Category Archives: 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.

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. No one else ever dedicated “My Funny Valentine” to me.

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.

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.

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).

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."

Shrinkage: the other kind

I’m not the man I used to be. No matter how hard I try to live a proper life in all ways physical, intellectual, and emotional, I am a lesser person.

How lesser am I? About an inch. Relax: this has nothing to do with the “Seinfeld” that so eloquently portrayed the shrinkatory effect of cold water on the male, uh, exclamation point. The missing inch came out of my height.

This became clear when I was going through old papers and found a medical report from my college years, which listed my height as six feet plus half an inch (6’ 0.5”). At my last visit to the doctor a few months back, I checked in at 5’ 11”. Even if that means 5’ 11” and a quarter, a half, or two-thirds, I’m going through a slow but undeniable vertical fail. This isn’t fake news! I can’t argue with cold, hard science and real-time medical technology (like a measuring stick).

Why do we self-condense? Over time, the discs between the vertebrae dehydrate and compress, or maybe collapse from osteoporosis. The spine can get curved, or muscle loss in the torso can give you a stoop. Even the gradual flattening of your arches can leave you shorter.

The loss can start as early as age 30, which is about when my hair started vanishing. I’m used to that, but this plunges me into the tar pit of male insecurity. All my life, I’ve considered myself a Tall Guy. Can I honestly think of myself that way if I no longer top the six-foot baseline? Will I get busted by the vanity police?

My wife often asks me to “come here and be a tall person for a minute” when she needs something off a high shelf. Can I still fulfill her desires? (Not THOSE desires. I already told ya this ain’t about the meat and the motion.)

The worst kind of shrinkage is the kind that’s going on in my personal hard drive, also known as my brain. After 60+ years, it’s critically overstuffed with useless facts, and seems to be sending some of them down to the minors, for recall only when needed.

Just now, I couldn’t for the life of me remember the name of a Cajun band I saw at a joint called Tornado Alley in suburban Washington DC about 22 years ago. I remembered other Cajun musicians: the Balfa Brothers, D. L. Menard, Bruce Daigrepont, Terrence Simien and the Mallet Playboys, etc., before finally hitting the holy grail of Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys.  This is what’s known as a “senior moment.”

I try to limit my cranial clutter by weeding out nonessential info, like the name of the person I’ve just met, but it’s a losing battle. Now if you’ll excuse me, whoever you are, I’ve got to go put on some high heels.

New Yorker nostalgia

This morning while channeling my inner klutz, I spilled a full cup of coffee right next to my chair, with the splash zone covering the end table, the rug, and a stack of books and magazines. Dryness was soon restored, and most of the mags were old Sports Illustrateds I’d been planning to get rid of anyway. But the casualties also included my last remaining paper copies of the New Yorker. And this touched the heartstrings a bit, because such copies have been in my home or my parents’ home for about 75 years.

My folks subscribed soon after they married in 1939. Though founder Harold Ross famously said The New Yorker wasn’t written for “the little old lady in Dubuque,” it was just fine for a young couple in Springfield, Illinois, not that far away. My mother saved some of the covers, like this one from 1942, for years afterward, and the magazine was always around the house when I was growing up. I remember reading parts of “In Cold Blood” when the New Yorker carried a serialized version in the 60s. I also picked up my dad’s love of New Yorker legends like A. J. Liebling and James Thurber, who I wrote about in a 10th-grade English paper (and got an A).

My mother later gave me a gift subscription that she renewed every Christmas (along with other ritual, much-loved presents like socks and chocolate). I stuck with it through the erratic years just before Tina Brown took over, when one week there’d be some interesting, well-written pieces and the next there’d be a 90-page treatise on goat cheese, Balinese wood carvings, or something equally esoteric.

Last year I finally switched to a digital, Kindle subscription, which does have its advantages. They include timely delivery every Monday morning, which the Post Office could never manage, and of course the end to a paper backlog. No more back issues like the ones I spilled coffee on, maybe a couple years’ worth, scattered around various rooms. No more having to scan every one before deciding whether to toss it or keep it in hopes of one day reading that one interesting piece I hadn’t gotten to yet.

Do I sound like I’m trying to convince myself this change is a good thing?

I know all the great writing is still out there. In fact, the magazine has an online archive of every issue going back to the first one in 1925. I can look up the one from ’42 with the Hitler cover anytime. But a small part of everyday life that seemed permanent, forever, is still gone.

Billy Bragg, one of my musical heroes, hit on something similar when he wrote “The Tears of My Tracks” about selling his vinyl albums: “I opened the window / I let in the sun / My record collection has ended / For someone else’s just begun. I’m down, but I’m not out / Lord I’m hurting / I’m down, but I’m not out / But I feel blue.”