Archive for the ‘music’ Category

Reggae donkeys

August 7, 2017

Here’s a story you might appreciate.

Two donkeys browse the field next door.  Here’s a picture of Pancho & Sarah.

They are in the midst of enjoying their morning snack of crabapples.  A tree grows on my side of the fence, but they can’t reach it.  So I fill a bucket and toss them out on their side of the fence.  My initial intention of feeding them apple-by-apple in a picturesque manner was revised the moment I saw the mosquitoes covering the poor asses’ hides.  I managed to toss the apples and make a break for it, barely escaping the swarm.

I’d been feeding them at my leisure, a schedule that didn’t suit them.  Their aggrieved complaints became apparent to me the other day when a series of seesawing “hee haws” drew me to my kitchen window.  The two had come up to the fence line and were letting me know it was high time to be fed more crabapples.

Now that they keep a close eye on my comings and goings, it’s not just the mosquitoes keeping me inside but Pancho & Sarah who keen when they see me water the garden or hang laundry.  It’s not that I don’t enjoy feeding them but that the supply of crabapples is dwindling.  I still have a week or so left and I don’t want to have to buy some bags of apples at the store to satisfy them (although as I write this, I can see myself doing just that).

Lately I’ve been playing Bob Marley in the morning.  I start my music with “Wait in Vain” and the next song is “Redemption Song.”  Bob sings the refrain plaintively,

Won’t you help to sing these songs of freedom?

‘Cause all I’ve ever had

Redemption songs.

The other morning, walking down the red dirt driveway to satisfy my friends’ demands, I shifted the lyrics, singing out to the morning sky,

Won’t you help to sing these songs of donkeys?

‘Cause I’ve ever had.

Donkey songs.

Finishing it, of course, with a loud “hee haw.”

This morning, watching those persistent two move from the lower pasture where they’d tried and failed to capture my attention, I knew they’d be up at my window very soon.  As I grabbed my bucket and headed out to the crabapple tree, I thought of how they were singing their own version of another great Bob Marley song.

Get up, stand up!  Stand up for your rights!

Get up, stand up! Don’t give up the fight!

I’m going to miss my New Mexico mornings and my reggae donkeys.


Love is all around

January 11, 2016

Last night I had a marvelous dream, one of the kind that can take years to arrive and which lingers in the mind long afterward. Following a string of interactions with other people and in a decidedly public venue, a gangly man dressed in goth clothing offered to massage my aching lower back. “What do you need?” he asked my body, and while he bent to soothe its ills, he told me he’d noticed how much I gave to others without asking for anything in return. “Thank you for saying that,” I answered, allowing tears to flow. When I returned from straightening up in the ladies’ room, he was gone.  The band played “The Way You Look Tonight,” and while I was sad the man wasn’t there so I could sing the words to him as we danced, I knew it was the recognition of my best achievement – this detached expression of love and support – that had been the gift, not the person himself.

When I awoke, the night still held dawn at bay, and I dressed warmly and went out to view Venus and Saturn shining together on the eastern horizon.  Days of clouds and rain had prevented my witnessing their closest approach, but still it was a beautiful coupling of the planets associated with romantic love and stoic discipline.

When I was young, the long plodding toward a goal was the last thing I thought would make me happy. Because I was afraid of the rigidity and depression I had witnessed, I thought the only way to prevent this was to follow passion as it arose, heedlessly. My logic was immature, no more than an extension of a childish vow to avoid my parents’, and their parents’, mistakes. Still, in my own round-about manner, I searched for ecstasy, and when I found it, mistook the feeling as one generated by the person I was with. When that person left my life, when I was alone, it was impossible to feel loved, to feel love. Anger, resentment, blame – which really are more palatable versions of fear – would reside in my heart as I tried not to sink into the emotional emptiness that had always terrified me.

I like to think the dream was given to me as a sign that I’ve come out the other side of that desert. With almost seven years of solitude behind me and perhaps more to come, I know that even with no one recognizing my best (and worst) qualities, they still exist. A flower that blooms unseen is no less a flower. Two planets hidden behind dark clouds still shine. My goals, my dreams, are mine and if I don’t realize them, that failure is mine as well. But I will soldier on, with stoic discipline and love.




small town gifts

November 18, 2015


I live half-way between Charlottesville, a small city, and Crozet, a big town. Charlottesville’s traffic is a nightmare, so if there are errands I can accomplish in Crozet, I head west.

One of Crozet’s delights is an IGA.  A long-time resident, my friend pronounces the final part of its name, “the Great Valu,” as one pronounces the bear’s name in Kipling’s The Jungle Book, “Ba-loo.”  It is one of those small town groceries where the owner, the workers, and the towns people have combined forces in their determination not to lose it, and when I go there, I know high school and college sports statistics will be in the air and all manner of people will be chatting amiably with the clerks and each other.

When I left the store yesterday, I wore my usual smile after wishing the owner, who was working the cash register, a good day.  Passing the door’s threshold out into the parking lot, I heard a soft noise that had a rhythm and a tone unlike conversation.  Curious, I turned around to see a man standing between the store’s doors and the bundles of firewood, wearing a shy smile on his face and singing “Yellow Submarine.”

My smile widened, and I lingered to watch other customers’ smiles light up as they came within hearing distance of what is one of the dumbest but admittedly catchiest tunes in the Beatles repertoire.  The man wasn’t busking, didn’t appear in need of medication, and no one felt obliged to join in.  The song was simply a blessing shared with whomever happened to pass by.

Before I returned home, I was lucky to catch my friend at her cake shop.  While I was there, a neighbor stopped by to leave quiche and salad, and my friend and I caught up over tea and a light lunch.  As I was leaving, I wished her a peaceful Thanksgiving, which isn’t always in the cards for her since she is forced to spend it with her zombie mother-in-law.  Her frustration over not having control over her holidays prompted her to exclaim, “I just wish there was some thing I could do, once a year, to give back.”

“Well, you know, it’s very simple,” I replied. “All you have to do is stand outside the Great Valu and sing.”

winds of change

April 13, 2015

A truly wise person will not be carried away by any of the eight winds:  prosperity, decline, disgrace, honor, praise, censure, suffering, pleasure.


It is too soon to tell whether my next adventure will be a failure or a success.   Undoubtedly, both judgments will take turns tramping across my consciousness, whether in the midst of a sleepless night or in the dazzling rays of the setting sun.  There will be moments when I’m cast deep into despair, overwhelmed and exhausted.  Then there will be times I will want to pinch myself, incredulous at how much pleasure and beauty have manifested in my life.

Spring in central Virginia offers one of the best exercises in perceiving how quickly potential shifts.  Grey rainy days caution that winter’s retreat isn’t complete.  The next day, blue skies and mild temperatures tempt us, caution thrown to the warm wind as we step outside in short sleeves and bare feet.  One afternoon I walk by a shrub tight with buds; the next, its extravagant blossoms spill forth in colorful riot.

Every beginning starts with an ending, as inextricably mixed as sorrow and joy.  Whether we acknowledge it or not, our good news comes at the expense of another’s loss.  It is the economy, the ecology, of life.

I have little to add in comprehending this cycle of eternal resurgence, especially when so many talented others have offered their insights, works of art that comfort us at our lowest points and send our moments of celebrations into a higher pitch.  As I stand at this threshold, I want simply to capture my feelings and to say a prayer I hope I’ll remember in the months ahead.



April 7, 2015


Billie Holiday would have hated my guts if she’d paid me any mind at all.

She bad-mouthed Mildred Bailey and envied Ella for inheriting Chick Webb’s orchestra.  How could she not have despised Peggy Lee?  White, beautiful, glammed to the nines, Peggy did her fair share of ripping off Billie’s style, like so many who never gave her credit.  Mindless songs like “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?” earned her wrath.  And those white fans, who clustered around her hoping some authentic jazz experience might rub off on them, Billie manipulated mercilessly.

On the flip side, in those pictures of Billie and her dogs, the depth of her tenderness is obvious.  When it came to Lester, from the way her voice and his sax swirled around each other to the look on her face captured on “The Sound of Music” as he’s soloing in “Fine and Mellow,” it’s clear she cared.  Dinah adored her, and since that woman was no fool, it must have been mutual.   And then there were those men Billie gave her heart and soul to who dragged her down.

Anita O’Day recalled the rumor that Billie heated her fix in a tuna can and shot up in her groin.  Although Anita was a huge fan and a fellow junky, when their paths crossed, Billie gave her the cold shoulder.  Anita understood.  I understand too why Billie would hate me.  Why shouldn’t she?  All her short life, people responded not to who she was but to what they thought she represented:  a black woman, a jazz singer, a drug addict, a success, a failure.

What was different about Billie was how her art derived from the same deep place her compassion for the underdog and her resentment of the victors resided.  When she was young, the division between these was like the sharp edge of a shiny coin, giving her voice a buoyant, joyful defiance.  By the end, holding so many contradictions had worn her down.  Still, the structure remained, the beauty of the form containing all that unendurable pain.

On this her centennial birthday, I’m shying away from any tributes that might want to even out Billie’s ragged edges, to make her more palatable to a larger audience.  To me, a woman who works up a good, solid hate is a force to admire.  But also, learning to hear Billie’s rage and understand her joy has been for me a long and private journey that began with my own limited judgments and has evolved into a perspective not only wider but deeper when it comes to art, to artists, and to the human race.

Billie Holiday didn’t have to be any kinder, any wiser, any better, than she already was.  Instead, she gave anyone who listened then and who listens today the means to accomplish those difficult but essential acts:  her marvelous, mesmerizing music.


January 29, 2015

My first recording of Chet Baker’s “Let’s Get Lost” was a cassette, the paper sleeve in its plastic container tape covered with ex-boyfriend’s hand-writing that listed the songs (with Syd Straw’s “Surprise” on the B side).  I played the hell out of it between 1989 to 1991 when Chet’s voice moaning those hopeless love songs was my go-to soundtrack for casting a seductive spell on the few men I managed to lure into my single girl’s apartment.

Back then, I knew nothing about Chet.  I hadn’t seen Weber’s film, and it took me while even to realize Chet was the trumpet player.  It would be years before I knew how he’d started out the golden boy of jazz and, with heroin’s help, had fallen down the ladder and had kept falling.  He’d reached the end of his journey, pancaked on an Amsterdam pavement, the year before I heard his music.

When I finally caught up with the albums he recorded in the 50’s, at first, the difference seemed too much.  Not that there wasn’t a crazy appeal in his callow, young man’s voice, but his voice in his 1987 cover of “Blame It on My Youth” sounded as full of holes and as lonesome as an abandoned barn, as splintered and cracked as a broken mirror, as smokey as scotch.  Listening to him shrug into the apologetic naïveté of Oscar Levant’s lyrics brought to mind the dignity of a well-practiced drunk murmuring his regrets politely.

If I expected love when we first we kissed

Blame it on my youth

If only just for you I did exist

Blame it on my youth

As a young woman with little experience but a untapped well of love, I was in a hurry to be someone who’d been a few places and only come back from a few (to borrow a phrase from a well-loved poet), and playing the late Chet was like a passport stamp.

Now that my life has become what I’d unwittingly wanted it to be, I can appreciate the appeal of both his early and late recordings.  Whether he’s singing a slow love song or blowing a riff, Chet swings, an inner sense of rhythm that separates a jazz musician from everyone else.  I dig his younger voice now too.  Dinah Washington dissed it once as mumbling, and it’s true that neither enunciation nor nailing the correct lyric is his strong suit.  But his voice has the same flutey sincerity that pipes out his horn, and the flattened and blurred notes sprinkled among the true ones lay down a darker chord, one that echoes a wariness that makes sense when it comes to swallowing romantic notions about love, music, life.

No doubt the man was cold, or, more accurately, what heat he possessed he poured into his music.  Yet, no matter what humiliations he suffered at the hands of his own self-defeating behaviors, he still possessed one saving grace – a talent so deep that not even heroin could erase it.  When I listen to Chet now, that’s what I hear, and it gives me a small element of hopefulness as I consider my life, its once lustrous sheen of youth now dulled.  Not that I expect any efforts of mine to approximate Chet’s achievements, but his music reminds me that in the midst of what may appear like the most appalling disaster, there’s still something beautiful that can be saved and that, in turn, saves us.

Chet Baker, photographed by William Claxton, 1954

Chet Baker, photographed by William Claxton, 1954