Don McLean’s “American Pie” pronounced Buddy Holly’s sudden 1959 death as “The day the music died.” Perhaps so, but nobody my age will forget 50 years ago today when it came roaring back to life with the Beatles’ first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. We kids and our families were still reeling from another unforgettable event, President Kennedy’s assassination little more than 100 days earlier. But thanks to a massive musical marketing campaign that ranks among the Fab Four’s many firsts, a record 73 million Americans hovered before their tubes that evening, anxious to see what the fuss was about.
Boy did we find out. I won’t attempt to reconstruct the electricity of the Liverpudlians’ five songs before a screaming studio audience. If you were there, you know. If not, you have probably been bludgeoned to tears by Baby Boomers like me about its significance. Suffice it to say that John, Paul, George and Ringo never again needed to have their names keyed before their faces (including, much to Lennon’s chagrin, the addition of “Sorry, girls, he’s married”).
When the Beatles hit, America was in the throes of a hootenanny craze that put folk music front and center stage. I was barely 12, singing and playing hand percussion with two other boys in sort of a baby Kingston Trio. We played 15-minute sets as the opening act of hootenannies around eastern Iowa. We were more cute than good, but it was heady stuff for this corn-fed kid. My personal highlight was talking at length backstage one evening to a large, kindly woman from a Greenwich Village trio that suggested Peter, Paul & Mary. I couldn’t believe that this diva from the epicenter of Folkdom was tolerating a little hick twerp like me. I didn’t remember her name, but I certainly recognized her face when she resurfaced a couple years later– again on the Ed Sullivan Show– as Cass Elliot of The Mamas and Papas.
But I digress. Within six months of the Beatles’ Sullivan appearance I was off the hootenanny circuit, banging on a drum kit in one of the gazillion garage bands spawned by the Moptops. We called ourselves The Dodge Boys because the keyboardist’s dad owned a local car dealership and bought most of our equipment. We played absolutely no folk, but lots of Beach Boys, Stones, Byrds, Kinks- and of course the Beatles.
Though The Dodge Boys crashed not long after the ad campaign that inspired them, the Beatles have been constant companions on my “Long and Winding Road.” I’ve since come full circle musically and cover lots of genres– including folk– but the Fab Four more often than not find their way into my setlists. The Beatles have also grown and spread through my life like my hair (I still have it– yippee!) in countless other ways. Over the years I saw surviving Beatles Paul and Ringo, and wrote a book for young people called, Revolution: The Story of John Lennon (Imagine was my first choice but Yoko has it copyrighted– I kid you not). I even married a girl named (Hey) Jude, who will be my date tonight as we watch the TV special on this day that changed everything.
Phil Everly and his brother Don were a testament to the power of two. They are forever enshrined among us who have ever tried to sing in harmony, and everyone else who listens to the countless bands they influenced. The Everlys’ few years of fame beginning in 1957 was before my musical time. But they were idols of many artists such as The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Simon and Garfunkel, The Byrds and The Hollies that we teenage garage-banders covered in the 60s. Without realizing it, by impersonating them, we were actually trying to imitate the Everlys. And mostly, we failed miserably.
As an older and wiser adult, I became a disciple of the 50s pop/rock pioneers that so inspired my childhood idols. When I took up guitar in my late 20s, one of the first songs I learned was, “Bye Bye Love.” The three chords were simple enough, as were the spare but dead-on lyrics about lost romance. But something was missing. You can’t sing an Everly Brothers song as one person any more than you can simultaneously strum and chord a guitar with one hand. Every Phil needs a Don, and vice versa. So if you like harmony singing and love the Everlys, let me know. My Taylor’s in hand, and I can go high or low on “Bye Bye Love.”
I have what I call a “10% Solution”: I donate 10% of my earnings from musical performances and author programs to charity. I typically try some new causes each year; and while many seem extremely worthwhile, others seem to exert their greatest energy trying to get more money from me.
I recently ran across The Hunger Site Store in cyberspace. Run by an organization called The Greater Good, it is an online store that, at the very least, donates about two cups of food somewhere in the world it is badly needed for every dollar you spend. Better yet, most of the hundreds of items are custom-made by individual craftsmen or third-world small businesses, and fair traded. The site even runs sales and other specials, like sort of a munificent Macys. I couldn’t resist clicking up a sleigh full of global gifts ranging from Ghanian and Peruvian apparel to herbal goods produced by a battered women’s shelter in Colorado. You can’t beat capitalism for a cause; for your last-minute shopping needs, check out www.thehungersite.greatergood.com
This month also marked my fifth season of performing holiday concerts, mostly at senior venues. This year saw a record 14 holiday shows, beginning on December 6 and ending 21 days later with a final performance at my birthplace, Muscatine Iowa. They’ve become one of my favorite holiday traditions; and as I tell people at the end of each show, I wish you all a belated Happy Hannukah- a Joyous Kwanzaa– a Rockin’ Ramadan to come, and a very Merry Christmas!
As you undoubtedly know if you’ve turned on your computer or TV (or less likely, picked up an actual newspaper), today is the first anniversary of the Newtown Massacre that killed 27 people (including the murderer’s mother), most of them elementary school kids. There is little I can say to elaborate on this monumental tragedy. Newtown could easily have happened anywhere including my home state of Wisconsin, thanks to our laws on such things. The victims could have been my grandchildren, or your loved ones.
I grew up in a hunting family, and used to own two shotguns myself. I support the rights of people to hunt responsibly; and like most people I know, am not out to “take away everyone’s guns” as the NRA claims. I also know that no legitimate hunter uses or needs assault-grade weapons that can spew 100 bullets as fast as you can jerk the trigger. There is no earthly reason they should even be available, let alone so easily accessible to virtually anyone– including those bent on harm.
Me being me, after Newtown I turned to song to channel my outrage at our legislative tolerance of gun violence– alone among “civilized” nations– that permitted Newtown to happen. Instead of belaboring the obvious about the absurd U.S. gun laws that have literally triggered this and so many other avoidable tragedies, I took the proverbial road not taken. ”My Main Squeeze” is written from the point of view of a mentally unstable person not unlike many others, except in our society he can obtain the means to mow down dozens of people before anyone can stop him.
I wrote this song a year ago, hoping it would become obsolete in a flurry of post-Newtown federal and state legislation to end the conditions that enabled this terrible event. Unfortunately, a year later, it is more relevant than ever. I don’t expect you to necessarily enjoy “My Main Squeeze”– it’s not that kind of song. I do hope you will add your voice and your vote come election time to make its subject– near-universal access to weapons of mass destruction– a thing of the past for the generations that follow us.
To play “My Main Squeeze,” click on this: 01 – Track 1
I walked into my home office on this sunny morning wishing I was greeting the day with my dog Otis at our nearby lake, not trudging to the computer to crank out a white paper. Something stopped me in my tracks: tattooed on the back of my hand was a luminous rainbow. It was then I saw that the entire room was splashed with mini spectrums.
My wife Jude likes crystals, and she had hung one in my office window. The humble two-inch hexagon saturated my office with enough rainbows for a year’s worth of cloudbursts. Like of lot of life’s best things including her love, so simple yet so splendid. Reputed mystical powers aside, they’re just darned pretty. Next time you’re feeling cabin fever, dangle a crystal in the window and add a little rainbow to your routine.
This weekend I sat in with Piper Road, a legendary bluegrass/swing band I’ve joined occasionally for many years. These guys are so transcendent on strings that I stick to percussion, banging and scratching rhythms in the background to whatever they’re playing. So it was to the band’s great surprise– and nobody more than myself– that after a scorching tune called, “Lucky’s Reel,” audience members started bellowing, “More triangle!” These were not my friends– who are accustomed to shilling my onstage forays– but total strangers. But my troops were more than happy to join the crusade, and before long the walls of Madison’s Harmony Bar reverberated with, “MORE TRIANGLE!!” Even in a fluky city like Madison, that must have piqued the curiosity of passers-by.
I felt gratified, if a bit sheepish after five other fine musicians had just played their guts out. It was vaguely reminiscent of the famous, “More cowbell!” Saturday Night Live skit spoofing Blue Oyster Cult, except I wisely opted not to press the moment with the band and risk impalement on my own dinger–so to speak. Still, it has me re-evaluating my songwriting focus. Perhaps a Joni Mitchell update: “I’ve looked at life from three sides now…” Maybe even a symphonic treatment– Concerto in B# (always a good triangle key) for Strings and Bent Iron. With any luck, “love triangle” will take on a whole new meaning before I’m through.
I have more than a passing interest in The Genius, a.k.a. Ray Charles. I wrote a book for young people called Uh Huh! The Story of Ray Charles (see books page) shortly after he died in 2004. Unfortunately his passing was overshadowed by that of Ronald Reagan only five days earlier.
Reagan got a U.S. commemorative postage stamp almost immediately (you have to be dead to qualify), but what about Ray? Months became years but finally Soul Brother #1 has received his due in a nifty stamp sheet suggesting a 45 rpm record sleeve, that accurately describes him as “a musician beyond category.” Send a bunch of letters, crank up “What’d I Say?”, and if you’d like a signed copy of my book, pound your keyboard like Brother Ray to firstname.lastname@example.org
It’s downright embarrassing to have to live up to the achievements of your dog; but then again, Otis is no middling mutt. That’s why there’s a special place on my site (see top of page) that chronicles his amazing journey.
Even though he’s mostly retired from Wonder Dog duty these days, Otis still wags the tails of his rescue group, Northern Illinois Samoyed Assistance. He is the cover boy of NISA’s 2014 calendar, as well as Mr. July. And most recently, he took home 1st place at the first-ever costume contest at Sam-O-Rama, NISA’s annual reunion/picnic. His costume was actually sewn years ago by my wife Jude for an Independence Day parade appearance, but pushing age 13, he wears it with perhaps even more authority now as a senior statesman for his breed. I’ll let you decide: submitted for your approval– Uncle Sammie!
In case you missed it, Budweiser staged a so-called “Made in America Festival” over Labor Day weekend headlined by Jay-Z and Beyoncé, with about a gazillion others. I’ve heard of very few beyond the headliners (call it an age thing), but my personal favorite band name was Diarrhea Planet– perhaps the spiritual heirs of one hit wonders The Electric Prunes from my childhood. Even more amusing is the claim Budweiser makes to being “Made in America.” Today’s Bud is brewed at 20 foreign locations, compared to 12 within our borders.
I know this because I wrote a song called “Made in America” that gave a shout to 37 famous products (including rival Miller Beer) that still come by the label honestly, and not surprisingly, this is a mighty small list. But it pays– at least in recognition– to sing American: My song just won an Honorable Mention from among thousands in the international Song of the Year contest. I’d like to thank my Chicago friend Lance Brown for recording and tasty lead guitar, and Mineral Point, Wisconsin’s Dave Hopper for additional recording and Lori Jones for background vocals.
Have a listen on the following link and be sure to give me a holler if you’re a music industry exec seeking the next hit for your client in Nashville, Austin, New York, L.A.– anywhere but China.
Let’s say you’re the little town of Cottage Grove, Wisconsin. You have a beautiful but rapidly aging 1910 schoolhouse on a piece of prime real estate not far from the Interstate. Do you:
A) Bulldoze it away for a strip mall like the one across the road?
B) Hope someone might save and salvage it?
Fortunately Cottage Grove chose B, and after much sweat and cash equity new owner David Morrow repurposed the venerated little learning center into an art gallery, café– and more recently, a live music venue. I played outdoors there recently on a classic Cheeseland summer evening with fellow singer-songwriters Rich Baumann and Reid Miller. The setting was so picture perfect that I could point upward to the inspiration for my cloud song “Cumulus” hovering over the cornfields.
Venues where music is really listened to– as opposed to background noise for getting drunk– are much appreciated by folks of my ilk, so a tip of my guitar goes out to David and manager Eric Willman for converting the old Gaston School into a college of musical knowledge. Check it out at www.gastonschoolgallery.com