Short Story Published!
My short story, "The Missing Ingredient," is now available in digital and print form in the young-adult publication, Sucker Literary Magazine, volume 2. I was published in volume 1 last year and am again thrilled to contribute one of nine great stories featuring the most interesting people on the planet - teenagers. Sucker is available in paperback for $9.99 and in Kindle form for $3.99.
Song of the Week
Each week I feature one of my original compositions. Keep coming back, take a listen and enjoy. This week I'm featuring my society commenatary song, "I Can Breathe," from the album Pause.
I submitted an entry for found 11 of NPR's Three-Minute Fiction contest last month, and though I didn't win, I quite like my story, "The Song." The winner and two finalists of the contest are all commendable with some beautiful writing, my favorite being "Chips" by Kristina Riggle. Check out my story and the winners - short fiction can be very compelling.
Paul Simon once wrote the lyric, “I seem to lean on old familiar ways.” And so it is for most songwriters, Simon included. When it comes to song structure, inertia is strong, and few writers deviate substantially from one of two general song forms: AABA (most jazz songs follow this format, many show tunes, and several pop songs as well. Think “Yesterday” by the Beatles) and, with modest modifications, ABAB (more identifiable as verse, chorus, verse, chorus, often adding a bridge after the second chorus). Composers do it almost without thought, which makes exceptions all the more impressive. Sure, it might not take a genius to write a song with the form ABCDCBA, but it’s not something that occurs to most people, so in that sense, maybe it does take a genius to compose a song in an interesting format, if only because no one else thought to do it.
Which means maybe JamesTaylor is a genius. His 1991 song, “Shed a Little Light,” follows that song form – ABCDCBA - and somehow makes it flow nicely and memorably. You would think after four sections foregoing repetition, the listener would be left to flounder, lost in a sea of unfamiliarity, but JT pulls it off impressively. Most listeners probably aren’t even aware that the song is proceeding to unexplored territory; they’re only aware that the song continues to move forward, to gain momentum, before reversing the momentum and slowing to a halt, as if completing a four-minute train ride.
Of course, composers don’t need to go to these lengths to inject new life into their songwriting. Even slight alterations from the standard formats can be inspiring. For example, instead of following a format such as verse – chorus – verse – chorus – bridge – chorus, what about pushing the bridge up, or repeating it, or adding a second unique bridge? Elvis Costello does a particular good job of mixing up song sections. Consider the following song from his 1994 release: Brutal Youth:
“London’s Brilliant Parade”
Verse – Chorus – Bridge – Verse – Chorus – Verse – Chorus
What I particularly like is the addition of a bridge immediately after the chorus, delaying the return to a verse. I borrowed this technique for my song, “No Point In Seeing Me Through” from my album Pause. After the first chorus I go to a bridge before returning to the verse. To me, this keeps the song moving forward, plus I add a modulation up a step for the final verse before returning to the original key for the final chorus.
Costello song forms deviate even further in some of his compositions by repeating a bridge or by adding a second bridge (The labels of the song sections I use here are relatively irrelevant, and likely disputable, for in some of these songs each of the sections carry nearly equal weight):
“The Other Summer Side”
Verse – Chorus – Bridge – Chorus – Bridge – Verse – Chorus
“All Grown Up”
Verse – Chorus – Bridge – Chorus – Different Bridge – Verse – Chorus – Different Bridge
Even a successful song, like Costello’s modest 1989 hit, “Veronica,” can depart from the usual fare. Here, Costello and Paul McCartney inject the bridge in a different place: after the second verse. A very unusual tactic, but, in my find, an effective one.
Verse – Chorus- Verse – Bridge – Chorus – Verse –Chorus
It’s odd that in light of these and countless other examples, so many songwriters – me included – continue to follow the formats we’ve grown accustomed to over the years. Perhaps it’s time to try a little harder to mix things up.
Watching the Jackie Robinson biopic 42 last week, I couldn’t help but feel that I was watching ABCs movie-of-the-week in a theater. Sure, the acting was good (it was great to see Harrison Ford actually act instead of relying on smirks), the story is of course compelling – it practically begs to be filmed – and the film does a reasonably good job of telling the story. Chadwick Boseman and Nicole Beharie do fine as Jackie and Rachel Robinson (even when they have to spout cornball dialogue). What’s troubling is how unreal the film looks and feels. So little attention was made, aside from vintage cars and clothing, to make it feel like 1946-47. Instead, we get a polished version of the past.
No one sweats. Seriously. No one.
No one smokes. (For a sense of how smoking should be used in a period film, check out this scene from Good Night and Good Luck)
All clothing is new, clean and pressed. No dirt. No grime. No tatters, even of the clothing from kids in Florida, who I presume weren’t exactly rolling in the dough.
Everyone is beautiful (except for the bigots), from the lead characters to the woman who babysits the Robinson’s son.
Baseball jerseys, even after nine innings of play, are bleach-white. We only see dirt directly after Jackie dives or slides into a base.
All men are clean shaven or have neatly trimmed beards.
In short, it has the look and feel of The Truman Show or Pleasantville, except this isn’t supposed to be a farce of a 1950s sitcom. This is supposed to be a film dramatizing real life, not an antiseptic version of the past. Some directors are so careful to make films look realistic, but Brian Helgeland misses the boat on this one.
He also falls short on the screenplay. It’s amazing how the writer of such terrific films as Mystic River and LA Confidential managed to write such contrived, cornball dialogue. Maybe Jackie and Rachel Robinson really did have a marriage as strong as the one depicted in the movie, but it doesn’t make for good film. No arguments? About anything? Never anything mundane to say? Only perfectly executed love notes to each other? I’d put good money on the real-life Rachel Robinson actually being a full-fledged three-dimensional woman. Instead, Nicole Beharie does what she can with a two-dimensional script.
See the film, if only to watch it with your kids, as it may provide an education for them about racism and baseball’s tarnished past. But for the most part, the past has been polished in 42, keeping the story from ringing true. One has to wonder how good this film could have been in the capable hands of a filmmaker like Spike Lee.
Getting one’s news from television may seem like an antiquated idea: according to The Pew Rearch Center, just about a third of people younger than 30 are getting any of their news from TV. This is in stark contrast to the days of Brokaw, Jennings and Rather, when well over half of American’s watched news on television. My old roommate Scott and I used to say to each other at 5:30 each evening, “Time for Brokaw?” and tune in to NBC. How many people today can even name the three network news anchors? Can you? (full disclosure: I couldn’t. I forgot that Diane Sawyer is still doing ABC News). And if you do tune into the evening news, will you walk away with more information on prescription drug ads than you will actual news?
Despite the fall of television journalism, there are twenty minutes that I find well worth my time: the first segment of CBS This Morning with Charlie Rose and Nora O’Donnell.
Back in the day, CBS was the network to shy away from the fluff that NBC and ABC embraced so enthusiastically. Ratings suffered, and CBS news, both evening and morning, was relegated to third place for a long time. Perhaps it is in this spirit – the spirit of Dan Rather, who has accused today's reporters of needing a spine transplant – that CBS’s morning news has reinvented itself so effectively in the last year. After years of trying to compete with NBC and ABC, and after a long game of anchor musical chairs – remember names like Chris Wragge, Jeff Glor and Julie Chen? – CBS has finally settled on a lineup of Rose and O’Donnell. and interestingly, have as part of their mission, decided to focus on – get this – actual news. No more endless banter between anchors. No more meteorologists hamming it up with cheering fans on the street. No more cooking segments. Just news.
True, CBS This Morning still ranks third among the three major morning news programs, but it is the only one that’s growing. For a good article on the show and the philosophy of executive producer Chris Licht, click here.
My son and I have gotten into the habit of tuning into the first twenty minutes of CBS This Morning. No commercials. No lengthy interviews with talking heads. Just a quick summary of the seven or eight most important news items of the day, often with the benefit of CBS’s trump card, John Miller, who has to be among the most intriguing reporters on television. When there are news stories regarding law enforcement, as there have been lately, he alone makes it worth tuning in. Charlie Rose at times shows his age (71), but more often than not does the job he's known for: cutting to the chase by asking pointed questions. Nora O’Donnell does something few other anchors have the guts to do: re-ask a question after it isn’t answered the first time around. Jim Lehrer, take note.
So now, after my son and I get our news and weather (with no Al Roker!), we have breakfast and discuss the news items of the day.
Not a bad way to spend the morning.
Playing a solo show in front of a small audience in an intimate setting has got to be one of the most difficult tasks to pull off well. Last Friday, my daughters and I had the pleasure of seeing Sara Bareilles at one of the coolest venues I’ve ever been to: Milwaukee's Humphrey Scottish Rite Masonic Center Auditorium, a hall that seats 435 in an odd, miniaturized arena-like setting.
In the midst of a short solo tour to drum up support for her forthcoming album, The Blessed Unrest, Bareilles seems very much at ease in the more intimate setting, eager to exchange quips with fans, and exhibiting that rare quality of being witty while still coming off as appreciative and sincere.
Bareilles’s piano chops are adequate, not brilliant, and her guitar work is similarly restrained, but none of that really mattered, because the star of the show was her vocal work on top of well-crafted pop songs. She’s got some serious pipes, with far more dexterity and control that I could have anticipated. As she effortlessly glided above the chord progressions of her new tune, “Manhattan,” to a perfectly hushed audience, Bareilles’s voice reminded me of Nora Jones with more of an edge. Unlike Jones, Bareilles has just enough anger, as exhibited in songs like “Love Song” and “King of Anything,” to make her repertoire varied and interesting.
What I like about Bareilles, and what made me particularly eager to take my daughters to the show, is the strong nature of her lyrics. Rarely do you find a performer whose words are both positive yet unyielding, vulnerable yet confident. Even her angry songs don’t lash out at her victims. Instead, they reveal her strength, as if to say, “You’re simply not good enough for me.” Whether or not it’s been her intention as a performer, assisting girls and women to raise the bar in their love lives had been a fine byproduct of her career.
Her new song, “Brave,” co-written with Fun’s Jack Antonoff, couldn’t have a more fitting message, especially for teenagers: be who you are and don’t be afraid to speak out. It’s not filled with f-bombs. It doesn’t play the victim. It doesn’t lay blame. It just inspires.
Bareilles’s 90 minute performance left the small crowd happy, even after the odd encore of Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” But in a way, her rendition of this classic song exemplified the entire evening: her sparse arrangement cultivated a more creative approach, allowing for minor tempo and harmonic modifications, not to mention adlibbed vocal parts, that resulted in just enough unpredictability to make the song sound new again.
No small feat.
Sara's new album is due out in July.