Covid 19 pandemic, music, Pandemic diary

A pandemic diary: Blues and the cold, hard truth

November 12, 2021

Trees in autumn colors on mountain road.
Photo by Ladyfern Photos on Pexels.com

Fall has arrived in Georgia in earnest, slowly overtaking the sugar maple and ginkgo trees we planted last year in our yard. Though we feared they might not survive, thanks to the summer rain they’re growing fast, showing us a palette of red, orange, yellow, and still a bit of green.

In a few weeks the leaves will be gone. I’ll miss seeing those colors out my window in the morning sun, but there’s always a time to let go: of objects, emotions, and people. Today it’s musicians, great artists I’ve listened to for years who are, sadly, on the dark side of the pandemic.

Van Morrison has been ranting about “fascist bullies,” and equating Covid lockdowns with slavery. As a result, he’s being sued for defamation by the Northern Ireland health minster, who says Morrison damaged his reputation and is giving great comfort to, “the tin foil hat brigade.” I’m with the minster and not because his name is Swann. We’re not talking about moondances and brown-eyed girls. This is global life and death.

Cutting Morrison from my playlist is no problem because I never cared for his post-70s records anyway. If I still had a favorite album, it’d be “Astral Weeks,” his very first one. Eric Clapton is another matter. I’ve been a fan since the days of Cream and the Bluesbreakers. Fifteen years ago in Atlanta he delivered one of the best rock concerts I’ve ever seen, burning through his catalogue with a killer band. He seemed to be one of the few from his generation who hit bottom, survived, and got better with age.

Now he calls science “propaganda” and finances anti-vax musicians in England. He’s even palling around with the governor of Texas, an anti-vaccine tyrant who signed his state’s vicious, anti-woman abortion ban.

I’m not going near him if he hits ATL again. His next tour also won’t include the great blues singer and guitarist Robert Cray, who played with Clapton many times and says he won’t do it anymore. Sorry Eric, you’ve been Marie Kondo’d.

Of course, this isn’t the first time my heroes have changed their spots late in life. Thankfully, rockers like Gene Simmons have stayed on the side of the common good and common sense. There’s plenty of great music for this moment in time, including a favorite of mine from the 90s by Bob Mould, David Barbe, and Malcolm Travis, better known as Sugar. It’s called “Changes.” Take care and be safe.

coronavirus, Covid 19 pandemic, music

A pandemic diary: It’s five o’clock somewhere!

October 22, 2020

John Pizzarelli.

It’s Thursday afternoon and the pandemic has got you down. You need a break from the loop of bad news, a slice of normalcy, a little fun. If any of that sounds familiar, go to Facebook or Instagram at 6:00 p.m. Eastern for, “It’s 5 O’Clock Somewhere: A Musical Social From a Distance,” an hour of music and good times hosted by the amazing John Pizzarelli.

My wife and I have been Pizzarelli fans for years but watching these shows for the past few months has helped save our sanity. He’s a jazz singer and guitarist who loves the Great American Songbook, making the classics sound fresh and vital. He’s also the son of legendary guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, who left us in April, followed by John’s mother Ruth a week later.

The show goes live from a “deluxe” cabin at an undisclosed location in New Jersey where John and his wife Jessica Molaskey, aka “the gluten-free singer,” have been isolating. It’s free but John accepts donations, with portions going to organizations like the Jazz Foundation of America, which helps musicians in need.

Tune in and you’ll hear standards like “How High the Moon,” and “Autumn Leaves,” some songs by Johnny Mercer, Sinatra, Nat King Cole and his brother Freddy, but also James Taylor, Paul McCartney, and Brian Wilson, plus Brazilian sounds from Antonio Carlos Jobim. He takes requests and always includes “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” which debuted in the musical “South Pacific” in 1949, but could’ve been written yesterday. He says he’ll keep playing it until it no longer applies.

You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear
You’ve got to be taught from year to year
It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught

The hour has spawned a community, hundreds of regular fans all over the world digging the music, drinking drinks, chatting, and posting pictures. It’s a pure, unadulterated good time. Hope to see you there every Thursday, at least for a while yet, until the craziness ends. Take care and be safe.

.

2020 election, Covid 19 pandemic, humor, life, music

A pandemic diary: Letter to younger self

October 16, 2020

Message in a bottle.

You’ve probably heard of and maybe indulged in the exercise of writing a letter to your younger self. The idea is to take stock, reflect, set down the big lessons of the past, and promise to live by them in the future.

That’s all well and good, but I’ve already made a reverse bucket list of the dumb things I did and great things I didn’t at various stops on life’s elevator. (“First floor: Childhood. Watch out for measles, bullies, and sixth-grade math. Second floor: Adolescence. Eh, just forget it.”) My 20, 30, and 40-year-old selves were so hopeless that I don’t even want them in my head. Besides, all I could offer would be cliches: “Check your tires. Buy Microsoft stock (not Netscape).”

The only previous-edition Dave who could actually use my advice is the 65-year-old geezer who emerged last fall, and like all of us had no idea he was about to tumble into the slop. He’d wish he’d known these things, but maybe y’all can still appreciate some of them.

  • Rent a warehouse and fill it to the rafters with toilet paper. You’ll thank me in March.
  • Forget the wardrobe upgrade. Those sweatpants from the last millennium, the ones with the barbecue sauce and motor oil stains, will be just fine!
  • If you live with a spouse or partner, make a rule that only one of you is allowed to go bonkers at a time. (This comes from my brother-in-law, who learned it while cooped up on a bus with his band.)
  • You’ll hear a lot from a man named Fauci. Trust him.
  • When watching football, please don’t scream at the top of your lungs to make up for all the fans who aren’t in the stands.
  • FFS don’t shell out 70 bucks so your school will put your face on a piece of cardboard in a seat. You’ll be deeply, seriously embarrassed about that one when this is over. Give the money to a food bank instead.
  • Try not to get riled every time you see some nincompoop in public without a mask. It’ll happen a lot more often than you think. Just keep wearing yours.
  • There will be ways to vote and make your voice heard safely.

Last but not least, music will help you through the rough days and make the better ones feel right. Since I’m writing to my younger self, I’ll close with these words: “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.” Makes sense to me. Take care and be safe.

coronavirus, Covid 19 pandemic, life, music, Pandemic diary

A pandemic diary: Take a load

September 5, 2020

When you’re staying home on Labor Day weekend with no football, it helps to have music, the kind that resonates in the heart, that’s steered you through tough times before. I’ve been switching between the now-virtual Detroit Jazz Festival, where I’ve gone in person three times, and the wild party on WWOZ, recapping decades of the unrivaled musical gumbo that is the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage festival or Jazzfest.

Saturday’s menu featured the Allman Brothers, who’ve been in my DNA since high school. I celebrated graduation day in part by buying their “Eat a Peach” album, and months later saw them blow the roof off an arena, coming back strong after the death of bassist Berry Oakley. Decades after that, when my wife and I married on a beach in Florida, our special song was, “Whipping Post.” Seriously. The WWOZ set included classics like “Statesboro Blues,” “Melissa,” and “Midnight Rider,” but also this cover of “The Weight,” with a blistering guest vocal by Susan Tedeschi.

Robbie Robertson, who wrote the tune for The Band, said it was about “the impossibility of sainthood,” and inspired in part by the surrealist films of Luis Buñuel. Despite the religious imagery — Luke, the Devil, Miss Moses, Judgement Day — the “Nazareth” the narrator walks into, feeling ’bout half past dead, is Nazareth PA, where Robertson’s Martin guitar was made.

I’ve heard the song hundreds, maybe thousands of times since its release in 1968 and never has it felt more like the truth. The plague has put the load right on everybody, Crazy Chester is in the White House, and the Devil is walking the countryside in a WalMart camo suit, carrying an AR-15. Even Buñuel’s surreal fever dreams can’t top this. But Judgement Day is coming, and you don’t have to be a prophet to know when: November 3, 2020. I’ll be ready. Regards to everyone. Take care and be safe.

coronavirus, Covid 19 pandemic, life, music

A pandemic diary: Watching and waiting

August 7, 2020

As you might know, Michelle Obama has said she’s dealing with low-level depression over the pandemic, racial strife, and the Trump administration. She’s far from alone: more than a third of us are believed to be suffering from mental distress, but numbers are abstract, impersonal. It’s different when it’s you and me.

Like Ms. Obama, I haven’t been sleeping well. I’m usually all right once I’m up and doing something with my day, even if it’s laundry or loading the dishwasher. My wife and I are still healthy, secure, and don’t have kids or grandkids to worry about when school starts. The knowledge that we’re luckier than most usually helps me stay on an even keel.

This morning, though, I woke up with a song in my head that set off a wave of sadness I’m still trying to shake. My hip friends will think I’ve really gone off the rails when they read that the song was “Watching and Waiting” by none other than the Moody Blues.

In high school and for a while in college, I thought their stuff was pretty heavy. I soon moved on to harder-edged rock as well as blues and jazz, and my Moodies LPs went to the used-record store. I don’t know why this tune popped into my mind when I haven’t heard it since about 1973. Give a listen if you don’t know it or don’t remember. A lot of longtime fans think it’s one of their best.

The point of view is unclear — perhaps God, the Earth itself, or a metaphor for someone’s melancholy spirit. Whatever the song means, for reasons I can’t fathom, today it hit me right between the eyes.

Watching and waiting
For a friend to play with
Why have I been alone so long.

Soon you will see me
‘Cause I’ll be all around you
But where I come from I can’t tell
But don’t be alarmed by my fields and my forests
They’re here for only you to share

All day I’ve been trying to hold it together. Sometimes I can hardly write. I still don’t understand why. I’ve gone through worse times without reacting this way.

But tomorrow is another day. Take care, go easy on yourself, cherish your loved ones, and be safe.

Watching and waiting

For someone to understand me

I hope it won’t be very long

coronavirus, Covid 19 pandemic, life, music

A pandemic diary: Back pages

May 27, 2020

No matter how hard I try to stay positive, the world keeps finding ways to dampen my spirits. The other day, I realized I was driving myself crazier by reading too much and too often about the state of things.

So I picked up what I thought was a covid-free alternative: the spring issue of Oxford American, the scrappy, literate “Magazine of the South.” Then, in the midst of an interesting article, I ran into this.

Magazine ad for Merlefest music festival featuring John Prine.
So long ago.

The sheer ordinariness of it is what hurts so much. When the magazine went to press — believe it or not, just a few months ago — it was natural to plan music festivals for the spring, and definitely to book John Prine. Needless to say, Merlefest, one of the best roots / traditional festivals around, got scrubbed.

I was lucky enough to see John twice in Atlanta in the last decade. And yes, I know we’ll have music again, hopefully including Merlefest 2021. I just wish like hell I could’ve gone to this one. Take care and be safe.

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coronavirus, Covid 19 pandemic, Family, life, music, nature

A pandemic diary: Being here

May 17, 2020

Saturday I attended an online meeting of the Atlanta Writers Club, an organization that predates the last pandemic and is rolling with the punches during this one. Sadly, another much-loved Atlanta event has gone dark: a monthly jam session for singers, including my wife. A bandstand plus a roomful of vocalists and fans is beyond social distancing, and Zoom can’t fill the void. My wife misses working with fine local musicians; I miss hearing her sing the jazz standards we both love. After all, no one else ever dedicated “My Funny Valentine” to me (though my frame is definitely “less than Greek”).

Even without the jam, we had a perfect spring day, the kind that’s becoming rare as climate change pushes winter closer to summer. The mercury topped out at around 80 degrees with no humidity and scarcely a cloud in sight. The breeze filled the living room with the sweet, lush fragrance of honeysuckles, which Fats Waller immortalized in “Honeysuckle Rose,” and are like nothing else, anywhere.

It was a day to sit back, savor what we still have, and rest our souls for tomorrow. I’m not the spiritual type but I gotta tell ya, boychik, Ram Dass was onto something when he said, “Be here now.” Where else can I go? Take care, be here, and be safe.

coronavirus, Covid 19 pandemic, life, music

When the ordinary is plenty

Long before the pandemic, those of us who live with chronic conditions knew that normalcy is precious. It’s easy to take for granted, yet fragile – and once lost, it can be very, very hard to get back. I’ve had to learn that lesson all over again, but also rediscovered another truth: There’s always hope.

My problems are hearing loss and tinnitus: ringing and other sounds in the ears. This means I have to be careful around loud noise, like the racing movie “Ford v Ferrari,” which I was eager to see last fall. In the theater, I turned my hearing aids down as far as possible, counting on their built-in limiters to protect my ears.

The movie sounded fine, if muffled. But for no apparent reason, the TV seemed harsh and distorted later that afternoon. My worry turned to panic when I turned on my favorite jazz station. Bird’s horn, Ella Fitzgerald’s voice, Pat Metheny’s guitar, all the music I treasure, had suddenly become so shrill that I couldn’t bear to listen.

My audiologist told me the limiters would’ve worked for most people. But since I already had nerve damage, the roar of engines blasting through the sound system aggravated my tinnitus and triggered this new effect. It was like living inside a blown speaker. It changed almost every sound in my universe: my wife’s voice, her piano, the air-conditioner, water running in the sink, even the birds. Huey Lewis is going through something similar, which has gotten so bad that he can’t sing any more.

I was depressed because I’d brought this on myself and terrified it would last forever. Of course, the stress compounded the problem, which caused more stress, followed by more distortion. I knew it would happen. I just had a hard time keeping my fears in check, especially when the pandemic touched off its own anxiety.

All I could do was keep living my life and have faith that I’d get better, as I did the last time my tinnitus flared up, and eventually did this time. As I write, I’m listening to WWOZ in New Orleans, one of the best radio stations on Earth, and am savoring every note. I wear earplugs around power tools and machinery and generally avoid loud noise like the coronavirus (i.e., like the plague). I’ll definitely be wearing my plugs when we have concerts again. (I’ll probably have to sit in the back too, but I’m a little old for the mosh pit anyway.)

If you have hearing issues, please be smarter than I was. Whoever you are, take care and be safe. Normal is just fine. Be cool. Dig it.

humor, life, music

Un visiteur grincheux dans le grand pas si facile, or A grumpy visitor in the big not-so-easy

My wife and I just returned from a jazz education conference in the city where jazz was born, the one that greets the suckers tourists with the slogan “Laissez les bon temps rouler!” or “let the good times roll.” However, after a few days in the conference hotel, les bon temps became le mauvais moment* instead. Here’s the scoop.

  1. After driving for two days, we unpack a little, lie down to rest — and find that our bed is like cement. The front desk offers us another room, but we have to trek around to find a decent bed, then repack and schlepp our stuff. When we try to take a shower in room number two, we have…
  2. No hot water! The desk claims, “the engineers are working on the boiler,” which was probably built when Louis Armstrong was a baby and definitely should’ve been patched up before.
  3. There’s no place to hang hand towels, and we can’t reach them without bending down and riling up our backs. Worse, the shower lacks a grab bar for anyone who’s a little unsteady. Note to hotel: not all guests are young and physically flawless.
  4. We grab some chips and get slapped with an outrageous markup, even by New Orleans standards: jacked up from $4.69 to $8.99. Did I mention that the people at the conference are jazz musicians, educators, and students, none of whom have extra cash?
  5. We lie down for the night and have – wait for it – No heat either! Which we need, because despite the sweltering summers, NOLA gets chilly in winter. We pile on some blankets and try to sleep, but…
  6. In the room right above ours, two young sax players are blowing, in both senses of the word. It takes two calls to the desk before security can quiet them down.
  7. Still no hot water or air next morning. Desk says “noon” for a fix. Guess what?
  8. The lobby and common areas are drenched in some noxious freshener / scent / perfume. Just because it’s New Orleans doesn’t mean it should smell like a cheap cathouse, though of course that’s the best kind. (NOT that I have any firsthand knowledge of such a place. Truly. Really! Just a bit of literary license here. Okay??)

In the end, the hotel owned up to the problems and gave us a free night, which we greatly appreciated. Also, the buffet had world-class bread pudding and grits. (And we found the best king cake in town right up the street.)

I’m not as touchy as I sound. I just don’t like having to struggle with the details of life, especially when it puts the damper on something I love, like music. Forget the bon temps: from now on, my personal slogan is, “Go Ahead and Complain. It Might Be Good for You.”

*A bad time (which you probably figured out).

life, music

My Woodstock memories

They finally pulled the plug on Woodstock 50 and I for one am not sorry. Anniversaries aren’t created equal and re-creating this one made no sense to me, despite being part of the generation it supposedly defined. I’ve never liked being branded by others—especially now, when I’m one of those selfish old coots who are systematically destroying the millennials’ future even though we can’t figure out our smartphones. But I digress.

In August 1969 I was fourteen, living with my mother in Michigan, a few weeks away from my first year of high school. Naturally, I was worried about meeting a raft of new kids, keeping up in class, and not being a complete bozo around girls. As if this didn’t stir up enough anxiety, my father had died during the winter, and I was still struggling. A music festival in some far-away place was the farthest thing from my mind.

At that point, I’d never even gone to a concert. And because Kalamazoo didn’t have an FM rock radio station, I was clueless about many of the performers. I’d heard some on Top 40, like Sly and the Family Stone, the Who, and Jefferson Airplane, but that didn’t make me a member of the Woodstock nation. Those three days of peace and music were part of another world. Today that spirit seems like a firefly, glowing for an instant before flickering out, never to reboot.

The Woodstock 50 crew cites lost venues, a dispute with a partner, and various other reasons for cancelling the show, yet claim, “A lot of people clearly wanted it to happen.” They did not. Woodstock came together and made history in spite of financial disaster, hostile local citizens, food shortages, and nasty weather because 400,000 people believed in it. After half a century, nobody cared about getting “back to the garden,” as Joni Mitchell wrote in her haunting song about the original event. Woodstock 50 turned into such a mess that Country Joe McDonald could’ve updated his famous anti-war lyric to, “And it’s one, two, three, what are we paying for?”

That year at school wasn’t fun but I survived and gradually got back on an even keel. The Woodstock film and soundtrack album came out in 1970, and like everybody else I dug Jimi Hendrix, Ten Years After, and especially Santana’s “Soul Sacrifice.” I still cue them up sometimes, but by the time I graduated I’d started listening to jazz too. In a few weeks I’m heading to the Detroit Jazz Festival, which is celebrating its 40th year and will surely have a 41st. Peace.

Original Woodstock poster, "3 Days of Peace and Music."