Paul Heinz

Original Fiction, Music and Essays

Falling For Randy Newman

Sometime during 1991 I tuned into Randy Newman's music in full force, the result of – if memory serves – a “Greatest Albums” list by Rolling Stone that included Newman’s 1972 release, Sail Away. I’d heard Newman before – a song of his was included in the movie Parenthood, I recalled the gimmicky “Short People,” and most recently I’d fallen in love with his magnificent score to Barry Levinson’s Avalon, still among my favorite movies ever and whose main character my son was named after – but delving into a full-length album (if one can call thirty minutes “full-length”) was a whole new experience. I was in love. Within a year I purchased three additional Newman CDs and watched him perform at the Fine Line in Minneapolis, a solitary expedition as no one else I knew had even heard of Newman, much less wanted to see him. This was probably for the best, as I didn’t want anyone screwing up the experience of hearing Randy sing “Real Emotional Girl” by talking or laughing or otherwise mucking up my musical bliss. (For the record, when Randy played the aforementioned song, you could hear a pin drop – a good audience).

Shortly after hearing Sail Away I began to dissect what made a Newman song sound like a Newman song aside from the croaking voice and sardonic lyrics. I messed around with the chromatic runs and dissonant chords Newman uses and mimicked some of the harmonic phrases he leans on. The result? At least one Newman-esque song on nearly every one of my albums.

The first was “The Wild Child” off of my very first cassette recording back in – not coincidentally – 1992:

Then came “Tell it Like it Is” in 1996...

...followed by “We Are Two” in 1999.

Most recently, I recorded “Long Day,” a Newman rip-off if there ever was one:

To say Newman’s albums influenced my writing would be a little like saying The Band influenced Marc Cohn. Hell, I even wrote a short story (a favorite of my writings) in which Randy Newman plays a central role. Check out the conclusion to “Nosebleed.”

Now, at age 73, Newman has released Dark Matter, an album that returns to form after the somewhat lackluster Harps and Angels in 2008. The first four songs are gems, and the rest of the album is good too, though Newman pilfers his past with a song from the TV show Cop Rock (remember that show?) and another from Monk. Yes, he plays the same harmonies he's played for the past forty years – the final section of the opening track is almost a carbon copy of the song "Glory Train" from Faust – but there's enough going on here to keep your interest. I was working out at XSport Fitness while listening to the album for the first time, and I laughed out loud during "The Great Debate" and then nearly cried during the middle section of "Lost Without You." This is what's always set Newman apart from other writers. Yes, he can be witty and make you chuckle, but when he wants to, he can place you in another man's shoes and make you ache for him, or maybe it's an ache for yourself.

As Newman says in this excellent interview, that's the purpose of music.  To make you feel.  Period. Mission accomplished.

A Colorful Record Night

A while back my vinyl buddies and I converged yet again amidst the picturesque lawns of Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin to play music selections at Kevin's "Wall of Sound," this time with the theme of colors.  Love may be the most cited word in popular music titles, but the broader category of color may come in a close second.  Blue alone could fill up several weeks worth of music (and most of these would have love in the title as well).  In fact, I specifically tried (but failed) to avoid blue and black just to force me to listen to songs I hadn't heard before.  In a bit of a breach of etiquette, I started with a song by The Boomtown Rats called "Diamond Smiles," except that diamond isn't really a color, is it?  But the song is SOOO good.  

We will be meeting one last time at the end of August before changing venues entirely as Kevin moves into a new home.  The Wall of Sounds has been been good to us the past many years.  We shall see if the new abode does the old one justice.

So, without further a do, here's a list from a night of many colors (forgive any typos):

Blue Tip, The Cars, Aaron

Diamond Smiles, The Boomtown Rats, Paul (note: not really a color, but awfully good)

Man on the Silver Mountain, Rainbow, Kevin

Purple Haze, The Cure, Jonathan

Red, Sammy Hagar, Aaron

Put on Your Old Brown Shoes, Supertramp, Paul

Bluebeard, Cocteau Twins, Kevin

The Flurries Wide and White, Matt Beckler, Jonathan

Black Fathom 4, Kansas, Aaron

Cold Grey Morning, Kansas, Aaron

Union City Blue, Blondie, Paul

Blue Jay Way, Beatles, Kevin

Black and Blue, Van Halen, Jonathan

Not a Color, Billy Squire, Aaron

Silver Rainbow, Genesis, Paul

Red Balloon, Faces, Kevin

Black Star, Radiohead, Jonathan

Charlie Brown's Parents, Dishwalla, Aaron

White Lightning and Wine, Heart, Paul

Black Cars, Gino Vannelli, Kevin

Sound and Color, Alabama Shakes, Jonathan

Forever in Blue, Journey, Aaron

Blue Chair, Elvis Costello, Paul

Red Jesus, The Cult, Kevin

Blue Monday, New Order, Jonathan

White and Nerdy, Weird Al Yankovic, Aaron

On the Greener Side, Michelle Shocked, Paul

Pink World, Planet P, Kevin

Sky Blue Sky, Wilco, Jonathan

Red Neck Friend, Jackson Browne, Aaron

Love is a Wonderful Color, Icicle Works, Paul

Silver Tightrope, Amegeddon, Kevin

Bottle of Blues, Beck, John

Red Eye, Moondoggies, Jonathan

And…Somewhere I've never Traveled, Ambrosia, Aaron (note: also no color, but played just to piss off Jonathon, which is entirely within the stated rules of Record Night)

Blue Continental, Shaw Blades, Aaron

Red Fox, Big Country, Paul

Tangerine, Led Zeppelin, Kevin

Golden, My Morning Jacket, Jonathan

Red Light, U2, Kevin

Blue Light, David Gilmore, John

Love over Gold, Dire Straits, Paul

White China, Ultravox, Kevin

Jealous Again, Black Crowes, John

Midnight Blue, Lou Gramm, Aaron

Pink Thing, XTC, Paul

Red Skies At Night, The Fixx, Kevin

Black Diamond, Kiss, Aaron

Silvertown Blues, Mark Knopfler, Kevin

Blue Heart, Peter Murphy, Kevin

Blue Mask, Lou Reed, Kevin

Blue Jean, David Bowie, John

Red Red Sun, INXS, Paul

Crimson and Clover, Joan Jett, Kevin

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Elton John, Kevin

Bluebird, Paul McCartney, Kevin

Green Flower Street, Donald Fagen, Paul

Ruby, Donald Fagen, Paul

Midnight Blue, Styx, Kevin

To Read or not to Read

A friend of mine reads over 100 books a year.  That’s right.  A staggering feat of one book every 3.6 days with about a 40/60 non-fiction to fiction split. To put matters in perspective, he and I both happened to read Paul Auster’s novel, 4-3-2-1, an extremely dense 850-page book that took me three weeks to finish. That’s about 280 pages a week for me…not too bad, right? 

But at my friend’s rate, assuming an average of 300 pages per book, he must read at more than twice that rate, around 575 pages per week or 82 pages per day. And this doesn’t allow for any I-don’t-feel-like-reading breaks. You know, those days when you just want to open a bag of chips, turn on the baseball game and have a few beers? After reading 4-3-2-1 I needed to cleanse the pallet a little, so I took a few days off of reading altogether before diving into a comic book (Doonesbury: The Reagan Years – an excellent read, BTW) followed by the extremely short and entertaining Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk by David Sedaris, and now I’m nearly through yet another light read, Seinfeldia. Only after I complete this lightweight morsel will I finally take on a book with more substance. 

So how does my friend do it? His simple answer to me was “I don’t watch TV.  If I have downtime, I read.” Pretty simple, right? I don’t really watch TV either, except baseball and football, but I am an expert in finding other ways to pass time without actually accomplishing anything (I’m doing one right now!). But clearly the practice of turning off the TV or phone or computer to engage in some other pursuit – reading, practicing an instrument, taking a class, learning to dance – really can lead to amazing results.

Like my friend, I log all of the books I read. I’m up to fourteen in 2017 – a very good clip for me. Here are the tallies for years past:

2016 – 21

2015 – 19

2014 – 11

2013 – 13

2012 – 8

2011 – 12

2010 – 8

2009 – 12

2008 – 28 (I’m not sure what happened here, except to say it was my son’s first year in all-day school, so I must have taken advantage of it.)

Things get a little shaky after this from a record keeping perspective, but you get the idea. Except for the outlier of 2008, I’ve been around a book a month guy, though it looks like I might be inching closer to a book every two weeks guy. Not a bad clip, and it might be a good goal to finish around 24 books a year.

I’m also someone who looks up words when I’m reading and logs the ones I think are worth remembering (I have an Excel spreadsheet of about 420 words I’m trying to master), and that slows me down considerably.  One would hope that over time I would become more knowledgeable and not have research so many words, thereby increasing the number of books I read each year. 

One would hope…and yet, last night I once again had to look up the word feckless, despite its inclusion on my spreadsheet for the past eight years. 

How’s that for feckless?

Bet on the Brewers?

It’s been one long writing hiatus (my longest since starting this website),  but in my defense I was extremely busy watching baseball.  When I invested yet again in MLB.TV at the beginning of the season, I had assumed that by mid-May my lowly Brewers would be bringing up the rear and I’d be onto other summertime activities like tending the garden and exercising (oh yeah, and writing). Fortunately, the Milwaukee Brewers have saved me from that fate, and while my tomatoes are suffering from dry rot and my waste line is enjoying recent growth, my Brewers are in first place by 51/2 games at the All-Star Break.

Surprised?  Well, yeah, but perhaps less by the Brewers and more by the other teams in the NL Central.

I had predicted a win total of perhaps 77-83 wins this year, an improvement over last year’s 73, but not enough to make a shot at the playoffs, especially with the Cubs and Cardinals in the division.  And that’s the real surprise, that to date these two teams haven’t been able to get it together.  As for the Crew, well...there’s still time to meet my prediction.  Yes, I’m cautiously optimistic, but I also have a memory, albeit one that regularly forgets where I placed my phone.

As the Doonesbury character Duke discovered back in 1982, it’s never wise to bet your last ten dollars on the Brewers.

Brewer fans don’t need long memories to remember two disastrous second half collapses.  We need go no further back that 2014, the year the Brewers enjoyed the best record in baseball and a 6 ½ game lead at the end of June, only to go 31-47 the rest of the way to finish third with an 82-80 record (which ordinarily would have been a pretty good season for the Crew).

And let’s not forget a decade earlier, when the Brewer suffered the worst second half ever for a team that entered the All-Star Break with a winning record, going 22-53, scoring two or fewer runs 33 times, and finishing last in the division.

And even in 2008 when the Brewers managed to make the playoffs for the first time in 26 years, the Crew had a terrible September, going 4-15 before winning six of their final seven to squeeze into the post-season with a 90-72 record.  It got so bad that final month of the season that Ned Yost was fired as manager with just 12 games to play.

Will the 2017 Crew suffer a similar fate?  Hard to say, but there are a few reasons to remain optimistic.  First, this year’s team has suffered some enormous blows without folding, two of them the result of National League rules.  Opening day starter Junior Guerra lasted just three innings before going on the DL after injuring his leg leaving the batter’s box.  Similarly, Chase Anderson - the best Brewers starting pitcher this season - suffered an oblique injury while taking a swing and will be out likely until the end of August.  Add to that the continued injuries of Ryan Braun (no steroids equals no playing time, apparently), and you might expect this team to struggle.  Not so.  The bench on this team as constructed by general manager David Stearns is deep, so much so that manager Craig Counsell claims his team doesn’t have a bench.  Rather, they have interchangeable parts, all of them formidable, from waiver acquisitions Eric Sogard and Stephen Vogt and trade acquisitions Travis Shaw and Manny Pina,  to utility men Hernan Perez and Jesus Aguilar to recent signee Eric Thames, every day seems to highlight a new hero.  If there’s cause for concern, it’s the alarming number of strikeouts (the Crew one again leads the league in this category) and I have to wonder how the lineup is going to fair against the elite pitchers on the Dodgers and Diamondbacks.  The weakest link in the chain so far is center fielder Keon Broxton, who - despite moments of brilliance and solid defense - can’t seem to find any consistency behind the plate, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he isn’t a Brewer next year.

But if the Brewer position players generally lead one to feel optimistic, the pitching staff may cause a few fans to squirm in their seats.  When Matt Garza is your third most reliable starter, you might concede that the second half could be rough, yet somehow through it all - through injuries to two starters and a bullpen that struggled mightily early in the season, Milwaukee has the 8th best ERA in the Major Leagues.  And recently the starting staff, bolstered by Anderson’s replacement Brent Suter and a reinvigorated Jimmy Nelson, has finally given the bullpen some rest after it was overused for the first two months of the season.  Will the young pitching staff be able to stay strong throughout a long second half?  This is the biggest question mark the Brewers face, and no doubt one that David Stearns is eying carefully.  

If I’m allowed to alter my prediction of the 2017 Milwaukee Brewers, it would be to add 4 games to the total.  Instead of 77-83 wins, I think they have a chance to finish with 81-87 wins.  Enough to win the National League Central?  Possibly, but I doubt it, as I keep thinking the Cardinals and Cubs will eventually find their way and turn the 2017 Brewer season into a pleasant surprise, but not one that includes games come October.

Either way, I’ll be watching baseball and procrastinating on my hope to one day write the Great American Novel.  But will I bet my last ten dollars on the Crew?  Not a chance.  

But next year?  Quite likely.

The Skills of Expression

For the last year or so my workouts and long car rides have been accompanied by Marc Maron, Terry Gross, Greg Kot and Jim Derogatis. Nothing passes time like a good interview, and yesterday while huffing and puffing on a stationary bicycle I heard a doozy of a conversation on Sound Opinions with multi-talented Esperanza Spalding, just another of the seemingly endless blind spots I have in my musical repertoire. I only knew Spalding as the bass player with big hair who beat out Justin Bieber for the Best New Artist Grammy some years ago, but after this interview I’m next in line to purchase her latest album, Emily’s D+Evolution. (Yes, that’s right, if you like a piece of art, you should buy it, not stream it on youtube.) This gal can not only play, she can express herself, think deeply, push boundaries and challenge conventional wisdom. If you haven’t heard the interview, I highly recommend it.

But it was the interesting juxtaposition of something Spalding said and a quote from a character in the Mike Mills film 20th Century Women that prompted me to write this blog.

20th Century Women is if nothing else a love song to punk music, and while I’ve never been a fan of the genre, I was taken with the following exchange as Dorothea – played by Annette Bening – challenges Abbie – played by Greta Gerwig – about the music she’s listening to (thanks to Wikiquote for making this easy):

Dorothea: What is that?

Abbie: It's The Raincoats.

Dorothea: Can't things just be pretty?

Jamie: Pretty music is used to hide how unfair and corrupt society is.

Dorothea: Ah, okay so... they're not very good, and they know that, right?

Abbie: Yeah, it's like they've got this feeling, and they don't have any skill, and they don't want skill, because it's really interesting what happens when your passion is bigger than the tools you have to deal with it. It creates this energy that's raw. Isn't it great?

There’s something to this, I think, and it really made me consider punk music in a new way.  There is something very powerful in expressing oneself in a raw, uninhibited way despite not having tools to do so eloquently. It happens at nearly every outdoor festival I play at. There’s always that one guy – usually shirtless – who stands near the side of the stage and dances. Dances like there’s no tomorrow, like he’s offering a primitive prayer to the heavens, arms and legs flailing, torso gyrating, eyes closed. This man is dancing despite not knowing how to pirouette or jeté, and there’s something very freeing and very pure about this, like when a three year-old joyously shakes and stomps to music. I wish I could express myself as uninhibitedly.

But in the Sound Opinions interview Spalding offers another way to consider things:

“You need technical prowess to express yourself freely. You don’t need to use all of it all of the time, but it really helps to have technical facility.” She goes on to mention dance troops who hire ballet dancers, not because they’re performing ballet, but because they need the technical skills to pull off the dance moves the troop requires. “Music is the same. Jazz music, whatever music. It’s just having more vocabulary, like you want to be a great writer and you discover that your vocabulary is limited, like you feel the crunch, like I want to have a place out here, I need to work on my vocabulary.”

And she is, of course, spot on. I think of the multitude of times that I wanted to get my point across in a sharp, succinct way, but couldn’t find the one word that would have allowed me to do so, instead leaning on very basic vocabulary that diluted my message. Similarly, when I play piano, there have been times when I wanted to take my playing to a new place, and although I could visualize exactly what I’d like to do, I didn’t have the technical skills to take me there.

It’s important that Spalding added the following caveat, “You don’t need to use all of it all of the time.” When my son was just learning drums and starting to come up with his own fills, I played for him the tom fills in Toto’s song, “Africa.” You know it well, but in case you need reminding, go to 1:10, 2:20 and 3:15 of the following video. 

These are three of the simplest tom fills you’ll ever hear, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find any more effective. It’s important to note that Toto drummer Jeff Porcaro was among the most talented and most sought after drummers in the music industry at the time, and while he could have overcomplicated things (probably in a very tasteful and interesting way), he opted to offer simply what the song required. I imagine it’s the same in any art form. Ernest Hemmingway wrote relatively simply, but I suspect he could have rivaled F. Scott Fitzgerald’s word wizardly if he’d chosen to or needed to.

And that’s the ultimate aim of any musician, any artist or really any human being: to have the skills to express yourself in any way you see fit. If simplicity is required to express raw emotion like that of punk music, great. But if something more extravagant is needed, you can go into your bag of technical skills and do what’s required.

Copyright, 2015, Paul Heinz, All Right Reserved