“I Got the News”

In 1977, I was a sixteen-year old kid in high school, a dedicated “wanna-be” musician. I had been playing guitar and bass for a whopping three years. Besides playing at church, and a brief stint as the clueless bassist in the Erwin High jazz ensemble, my career could boast having been in a garage band that played nowhere BUT the garage. We would pound out loud and furious versions of classic rock staples from Kiss, Led Zeppelin, and Bad Company. Such seeds of “greatness” sown…

But by some strange fortune, I had been taken underwing by two guys in my church who happened to own a honest-to-god professional multitrack recording studio! While normal kids were doing normal high school stuff, I was hanging out in a sonic wonderland, playing on actual records, and learning the craft and business of music on both sides of the glass. As much fun as the garage was, THIS was heaven on earth (with overdubs, no less).

So it was a fateful day at Solid Rock Sound Recording in Center Point, Alabama that I came across a package containing cassette samples from a duplication company trolling for business.

There may have been 4 or 5 different tapes in their offering for perusal. One of them was Aja by Steely Dan.

I may have been a “church guy” but as the youngest of seven kids, I knew my rock and pop music (and grudgingly even some country). Steely Dan was a band of just two guys (how did that work?), Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. Rolling Stone magazine was a fixture at our house, and Steely Dan were fixtures in that trade and on Top 40 radio as well.

So here in my hands was a cassette tape with a bizarre yet cool cover. The band I knew was great, but with packaging so different, I couldn’t wait to listen.

I don’t even remember asking if I could keep the tape, but it was soon to be on endless repeat in my self-installed Radio Shack stereo in my hideous green Datsun 810. Little did I know I was establishing a pattern of consumption when gobsmacked by new music.

I didn’t just listen; I devoured and digested every riff, chord, and solo. To say it was over my head and beyond my harmonic and lyrical grasp would be the essence of understatement. I was never really into jazz, but Becker and Fagen introduced me to chords beyond the triad, lyrics that were emotionally sophisticated, and melodic lines that were “outside” yet still accessible. So when I found a sheet music collection of Steely Dan songs at my local music store, I was elated to find the introduction written by Messrs. Fagen & Becker, explaining their approach to chord voicings (and truly an insight into their writing process). Here was the Rosetta Stone of how to play these songs on guitar just like the records!

So today when I heard the news about the passing of Walter Becker, I was immediately taken back to when he and his music helped crack the code of my passion. Without his immense creativity, my ears wouldn’t have been ready for future gifts from Sting, Elvis Costello, and all the other greats fearless in their art.

Much has been and will be written about Walter and his life and legacy, and I will devour and digest every word. That old cassette tape was worn out decades ago, but the music it contained is eternal and still raises my temperature and my pulse even to this sad day.

Rest In Peace, Walter…

“The Masque”

It is an odd thing, the leaps memory makes when triggered…

So many horrible images of the devastation in Texas and along the Gulf Coast, aftereffects of massive winds and waves from Tropical Storm Harvey.

Prayers for the lives lost and for those that remain to pick up the broken pieces or move on…

Brought to mind is one of the many storms we lived through, growing up in the quiet Birmingham suburb of Center Point, Alabama.

Hurricane Camille, one of the largest and most destructive storms to make U.S. landfall, had spawned virulent storms that were bearing down on us. Before losing power, we had seen on television the damage in Mississippi as Camille and her offspring roared north.

I was almost eight years old. It was literally “the summer of ‘69.”

Our family (two parents, one maternal grandmother, four kids, and a dog named ‘Fluffy’) were still adjusting to all the creaks and groans of our new-to-us house, having moved in only a few months prior. The full basement (always damp and musty) offered the promise of protection. Yet the small creek running behind our house tended to overflow and flood our safe-ish haven.

Our next door neighbors, the Underwoods, had a huge birdhouse mounted atop what had to be a thirty foot pole. I remember vividly watching it come crashing under the onslaught of the still approaching storms. Fear has a distinct taste no matter what your age…

In those days I loved comic books and drawing. But soon my imagination was captured by the movies of the original “Planet of the Apes,” “2001: A Space Oddessy,” and by monsters! Dracula, the Wolfman, Frankenstein’s Creature, et al.

Summer meant even more visits to my beloved Huffman Public Library than usual, and my most recent borrow was a book about all these monsters in a “pull back the curtain” treatise. It detailed the actors and (more importantly) the artists responsible for transforming these normal performers into the very personifications of suspense and horror.

During the height of the storm, my clan gathered by candlelight to work a jigsaw puzzle of some beatific European vista. My companion was this awesome book (with pictures!) and a flashlight providing light for my arcane illuminations. The rain pummeled our house, but I was lost in the words and images:

Karloff as the Monster, Lugosi as Dracula, Lon Chaney Sr and Jr as the operatic Phantom and Wolfman respectively.

The stories of these films were fascinating. The stuff of nightmares? Most assuredly. But seeds of dreaming were being planted nonetheless.

The text pointed back toward older films and even older tales. Stoker and Shelley gave way to Lovecraft and Poe. “The Telltale Heart” and “The Masque of the Red Death” were beyond my adolescent understanding, but the dark poetry of it all was mesmerizing.

Storms and years passed. Movies and books made room for the discovery of making music. Art, books, film, music…all avenues for creation and escape.

One word from those heady days lodged deep: masque. My Curious George curiosity helped me discover the broader meanings beyond the French root for ‘mask.’

The monsters I feared and loved and the masks they wore seemed to give the wearers power of a sort I sorely lacked. Yes, monsters could be vanquished, but they always returned in sequel after sequel.

I learned through the years, as many do, that masks are easy and seductive. Who doesn’t want the safety of a mask, be it terrible or benign? Words your small and terrified true self would never utter ring out with false confidence and power.

Even as adults, our disguises are ubiquitous. Our social media rampages are delivered from the safety of distance and emotional shields, beyond thought and consequence.

Don’t like my post about ___? Defriended! Complete disagreement with ___? Blocked! Idiot snowflakes! Shut up, fake news!

The temptation of the mask is a powerful one.

My triggered memory has looped all the way back to now, a leap to the realization that my life, with rare exception, has been lived behind masks of all kinds:

Master and slave, hero and monster, saint and sinner. Judge and jury and emotional executioner all in one.

It’s pretty simple, actually. I care too much what others think.

When you have lived a life learning to edit; to blend and always agree and dissemble…you find that learning abandon is hard. My “masque of spirit death” adheres with a vengeance.

Come Spirit Wind that blows away all pretense, and reveal the person You created me to be…

“What My Dad Said”

When my dad retired from the Army, we moved from Ft. Benning, GA to Center Point, AL (a suburb on the NE side of Birmingham) where he opened a barber shop and cut hair and held court with his friends who happened to be customers. I was maybe 4 years old. This would have been around 1965 in the Deep South.

Center Point at the time had one major intersection in the heart of town, cornered by Civitan Park, the Capri Theatre shopping center, a gas station, and the first Jack’s Hamburger joint.

One day, Dad and I were going somewhere and we were pulling up to this very intersection. That day it was hopping with activity. Guys in white robes were on each corner, holding signs and extending buckets toward the stopped cars. Hands would drop money into those buckets. I remember more folks giving to these white-clad people than those abstaining.

I distinctly remember when we passed by our bucket opportunity, Dad mumbled something to the guy I didn’t quite catch. I could tell he was angry about something. I meekly asked “who are those guys in those robes…?”

“A bunch of GD fools…”

He didn’t use the abbreviation.

My dad was a merchant marine as a teenager, and sailed around the globe  a couple of times before serving his country in the Army as a member of the Corps of Engineers. He was one of the first teams in Japan during the aftermath of war-ending atomic destruction. He was in the Korean conflict, and did tours in Europe long enough to have some of us kids born in France and (then) West Germany.

The point of this rambling post is that in his travels, my rural Bama-born father learned that racism and hate are the byproducts of “GD foolery” and taught his kids that all lives matter, long before any slogan.

Under the skin and under the sun
We are all the same

So if you ask what I think of haters marching with torches, declaring their superiority over others, you already have my answer.

What my dad said…

“Empty”

It has been a quiet Holy Week.

Tomorrow the Christian world will sing and shout praise to God made Man and Resurrected, and the incredible story of the sacrifice of the Father and the love of the Son willing to lay down his life will be told yet again.

In my own way, I will offer up my sacrifice, as my need for Grace and Mercy is ever present. I am thankful that he loved enough and loves still.

But tomorrow for some will be a day not filled with joy and glory, but loss and loneliness and pain. My own sister lost her husband today, and now this Easter and all to come will be a reminder of the day a woman became widow, and children lost their daddy.

For some, the memory of wounds inflicted by those who profess to represent the Resurrected One will reopen yet again. I know this pain, and this stone is unmoving. No angels rush to roll it away.

Resurrection Sunday is a glorious day, so sing and shout and weep and pray. The tomb is empty. But be mindful of those who stand bound by hurt and pain and loss.

There is no shame for those who are empty, and mourn and lament even on Easter.

“Reach…”

You wake up with a mild sense of dislocation, for a moment wondering where you are and when you are.

Loss today takes on a new meaning that’s all too familiar; at a loss for words.
With that slightly unbalanced feeling of an ever-growing need to express, and being unable. And not even knowing where to begin.

“Do you write?” I was asked today, the question framed in the context of words and music. While probably only a beat, my answer of “yes” came after what felt like a lifetime pause.

Yet that simple one word reply burned on my tongue like a coal of fire. It wasn’t a lie, but honest to God felt like one. I stumbled through the rest of the conversation with the grace of a wounded animal, but in the human way of mask in place to hide the fade.

I play music every week. I listen to music every day. I read about it, watch documentaries and shows and films filled with it.

But the disquiet (a polite way to say horribly empty unrest) is there, a constant companion who sticks closer than a brother.

Music feels out of reach.

Time sprung forward today to accommodate the coming longer days of spring and summer. Yet it feels like I’ve leapt forward to a time where music lies behind.

“Call unto me,” the scripture says, “and I will answer…”

Is the silence an answer?

I will sit here in the quiet and unrest and wait…

“All Things New”

After 55 plus years, the shadow cast by life is growing long (and seemingly longer every day). New is a word rarely if ever you apply to yourself.

July 2009 found me on the road in the Midwest with a few hours to myself. I ended up in a bookstore outlet where I discovered an excellent book by U2’s Bono about the plight of African orphans. The images and ideas presented were powerful and moving, inspiring me to write a song that pretty much came into the world fully formed.

A year or so later, my band was involved in a concert to benefit missions in Letsotho, Africa (the very same area captured so vividly in Bono’s book), and this new song was the central theme of the event.

Another year or so passes, and I am producing an EP for Birmingham artist Rebekah Gilbert, and this same song finds its way onto the project.

Time and distance grants perspective. It took stepping back from this song, to see and hear it through other eyes and different interpretations to discover it’s true nature.

What started life as a cry about the unseen, unwanted and abused in the world was revealed to be something more.

It’s not about orphans. It’s about me…

Look through those eyes
Walk in their shoes
How does it feel to be unwanted?
How does it feel to be abused?

Carry that weight
A heart of stone
How does it feel to be so hopeless?
How does it feel to be alone?

43 years ago today I was made new. Years have passed, and the shadows of life, loss, and lostness are still long. But in a season of reminders, for this moment I remember Grace and “All Things New.”

Then mercy comes calling
Grace brings good news
Love wraps its arms around you
And makes all things new…

“Rivers of Loss”

This has been a week of loss; facing and being reminded of losses past and present…

How do you deal with this thing called loss? Even the word itself, when spoken slowly sounds like sand slipping through fingers. No matter how tight your grasp, grains will find a way to fall.

You can wrestle with loss. But at best you walk away with a permanent limp, and scars to show when your tribe gathers at the end to sing the story of your life.

You can ignore loss, or shrug it off with an “oh well” sigh. It has a tenacious way of slipping past the outer defenses, even straight through to the heart in moments when you expect it least.

Wall up your loss, lock it away. Build a strong tower to contain it. Yet you’ll find that you walled yourself in with your loss, like a sad tale from dear old Edgar Allan…

Some will make an effort to simply replace what is lost. It certainly feels better when the void is being filled. But I am reminded of Job in the Old Testament. After losing everything, God restored lands and wealth and even blessed him with a new family. While restoration takes many forms, people can never be replaced.

Loss is a wide river to cross. After time the surface can be calm, but dangerous currents run fast and strong in the deep waters.

You don’t get over loss. You simply live with it.

Praying this day for peace and comfort for all those crossing the rivers of their loss.

GV