Paul Heinz

Original Fiction, Music and Essays

Andrew Lloyd Webber's Memoir

My favorite reference to Andrew Lloyd Webber is Elvis Costello’s lyrics from his 1989 song, “God’s Comic.”  He writes of God:

So there he was on a water-bed
Drinking a cola of a mystery brand
Reading an airport novelette
Listening to Andrew Lloyd-Webber's Requiem

He said, before it had really begun
"I prefer the one about my son

I've been wading through all this unbelievable junk
And wondering if I should have given
The world to the monkeys"

For whatever reason, Webber is a composer that musicians love to hate.  Non-musicians, too.  I recall an episode of a short-lived 1990’s sitcom called The Single Guy, in which the lead character is mocked for having purchased tickets to Cats.  (Robert Russo has an excellent summary of Cats and why some people hate it.)

But love him or hate him, Webber has had the kind of success that warrants a memoir, in this case a 480-page book called Unmasked that puzzlingly only covers the author’s life up through the year 1986, when he was on the cusp of what some claim to be his crowning achievement, The Phantom of the Opera.  No details about Aspects of Love, Sunset Boulevard and School of Rock, which is a shame, because I would have loved to have read less about Webber’s first forty years and more about his last thirty.  The author admits, “my verbosity got in the way,” and that is an understatement.  The details with which he describes the meetings, compositions, rehearsals, trials and tribulations of productions are sometimes interminable.  As a musician, I got some of the name-dropping references, but there were hundreds of other details that ended up muddling up the narrative.

Details aren’t Webbers only problem, unfortunately.  It’s good that he went into composing rather than writing, because as an author his prose is often cumbersome, filled with choppy sentences, unnecessarily convoluted similes and obscure references, not to mention questionable punctuation (he seems averse to the use of hyphens).  When I actively chose to read faster, I found myself having to slow down, as the narrative lacked flow.  Consider this sample from page 86: 

“EMI had such a postboy.  His name was martin Wilcox.  I don’t know if he ever blagged his way into the top honcho’s offices.  But he did get as far as Tim Rice.”  This choppiness makes reading 480 pages very laborious, indeed.

Which is too bad, because Webber has had a hell of a career.  Like many professionally successful people, he risked it all, leaving Oxford after only a year to pursue writing full-time with Tim Rice, the type of decision that often separates the wanna-bes from the real thing, and the accounts of Webber’s struggles to get productions like Evita and Cats off the ground are inspiring.  The former opened to terrible reviews in New York but still ran for over 1500 performances, and despite the jokes sometimes directed at Cats, it was the longest running musical on Broadway until another musical broke the record: The Phantom of the Opera.  So there you go

Webber wisely addresses his personal life sparingly, thankfully admitting to transgressions without dwelling on them, and referring to his past wives with respect.  He delves a bit deeper into various professional rifts he’s had over the years, but usually only slightly, often referring to a heated topic only to conclude, “It’s best left at that,” but on occasion he quotes unflattering letters he’s received from the likes of Tim Rice and Ken Russell, effectively settling old scores by using his wrong-doer’s own words against them.  Nevertheless, Webber’s decision not to write a tell-all book is refreshing, as is the modesty he portrays at various points, and I don’t get the sense that he’s feigning for the benefit of posterity, though I could be wrong.  He writes in detail about which sections of his Requiem are subpar, and he admits to being in over his head when composing Variations.

I’ve only seen two Webber musicals on-stage:  a traveling production of Aspects of Love in 1993; and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat when my girls were toddlers.  Other than that, I’m only familiar with a handful of tunes.  Go figure.  I do wonder if Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music will have the staying power of, say, Stephen Sondheim or Richard Rodgers, but as a musician, it was interesting for me to gain a little insight into the creative process and how melodies composed for one purpose were resurrected for other stories, and Webber also does an admirable job of covering the business side of the industry, describing financial difficulties and concepts like grand rights in an accessible manner.

He also shares a few tidbits he’s learned over the years from people he admires.  After seeing Webber’s failed musical, Jeeves, Hal Prince wrote to Webber, “Remember, you can’t listen to a musical if you can’t look at it.”  And a meeting with Richard Rodgers led his conclusion that no one can take in too many melodies in one listening, a fact that often leaves me scratching my head after a musical crams two hours of new material down patrons’ throats with no melodic reprises.

All in all, I’m glad I read Unmasked, but I’m afraid I wouldn’t recommend it except for the most ardent fan of musicals in general, or of Webber’s specifically.

My Half-Year of Streaming Music

Denying for years to join the 21st Century, I indulged as recently as last summer in purchasing CDs, pulling the trigger on albums by Esperanza Spaulding, William Shatner, Bright Eyes, Paul McCartney and Field Music.  But last November I took the plunge and joined a streaming service – first Napster, whom I was told paid artists more but whose service I determined was inadequate, and then Spotify, a company vilified by some and praised by others.  Since then I’ve delved into scores of albums I’d never taken the time to investigate before, and for this reason alone, music streaming has a new fan.  I still love having physical CDs in the car, where I can immerse myself into an album and listen the way I used to, but for hanging out at home and investigating unexplored musical territory, streaming services can’t be beat.

I’m not much into playlists and haven’t utilized this aspect of Spotify more than a handful of times.  Instead, I’ve listened to albums and bands I hadn’t given attention to in the past.  Since November, I’ve fallen in love with the following albums:

  • Manifesto, a brilliant release by Roxy Music, surpassing what some claim to be their crowning achievement, Avalon.
  • Underneath the Colours, the debut album by an almost unrecognizable INXS.  Angry, edgy, melodic.  Fantastic.
  • Sit Down Young Stranger (or, alternatively titled, If You Could Read My Mind) by Gordon Lightfoot, heartfelt folk-rock from start to finish.
  • Odessey and Oracle by The Zombies, an amazing album recorded around the same time as St. Pepper, but – in my mind – surpassing it in some ways.
  • Grand Hotel by Procol Harum, a collection of wonderful melodies with gravitas

I've delved into so much more that I never would have done without the aid of a streaming service.  I checked out releases by Cat Stevens, Van Morrison and James Taylor.  I finally listened to the Rolling Stones of the 1960s, and concluded that aside from Beggar’s Banquet, much of it falls flat for me (and that Their Satanic Majesties Request may be among the worst albums ever recorded).  I learned that I’m not as fond of Lloyd Cole and the Commotions as I am of Lloyd Cole’s solo work, and that I'm not as fond of Jethro Tull and King Crimson as I am of other prog rock bands.  I discovered that early Chicago albums are padded with really bad, lengthy tracks, and that each of Esperanza Spaulding's releases are worth my attention.  I gave the last half-dozen releases by Elton John a chance, concluded that Aimee Mann continues to put out quality material, but without the punch of her first three releases, and that the J Geils Band is a great party band with some standout tracks, but ultimately doesn’t grab me.

I also listened to classical guitar by Ryan Walsh, Latin music by Natalia Lafourcade, Mansieur Perine, and Vicente Garcia, fusion by Snarky Puppy, jazz by Chet Baker, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, and newer releases by Empty Pockets, Young the Giant and Lake Street Dive.

And on and on.

Now, the question remains: can artists make a living making music when people only use streaming services?  That remains to be seen, but for a guy in his 50s who sometimes has difficulty keeping up on music, streaming can’t be beat.

Of course, of the five albums I highlighted above, I’ve purchased four of them on vinyl. 

So yeah, I’ve still got the disease.

My Experience with Blue Apron

While recognizing that my somewhat cushy existence as an at-home dad/musician/writer doesn’t give me much leeway for complaining, after being the primary meal planner and preparer of the house for the past twenty years, I decided that I needed a break.  It wasn’t so much the shopping and cooking that bothered me as it was the planning.  Deciding what to eat in order to satisfy everyone’s tastes and restrictions was getting to be a mental chore, so for my 50th birthday I requested a gift certificate to Blue Apron, a meal delivery service that supplies its customers with all the ingredients needed to cook recipes you choose on-line.  Easy peasy, and it seemed like a fine antidote to the meal planning virus I’d contracted. 

While I’ve enjoyed aspects of the service, after eight weeks of using Blue Apron, I’ve decided that the pros don’t outweigh the cons, and this morning I cancelled my service.  Let me preface this by saying that if both my wife and I were working full-time, I might not be so quick to abort the mission.  The fact that I have a lot of flexibility to shop and prepare meals changes the ledger considerably.

So why did I cancel?  There were three things that made me feel uneasy about the service, as good as it might be. 

First, it’s not cheap.  I of course knew that going in, but seeing the bill show up on the credit card each week started to wear on me, especially knowing full-well that I could easily drive to a grocery store to pick up whatever food I needed at a fraction of the cost.  I was paying $10 per person per meal, so $80 a week.  This is not unbelievably expensive, and I doubt a company could do it for much less, but nevertheless, price was one nagging concern.

Second, I found my shopping to be much less frequent, which on the surface is a good thing, but my trips became so infrequent and my habits so poor that our food inventory suffered as a result.  It was so easy to say “I’ve got dinner all set for tonight – we can hang in there one more day before I do another shopping run” that we’d be left to face a breakfast of toast and a lunch of peanut butter sandwiches (not that there's anything wrong with that).  We also kept running out of basic items like milk, yogurt and bananas.  In short, I grew terribly lazy and used Blue Apron as an excuse to avoid shopping at all costs.

But the biggest reason for cancelling the service is the staggering amount of waste created each week by the Blue Apron deliveries.  As a guy who started recycling two decades before curbside pickup was a thing, unnecessary waste is an important point for me.  Ellen Cushing wrote a nice summary of the waste incurred with a service like Blue Apron (competitors have similar issues) and the somewhat disingenuous claim that most of the materials can be recycled.  Blue Apron used to have a free recycling program that allowed customers to send all the contents back to the company, but this has been cancelled, no doubt due to the cost.

If Blue Apron or a service like it could be localized so that – like the Chicago-based Oberweis dairy deliver service – we could have a cooler with reusable ice packs, I would be on-board.  Eliminate the box and the ice packs, include a synthetic insulator to separate cold items from the rest, and this could be a service that yields nothing more than a few small plastic bags.  

There are also grocery delivery businesses like Instacart and Peapod that are good fits for some people, and I may one day yield to that temptation, but for now I’m going to go back to shopping more regularly and forcing my family to share the burden by choosing a few meals each week that they want me to shop and cook for.  At least that’s the plan.  How long before it goes awry?

Al Stewart in Chicago

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Over the years I’ve met a few people who so dislike Al Stewart, the mere mention of his name leads to something akin to a gag reflex.  During freshman year in college, my old friend Tom, upon hearing that I owned a greatest hits CD of said Stewart, grimaced as if he’d just sampled a plate of cow dung.  Nevertheless, I continued to be a casual fan of Stewart, having purchased four of his records on vinyl – all of them either used or cutouts (remember those?) – but not going beyond 24 Carrots.  When Russians & Americans came out in 1984, I was tempted to take the plunge with my hard-earned money from Kolb’s Garden Center, but instead opted for Elton John’s Breaking Hearts. 

Seven years later, when I learned that Stewart was playing not three blocks away from my apartment at a tiny stage on Cathedral Square in Milwaukee on a sunny afternoon – not exactly the venue or the time of a major rock star – I figured, what the hell.  I walked alone, took a seat, and Stewart took the stage with accompanying musician Peter White and played a great set in front of a sparse crowd, but what stuck with me most were the haunting images of a then-unreleased song called “Trains,” another of Stewart’s history lessons, culminating in the tragic turns that locomotives took in the carrying out of Nazi orders during the Holocaust.

Last night, I was once again graced with a fine concert by Stewart, this time at the City Winery in Chicago, the first of two nights with a particular album highlighted.  I opted to see The Year of the Cat from 1976 rather than Past, Present and Future from three years prior.  What can I say?  My fandom of Stewart’s catalog only goes so deep, but it was great to hear the man once again after twenty-seven years.

Opening with three tracks (“Sirens of Titan,” “Antarctica,” and “Time Passages”) prior to delving into the evening’s featured album, 72-year-old Stewart’s voice sounded rather thin, but since he never had a powerhouse voice to begin with, all that was truly missed was some of the high range, and he had to weave in alternative melodies on “Time Passages” and many of the songs from Year of the Cat.  Dressed in dress slacks and long-sleeve button-down shirt, he looked more like a banker on lunch-break than an artist, but Stewart wasn’t even hip in the 1970s, so what would one expect when he finally reached his 70s?

What Stewart lacked in singing voice he made up for in telling stories, offering several insights between songs that kept the audience (my son may have won the prize for youngest attendee) engaged and – often – laughing.  Stewart mentioned that for a folk-rock historian, having a hit was not enviable, and so he began Year of the Cat with a song about a naval battle in 1591 (“Lord Grenville”) followed by another history lesson with “On the Border.”  Alas, the second song was a hit, as was the album’s title track, perhaps making Stewart very uncool among his folk-rock brethren.  He also told a story of how he began to play the guitar in the middle of nowhere, England, only to eventually find another guitarist nearby named Robert Fripp, the eventual virtuoso of King Crimson fame.  Not a bad find, even if Stewart ultimately rebuffed Fripp’s insistence on learning jazz chords. Introducing the song “Broadway Hotel,” Stewart explained that the song was about a seduction at a hotel in Portland, Oregon.  He waited a beat, then added: “I highly recommend it.”

Joined on-stage was Stewart’s opening and accompanying band, Chicago’s very own Empty Pockets, a stellar act whose six-song opening set of tight harmonies and soulful melodies fit well into the evening’s performances.  The standout for me was guitarist Josh Solomon, who nailed every part required of Stewart’s catalogue and then some, including a fine electric piano solo that surpassed anything I could have performed.  (I hate it when guitarists can also play keys better than me!)  Also on-stage was multi-instrumentalist Marc Macisso, who hammed it up for the appreciative audience, particularly during the signature sax solos of “Time Passages” and “Year of the Cat.”

Gone are the days when a melodic history lesson could become a radio hit, but for one night in Chicago, history was cool again.  I had asked several people to joined me for the evening, but none took the bait, and my son, who knew little of Stewart prior to the concert, said afterwards, “I’m glad your friends said no to the show.”  So there you are, Al.  You’ve earned the appreciation of a 16-year-old.  Not a bad feat for an aging rocker.

Brewers in First Place (for now)

It’s the end of May, and the Milwaukee Brewers are in first place. This ain’t my first rodeo when it comes to rooting for a first-place team in May. Even those with short memories will recall that the Crew led the NL Central at the All-Star break last year by 5 ½ games, only to falter in July and fall behind the Cubs, ultimately finishing one game short of the second wild card. The standings were even crueler to Milwaukee in 2014, when the team had the best record in baseball at the end of June but finished 31-47, good for third-place, two games over .500. 

At the beginning of this year I predicted a disappointing 84 victories mostly due to the starting pitching. I wrote then, “My guess is that before it’s all said and done, a deal will be made for pitching, but this can only happen if the Brewers play well enough during the first half to make a mid-season trade viable. Can they hang in there long enough?” It looks like they might, which makes a mid-season trade for a starting pitcher a very likely outcome that could push the Crew into a legitimate playoff threat. If starter Jimmy Nelson can return from a long stint on the DL and contribute, that would be an added bonus, but one I hope the team isn’t banking on.

While Brewer victories in April came at the expense of terrible teams – notably the Padres, Royals, Marlins and Reds – there's no denying that their performance in May over the likes of Arizona (albeit, a struggling Arizona), New York, St. Louis and Colorado has been impressive. They finished the month eleven games over .500 without losing back-to-back games, and while the starting pitching and hitting have had moments of effectiveness, there’s no question that the Brewers’ success to date is the result of its relief core, a complete one-eighty from last year when the starting pitching was quite good, but the bullpen consistently lost leads in late innings. This year, the relief staff has been incredible - the Brewers are 30-0 in games they've lead after seven innings. Credit Jeremy Jeffress and Josh Hader for sure, but also credit Counsell, who’s shed the firm roles that baseball has been married to for so many years. Gone are the days of former Brewer manager Ron Roenicke reserving specific players for specific innings. Instead, Counsell has used relief pitchers for two or even two-plus innings, and general manager David Stearns has utilized player options effectively, sending arms down and bringing up rested arms at key moments.

Another factor has been the consistent offensive performances of off-season pickups Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich, along with Jesus Aguilar, who began the year as the third-string first baseman but who's been on fire since filling in for injured Eric Thames and Ryan Braun. What happens when Thames returns is open to debate, but I wouldn’t rule out a trade that includes either Thames or Aguilar, along with either outfielders Keon Broxton – currently in triple A – or Domingo Santana. Obtaining a starting pitcher for some combination of those four players would be a justifiable move come July.

One issue that I have with Counsell and that will likely need to be addressed is his aversion to allow starting pitchers to go much beyond the fifth inning even when they’ve had success and have modest pitch counts. His philosophy seems to be: “We’ve got a good relief staff, let’s use them.” This has worked so far, and Counsell has been quick to give starters Chacin and Guerra the heave-ho after five innings and only 75 pitches (yesterday, he let Guerra go six with 90 pitches thrown – an improvement). Will this lead to tired arms in the bullpen?  Or could it actually help the starters down the stretch? Hard to say, but I’m more worried about the former. If Hader or Jeffress become ineffective come August, watch out.

But what makes me more optimistic this year than anything is the fact that last weekend the Brewers demoted shortstop Orlando Arcia to Triple AAA and placed backup catcher Jett Bandy on assignment. To me, these moves spoke volumes, indicating that the Brewers are no longer going to put up with batting averages of .190. Players need to be held accountable. Arcia is back due to an ankle injury to Tyler Saladino, but the message was sent: perform or get sent down.

There’s little point in discussing how the Crew would fair were they to make the playoffs and face the likes of Lester, Scherzer, and Arietta on a regular basis. The team has proven that they can’t hit high-quality pitching, having been shut out as many times in two months as in all of 2017, including five against the Cubs, who are now 7-1 against the Brewers. But the goal for now is to make the playoffs and then see what kind of strategy can be formulated to beat high-caliber teams. Counsell has proven to do what it takes to win games, and if a few hitters get hot at the right time, you never know what might transpire in October. I only hope they get the chance.

Will I eat my words if they win the division? Gladly, dipped in chocolate with a bourbon chaser.  I don't want to share with you what lengths of unethical behavior I would happily conduct to see the Milwaukee Brewers win a World Series. Saying, “I was wrong,” is the least of my concerns.

Copyright, 2017, Paul Heinz, All Right Reserved