Harmony Requires Honesty

June 3, 2010

Back in high school I played drums and sang in a few different bands. One of the bands played mostly Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Alice Cooper, Cream… you get the idea.

One day we were jamming when Jim, our lead guitarist, started playing Happy Together by the Turtles. It was funny at first… but then we all joined in and something clicked. While it was outside our genre, something about this song resonated with us. In fact, our version of Happy Together not only sounded great… it was fun to play. So now what? How do you transition from Black Dog and Iron Man to Happy Together? We weren’t certain, but we had an upcoming gig and decided to find out.

It was the night before the event and we had been practicing hard all week. Since we hadn’t performed Happy Together publicly, we decided to go over it a few more times. Jim was/is a talented musician and he had figured out all the harmonies, including a great three-part harmony for the “Ba-ba-ba…” part. (If you’ve never heard this song… you can do so below.)

Oh yes, there’s something I neglected to mention… it was for good reason that our bass guitar player rarely sang. He was notoriously off-key and pitchy (I’m being polite). Perhaps that’s what amazed Jim and me the most about us playing Happy Together… he actually sang one of the harmony parts.

Back to practice… I was singing lead and Jim was singing background harmony when we reached this part of the song…

Me and you and you and me
No matter how they toss the dice, it has to be
The only one for me is you, and you for me
So happy together

Then we all jumped in… Ba-ba-ba…

Before we could hit the second, Ba-ba-ba… line, Jim stopped playing, turned and looked directly at me. Accept for the ring in our ears, the room was silent. Read more

Fragments of Johnny Cash

February 3, 2010

I never met Johnny Cash in this lifetime, but in a way, I feel I know him well. Shortly after his death, a friend of mine was hired to produce a pictorial biography about his life. After remarking, “I don’t have much time or a big budget, but I still need some great images,” he asked if I would do him a favor and create photographic still lifes of what Johnny had left behind. Spending days intimately walking through Johnny Cash’s life… his personal notes, poems to his wife, unfinished lyrics, sketches, photos, guitars, correspondence, passports, calendars, albums, clothes, bible scripture tests… memories and clues to nearly every piece of his life… didn’t really feel much like a favor at all. So I agreed.

As promised, I was left alone and given total access to “be creative.” Staying focused and on task was difficult. The amount of material was vast and my mind wandered like a school kid in class. I was so hyper-focused on the subject matter, the assignment seemed meaningless.

At first I felt a little uncomfortable… like I shouldn’t be reading his personal notes, handling his guitars, or messing with his stuff… like his boots or blue jumpsuit from San Quentin! But then I realized Johnny kept all these things for a reason. Collectively, they represented him… his memories, thoughts and special moments on earth. Some were fragments… personal pieces of a complicated puzzle, clues from an unconventional life. Many of his notes, sketches and lyrics were scribbled out on random sheets of paper, crossed out, rewritten, edited, and often left unfinished. It was these pieces that I connected with most. The fragments… ideas he had worked on but never finished. The idea seeds… the work in progress… the unsolved mysteries that we all carry with us throughout our lives… hoping to someday find them a home. Read more

Me and My Drum

December 25, 2009

chicago_christmas_street_105208_lYesterday I was in a store doing some last-minute holiday shopping when The Little Drummer Boy started playing. It’s magical how music can shift your mood and reconnect you to people, places, situations and feelings you thought you had forgotten.

When I was around six years old, my sister and I used to perform The Little Drummer Boy together. Connie is seven years older than me and played piano. I sang and operated the sustain pedal. Since The Little Drummer Boy was the only song we performed, December was our busiest month. Connie had a larger musical repertoire, but most of her songs didn’t require vocals… or so I was told. Had I only known “Alley Cat” had lyrics, we could have doubled our set list.

Our primary audience consisted of my mom, dad, brother and dog—in various combinations. (Note: Were it not for my love of animals, Punky, the meanest dog I’ve ever known… may he rest in peace… would not be included in this story, nor considered an audience member.) Since the piano was adjacent to the kitchen, my mom heard us perform the most. Read more

Do Opposites Really Attract?

December 19, 2009

cappuccinoOne day while out for a long walk, I stopped in at a little coffee shop and took a seat at the bar. The barista was steaming a cup of milk, singing and dancing to the background music. For a barista, she had an exceptionally beautiful voice (not that I profess to have any expertise in singing baristas), but experiencing her preparation of a coffee drink was more like attending a stage performance.

“One moment… I’ll be right with you,” she said as she artfully spooned the froth into a large cup of espresso without missing a beat.

After finishing her masterpiece, she glided over and placed it in front of this rigid looking guy sitting across from me. He studied the cup closely, then bent down and took in the aroma. When he came up for air his fogged glasses slid partway down his nose. He looked to be in his early 50s, but after removing his glasses to wipe off the condensation, I wasn’t sure. Add to this his froth mustache, and he could have been a kid again.

“Well, what do you think?” she asked him.

“Excellent… another ‘10’ Larissa,” he answered, looking pleased with her work.

Larissa turned to me. “Okay, then… what can I make for you?” Larissa’s smile matched her voice.

“I guess I’ll have what he’s having,” I responded.

“Great choice, you won’t regret it,” the guy said wiping off his mustache. I smiled and nodded.

“Okay, Larissa, now will you please change it?” Before she could respond, he added, “I bet this gentleman would like it changed, too.” I hadn’t a clue of what “it” was, but considering I was the only other patron, I assumed the gentleman he was referring to was me.

“Wouldn’t you rather listen to Mozart?” he asked me pointing up to a speaker, shaking his head and rolling his eyes disapprovingly.

mozart-01“Oh, Robert… you and Wolfgang,” Larissa said in a kidding voice, then added, “Robert is a music expert… he knows everything and has a doctorate degree in music.”

“Whatever you two decide to listen to is fine by me… I plan to shove off in a few minutes,” I answered.

Even so, it seemed a shame to change the music. Larissa was really enjoying it… and so was I. The music was Brazilian and judging by her appearance, accent and the fact she was singing along in Portuguese, I assumed Larissa might be, too.

51t8efbjr0l“Is this Bebel Gilberto?” I asked.

She glanced up and smiled, “Yes, do you like it?”

I nodded and smiled back as she rhythmically created my drink to the beat.

“Of course you do,” Larissa said, “Brazilian music is the best.”

“I can’t believe it!” Robert said semi-jokingly. “Another person claiming to like this noise… what are the odds of that?” Larissa and I both smiled and played along but it was obvious to me that Robert liked more than just Mozart and coffee… and I think Larissa felt the same toward him.

“Why don’t you put on that piano concerto you played yesterday, Larissa? Wasn’t it um… No 21 in C… Andante… 2nd movement… I believe it was K467?”

Larissa looked through rows of CDs before picking up a Mozart sleeve and studied it for a moment, “Right again, Robert, it was K467… I told you he knows everything about music… and he’s teaching me too.”

“I assume you like Mozart?” Robert asked me.

“I’m not sure… I’ve never listened to him.” Read more