Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Am I an Artist?

I had better get these ideas out of my head before they fall out and into oblivion of their own accord, as my best ideas tend to do. 

Your humble scribe in Seattle in 2019

I was just reading an article about folksinger, Phil Ochs, on The Guardian's website. Phil died in 1976 by his own hand. He enjoyed brushes with fame because he was a damned good songwriter, singer, and performer, but never had managed to grab the brass ring as many of his contemporaries did—folks such as Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. 

Out of a sense of required full-disclosure, Phil's sister, Sonny, is a dear friend who has, as a concert promoter and folk music DJ, promoted my own music on many occasions, has offered my tired butt accommodations in her guest room more times than I can count, and has even appeared as a guest on my radio show.

According to the article, Phil suffered with undiagnosed bi-polar disorder, which is completely plausible from what I know, but the post-mortem diagnosis of people who've been dead for 45 years with psychiatric conditions or cluster-B personality disorders doesn't really seem like sound practice to me, so I leave that to the unabashed armchair diagnosticians with whom I have very little in common. From what I know of Phil, which is admittedly all second hand, he was incredibly smart and took his role in the world very seriously. He was an introvert who could be withdrawn but loved the stage and entertaining and, as a songwriter, had a lot to say. He took no shortcuts to fame and fortune. He wanted to be known for what he did and how well he did it, not because he had a stellar haircut or a cunning sense of fashion—both of which may also have been true.

Phil Ochs
Phil Ochs on stage (courtesy www.sonnyochs.com)

Admittedly, everything I have to say here could merely be part of the mystique—the illusion that Phil built around himself. He was a film buff, followed pop culture very closely, and seemed to be drawn to the larger-than-life tragedy that was James Dean. He also, apparently, very much enjoyed Elvis Presley's jumpsuit-fat-pants period, and though Phil predeceased Elvis by more than a year, I have little doubt he also would've approved of how the King's story ended on a high-end, Memphis commode.

Still, as a folksinger, songwriter, and entertainer myself, I can't help but identify with Phil. I have been searching for my niche for well over 30 years. I have managed to make a living, but never a truly good one. I have managed to gain some acclaim, but never a steady stream of the kind of recognition and performing work that truly fuels my soul. Playing gin mills wore thin decades ago, but it seems to be where my repeat business is most easily found.

My dad was a performer as well in a well-known folk trio. We had a band together for the last decade of his life—we were his "other band." He died at 53, leaving me to figure it out on my own. You'd think that would be a leg up. It wasn't. His fans kind of wanted me to become him after he passed, and while some of them appreciated me for who I am, others never really well-hid their disappointment that I didn't just jump into his other, more-popular band to pick up where he left off. It never seems to even occur to them that I was never offered that opportunity and couldn't have assumed the position without an invitation as though it were my birthright—it wasn't. Even when my father was still alive, I played for about three years backing up a singer-songwriter who described my position in the music industry as "Livingston Taylor Syndrome." I leave it to you to figure out what he meant by that—though I don't deny the implication. Suffice it to say, the music business has teased me. It's lead me to the blurry fringe of success enough times to give me the illusion that I might actually mean something to it, but it has jerked it away every damned time. I clearly lack either the talent or savvy to push further, and I'm pretty sure it's the latter.

Mind you, unlike my muse for this essay, I'm not bi-polar nor suicidal, so please don't send the men in white coats. I'm just trying to figure this all out on your time. My partner for nearly the last decade of this journey, Stacey, tells me that I need to stop telling the truth the way I do. She references an episode of "The Simpsons" in which Marge's boss at the real estate office makes the point to her that there's "the truth" and then there's "the TRUTH." One is unvarnished and unabashedly, nakedly forthright, and the other is its rosy, obfuscated, fraternal twin. The scene somewhat defies description in a simple paragraph such as this, so enjoy it here: 

Suffice it to say, it appears by this short cartoon snippet that I might also suck at selling real estate. I'm on my own path to fulfillment, and I'm taking a handful of people along with me who genuinely love my music and chosen path. I am constantly trying to figure out how to bring my music and story in front of a larger audience, and the modern, soundbite-driven, 24-hour-news-cycle, Kardashian-obsessed, narcissistic, Twittering, Facebooking, Instagramming, attention-deficited world we now live in has no use for an artist who, as a matter or principle, intentionally defies narrow definition.

I'm living this way for the love of it, not for the money I may make. If it was about the money, I would've gone to law school or done something far less creative and far more lucrative with my life. On the other hand, being able to eat with relative frequency is kind of high on my to-do list, so it would be nice to be able to pull enough money out of my chosen path to be able to meet my basic needs as a human being without having to worry on a daily basis as to how that might happen. That is a luxury I have never once in my adult life enjoyed.

I don't know what's next or how this ends. I don't know when the next fork in the road will present itself and force me to entertain a Robert Frost moment. I just know that today, mere months from a birthday that will mark a half century on this mortal coil, I don't know how much longer I can carry on as I have, and I'm not sure I want to. I'd love to continue as I have with some semblance of security that I have heretofore not known.

Like anyone who might deign to attach their very identity to what they do for work, I have had a lot of ups and downs through the years. Like Phil Ochs, I'm an introvert entertainer. I live in my head. I'm not a particularly gregarious or outwardly social creature. More than that, I am truthful to a fault. If I am near the CD sales table after a show, I'm more often than not talking people out of buying my CDs because I know the shortcomings of my own work. I'm not the great champion of my recordings that I certainly should be. I'm brutally honest about who and what I am, and if I detect that I might not be your cup of tea, I'll probably tell you so, and why. The worst part is that I have no control over any of that. As Popeye said in nearly every eponymous cartoon, "I yam what I yam."

In reading the article in The Guardian, I was struck in ancillary fashion that Phil may have also been possessed of a similar kind of brutalist self-effacing (delusional?) honesty. It came out as self-deprecation, veiled sarcasm, or questionable decisions, such as to ironically wear a gold-lamé suit similar to Elvis Presley while performing his own deadly-honest original songs dealing with politics, societal issues, and personal-yet-universal themes. Was he perhaps trying to tell people who he was by presenting himself as an ironic caricature when honesty proved fruitless? It was clearly an artistic decision. His last album was called "Greatest Hits," and it contained all new material. These are perhaps not the sane decisions of a businessman trying to convince you to buy his work, but almost certainly the musings of a perfectly-sane artist (a likely oxymoron) who is intent upon presenting his life as a role on the grand stage. Perhaps he'd lost perspective on how ridiculous and often meaningless life can also seem, or perhaps that was his ultimate point. He's lamentably not here to ask. 

I fear I might suffer a similar malady—Art (with a capital "A"). Not truly commercially viable in life—at least not so far. I may well never make a living at this game. Then again, you may love me once I'm dead and gone and some PR-genius-champion latches onto my back catalog, and perhaps that is the definition of "artist." For now, I'll continue to captain this boat that I live on and play the occasional gig on a desperate search for some elusive brass ring to dangle within reach. I am loving every minute when I can afford to—and that's the "TRUTH."

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

Ode to the Modern Conservative

With apologies to my conservative friends, most of whom to which this doesn't apply; this brief work is to address the inconsistencies of a vocal few who seem to have entirely too much pulpit and power right now. If you don't know what I'm talking about, this is probably for you….

You may think the last shoe's dropped
That they've placed their final bet
But let me tell you sonny,
You ain't seen nothing yet.

There is no fatal tumor,
There's not one deadly disease
That can ever hold a candle to
The unmitigated gall you see.

They're the ones who "Jesus loves" 
They put the stickers on their cars 
And no trespass signs on their front doors
And caution tape around their flaws.

They know you're wrong, it's in their book,
The one that says to love thy neighbor
They'll yell it from the rooftops
Whilst they wipe blood from their saber.

They bought up all the firearms
They think you want some too
What they don't know is their paranoia
Didn't rub off on you.

They think the stars and stripes are theirs
But they don't know what freedom is really
With their crosses and bibles and churches and all
They don't know that they really look silly

Not because they worship a pauper who preached
That eternity is for all peeps
But because they believe that it's somehow closed off
To all except for those creeps.

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Seven Year Itch—Longtime, No Blog—The Tough Love Edition

Okay! I admit it! I'm not a "blogger." I don't take my time to sit down and eloquently piece together my words, ideas, experiences, observations, or musings for the masses. I write songs sometimes. I like doing that when it hits me, but writing prose just leaves cold. It's as enjoyable to me as eating ice cream on a frigid day—no…no—it's more like hitting your thumb with the ball end of a ball-peen hammer. Yeah…it's far more like that. 

I make no apologies. I get it. I live on a boat. I am a musician, entertainer, singer-songwriter. I live an interesting life, and some folks want to read about that kind of crap. I mean, just today, I drove the boat from Port Washington, New York to Manasquan, New Jersey. We cruised through downtown New York via the East River, then thumped around in a thunderstorm that turned the ocean between the Verrazzano Narrows Bridge (and, yes, there are two "z"s in Verrazzano—the one-z spelling is incorrect. You could ask Giovanni Da Verrazzano how to spell his name correctly, and if he wasn't dead a long time ago, I'm sure he'd tell you) and Sandy Hook into a bubbling cauldron of "get me the eff off this boat before I hurl!" After we passed Sandy Hook, the ocean relaxed and gave us a nice, dependable swell until we arrived in Manasquan. To me, that's what I call Tuesday. Admit it. You wish you could do that. Sure, piloting a boat through a squall is stressful, if exhilarating, but it probably beats the crap out of what you did today.

You wish you could abandon the humdrum life that is so stereotypically American. The get up, drink coffee, shower, work, drink booze until you can't see straight, stagger to bed, do-it-all-over-again American life is not what any of us signed up for. I have always tried to live and operate outside the hamster wheel, but it really wasn't until my partner, Stacey, and I discovered boating that I really perfected the life. I should write a book about it, right? No! Screw off. You're lucky I'm writing this. I'm not here to document a well lived life for you. It's mine. Get your own! I'm telling you to get off the friggin' hamster wheel and do something weird. I'm not telling you to move onto a boat and take up guitar, songwriting, and marine repair (that's the less-discussed, less-romantic part of my life—don't hate me because I'm beautiful). Life is what you make of it, and routine, despite how addictively comfortable it can be, was never supposed to be the foundation upon which our lives should be built. Routine sucks rocks. Don't do it. Escape it every chance you have. That is all I have to offer you as any sort of advice. 

What I am doing works for me. There are ten-million reasons you shouldn't follow my path. Instead, follow the example. Find that thing you love to do, and find a way to make it part of your world on a daily basis. Nobody needs to live in a 2000 or 3000 or (dare I say) 4000 square-foot house to be happy, and the people who do either have to maintain all that space or pay someone to do it for them. Life is short. Live on the cheap, and never ever let Monday look like Tuesday, or Tuesday look like Wednesday, and so on. Change it up and make yourself happy. Drag your loved ones along for the ride and let them discover whatever it is that gladdens their hearts. 

I live on a boat. I play guitar and sing. I write songs. I travel. I never know what tomorrow will bring, and I'm always surprised by the day I just had. Do that. It's much better than therapy. 

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The Season Cometh…
As I'm writing this, I'm sitting down after a long day of filling Christmas-time CD and T-shirt orders from the DRM website, getting the house ready for winter (yes—it's coming…), getting press releases out for upcoming shows, and baking a few cookies (chocolate chip!). I could feel the chill in the air today, and the overcast reminded me that snow is right around the corner. There is still much to do and so little time—especially here in Maine as the ground is starting to freeze.

Sometimes it seems like the peas have barely been planted when the pumpkins are catching that first frost of the season. The march of the seasons persists, and here I find myself once again contemplating my holiday message to you in a perpetually troubled and wonderful world. 

As I was preparing my thoughts for this message, I was reminded of a poem Christmas Bells written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who also lived in Portland, Maine—my home town. You may know it as the carol I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day. He wrote the poem soon after he'd learned that his son had joined up and was off to the war front in the Civil War against his wishes, and shortly after losing his wife in a house fire. It was a dark time for Longfellow. We've all had those moments of intense loss being made more intense by the holidays.

Inspired by Longfellow's words, I put pen to paper this afternoon and created my own poem of the season. 

'Tis the Season…

A poem by Dave Rowe
Dec. 1, 2015

Frost on creaking stair
Leaves crinkle underfoot
Still, crisp air tickles the nose

The autumn has left its fleeting mark
Soon flakes will cover fallow ground
As winter takes its place

Trees will be gathered and brought inside
Glowing warmly in windows
Laden with lights and garlands

Anticipation and hope of rebirth
For a world rife with hardships and pain
Soon it shall come

The day, the feasts, the parties
Friends and families gathered by tradition
Bound by love, embraces, and cheer

Until the final day of the year
So it continues, this year to the next
So it shall always…

May the season bless you all,

Friday, May 15, 2015

Yesterday I asked Facebook friends and fans to comment on my website. I got a a number of very helpful responses (I've already implemented a number of suggestions), and one common thread was that folks seemed to want to see this blog more active. I'd love to promise that. I'd love to say that I'm going to start blogging as a daily habit—every day I'd have something new to say about some interesting topic. Monday I'd extol the virtues of house plants; Tuesday I'd wax poetic about the lesser-known virtues of bacon; Wednesday I'd talk about how much I love gardening, and so on…. It would be a wonderful, continuous monologue about the world from my point of view. It would be filled with meandering verse about my hobbies, habits, foibles, pet peeves, and interests and cover topics as varied as songwriting, auto repair, sauna maintenance, and cuisine. I could demonstrate to all who care to read exactly how fun and interesting my life as a professional musician is—and it is.

The truth of the matter is, however, that despite my best intentions when I started this blog, I'll never be a regular blogger. Not only do I lack the discipline to sit down regularly and do this, but I also lack the time and energy. Entertainers necessarily have to spend a lot of time pounding on social media to stay relevant to their friends and fans so that they will come out to shows and buy our latest work, and I fear the time I spend doing that really is my limit for tapping out ideas on the old computer keyboard. I'm far more likely to put out a 140 character tweet on Twitter (I'm @daverowemusic) or repost someone else's cat picture on Facebook (Music Page: http://facebook.com/daverowefolk or Personal Page: http://facebook.com/daverowemusic) from my cellphone while on one of my daily walks than I'll ever be to pen a full blog post like this on a regular basis.

I'm flattered that people want to read my musings, and I'm certainly not going to stop blogging or take down this blog, but committing to blogging as a regular part of my life is something I just don't see happening…at least not until I can fill out a staff of full-time minions who are willing to take care of all the other crap I have to do and are willing to work for barbecue leftovers—despite the fact that my barbecue is ranked among the best within a three-house radius and my cole slaw is to die for, I still don't think there will be a line forming outside the Dave Rowe Music H.R. office to fill the positions any time soon. If, however, you are a motivated individual looking for thankless work and willing to work for less than the average border collie's annual income, feel free to email your resume and qualifications to humanresources@daverowemusic.com and someone will get back to you soon.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

How Can I Keep From Singing?

I have had a number of people ask for the text of the homily I delivered Sunday morning during the annual music service at The First Universalist Church Unitarian Universalist of Auburn, Maine. Here it is in its entirety. 

How many times have I heard: “I couldn’t carry a tune if it was strapped to me.” “You don’t want to hear me sing.”Or  “I can’t (or don’t) sing.”? There are many variations on this theme, but the net result is always the same. For one reason or another, every person who utters one of these phrases has been told (or convinced themself) to give up singing. I often hear such things when I encourage people to join the church choir. I’m just waiting for someone to quote Jarod Kintz from his book “Who Moved My Choose?: An Amazing Way to Deal With Change by Deciding to Let Indecision Into Your Life.” He wrote: “I only sing in the shower. I would join a choir, but I don’t think my bathtub can hold that many people.”

It’s only been in the last 500 years or so in western culture, and mostly in the last 100 years, since the invention of recorded music, that the line between audience and performer has crept into our social consciousness. As a matter of fact, I’ve been told that most extant aboriginal cultures use the same word to mean “to sing” as “to dance.”

Our ancestors would not have been without music, and before the radio, before the phonograph, if you wanted music it was performed live, and nearly everyone was a musician of some sort or another. They would gather around fires or in kitchens with voices and instruments and some lubricating beverages to play, sing, and dance. It was fun, it drew people together, it passed long winter nights, it celebrated weddings and births, and remembered departed souls.

Sea chanteys were invented and sung by sailors to synchronize hard work on ships, like the pulling of ropes, or spinning the capstan, before the machinery existed to automate those jobs. When we sing these songs now, we tend to clap in the places when the work would have happened.

We’ll roll the old chariot along, we’ll roll the old chariot along, we’ll roll the old chariot, and we’ll all hang on behind.

The songs were infectious enough that the men would sing them after the work was done during the mugup below or in the pub onshore. They’d make up more verses, sometimes very humorous verses. I still sing some of those old songs in pubs, and people still sing along.

Today’s music service theme is our church’s mission: “Rooted in the sacred and strengthened by our diversity, we equip ourselves to minister through the transformative power of Love.” We recently lost a man who lived out a similar ministry. Rooted in the sacred and strengthened by the diversity of the entire human race, Pete Seeger equipped himself with banjo and voice to minister to us all through the transformative power of Love. Pete’s voice fell silent last week. He entertained us and got us singing for most of his 94 years. He gave us the gift of timeless songs: “Where have all the flowers gone, Long time passing, where have all the flowers gone, Long time ago…” He gave us questions to ponder: “When will they ever learn? When will they ever learn?” He called us to arms and told us to peacefully go forth and sing to change the world: “Well I have a hammer, and I have a bell, and I have a song to sing all over this land. It’s the hammer of justice, it’s the bell of freedom, it’s a song about love between my brothers and my sisters all over this land.”

Wendy Schuman asked Pete his views on religion. He said: "I feel most spiritual when I’m out in the woods. I feel part of nature. Or looking up at the stars. I was an atheist. Now I say, it’s all according to your definition of God. According to my definition of God, I’m not an atheist. Because I think God is everything. Whenever I open my eyes I’m looking at God. Whenever I’m listening to something I’m listening to God.

I’ve had preachers of the gospel, Presbyterians and Methodists, saying, “Pete, I feel that you are a very spiritual person.” And maybe I am. I feel strongly that I’m trying to raise people’s spirits to get together." That’s exactly what he did when he got people to sing together.

That’s what I try to do. In some ways, Pete gave me my career. He was the archetype. He set an example which I and countless others hold up now. It’s the reason I am the choir director at this church. It’s the reason I write songs and feel compelled to shout them out. It’s the reason I remind people they can sing—they should sing. We all should sing. It’s the reason I sing old songs which are worth remembering and handing down again and again like prized family possessions.

The voice is the only instrument we all can play, the only instrument that is hidden inside of each one of us, the only truly organic instrument. When we are born, the first thing we do after taking our first breath is to make a sound with our voice—our innate instrument. The cry of a newborn baby is music, just as the twitter of birds, the rumble of thunder, the babble of a brook, or the silence of the dawn. Every sound—every vibration moving through the air which meets the ear is music. The sound of a mother’s voice to her baby is music. The purr of a cat in your lap is music. So is the slam of a door or the whistle, clickety-clack, and rumble of a train. All music.

In 1952 Composer, John Cage, wrote 4’33”. It’s a piano piece in which the performer takes the stage, sits at the piano and proceeds, stop watch in hand, to not play the piano for 4 minutes and 33 seconds, at which point he closes the piano cover and exits the stage. Many people have mistakenly thought that the piece is about silence. It’s not. According to Cage, the music is the sounds of the audience: occasional coughs and sneezes, shifting in seats, the rattle of someone retrieving an item from a pocket, and so forth. The point is every sound is music, and if we accept the premise, then every voice sings.

Singing feels good. It’s good for us. It releases endorphins in the body. It makes us healthy and happy.

Let’s try something together. Let’s all take a slow, deep breath together, hold it for a couple of seconds and then slowly let it out by humming. This is not a recital, there is no wrong way to do this, so please just try it.

Did you feel that? That feeling of calm come over your entire body? That was a release of endorphins. It’s actually good for you. Laughing actually does the same thing (laughter is singing—it’s music).

OK, I admit it, some days I don’t feel like singing. Sometimes I don’t want to “go to work.” I don’t want to get in my car, drive to a pub, set up my equipment, and sing and play guitar. It’s a job after all. But after a few songs, after the audience starts to smile, clap, sing, and dance, I start to get into it. I start to become energized by the music, and suddenly I realize: I love this. I love doing this. I love making music, but most of all I love watching and hearing all those people singing timeless songs with me. And that is what places me in the great circle with countless other singers, the great circle that includes Pete Seeger; Woody Guthrie; Joan Baez; John, Paul, George, and Ringo; John Denver; my own father; and innumerable others who have stood on stage or in kitchens or in churches like this and encouraged a room full of people to join their voices together.

Stephen Sondheim said, “If I cannot fly, let me sing.” I certainly agree. When I sing, I feel like I am soaring. My troubles cannot follow me when I sing. It’s a true escape, but it’s an escape best shared. The shower is a wonderful place to sing, but that’s just the warmup. Be free with your breath, your voice, your music. Share it and feel the rewards it brings. Invite friends and family to your kitchen, tell them to bring guitars and fiddles, and start doing what we are wired at birth to do. Let’s start today, in this room, with our music service. Let’s enjoy the musical offerings this morning, and let them be the catalyst for a musical-spiritual experience.

Gangai Victor founder of the Indian Christian Blog, VotivePraise.com wrote: “It’s easy to sing the song, but to pray the lyrics from deep within… that’s worship!”

Let us worship.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Cold Fall Rain

Quiet except raindrops,
The crackle of fire,
The chair creaks, straining under lazy weight.

Chill, the scent of fall in the air
Colors—orange, red, yellow
Mingle in flight, lighting on fields not yet fallowed by frost.

The world seems to slow,
Hot drink in a hand
The melancholy of fall rain envelops—

Steam in the nose rings the head
Pleasing and at once comforting
In the presence of the seasonal spirits.