Paul Heinz

Original Fiction, Music and Essays

Spicy: 8 Band in 4 Weeks

If variety is the spice of life the last month was particularly spicy for me. 

A few years ago I played with a drummer who performed very similar setlists between two different bands, adding the difficulty of having to recall the slight variations between the two, be it tempos, endings, extended solos, etc. In the past four weeks I’ve played with eight different bands, but I had the luxury (and also the curse) of having virtually no crossover between the various acts. That didn’t keep me from making countless mistakes, but at least the endings were unique!

August 19: my regular gig with Second Time Around.

August 19: a 50 minute setlist of a makeshift funk band playing tunes from The Commodores, Stevie Wonder, Patti Labelle, KC and the Sunshine Band, Kool and the Gang, etc.

August 20: a two hour rehearsal of Genesis tribute music that didn’t lead to a live performance but did require something close to twenty hours of preparation. I can tell you that Tony Banks continues to be my musical hero, as not only do his composition skills never fair to impress, but the keyboard part to “The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway” kicked me in the ass.

August 25: a gig with The Ripleys, a classic rock band that usually plays as a power trio but added keyboards for this particular performance.  Great time, and it forced me to learn how to play “Tempted” by Squeeze, a pop song with surprisingly complex chord changes.

August 27: my regular church gig at Elmhust Prebyterian.

Sept 1: my regular gig with Block 37.

Sept 2: a duo performance with Ken Slauf playing mostly light rock such as Van Morison, Elton John, Marc Cohn, The Beatles, etc.

September 16: for the third year in a row, a reunion gig with my old high school band, I ON U, playing mostly 80s rock tunes.

During these four weeks I performed something close to 150 distinct songs. In a few months I'll probably be hard-pressed to remember how to play any of them, but for a brief month I had a monster repertoire! It was great fun.

Now it’s back to normal during the non-summer months as my various acts struggle to find a gig here and there, but given my recent schedule I think I’m okay with that.  Sometimes after a run of spicy meals, a bland one isn’t so bad.

Two Albums I Missed

I must have been preoccupied in 2004 and 2005 – something to do with three kids under the age of eight I suppose – because aside from Rufus Wainwright’s Want Two, I can’t recall any new album that I purchased during that timeframe. Flash forward thirteen years or so and I’m filling in a few gaps, and I’ve found two gems from the mid 2000s that I missed the first time around: Paul McCartney’s Chaos and Creation in the Backyard and William Shatner’s (yes, that William Shatner) Has Been. Both are fantastic, and dare I say, McCartney’s album from 2004 may be among his top five albums of his entire post-Beatles career.

McCartney is one of those artists who I want to like more than I actually do, and therefore often overrate an album in retrospect. People often refer to his 1989 release Flowers in the Dirt as a great ablum, but listen to it again sometime and you may conclude that it’s a pretty good album. Sure, he makes a bold statement with Elvis Costello’s co-written opening track, and the album chugs along nicely for a while, but it falls off the rails completely by the end (and track two – “Rough Ride” – blows). But when compared it to his prior efforts, Press to Play and Pipes of Peace, its high marks are exaggerated.

Chaos is something different. With the help of producer Nigel Godric and a supporting cast of musicians mostly named Paul McCartney, the former Beatle recorded what is undoubtedly his best in the past twenty-five years and probably his best since Back to the Egg. (I had previously considered Tug of War great but realized that I conveniently overlooked ”Dress me up as a Robber” and “Ebony and Ivory.”) Unlike so many McCartney albums, there isn’t one track on Chaos that leads me to reach for the “next track” button, and many of the songs are downright stellar.

McCartney proves he can still deliver a deftly-crafted pop song in “A Fine Line” and can make a gentle nod to his Beatles past with tracks like “Jenny Wren” and “English Tea,” but for me the standouts are songs that offer an unexpected darker side. My favorite albums moments are:

  • The 2:05 mark of “How Kind of You” as the drums and electric guitar kick in. The tune is lyrically hopeful but juxtaposed nicely against a rather melancholy harmonic progression that’s only enhanced by the drone of a harmonium.
  • The opening of “At the Mercy,” a particularly complex song both melodically and harmonically, deliciously dark by McCartney’s standards with a universal lyric.
  • The entire track of “Riding to Vanity Fair.” This gets my vote for the best song on the album, a gem that lifts the veil from Paul’s sunny disposition and wades in the waters of resentment.

While listening to this album for the first time I had assumed that it was about his breakup with Heather Mills, but alas, they didn’t divorce until 2008. Still, Chaos exudes uneasiness, reminding me of Ben Folds’s Songs for Silverman in that it may have captured the beginning of a downfall that didn't come to fruition until a few years later.

All in all, Chaos is a beautifully rich and complex album.  I’ve listened to it more in the past six months than any other album I own.

And now to William Shatner. When I saw him perform “Common People” on The Tonight Show with Ben Folds and Joe Jackson, both of whom are among my favorite musicians, the song peeked my interest back in 2004. And then I awoke the next morning to get the kids ready for school and forgot all about it.

Fast forward eleven years later, when – in an effort to prove to my friend Kevin that 1995 was in fact a terrific year for rock music and not its nadir – I purchased the album Different Class by the band Pulp, and the fantastic third track “Common People” suddenly reminded me of the Shatner performance. I finally took the plunge and purchased Has Been earlier this year on the advice of a musician friend of mine, and lo and behold, the former Captain Kirk – with the help of producer and co-writer Ben Folds – pulls off a brilliant combination of wit, vulnerability, frustration and hilarity.

Shatner can’t sing. He knows he can’t sing, and when I mean he can’t sing, I don’t mean he can’t sing well, I mean he CAN NOT SING. It’s okay. Instead, he executes something close to beat poetry behind a backdrop of Folds musical compositions, and the results are often mesmerizing.  My favorite tracks from the album:

  • “It Hasn’t Happened Yet.” After the entertaining cover of “Common People,” Shatner lets the listener know that the album isn’t going to be one big joke, that lyrically he can match the uneasiness and regret of a good Jackson Browne song. Wonderfully evocative.
  • “You’ll Have Time.” Sure, it goes on a bit long, but it’s an excellent example of how a performance can raise the ante. Reading the lyrics to this song and one might think, “meh,” but hear the lyrics out of Shatner’s mouth, and it’s comedic perfection.
  • Nothing wins me over more than an artist who doesn’t take himself too seriously (and there have been plenty of times in Shatner’s career when he seemed to take himself WAY too seriously), and in “I Can’t Get Behind That” he and Henry Rollins recite a litany of things that make their blood boil. And then Shatner says, “I can’t get behind so-called singers that can’t carry a tune, get paid for talking. How easy is that?”  I’m sold!

So there you are. Two of undoubtedly dozens of great albums I missed in the mid 2000s. If you’ve got a few more suggestions, send them my way. It seems there’s always time to make up for lost time.

A Reader Fears for my Soul

Once in a while I receive a written comment about a blog I’ve written, usually a funny or complimentary note and sometimes an interesting insight. Last month my inbox included the following all-caps comment from a woman who read my 2016 blog entry, When Music Meant Going to Hell.

Amanda writes:

YOU BETTER PAY HEED MY FRIEND... GOD IS COMING BACK FOR HIS BRIDE AND IF YOUR SITTING IN A ROOM ALLOWING THE DEVIL TO ENTERTAIN YOU WELL THATS JUST WHERE YOU'LL BE WHEN HE COMES AN GOES... IF YOU KNOW IS SATANIC WHY KEEP LISTENING... WHY KEEP PARTICIPATING... WALK AWAY... DO U THINK YOU'LL BE LISTENING TO THAT IN HEAVEN WITH GOD NO... DAY BY DAY YOU BECOME A BETTER PERSON AN CHRISTIAN ONE LESS SIN TODAY FOR A BETTER TOMORROW

Now, I don’t know Amanda, so I don’t want to poke fun at her for her poor grammar, her use of all-caps or her typos, and even though I chuckled at Amanda’s self-righteousness, after thinking it over for a while I came to conclude that she and I aren’t as far apart in our thinking as one might suspect.

In my original essay I discussed the subliminal message craze of the early 80s and how much of my childhood was spent worrying about the buried meanings and messages in the music I was listening to. I stayed away from bands that overtly referenced Satan and the like, but I was being told that bands like Led Zeppelin, Supertramp (seriously? SUPERTAMP?), The Eagles and Pink Floyd were going to send me to hell, all for some silly lyric taken out of context or an album photo that included a hidden figure on the balcony of a hotel. 

The whole discussion devolved quickly into a case of sanctimonious finger-pointing, almost gleefully, like the wonderful Christian leaders of the Middle Ages who burned people at the stake for daring to print bibles in languages other than Latin (despite the original books having been written in Hebrew and Greek – funny), or the accusatory claims of the fine citizens of Salem, Massachusetts in 1692. It seems that throughout history people have claimed to know what God wants or doesn’t want, and oddly enough those wants keep changing over time.

But Amanda has a point. We really shouldn’t immerse ourselves in pursuits that we find morally repugnant. I don’t watch horror films because I don’t revel in the suffering of others (even if the suffering is an act) and don’t want those images imprinted in my mind. (Think watching violence doesn’t matter? Think again.) Similarly, I wouldn’t want to spend any time reading white supremacist propaganda except only to better defend against it, and I don’t listen to music that glorifies violence or demonizes race or religion. Some professions may require an immersion into sordid waters, like an author writing about ethnic cleansing or an investigator attempting to solve a human trafficking case. But for those of us who aren’t actively working in these types of pursuits, I really do believe we’re better off avoiding the underbelly of humanity for the most part.

So Amanda, I agree with you that I shouldn’t be listening to music that overtly contradicts my values. But here’s the thing: I don’t want you or anyone else deciding for me what those values are and what constitutes a violation of those values. I’m quite capable of deciding for myself where the boundaries are. 

Keep on doing your thing, Amanda, and I’ll keep on doing mine. Something tells me we’ll both be okay. I’ll just be taking my journey using lower-case letters.

When to Say No

In Gavin de Becker’s book, Protecting the Gift: Keeping Children and Teenagers Safe (and Parents Sane), he discusses how people often fail to trust their intuition that signals potential threats. We encounter a situation that doesn’t quite feel right – it may not even be something we can articulate – and instead of trusting our gut, we proceed due to social norms or lessons we were taught as children. Although de Becker focuses on the largest stakes for failing to heed our natural warning signals – namely the safety of our children – I’ve recently considered applying his advice to less drastic aspects of our lives: knowing when to say to no to an opportunity. 

I find this to be a very tricky endeavor, a balancing act that I don’t always get right, but I seem to be succeeding more often today than in my younger years. On the one hand, I don’t want to automatically say no to opportunities that might allow me to grow, meet new friends and experience new things even if it makes me a bit uncomfortable. On the other hand, I don’t want to commit to participating in activities that I dread, that take me away from things I’m passionate about or that make me unnecessarily anxious. 

How do you find a balance? After all, sometime encountering a situation that produces anxiety is exactly what you should do. When should you accept the challenge and when should you walk away from it?

I’m still working on it, but I’ve noticed a few things about my choices over the past few years.

1)     When it comes to friends and family, just do it.

I hate letting people down. HATE it. For that reason I’ve sometimes committed to doing things that I didn’t really want to do for fear that my friend or relative would think less of me or that I would feel especially guilty. I’ve come to appreciate this aspect of my character and I’ve learned that it’s better for me to commit to supporting the people in my life even if it’s mildly inconvenient or produces some anxiety. That’s what friends do and I’m okay with it. There have been times in my life when I didn’t support someone the way I should have and I’ve regretted it and sometimes suffered the consequences. The exception to this rule is if there’s someone in your life who is particularly corrosive to your well-being. I imagine that in these situations your intuition will be practically screaming at you to avoid the situation. Best to listen.

2)      When it comes to strangers, acquaintances or friends of friends, don’t fall for flattery.

It’s one thing when you’re dealing with friends and relatives, but quite another when confronting strangers or acquaintances, perhaps people you’re not even particularly fond of. In these situations I’ve found that my biggest foe is flattery. Someone thinks I would be especially good at (fill in the blank – playing piano for an event, leading a charitable team, attending a party) and even though I have no interest in the activity, I say yes up front because it makes me feel important and wanted. I’ve discovered that in these situations the first conversation should only be fact-finding in nature, and not until I’ve had a day or two to think things over should I commit. Failing to do so often leads to painful results, and I have failed many, many times, some as recently as this summer! I’m still learning.

3)      Consider breaking your word.

This is the one that’s really tough for me. As I said before, I hate letting people down, so once I commit to doing something I’m a very reliable person, but I’ve recently learned that there are situations in which withdrawing my participation leads to a boost in well-being and perhaps a benefit to the other party as well. I’ll never withdraw from a project when It would leave someone high and dry – bowing out of a gig on short notice, for example – but in situations where I know the person(s) will be able to manage without me or will have enough time to find a replacement, I’ve found that it’s perfectly acceptable – if mildly regrettable – to say, “This isn’t working for me. Thanks for the opportunity.” Flattery will try to convince us that we’re indispensable, but the reality is no one is indispensable. In many situations leaving an anxiety-producing situation will leave everyone in a better place eventually. I imagine it’s a lot like ending a relationship, preferably before the wedding date has been set.

4)     If an activity can potentially lead you to achieving a life goal, let reason trump fear.

I’ve encountered this a few times in my role as a musician. Sometimes I’ve placed myself in a situation that I didn’t feel comfortable in but I’ve felt that the stakes were high enough to warrant the anxiety. If a record producer told me that he wanted to use several of my songs for a star recording artist, but first he wanted to hear me perform them in front of a live audience, on some level this would be an anxiety-producing nightmare but well worth the effort for an opportunity to have my songs recorded. Sometimes your gut should be overruled. Other times? Not. For example, I’ve learned that my ability to perform classical music in front of an audience produces more anxiety for me that it’s worth. I’m not looking to be a classical artist and there are other forms of music that I enjoy more and play more competently, so now when I play an “offering” piece at the Presbyterian church on Sundays, I play a jazz or pop composition. The congregants seem to appreciate it, and my hands aren’t shaking during the performance!

5)     When your cup is full, don’t pour more into it.

A friend of mine once said to his wife: “I can be a good father, a good husband and a good carpenter,” (he was putting an addition on his house) “but I can only be good at two of those things at once. Which do you want me to let go of?” I love this, and I wish more people would be willing to lay things out so succinctly at their workplace. I recently told someone that my volunteer cup is full and that I’m going to start saying no to things even if they’re right up my alley. I’m simply at my limit when it comes to volunteering and won’t take on anything more. When I stop doing one volunteer activity then we can talk about taking on a new challenge. God willing, I’ll have plenty of more years to dabble in new opportunities.

6)     Apply your guidelines retroactively.

After writing out this list I applied my rules to four situations I experienced in the past year when I should have said no but didn’t. In each case there was a moment when I should have raised my hands and said, “Thanks for your consideration, but I’m not going to pursue this.”  In three of the four situations I did eventually withdraw from the project and was a better for it, but in the future I’d like to trust my gut at the time it tells me to get out and not weeks or months later. It won’t only benefit me, but the people to whom I’ve responded.

So there you have it: some hard-learned wisdom from someone who’s not always known for being wise, unless you include being a wiseass. In summary, when it comes to safely, take de Becker’s advice and heed your intuition. For other things, listen to your gut and give it a vote, but not necessarily a veto.  In time you may find the right balance.

The Eclipse

I have on occasion poked fun at meteorologists for making a career out of being incorrect more often than not, like a ball player’s hitting chances but with more riding on it, but perhaps the jokes aren’t as deserved as they used to be. Nate Silver makes the claim in his book The Signal and the Noise that the science of weather has become much more accurate as of late. When a forecast includes a thirty percent chance of afternoon thunderstorms, the numbers apparently bear that out: ten days under similar conditions will in fact produce close to three afternoons of rain.

Accurate or not, Monday morning led to thousands of people analyzing weather data like never before in preparation for the Great American total eclipse. I checked and rechecked the forecasts late Sunday, early Monday and again en route to determine our final destination.  Initially I was ready to drive to southern Illinois, but the updated forecast read:

Carbondale, IL:  12PM – Partly sunny,  1PM – Cloudy,  2PM – Cloudy,  then afternoon showers

Fulton, MO: 12PM – Partly sunny,  1PM – Partly sunny,  2PM – Partly sunny, then afternoon showers

Partly sunny trumped cloudy, so I along with my son and two of his friends drove the extra distance to Kingdom City, Missouri on Highway 54 and set up shop next to the Pick-A-Dilly Quick Stop along with hundreds of other eager viewers. It was a perfect location, including shade to picnic in, access to a relatively clean bathroom and $1 Diet Cokes to boot. We looked upward with our eclipse glasses through thin, hazy clouds to see the eclipse begin, and for the moment it looked like the weather forecast was spot on.

Then the weather went from mostly sunny with hazy cloud cover to mostly cloudy to downright cloudy and back again, the sun alternating between clearly visible to clearly not.  Not a terrible situation, but it was still an hour away from the total eclipse, and the crowd started getting restless. I made conversation with a man from Wisconsin who had commented on my UW hat, and before driving down from Port Washington he’d narrowed his trip to three possible locations: Carbondale, IL, central Missouri or southeastern Nebraska. Somehow we ended up in the exact same location, and the thickening cloud cover caused him to consider relocating and driving one or two exits east on highway 70 where it looked like the skies might be a bit clearer. The problem was, would there be a place to park and view the eclipse?  Would there be the same splendid access to a bathroom? And would the skies really be any better?

We both conferred with our respective clans and decided to stick it out, wishing the eclipse would hurry up as the clouds to the west grew thicker and thicker. 

1:05 came around, and it looked like the total eclipse was imminent. As clouds slipped away to give us a better view people verbally cheered on the moon as if it were running at a track meet. “Come on! You can do it!” Cicadas started singing in the tall trees behind us. At 1:10 there was such as slight sliver of sun that it couldn’t possible wait any longer to slip behind the moon, but still we waited to an ever-dimming atmosphere that resembled dusk but with lighting that appeared artificial, unnatural, like a giant film set. 

And at 1:13 as the moon overtook the last hint of sun, the clouds that had intermittently blocked our view and caused anxiety for the previous hour disappeared. People oohed and aahed. Camera shutters opened and closed. Taco Bell’s lights across the street turned on. And when it was over, the congregation of sky-watchers clapped. I high-fived my son and his friends.

One of his friends said, “That was amazing.”

I was relieved, not only for having chosen a spot that brought our journey to fruition, but that the teenagers with me were impressed by something that nature created. After all that their young eyes have seen in their short lifetimes, I wasn’t sure the sun and the moon would live up to the hype. 

Fifteen minutes after the total eclipse ended, it started to rain.

Chalk one up for the meteorologists.

Copyright, 2015, Paul Heinz, All Right Reserved