A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 318: Once in a Lifetime

talking heads

I blame “Stranger Things 2” for getting me into an ’80’s frame of mind. The second season is supposed to take place in 1984, the year I graduated from high school. So Steve and Nancy would be my classmates. Jonathan would likely have been my best friend.  We would hang out together and play bizarre records for each other.

Speaking of bizarre, Talking Heads were a band that dominated my imagination and tantalized me with confusing lyrics and white-boy-funky music when I was a teenager/20-something. They created their greatest songs and albums in the 1980’s. Long before Paul Simon had introduced the world to African musical forms, Talking Heads were experimenting with what would come to be called “World Beat” music. Their album Remain in Light is a masterful concoction of primeval rhythms and cryptic words.

To me, the quintessential Talking Heads song is found on this album: “Once in a Lifetime” – Danceable, weird, totally different than anything else on the radio at the time, it contains everything that made me love these odd intellectual rockers. Here is the full length version of the song with David Byrne being David Byrne in the obtuse and ultimately satisfying and funny video. Enjoy.

A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 205: Play On, Seriously Play

silent winters house concert

Play On, Seriously Play

Two voices, one guitar, a little big space for sharing
Adds up to something small in simple language

Words words and melodies, we hear them all the time
From malls to cars to bars to little big spaces

People listen, full to somewhat at attention, ears open
Going in one and out the other, brief rests in between

Music common background noise, soundtrack to mundane
Music adds up to thousands of voices, words, melodies – Rinse, Repeat

Common, everyday, background, noise, rattle, hum, drum
We crave, we ingest, we desire, we inject, never enough

Realize, without voices, guitars, bass, keys, drums
The Void consumes, the Monster tramples on and on and on

What is common battles the brutal, background destroys banal
Two voices, one guitar, weapons of mass destruction

Words and melodies create the war dance, move the feet
That trample the tramplers, consume the consumers

The singer stands in the Void, guitarist leaps in the breach
The onslaught is fiercly met, repulsed again, beaten back beat

Courageously fearful, head long into it because they must
Stem the tide, strum the chords that shake spears and shatter shields

Open your mouth, give the cry to those choked with acrid fumes
Let words flow in a stream to ease their throats, give them grace

Play on, play, play, seriously play as play wins the day, play
Strings and keys, sticks and skins, swing and shimmy, rock that roll

Soft, loud, shattered, fine, kind, angry, bitter, adoring, sad and overjoyed
No matter – Play on, play, play, seriously just play til you win the day

This little big space we share needs your voices, your guitar, your words
Fill it up with the excess of your soul, your blues, your emotional vent

Two voices, one guitar, a little big space for sharing
Adds up to something not so common after all

Cruelty consumed by compassion, grace kicks despair’s ass
Music a soundtrack for the victorious battle scene

Is it seen that way? Often the fight goes unnoticed, granted taken
But music exists to give life to existence, to extinguish the heartless flame

We crave, we listen, we open our hearts to music’s incisions
To bleed out our love, our sorrow, our pain, our laughter, our hopes

Its uncommon commonality fools us, fools us with its wisdom
Truth is: We can’t live without it, or it without us – Music, play on

 

By Ron Kok, written July 23, 2017 after attending a house concert performance by Silent Winters in Russell, Ontario

 

Please check out Silent Winters, a new Canadian folk duo:

http://www.silentwinters.com | http://www.twitter.com/silentswinterss | http://www.facebook.com/silentwintersmusic | http://www.soundcloud.com/silentwinters | http://www.instagram.com/silentwinters

 

A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 187: Panic at the Pub

at the pub

What do I have in common with Chuck Berry, J.J. Cale and Stevie Ray Vaughan? We’ve all played music in a pub.  Well, I’m assuming Chuck and J.J. and Stevie have all played music in a pub (seems likely, doesn’t it?). But I bet I did something they didn’t do: Played music in a pub on the congas!

That may be an assumption, too,come to think of it. Any one of those guys would’ve played a mean conga.

Last night the little group I have been playing music with recently ventured into a local pub for their open mic night. I haven’t done anything like this in quite a long while. As I was sitting there, waiting for our turn to get up there, I started to feel that familiar sense of panic. There is something warm and fuzzy about this kind of panic. Possibly because it has been my companion on a number of occasions. This is that panic that you get as you wait to perform in front of a group of people. This is the panic that says, “Whatthehellwereyouthinking?! Don’t do this!! Get out while there’s still time!!” 

What did I do? I basked in that panic. I let it wash over me. And then I ordered another beer.

Did Chuck or J.J. or Stevie feel that kind of panic? Very likely. Going up on stage as an actor or musician or any kind of performer is a nerve-wracking thing to do.  At least those guys had a lot of practice under their belts! I think I had about four practices with this band before I got up there. But I got up there, the Little Bundle of Nerves that I was. And we ripped through some songs by Chuck Berry, J.J. Cale and Stevie Ray Vaughan as it happens.

The panic was put to use. I’ve come to realize that that is its function: To fuel the engine that drives you to perform in front of people in the first place. That is why I have a close relationship with that kind of panic. It is like that one crazy friend who introduces you to things you will never think of yourself. It spikes your energy and makes you super focused.

And when you’re done? For me, I do a lot of laughing. It’s not the beer, it’s the panic come-down. It leaves you feeling relief, a sense of accomplishment, and a not a little irony that you (of all people) just sang and played congas in front of a bunch of people. That panic come-down then, in turn, fuels the engine that gets you up there again in some future day.

Will I feel that panic again soon? I hope so. When I do I’ll know I’m doing this Creating Dangerously thing right. And I’ll know that I’m in the company of Chuck, J.J. and Stevie.

Now that would have been an awesome band to play with, wouldn’t it?

 

A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 174: My Folk/Rock-n-Bromance

avetts and me

“And I wanna grow old without the pain,
give my body back to the earth and not complain.”

I’ve got a serious Folk/Rock-n-Bromance going on with the Avett Brothers these days. It’s all their fault, writing and performing music that is hitting me square in my personal angst. I picked up their CD I and Love and You on the advice of a far-away friend who figured I’d enjoy their music (you are partly to blame, Greg – at least 42% responsible, I’d estimate).  Frankly, I can’t believe it has taken me this long to experience their music. Yet it is obvious that it is coming along in my life exactly when it was meant to.  You know that’s the case when songs written years ago can seem to be written with you and your present state of mind in mind.

There are many songs on that album that are hitting the nail on my head. The song “The Perfect Score” in particular contains some lyrics that continue to run circles in my brain. I’ll share that song with you today, first in video form, with the lyrics printed after.

This feeling has reminded me that creativity kick-starts your heart or kicks your ass when it is needed, and there’s no telling where it will come from or who will be the kicker(s).  That reminds me, the Avett Brothers song “Kick Drum Heart” – ya gotta listen to that one!  After this one, of course… By the way, nobody moves in the video. Just listen and get over it already.

 

“The Perfect Space”

I wanna have friends that I can trust,
that love me for the man I’ve become not the man I was.
I wanna have friends that will let me be
all alone when being alone is all that I need.I wanna fit in to the perfect space,
feel natural and safe in a volatile place.
And I wanna grow old without the pain,
give my body back to the earth and not complain.
Will you understand when I am too old of a man?
And will you forget when we have paid our debt
who did we borrow from? Who did we borrow from?

Okay part two now clear the house.
The party’s over take the shouting and the people,
get out!

I have some business and a promise that I have to hold to.
I do not care what you assume or what the people told you.
Will you understand, when I am too old of a man?
Will you forget when we have paid our debts,
who did we borrow from? Who did borrow from?

I wanna have pride like my mother has,
And not like the kind in the bible that turns you bad.
And I wanna have friends that I can trust,
that love me for the man I’ve become and not the man that I was.

 

A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 59: Words About Music By…

“Music is a world within itself”, Stevie sang. Musicians share a common bond but have such different ways of expressing it. Here are some quotes from famous musicians, describing music, their experience of it, their perspectives and opinions. I was struck by what vast variety of commentary there is here yet such a unity of spirit. It made me think that Beethoven would totally get Henry Rollins, and vice versa, or that Leonard Bernstein would have loved to work with Lady Gaga.

Enjoy musicians’ words about music…

“Music is a safe kind of high.” – Jimi Hendrix

“Music should strike fire from the heart of man, and bring tears from the eyes of woman.” – Ludwig von Beethoven

“Music, at its essence, is what gives us memories. And the longer a song has existed in our lives, the more memories we have of it.” – Stevie Wonder

“Music is such a balm. Always has been. It’s such a heartbeat, like blood thrumming through the womb. That’s why music appeals to people.” – Al Jarreau

“Rock and roll music, if you like it, if you feel it, you can’t help but move to it. That’s what happens to me. I can’t help it.” – Elvis Presley

“Music is the arithmetic of sounds as optics is the geometry of light.” – Claude Debussy

“The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.” – Johann Sebastian Bach

“I believe that music is a spiritual language. My everyday self is pretty mundane and boring, but when I’m making music it allows for me to communicate a kind of transcendence that I can’t communicate otherwise.” – Sufjan Stevens

“I think music in itself is healing. It’s an explosive expression of humanity. It’s something we are all touched by. No matter what culture we’re from, everyone loves music.” – Billy Joel

“Music is a lady that I still love because she gives me the air that I breathe. We need all sorts of nourishment. And music satisfies and nourishes the hunger within ourselves for connection and harmony.” – Cat Stevens

“The music is the message, the message is the music. So that’s my little ministry that the Big Man upstairs gave to me – a little ministry called love and happiness.” – Al Green

“Once a song’s out there, it’s no longer mine. And that’s the whole purpose of music: to belong to people.” – Sade Adu

“The reason I play music is to touch people – for selfish reasons, as well. It feels good to make someone else feel something, whether it’s a kiss, a painting, good idea or it’s a song.” – Dave Matthews

“I’ve always felt music is the only way to give an instantaneous moment the feel of slow motion. To romanticize it and glorify it and give it a soundtrack and a rhythm.” – Taylor Swift

“Normally, things are viewed in these little segmented boxes. There’s classical, and then there’s jazz; romantic, and then there’s baroque. I find that very dissatisfying. I was trying to find the thread that connects one type of music – one type of musician – to another, and to follow that thread in some kind of natural, evolutionary way.’ – Jerry Lee Lewis

“I try to give to my music the spiritual quality, very deep in the soul, which does something even if you are not realizing it or analyzing it – that’s the duty of the music.” – Ravi Shankar

“…what I like my music to do to me is awaken the ghosts inside of me. Not the demons, you understand, but the ghosts.” – David Bowie

“I don’t care much about music. What I like is sounds.” – Dizzy Gillespie

“Lean your body forward slightly to support the guitar against your chest, for the poetry of the music should resound in your heart.” – Andres Segovia

“God had to create disco music so I could be born and be successful.” – Donna Summer

“Jazz is a white term to define black people. My music is black classical music.” – Nina Simone

“Music is probably the only real magic I have encountered in my life. There’s not some trick involved with it. It’s pure and it’s real. It moves, it heals, it communicates and does all these incredible things.” – Tom Petty

“I think music is the most phenomenal platform for intellectual thought.” – Annie Lennox

“It doesn’t matter the kind of music, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a cowboy hat or a yarmulke. I don’t care if it’s outer space or pop, the spirit is the same.” – David Lee Roth

“I frequently hear music in the very heart of noise.” – George Gershwin

“All music is folk music. I ain’t never heard a horse sing a song.” – Louis Armstrong

“I hope to refine music, study it, try to find some area that I can unlock. I don’t quite know how to explain it but it’s there. These can’t be the only notes in the world, there’s got to be other notes some place, in some dimension, between the cracks on the piano keys.” – Marvin Gaye

“As you begin to realize that every different type of music, everybody’s individual music, has its own rhythm, life, language and heritage, you realize how life changes, and you learn how to be more open and adaptive to what is around us.” – Yo-Yo Ma

“Tones sound, and roar and storm about me until I have set them down in notes.” – Ludwig von Beethoven

“This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.” – Leonard Bernstein

“If architecture is frozen music then music must be liquid architecture.” – Quincy Jones

“I was born with music inside me. Music was one of my parts. Like my ribs, my kidneys, my liver, my heart. Like my blood. It was a force already within me when I arrived on the scene. It was a necessity for me – like food or water.” – Ray Charles

“Why be in music, why write songs, if you can’t use them to explore life or an idealized vision of life? I believe a lot of our lives are spent asleep, and what I’ve been trying to do is hold on to those moments when a little spark cuts through the fog and nudges you.” – Rufus Wainwright

“One person’s roar is another’s whine, just as one person’s music is another’s unendurable noise.” – Henry Rollins

“What’s great about music is it takes so many kinds of people, including me. Everybody is in a different place.” – Jewel

“What I’ve discovered is that in art, as in music, there’s a lot of truth-and then there’s a lie. The artist is essentially creating his work to make this lie a truth, but he slides it in amongst all the others. The tiny little lie is the moment I live for, my moment. It’s the moment that the audience falls in love.” – Lady Gaga

“Music is gathering. Taking our scattered thoughts and senses and coalescing us back into our core. Music is powerful. The first few chords can change us where no self-help books can.” – Jane Siberry

“Music is always a commentary on society.” – Frank Zappa

“Music was your real passion, this thing you held dear even above family. It was this relationship that never betrayed you. Once it became your job – this thing that was highly visible, this thing that became about commerce – that’s when you were holding onto music like it was a palm tree in a hurricane.” – Eddie Vedder

“Change is an internal thing. Different things happen or transform, and music and art is a documentation of that.” – Matisyahu

“I found music to be the therapy of choice. I guess it is for a lot of people.” – David Byrne

“They teach you there’s a boundary line to music. But, man, there’s no boundary line to art.” – Charlie Parker

 

A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 58: Sarah Sang

artsmacdougall

some people put their lives into a dream

i put my life inside a song

i believed like believers believe

in the song, in the song, in the song 

Sarah sang for us on Saturday night. She looked right into our eyes as she sang. Is that so unusual? Think about it: How often have you experienced that? And if you have, how long were you able to gaze back, directly into the performer’s eyes? It is a soul-to-soul connection, a fearful connection, but Sarah never wavered. Sarah is fearless. Sarah will sing a song that enters your eyes and makes its way to your toes and back again, giving a spark in return to her as you meet that gaze, and then back again. It was human-to-human, and more than a little magical.

Sarah MacDougall is a Swedish-Canadian singer-songwriter who claims she mistakenly lives in the Yukon. She performed at a house concert my wife and I attended last week in Russell, Ontario. As I experienced her music and her courageous presentation, I realized I was watching a Dangerous Creative live and in person. My wife described her performance using words like “visceral” and “honest”. Her songs were direct and vulnerable. She put herself out there complete in body, spirit and mind. She took the risks great artists take. The song was her vehicle but she was the engine, boldly flying down that road despite the curves and potholes of traveling that human highway.

After that evening of music and more than music, I realized that what separates the good artist from the great artist is that complete commitment to vulnerability, to creating dangerously, to nakedly taking on the world.  The great artists are really exposed nerves, but they are exposed for all our benefit, as pain is a warning, a message, a necessity for survival.  The toll this takes on the artist is immense. So often they deal with depression, with extreme self-doubt, with a feeling of isolation from the world around them because their inner world is the only place they feel at home. This is often misunderstood. They are branded as “moody” or “eccentric” or “self-absorbed” or “freak”. The calling they have can be the curse of the prophet: Given a divine Word to speak that may get them sawed in two.

Sarah helped me feel, again, an immense gratitude for artists who take risks and walk that knife’s edge in life. We may not realize just how much we owe them. She also helped me see what I need to be willing to expose. She helped me to seek the courage to gaze directly into someone’s eyes, even the stranger. She helped me to grasp a bit more what being an artist can be if you’re open to the calling.

The world needs the fearless because it is so full of fear. The world needs more Sarahs. It needs more Dangerous Creatives, maybe more than ever.

Below is a link to a YouTube video of Sarah’s song “I Want to See the Light”

A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 17: Jesus, Jesus

washing-feet-by-he-qi

“Washing Feet” by He Qi

At the house concert I was a part of last weekend, I was struck by a song called “Jesus, Jesus” by Noah Gundersen that my friend performed. I had never heard it before and didn’t know the artist. Turns out he’s a 20-something guy from Washington. Home-schooled and now a folk musician,  Noah fronts the band called The Courage. This song comes from his solo album called “Saints and Liars”(released in 2009). The lyrics are stark and direct. Really the song is a prayer of someone overwhelmed by the wrong in his world, which makes it so appropriate for many who enter 2017 with anxiety and deep concerns.

Noah’s words are below, followed by a YouTube lyric video so you can hear him performing his song.

Jesus, Jesus by Noah Gundersen 

Jesus, Jesus, could you tell me what the problem is
With the world and all the people in it?
Because I’ve been hearing stories about the end of the world
But I’m in love with a girl and I don’t wanna leave her
And the television screams such hideous things
They’re talking about the war on the radio
They say the whole thing’s gonna blow
And we will all be left alone
No we’ll be dead and we won’t know what hit us

Jesus, Jesus, if you’re up there won’t you hear me
‘Cause I’ve been wondering if you’re listening for quite a while
And Jesus, Jesus, it’s such a pretty place we live in
And I know we fucked it up, please be kind
Don’t let us go out like the dinosaurs
Or blown to bits in a third world war
There are a hundred different things I’d still like to do
I’d like to climb to the top of the Eiffel Tower
Look up from the ground at a meteor shower
And maybe even raise a family

Jesus, Jesus, there are those that say they love you
But they have treated me so damn mean
And I know you said ‘forgive them for they know not what they do’
But sometimes I think they do
And I think about you
If all the heathens burn in hell, do all their children burn as well?
What about the Muslims and the gays and the unwed mothers?
What about me and all my friends?
Are we all sinners if we sin?
Does it even matter in the end if we’re unhappy?

Jesus, Jesus, I’m still looking for answers
Though I know that I won’t find them here tonight
But Jesus, Jesus, could you call me if you have the time?
And maybe we could meet for coffee and work it out
And maybe then I’ll understand what it’s all about

A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 16: Benevolent Alchemists

 

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MacGyvered Capo, House Concert rehearsal, photo by Christina Stapper

“One good thing about music, when it hits you feel no pain” – Bob Marley, “Trenchtown Rock”

I found a t-shirt at Value Village with that quotation on it.  I snatched it off the rack quicker than you could say, “Ya, Mon”! So many things have been said about music by some of the greatest artists in history but this statement by Bob, written into the lyrics of one of his songs, nails it for me. As the Man in Black says in The Princess Bride, “Life is pain, highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.”But music can knock the hell out of pain. Music is not to be trifled with. Music can take that savage beast and body slam it.

Last Saturday evening I had the pleasure of attending a house concert in the cozy confines of my friends’ home. I also had the privilege of playing three songs that night, though my jangly sloppiness seemed almost sacrilegious compared to the esoteric, beautiful and heartbreaking offerings of the other performers – songs by Leonard Cohen, the Wailin’ Jennys, Ryan Adams, Alison Krauss, Ricky Nelson – It was a fine time. And music did its work on me again. I came there tired, worn out from a headache I had battled all day, and not very enthused about my part in the evening. But quite literally within the first few moments of the first song of the night, the music hit me and I felt so good. The pain dissipated, the weariness lifted, and it felt good to be alive again.

I know there are scientific reasons for this; releasing endorphins or endolphins or some such thing. Whatever. All I know is that music has done this for me time and time again. When I am at my lowest, when I’m feeling depressed, or when things just are not that great, I’ll be driving in my car, a song I love will come on the radio and I’ll start singing, maybe even shimmying a bit in my seat (ever done the driver’s seat boogie before?) and my day is transformed into something else. It is magic, science be damned. It is like being given some elixir from a benevolent alchemist; you drink it down and – Voila! You are made new again.

I was reminded of this on Saturday night in that warm and welcoming living room, full of people there to enjoy music and share music. I was reminded about the role artists play in the lives of others. By willingly giving their gifts, they bring healing; they sow joy; they take your barely livable life and make it exceptional and make you so grateful to be alive. Talk about alchemy! It made me very thankful to have so many benevolent alchemists in my life, either those known to me or those who I know only by their art.

These thoughts made me realize the part that I can play in people’s lives. It renewed my thankfulness for my own gifts and talents. So often I disparage them and feel that they are inadequate. It seems a common trait of artists to think whatever they offer is not quite up to par, not as good as the next person, and therefore unworthy to be shared. But the truth is that creating something and offering it to others for their enjoyment or to challenge or to inspire, is a sacred thing. As a sacred thing, what you offer as an artist, crafted distinctly from who you are, is never unworthy. It is magic. And the world always needs more magic.

Always.

 

 

A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 1: Marley & Me

bob-marley

“The people who are trying to make this world worse aren’t taking a day off. How can I?” 

Bob Marley is an iconic figure in history. His music and image are well known all over the world. What is not as well known is that on December 3, 1976, someone tried to rip him open with bullets and take his life.

It was just a couple of  days before the “Smile Jamaica” concert, organized by the Jamaican Prime Minister, Michael Manley, in an attempt to bring peace between warring political factions. Some saw Marley’s decision to play in this concert as support for Manley. In the midst of these tensions, a gunman entered Marley’s home and shot him, his wife Rita, and manager Don Taylor. All survived but sustained injuries, Marley to the chest and arm. Nevertheless, just two days later, as scheduled, he appeared on stage with the Wailers to sing and play. When asked why he would choose to perform just two days after an attempt on his life, Marley responded, “The people who are trying to make this world worse aren’t taking a day off. How can I?”

As I reflect back on 2016 on this first day of 2017, the lasting impression is of a year that cast a dark, dark shadow. It was a tumultuous 365 that contained tragedies like Aleppo and tragi-comedies like the US Presidential election. Racists were emboldened to go public, hatred in speech and action was rampant, innocents suffered for others’ political ends, and images of destroyed cities, thousands of refugees and dead children threatened to make us all despair. There was good in 2016, of course, but the bad seemed to outweigh it so much as to crush the life out of it and us.

How to move forward after all of that? It is easy to retreat into our fantasy lands, our distractions and our devices; easy to bury our heads in screens and a virtual reality of our own making. This is especially true for us in the privileged parts of the world, where bombings, death squads, starvation and disease are part of the plot to our favorite Netflix show, not part of our daily lives.

But retreat is cowardice. Retreat is giving in to those who are trying their hardest to make this world worse.

I am an artist, a creative person. I don’t say this in a boastful way. It is simply who I am. I draw, I paint, I sing, I write – creating for me is essential to keeping me from going dead inside. I associate with other creative people, from the local painter toiling in obscurity to the iconic Reggae singer known worldwide. I understand the drive and I understand the risk. Artists can only be truly creative if they are vulnerable. Artists are meant to put themselves out there, on display, warts and all: Open to criticism and disdain, praise and adoration or , worst of all, being ignored.

Creating art and putting it out there is like exposing a wound: It’s painful, it stings but it could possibly bring healing. Artists go against human nature, against the evolutionary grain of self-protection, self-preservation. They play the role of standing in the breach, naked to enemy fire and friendly fire alike, with the possibilities of complete failure or eternal glory hanging in the balance.

Bob Marley knew this. He knew that artists are always in conflict, either with themselves or with the world around them. He put himself out there, exposed. It was where he needed to be and had to be. As someone who created music that gave life and hope, he felt a responsibility to keep on creating no matter how fear and self-preservation may have gripped him.

Pondering this event and considering an artist’s response to the darkness, the void that threatens to suck all the light from the world, I was deeply challenged and greatly inspired. I could not give in to the brutality and banality that was dragging me down. I am an artist and I have a responsibility to respond creatively, hopefully, compassionately. .

To that end I have decided, first of all, to post to this blog each day for the entirety of 2017 – 365 days of Creating Dangerously. What I hope to do is post things about or from artists that inspire me and challenge me to truly live my life. And I hope to also share with you my creativity, my artwork, my words, to give you inspiration and challenge you in your lives. Second of all, I plan on creating a series of paintings this year, with the goal of one per month (or more!). These paintings will be of the artists who have shaped who I am and who I admire, not because they were perfect, but because they were courageous and took risks; because they fought to beat back the darkness and bring light.

On December 30, 2016 I completed the first painting in my series which I share below:

punk-rock-warlord-joe-strummer-vs-the-void

Punk Rock Warlord (Joe Strummer Vs The Void) Ron Kok December 2016 Acrylic on canvas

Joe Strummer was the front man and main songwriter of the legendary British punk band the Clash. But he was so much more than a “rock star”. Joe was as flawed as the next human being but was also deeply passionate about people, about truth and justice, and about being a champion for good in a often nasty world. His desire to connect with people, to demolish the barrier between performer and audience, to empower other artists to find their voice, to keep kicking at the darkness until it bled daylight (to borrow a Bruce Cockburn lyric) has been a continual source of inspiration for me in my life. He was an artist who understood that to make a significant impact, you had to put yourself out there to be spit on (which happened to him quite literally) or loved or both. I guess it’s the vulnerability of someone who half-jokingly referred to himself as a Punk Rock Warlord that I have always admired most.

Joe seemed like a great place for me to start in my Year of Creating Dangerously. I hope you can come along with me for the ride. I want to do my part to be proactive and creative in 2017. I don’t want to sit on the sidelines and bitch and cry. I want to take on the world in the way that I am wired: As an artist. And I want to inspire you and give you hope. I really do. If just one person can be moved to do what is right and good despite all the ugliness around them, I will know that it was all worth it.

I don’t want to take a day off. This fight is too important. Let’s rise above, friends, and give love, embrace hope, spread peace, and speak truth.

My Top Ten Musical Moments of 2014

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Music means a lot to me. I suspect there are a few of us out there. We are the kind of people who burst into spontaneous song if prompted by the right phrase or even just the right word (my kids think I have a song for everything… they may be right). We are people who, when asked, “What’s your favorite band?” or “What kind of music do you listen to?” give blank stares for a few moments, urrr and ummm, look at our shoes and feel quite awkward and often totally speechless. Why? Because those are such huge questions you might as well be asking, “What is the answer to life, the universe, and everything?”

Forty-two.

Okay, so that was an easy question to answer. But for we the Uber Music-Lovers, we the Pop Music-Snobbists, we the Keepers of the Backbeat, asking us to pick a favorite band, album, song or genre is like asking Ma and Pa Ingalls to pick a favorite daughter – It is unthinkable that there is even an appropriate response to that question!

Life is music. Music is life. I could not give you an accurate autobiography without the inclusion of lots and lots of music. In fact, when I think of my own life there is a soundtrack playing in the background: age 6, “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” by Jim Croce; age 10, “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” by Elton John; age 16, “Truckin'” by the Grateful Dead; age 20, “Radio Free Europe” by REM… you get the picture. Music, life. Life, music.

So it is probably not a stretch that when I consider the year that was, I think in terms of musical moments. These are not just favorite songs or albums from 2014, they are moments in time; moments that defined my year and helped to keep me sane and alive. To paraphrase Bono when he was talking about the Clash, Music isn’t life or death to me; it is more important than that. 

So here are my Top Ten Musical Moments for 2014. There is no way I can put these in any order of importance so I present them unadorned with numbers and in random order…

  •  Seeing the Strumbellas live in concert
The Strumbellas at Ottawa Folk Fest 2014. I'm one of the heads near the front!

The Strumbellas at Ottawa Folk Fest 2014. I’m one of the heads near the front!I

I was able to finally take in this up-and-coming Canadian pop-folk band at Ottawa’s Folk Fest this past September. I first heard the Strumbellas just over a year ago and was immediately taken in by their sound, song craft and dance-able tunes about death. Since first hearing them it has been a Strumbellas year for me; whatever else I was listening to, I always gravitated back to listening to them. They helped me through the year, no doubt about it. But getting to see them live was a magical musical moment for me. They were fun, full of life and so damn accessible – everything I imagined they’d be and more. Stomping, singing and clapping along on that unseasonably cold September night was bliss.

  • Listening to “Bad Blood” from beginning to end

bastille_2Like so many people, I had heard Bastille on the radio and been transfixed by the songs “Pompeii” and “Bad Blood”. Once or twice a year I am blown away by hearing something that sounds so different and fresh from the usually stream of crap. Bastille provided those moments for me this year. But purchasing and then listening to their album Bad Blood from beginning to end was a profound musical moment for me. So many artists are trapped in the new singles-creation mode demanded by our i-Tunes world. Often it seems like albums are once again just collections of individual songs. But Bastille made an album that grabs you by the throat and will not let you go from first song to last. I was gobsmacked.

  • Song leading and inspiration at Grow
The Grow Guitar. Tempera on canvas by me.

The Grow Guitar. Tempera on canvas by me.

Not only do I listen to a lot of music but I am fortunate enough to be someone who plays and sings music on a weekly basis. I work for a day program called Grow that serves adults with developmental disabilities. One of my duties there is song-leading in what we call “music class”, two to three times a week. With the beat-up salmon-colored Grow guitar I lead people through a wide variety of songs, from “Old MacDonald” to “Blue Suede Shoes” to “Hey Ho”. These times are really a collection of musical moments, each with their own personality; sometimes routine, sometimes fun, sometimes something almost indescribable. What I experience in these moments, however, is music as pure as it can be; a form of communication that cuts through the divisions of who is “normal” and who we deem is not. At times, I have tapped into music beyond performance or expertise; it is music as conversation, often with those who do not have words to express what is in their hearts. It is transcendent.

  • The Strypes convincing me Rock n Roll isn’t dead
Ireland's own The Strypes

Ireland’s own The Strypes

Despite the popularity of bands like Foo Fighters and the Black Keys, there seem to be no shortage of alarmists proclaiming the imminent death of Rock n Roll. This happens every few years. I remember the same discussion happening right before “Smells Like Teen Spirit” came out and knocked us all back on our collective ass. The reality is that Rock n Roll ebbs and flows but it never dies. Likely it never will, at least not in my lifetime. How can I be so sure? Because of bands of teenagers like the Strypes. I was blow away when I first heard them on the radio this year. Here are four young lads from Ireland blasting through songs that take 1960’s British Invasion bands like the Rolling Stones, the Animals and the Yardbirds as inspiration. They kick out the jams and, more than that, have given a kick-start to Rock n Roll for the digital generation. Long live Rock! Long live the Strypes!

  • Lorde emerging as the voice of her generation
Lorde on the cover of Rolling Sone, January 2014

Lorde on the cover of Rolling Sone, January 2014

Speaking of teenagers… Certainly the biggest teen sensation in music this past year was likely the most unexpected. Lorde is the anti-diva. No twerking, no sex-kitten pouting, no headline-grasping alcohol-drenched antics, just some of the most riveting music produced in the last decade. When I first heard her sing “Royals” it was like someone putting me in a trance. And that someone turned out to be only seventeen at the time.

After getting the chance to listen to her whole album I came to the conclusion that this wasn’t just another pop star on the rise; this was someone who would redefine music and popular culture for her generation. If that seems like an overstatement, consider what a very young Bob Dylan became. He had a voice and a songwriting ability far beyond his years. She has that same ability to rise above her contemporaries and take her own unique place in music. This year I caught a glimpse of the future of pop music and, Lorde, it looks good.

  • John Hiatt and Lyle Lovett saving me from a Super Blow-Out
Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt at the National Arts Centre, Ottawa, ON, Feb. 2, 2014

Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt at the National Arts Centre, Ottawa, ON, Feb. 2, 2014

I am a huge music fan, which has already been established. I am also a fan of the Denver Broncos. Having grown up in Colorado, it was hard not to be indoctrinated into the religion of Blue and Orange devotion. Guilty as charged. So last January I was ecstatic when they were going to play the Super Bowl on my birthday! When I told my wife, she started to tear up. Not because she was so happy for me but because she had bought two tickets to a concert for the night of Feb. 2, 2014 – my birthday and the night of the Big Game. She was hoping to surprise me.

I love music and I love the Denver Broncos but I love my darling wife a whole lot more. I told her there was only one option for me: Going with her to the concert and setting aside my Broncos-infatuated self for those few hours.

Turns out the concert by two wonderful songwriters, Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt, was a dazzling musical moment in my year. Not only did I get to go out with my bride, not only did I get to hear some incredible music and hilarious banter from two legends, but I also got to miss the agony of watching my team being humiliated and dismantled by the Seattle Seahawks. In a ’round about way, my love of music kept me from wasting three hours of my life and instead gave me three hours that I will treasure. Touchdown!

  •  Creeping out to Reuben and the Dark

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Another Canadian band that latched onto me was the Alberta-based Reuben and the Dark and their album Funeral Sky. I first heard their song “Rolling Stone” on the radio and I liked it a lot but it sounded very derivative of a band like Mumford and Sons. However, I decided to give their album a try and, well, it is creepin’ good music, man! Dark (as you might guess), forbidding, but very listen-able. Like the best blues and folk music that doesn’t shy away from the shadows of life, Reuben and the Dark go places in their music where most pop groups fear to tread. For that, they earned my praise.

My life this year was full of shadows. The specters of depression, anxiety, relationship conflicts, financial struggles and the usual host of issues that make life a bitch have haunted me this year. Music like this doesn’t bring me farther down, it helps me cope. Maybe that seems funny but music like this takes away the feeling that I am all alone in the dark. Music can do that; it can hold your hand or give you an embrace just when you need it to.

  •  “Hallelujah” and a Christmas reminder of my Mom
My Mom, Eleanor, and my two kids on her 80th birthday, 2012

My Mom, Eleanor, and my two kids on her 80th birthday, 2012

Two years ago, on December 7, 2012, my Mom died after years of struggling through the unrelenting hell that is Alzheimer’s disease. I was there by her beside when she died. I was looking into her eyes as she let out her last rattling breath. I felt so unworthy to be there at that moment but also felt so privileged to be one of the last people to say “I love you” to her and give her permission to “go home”. It was unforgettable.

My siblings and I had got Mom a gift for her birthday that previous spring. It was a digital photo frame that scrolls through photos. We thought this was a nice gift for a woman who treasured family, children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The frame had a built in MP-3 player and my brother had put in a number of CDs that my Mom loved. One of them was a recording of Handel’s Messiah.

As my Mom lay dying, the photo frame was gently playing music in the background. My brother had set it to random but at this time it was playing music from Handel’s most famous oratorio. I was aware of the music playing behind a very, very real life drama. But what happened after my Mom died still takes my breath away.

This past Christmas I put The Messiah on our CD player. It was Christmas afternoon, the brunch had been eaten, the gifts had been opened, and my wife and I were just hanging out in our living room. Then the “Hallelujah” chorus kicked in and in that moment I was flooded with memories of my Mom and of being there at the moment of her death.

Two years ago as my brother and I wept and comforted my Dad, grieving the loss of his wife and partner, the “Hallelujah” chorus was playing in the background. I know it sounds like a made-for-TV moment but I am not making it up. It was as if, through music, God was embracing all of us and making it clear that my Mom truly was home.

There are times when musical moments push us beyond self and beyond the pettiness of everyday. That was one of those moments for me.

  •  Playing live music in Whoville
The Whoville house band?

The Whoville house band?

Each year at Christmastime my workplace puts on a Christmas Ball for all the people we support in the Ottawa region. We usually end up with about one hundred clients and staff attending. There is always a theme that gets expressed in the decorations, food, costumes, etc. This year we had “A Very Who Christmas” complete with decorations of the Grinch’s Lair and a Who house, servings of Roast Beast and Who Hash, and brilliantly bright decorations, costumes and crazy hairdos. We also decided to go with live music this year.

I have performed music live in many different settings with many different forms of music. I am not much of a guitar player (“three chords and a cloud of dust” is how I describe it) but I can sing well. However, with my limitations on guitar, accompanying myself as I sing only goes so far. When I can just sing with a group of awesome musicians backing me up, that is a heavenly musical moment. This happened for me at this year’s Grow Christmas Ball.

My favorite moments as a musician are when you feel the joy of collaboration and the joy of being part of something alive and fun. Playing music with four other talented musicians was an early Christmas present to me. The crowd was dancing and singing along. When we were done, one of the people we support asked their staff, “Where did the house band go?” We were the Whoville House Band for a night! It was enough to make anyone’s heart grow three sizes that day.

  • Receiving the gift of a fine acoustic guitar

LHAs I mentioned, I’m not much of a guitar player. But that doesn’t keep me from trying! My other job is as a pastor of a great group of people who know me well; so well in fact that for Christmas they gave me the beautiful guitar pictured above. It was the first acoustic guitar owned by one of the guitarist in the church. He generously has passed it on to me.

Indeed, this was my gracious musical moment of 2014. And it encapsulates so much of what music gives to me to sustain me and lift me up at just the right times.

I’m looking forward to 2015; I may not get any better on guitar but I know for sure that there will be more musical gifts and memories in store.

A very Happy New Year to you all. May it be full of magical, mystical, melodious musical moments for you.