For my upcoming gigs, check out the right hand margin.
Lots of other gigs on the docket, so check out the right hand margin and see if you can make it out for any of them. You can also catch me most Sundays at 10:30AM at Elmhurst Presbyterian Church, 367 Spring Road in Elmhurst, IL.
Fiction: As always, I continue to submitted short stories to various publications and contests, and I'm busily reviewing submissions for http://www.sixfold.org/. You can still check out my most-recently published short stories in Volume 1 and Volume 2 of the YA periodical, Sucker Literary Magazine.
Song of the Week
Each week I feature one of my original compositions. Keep coming back, take a listen and enjoy. This week's is "File It Away" from my album, Better Than This.
The movie 20 Feet From Stardom – and if you haven’t seen it, you should – has sparked many conversations with my musical brethren, most of whom point to two scenes that they found particularly poignant, both involving the amazing vocalist Merry Clayton. Never heard of her? Don’t worry about it. You have, in fact, heard her.
The first aforementioned scene shows Clayton and Mick Jagger listening to the isolated vocal track of Clayton’s performance on The Rolling Stones’ song, “Gimme Shelter.” It’s one of those performances that summons emotions in me that I’m unable to put into words. Hearing the track, coupled with watching the singers respond to it, gave me chills and brought me to tears. Just thinking about it gives me the chills. Not too shabby for a song I’ve probably heard a couple hundred times.
The second scene has Clayton recalling how her attempts at stardom in the 70s resulted in three albums that sold poorly. She says, her voice cracking, “I felt like if I just gave my heart to what I was doing, I would automatically be a star.”
No one could blame her or countless others for this belief. After all, we hear it all the time: Follow your dream. Do what you love. Cinderella sang about it. So did Aerosmith and a thousand other bands. Hell, even I’ve written about it. Graduation speeches promote it. Websites are devoted to it. An industry of inspiring posters capitalizes on it. It’s what parents want for their children. It’s what children want for themselves when they become adults. And I think there’s a kernel of good advice in that sentiment. Do what you love to do.
Are we entitled to make a living at it? What a luxury it is to even be asking the question! In the history of humankind, how long has this idea of doing what one loves to do for a living been given even the slightest consideration? For me, it brings to mind centuries of apprentices toiling in atrocious working conditions, slaves enduring worse, millennia of farmers laboring over the land, generations of immigrants, past and present, suffering through the most strenuous jobs for the littlest of pay.
I wonder how many people historically have had the luxury of saying, “I want to do this for a living.” How many people living today can devote a realistic thought to the notion? The starving worry about food, the terrorized worry about safety, and the poor worry about making a better living.
So the fact that some of us are able to entertain the notion of doing what we love to do is already a blessing of blessings. Let’s start there. But should we be able to make a living doing what we love to do? Well, that all depends, doesn’t it? I could get into an analysis I suppose of capitalism, supply, demand, education, market saturation, etc., but what it all comes down is that sometimes jobs are in demand, sometimes they aren’t, and sometimes there’s never demand for what you love to do.
Our grandparents, especially those who were the first in their family to go to college, probably didn’t give this a second thought, and majored in what was going to guarantee them a job. Right now, it seems like nursing is a good profession to go into. I have a niece pursuing this as I write, and her prospects look good. In a decade, who knows? Engineering looks very promising at present. Architecture, not so much. Then again, I know an architect in Milwaukee who is living her dream. You just never know. The entertainment industry, of course, is even more fickle. Some musicians can make a decent living at it. Others become superstars. Others still can barely get by. It isn’t fair, but that’s the way it is. In 20 Feet from Stardom, singer/songwriter Stings says, “It’s not about fairness. It’s not really about talent. It’s circumstances. It’s luck. It’s destiny. I don’t know what it is.”
And shouldn’t this be the case? After all, if I could make a living watching baseball on TV, I would do it in a heartbeat. I know people who love to fish. Does that mean they should be earning a living at it? I know people who love nothing more than to play a round of golf. Does that mean they should get paid for it?
For me, I think the answer is this: do what you love. Pursue it. Immerse yourself in it. And if you’re able to, do it for a living. But either way, don’t stop. I stopped playing music and writing fiction for a while back in ’94 and ’95, and then again in the early 2000s. You know what? I found myself out of sorts. Unfulfilled. Unpleasant at times. Well, duh. I wasn’t doing what I loved to do. Now I make a little supplemental family income and I get to write fiction and play with fabulous musicians and create good – sometimes great – music. It isn’t superstardom, but so what?
I have musician friends, some of whom play or sing for a living, and it isn’t easy. I’m sure they had thoughts of stardom when they were air-guitaring in front of the mirror in 1985, but despite the difficulties, they’ve chosen to keep doing what they can to earn a living playing music. Other people I know had thoughts of stardom but decided to go into teaching or engineering or accounting. But they haven’t stopped playing.
I wish Merry Clayton had made it big. I wish lots of people had made it big. But there’s no reason they should have, just like there’s no reason I should be paid to watch baseball. That’s life. I have two daughters who in a year’s time will be majoring in fields of study that guarantee them nothing except a degree in four years. What happens beyond that is anyone’s guess. But I hope in twenty years, both of them are still pursuing their love, whether it’s during the week from 8 to 5, or on evenings and weekends. Either way, they will be successes in my book.
And you know what? Merry Clayton is a star in my book, too. To hell with superstardom.
A serendipitous twist propelled my bandmates and me into a realm of temporary rock stardom last week while at the same time a good-natured musician named Izzy was relegated to the role of story-teller.
Many months ago, Izzy gave Paula Lorenzo-Tackett, director of Cache Creek Casino Resort in Brooks, California a business card for his band, 2nd Time Around. There are countless bands called 2nd Time Around, or in my band’s case, “Second Time Around,” and lo and behold, after searching on-line for a while, Ms. Lorenzo-Tackett happened upon the website of a band from Barringon, Illinois, liked the promotional video, and decided to ask them to perform at the sixth anniversary celebration of her restaurant, the Road Trip Bar and Grill of Capay, California.
My bandmates and I didn’t quite understand the request. We are a very good classic-rock band, to be sure, but performing around the Chicago area these past several years has taught us nothing if not a healthy dose of humility. There are many, many good bands out there, and we know that our performances can always be improved, our transitions and endings made tighter, our stage-presence refined, and we know that there are countless amazing performers within the California border. So it was with a degree of skepticism that we accepted the invitation to fly out to the West Coast, all the while wondering if it was too good to be true.
It wasn’t. For two days we were treated like royalty, as Ms. Lorenzo-Tackett flew with us on a chartered jet to Sacramento, accompanied us on a stretch limo to her restaurant and casino, and then treated us to a state-of-the-art stage, lights and sound system, not to mention a wonderful stay at the beautiful Cache Creek Casino Resort. The Entertainment Technical Manager at the casino, James Taylor, told me stories about his time working with Amy Grant and Blackfoot, and how when he got the call to work at Cache Creek he couldn’t turn it down because it was evident that the ownership believed in doing things the right way. Strolling along the runways on the theater’s perimeter, I glanced at the photos of other performers who have graced the stage at Cache Creek – Ringo Star, Melissa Etheridge, Jay Leno, Smokey Robinson, etc. – and it was clear that doing things the right way had led to some wonderful performances. And here we were, a cover band from Chicago, getting to play in front of 475 people in a spectacularly-decorated room with several audio and video experts working diligently to coax as good a performance out of us as possible.
For three sets, we performed our hearts out, hoping we would do right by the folks at Cache Creek, and ultimately, we think we did. We had a blast, the crowd danced and yelled for more, and Paula and her husband Jerry gave us high praise. Whether or not we were deserving of it, we didn’t know. We just knew we had given it our all.
The leaders of Second Time Around, Johnny and Angie Fridono, are believers in karma. Treat people right, and you’ll be treated right. I’ve only been in the band for the past year, so I feel like I got to ride the coattails of decades of Johnny and Angie treating people right. Who knew when I responded to a “keyboardist wanted” ad last year that it would lead to such an incredible journey?
At the show’s end, there was Izzy, clapping his hands in front of the stage. I introduced myself, and he said, “I’m in a band called 2nd Time Around too, and I’m the reason you’re here!” He told me the story, and I wondered if he was going to be bitter about seeing a different band perform where his band had hoped to play. But Izzy said graciously, “You guys are TEN TIMES better than we are.” Izzy seems like another guy who treats people right, and I hope that karma catches up to him sometime and offers him the gig of a lifetime.
The monumental achievement of Richard Linklater’s latest movie, Boyhood – in which he follows the fictional lives of a family for a dozen years – might be easy to overlook without first comparing to other art forms to put things into perspective. Imagine asking a musical artist to record one song in one month out of the year for twelve years with the intention of making a seamless 12-song album. The Beatles couldn’t have done it. Led Zeppelin would have failed at this endeavor. Michael Jackson? Forget about it. What about asking an author to write a chapter in one month out of the year for 12 years to create a tight, page-turning novel? A near impossible endeavor.
Artists evolve. Their interests change. Their skills change. Technology changes. Artists immerse themselves in a project often at times to the detriment of everything else going on in their lives, and if they’re lucky, their myopic pursuits result in a near-perfect piece of art. That Linklater was able to achieve the latter despite taking twelve years to do it is nothing short of remarkable.
In Boyhood, starring Ellar Coltrane, Lorelei Linklater, Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke, twelve years pass before our eyes, as the characters evolve and age in mostly very ordinary ways. Richard Linklater began filming in 2002 and wrapped up finally in 2013, all the while directing a number of other movies, including the second and third installments of the “Before” trilogy, which – like Boyhood – are also a study of time and the ordinariness of life.
As the film progressed, I – far too accustomed to the typical movie experience – waited for tragedy to strike: a rape, a car crash, a stupid drunken accident. And though the movie isn’t absent drama, it does illuminate what I wrote about just a week ago: that normal everyday lives are interesting in and of themselves. Linklater sets up a few scenes where something awful could have occurred, only to proceed without fanfare. I believe this was done on purpose, as it shows just how tenuous our lives are, as we take risk after risk after risk on a daily basis, only to find that most of the time, we escape unharmed. We manage to survive in spite of our carelessness.
At two hours and 45 minutes, the movie for me was about twenty minutes too long, and Arquette’s character’s inability to recognize a man’s shortcomings grew tiresome, but those are minor quibbles. More important was an observation my daughter made about the main character, Mason, played by Ellar Coltrane. She said that Mason was a walking cliché for the emo subculture, whereby every cynical, morose viewpoint is spouted as unique and interesting in spite of it being taken straight out of the emo handbook. Here’s a summary from http://uncyclopedia.wikia.com/wiki/Emo
Emo is a type of subculture…loosely rooted around punk rock with its own distinct style of music, fashion, argot and other trappings in a desperate, though ultimately hopeless attempt to pronounce their uniqueness. As a rule of thumb, a person described as "emo" will often be from a comfortable, middle-class background with liberal parents. All of this is irrelevant to an emo who will consider themselves misunderstood and repressed regardless of reality…They all suffer from severe narcissism, leading them to believe that they alone know what pain is, and that no one understands them…on the plus side, emos have made great strides in the fields of photography.
Well, damn. My daughter was spot-on! The character of Mason is in fact a walking cliché. But guess what? So are a lot of the people we meet every day. Sure, I think it would have been more exciting if Mason had been an outgoing guy who was into sports or drama or music, but Linklater needed to let the film evolve as the actors evolved, and my guess is that the fictional Mason wasn’t too far removed from the real-life Coltrane since the script was written over the 12 year-period and very much tailored to the actors involved.
That this film came to fruition is a minor miracle. So many things could have gone wrong: actors could have died or decided they didn’t want to finish the project. A major life event in any of the actors’ lives could have put the project on hold. What would have happened had it turned out that the girl or boy couldn’t act? Somehow Linklater keeps it all together, and manages to allow time to elapse before our eyes without editing flourishes; sometimes a new scene begins and only upon seeing an older Mason do we realize that a year has passed. Linklater similarly avoids sentimentality (except for one completely unnecessary scene in a restaurant). I imagine that in the hands of another filmmaker, Boyhood would have succumbed to the token flashback near the film’s end, whereby Arquette recalls the early lives of the children she’s sending off into adulthood. Yes, I would have bought this type of flashback hook, line and sinker – I love that kind of crap – but I give Linklater credit for refusing the low-hanging fruit.
See the movie.
Real life is always more interesting than the worlds of dragons, gods, superheroes, magic and fairies. And I’m not even talking about life’s extremes of murder, war, leading nations, kidnapping and drug abuse – though to be sure, these can create some remarkable works of art. To me, the very mundane things that link most people's lives – hanging out with friends, meeting someone you like, working a job simply to pay the bills – are some of the richest veins for authors and filmmakers to tap into.
It isn’t surprising that films about the mundane should sail a bit under the radar, especially for a middle-age guy living in the suburbs, and that’s where journalism can come to save the day. I recently read a piece by the Chicago Tribune’s Christopher Borrelli about filmmaker Joe Swanberg, a guy I’d never heard of before despite his having directed fifteen films. Lo and behold, his movie “Drinking Buddies” is currently streaming on Netflix, so yesterday I checked it out.
It’s a gem.
Like much of Richard Linklater’s work, or the films of Noah Baumbach, Edward Burns, Whit Stillman, and – on occasion – Woody Allen, Swanberg’s “Drinking Buddies” is about capturing everyday life in all it’s fabulous glory: the modest slights that can turn a mood, the quips that buoy one’s spirits during a long workday, the small error that can become enormous or can be dismissed with a heartfelt kiss. With spot-on performances by Jake Johnson (of New Girl fame), Anna Kendrick, Ron Livingston (remember him from “Office Space”?) and the captivating Olivia Wilde, “Drinking Buddies” is at its essence about nothing more than real life. No car chases. No murders. No emotional or physical abuse. No supernatural interference. It’s about the lives that most of us lead and that carry an infinite amount of laughs, tears, anger and joy.
Sure, I don’t really believe that women who drink as much as Kendrick’s and Wilde’s characters do could actually maintain their figures (I attended UW-Madison and witnessed first-hand the results of four years of drinking), but that’s about the only aspect of the film that didn’t ring true.
Swanberg – a Chicago resident – has another movie starring Kendrick out in theaters now called “Happy Christmas,” and as soon as I see that, I’m going to start in on his back catalogue.
Now tell me that newspapers no longer matter.
Begin Again, pairing Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo, is nothing if not an ode to music, and I’m a sucker for films that reveal the inner workings of the music industry or the magic of composition. Even the remake of The Jazz Singer escapes a BOMB rating in my book since we get to see Neil Diamond sing “Love on the Rocks” in the recording studio. But when it comes to music in film, two terrific movie moments come to mind: Illeana Douglas's character singing the Costello/Bacharach tune, “God Give Me Strength,” in Grace of My Heart, and the moment in Once when the heretofore inattentive recording engineer finally begins to notice the magic happening in the studio as the band plays “When Your Mind’s Made Up.” I’m not sure anything in Begin Again quite matches either of these scenes (despite being directed by Once director John Carney), but many come close, and the film tells a terrific story with appealing characters to boot.
Ruffalo is a down-and-out record label exec who happens upon a little less down-and-out Knightley, who’s fresh off a breakup with Adam Levine. She sings a heartfelt song in an East Village bar prior to her return to England, and Ruffalo, desperate to find a performer who might end his streak of signed failures, immediately recognizes her potential. In a particularly effective scene, we get to hear (and see) what Ruffalo’s character hears: not just a woman singing on-stage to a guitar, but a song that slowly builds to the accompaniment of piano, cello, bass, guitar and drums. This works beautifully, and illustrates just how well a film can reveal the transcendental nature of music.
Through a series of well-done flashbacks, we learn the details of Knightley’s and Levine’s relationship, as well as that of Ruffalo and his ex, Catherine Keener, whose daughter Hailee Steinfeld provides the most contrived plot points in the movie (that she would take fashion advice from Knightley and that – lo and behold – she can play guitar well enough to record a tune on the first take). Levine does a fine job as a rising star who’s falling for the trappings of fame, and CeeLo Green provides the film some street cred. James Cordon, who plays Greta’s friend from England, is basically a more amped up Glen Hansard from Once, though a little less believable.
The film requires us to suspend belief on a few points, as Ruffalo never fails to find ample parking in New York City, easily finds public places to record a band, and manages to attract superb string musicians willing to play for free. But whatever. It’s a good story, not reaching the height’s of Carney’s Once, but a perfectly enjoyable ride, and so much better than most movies in which music is a major character.
If there’s one thing I could change about the film, it would be the slick production of the songs themselves. Here we are, watching an ensemble record songs live on a New York City street, but we hear none of the natural flaws and ambient noise associated with such an endeavor: instead, everything’s perfect, from the local kids singing backup vocals to Steinfeld’s guitar solo. Such is the world we live in, as auto-tune and click tracks have taken over even some of the grittiest bands. But think of what made Once so magical: the belief that the characters were performing HERE and NOW. Why Carney decided to gloss things up so significantly after achieving such perfection eight years ago is perplexing.