Love and Mercy, the new movie about Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, is a deeply moving, often brilliant film. It makes up for all the crummy rock music biopics that have come before. Those films follow the predictable three act “Behind the Music” story arc: band gets big, gets drugged, then gets redeemed, through Jesus, Rehab, or a reunion tour. Read more…
I keep getting tangled up in strange loops of time. I’ve told the true fairy tale of how I came to Mill Valley in the summer of 1970, vowed to live there and then found myself doing just that, 44 years later. But that was last month. Whatever time-release spell enchanted me wore off, leaving me in Oakland.
Or so I thought, until an old friend invited me back to Mill Valley, to hear Marty Balin at the Throckmorton Theatre.
Jefferson Airplane, 1967, Marty Balin top right
I last saw Marty Balin….44 years ago, at the Fillmore East, with the Jefferson Airplane. If Jerry Garcia was my Guitar Hero back then, Marty was more of a personal hero to me. He put fine lyrics to lovely melodies, and sang better than anyone else in the scene (unless you count Janis, and I don’t know that ”singing” is exactly what she did. Shreiking is more like it.) Behind all the stuff Marty did so well was something unique. He was a guy who sang unabashedly about the way he felt. Yes, John Lennon had broken that ground. But everything Lennon sang had a tinge of anger. Marty Balin expressed dark things too – regret, sorrow. But he also did love (and lust) and exuberance.
It’s obvious that the radical 60s were all about liberation – for blacks, women and gays, and from sexual repression. That time was also about the struggle for freedom from emotional repression.
When the Beatles hit and the girls screamed my parents pointed out that “they screamed for Sinatra, too,” as if that explained it. It didn’t. Sinatra and his ilk were all about pretending to express feeling while avoiding it. The way my parents did. The way I did, until the Beatles came along. I heard the Beatles and wanted to be free. I heard Marty Balin and wanted to be him.
Marty had a way of manifesting things that had previously been contradictory. His lovely tenor was androgynous, yet he was no wimp. When the Hell’s Angels started beating on a naked guy at Altamont Marty jumped off the stage to protect him and got knocked out for his trouble. He was smart, a deep thinker, yet when it came time to lay bare his heart he pushed all the thinking aside, and went for the gut.
But what was he doing now? I wondered as we sat in the Throckmorton along with maybe 150 people. Marty appeared with a guitar, a standup bass player and another guitar player. All acoustic, but plugged into amps. At first it was too loud for us geezers. But we got used to it.
They started with “It’s No Secret,” from the first Jefferson Airplane album, followed by some newer songs I didn’t know. They were decent, and at moments through the crummy acoustics I could tell, he still had his voice! That voice.
Marty hit a certain familiar riff and I got chills. I had hoped against hope that he would do my very favorite of his songs – “Young Girl Sunday Blues” from After Bathing at Baxter’s. Baxter’s was one of the only successful psychedelic art experiments in history – five brilliant but discordant personalities dropping a ton of acid at some spa and somehow emerging with a melodious masterpiece that speaks more truly of the High 60s than any other musical work. I was so smitten with “Young Girl Sunday Blues” back in the day that I felt compelled to perform it, despite the ridiculously high range. I could never hit the notes.
Marty couldn’t hit them now, either. So he sang the whole song on a lower harmony. Lesser singers might have copped out to a falsetto, but Marty Balin could no more sing in falsetto than Wyatt Earp could shoot with a pea-shooter. Unfortunately that made the song unrecognizable. All the time he sang the version from the record was playing in my head, and that thing I wanted so badly was just there, out of reach….No, you can’t go home again.
Or maybe you can. Because he followed that disappointment with “Today,” then “Coming Back to Me,” hitting the notes (they are ranged lower) and I was back in some dorm room, marveling at those words, at that unfamiliar tugging in my chest….
He covered Paul Kantner’s “Martha” from Baxter’s, and they extended the end into a little Grateful Dead style jam, and I thought – These are the original San Francisco Sound guys. Or at least one of them.
And then it was onto the Starship. Jefferson Starship is unquestionably a greasy, unclassy 80’s Big Hair band. In the early days of the Internet a number of “Worst Songs in History” lists were topped by “Built This City.” This is plain unfair. I can think of a hundred far worse songs. No, the unreasonable animus towards the Starship is really outrage at the chutzpah of implying this creaky vehicle could ever take you higher than the Airplane.
I like “Miracles,” despite it’s schmaltzy arrangement. Hearing it stripped of strings and Grace Slick’s over-enthusiastic harmonies
I realized just what an odd hit record it makes. The chord changes are all over the place and the form wanders, echoes of the eclectic, searching spirit which made Baxters.
“Hearts” is a well crafted tune, but it has an old standard vibe that threatens to reduce that voice to mere crooning. Still, a couple of days later it’s stuck in my head.
I couldn’t imagine how he could possibly cover “Volunteers” – a period piece if ever there was. Neither could he. He didn’t.
“Summer of Love” is a recent song that does a decent job of capturing nostalgia for the spirit of ’67, but with one poignant note. He sang:
Summer of Love, which I was a part of….
And I wanted to shout, Come on Marty, you don’t have to tell us. We all know!
He sang for a solid two hours, didn’t forget a single lyric, and was plenty pumped, a spry 72. Near the end of an extended encore he really loosened up (I suspect he shares with many great performers some stage fright.) His guitar player laid down a bump-and-grind riff, Marty unstrapped his guitar, grabbed the mike and lit into a most unusual song: “Stripper.”
You show me yours, I’ll show you mine….Take it all off!
He gyrated like a rock star, which was somehow surprising, except that of course he is one. But I detected in his smile a strong note of irony. Smart Marty.
As the song developed it became apparent that this was no mere sex song, but sex as metaphor for the very opening up of the heart that’s always been his gift to rest of us. He made it explicit:
Love is a stripper.
Stripping away all the defenses, all the delusions and fears.
He ended by turning the metaphor on its head, whispering some stuff that made the steamier parts of “Miracles” seem tame. I heard gasps from some of the gals (and guys) in the audience.
I’ll let Marty close this show:
Don’t you know that I have found it, maybe you’ve found it too
Today is made up of yesterday and tomorrow
Young girl Sunday blues and all her sorrow
My mother was a confirmed atheist. She believed in no higher power, in nothing that couldn’t be quantified. She barely believed in the existence of emotions. But everyone’s got to believe in something, even my mother.
She was an orthodox liberal who fervently believed in equality. Racism, anti-Semitism, all forms of discrimination and prejudice were deadly sins in her book, and they all grew from the original sin: stereotyping. Stereotyping arises from a need to feel that my group (insiders) is superior to theirs (outsiders.)
It’s an old, deep instinct. In one of its virulent forms – xenophobia – we can perhaps see that it once conferred an evolutionary benefit, because insiders may have had good reason to fear diseases carried by outsiders. A nasty vestige of this instinct can be seen in some people suggesting that the 50,000 immigrant children who recently arrived in the US must be carrying diseases. Never mind that the same thing has been said about every wave of US immigrants, and with as little reason.
After spending some time in Europe I observed to my mother how interesting it was that the French were great cooks and the Germans lousy; whereas the opposite was true of music. She excoriated me for stereotyping, and of course when it comes to individuals she was right: I have a good French friend who’s a fine composer, and learned to cook from someone whose family came here from Germany.
Since that run-in with my mother I hadn’t given the subject of stereotyping much thought until I started writing fiction. One of my pet peeves as a reader is cardboard characters, and I certainly don’t want to write them. Cardboard characters are two-dimensional, all surface. Rather than be formed of flesh and blood and strong bones they’re made of tics and tropes, the stuff of stereotypes. No matter how much adrenaline an author packs into a story, the story doesn’t touch me if I can’t identify with the people all the action is happening to. You can run a character over with a Mack truck, nuke them to smithereens, but I don’t care if they’re made of cardboard.
How do you write real characters? One way is by becoming a student of other people. By observing how they walk and talk, and listening to what they have to say, all the while populating an inner database of gestures, expressions, attitudes, accents, and yes, prejudices, because everyone has them. When it comes time to write you have a growing body of knowledge from which to draw.
I just moved to California from Massachusetts. I did not cross the great plains in a covered wagon, fighting off wolves and stereotypical native Americans, but flew. The morning of my flight the line at Jet Blue was long, winding around five of those corralling fences. It was too early. I was tired and toting too much crap. And I hate standing in line.
Lines evoke in me an irrational anxiety, a kind of social claustrophobia. One effect is to accentuate my sense of the others in line as outsiders. It’s like I see them through a dingy filter. They look all wrong, and I start thinking bad thoughts about them.
Judging. And stereotyping.
What’s that teenager doing wearing a Foxy Lady tee-shirt? The shirt doesn’t make her any foxier. And what the hell are those people doing wearing Hawaiian shirts, and laughing at 6:30 in the morning? Where’s the TSA when you need them?
A group of guys stands behind me. To now their conversation has just been a low menacing grumble, but they seem to be getting excited about something, and I catch a few words. The Venetian! Vegas! It dawns on me. Foxy Lady and the Hawaiian shirt folks and these guys are all headed to Las Vegas.
They coalesce in my fear-addled brain into a stereotypical group – Idiots who go to Vegas. Never mind that I’ve been there several times myself. Hey – I was there on business! I’ll admit, the lights were a kick, and so was looking down my nose at all the tacky hotels. Paris. The Venetian. Caesar’s Palace. The Bellagio….
Because you see, I’ve been to the real Bellagio, up on Lago di Como (that’s Italian for lake Como, you morons.) I’ve been to the real Paris, and Rome, and Venice.
Bellagio, Las Vegas
They both have water, but….
Looking on those ersatz palaces was when my stereotype of Vegas-goers thrust its ugly head into the light, but its roots went deeper. Back to my mother. Because while she believed herself to be tolerant of people of all races and ethnicities, at the same time she was incredibly judgmental of the actual people she knew – family and friends. And judgmental of everyone else, on the basis of class. She was, in a word, a snob. She had a longer nose than anybody I’ve known, and looked miles down it at everyone with “bad taste.” Which is to say, different taste than hers, which was strictly Modernist. (Probably the reason I came to love all things Victorian, which she despised.)
I know exactly what she would have said about those folks on their way to Vegas. The same thing I was telling myself.
I turned and cast the corner of a jaundiced eye on the group behind me. Guys in their thirties. Vaguelly ethnic. Not Hispanic, but with broad faces….Armenian? I did business with some Armenians one time…. Probably wearing polyester, though with what I know about clothes I wouldn’t know it if I saw it. And then the kicker. Thick Boston Accents.
Judgment city. And then I remembered my new job – snooping, observing, filling that database. And before my eyes these cardboard jerks on their way to throw their money away, or whatever, filled out into three dimensions. Became real people.
They were on their way to a bachelor’s party. Along with about 15 cousins. (Damn, wish I had 15 cousins!) The guy doing most of the talking had been to the promised land of Vegas and was cluing his buddy in on it.
“You won’t believe the rooms at the Venetian – they’re suites! You walk down steps to the bedroom!”
“You’ve heard about the restaurants in the hotel, they’re amazing! But you’ve got to wear businessman’s casual. I brought a white shirt. That works with anything.”
“Good. I brought one, too. What about the gambling?” The second guy sounded worried.
The first guy laughed. “Drop a couple of bucks on the slots, say you’ve done it, then move on.” He reminded me of myself evangelizing about French Cathedrals and the ruins of Rome. Never mind that their Venice was fake. These guys were no longer part of an outside group, but we were in the same group. Of people searching for that quality buzz, the Higher Ground.
Before you start inviting me to the goody-two-shoes club I should remind you that I’m still a writer. That’s topsay, a vampire. Though I wished those fellows a fine time, I had no compunction about mining their supposedly private lives for my database and using them for my characters. I already have.
“Go West, young man, go West. There is health in the country, and room away from our crowds of idlers and imbeciles.” Horace Greeley said this, or perhaps not.
The view from my door.
How is it that I’m suddenly living in California, after 63 years on the East Coast? I’ve been asking myself this question for the last two weeks.
The easy explanation is that our son and grandson moved here and need our help. True, but it all started a long time ago, forty-four summers to be precise, back at the end of the fairy tale 60s…..
Once upon a time there was a young hippie who lived in Connecticut. Though enrolled in college he was not much of student, for he whiled away the hours playing guitar and reading books like The Electric Koolaid Acid Test. So he was forever dreaming of the Great Wizard Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters who traveled the country in a Magic Bus experiencing unimaginable adventures, gobbling lysergic potions and dancing to the sounds of the Wizard’s minstrels, the Grateful Dead. The Wizard Kesey spoke in riddles. He said, “You’re either on the bus or off the bus.” The young hippie didn’t know what this might mean, because when he looked around there was not a psychedelic bus in sight.
Then one day he was strolling down the big hill at the college when he saw a bus, and no ordinary school bus, but painted the blue of a robin’s egg. At that very moment the bus door creaked open and out popped the driver, a fellow in overalls with the longest beard the young hippie had ever seen, who smiled and waved, Come on board!
In no time the young hippie was “on the bus,” rolling away to parts unknown. Many hours passed in which he became ravenous. But all there was to eat was a sack of dried hippie cereal. He gobbled it by the handful until he felt a massive bellyache coming on. But neither the bellyache nor the dreary lowlands through which they passed could stop the quivering in his chest that told him some great miracle awaited him at the end of this journey.
Then they drove onto the grounds of some kind of outdoor stadium with an enormous stage high in the air upon which began to appear the minstrel heroes of his youth. It was hard to know which was more wondrous – Buddy Guy, The Band or Janis Joplin. And then as from the pages the book which had inspired his dreams, those minstrels from the legendary bus itself, the Grateful Dead, appeared and played well and sang not so well.
He was invited onto the train the minstrels traveled on, and who should he find eating scrambled eggs and toast like any ordinary hippie but Jerry Garcia, Guitar Wizard and chief minstrel of the Dead. He greeted the young hippie with a twinkle in his eye and agreed to be interviewed for the college newspaper. Soon the young hippie’s eyes where wide as saucers, for the Wizard spoke of wondrous things, not the least the fact that he was at that very moment still flying, having eaten a slice of birthday cake that had been dosed with the Pranksters favorite potion, LSD, as was the custom with the Dead.
The young hippie’s audience with the Great Guitar Wizard lasted long into the afternoon. By the time he got off the train he was sure he’d found that wonderful thing he’d ridden all this way to find. And indeed the Wizard had gifted him with the resolve to make his career in music. And so he did.
Yet something told him that it was not time to return home yet, that more wonders awaited him out in the great land. He abandoned the big blue bus for a small blue bus, a VW camper, and continued west with two friends from the college. Their friendship was fair, and the food was better on the small bus: now they shared once a day a whole pot of brown rice with a can of Campbell’s Soup. Even so the young hippie became hungrier and hungrier as they crossed misty mountains and traced deep dark canyons on their way West.
The young hippie became convinced that the mysterious thing he sought must lay at the very edge of the continent, that the sight of the Great Pacific Sea would be a wonder all in itself.
And so it was. They stood high on a cliff gazing on a vastness that made the Pacific’s sister the Atlantic look pale and piddly as a mud puddle. The sun was about to set and the three hippies simultaneously had the same thought – How much more wondrous would this sunset appear if they could taste of the magic potion?
At that very moment some local riffraff appeared from the beach below sold the weary travelers a potion, which they ate. The great glowing orb went down. As it approached the horizon, already resplendent with colorful jiggles and squiggles, its bottom flattened and oozed to the sides so that it resembled nothing so much as a hat. The travelers looked at each other. Was that it, what they’d come all across the continent for? Did that hat somehow contain that illusive answer, the answer to the question of existence?
They would never know, because like that the sun was gone and they stood down on the beach in the pitch black with an icy wind howling at them from Japan right through their bones. The riffraff who’d sold them the potion did have the sense to make a fire, but soon as they approached it to get warm it blew smoke in their eyes. And the riffraff spent the rest of the night telling over and over of things too boring to repeat, for it turned out they were not only riff raff, but morons.
By the time the sun finally reappeared the young hippie vowed that we would never dark the door of that potion again. And to date he has not.
It was high time to return East to the college, but one last wonder beckoned: the fabled city of San Francisco, promised land of the hippies. Yet when they reached the streets of Haight and Ashbury they found them to be not paved with gold, and as by some curse emptied of every last hippie, with not even an emaciated speedfreek in sight.
Where could the hippies have gone? Another friend from the college had told them of a girl who lived up in Marin north of the City. They drove across the Golden Gate Bridge and were immediately swallowed by the mouth a dark tunnel, and despaired, except that one of them pointed to the rainbow painted around the mouth of the tunnel and said, “I think this is a friendly tunnel.”
And so it was, for they emerged into the little village of Mill Valley, a place so rustic and cute and crawling with granola that they thought they must have dreamed it. They wound up an enchanted canyon through swirling fog to the girl’s house where she invited them in and showed them the stream that ran right through the living room, and as was the custom they cried, “Oh, wow!” And then she further blew their minds by opening her vast refrigerator, saying, “my food is yours,” and handing them her stash, “And these magic herbs, too,” and pointing to beds with thick mattresses and clean sheets, “And here you may sleep.”
To say that they were hungry at this point is to say that the Great Sea is full of water. They smoked some of the magic herb and ate a bologna sandwich, and then another one. They went outside and craned their necks up at red-barked trees that stretched to the sky. And the young hippie pronounced, “I shall make my home here, in Hippie Heaven.”
But the young hippie returned to the college. Many years passed in which he grew old. His music flourished, yet not so much that he was rich. He was not the last to discover that Hippie Heaven, and soon the houses became more expensive. So though he sometimes visited San Francisco, he could never afford to make it his home.
Until now. I’ve been living for the last two weeks up a canyon in Mill Valley. It’s only til the end of the month, as we look for a place that we can afford in the East Bay.
I have long believed that if you want something badly enough, for long enough, you’ll get it. Oakland may no be Mill Valley, but we’re here, in the Bay Area, and it’s a kind of promised land.
This post is an experiment. I normally never listen to music when I write. Like many musicians music can never really serve as background for me. I can’t help listening to it, and it’s distracting to my words. Right now I’m listening to Ingrid Michaelson’s new album Lights Out.
I’ve been spending a lot of time lately with my nineteen-month-old grandson. He has a limited vocabulary – “wa-wa” when he wants a drink, “whee-whee” when he hears a siren, “dig-dig” when he sees a bulldozer, apparently the most fascinating thing in the world. When he sees anything or anyone else he likes he yells, “Yeah, yeah, yeah!” and I can’t help but think he’s inadvertently quoting The Beatles’ “She Loves You,” number one exactly fifty years ago.
The world blasts into my grandson’s unjaded consciousness unfiltered, and his reactions blast out, unsullied by second-guessing or consideration of what anybody might think of him. It was the same when I first heard The Beatles. My musical ears were fresh as J.J.’s and I responded with my own unembarrassed “Yeah, yeah, yeah!” I joined a Beatles imitation band and in a few years gave up the dreams of parents and grandparents for me and dedicated my life to music.
Fifty years later I’m done with making music and happy to finally be able to listen for sheer pleasure, without studying what I’m hearing. The problem recently is that I’ve got nothing to listen to. My ears have gotten jaded. Nothing’s been doing it for me – not Jimi Hendrix, Nerina Pallot, not even J. S. Bach, my ultimate fallback. Even the most sublime music gets tired when you hear it too often.
The obvious thing is to find new great music. I’ve been looking. And looking.
Today it found me. I was messing around on itunes when in its wisdom it flashed a banner for the new Ingrid Michaelson album, Lights Out, a wisdom informed by my previous purchases of Ingrid’s previous efforts, Everybody and Human Again.
The song that first sold me on Ingrid Michaelson was “Ghost.” It’s one of the all time great pop torch songs. I’m always a sucker for strings, and it’s got plenty, woven into a masterful and dramatic arrangement. I’m an even bigger sucker for a big hook melody, and it’s got that too. Ingrid’s voice whispers, weeps and wails its way through a downright harrowing tale of someone reduced by bad love to a wraith, desperately clinging to the melody like the lover she’s lost.
Like all great pop records I’m swept up in the sound, and only listen to the lyrics later. To find that they’re as impeccably crafted as every other aspect of her productions.
As I moved on from “Ghost” I was surprised to find that Ingrid’s “Ghost” voice was only one of several. Like the great Dusty Springfield she can reinvent her pipes when the song requires it.
And many of them do, especially on Lights Out. Here her songwriting ranges from exuberant pop (“Girls Chase Boys”) to “Ghost”-like haunted (Open Hands) to spooky and experimental (Handsome Hands), blue eyed soul (“Warpath”) to the exquisite and transcendent (“Wonderful Unknown.” ) This last song is about marriage, a sweet memento mori in which love and impermanence are perfectly balanced. The ostensible hook, (“Here we go…”) is a feint that disguises the real hook, which snuck up and eventually knocked me right on my ass. She sings it with husband Greg Laswell, in what I can only hope is a testament to an extraordinary marriage: “In the best way, you’ll be the death of me.” Lurking around the back of the arrangement are the Mellotron flutes from The Beatles “Fool on the Hill.” Almost enough to make me think she knows I’m listening…
I had a bad moment with that hook, afraid I’d just been infected with an earworm. Then came the next song, and the next with hook after hook and they somehow miraculously canceled each other out, conferring a kind of immunity. For now.
For all of the stylistic variations, Ingrid Michaelson never forgets her main mission –distilling emotion to a luscious 190-proof, as seductive and potent as the finest Absinthe, then serving it up with spoonfuls of caramelized sound that remove any hints of wormwood. Because make no mistake, this woman’s feelings run deep and sometimes dark.
There’s an ingenuousness in her voice that confers trust – the trust that she won’t lie about those feelings. It’s a quality that’s sorely lacking in so many female pop singers of recent decades, who emote and caterwaul and perform melismatic acrobatics, but whose real message is “buy my record.” (I’m not naming names – last time I did I got the Pomplamouse minions after me. It was bad.)
Many of Ingrid’s early songs, like “The Way I Am,” display a naiveté and tendency to repetition such that they could almost be mistaken for children’s songs. But the simplicity of her recent work is that of mature art, which comes from paring away all unnecessary ideas and attitude.
It’s a testament to the fallen state of the music business that this artist, who fifty years ago would have been on a major label and world famous, languishes on her own label, and is far from a household word.
Except that as of yesterday Lights Out was No. 3 in all music on Amazon. And right next to Linda Ronstadt, another woman who knows a thing or two about expressing emotion with her voice. (Sadly silenced.)
And so just in time for Easter and Passover and pagan Rites of Spring, music is reborn, at least for me.
So what’s the result of my experiment? It’s got me feeling a bit like my grandson. When it comes to Ingrid Michaelson right now, I’m all “Yeah, yeah, yeah!” Nothing wakes the inner child like music and art. Except maybe the outer child.