of musician Rodriguez. I didn’t, and the movie blew me away, and I’d rather not say anything more for fear of ruining the experience for someone else. This is one of those examples of how real life is stranger than fiction. Inspiring, unbelievable, and positively engrossing.
2. Who is Harry Nilsson (And Why is Everybody Talkin’ About Him)? (2010): Whether or not you know who Harry Nilsson is, this movie is an entertaining romp about a bold, fearless, irreverent musician whose lifestyle led to his downfall. A wonderfully candid film that doesn’t gloss over the obvious failings of one of best vocalists of the 20th Century.
3. Vinyl (2000): A film that exposes the underbelly of record-collecting, which for some people is less an enjoyable hobby than an addictive burden. This would be a completely depressing movie were it not for the genuine humanity and likability of its filmmaker, Alan Zweig.
4. Muscle Shoals (2013): If you don’t know what the hell Muscle Shoals is, you’ve probably heard it mentioned hundreds of times in the Lynyrd Skynyrd’s song, “Sweet Home, Alabama.” They sing:
Now Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers
And they've been known to pick a song or two
Lord they get me off so much
They pick me up when I'm feeling blue
Now how about you?
So how about you? If this lyric is nothing but gibberish to you, check out the movie that explains how Rick Hall and a band of musicians called The Swampers created a unique sound that changed music. To me, this isn’t a brilliant film, but the interviews with Keith Richards, Aretha Franklin, Jimmy Cliff, Steve Winwood and others make it a worthwhile view.
5. Jimi Hendrix: Here My Train A Comin’ (2013): Part of PBS’s American Masters series, this is an excellent retrospective about the guitar great with original footage and interviews, illustrating just how innovative and influential he was. More than any other musician, Hendrix makes me wonder what might have been.
6. Sound City (2013): A film by Foo Figher David Grohl, this is another showcase of an influential studio that recorded some of the biggest hits of the 70s, took a nose-dive in the 80s, and returned with a vengeance in the 90s. Grohl’s love for the studio, the equipment and the music is infectious, and he takes it a step further by recording new material with the artists and equipment that made the original studio famous. Interviews with Fleetwood Mac, Tom Petty, Rick Springfield, Neil Young and others make this a must-see.
7. Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey (2012): Love ‘em or hate ‘em, you can’t deny Journey their amazing comeback to rock stardom and the remarkable ride of vocalist Arnel Pineda. A truly inspiring film, all the more because you get the sense that Pineda is a guy who knows how lucky he is, and who’s trying like mad to remain grounded.
8. 20 Feet From Stardom (2013): Another Oscar winner, this is a must-see film about the largely unknown vocalists who made much of the music in our musical catalogue soar. Watching Mick Jagger listen to the soloed track of Merry Clayton singing “Gimme Shelter” gets my vote for one of the best moments in cinematic history. Chills.
9. History of The Eagles (2013) is a thorough retrospective of a band that only released six albums in its heyday, yet managed to comletely redefine rock music in the 70s. The changing cast members and internal feuding only add to what would have already been an interesting film about a band that for me has overstayed it's welcome.
10. I Am Trying to Break Your Heart: A Film About Wilco (2002): This beautifully made film captures the band recording its critically-renowned album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and documents an interesting period in the music industry when record studios were collapsing and musicians were often left caught in the middle. Lucikly, Wilco managed to rise above it somehow. The pretentiousness of Jeff Tweedy is staggering, and the film’s music doesn’t do much for me, but it’s still cool to see the band working on their craft – much of it in glorious black and white.
11. No Direction Home (2005): A film of raw footage from Dylan’s rise to fame in the 1960s, it helps a skeptical fan like me understand what it was about Dylan that got people excited in the first place. How can you not appreciate his response to hecklers in 1966 England, when he turns to his band and says, “Play it fuckin’ loud” before diving into “Like a Rolling Stone”? Fantastic.
12. Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage (2010): Can a film about a band with virtually no scandals and no internal feuding be interesting? Well, if you’re a Rush fan it can be. I’ve watched it twice, and I’ll watch it again.
There are loads more musical documentaries to check out - George Harrison: Living In the Material World is next on my list - but if you have a favorite you think I should watch, let me know!