Being An Artist In An Inopportune World

I am a musician. I play a few instruments, like guitar, keyboards, bass, mandolin, dobro and harmonica. I am also a singer and a songwriter. I have a recording studio in my house, which was responsible for 6 various CD’s and a ton of commercial and industrial projects over the years.

I have been at my craft for a very long time. I started learning guitar at 11 and have been drawn to the power of song since I was old enough to walk. I still find great new songs every week and I continue to play and write new material after so many years. Sometimes I come up with good stuff and sometimes I miss the mark, but that is all part of searching for those great songs that God wants us to manifest into the world. I don’t know why, but that passion has motivated me for at least 50 years and it has not let up.

At some point, the real thrill becomes being able to share your work with the world. I have done that as a performer and as a songwriter. I had a hit song once. I had some cuts when I was striving for recognition in Nashville. Toward the end of that run, the business changed. Now, 80% of Nashville’s career songwriters have pulled up stakes and quit. I did the same in 1996, when the whole paradigm shifted. I took it as a liberating thing: not having to write for a demographic, predetermined by publishers and record labels. But the sad truth is that writing for yourself probably isn’t going to pay the bills.

I have had a running joke with myself since the release of my last CD, “Roswell Road”. Though I sold out two pressings of that record, it was a very small drop in the bucket in the grand scheme of things. So I joke now and call my next CD “The Final Record Album”, mainly out of frustration. And, its funny, but I am dragging out the release of said album because I am still working on the music, the focus and the artistic whole that I wish the songs to support.

On bad days, I ask myself why. If you aren’t a label-made star these days, you might as well be nothing. You play local gigs and maybe you sell a few CD’s to your core of loyal supporters, but that is the top of the food chain for a local musical artist.

You confront these sad truths and it makes you want to never write another song in your life, and never play another cover gig. But, then- you stare down the barrel of that idea and, outside of music related tasks, I’m either not qualified or physically able enough to execute anything else. Then, I face it-I am a writer, a singer, a musician, a producer and engineer. Within those skills are where my options now lie. If I don’t pursue these core interests, then I have to retire and watch afternoon television and drink myself into oblivion until its over.

And so I choose to write new music, pursue new paths, make recordings and find goals that align with low hanging fruit. I may have some success out of left field-or not. At this point, I have to simply live and be what I am-a musical artist by default. God instilled whatever my abilities might be when I was born. Maybe a small part of me feels impelled to follow that road to the end, as if there will still be some reward at the end. The rest of me knows no other choice.

To make matters worse, my newest record is not in the realm of rock, country or pop; which automatically lowers sales by 98%, lol. I am trying to write and find songs that seem like the’ve been around forever, but are actually new. I put it all under the umbrella of Americana.

There may be other opportunities I have missed, and that is on me. One day, I just decided that I had to imbue my songs with a sense of truthfulness, regardless of the story. Hopefully, there is an ear for that out there somewhere.

Thanks for reading…and wish me luck!

Al

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Detroit Three Times

I’ve lived in Detroit, Michigan three different times in my life. The first time I don’t remember, as I was only a year and a half old. I do remember things from when I was 3 and 4. Lived on Lindsay Street, just north of 7 Mile Road. Little house in a block of similar lookalike houses. My memories seem to dwell on grey skies and a somewhat depressing landscape.

My second arrival was bleak. We arrived in winter and stayed at the Palllister motel. I threw ice cubes off the frozen pool. We drove around looking for a place to rent. Detroit seemed to me like one giant piece of asphalt and cement, endless freeways, grey skies, little vegetation or sunshine. We moved into a small bungalow on Ardmore Street, which was very much like Lindsay Street. It was also just north of 7 Mile. I finished 4th grade at Vernor Elementary School, where I took endless GED tests of some kind. One day, I heard the radio broadcast of Alan Sheppard’s first space flight. All the cars had fins. I wasn’t too sure of what kind of world I was living in.

After 4th grade, my family bought a house in Farmington, Michigan. It was the new suburbia—more property, and a more sprawling lifestyle. The sun returned. There were woods to explore and friends my own age in the neighborhood. Life’s possibilities seemed to be expanding.

When I was 11, I started learning how to play the guitar and I stopped thinking about hot rods. I was bit by the music bug. Then, one day, we moved to Atlanta and Detroit was in the rear view.

After four years of growing and making music in Atlanta, I returned again to the Detroit area. Now, dad was more upwardly mobile and we bought a place in Bloomfield Hills. I’ve been here ever since. There’s so much I could say and so much to comment on, but that is for another time.

This morning, I sang at a funeral for a woman I never knew. I cried anyway, being sort of an empath myself. As I left, my journey took me down 8 Mile Road, and, once again, I saw the huge asphalt and cement world that bothered me so long ago. It is still there, but it starts to fade into  something nicer around 12 Mile Road. North from there, it is a more forgiving environment in my old mind.

I never really wanted to be here, but I have accepted the fact that Detroit will be last place I call home. Family is here. Where would we go, really? Even Florida is risky with the hurricanes and global warming. So, I’m here. I have friends and many to make music with. It seems to be the pattern of my life so I embrace it. No matter where you live, its the people you call friends that make your life good.

Here in Detroit, I am blessed, even though I resisted the place so long. Ain’t life an interesting mess sometimes? 

To Be Whole

To Be Whole

Looking at some bands online tonight. Seems there is a premium being put on being degraded, bad boy, anti-social and misfit, as if that is what makes rock and roll “real”. I say BS. This whole bad boy thing started before the Stones and has been milked to death. I say it is time for it to be over. Its time for music to return to a more human reality.

Rock and roll, with the likes of Bill Haley and Little Richard, opened the door to sexual innuendo, taking a page from the blues (you know-that race music that white folks didn’t want their daughters exposed to). The USA reacted both positively and negatively, giving us Fabian and Pat Boone to water it all down.

Ah, but rebellious youth needed role models like the Stones and, later, the Ramones and Sex Pistols. But that was a long time ago, wasn’t it? Yet, still there is some stigma attached to rock, that demands its purveyors to live close to the edge. Thats how we got to Janis and Jimi and Morrison. Lot of good that did them.

The bad boy posturing has grown very stale, old hat and is now something that should be discarded like month old garbage. Music should be about life-the good and the bad, but it needs to be honest, or so I think. It ought to reflect life and life as a criminal or rebel is not a good reflection of who we are as a culture or as a population.

There remains a group that want to build success out of shock tactics and sexual lyrics (Nicki Minaj, etc) that push the boundaries, but it all seems so infantile. I think it insults songwriters and musicians that have something worthwhile to say.

So, drop the bad boy posturing already. It is childish and not conducive to making the world a better place. I know plenty of people will be offended by my suggestion and I don’t care. I am an adult. I’d like to hear adult voices in the music I listen to. I have outgrown my teenage angst. I wish the music business would do the same. The world needs some dignity reflected back into the human species, not more BS.

Kindness in ATL

After two days of having to be on my feet, which maximizes on my back pain, I found myself in the ticket line at Atlanta’s ATL airport. I was carrying a suitcase and a guitar, which was more than my physical aptitude at the time. I was looking for a wheelchair assistance booth, but there were none,  so I surrendered into the check in line. After about two minutes of intense pain, I shamelessly sat directly on the floor, figuring I could scoot myself along until I was forced to stand again.

After another couple of minutes, a kind woman with a compassionate soul asked if I was OK. I told her yes, but that I was not able to stand in line due to the pinched nerves in my back. She immediately went to my aid, contacting airport personnel who were able to provide me with a moveable seat and bit more dignity. Being on the floor in a strange place, with people milling about, doesn’t do much to boost one’s self esteem, but this total stranger had the compassion to  help a fellow human being. I was both grateful and humbled.

And it made me more attuned to the needs of others, like old folks who have no choice but to move slow. We’ve all got our issues and its a great kindness to respect and appreciate the failings of others. Someday, it could be any of us in such shape.

The good news is I am in line for what I think will fix my back pain. After almost three years of trying to persevere with being unable to stand without pain, I am hoping my next airport visit is 180º from my last.

When you help someone out of kindness, you don’t just help the persons immediate state. You also pass along the message that it is a wonderful thing to extend kindness, and that is a message that moves forward with whomever you may have helped.

A Tip Of The Hat To Anthony Bourdain

I’ve watched and read so much Anthony Bourdain that, at times, I wish I could be the man. Alas, I never attended CIA in New York or did too much international travel, but I always liked the spirit that he brought to his adventures, his culinary mastery and pure zest for life.  To say that we lost him too soon is a great understatement. This world still needs intelligent chefs and people who pay enough attention to assimilate the commonality found in different cultures. Always a bit bad boy on the surface, there was always a much more serene and wise spiritual awareness lurking underneath, playing with the information at hand.

It is, in this spirit of sharing, that I’d like to continue by way of telling you a small tale about a foodie and his hunt to find what he experienced elsewhere.

Here in southern Michigan, we have been blessed by some great Middle Eastern/Lebanese restaurants. I developed an immediate fondness for the cuisine. I found it delicious and somehow balanced in a healthy way. Every time I have a Lebanese salad, I feel like I am rewarding my body and soul; putting something in it that is really good for me. It was as if there was more behind the cooking than I knew. Places like La Shish, Mezza and, believe it or not, Mr. Kabob, are serving wonderful Middle eastern fare in the Detroit suburbs. And though I have not been to the Dearborn restaurants yet, I bet they are amazing too.

A couple of weeks ago, down in Berkley, I was visiting my son and daughter in law. At some point, we decided we needed food and we hadn’t planned a meal, so we wen’t down on 12 Mile and Coolidge to, of all things, a gas station that had a Mr. Kabob restaurant inside. 3372 Coolidge Hwy, Berkley, MI 48072

Oh, I know what you’re thinking-there is no good food in any gas station from here to Timbuktu. And you are almost correct. Problem is you have never been to Mr. Kabob in Berkley. Yes: it’s THAT good.

I ordered beef shish kabob, salad, and rice. Marvelous. And though I had enjoyed similar meals before, this time I began to really pay attention to the quality of the food-the spices, the presentation, the flavors and the finer details. There and then, it became my mission to try and decode not all Middle eastern recipes, but a few essential dishes such as I had just tasted. And so I set about my solitary task.

My first challenge was decoding the rice. The first and second times, I failed miserably. Then, I found some secrets, like soaking and rinsing the parboiled rice. Third time was the charm—restaurant quality Lebanese rice! Essential to plate this cuisine.

Next was the garlic-yogurt sauce. The first time, I leaned too heavy on the lime juice and too light on the garlic. Next time, did the reverse. Oh…its SO good.

The thin Lebanese pita bread was found in the Kroger markets. They all seem to have it-the real thin, unleavened pita. Gotta have some of that on your plate next to your kabobs.

Naturally, my thoughts led me back to the Lebanese salad. I’d looked at it: romaine lettuce, red onion, parsley, cucumber and tomatoes. But what was that dressing?  I found my answer via the net. I’ve found so many great recipes online and the dressing made so much more sense when I saw the ingredients: lemon juice, olive oil, garlic, Za’’tar, salt and pepper. No vinegar. That was the spoiler!

That left me to decipher the kabobs themselves. I started with beef, and discovered that there are a million marinades out there. Start with oil and lemon juice, or oil and vinegar. Yogurt also works well as part of a marinade. Anyway, get a big assortment of spices to add to different marinades.

I did some chicken breast kabobs in a great yogurt based marinade. They were amazing! My next choice will be to do some kafta kabobs.

OK. What has always struck me about middle eastern cooking is  how clean it seems. Oh, and how balanced it seems in terms of protein, carbs and fats—oh, and how amazing it tastes! And it makes me wonder-how did this all get started? How was such a diet chosen or developed? Was it local ecology or something more?

There seems to be an underlying wisdom that defines the foods. The meats are lean. The vegetables are low carb, The fats are good. Heck, I have read that the Middle Eastern Diet is the healthiest on earth, and I would not be surprised.

The other thing about this food is that it requires time and patience to do right. There’s a way to cut meats and veggies to maximize their cooking times. Some parts of a recipe may begin hours before the actual cooking. The sous chef in a Middle Eastern kitchen is the guy doing most of the work. It takes a calmness and a heaping helping of patience to craft these meals. The cuisine seems to come from a place of peace, as if one is satisfied only in doing the work in the best way possible. There are no strict deadlines, only good outcomes.

There is much more I might have gleaned, had I had a culinary education that Anthony had. As it is, I understand cooking in an abstract way. I see Arabic cooking like I do Chinese cooking. Both cuisines sometimes use high heat and short cooking times. Both are keen on the details of prep-heat, slice and dice, spice and presentation.

Tony Bourdain had gifts I will never have and demons I may have beaten. A part of his agenda, I think, was to show us how we, as a human entity, can find ways to recognize our mutual common traits. Experiencing the cuisine of a different culture spawns questions and breeds curiosity. We are not that far apart.

I’m Not Done Yet

Nothing drives home the impermanence of life like being wheeled on a gurney to the operating room for heart surgery. “It’s no big deal,” said Dr. Steinman, “really.”  Well, sure, I thought. I guess he’s seen hundreds of these pacemaker surgeries, so he should know. Still, there’s always the fear of the unknown. You wonder if you are the one in a hundred statistic that won’t make it. There’s always that ‘what if’ mentality where you wonder if somebody missed something important in haste or accident. I like to think of myself as being positive, but sometimes a little negativity does creep in. I can’t help it.

It was all explained to me in detail. They make a cut in your chest where the pacemaker goes. The wires that attach to the pacemaker are fed to your heart through your arteries. They inject dye into your bloodstream so the arteries show up on x-ray and the wires get guided down into your heart by the surgeon. It is almost paint-by-number surgery. I got some fentanyl to put me in a twilight state, but I was aware of everything that was going on. Luckily, they numb you up well so you don’t feel the incision. You deal with the pick lines and pokes. Pain only lasts a short time-thats the good news. I’ve learned to deal with that.

It struck me as I was getting wheeled in: most of us never know when death is coming. It is usually not any glorious exit-nothing that can even be anticipated. Demon death simply shows up one strange moment and taps us on the shoulder, saying “time’s up!” Some of us dread that moment, but I don’t think there’s any point in that. It is what it is. In between coming in and going out, I think the point is to make the most of the days and minutes we have been gifted. I don’t have to tell you-mucking around with one’s heart sure drives that point home. Tomorrow is never guaranteed. It was a great reminder for me to do what I have intended to do while the opportunity is at hand.

What kept me going was thinking that I’m not done yet. I have music to make, grandkids to watch and help to grow, an adoring wife to share this incredible journey with, joys to share with my beautiful kids, friends to share life’s gifts with, new recipes to explore, books to read, new music to experience, places to go, insights to glean, surprises to experience, more health obstacles to get over and always many new things to learn about life.

I came home to recover and almost instantly sped to the studio, where I have a bunch of new songs to finish and track. The first couple days were rough, but today things are starting to smooth out. Don’t worry-I am getting tons of rest in between. I have been enjoying the creative process again. I live for it. I wish I was playing the gigs I am missing, but recovery, in the long run, is more important. I’ll be back in action before you know it.

And I think of my friends who have undergone much more serious surgeries, cancer treatments and trials. A pacemaker is, when all things are considered, just a nick in the armor. I figure if they have made it through, I surely will too. I’m betting on 25 more years, but nothing has been taken for granted. Still, I feel lucky and full of gratitude for all life has given me so far. It wouldn’t be a genuine life without a few setbacks, right?

That’s how I’m measuring everything right now. Meanwhile, it is great to still be here!

The State Of My Life-2018

The State Of My Life-2018

Coming over the hill, about to turn 67, my view of life is different than it has ever been. I live in a strange mix of joy and sorrow, love and loneliness, exhilaration and exhaustion, hope and fear. I have been lucky in so far as the icy fingers of death and debilitation have only partially touched me. I’m bruised but not taken down. When I see friends  and loved ones cursed with physical and/or mental troubles and challenges, I feel like I have nothing worthy of complaint.

There is plenty of good in my life. Love in my family holds us together, despite our struggles. Nancy is having the hardest times of her life right now. Auto immune disease and gastroparesis are daily challenges and, after a botched back surgery, she is in need of even more surgery to correct the damage. Months of steroids have left her so tired that she can barely function day to day. Yet, she maintains a positive attitude somehow. I adore and love her.

Jessica has physical issues as well-auto immune problems and prone to illness, she forges on with strength that amazes me. She raises Nayeli, my granddaughter, works 40 hours a week and holds her family together somehow. She helps me with certain spiritual connections in my life. She is attuned to certain communications that are meant for me. She even has time to help me with this. I love her beyond measure.

My son Chris, and his wife Kristin, are doing quite well. That is a breath of fresh air and good news. I pray that their journey will go forward without issues.

When I think of things that have blessed my life, I have to mention the wonderful people that I get to make music with: Jim Pryor, Gary Griffin, Billy Farris, Ken Murphy, Duane Larkin, Janel DeVries, Frank Greenhalsh, Robert Bruce, Dean Stacy, Tammy Stacy, Ricky Jones, Charlie Springer, Butch Runyon, Jack DeFranco, Tony Garstin, Billy Grove, Doug Booth, David Shaver, Jimmy Cobb, Arthur Offen and, sometimes, Jessica Cunha. Bless these people. They inspire me and help me to keep going.

The Muse and I have had a falling out. I was working on a new record, but something about the direction was not coming together as I had hoped. So, I am attempting to feed my musical soul with some new blood—roots music, techno, synthesis, etc. It still isn’t coming together, but seeds have been planted. Sometimes I have to wait for the right bolt of lightning to strike. Once I get the big picture, the music comes. I hope it comes soon, as there is an empty place in my soul that wants to be filled up.

Meanwhile, the music I have written is alive and well, being performed by Life Number Nine. We are growing and moving forward. I am inspired to write music that plays to the bands strengths. Its about to hatch, I think…and the band is kicking ass!

I am making strides to get my back fixed. I have had sciatica for a few years. It has been getting unbearable lately. I go for MRI and, soon after, the big, bad epidural once they find out where to inject me. If you are a prayer saying type, save a couple for me!

I think I am playing too much. I play 260 dates a year in the morning at Potbelly sandwich shops and about 100 more evening dates. At my age, it is a lot. I suppose that I will have to retire someday, but I am nowhere near ready right now.

Meanwhile, I remain grateful for my family and my friends that continue to support my music and me. I know how lucky I am. Thank you all!