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Cinematic Prosody… Which Movie and TV Soundtracks Run Through Your Head?

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heart and heaven

It can singe and melt the icy sinews of your heart… or…

… it can feather-float you to the heavens.

I’m talking music.

We all know that the occasions, the special moments of our lives- the melancholy, the joyous, the romantic, the heartbroken – are marked, like scratchy tick marks on a jail cell wall – on our interior core by the music scent wafting through our ears at the time.

But aside from those life-marking events, music is also a crucial ingredient of our enjoyment of the artistic media we consume. And so, I’m pondering today about movie or TV music that has penetrated deeply to our inner core in barely recognizable ways.

You may have already reflected on this and designed your own soundtrack “favourites” list, or perhaps you’ve coasted along merrily, experiencing and enjoying without a conscious awareness.

I bring this up right now because I’ve grown aware lately – almost like the discovery of a hidden cave grown over with vines – that the beginning theme music to the Netflix show House of Cards has me entranced.

There’s a symbolic weight that presses into my chest when it starts up. It needs playing at high volume to feel the mass and ravenous teeth of Jeff Beals’ score.

It grabs on and transfixes me immediately. Just listen carefully to its incessant, droning undertrack of alternating bass notes interspersed by a haunting trumpet line that screams POWER.

It’s like JAWS music – duunnn dunnn… duuuunnnn duun… duuunnnnnnnn dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dunnnnnnnnnnn dunnnn … set to modern political intrigue… what could be more ironic, more iconic than a music score that impels us to think of sharks and dangerous power. It’s obvious if you think about it.

A few years back I took an online songwriting course through COURSERA where instructor Pat Pattison brought to me a new word that has changed my approach to songwriting as well as listening to music.

The word is PROSODY.

Prosody is matching the rhythm and sound in music as you would in poetry. Melodic synergy.

Musically, this means coordinating the meaning and sound of the music to the meaning and the sound of the lyrics… in other words… making musical poetry.

In soundtrack music, the meaning doesn’t always come from words. It’s possible to make the case that the meaning of words are more powerfully affected by the sound of music than by the other way around.

The challenge of writing music that achieves prosody is no easy feat. Most TV and movie soundtracks leave no audible footprints in the sand, no languorous aftertaste.

But there are quite a few notable and memorable movie and TV music themes that invoke the feelings and the emotions that coax a good story into becoming a great story…

GREASE

Rocky is better because of the music, Cheers was better because of it: MASH, The Sopranos, The Godfather, Chariots of Fire, Hawaii Five-O, The Muppet Show, Forrest Gump, Grease were all elevated by the accompaniment of their music theme and score.

Just as an aside, many people might add the multitude of movie scores produced by John Williams to their memorable list.

You’ll remember the Star Wars franchise, the Indiana Jones features, ET and many more, but I’ve never been a huge fan of his over-produced symphonic knock-you-over-the-head scores.

While not bad obviously – he’s made a ton of soundtracks and a ton of money for himself – but they’re not on my list.

I find a lack of nuance and variety in his writing that detracts from the potential, the prosody.

But now that I’ve knocked him down, I have to turn around and resurrect his status because the theme music he composed for Schindler’s List is nothing short of a lifetime masterpiece. I can’t listen to the stream of mournful violin notes without tearing up and envisioning the solitary, red-coated little Jewish girl. Overwhelming prosody.

Strong music themes generating harmonic prosody become a deliciously lingering earworm that when absorbed, bring a flood of cinematic ripplings through our minds, often tied to inner smiles or touches of melancholy. They’re beautiful, disturbing, bliss-inducing, unescapable.

House of Cards means more to me, has a weightier meaning because of the background theme. It makes gravity feel 3 times heavier than normal.

Now THAT’s prosody.

Prosody

Skills = Pleasure

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monkey violin.jpg

Skills & Pleasure.

I could be talking sex here… alright… I AM thinking sex here. But I’ll talk about something else, OK?

Guitar, cooking, writing, bartending, tennis, dancing, gardening, chess, biking, languages, investing, birdwatching, chocolate tasting. So many more…

Skills and knowledge; they elevate us and make us more as humans. Our lives are stories, and those areas where we thrive and grow and excel within are those that bring pleasure… and exhilaration to our story.

I crave endorphins. I love the rush, the feeling of ambrosia, beauty inside, excitement. I don’t get it from gambling in casinos, or buying lottery tickets, or injecting heroin.

I get it by doing and learning new skills.

I’m working on one right now that I never knew or even believed existed until recently.

I love playing my songs at Open Mic nights. I was on stage performing 4 songs last night: one I wrote, and one Harry Chapin tune for David because David loves ole Harry.

Harry Chapin.jpg

My Ole Friend Harry…

Sure, it scares me. Sure, loose bowels, yada yada… but I’m doing something I really really enjoy and it’s an intense learning experience.

I’m studying the art of reading the audience to suss out what works and what doesn’t. Stand-up comedians like Louis CK and Jerry Seinfeld do this all the time.

I used to think that playing the guitar reasonably well was my core strength – my manly muscle flex – and the singing part of my performance was something peripheral that folks just had to yawn about and tolerate to make the song complete.

At Open Mic I watch and wonder at Richard K. when he’s on stage. He’s an eccentric. He’s an unabashed performer, a Johnny Winter lookalike with a snowy white mane contrasted against classy black suit jacket and pants.

When Richard sings, he opens his mouth like a ferocious ocean storm, gaping wide and projecting from the calluses of his foot soles. Singing is Richard’s full body workout. It’s mesmerizing to watch as his voice pours out like a lion’s roar. I watch… and learn.

I’ve always regarded my own voice as mundane and choirboy-like, too buttery. I have dances in my dreams of parking some Kenny Rogers gravel or Keith Urban Down-Under twang in my throat.

But I’m finding that more and more often, I get compliments on my singing. Some of it is generous fatuous flattery.

However… lately… I’m coming around to the idea that there may be more to it.

EPIPHANY!

epiphany2

Now, I’m starting to unbelievably believe that it’s the singing that’s my strength.

Have you ever read or heard about Frank Sinatra, and how he made a song uniquely special with his pacing and delivery of the lyrics? Sinatra wrote the book on musical phrasing.

It didn’t mean anything to me when I heard that.  How could it be? It’s merely words sung to a melody line, right?… simple, straightforward.

But no other popular singer has ever known better the combined value of exacting diction and conversational delivery. No one before Sinatra seemed to know where the deliberate pause would paint the greatest emotional impact.

Sinatra was perhaps an intuitive musician, but he was also, I believe, an analytical, scientific singer too. He knew that to inflect a word or a syllable can shift the rhythm and increase the genuineness of a lyric, and can also wash attention over an especially attractive melodic phrase.

Subtlety. Nuance.

OK, so I’m a convert. Now I evangelize as if I wander the streets passing out Watchtower pamphlets. Hallelujah.

I’ve heard scads of singers who have pleasant voices and can stay on key and – OMG, if you can’t sing on key, please get off the stage and go join Boney M and drag your fingers down someone else’s blackboard – yet don’t understand musical phrasing.

Roberta Flack had phrasing. Freddie Mercury had phrasing. Adele has phrasing in spades… her voice and cadence betrays her frailty and, by extension, her humanity. It’s a skill.

No doubt you can think of a dozen singers that insinuate themselves inside you with the timing and pacing of their approach to lyrics. You may not be aware of the effect, but it happens, trust me.

When I practice a song these days, I’ll play it over and over again, and then once more. Jackson Browne would do this for hours on end when he lived in the basement suite below the Eagles’ Don Henley and Glenn Frey in L.A. years ago.

Each time I play the song I’m working on, for example, the popular song Let Her Go by Passenger, I’ll try out many different interpretations, and work on timing and nuances within the lyric lines.

Eventually, I unearth a pattern that, to me, extracts the most emotional impact from the poetic words and rhythm. Skills and pleasure.

Pleasure Guitar 2

Subtlety. Nuance.

Learning through practice and concentrated effort brings me a feeling of nirvana… satisfaction … and… intense pleasure.

You’ve felt this powerful perception in your world when you put in your best effort and surrendered to the sensation. The soaring awareness of endorphin-packed execution wraps you in a blissful tranquility.

We’re all a complex bundle of simplicity and complexity, perpetually incomplete humans in all areas: physical, spiritual, emotional. Our desires will never be fully answered, nor should they be.

But when I’m always ready to learn a new skill, or improve an old one, I’m once again in my “beginner’s mind”, and like a tiny child, I hold that shiny object over my head, and wonder at all that it holds…

Now that’s pleasure.

pleasure.jpg

 

A Night at Medici’s With Paper Rose

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medicis 2.jpg

We climb the eight concrete stairs, exiting the darkness and the cool evening air – a light shhwwwhhsshhh of breezes running through the nearby pines, car tires in the distance.

Then, pushing through the solid wooden door, it’s as if breathing can begin once again, as if the suspended animation of motionlessness has restarted and life resumes its tireless orbital path.

A harmonious mixture of warm light and music and laughter and conversation – glasses on tables, shoes on hardwood floors, scents of coffee and Firehall Backdraft Blonde beer –  cheerfully mingles with the friendly waves of David and Marcel and a few others who show signs of recognition.

The stage is lit and the song unfolds.

medicis night

My first set ever at Medici’s

Welcome to a night at Medici’s.

Open Mic. Every 2nd Friday. Bring a guitar, a ukulele or mandolin, your voice, even a clarinet.

So, who will it be tonight? Billy Joel, Bruce Cockburn, Miranda Lambert, Ed Sheeran, Zac Brown?

Of course not.

Medici’s – a renovated former Catholic church – is a place for small musicians and music aficionados – those who enjoy an evening of homemade entertainment, made by real people, genuine everyday sorts with big smiles and some with big dreams, dreams of their future, and others… like me… with greyish hair, sailing on dreams distilled in days long past.

Like a night out at bingo, you never know which musical ball will rise to the surface with each entertainer. G-54… Folk!  B-19… country!  N-28… rock!  I-47… jazz! BINGO!

Marcel, the jovial young emcee always starts the evening out strumming and singing a song or two mixed with his infectious humour and irreverent teasing of Medici’s owner David. Occasionally he lightheartedly chides one of the regular pre-show nervous musicians sipping her wine innocently at a nearby table.

Marcel then cedes the spotlight to the others. Each musician or group steps up and plays their 3 allotted songs, some original, most covers of recognizable hits by others.

The crowd, generally filled with musicians and their friends, is warmly supportive, knowing the jitters that accompany the amateur performances.

Later, when I walk up the 3 wooden steps to the stage, I don’t see the people in the crowd in their underwear to calm my nerves, but I do envision myself in Nashville’s famed Bluebird Cafe. When I pick out the final few notes of a song on my guitar, I feel the addictive draw of the applause and the eyes of an audience focused on me. Ego.

In my Walter Mitty mind, I’m an up-and-coming ingenue waiting for the record company executive to approach me after my set, and smiling aglow, tell me he’d like to sign me to a contract promising a huge future. It’s a teenage dream… for a guitarist/ singer/ songwriter it approaches a wet-dream in its excitement and unexpected intensity.

From Medici’s to the Bluebird Cafe or the Ryman Auditorium or Grand Ole Opry or Massey Hall, the opium takes hold.

bluebird cafe.jpg……………..

Each time we drive south to the hamlet of Oliver and Medici’s, there are some new faces on stage, young high school kids with tender melodic voices or old cowboy-types with rugged grey stubble and rugged raspy tunes.

When a fresh new Okanagan fruit picking season descends in the heat of late summer and early autumn, songs imported from the far eastern side of Canada waft in with the French-Canadian working kids who come like Woodstock refugees – les Habitants – dreadlocks flowing,  and their incredible musical talents on guitar and banjo and voice.

And always, there are the regulars like Richard and Rolly, Tom, and “Paper Rose”…. ah yes, sweet Paper Rose.

Paper Rose is my favourite.

Rose, whose real name is Evelyn, is a wonderful 80’ish crooner that dresses in Minnie Pearl fashion, flower hat (minus price tag) and all.

Minnie PEarl

Paper Rose stands unpretentiously at the microphone with her guitar and begins with a chatty story, a story about her health, a story about the challenges of living with diabetes, her voice mellow and earnest, her smile bright.

After her lengthy tale, filled with little asides, she launches into her songs, most of them originating from the 1950’s and ’60’s era, usually involving birds or flowers… Yellow Bird, There’s a Bluebird on Your Windowsill… or… Paper Roses. 

Rose definitely isn’t the best guitar player, sometimes she’ll even stop mid-song because she’s forgotten the chords.

But, possessed with a pleasant singing voice, she always sings her songs right on key.

By the time she arrives at the chorus, her guitar gone silent, the whole venue, all the audience, is hooked and singing along. Everyone is rapt, everyone is smiling, and we all sail with her into the chorus hook…

Paper roses, paper roses,
Oh how real those roses seem to me
But they’re only imitation
Like your imitation love for me.

An explosion of raucous, enthusiastic applause erupts.

Rose’s cheeks flush like a spring robin’s breast as she sweetly calls out her thank you’s.

A bit rough around the edges, sure.

If you look hard, you can almost see little girl Rose in the hazy mist – blue ribbons in her hair – gaily skipping rope on the playground, catching her toes often in the fast moving rope, yet not caring a whit.

The joy of the game is all that matters.

Then she begins her next story…

 

 

 

Disco DOESN’T Suck… and Other Guilty Pleasures

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Disco Travolta.jpg

Night fever, night fever.
We know how to do it.
Gimme that night fever, night fever.
We know how to show it.

……………………

My breath froze to solid icicles in my moustache. Even my eyelashes were crusty white with January frost.

The Northern Lights were a luminous emerald on black velvet, swirling in bright pinwheels overhead – it was night feverishly cold outside Yellowknife’s Mildred Hall School. The hand-sewn and decorated parkas we wore were antibodies against the glacial air.

But once inside the school’s gymnasium doors, the fever was hot hot hot.

It was 1978 and disco fever and glitter balls were at their zenith.

Maybe you were there and boogied to the throbbing beat.

Or maybe you were a wallflower egg still waiting to get down with a jivin’ sperm.

The Bee Gees, Donna Summer and Hot Chocolate (I believe in miracles… where you from, you sexy thing, sexy thing you) ruled the radio dial.

In the near-total darkness-shrouded Arctic town hugging the icy shores of Great Slave Lake, I, along with my friends Jim (we were Uncle Larry and Uncle Jimmy in those days, don’t ask me why) and Laurie, signed on for disco dance lessons.

Every Monday night for 6 weeks, we fsh-fsh’ed our mukluks down streetlit Franklin Avenue to the elementary school gym, where, for an hour or two, we danced the Saturday Night Fever roles of John Travolta and his dream girlfriend-dance partner Karen Lynn Gorney.

Well, you can tell by the way I use my walk,
I’m a woman’s man: no time to talk.
Music loud and women warm, I’ve been kicked around
since I was born. 

bee gees.jpg

I don’t remember the name of our young dance instructor, or even the ethnicity of her soft accented-voice, but I can easily recollect that she was a young cutey in ballet flats and a pale pink dress that flowed like wispy feathers in the breeze when she twirled.

She dressed for the job.

She was a Dancing Queen.

More accurately, she was a disco dancing queen.

And when she took my hands to demonstrate the Butterfly dance move, I couldn’t help but notice that she had the softest hands I’d ever held. Playing John Travolta was a pretty fine gig.

Jim, Laurie and I had a blast those chilly Monday evenings, dancing, twisting our hips, firing our cool boogie finger high into the air… learning intricate disco moves that fuelled our drop-ins to northern alcohol-doused parties for months (maybe years) afterwards.

It was great fun and despite the vapid reputation and the musical Civil War that has battered disco music for years and years, I’ve always…. shhhhh… this is a secret…. clandestinely loved the driving bass beat, the unique funk and soul of disco music.

The Bee Gees’ falsettos and ABBA’s beautiful harmonies and chorus hooks simply infuse a divine song into my normally banal rhythmic blood flow.

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It’s a beautiful guilty pleasure like so many others.

And there’s simply no rationality to guilty pleasures. I have mine and you have yours. I know you do.

As a consummate goal-setting personality type, I feel the sly guilt associated with the temporary shedding of my in-bred Protestant work ethic, or the shameful sin of consuming something that goes against the “health” guidebook that sits propped open like a priest’s confessional door in my head.

Humanness means coming to a… grudging acceptance of our mortal frailties.

Guilty pleasures are no exception.

So, here’s my (partial!) guilty pleasure confessional.

Feel free to write me back a list of yours, maybe I’ve been missing out on some great stuff:

  1. Smooth delicious milk chocolate consumed (like, in moderation!) daily as if it is an essential part of the Food Guide
  2. Skipping a boot camp, long run, or spin class … just because…
  3. Afternoon naps
  4. The sweet, delicate lilt of a Scottish or Irish accent
  5. A McDonalds Big Mac with only half the “Mac” sauce
  6. Chick Flicks like When Harry Met Sally, You’ve Got Mail and Serendipity… always consumed with salty buttered popcorn
  7. One Cuban Cigar smoked each week during spring and summer
  8. Reading those old erotically-charged Penthouse Magazine Forum “letters”… especially the lesbian ones
  9. Luxuriantly reading a whole fiction book in less than a week
  10. Watching The Great British Baking Show and HGTV “Flipping” shows
  11. Picking the strings of my guitar late in the dark night, channelling Sting or Keith Urban… believing that I’m playing/singing better than them
  12. An inability to turn off the newest Reality TV… the ubiquitous, moment-to-moment CNN (what I now call the TRUMP channel) BREAKING NEWS stories of Trump/Conway/Spicer trainwrecks

doggy guilty pleasure

That Brand New Baby Smell…

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Mmmmmmmm. It’s like new car scent blended with cozy, fleecy blankets all rolled up in a warm, gooey cinnamon bun.

Anticipation is a magnificent thing. 

Anticipation of a Christmas work bonus… anticipation of a new baby… anticipation of a warm, fun, beach vacation… anticipation of the first splotch of ketchup on your steaming french fries… anticipation of a meeting with your probation officer. I don’t know. Anticipation.

For a few years now, I’ve been seeking out and lovingly caressing 12-string guitars to add to my happy family of stringed instruments… my current family constellation is two 6-string guitars, banjo, violin, mandolin, Peruvian charango.

Now this week I finally brought a brand new baby 12-string home. Her name is Taylor… and she’s beautiful.

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My very first set of strings was a small brown ukulele I unwrapped on my 11th Christmas. Tiny Tim (not the Dicken’s character) was popular on the Ed Sullivan Show at the time and I learned Tiptoe Through The Tulips – his signature song – before midnight announced Boxing Day’s arrival.

I’ve been strung up on stringed instruments ever since. It’s kinda my TWANG!

With my new pre-teen passion for music, I saved dimes, quarters and dollar bills from my Hamilton Spectator paper route and purchased an electric guitar and a small amp. It was simply gorgeous.

I took some lessons from a local long-haired R&B rock and roller. He taught me some bar chords and I got hooked on the drug of harmony.

I loved playing that guitar and emulating my big brother Gord’s rock band (Sands of Time?) that played songs like Otis Redding’s Dock of the Bay, the Surfaris’ Wipeout, the Box Tops’ The Letter and that super-cool sixties guitar song, Eric Burden and the Animals’ House of the Rising Sonthere is a house in New Orleans

In Grade 7 I played the Bee Gees rock ballad I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You at my middle school’s talent show. There was a sad poignancy in its lyric I liked. I figured I was a pop star and when little pixie Anne Pekaruk smiled at me afterwards and said I was really good, I might have come close to my first spontaneous orgasm.

Over the years I’ve added to my string collection.

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Maybe the World’s Most Perfect Instrument?

I borrowed my sister Betty’s classical guitar during my poverty-prone college years. My teenage head was filled with grandiose visions of becoming an Elton John rock star. I wrote bad songs while learning a bit about fingerpicking styles from a girlfriend who dumped me for another “John Denver”-like guitar player.

The guitar was my solace during romantic break-ups, a diversion from studying for lab exams, and laid-back exhaustion-relaxer after 1 am McDonalds’ shifts.

After starting my first lab job, my brother Gord and I both bought banjos as a brotherly bonding experience.

In the Arctic chills of Yellowknife my buddy Jimmy sold (well, almost gave) me my first acoustic 6-string that I still own and play, a Yamaha FG-160. The strings are hard on the fingertips, but it has a nice tone to it. The Yamaha is a workhorse that holds its tuning well which is really important to someone like me who suffers the fingernails-scraping-the-blackboard sensation when he hears even a slightly out-of-tune instrument or voice. It’s a curse my friends.

For many years in the decades after I married and had kids and jobs, playing guitar or any music was left largely unloved at the bottom of the laundry pile of priority. I picked up the Yamaha occasionally and picked out my favourite Bruce Cockburn, John Denver and James Taylor songs.

The kids grew up and left for university. I looked in the mirror and saw wrinkles from happy laughter and sorrowed frowns, open lakes of shiny skin where dark, thick hair used to blossom. Elton John came out as gay and Otis Redding was dead.

music-reborn

The time to return to music was now or never.

Years were slipping by like summer days at the beach and if I let time and effort go by unseen or appreciated, well, why let regret get any sort of foothold?

My next new friend was a Martin guitar…DX1AE.

From my teen years I had harboured dreams of one day owning a Martin. What the hell is a Martin you ask?  Martin is a revered name in the guitar world.

If you watch many of the great guitar players and popular artists, the Martin manufacturer’s signature can be spotted on the headstock of the instrument. It loosely correlates to a Steinway grand piano, a Stradivarius violin. Martin denotes quality and rich sound.

I fell in love with Martin and have been strumming his soft strings for a few years now. He joins me onstage for Open Mics and the few other events where I play and… he tries to make me sound better than I truly am. Good friends are like that, they build you up.

And this brings me full life circle to this week and my long anticipated purchase of a 12-string guitar. She’s a Taylor 356ce with sensual curvaceous lines, comfortable to hold and melt into. Her strings feel soft under my fingertips, so soft when compared to many other 12-strings.

There is a full richness, an orchestral resonance to the 6 sets of double strings of a 12-string guitar.

Try listening to the Eagles’ introduction to Hotel California, or  Supertramp’s Give A Little Bit, or The Byrds or Gordon Lightfoot or the Beatles… close your eyes and there’s 12-string heaven ringing in your ears.

There’s a touch of surrendered sadness knowing my years of anticipation are over, a light mourning for a cherished friend. Anticipation is such a delicious part of our slender existence.

My job now is to retrain and transform my anticipation.

Anticipation is –at its heart –  about goals and moving forward. I thrive on the carrot of anticipation and making something – a birth, something tangible or ethereal- where nothing previously existed.

Taylor and I will be spending a fair bit of time together in the coming weeks, months, and hopefully years. It will be a friendship to remember.

It’s time to get back to play.

……………..

PS. Below is a short guitar piece (not played on a 12-string) that I want to share with you. Tommy Emmanuelle is my current “Bromance” when it comes to guitar mastery. I hope you enjoy his richly harmonic heart-swelling song, ANGELINA, as much as I do.

One Less Match We Burn…

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prince

A long long time ago…

I can still remember…. 

how that music used to make me smile…

……………………….

The music train of popularity chugged past the station without halting for me, black billowing smoke choking the sky in its wake.

You can’t buy a ticket when you have your back turned away from the platform.

……………………….

Emergent watercolour crimson-orange hues delicately brush up and over the dawning horizon. Wispy waking songs of flickers and goldfinches begin to fill the airy space like the opening strains of a symphony orchestra.

Alas, the morning sun fails to rise for one.

Another day, another passing. Another icon fades away like ink on paper after a coffee spill.

I don’t well up in tears or feel that gut-wrenching pain in my abdomen.

I don’t feel the deep inner thrust of the silvery shovel blade and suffer the sentimental emotion of a tune and its connection to my past life, my past loves, my past triumphs or defeats.

Yup, sometimes I’m a flat note in a major key.

Already this year there has been an incredible outpouring of profound angst and grief over the departures of famed musicians … singers and songwriters.

Performers to the masses.

  • David Bowie

  • Prince

  • Gord Downie (Tragically Hip)

And yet, the deaths of these superstar darlings have left me flat, unmoved, tear-free. You may feel differently.

Somehow, despite their enormous popularity… their poetry, their music, has never penetrated my outer shell and spoken to my head or heart.

It’s not because I’m cold-hearted or unfeeling.

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When I watch the Oscars each year, one of my favourite I-love-it-but-I-hate-it portions of the ceremony is the IN MEMORIUM section. Now that hits me like a (another lost icon) Muhammad Ali punch in the solar plexus.

Stories of departed lives in a picture-book progression of faces and names that have held personal meaning at one point or another in our lives are paraded in front of our eyes.

The melancholy bittersweet tune of violins and guitars rises and falls on the ocean swells of my emotional ship.

I feel tidal surges of pain and quiet joy as face after face reminds me of something about myself.

It’s a few achingly beautiful moments and far too brief to truly remember or properly memorialize the creative talents of those who lived and laughed and sinned and cried… but they are evocative and cathartic like listening quietly to our own eulogy.

Songs and movies are powerful markers of our lives and when one of those creative markers takes its leave, it takes a Lilliputian part of who we are with them, like one more matchstick pulled and burned from our once full book of matches.

I don’t experience a sense of something missing in my life now that Bowie, Prince and Gord Downie are gone or are soon to expire.

No matches pulled for me.

My matches are usually the small names, likely no less talented than the big names that garner the headlines.

Glenn Frey‘s musical contribution to the tunes and harmonies of The Eagles had a far more profound effect on me with his passage, and yet the public outcry was relatively muted.

I felt bigger rips in the fabric of my universe when I heard of the deaths in years past of Harry Chapin (Cats In The Cradle), Jim Croce (Time In A Bottle), Stan Rogers (Northwest Passage), Raylene and John Morris Rankin (Fare Thee Well Love).

Billy Paul, more than Bowie, took a tiny shred of me away earlier this year in knowing that he’ll never lisp out those words that once coursed through my teenage head…. “Me and Mithuss…. Mithuth Jonths… Mithuth Jonths…. Mithuth Jonths…” (Me and Mrs. Jones)

Even the loss of old-timer “Okie” Merle Haggard has me feeling more affected than Prince.

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There’s a singer and a song for everybody.

No matter if I’m a flat note in a world where most prefer the sounds that fill 20,000 seat arenas compared to my preference for the songwriters that turn out at small coffeehouses and 3,000 seat auditoriums.

Within the private confines of our cars as we cruise the highway, each of us bursts out in song to our own individual melodious soundscape, just as some prefer X-Men and Captain America movies to Inside Out or The Big Short. 

So long as we breathe, we can still enjoy all those inner sensations we experienced in younger days we shared with family, friends, and lovers. (BONUS: there is an oxytocin releasing effect to music; yup, the same hormone released during sexual arousal, oxytocin increases rapidly, with a big burst at orgasm.)

No matter if it’s John Lennon singing Imagine or Patsy Cline’s drawn out longing in Sweet Dreams, Buddy Holly belting out That’ll Be The Day That I Die or Bing Crosby crooning White Christmas. 

The really great thing about music produced in the past 100 years is that – even if one of my favourite songwriters Don McLean might disagree – it doesn’t disappear or fade when the artist leaves us.

The singer may be long gone but the soulful strains of their song – our song – remains immortal.

Maybe one less match to burn but the light stays lit… the music doesn’t die.

 

I can’t remember if I cried
When I read about his widowed bride
Something touched me deep inside
The day the music died
So Bye, Bye Miss American Pie”

burning match

How to Find Your Courage …

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But life isn’t hard to manage when you’ve nothing to lose.”

                                – Ernest Hemingway

So it came to pass that as he trudged from the place of blood and wrath his soul changed.”

                                – Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage

courage

What do I have to lose? Really?

In this life I’ve embarrassed myself so many times and in so many ways, it just doesn’t matter.

It never did actually, I just thought it did.

So I’m pushing myself to be courageous.

Not climb-over-the-wall-shooting-bullets-at-the-enemy, being-shot-at-by-the-enemy courageous – that’s WAY beyond my imagination-to-conceive courage. That just scares the shit out of me. How do people ever do that to themselves and to each other?

Nope, I just want to be gritty enough to walk up the stairs to a stage where a microphone awaits and I begin playing my guitar and singing a song.

Not any song.

A song of my own composition.

It’s a tiny thing that feels not-so-tiny in my mind. Kinda like my penis.

They tell us to conquer our fear of this sort by envisioning the audience in their underwear. Great idea.

audience-underwear

The problem as I see it is that while the good folks watching me are in their underwear, I’m standing in front of them TOTALLY NAKED!

It’s a level of personal exposure that this blog should have prepared me for … except … I can post these blog posts without you looking me in the eye as I unveil my inner demons, my successes, my failures and joys.

The reason I want to do this so badly is because I need something to push me from behind… I’m not a super self-motivator kind of guy.

You see, I want to write songs, but I’ll only do it well and consistently if there’s a loaded gun at my head. The end of the barrel says “DO this or DIE!” … that’s motivation. I have to take the dark fear and compress it into a sparkling diamond.

Let me give you a few examples of motivation diamonds:

  1. I enter running races like this weekend’s 8K run in Kelowna regularly because I train harder and more consistently when I know there’s a timed event coming up. Otherwise, I yawn and roll over in my bed in the morning and snore and drool instead of sweating at 6 am.
  2. I write this weekly MAN ON THE FRINGE blog that I publish every Sunday. If I don’t publish as expected, I start getting e-mails from kind readers asking if I died. BTW… if/when I do die, I may not respond to your inquiry. I’m not sure if there’s Wi-Fi connections in hell … Just sayin’.
  3. When I was working (Another BTW: I am working part time again… stay tuned for next week’s post)… I had a few hundred dollars taken from each of my paycheques and deposited automatically into my RRSP (Registered Retirement Savings Plan). I don’t want to be penniless in my dodderage. If I didn’t do this I would have visited Tim Hortons 3 times every day and blown a bunch of $$ on sweet chocolatey donuts which would have really negated the usefulness of point #1 above.
priestley-eating-doughnut

I guess sweet appetites come in different forms, eh Jian?!

Writing music is something I’ve longed to do all my life.

My passions, my dreams, my desires won’t be lived out unless I’m courageous enough to accept and brush past my fears. Every great personal reward has its gut-twisting risks.

The push that motivates me now is the fear of going onstage and looking foolish because I’ve written something that I feel little or no pride in … something that sounds like so much commercial stuff we all hear on our radios and iPods and iPhones and through Spotify and Sound Cloud. There are amazing musical gems out there, they just tend to be few and far between … needles in musical haystacks.

I need the courage to test my music – a rare needle or just a stack of formulaic hay.

Courage is something we all seek within ourselves and for a host of reasons and causes.

Courage comes in all McDonalds’ sizes: small, medium, large and super-sized.

We need courage when we look for a job, we need it when major changes occur in our lives, we need it when we lose someone special to us, we need it sometimes just to get out of bed in the morning.

For me, finding the courage to expose my inner self on-stage is a big deal. That and remembering lyrics. Singing John Denver or Sam Hunt or Gordon Lightfoot gives me a couple of butterflies to perform… but I’ll need to envision a lot of sweet golden lab puppies to calm my nerves when I sing Larry Green.

I found my courage once earlier this year when I sang one of my songs in public, on-stage. I did it and I woke up breathing the next morning.

The real test for me now is to load the gun over and over until I forget that courage was ever needed to walk up those stage stairs.

Then the smile on my face will be one of true joy and not just a faux front I plaster on as I climb over the battle wall and face the guns.

fake-smile

Goodbye Norma Jean …

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Candle in the Wind.

Candle

One song … of two mysterious but tragically unfortunate women, struck down at the age of 36, in the beautiful prime of their lives.

Long after Marilyn’s lifeless, drugged body was found in her bed on August 5, 1962 …

Long before any of us knew who shy young Diana Spencer was …

Long before Princes William and Harry were born …

… Elton John (music) and Bernie Taupin (lyrics) penned a song called Candle in the Wind… an ode originally written to the memory and significance and tragedy that was Norma Jeane Mortenson. You probably know her more familiarly as Marilyn Monroe.

…………………

And it seems to me you lived your life, like a candle in the wind 

Never knowing who to cling to, when the rain set in.

…………………

The song was on Elton’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album that came out in 1973 when I was a young lad at Glendale High School in Hamilton, Ontario.

It was the most influential set of songs I had heard to that point in my life with pop classics like Bennie and the Jets, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting, Funeral For A Friend, and of course … Candle in the Wind.

“Candle” was probably my favourite song (along with Danny Bailey and Sweet Painted Lady) on the entire 2 record album.

I’ve always loved ballads, and Candle in the Wind with its simple chords and melody and poignant lyrics, captured the struggles of untold fame on the lives of simple people.

Songs we love are so important to us because we find meaningful significance in them that the writer may have never intended.

We internalize a message that is unique to our own experience.

For me, Candle in the Wind was an ode to my Mother’s untimely death – I’m certain thousands of others felt the same deep emotional connection within their own lives, whether relating to the death of a significant other or perhaps the loss of a relationship that had once been strong and filled with love, hope, and longing.

When I was a teenager, I would sit in the apartment I shared with my sister, playing my guitar, dreaming of becoming a music writer and rock star like Elton John …

elton john

I wanted the weird, multi-coloured eyeglasses.

I wanted the fame.

I wanted the adulation.

I wanted the ceaseless waterfalls of cash flowing into my bank accounts.

What I didn’t want was to serve up the work ethic and sacrifice that would make it possible.

Like my studies in high school where I did OK, but rarely ever pushed myself, I was a lazy musician and songwriter.

I hadn’t mastered the arithmetic of putting 2 + 2 together yet and wouldn’t for a couple of decades to come. I closed my eyes to the blatantly obvious that the really good things happen when you put in the hours and focus to make it happen.

The hard work happens before the rewards flow. It harkens back to that old 10,000 hours rule of “practice makes mastery” that Paul and John knew, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs knew, JK Rowling and Sheryl Sandberg knew.

Good luck shines on those who pour themselves wholeheartedly into their dreams. Wishing just doesn’t make it so.

I’ve changed now. Both in understanding what it takes to excel … and what I’m willing to bring to that lionized table.

I’ve changed, but not enough to become a rock star, or an esteemed author, or a renowned gardener, or even a celebrated Porta-Potty cleaner.

I’ll never be a famous or acclaimed singer/songwriter because, even though I’m willing to put more effort and time into the things that are important to me, I’m still not willing to make the all-out sacrifice of time, focus and energy that it takes.

I won’t pour myself into making music or anything else for 8 or 10 or 12 hours a day every day. That’s not who I am. Even my vacant macho dreams of becoming a male prostitute to Desperate Housewives peters out as I realize my Peter’s not up to the hard and salacious demands of Urban Princesses.

I’ll always be a Hobbiest, never a Master.

I’ve made my choices and I’ll never be Elton John.

Some candles burn brighter than others, but really, we all cast a flicker of light that provides warmth and illumination to those around us.

Marilyn and Diana were those dazzling, brilliant candles that lived their lives on the treacherous edge of hurricane alley where the storms were always a threat to their light.

Often, those that burn brightest sadly seem to be the ones at the greatest risk of being snuffed out when the winds begin to swirl and howl.

And I would have liked to have known you
But I was just a kid
Your candle burned out long before
Your legend ever did …

Marilyn and diana

 

 

 

This Cool Word Will Improve Your Life …

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Caesura

I learned a new word this week and I love it already.

Yup, CAESURA.

See those two little slashes in the musical graphic above?

THAT is a Caesura and it means creating a momentary pause. It comes in different forms beyond music notation that have meaning in our lives.

A rioting cacophonous sound of bird calls draws me outdoors in early spring. A dark blue-toned Stellar Jay sits in the Ponderosa Pine madly squawking at me; a group of Mountain Chickadees are zooming this way and that around the yard pretending they’re Spitfire fighter planes.

Blossoms are erupting in bountiful numbers and the early morning air is scented and sweet … perhaps the daffodils, tulips, daphne and flowering almond have teamed together to make a rich perfumed blend to share with us early risers.

A few shiny sparkles of sharp-angled sunlight glint off dewy grass blades as I walk across the front lawn area.

When I wander aimlessly through my garden as I am wont to do on spring and summer early mornings, I love the concept of exercising Caesura – creating a momentary pause – as part of my spiritual side.

I take into my lungs a deep breath of clear morning air as if I were in a yoga class with instructor Marsha and absorb all that my senses can digest. Calm elation settles over me.

Some might say, “Carpe Diem” or “Seize the Day”. And I might respond, “Carpe Caesura” … “Seize the Pause”.

IMG_0194

Caesura plays a role in other areas of my life too.

In music, both in my teenage high-school band years and now when I play guitar and sing my own music I love the caesura … the pause … a moment in a tune when all stands still for a moment and we savour the silence and the power of the musical notes that have brought us to that point.

Years ago, John Denver sang a song (appropriately called Annie’s Song) about his then-wife Annie where he reaches a crescendo near the end:

You fill up my senses, like a night in the forest,
like the mountains in springtime, like a walk in the rain,
like a storm in the desert, (….. caesura for a few seconds) … like a sleepy blue ocean.
You fill up my senses, come fill me again.

The caesura gives us just a second or two to feel the depth of his passion for her, making a delicious human moment of love stand still in time.

conductor pause

In my day-to-day interactions I’ve learned that the CAESURA is probably the most difficult, but most important part of interaction we have with those around us.

INTER-ACTION… the word tells me I must take action.

But, after all these years I know that my actions can have profound effects on not just me, but the other too.

If I take action too soon, too impulsively, and respond without taking a moment or day or week of caesura, I may, and often do, say something that doesn’t truly reflect my inner beliefs.

It’s a reflex, a gut reaction.

We’ve all had that sinking feeling of wishing we had said or done something differently if we hadn’t only responded so impulsively.

I don’t want my inter-actions coming from my gut alone, although times arise when our instinctive reaction is the one we end up choosing anyway.

I need time and thought and reflection to know what I really feel and think. I imagine this is why I enjoy writing blog posts; I can stand over my thoughts and view them from different angles before settling on the most appropriate.

In a 21st century world where the pace of living is faster than it has ever been, I want to live a life filled with the joys of caesura – creating a momentary pause … my morning garden walks, my musical pursuits, my personal interactions.

I like this new-to-me word Caesura, and I like what it means.

Caesura might take me a moment longer – which, for an impatient guy like me is challenging – but the pleasures, the rewards – are worth the wait.

morning garden walk

Wanna See A Grown Man Sing? I’m Happy Like A Room Without A Roof …

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four funerals

When I was a young lad, I attended quite a few funerals (my boyhood could probably be written in movie form: Four Funerals and a Wedding).

My somewhat distant male Gray family cousins would be at the family wakes, the only time I ever saw them … grown Gray men with grey hair who all looked the same to me.

There was something else that stood out for me about these cousins. They were very public cryers … giant tears aflow everywhere.

I’d approach my aunt or uncle’s open coffin to say a final goodbye, and as I first discerned the pasty-white face of my reposed relative, I’d hear the bawling sounds of the sobbing Gray men. It made a big impression on a young boy, believe me.

I’ve said in earlier posts that I don’t tear up easily. I didn’t even shed a tear at my own mother’s funeral when I was 15 (the background to that can be found here) – but there are exceptions.

  • Like when I work at the soup kitchen cutting up 20 large onions… yup, sopping wet tear city.
  • When I watch Schindler’s List and the little Jewish girl in the red coat appears against the movie’s black and white background … mucho more tears.
  • When I see which platinum blonde is offered a rose on TV’s The Bachelor… oops … sorry… no tears there AT ALL.

I was watching a 50th anniversary special on TV last week about the movie, The Sound of Music and the opening notes of Climb Ev’ry Mountain began. Without warning, I felt my tear ducts coming to life.Climb evry mountain

How can just a few musical notes elicit such an outsized emotional response?

MUSIC.

Music is the genesis of tears for many of us, isn’t it? It’s a powerful and ubiquitous force in human life.

For eliciting sadness, yes.

But also HAPPINESS in equal measure.

It’s springtime here in the Great White North and time has come to disperse with the gloomy tears. Spring means it’s time to put away the melancholy musical minor keys along with the winter sweaters.

It’s time to bring out the vivacious happy major keys and begin to feel the warm air rushing through our hair as we drive down the beach strip – the diamond sparkles of Okanagan Lake reaching out like stars in the night sky.

When the suns ray’s are bursting brightly over the morning dawn horizon, what mood isn’t made even better with happy, upbeat music?

It’s like hot steamy waffles covered in fresh, sweet berries and delicious, thick maple syrup. It smells good and it tastes great. And it carries us to a sunny spot inside our heads. Maybe physicians should be handing out some “happy music” prescriptions in place of mood elevating scripts …

Music in its magic power drills into our heads and hearts and locates the emotional core that drives our feelings of elation and overpowering joy.

And so today, now that spring is officially here, I’m shedding the melancholy mantle of tear-jerking music. I’m reeling in the carefree, joyous sounds of warmer days ahead – songs that raise our pulse rate and unearth the euphoria that simmers beneath our day-to-day surface like green shoots of promise that remarkably appear.

You must have a dozen or so go-to songs that lift you into the billowy clouds of bliss, am I right? Take the journey with me today and think of those musical strains that bring merry magic into your life.

happy-dance

10 Songs that make me feel giddy and elated:

  1. Happy – Pharrell Williams – not only is this a feel great ear worm, but the accompanying video is the HAPPIEST thing you could watch without the use of illicit drugs …
  2. The Lazy Song – Bruno Mars – the equivalent of putting sprinkles on your ice cream when you match happiness and laziness together … it’s just yummy!
  3. Surfing’ USABarbara Ann – Beach Boys – the blend of classic Beach Boy harmony with steamy beach imagery is summer exemplified.
  4. Knee Deep  – Zac Brown Band – tropical guitar plucking and the feel of warm ocean waters lapping against your skin … oh my paradise!
  5. Walking on Sunshine – Katrina and the Waves – a super fast beat with blaring trumpets gets the blood flowing like thin sap running from a spring maple tree.
  6. What A Wonderful World – Louis Armstrong – an amazing piece of musical miracle that makes you smile and cry at the same time. Wonderful lyrics that speak of happiness with harmonious notes that pull at your heartstrings.
  7. I’m A Believer – The Monkees – Ah, the goofy lads that could sing. A cute little uplifting love song that brings back boyhood images of Mickey Dolenz and Davy Jones. “And then I saw her face, yeah, I’m a Believer” – Me too!!
  8. American Saturday Night – Brad Paisley – a great driving country guitar and fiddle line and beat that just makes you wanna dance, and doesn’t that make you happy!
  9. Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah – James Baskett – who makes more happiness than Disney? What childhood would be complete without the sight of James Baskett singing of life’s pleasures as butterflies and birds flit all around?
  10. MayBerry – Rascal Flatts – I’m a sucker for great harmony singing. The trio of Rascal Flatts makes country harmony a masterpiece when thrown together with a banjo and fiddle background.
  11. You Are The Sunshine – Stevie Wonder – the misty piano/organ that accompanies this set of feel good lyrics should be a required part of any wedding march. I can’t control my sway when I hear this.
  12. One Fine Day – Carole King – I’ve always loved Carole King, so I had to add her to my list. And One Fine Day is a terrific pulse raiser that makes any trip to the beach sweeter. Pure exuberance.

Did you see that? I was feeling so upbeat with all of this euphoria that I snuck in 2 extras.

Going back in time, I wish now that I had met my Gray cousins under happier circumstances than family funerals. I’d bet the lacrimal energy that they put into grieving was probably matched by equal amounts of unbounded joy when they were happy.

For now, I’ve packed away my chilly winter tears and reloaded with carefree spring smiles. Feel free to unload some of your favourite musical smiles to my list – tunes that make your heart sing out loud and draw out your springtime bliss.

Songbird

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