Incredible to think that it’s been 25 years since the verdict in the Rodney King trial set things off in Los Angeles. This was my response then, my attempt to understand. This dance was not meant for escape, but for confrontation of reality and for healing.
And in the struggle it’s good to laugh as we come together to fight oppression.
“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor” — Desmond Tutu
“He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it” — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
“When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.” — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
“We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.” ― Elie Wiesel, The Night Trilogy: Night, Dawn, the Accident
“If we will make the right choice, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our world into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.” — Martin Luther King, Jr., Beyond Vietnam — A Time to Break Silence
“The insistence that one should be “ethnic” is endemic, irritating and insulting.” — Labi Siffre on the music business’ support of black British musicians.
This may have nothing to do with anything for you, but please indulge me a moment as I try to bring you in. I’m just heading down an obsessive rabbit hole into Labi Siffre’s music. Apparently he’s kind of famous, but I’d never heard of him until a song, “Watch Me,” featured on the TV show “This is Us” caught my ear. Then I realized he was the guy who wrote one of my favorite 80’s songs, Madness’ “It Must Be Love.” When I was being told I was kind of like the new version or male version of whatever black acoustic guitar player someone had seen before as I started my career, I’m now surprised that I never heard his name. Maybe it was because of his attitude towards the music business was “The insistence that one should be “ethnic” is endemic, irritating and insulting,” and if people are trying to label you as the “black” anything, they’re not trying to align you with that sort of slippery resistant stance. I, however, would have loved to have been guided in his direction as a spiritual and musical forefather. Glad I’m discovering him now though.
I’m on the side of the undocumented, the lovers of love, the historically and enduringly oppressed. I feel no responsibility to be the representative of anyone. And I often love the opportunity to be the bridge that facilitates an opening to lovingly honest conversations between and within the communities which have nourished me and that can be as small as a simple friendship or romantic relationship. And in the end I’m grateful, even when it’s painful, for the challenges that plunge me deeper and ask me to reveal that which I might shelter.
Last summer I had the pleasure of being in a band with Ryan Gosling… Well, I mimed guitar for a scene in “La La Land” which opens on Friday in Los Angeles and New York, and nationwide on December 16.
Last night I saw the film for the first time at the dance and music team screening. First, that experience was great…I love dancers just as a culture! And the film itself is great! It really captures what film maker Damien Chazelle describes in a piece on his favorite musicals in Sunday’s LA Times, saying that musicals “favor emotions over logic. They’re not a literal reflection of life — they’re about how life feels.” Sure it’s only a slice of how some lives feel, but for me seeing streets I drive often, especially by the 101 and Vine, it felt like some joyous and heartbreaking aspects of my life as a performing artist in LA.
Actually getting this job lines up with that for me. This was actually my first “sidelining” gig. Sidelining is when they hire professional musicians to mime playing pre-recorded music for a film to ensure authenticity when you see the hands move, basically. So we’re playing the songs, it’s just not us that you hear on the soundtrack necessarily. My girlfriend had told me to submit to an agency for this sort of thing a while back and I thought, “What the heck?”
Anyway, I get the gig based on a a couple photos they’ve seen, I guess, and I’m called for wardrobe. I drive out to Burbank or somewhere, make a wrong turn and end up in a cemetery. I finally make it to the studio and I’m guided to a room with a couple look boards leaning against the wall. I’m alone, so I walk over to give them a closer look. I see John Legend and others in sort of neo-soul looking clothes. I think, “Okay, I get the look they’re going for….” Then I pull out the second board which was behind and see photos of A Flock of Seagulls. “Yikes! I’d hate to be those guys…”
“So we’re going for a sort of authentic 80s look….” says the costume director.
Probably only a few of you would know this, but when I was a young teenager, my band was booked to open for A Flock of Seagulls. We thought it was going to be our big break. KROQ was the sponsor. We had the posters. This was going to be our big break out of Irvine. Then, a week or two before the show, the venue closed and we weren’t rescheduled. A Flock of Seagulls is kryptonite.
But the shoot was good. Ryan Gosling was a good guy, joining us in trying to come up with ridiculous band names, all of which I’ve forgotten now. And I won’t give any spoilers, but I’m curious to hear your feedback on my “luck” after seeing the film.
And the feeling of heartbreak to triumph is seeing this film in a room filled with amazing talent, knowing that it’s getting Oscar buzz, and loving the finished product. It’s a nice result for fun work on a 100º summer’s day (which plays for spring in the film).
I’m very visible in the scene, early in the film, behind my sunglasses. And if you see the trailer, I’m visible at the very end — if you don’t blink… and you know I’m there!
It’s nice to hear all the different musicians sharing tributes today. Sometimes the best way to honor our heroes is to participate in the act that gave us the inspiration. This felt good. I’ve always listened to Leonard Cohen in times when I needed to be reminded that a contemplative world was possible, that we were free to experience life in intimate and liberating ways. He’s inspired me to write. A few of you have heard a song of mine called, “(Please Don’t Play) Hallelujah.” That was inspired by his pursuit of excellence, not as a diss to the song, but I wanted to shake people out of covering the obvious, and encourage people to write their own “Hallelujah.” I look forward to sharing that song on an upcoming release. But for now, here’s a moment from last night trying to engage and give gratitude to the gift of Leonard Cohen’s art. (I’d never sung it before other than to myself, so please excuse the mistakes…)
Singing and playing is the best part of it all. I miss doing regular shows here in LA. That involves more than just singing and playing, I guess, which explains my reluctance. And recording induces a similar fear of permanent impressions and failures. I didn’t realize until I decided to make this little video today how this song (with my recording struggles with it) was so appropriate for the moment. It makes me giggle at the perfect nuttiness of the universe. But it also makes me happy that the song is true, that music and my connection to playing and writing it is what keeps me going. It always seems to be there when I need it.
So take a look at my studio and listen to one of the songs I’ll be putting out when I feel like it’s ready.
Goodnight from LA.
I’m in Bar Harbor, enjoying my mom and Acadia National Park! Last week, though, Katie Mitchell interviewed me for the Standing “O” Project’s podcast. Standing “O” is a fair trade music streaming site that you may have heard about from “The Art of the Song” radio show, your music community or me (I was featured last year on “The Art of the Song.” It just went live today!
Listen here: https://www.standingoproject.
I haven’t listened to it yet, but I loved talking with Katie in my studio. I was just getting ready for the Harry Nilsson Birthday Concert (which went great — I had a string section, bass and drums accompany me on “The Wailing of the Willow” from Harry’s Aerial Ballet album), and working on some new stuff which you’ll be hearing about over the summer.
I hope you’re having a good summer. I find nature, exercise, and music are the best healers, so I’m grateful to be experiencing them all. Hope you’ll experience some of the same!
I filmed some friends at my studio for NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert contest and decided to submit myself, too! I had a cold, but it turned out okay. I’m loving my new space as its possibilities unfold!
He went out well. Two albums in three years, a broadway play, and a major art retrospective. As I write this, I hear Neil Young: “It’s better to burn out/Than to fade away.” I’m rethinking what it means to burn out. To burn with passion is good. When we create, the fire illuminates. Bowie burned on his way out. Neil wrote of “burning out” as the story of Johnny Rotten (who actually lives well today), Elvis, Janis, Jimi, Morrison even. But Bowie burned, perhaps edging up against self-destruction at certain points, but largely like a sun, a life-giving force to the “freaks” on society’s fringe, those who may have needed to be reminded that they were pretty, but less often needed reminders that they were driving their mothers and fathers insane.
My sister Josslyn wrote today that Bowie was a bridge between my father’s love of jazz and Nina Simone and the music we loved growing up. My recollection is totally different. I remember listening over and over to “Wild is the Wind” in my bedroom. I don’t know what it was about it. I was probably twelve wanting to love, be loved and leave the oppression of sticking out in a very white city where I was betrayed by my shade and kink, then completely outed by my dad’s extravagance. And I’d definitely internalized some of the messages I was a wild creature. It’s somewhere in the vulnerability in Bowie’s voice when he says, “Don’t you know you’re life itself.” The “itself” lands alone, over an implied change to the V dominant seventh chord, the chord that begs to resolve back to the root, yet the previous minor IV chord has stopped ringing. The emptiness in which he holds that awkward word kills me. He does bring us back to the tonic, a minor ninth — that ninth hinting at hope by surpassing the octave by just a step. It’s that aloneness that Bowie allowed us to understand wasn’t so unique, that others share your longing, your estrangement from community norms. And in that understanding, you could step ahead.
I remember my father coming into my room and asking, “Why are you listening to that white boy sing that song?” He fought back with Nina Simone’s version, to which I must now say I’ve listened at least as many times as Bowie’s. But then it was a dismissal of my interests and probably a reaction based on his insecurity around my rejecting his “blackness” by my embrace of my white rockstars — save Jimi. Ultimately, I must agree with my sister that the cross-cultural elements of Bowie’s music did create a bridge between my father and I. I remember him apologizing fairly soon after his initial diss. He later loved that Bowie and Iman were a couple. But it was uncomfortable. Bowie started a fight. But we both learned and gained something in the end.
Then again, that uncomfortable feeling was part of Bowie’s genius. Over and over he pushed boundaries — remember the “man skirt?” — then world caught up, at least sort of. And maybe that was it, too. He created space for acceptance or alternative culture (beyond that icky word “tolerance”) even if the elements of it weren’t embraced or adopted by mainstream culture. That ability to create space for acceptance of “difference” however is probably why he ultimately was so embraced and beloved by the mainstream. Of course it was all helped by a clearly sweet core that you could see in so many of his activities that had little to do with the Avant-garde (Bing Crosby, Jim Henson, “The Snowman…”).
The songs that grabbed me this morning were “Five Years” and “Lazarus.” Impending death at the beginning of his career and transcending at the end. All the while, Bowie radiates as a powerful sun, burning beauty into us, illuminating wondrous ways to look at the world, its inhabitants and its transcendentals.