Category Archives: music

My Current Novel Project -Sing Sad Songs

Here is a sample chapter from my rough draft to give you an idea of how this nonsense is progressing.

Blue Dawn

Canto 25 – Wish Upon a Star

I honestly was just minding my own business.  The bar, I mean.  I was minding the bar.  Ugly Bill and his idiot child were talking to the FBI somewhere they didn’t bother to inform me about.  Orgus, Bill’s truck-driving uglier son was in the hospital.  And my brother Richard was home in front of the TV pretending to be sick or something.  It was just me, Captain Noah Dettbarn, and an amazing number of unwashed glasses in a business that hardly ever had customers enough to get multiple glasses dirty.

The Captain was busy with his one and only bottle for the day, probably thinking about the South Seas Islands where he used to go by cargo ship.  A place where palm trees swayed in the breeze and tropical girls danced in grass skirts with no tops on.  I envied his memories.  So much more colorful than small-town Iowa in October.  Why did it always seem to be October in Iowa, anyway?  Sweater weather and cold snaps and early frost.

But my regrets and glass-washing were interrupted by the whole gaggle of Norwall Pirates coming into the bar where they really weren’t supposed to be.

Billy was leading the way, followed by that danged Ricky kid.  I knew he would be back.  And Francois and little silent black kid and then the two girls, Mary and Val.

“Ricky wants to try the singing machine,” Billy said.  “Would that be okay? Please?”

I glared at them all.  “What have I got to lose?  The instruction book is on top of it.  And if Ricky breaks it, Ricky’s daddy the cop has to pay for it.”

Ricky grinned at me.  “You know he don’t have no money, right?”

So, like a flock of pigeons or a gaggle of geese they circled around the clunky Japanese squawker box and started chirping and arguing and other things that were hard to ignore.  I couldn’t help but notice how pretty young Valerie really was.  Even in baggy Fall clothes, she had a body and face that were going to take her far in life and going to break more than one heart.  I wondered if she was in any danger from the Teddy Bear Killer that Ugly Bill was going to help capture.  Of course, I knew the pervert only killed boys.  Still, I had to wonder.

“So that’s what you have to do,” Billy was explaining from the manual.  “And now all you have to do is pick one, put the number in, and sing.”

“I try first!” Sang out Ricky.

“Don’t you wanna let the deaf kid sing first?” I asked.  “I have never heard his voice.”

“Uncle Victor, you know he can’t speak except in sign language.”  Billy was glaring back at me.  That skinny little hairball on stick legs was trying to correct my social skills.  Nuts to that.  I ate a few more antacid tablets.

“That would be perfect for me,” I grumbled to myself.

“Here’s the one I want,” Ricky declared, “Steppenwolf, Born to be Wild.”

Billy helped him type in the right series of numbers, then the screeching began.

“Get your motor running…!” he bellowed like a moose during mating season.  “Head out on the highway…”

I regretted not buying earplugs when I bought the damned karaoke thingy.  I regretted it almost as much as not being on a South Sea island with girls in grass skirts and no tops.

“Looking for adventure…!”  I started fixating on counting the bar glasses on the counter behind me, anything but listening to that moose-mating noise pollution.  I also re-stacked the coasters and cleaned the peanut bowls.  I successfully refocused my attention to totally ignore Ricky destroying that song.

“Oh, gawd!  I only get twenty-five percent on that score?  I thought I sang better than that!”

“That was pretty awful, Rick,” Valerie said diplomatically.

Ricky looked angry, but everybody else was nodding agreement.  So, the kid gave up and pressed the microphone into Francois’s hand.  The French boy entered a code surprisingly quickly.

“When you wish upon a star…”

My beloved Jesus!  It was electrifyingly good right from the very first note.

“Makes no difference who you are…”

They were all listening with their mouths open.

“Anything your heart desires… will come to you…”

Even the Captain was listening.  I swear I saw tears in his old red eyes.

“If your heart is in your dreams… no request is too extreme…”

I couldn’t help but think about how depressed this kid had been since I brought him here.  He’d lost his whole family.  He’d been in the back seat of the car with them when they had died.  He’d been sleeping hour after hour at our house because he was too sad to do anything but dream.  And here he was putting his whole soul into a song about dreams and wishes and stars… and I… um… I was about to cry too when he hit that last long beautiful note.

The song ended, and everyone was stunned.  The machine put fireworks on the screen and scored him one hundred percent.

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“Sing it again,” said Valerie, softly.  It was the only thing anyone could say.  And then he sang it again, just as amazingly beautiful as the first time.  And he scored one hundred again.  Everyone was sniffling or openly crying because it was so touching.  Especially pretty little Valerie who had lost her own father only a couple of years ago.  Her cheeks were dripping wet.

“Vicar, you gotta have him sing that again tonight,” said the Captain.  “People have got to hear that.  I mean… gawd dang!  That was amazing!  I gotta bring folks here to hear that.”

And I knew he was right.  That was not something we could afford to keep to ourselves.  That kid had real talent.

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Filed under clowns, humor, music, novel, NOVEL WRITING, Paffooney

O Mio Babbino Caro

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This beautiful song, an operatic aria by Puccini, is from the comic opera Gianni Schicchi.  But, more important than that is what the song actually means in context.

In the opera, Gianni Schicchi is a con man intent on swindling a family out of their inheritance and knowing all along that he will be destined to go to hell when he dies.  The family is gathered for the reading of the rich man’s will, which is, because this is a comic opera, lost for the time being.  Their main concern is for the money, which rumor has it has all been willed to the church.  But one among them is actually worthy of inheriting the money, Rinuccio the son of the rich man’s cousin.  And, as luck would have it, as it always does in comedies, Rinuccio is the one who, during the manic and desperate search for the will, actually finds it.  And assuming he comes out well in the will, he secures a promise from his mother that if he inherits money, he can marry Schicchi’s beautiful daughter Laurretta whom he truly loves.

But when he reads the will, he is devastated.  The money all goes to a monastery.  He begs Schicchi to help him convince the family that he should marry Laurretta anyway.  This Gianni Schicchi tries and finds it harder than turning water into wine.  So Schicchi is about to give up when Lauretta finally speaks up for herself through the song,

O Mio Babbino Caro (My Beloved Father)

At this point Schicchi is moved by the beautiful song and even more beautiful love his daughter has surprised him with.  He not only agrees to help, but executes a bizarre plan, hiding the rich man’s body and pretending to be him come back to life to rewrite the will.  Now the will favors Rinuccio, and over the protests of the family, he inherits the money and marries his true love, Schicchi’s daughter.  The opera ends with Schicchi singing his case to the audience, telling them in song that going to hell is worth it to aid true love.

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And this, then, is the truth of O Mio Babbino Caro.

Love, expressed through the surprise of hidden talent suddenly revealed, is the most persuasive argument there is.

Whether it is the love in the music suddenly discovered in the overwhelming voice of a little girl like Jackie Evancho or Amira Willighagen, or the late great Maria Callas who also sang the role, or even the singer of Puccini’s greatest work who is yet to perform it and make silly old men like me weep for beauty’s sake, the song is the most persuasive argument there is in favor of true love.

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That is a thing I desperately want to capture in the novel I am writing now, Sing Sad Songs.  Love expressed in music.  Love that reverses loss.  Love that heals all things.  And Love that moves all people.  The love that is masterfully sung in O Mio Babbino Caro.

Francois spotlight

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Filed under art criticism, classical music, daughters, humor, music, Paffooney, strange and wonderful ideas about life

Take the Midnight Train to Anywhere

 

Journey back with me to the 1980’s, and hear once again the music of escape.

There was a time when I was young when I did not know where I would be when the next new dawn came.  Yes, I once took the midnight train (except it was a bus) and I arrived in a teaching career in deep South Texas.  I crossed borders into another culture, another way of life, another journey made of words and pictures that hasn’t reached the final station yet.

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At the outset, we all take a risk.  Born and raised in South Detroit (although it was really North Central Iowa) I passed through established procedures, rules, and regulations to do things that desperately needed doing for people who could only help themselves in very limited ways.

Some spoke mostly Spanish.  Some lived in broken homes.  One boy lived for a while under the bridge of the Nueces River, but attended school every day because he was hungry to learn, and because free school lunch was the majority of the food he got to eat.  He got on a midnight train, and I never saw him or heard from him again.  His sister, though, lived with a tia who treated her like a daughter, and grew up to be a school teacher.  I let her teach the lesson for me during one class period, as part of an educational experiment, and it put her on her own midnight train.

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It was a train going on the same track I followed.  Not because of me and what I did for her.  But because she came to realize it was the right journey to take for her.  It was the perfect anywhere for her.

But there is danger inherent in getting on a midnight train going anywhere.  You don’t know who is waiting for you down the line, or what your circumstances will be at the next station along the way.  There may be strangers waiting up and down the boulevard, their shadows searching in the night.  I befriended other teachers, mentored some, learned from many,  even married one.  I had a run in or two with people who sell drugs to kids.  I had all four of my car tires slashed one night.  I had a car window broken out.  I had a boy once tell me he would kill me with a knife.  I later had that boy tell me he had a good job and a girlfriend and he was grateful that I talked him out of it and never turned him in to the police.

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And we end up paying anything to roll the dice just one more time…  At one time or another we have all been there, aboard that midnight train to anywhere.  There is a moment in everyone’s life when… well, some will win, and some will lose.  Some were born to sing the blues.  I have been there.  I have done that.  And it occurs to me, that song plays on in my head still.  I am still on that journey.  And I won’t stop believing.  Because it goes on and on and on and on…

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Filed under autobiography, insight, music, nostalgia, philosophy, poetry, review of music, strange and wonderful ideas about life

Friday We Recover

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Yesterday we went to see Les Miserables, the Broadway musical.  Fantine’s tragedy, Marius’s rescue, and Jean Valjean’s ultimate triumph made me cry again… copious amounts of tears… a waterfall of emotional floodwaters.  There is beauty in living through challenges.  Especially life-threatening ones.

We went to the musical in Fair Park as a celebration of the fact that a family member is now out of the hospital and on proper medication to be well again.  We are liberated from fear again for a time.  Of course, I can’t afford to go to a show like that, being newly bankrupted and swamped with medical bills.  But a family member provided the funds, victory over severe depression being a thing that needs celebration.

And Eponine’s song “On My Own” is such a powerful statement of the self-sacrificing nature of love that it makes me weep just thinking of it.  She loves a man who loves another and yet, loves him so well that she secures his happiness… with that other woman.  And she dies in the arms of the man she loves.  Valjean’s signature song, “Bring Him Home”, also makes me weep.  It is the main theme of the entire show, that the thing to do when life buries you beneath a blizzard of misfortune, cruelty, and unfairness is to turn that into self-sacrificing, generous love for others even if they are not your flesh-and-blood kin.  Love gives back more than you have given.  It is the notion that makes me cry with the beauty of it.

The point is, I have had a hard week.  I had to put a family member in the hospital for severe depression.  And other family members couldn’t help me because depression can be as infectious as a cold, taking one person after another through exposure to the harsh realities of the disease.  And though it is hard being the only one available to help someone through the dangerous darkness of the soul, I managed not to lose anybody again this time, the fifth time I have fought such a battle in a terrible, long war.

And now I have “One Day More” to enter into the new world I have made through sacrifice and suffering.  I am devastated, but still whole.  I am exhausted, but still standing.  I needed yesterday to happen.

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Filed under autobiography, battling depression, Celebration, compassion, healing, humor, medical issues, mental health, music, review of music, strange and wonderful ideas about life

The Last Night of the Leave

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On the last night of my son’s 14-day leave from the Marine Corps for the holidays, we took him out to eat and then saw a family movie together.  It was the Pixar movie Coco.  And what a perfect movie it was!  First of all, it is about family.  It is about the connections we have to those who’ve come before us.  Grandparents and Great Grandparents and Great Great Grandparents… the greatness just keeps flowing back into the past.  And this movie connected living family members to those who came before.

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We spent a lot of our time over the holiday visit talking about the past and those who came before us.  My kids didn’t really get much of a chance to know great grandparents in real life, and great great grandparents were long gone.  My son only knows about Great Great Grandpa Raymond through my stories about Sunday afternoon baseball, listening to Harmon Killebrew and the Twins playing on the radio with Grandpa Raymond.  Great Grandma Beyer got to hold Number One Son and Number Two Son, but only Number One was old enough to remember her at all, and that only in the vaguest possible ways.  I try to keep them alive with family stories and anecdotes.  Much in the same fashion the movie did, although the main character Miguel (ironically the Spanish version of Michael) actually visits the land of the dead.  I haven’t personally gone quite that far.

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The movie also expresses a deep genetic love of music, especially guitar music.  My kids are all musical, and both of my sons play guitar.  Number Two Son is particularly gifted in a Spanish-style ability to pick out complex tunes by ear and by sheet music.  The movie’s music is without question the thing that makes it the best movie we have seen this year.

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And the movie is filled to the brim with bright and appealing artwork, being an animated movie filled with Mexican art, even having a guest cameo appearance by the incomparable Frida Kahlo.  This is easily the best movie she has been in since she died in 1954.  The comedy of this whole extended skeleton dance of a movie is laugh-out-loud gorgeous.    And artwork is also something I share a love for with my three children.

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So I put him on an airplane in DFW today, and he is now back at his base.  But I had him here for a precious little while and we capped it off with a precious little movie. Now, I have to admit, this post is not entirely a movie review.  It is more about how my family made use of it and interacted with it.  It is more of a family story that I needed to tell to keep the goodness of it alive and vibrant, painted in bright colors.  But if you really want to know what I think of the movie, then I will shout at you, “YOU MUST SEE THIS MOVIE!!!”  With three exclamation marks and everything.  It is simply that good.

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Filed under autobiography, family, humor, inspiration, kids, movie review, music, review of music, strange and wonderful ideas about life

Dr. Teeth

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Today I had to take my daughter to the dentist before dropping her off at school.  A simple teeth cleaning and an exam for future tooth work they are recommending resulted in a fifty dollar charge.  I could pay for it, but it comes out of the monthly food budget.  And I have no idea where the three times that amount that the future tooth work will cost is going to come from.  Let alone the property tax due at the end of the year which is now three times what it was in 2006.  I have lost control over my life because of increasing expenses and decreasing income.  And it makes me lament, “Why can’t I control ANYTHING?”

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You would think that having been a teacher for so many years I would know how to control practically everything, right?  I mean, if a teacher can control the ultimate chaos engines of the average junior high school classroom, he ought to be able control anything… while doing nuclear physics on the side.

DrteethMAHBut that, of course, is not how it works in real life… even without the nuclear physics which was an exaggeration for humorous effect.

The secret is, a good teacher doesn’t control the behavior of students.  The teacher manages behavior by adjusting what he is in control of, his own reactions and behavior.

To make a metaphor, it is like juggling handfuls of sand.  They will slip between your fingers, bounce, and fly apart completely before the first revolution is complete.  But if you are smart, and have a small ceramic bowl in each hand, and a convenient big bowl of sand to dip into for new handfuls, you can throw and catch and guide the handfuls of sand through their amazing performance, at least three handfuls.  Maybe as many as seven, though that would take some really fast hands and years of practice.

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The point is, I think in my stupid little head, that I should not be trying to control the chaos my life has become.  The art is to manage the opposing forces, guide them back into the over-all flow of it, and prevent any single thing from overwhelming me, interrupting or wrecking the music of existence.

So the lesson here is, even though this post started out being about dentists and cost control, that I can’t control anything in life but myself.  So I might as well keep playing my figurative banjo and get into a figurative Studebaker with figurative Fozzie just to see where the road song will take me.  I will play the music and try to keep it all in tune and following the beat, no matter how many wrong turns and hitchhikers happen along the way.

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Theme Songs for Living Life

You know how in movies and on TV they play a soundtrack behind the action of the show?  And how, sometimes, if the movie or TV show is any good, it enhances and underscores whatever is happening to the main theme of story and the action that expresses it on the screen?  Yeah, that.  A complex idea that lies just under the surface of consciousness, a something that somebody sometime thought up that actually works and can work quite well.  But why does it work?

Put as simply as I can say an idea that is so layered and complex, it is because that is how real life works.  Yeah, there is music in the background of every life.  It plays almost unnoticed until that point where you suddenly realize how it defines your very soul.

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Through childhood and junior high and high school, I used to joke with my two sisters that every song that came on the radio was my favorite song, my theme song.  Every new Beatles’ song, or Paul Revere and the Raiders’ song, or Elton John musical fantasy was the song that defined my entire life.  Yes, I really was that fickle.  But I was also responding to a sense that who I was had to change into something new as often as you heard a new song on the radio or bought a new record album.  (Yes, I know some of you have no idea what that is, but I am a child of the 60’s and 70’s, and I make no excuse for that.  So deal with it.)

I hope you have listened to some of the YouTube song-thingies I have added to this post.  They are not picked at random.  They are some of the key theme songs of my goofy, pointless, and fantastical life.

The Astroboy opening theme is here to represent my early childhood.  When I had the courage of the irrepressible imagination of childhood.  I soared with Astroboy through every black-and-white episode I could get hold of in the 60’s.  At times it met getting out of bed early to catch it at 6:00 am, just after Channel 3 came on the air in the morning.  At times it meant rushing home as soon as school let out because it came on only half an hour after the last bell, and the school was on the north end of Rowan, while home was as far south as the town went.Astroboy

I really used to believe that I would grow up to lead a heroic life and make a name for myself that would inspire others to greatness too.  We are uncommonly stupidly when we are children, and we need simplistic theme songs to wake us up to life gradually.

The Eagles provided the theme songs of my high school and college young manhood.  Trying out life, at times boldly, and at most times timidly, I had to “Take It to the Limit” as often as I could manage.  It turned out that due to irrepressible social awkwardness, my greatest presses against the walls of my existence were all academic in nature.  We learn by doing… and failing… and trying again.  The songs become more complex as they weave themselves into the background of your life story.

As a young teacher, shy and soft-spoken, it was impressed on me that discipline was about controlling behavior which you had to do by being stern and unyielding, good at rule-setting and handing down punishments.  But with my goofy temperament and non-threatening clown face, I soon learned that that road only led to misery and heartache for both me and, more importantly, the students.  In the 80’s I learned that you had to follow Bobby McFerrin’s philosophy of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”.  I learned that you don’t teach someone lasting lessons by pushing them from behind with paddles and switches, but by leading them forward with jokes and obvious joy in the lessons you are teaching.

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Now that I have grown old and awful in the winter of my life, the songs that express my personal themes are classical music and complex with snowflakian symmetry and stark, cold beauty.  I would talk about a few more particulars, but I am now well past 500 words, and if you don’t have the idea yet, I’m sorry, you are probably never going to hear that music yourself.  But don’t worry… be happy.

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