The Man Who Invented Christmas

Imagine that you’re a young author. You’ve had a couple of successes, but lately you’ve had a series of flops. Your publishers are threatening to drop you. You have a big family and a lot of overhead. You’re in debt up to your ass, and Christmas is six weeks away. You’re desperately casting around for a book idea, something that you can write in time for the holiday. And oh yeah, you’ve got to self publish. Uh oh! You’re gonna have to borrow some more money. You’re cutting it exceedingly close here: it’s make or break time for real.

The really tough part is that you’re blocked creatively at the moment. Your past, present and future are haunting you (foreshadowing type hint, ahem) and there seems to be some kind of magical realism drama playing out around you: your friends and family, everyone you meet, really, start showing up in the guise of, well, spiritual beings in human form. Are they real? Are they specters, ghosts and phantasms? Never mind, they’re pretty interesting, and every one of them has a message for you. Write them into the book!

I won’t go any farther than that. Suffice it to say, this movie does not end like you might expect. It made me want to stand up and cheer, though, I will say that.

Ok, one little hint: it brings a new and much more profound meaning to the phrase “God bless us everyone!”

Merry Christmas, my friends!

Songs As Buildings

One of the endless and enduring fascinations of my life has to do with the structures of songs.

Songs are like little buildings: some of them are airtight and graceful with smooth lines and a floor plan that makes practical sense. Beatles, Motown.

Some songs follow a dramatic arc rather than a traditional song form because they’re in service to a story. LeMis and all its brothers and sisters. And you can call me crazy, but I think of Buffett and Springsteen as the bridge there. They create what are essentially miniature short stories using simple song forms.

Some songs are more on the hodge-podge plan, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, among others, have written some songs whose floor plans meandered about like a crazy gingerbread house or the country cabin in Wheeling that your uncle has been adding on to for years. They were great songs, of course. YES or Bela Fleck? Forget about it. Greater still, and you needed a map to get through them. As a matter of fact, it’s not a coincidence that musicians refer to the form of songs as the road map.

After all, if you’re a musician and you find yourself in a playing situation where someone puts a new chart (musician speak for sheet music) in front of you, what’s the first thing you do? Scan the road map.

You want to see where the various sections lie, which parts repeat, and whether there might be any unusual little signposts along the way, or maybe a musical snare or tricky turn to trip up the unwary.

It becomes second nature after a while, and for a working stiff musician like me who’s spent much of his life playing pop, rock, jazz and country music in a bunch of situations, a knowledge of the architecture of songs is an essential.

Did I just mix my metaphors? Never mind — architecture, road maps, it’s all good, and the rules of songwriting are more like the pirate’s code from those Johnny Depp movies. You know, more like a guideline, really. Shit, I did it again.

You’ve Got the Universe’s Back

I know what you’re thinking. It’s supposed to be the other way around, right?

Like this: “Once you make a decision, the universe conspires to make it happen.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

Either way, or both ways, I really like this idea. You may have noticed, though, that the whole ‘universe making it happen’ thing sometimes takes form in unexpected ways.

Like, oh, I don’t know, challenging you to learn something new in order to move forward. And leading you to the right teacher at the right time.

Or bringing up issues and emotions that you thought were already settled. And cracking open your heart to a greater understanding of those issues and emotions.

Or putting obstacles in your path when you were expecting an easy wind at your back. And putting the tools into your hands to move those obstacles.

Or pushing you to your breaking point. And reminding you that your breaking point is still a long way off.

Or plunging you into the dark part of the forest because that’s how the road winds on its way to the light. And shining that light just when you thought the darkness was too much for you.

Good one, Universe! Very funny!

Here’s one thing that always turns out to be true though: the stairs are better than the elevator. Make a decision, make your move, get stronger and get ready for the miracle that’s been inside you all along anyway.

Why? Because just as a drop of water is a part of the ocean, it is simultaneously the entire ocean. Always has been, always will be. A seed is part of the crop and it is simultaneously all the food and all the flowers in the world. Always has been, always will be.

And you …

God speed, fellow travelers. We’ve been home all along.

Two Streams

 

In 50 years of being a musician, the two main threads in my musical life have been American soul music (Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Booker T. And the M.G.s, Al Green, Sly and the Family Stone, Earth Wind and Fire, all the Motown artists) and English progressive rock (YES, Genesis, Gentle Giant, ELP, Jethro Tull, Moody Blues.)

They may seem like opposites, but to me they’re exactly the same. Beautiful melodies, smart arrangements, hot playing and most importantly, a transcendent spirituality. Put it this way: the notes are cool, but the space between the notes is where God lives. And come to think of it, those two streams certainly have their headwaters in the church, don’t they? American gospel and English high church! What a celebration.

Side note: I also really love those rootsy sounds from the old timey country world. Dobros and Martins. They have such a resonance, both sonically and culturally. Paddle faster if you hear banjos, though.

Side note #2: Oh, yeah, the Beatles!