All of these people are much brighter than I
In any fair system they would flourish and thrive
But they barely survive
They eek out a living
They barely survive
I’ve got old records spinning and I’m sitting at my beloved writing desk on an early autumn evening. The crickets are making plenty of great noise outside.
I’ve spent most of the year (and the past several years) making my living leading a band called the Loyales that plays covers at weddings, parties, bars and restaurants. I’ve also played my own material in a whole bunch of shows in listening rooms, concert series venues, small theaters and festivals in different cities around the U.S., mostly as an opening act. In order to make sure that the rent and bills are always paid, I’ve maintained a view of my gig playing duty like that of a fireman. If the phone rings, I slide down the pole and play the gig. It doesn’t matter what time it is, what the weather is like or if it’s a holiday. If I’m lucky enough to make my living playing music, the answer to the question of “are you available to play…?” is almost always “yes”. I spend a lot of hours at the wheel of my van. I’ll be back on the road in just a few days.
On nights like tonight with no gigs and no rehearsals, I often work on my band homework, learning new material, practicing parts, making set lists, planning travel logistics, ordering replacement gear for stuff that broke, changing guitar strings. I spend hours upon hours corresponding with venue managers, booking agents and wedding and party clients. I also spend a good deal of my free time reproaching myself for not being more productive (I don’t recommend this as a worthwhile expenditure of anyone’s time). It’s been a long time since I wrote a piece for my blog and I’ve really been missing it. As far as I know, only a few people have ever read this blog. I am supremely thankful to you all. A handful of people have gotten in touch with me over the last couple of years to respond to blog posts. They’ve all warmed my heart in doing so. I really enjoy writing this blog and deep down I know that it doesn’t really matter if a million people read what I have to say or if ten do. If I really feel I’ve got something to say, I’d better say it.
I just finished reading a book about the last year of Martin Luther King Jr’s life called “Death of a King” by Tavis Smiley, with David Ritz, author of many of my favorite music biographies. I couldn’t recommend the book highly enough. It’s a proud, though often painful look at a world leader, a firm believer and a practitioner of a faith in his darkest hour. People all over the planet are familiar with the name and image of Mr. Luther King Jr. History has left most of us with the picture of an African American minister leading well-dressed protestors in non-violent marches for civil rights. We see and hear King in black and white film, making his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial before a huge crowd in 1963. We think of him as a man of peace, a hero to the black community and to the American people. We know that he was murdered a few years later, shot by a bad man, but loved by us all.
The truth is rarely pure and never simple.
Tavis Smiley’s book shows us a portrait of a leader of a movement that is running out of money and has divided into factions vying for power, a citizen of a country whose government considers him one of it’s most dangerous public enemies, a once widely beloved public figure whose popularity has dropped dramatically in a very short period of time, and a practitioner of a philosophy that has been largely declared passé and ineffective by the majority of the people that once supported him. This is not the part of the MLK story that we Americans like. It’s not the part of the story that we choose to teach our children. The part where the humble, respectable minister sticks to his ideals, turns the other cheek to hateful aggression, gets a whole country marching in the streets and overturns old legislation in the name of freedom is fine by us. But we’re not very keen on the part where the same minister wakes up each day after the legislation is passed to face a country whose race problems haven’t gone away. We don’t sing songs about the public figure returning to Memphis to continue working on a very unpopular garbage workers’ strike after violence has erupted at his last attempted peaceful protest there. We’re not proud of the American activist who wants us to face the fact that the American dream of freedom to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is being actively denied to millions of people by the policies of the country that introduced the very dream. We don’t celebrate a Christian pacifist who reminds us all that our country leads the world in acts of violent aggression. We’re not comfortable with the humanitarian who reminds us that a nation in which money buys human dignity is not a just nation.
you’re on the bottom
By the time he died, MLK had “seen the mountain top” as he said in his last public speech in Memphis. He had seen the mountain top of triumph for his struggle when civil rights legislation was passed in 1963. He had seen the mountain top of popularity when he addressed enthusiastic throngs in Washington DC, when he was celebrated by the president of his country and when he was awarded the Nobel peace prize in Sweden. But King was not a man who chose his causes by their popularity. He dedicated his life to his faith in the power and value of human kindness and compassion, based firmly in the scripture of his religion. By the time King was shot in 1968, pacifism was no longer the most popular form of protest among black activists in the US. King’s style of non-violent protest was seen by many as out of date, out of touch and weak. But faith is not a style or a trend. Martin Luther King didn’t believe that non-violence was the expedient way to achieve a specific political goal. He believed it was the right way for humans to interact with other humans at all times. He saw no reason to change his belief in something that had never proven harmful to anyone.
A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.
Martin Luther King Jr.
A few nights ago I was riding across the State of Ohio with my bass player and pal Joe Plowman. We were listening to Sean Penn reading Bob Dylan’s Chronicles on an audio book. It was such a pleasure to see the Bohemian Greenwich Village that existed before my time come alive before my eyes, with the help of Dylan’s formidable prose writing and Penn’s apt audio acting. What a story! The precocious young kid from Minnesota comes to the big city and navigates his way around the folk music scene, the Village counterculture and the major label record business, staking out a territory all his own and rising to legendary status. The rough outline of Dylan’s life story, along with that of the Beatles and their career in music has served most of my life as one of the central mythologies in whatever you might call my own religion. Dylan is just about the same age as my parents. He sprang into notoriety rapidly within the American folk music scene at exactly the same time that MLK was making his “I Have A Dream Speech”. He was even there that day at the Lincoln memorial, singing his songs with Joan Baez. Like King, Dylan would see a large number of his original supporters turn on him just a few years later when they became unhappy with the music he was making. Unlike King, Dylan was not killed, nor made the target of FBI harassment (to my knowledge). And though he may have lost some of his original fan-base and received plenty of hatred from those opposed to him, his world-wide popularity and commercial success grew over the many years that followed, with some dips and disturbances along the way. Still, there is similarity to be seen between the artist and the activist in the artist’s choice to make works not based on their potential popularity but rather based on the genuine nature of the expression that lies at their core. When Dylan made a series of songs praising Jesus in the early 1980’s, many people were not interested in hearing them. I wasn’t crazy about those records myself. Many people voiced their bewilderment and annoyance with Dylan’s choices loudly. He still made the records. I’m glad he did. Dylan’s kind of bravery was not the kind that makes a public speech with death threats coming in by phone. But an artist’s ability to follow his own artistic vision regardless of it’s affect on his reputation and financial success is still genuine bravery.
The adherence to a greater calling than the maximization of personal gain seems more and more rare in American society and talking about that fact is less popular than ever. For Americans, a success story is almost always the story of someone becoming rich. Think if you can of a very famous American, who’s broke or even one who’s moderately well-to-do. Name a very successful American in any field, who isn’t the ally or the employee of a large, for-profit corporation. …Come up with anyone?
Don’t get me wrong. Wanting to be rich makes perfect sense to me. From a very young age it looked really great to me to be rich and famous and I wanted to be rich and famous too. My heroes were the Beatles and Dylan and boy weren’t they rich and famous? They flew all over the world all the time in jet planes. They rode in limousines and lived in mansions with swimming pools. Their outfits were always unique and fabulous. They could have whatever they wanted for dinner and own all of the records and guitars they wanted. Interviewers were fascinated by their opinion on everything, their writings and sayings were quoted all the time and big crowds of people showed their approval wildly any time they so much as walked into a room. That all looked wonderful to me. But the gift that the Beatles and Bob Dylan gave me was infinitely greater than the luxuries the world has thrown upon them. I started listening to their records on loan from the library for free when I was about 6 years old. Anytime I wanted to for my whole life, I could listen to their beautiful, joyous, masterful and inspiring music. I still can and it only gets better each time I listen to it. What was and is great about their music and all of the famous songs that I love so much by anyone is not that how famous they are but how good they are. And there are plenty of artists whose work I’m crazy about who lived and died without owning much more than the clothes they were wearing.
Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind.
Reading Tavis Smiley’s book about Martin Luther King reminded of some truths that are often lost in the day to day struggle to get by and the day to day struggle to find peace with oneself. Whatever you’re trying to achieve, there may be big loud powerful voices all around you, telling you that you’re wrong, that you’re irrelevant, that you’re goals are useless. You don’t owe it to the world to agree with them. The agreement you’d do best to find is within yourself. Martin Luther King knew that creating an industry of war machines for profit was evil. He knew that using military might on civilians to achieve a political aim was also evil. He knew that the poorest people in the world were at their core the same as the wealthiest people in the world and deserved as much human kindness, respect and dignity as anyone else. He knew that people still organized themselves in unequal casts based on racial and ethnic identities. He knew that a society that oppressed its poor masses would eventually self-destruct. He wasn’t willing to pretend that he didn’t know any of those things. …And none of the truths he lived, worked and died for seem irrelevant at all today.
Rather than irrelevant, MLK’s truths were and are “inconvenient”, to borrow the title of Al Gore’s book on climate change from a few years back. It’s painful to face the hypocrisy of your own country. It’s unpleasant to face the un-improving condition of the down-trodden. It may be unpopular to sing songs about decidedly unpopular subjects. However inconvenient, however unpleasant, however strange and unpopular these truths were, MLK was brave enough to speak those truths until the very end. I hope that I can find that kind of bravery within myself and that we all can. It doesn’t matter if the truth we must speak is that our country is perpetrating acts of violence on innocent people or whether that truth is simply that “looking out on the morning rain, I used to feel so uninspired”*. If we’ve really got something to say, we’d better say it.
Old records Listened to while writing:
Stephen Stills – Mansassas
Les Paul Now
Josh Graves w/Bobby Smith & the Boys from Shiloh
Sly & The Family Stone – Small Talk
The John Lewis Piano
Bob Dylan (self-titled)
The Best Of Etta James
Heifitz, Primrose and Piatigorsky – Beethoven Trios
Kenny Rogers & The First Edition – Tell It All Brother
Harry Belafonte, Mark Twain and other folk favorites
Most of these records were purchased at
Clockwork Records in Hastings on Hudson, NY
Everybody’s Records in Cincinnati, OH
Mystic Disc in Mystic, CT
* from “Natural Woman” lyrics by Gerry Goffin.