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I am so happy that the good folks at Biff Bam Pop! invited me to write a piece on Canadian music icon Stompin’ Tom Connors.
“Biff Bam Pop! is a website devoted to the world of pop culture, from comic books and video games, to movies, books, and music.” I like it a lot.
Check out my article: “A South of the Border Salute to Stompin’ Tom“
then stick around the site to see what else they’ve got brewing.
I experience a certain amount of reflexive apprehension whenever I hear an NPR commentator mention the name of someone I like and haven’t heard about on the radio in a long time. Often enough, I’ve learned, I am about to hear an obituary. Sadly, I was right this morning. The news of Richie Havens’ passing hit me hard. When I caught my breath, tears wanted to follow the shock, but I was out and about, so they had to wait. Instead, I had time to meditate on what Havens means to me and all the good he did for the world through his words and music. He was the real deal, and just by being so, he shared and taught so much.
In 2003 and 2005 I had two opportunities to speak with Richie Havens. I had a singular kind of nervous excitement on the morning for which our first conversation was scheduled. What is there to do while waiting, knowing that the next time the phone rings the person on the other end will be the guy who struck the very first chords at Woodstock? Two pieces came from our telephone interviews – a short preview of a show at Duke Island Park in Bridgewater, NJ in the Courier News and “Richie Havens—Touch the Planet with Honesty, Optimism, and DIY,” Songwriter’s Market, 2006. It was an extra blessing to talk with such a kind and insightful artist and I am so glad I was also able to meet him and say hello on a couple of occasions at his shows around New Jersey and New York.
Some of the things he told me shifted my attitude in fundamental ways. I didn’t always know it, but his sound and image had its affect on me pretty much from my beginnings. These reflections came together for me as I remembered him today.
Here are a few of the things I learned from Richie Havens:
Be your best self everywhere.
He spoke of some early gigs when he’d never know how he was billed until he got there. Maybe he’d find that the promoter sold him to the venue as a folk-blues singer. Maybe he’d show up and the sign would say “Richie Havens – folk-jazz.” The makeup of the audiences was just as much of a tossup. Would it be a mellow listening room or a crowd of rowdy bikers? Either way, he played his best. He found he crossed over and gained fans. It seemed to me that he had the knack of just being real when it mattered most.
I know something of this kind of experience. I was once hired sound-unheard by someone who assumed I played R&B. Another time I was told “we just need any kind of mellow music,” only to find that the event was billed as a jazz brunch. I’ve been in that awkward moment singing in a gay club where the few women who have come to hear me are outnumbered by the puzzled guys who wonder when the dance music is going to start. At first in those situations, I’d try playing faster or louder, inventing scat vocals – I’d try to morph on the fly into someone more likely to be understood. Slowly but surely I’ve been learning the difference between responding in real time to the energy in a room and flat out trying to become something or someone else. Richie had it right. And what a lesson for how to show up for life in general.
Stealth influence runs deep.
I don’t remember which state I was in, which song I was playing, or how many years before the interviews it was. I was playing an all acoustic gig in the midst of one of my most energetic tunes like “Spiritual Ink” or “Silent Partner.” Suddenly in the middle of the song I was startled by a realization: “Whoa – Richie Havens is the reason I play this way. He might be the reason I play at all.”
My mom was a huge Havens fan. I can still call up a very clear picture of the old stereo on the front porch with Mixed Bag on heavy rotation. I do believe that one way or another, I would have found my way to music. In my house, I was instilled with the love of melody and lyric and cultural relevance. But I discovered in that moment that a little bit of Havens’ sound made its way into my hands, perhaps even more so than later artists I would name more immediately as favorites. And there’s another huge piece of this: Long before I would hear all of negative feedback and deal with being questioned and ostracized for my love of rock music, Richie Havens had given me permission to look like I do and play how I play. That turns out to be a gift beyond measure.
Once & for all, music is beyond black or white.
Of course, I know this. I knew it in junior high school when black kids would tell me there was something wrong with me for being into David Bowie and The Stones. I knew it when I was told by a few people in the music industry that they didn’t know how to sell what I do. Still, it was exhausting to feel as though I was constantly made to withstand overwhelming forces intending to knock down what was different in favor of what was status quo, forces that insist that black and white are to stay separate when it comes to skin color and music.
I asked Havens if he ever got flak for playing guitar, covering songs of artists like The Beatles and Dylan, and playing what some might think of as “white music.” What he said amazed me completely. He said when he was coming up in the Greenwich Village music scene, there truly was no such scrutiny. The artist community then was all about expression and experimentation. It made no difference if you picked up a guitar, a banjo, a piccolo, or trash can lid. It was about making sounds, telling stories, and telling truths. That was it. I still believe hearing and seeing Havens gave me a jump start before the full weight of this kind of outside opinion came down on me. I hadn’t imagined the kind of creative microcosm he described – so purely “anything goes.” I was fascinated that a confluence of people and energies could come together to bring about such a place and time.
Be the change and SEE the change.
For so many progressive Americans I knew at the time, the George W. Bush presidency represented a particularly dark time. Frustration and disillusionment were common, and though I try not to dwell in anger, it was the place that many of us went to in light of what felt like the twilight of meaningful communication between the major parties and other perspectives. Essentially, it seemed as though the idealism of the sixties had given way to a reality of growing conservatism and the culture of war.
I asked how he felt about the world today, having been in the vanguard of the protest song and the music of social change and responsibility. His answer was by far the most surprising thing he said to me. He talked about how when he started out in folk music very few performers – maybe as few as five – were singing songs of social consciousness. Most popular music was still the “moon and June” love song. But as the folk movement grew, people became empowered. The idea that we all have voices spread, and over time there were songs of social change in all genres and from all corners of the planet. Today, everyone knows inherently that it’s possible to pick up a guitar or any other instrument and sing to protest, sing for change, for nature, for celebration, and yes, for love. What’s happened is that the protest song hasn’t disappeared, but it has expanded. All manner of expression has become possible in every musical style and every other form of communication. It is simply part of the fabric of our world.
I was floored. I had been the inheritor of a shift so complete that what came before it had been invisible to me. My faith in the world and a sincere optimism were restored in an instant.
Community is possible.
My conversations with Richie Havens led me to realize this: Change, growth, and gatherings of loving, powerful, creative people aren’t relics of Woodstock or the Greenwich Village of the 1960’s. We have all we need to be all of who we are. We can write it. We can sing it. We can speak up. We can create the communities where we will thrive. Though these simple facts might sometimes hide in plain sight, we have only become increasingly more equipped to know our own power. The time is now. It always is.
The last time I saw Richie Havens perform live it was an outdoor show in the theater district of New Brunswick, NJ, with The Indigo Girls also on the bill. It was just up the street from my old apartment. I have always had very positive memories of that show, and today they have become that much sweeter. It still hurts to say it, but Farewell, Richie Havens. I could never thank you enough.
Richard Pierce Havens
January 21, 1941 – April 22, 2013 – Earth Day
It looks like I’ve waited a little too long to blog about my experience at Zombie Run. A week ago Sunday, it was exciting to run though the campy horror-fantasy, but today posting pics and going on about death at a race event does not seem the thing to do. So, another time for that. My 6k run in Berlin Park yesterday evening could hardly approach the impact and dedication of a world-class marathon, but I ran it as an offering of love and healing to everyone affected by the madness in Boston.
This has truly been a season of Monkey Mind for me, but Monkey Experience has been keeping pace. New romantic curiosities, absurdly awful (non)communications, another easeful friendship deepening. There was the closing of Fluid Nightclub, where I rediscovered essential bits of my being. Played at a great event last week, the first Hub City Music Festival, and got to share the stage with old friends who I admire hugely. I’ve been asked by a friend to write a song or poem about the problem of transphobia, so I’ve been letting those thoughts percolate. There isn’t a whole lot on the official schedule, but that is actually a good thing right now. My brain is busy catching up to a thousand details.
I keep trying to find words to express how I feel about the Boston Marathon bombing, but they don’t show up. It seems as if I couldn’t say it any better than the compassionate internet memes that are already trying. Petty concerns of all of the above – and just about anything – are snapped way back into perspective. I am recognizing more than ever how music and art soothe and teach, learn, respond, and heal. So, yes. More of that, please. At this moment, I am much more a listener than a maker of sounds. I will, however, be chanting kirtan this Sunday in Langhorne, PA – the more voices the better: http://rainbowsofhealing.com/kirtan-with-robin-renee/.
I want to be sure of what I think I believe and how I behave that I believe – that by living quietude we can have a small part in helping quiet the angriness in the world.
Getting the word out on the new chant CD, This., has so far been a gradual, but purposeful process. The official press release is finally here. I have been sending some info out myself as well as finding more efficient, mental health-conducive ways to let people know there’s new music about. The business of music had me down when I last wrote here. Now I find a great deal of optimism in new approaches, and so today you (and I) have a happier me. It’s a buzzword, but true – I feel incredibly empowered to make different and better decisions, having decided to dispense with the status quo.
I listened to “Keshava,” the first song on This., today, and it made me smile. It is one of my favorite kirtans to share live. Having not been on the road much at all in recent months, I am looking forward to singing this with others for the first time in a while tomorrow evening near the Jersey shore. Another of my favorites on This. is “Blessed Be, Namaste.” It is one of those songs where the lyrics seemed to show up fairly miraculously at the right time and in the right order. Bridging and blending spiritual traditions is important to me, and this one does that. It feels good to enjoy the music again, after a bit of time away from hearing these recordings.
One common frustration I’ve heard other musicians talk about is the need to perform and publicize the current project while the creative impulse has already moved onto the next. I have been taking an easeful approach to the new songs. They are in there, but not yet clamoring desperately. Interesting phrases and definitely some wild dreams have been showing up. I’ll court the REM stage influence for a while longer and find instrumentation I’ll love. Today it felt comforting – not at all a frustration – to immerse myself again in the sounds of This. and embark on finding more ears to hear it and souls to sing along.
I’ve been sitting with this news for the last couple of hours. I’ve been trying to find a way into the right poetic expression, but that’s not showing up. So, I’ll just let you in on my decision.
I won’t be booking shows myself as a primary focus anymore. Trying to do my own bookings has been an exhausting process for too long now. It feeds neither my soul nor my finances enough to continue.
This doesn’t mean I’m through with music. Music has been alive in me more than ever in perennial and surprising ways. That is exciting. So are some of the other aspects of the business of music that I’ve neglected while chasing different pieces of the puzzle. I’ll be more on track with this newly-created space in my life.
I have long believed that when people say they don’t have time for something, it is really an indication of priorities. If it actually matters, time will show itself, I thought. When I continually was feeling I had no time to book a proper tour or get to the details of show x, I had to consider whether or not being a working musician was something I even wanted. My answer is YES, it is something I want, and so I had to modify my understanding of making time. Time, at least on this plane where business and 24-hour days happen, is not limitless.
I do make time for a lot of what I need to do, and a lot of what I love. But too much to do, all of which feels important, leads to everything done almost well enough. Living too long in that state has left me ragged.
I am not giving up performing live. I will put some more thought and effort into finding someone willing and able to handle bookings for me. I believe viable live tours are possible, and that help to make them possible can somehow come to fruition.
I still fully encourage people and venues who would like to hear me perform live to get in touch. I will be happy to respond to serious requests for concerts and other appearances. I realize I may not see some of you as soon or as often as I’d like to for a while. Right now, I am open to change and a different kind of freedom. Becoming an honestly creative being again is most definitely on the new agenda.
I have gone through, and am still going through a full range of emotions around this decision. I plan to keep raising it up to a positive state of surrender. It isn’t giving up. It is rebooting. It is releasing what clearly doesn’t work and leaving space for what will.
I had the pleasure of meeting Robin for the first time when I booked her as a performer for the 5th Street Coffeehouse music venue in Philadelphia several years ago. The coffeehouse featured African-American female, folk-inspired artists and Robin became an instant favorite of mine and the venue patrons. I have continued to stay in touch with Robin over the years and have recently been privileged to work with her on business marketing strategies as well as writing projects.
New Year / New Order – 1/4/13
Dancer’s invisible hand, this time
did not push me to the platform
No particular synth rhythm
tonight is motion, sex
shiny with silver fleck sequins
‘wish you cud see the glitter’
the ones not here
on stage, suddenly
leading pristine, sweaty, t-shirt, gender bent ball gown crowd
in a chorus of electric
she joins me
hips hair arms miming the instinctual
I pretend not to see DJ’s camera
as saving grace
She is taller than I
I wait for kisses
to take them
we draw a small crowd
of admirers – I know the beauty
is in every face mid-lyric
with favorite song
in silver-painted spikes
in blue luminescence
in every joyous dance floor grind
as much beauty here
as on renunciate mountaintop
and the living-the-moment
make desperate, impossible love
right here, in public
just below the balcony
until which is which, a memory
for armchair gurus.
I was ordained by sound before the womb
into the Order of Bodylight
Dance trance rishi has spoken
and this is my mantra.
♪ I know, you know, we believe in a land of love
I know, you know, we believe in a land of love ♫
Too-drunk chick yells above edgy guitar thump
“YOU… are a PARTY girl… and I DON’T take that LIGHTly!”
Nor do I.
I was a bit startled to realize on my birthday this past Monday, August 27th, that it was indeed the 10th anniversary of the release of my second solo CD, All Six Senses. I had what still feels like an idyllic, dreamlike time recording those songs out in Marin County, CA with producer Scott Mathews at his Tiki Town Studios. Over the past few days, I’ve spent some time listening to those tracks with my friend Amy, who played them, intermingled with other tunes, from her iPod in her car. It is sometimes annoying to listen to old recordings, but this time I really dug hearing some songs that have mostly fallen away from the set list (“Cling To You,” “I Skate Alone”) and others that have become standard fare (“Holy River,” “First Sight”). It is a very rewarding feeling to listen and feel that All Six Senses, for the most part, really does sound like the songs that I had in my head. It does a decent job of expressing snapshots of the spiritual growth spurt I was in when I wrote these songs (there is the one cover – a slow, jazzy take on “Cruel to be Kind”). I hope it might still manage to inspire anyone listening to examine their own lives and take their own journeys.
I remembered how much I enjoy these tunes and the recordings of them, and then I remembered another anniversary. It would take more than a short blog entry to tell the many stories and make even an attempt at the impact, but the super-short version is that I was (and still am) blessed in life to have met and gotten to know one of my greatest musical/lyrical/cultural heroes, Warren Zevon. Since meeting him at The Stone Pony (his show [opening for The Band!] was August 26, 1994 – his after-midnight autograph says August 27th – now this story is even stranger), we kept in touch. The day after my official, yet totally indie release of All Six Senses, it occurred to me that I hadn’t heard from WZ in a while. I happily tapped out a long e-mail asking him what was going on, telling him about my life, the new recording, everything. The response I got back was very brief:
He was ill.
“My lungs and liver are shot” he wrote.
I didn’t know, and couldn’t have comprehended on that day the seriousness of what he was saying. If it wasn’t that very day that he’d gotten the diagnosis of inoperable mesothelioma, it was within a day or so at the very most. I don’t have words for what I felt, or really know what I did the rest of that shocking day.
He asked me to send a copy along to him, so even in the midst of coping with finality he took the time to listen to All Six Senses. He said he enjoyed it, was glad I was continuing to work on the music, and advised me to “keep chanting.” I’ve definitely managed to do that.
I could say more – try to create some storyline about the impact of cosmic crossroads or the mystical fusion of wonderful-horrible anniversaries. I won’t. I will just try to sit with it all as it happened, and with my own uncomfortable twinge at having been moved to share this ball of entwined emotions with you tonight.
It’s actually happening. The finishing touches are finally being put on the new chant recording. A very brief post about it yesterday caused a little ripple on Facebook; in a way it served as a first bit of encouragement from outside the project. While working on This., I felt much more in a vacuum than during other recordings; I am not being coy to say the response was an honest wake-up moment about the coming of interaction with others again around the music. Soon I’ll be touring my way down to Florida and back. I’ll be inviting more people than I ever have to take part in helping the music to be heard. Possibly the most exciting and daunting part for me is that I’ll be working on the second half of the follow-up project, .. and everything else.
Back when I became completely immersed in kirtan, I spent almost a year listening to nothing else. Life was a constant meditation on the drone of harmonium or tampura. I absorbed mantras and melodies and the stories of Hindu deities at such a rate that when people asked me where I learned this or that, I truly had no idea. During that time I wasn’t sure I’d ever write another song. It only seemed relevant to talk about the totality of things. Life stuff was happening, but Om was the only relevant response.
Somewhere it became clearer to me that my path continued to be one of staying engaged in the day-to-day and writing down the stories. But by then I’d been through a kind of vortex that made it a strange exercise. I was frustrated over this for a while, but now I am giving myself a break over the times I wasn’t writing. Yes, some of that time away has probably been about avoiding pain or focusing on the minutiae rather than any larger project at hand. I suspect most of us do those things. But even more than that, I’ve been in a relearning pattern. Life feels a little different having been through this particular spiritual vein, and I am ultimately grateful for the shift. While grasping onto stories is still not as easy, they do feel rich and relevant. Lately, I’ve been in a primordial soup of happenings:
My home ashram has been steadily coming into fruition; there was an intense weekend with visiting Tantra teachers (Ran Baron and Monique Darling, with Edie Weinstein on Cuddle Party duties) and more and different events are in the works. Friends have been around sunbathing, picnicking, and enjoying the space. Some old friends seem to have left my life unequivocally, while others remain stuck in uncomfortable balance or misunderstanding. Other old friends have been reappearing in wild, wonderful, wacky, sexy ways. There are stories to fill a volume or two in these changes alone. I’m startled at how physical I want daily life to be these days – I can groove on hours of yard work with pruning, hauling branches, mowing, then swimming or running or tennis or hiking – it’s nearly all I really want to do. That is, if it weren’t for booking the upcoming tour, hopefully through D.C., Raleigh, Asheville, Atlanta, Miami, and back again. Meanwhile I have kept an eye out to see if there’s any way in the universe I can get to the UK for Robin Gibb’s memorial service, and I have met online friends who get why this continues to mean so much to me. I was sad to learn that I will be in FL on the day of a plaque dedication, but there may be another time to gather. I’ve been true to my promise to self to not let summer fun pass me by. Rocking out (well, blue grassing out, anyway) with The Mutant Mountain Boys in oppressively hot Southern Ohio on the 4th of July was a blast, as was rediscovering my love for the strangely wise absurdity of the Church of the SubGenius. I have had some joyful days at Gunnison Beach and a good peaceful time at this year’s Northeast Naturist Festival. Oh, and my friend LauraLynn Jansen and I are planning to co-lead a chant and yoga retreat in Nicaragua, January 2013.
At first, I thought it was ironic that the chant CD is on its way as I feel itchy for a full band, wanting so much to step back into the role of rocker chick. Really, it’s just typical artist stuff, I think. Project done and my being is moving onto the next, to be painted in singer/songwriter/rock sounds and maybe some spoken word. I do ultimately trust that when it’s time to be in the midst of any of these expressions, I’ll show up and be present. I hope This… and everything else together will tell more of the story as an exploration of life – or at least as extrapolated from this particular life – in something close to 360o.
I used to spend a lot of time on the sunny indoor porch of our house when I was a kid. Sometimes I’d be reading or attempting to draw something. Most of the time I’d find myself immersed in music. One particular day when I was 10, I was checking out The Bee Gees’ Main Course album. The first song is “Nights on Broadway,” and naturally, I started singing along. The next thing I knew, my mom was freaking out.
“Robin can sing! Come listen, Robin can SING!” “Of course, I can sing,” I thought. I always sang! I was puzzled and fairly startled by the flurry this caused. I didn’t particularly enjoy my mom’s insistence that I perform my vocal rendition of “Nights on Broadway” for nearly everyone who came to the house for some time after, but now I find it an amusing memory. I’m glad now that I know the exact moment when I began to realize that there is such a thing as a “singing voice” and that by some, this is considered a gift. I was blessed to discover I had something someone thought worth developing, and blessed also that this was encouraged.
It is really too bad that the whole disco thing made The Bee Gees the group so many people loved to hate. I am not a disco hater personally, and can have fun with the Saturday Night Fever stuff. I also admire Barry, Maurice, and Robin as songwriters and performers who had the magic touch during that era to basically take over the world. But it is their pre-disco, and some of the post-disco era music that I really love. Many of the early songs are pieces of pop joy forever embedded in my brain, so much so that I rarely need to actually listen to them – they are just there somewhere in the deep psyche, part of me that can be called up anytime. It is especially wonderful, then, when I do revisit tunes like “Holiday,” “First of May,” and “Massachusetts.”
It has taken the better part of this week for me to face writing this blog. I was driving last Sunday, turned on the radio, and heard the beautiful harmonies on tail end of “Run to Me.” I hoped against hope, but knew the truth. The DJ was about to come back on the air and announce that Robin Gibb had died. All week I’ve been avoiding typing those words. I can think about it now, at least a little, without crying. It is still hard for me to comprehend how his strangely gorgeous, haunting vibrato could really be gone. One of my mother’s absolute favorite songs was “I Started a Joke,” which she thought was about Jesus. Mom is gone, too, and I suspect that is a lot of what is coming up for me now. Parents gone. One Bee Gee left. The passing of everything. The wheel turns.
I love how Robin always seemed like the odd Bee Gee out – a little more of an introvert, sometimes seeming a bit off-time with the stage movements, usually with the hand over the ear thing, which I found both practical and endearing. Andy was my major pre-teen heartthrob, but it was still fun to idly wonder once in a while what it would be like to one day become Mr. & Mrs. Robin & Robin Gibb. That according to various gossipy sources his long and successful open marriage was with a bisexual Druid Priestess makes me imagine perhaps he & I would have gotten along very well. I have been moved to tears many times over this past month as I read stories of Robin’s deep connection with his wife Dwina, as she and the rest of the family stayed by his bedside. I send love and healing to the family. Blessings on your journey, RG.
I’m fairly certain it was the same year as the “singing voice” discovery that two friends and I sat on the stadium gate at Great Adventure in Jackson, NJ. We were determined to be first in line to get in to see the Andy Gibb show – our first concert ever. Things went wrong when screaming girls rushed the gate and we got swallowed up by the mayhem. It wasn’t until I was among the many thousands in Washington, D.C. for Barack Obama’s inauguration and felt the momentary wave of a densely packed crowd that I really realized how much potential danger we were in that day when we were kids. In that moment, I grew incredibly grateful that we’d survived.
There are many more Gibb musings where these came from. I have a lot more processing to do over Robin’s passing. Actual acceptance feels a bit far off. Meanwhile so much about Robin in particular, his work, and his life inspire me daily. I have been working on a piece called Brothers, but it remains unwieldy. I am finding that it is not easy to capture all the complexities that these guys and their music apparently call up for me. So for now, I will leave you with a poem fragment inspired by the little bro.
When the crowd began to swallow us
there was no time for comparison.
No angry ocean.
The Who had yet to bear witness to death in Cincinnati.
In seconds, it is
a human autoclave,
full circles around us, we are
blanketed by panic
many bodies, one drunk giant
Wallet, shoe tugging, then tumbling
beyond the swells and gone
Denise losing breath, slipping, a lost doll down.
Rollercoaster and Rotunda, we’d thought –
another day -
as we’d waited, determined, in oppression of afternoon sun
on Six Flags stadium gate
first in line, first concert, for our collective first love
Now guards’ hands lift us straight up by thin child’s wrists
Somehow, up and over the death crush
to where there is air for ten-year-olds.
Later when we met back up with Dad and Uncle Lou
I wobbled and hopped, a shoeless pelican.
Between wet-faced sobs, I managed,
“Dad! We saw him! I LOVE him!”
Not only did we survive.
Andy, we had lived glory.