Saturday, February 27, 2010

Friday, January 16, 2009


My daughter and I will be traveling to D.C. next week for the inauguration. I don't know how much access I will have to computing while we're there, but at some point I hope to share our stories about the crowds, the cold, the history, and the crowds.

Stay tuned.

Sunday, December 28, 2008


What's music for? What does a song do? What should a song do? I've been thinking about these questions lately, as a consumer and a musician.

Recently, an old friend of mine (who is actually quite young, and a musician herself) introduced me to some newer tunes. She turned me on to Fleet Foxes and Greg Laswell, among others. It's not the sort of thing I typically listen to, but I really like them. I find that I am attracted to the sonic qualities and some of the lyrics. I bought 2-3 CDs on iTunes, and I'm enjoying them, particularly as background when I'm driving or having conversation with friends. It's good atmospheric music, in style and effect.

But, something keeps nagging at me. I can't quite put my finger on it, but there is something substantively different about these new indie-folk-pop-rock bands than the music I play and listen to.

In a NY Times article today, Jon Pareles gets at part of it when he explores the way music is being made today. It's not about songwriters and albums anymore--the instrinsic appreciation of the songs--it's about marketing. Before you assume I'm criticizing the artists, let me assure you I'm not. It is virtually impossible to sell music today. No one believes they should have to pay for music anymore; so, the best way to turn it into a financially sustainable enterprise is to attach it to commodities. Whether it's a Grey's Anatomy soundtrack, a car commercial, or sonic wallpaper for office buildings, music has to be sold differently than a decade or two ago.

Pareles asks the important question:
What happens to the music itself when the way to build a career shifts from recording songs that ordinary listeners want to buy to making music that marketers can use? That creates pressure, subtle but genuine, for music to recede: to embrace the element of vacancy that makes a good soundtrack so unobtrusive, to edit a lyric to be less specific or private, to leave blanks for the image or message the music now serves. Perhaps the song will still make that essential, head-turning first impression, but it won’t be as memorable or independent.
After reading that, I may be getting a fix on part of what I was noticing about newer music. It is less specific...?

I have been told by a few people that a very personal song I wrote would be more commercially viable if I would take out the specific references and generalize it. I have not done that, probably as much out of laziness as anything; but, there is something about changing a song that tells my former brother-in-law's tragic, yet hopeful story, into a dramatic pop song. Nothing wrong with that. Might even be a better song. It's just something I am noticing.

I don't share the snarky perspective of Gawker, when Hamilton Nolan took Laswell to task for corporate "bootlicking" by selling his songs to hotel chains for lobby music, Pepsi and Amazon commercials, and nearly a dozen television soundtracks. I don't begrudge Laswell these moves, but I am still interested in how it changes the way music is made.

I wonder if songwriters and producers make room for more atmospheric spaces and less specific poetry so the focus can be on the product or the "feel" a potential buyer would want to get at with the sound.

For the record, let me say there is a difference between your music being picked up and used in a corporate context, and recording songs with a clear eye on that market.

I have several friends who have been delighted to find their songs have been selected for local commercials, national commercials, TV shows, and elevator music, among other commercial outlets; but I don't think that was on their minds when they wrote and recorded the songs. Maybe Nick Drake turned over in his grave when "Pink Moon" was used for that VW commercial, but I doubt it.

I saw a band last night that was a blast from my personal past. Fools Face, a local and regional phenom in the 80s, blew my mind last night. They were sensational, but they were pretty straight ahead rock and roll, with a nice selection of punk-influenced, new-waviness, and pop grunge in the mix. Don't hear too many soundtracks coming out of that, but it was tremendous music.

I guess I find myself at this mid-life point, where culture is changing around me, and I'm trying to make sense of it. I am not entirely unhappy with where pop music is going. It's just becoming something different than what it was. Isn't it? Hmm?

Sunday, December 21, 2008


We've come through an election where sides were chosen and winners were declared. Propositions were made and pastors proclaimed victory. Culture wars were restarted. We seem to be as aware as ever of the lines that separate us, and there is much money and power to be gained making those lines as clear as possible. Blessed assurance sells. Mystery is rarely profitable, outside Agathie Christie and Mickey Spillane.

May we join David Wilcox embracing the unsure this Christmastime, saying, "I didn't join the other side. The battle lines just disappeared."

May the Love we celebrate this season be fearless.

May the lines that we have drawn be blurred.

May "the others" in our lives become very sacred to us, whether they sit across the table, hold a different belief, or play for the other team.

May we all get at least a small dose of vertigo from the unhinged love contained in that small Child, so that when we speak we speak from our blindness and dizziness and emptiness, thus using the very voice of God.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008


I don't really have anything to say about the economic crisis, or the various bailouts in the works. I just thought this moment in history should not pass without someone using this headline.

Saturday, November 29, 2008


I don't think I had fully engaged my thankfulness until the morning after the morning after. Spent a wonderful Thursday with a family of 25, where I tiptoed up to the edge of gluttony, stared into its gorgeous face and embraced it. Fully. Reprised my performance yesterday with another family remnant of six, where, in addition to performing the roll (that's right, I performed the roll, not role) of digestion machines, we baked crazy amounts of cookies and chocolate goodies for my nephew and his buddies serving in Qatar.

Yesterday, as my wife and daughters and I were together decorating the house for the holidays, listening to Christmas music by Sufjan Stevens, James Taylor, Sarah McLachlan, and the late, great Dan Fogelberg, I was reminded--as I am every year about now--how fortunate I am.

When I turn on the faucet I can get hot water, while many in the world can't even get clean water.

I may fear the turns my life may take professionally, aesthetically, emotionally...but I don't live in fear that someone is going to conk me on the head and drag me by the hair into the weeds.

I have more than one guitar, even though I can only play (sort of) one at a time.

I live in a 98-year-old house that is aging well and continually shaping me in its image.

I have three women in my life (only sleeping with one) who are exceedingly beautiful, intelligent, funny, and simply the best company a man could want.

I have friends from the Midwest, to Colorado, to DC, to NYC, to New England, to Florida, to Oregon, to Greece, to Singapore, to New Zealand, to China, and all divers places in between who are meditative, irreverent, crazy smart, and full of grace; who would actually acknowledge my presence in their world and would at least stumble a bit in their daily lives if I were to depart this skin suit.

I live in a country that is confused and in disarray, but where no tanks are rolling in the streets, and we are free to bang our rhetorical heads together as we try to figure things out. And where we are hopeful.

I am generally content with the things I have, and I don't feel the need to trample my fellow humans to death in pursuit of outrageously low holiday prices.

I know Love, when so many do not.

In the words of the profound prayer written by Anne Lamott, "Thank you, thank you, thank you."

Tuesday, November 25, 2008


We have just come through a time of talk. We have heard the candidates and all the pundits had to say, and we have all said our piece. Too often we didn't say our peace, just our piece of some bigger thing that was being hammered against the thing of the other, in hopes of being the winning thing. That's not to say that our piece and peace are always mutually exclusive.

It is my belief that there are two primary uses for communication: conciliation and critique. There is a time for each. There is a time to speak "truth" to power, and jab our rhetorical sticks into the soft underbelly of whatever beast is in need of poking. There is also a time to use our voices as magnets and glue--drawing closer to each other through the sharing of narratives and the building of consensus. Conciliation without critique makes us victims. Critique without conciliation can make us mean.

So, the timing is very appropriate for Storycorps to sponsor the National Day of Listening this week.

As we prepare to enjoy the balm of family and gravy, may we all use this time to be mindful. And listen. Be mindful of the one across the table. Everyone has stories to tell. And it is in the telling that we become aware of who and what we are.

In the listening we take on the posture of thanksgiving. How can we give thanks when we are onstage or on the attack, or preaching, or desperately needing to be right?

Two ears and one mouth? Must be a sign from God.