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Back in the early 2000’s, I wrote for several different Central Jersey newspapers. It was never a style of writing that I loved exactly, but I learned I was pretty good at finding the formula and building what was needed. One of the best things about this kind of freelance work was discovering I could request interviews with all kinds of amazing, well-known people. Within a few days I could be in the midst of a great conversation with someone I admired all my life. I would sometimes suggest writing about shows I knew of and had a personal interest in covering, but just as often I’d pick up assignments. I felt blessed – and quite a bit nervous – when I was given the opportunity to interview B. B. King.
He was coming to The New Brunswick State Theatre, The Count Basie Theater in Red Bank, and The State Theater in Easton, PA in January 2004. We had a brief phone conversation and I captured the quotes I needed to construct a few paragraphs and let readers know he was coming to town. At the show in New Brunswick, what I remember most is how little I was able to say to him in person. I am not generally starstruck, but then again, here was a legend beyond legends. What could I really say? I remember talking to a few of his band members and being impressed by how crisply they were dressed and how they referred to him solely as Mr. King. When I got through the meet-and-greet line I shook his hand and let him know I was the one who spoke to him for the show preview. He smiled and said he’d been curious to meet me. I got a quick autograph, then realized I was without words. I slipped back into the room and just observed for a little while before leaving. I’ve come to remember this show in a way similar to how I recall seeing Ravi Shankar perform in Philadelphia. In each case it was incredibly moving and mostly beyond descriptive language to hear and witness an absolute master.
Here is some of what I wrote by way of announcing the shows in 2004:
On the cover of his latest studio CD, “Reflections,” B. B. King, with eyes closed, looks absorbed in sweet concentration, like a man offering a loving prayer, or an artist fully consumed by the music we will find therein. Yet, the 78-year-old guitar pioneer thinks of himself in simpler terms. “I’m kind of what you call a country boy. I was born and raised on the plantation,” he says of his origins in Itta Bena, Mississippi.
A simple country boy, perhaps, but with a difference: He can play the guitar like nobody’s business. He sings with deep conviction that retains that hint of hurt and grit that only authentic blues can deliver. The “King of the Blues” will rule the land Tuesday at the State Theatre in New Brunswick, and at Easton PA’s State Theater on Thursday.
“Everybody has, believe it or not, a soul, and everybody feels something… I play things that I feel and enjoy doing,” he reveals during a telephone interview before a concert in Quebec City.
Revered by rock favorites like The Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton, his profound influence on the face of music across genres and decades continues. In 1948 he left farm work for Memphis, Tennessee, and he had his first hits, “Three O’Clock Blues” and “She’s Dynamite,” by 1951. His signature song, “The Thrill Is Gone” scored his first Grammy in 1970. King paired with Clapton on “Riding with the King” in 2000, and he shows no signs of slowing down.
King recalls the making of “Reflections,” his 32nd album. “I think we got some pretty good work on it. I don’t think I’ve ever made a perfect CD,” he says modestly.
I am even more astounded by his humility today than I was then. This quote is so startling:
“I always find faults in nearly everything I’ve done, but still people seem to give me compliments…and I accept that. I think the people’s judgment is much better than mine.”
I don’t believe it was false humility. I do hope he ultimately knew and truly experienced his own brilliance and the joyful sounds he brought the world.
Rest well, Mr. King.
I love the periodic opportunity I get at Biff Bam Pop! to wax poetic about one of my favorite obsessions. Today, they published my piece on Steely Dan. I share some of my favorite tunes and some experiences in fandom. Check it out!
Biff Bam Pop! and The Dream Between would both love your shares and comments. Thanks!
The other evening I was at the South Jersey Writers meetup and I announced to my friend Glenn Walker that I like music again. The look on his face let me know it was a puzzling statement. It is not a surprising concept to me, but I was surprised to hear those words coming out of my mouth and to another person.
It was a somewhat equivocal statement. I always like music. I often require lots of silence around me, but I leave space in my world for singing when the spirit moves and listening to favorites (Today it’s Wall of Voodoo.). That said, I have felt a separation from making music for a while. I’ve written an awful lot about not writing, so I won’t bore you or myself with that. What used to feel like an uncomfortable alienation from creative source feels like synergy now.
Even though I haven’t produced many songs of late, I am very happy with “Everybody Does the Best They Can” that I performed with Jessica Floresta at the Soma Center in Highland Park. There are more where that came from, still dwelling in my head. Now is the time for me to be gentle with myself and let the songs emerge when they will. I don’t mind the gentle reminders from Glenn, other friends, and potential collaborators. I am on the mission. I am also very aware of the value of the other creative things I am doing now and I feel at peace in following the trail of the creative impulses that are calling me.
My dreams have been inspiring in recent weeks. I’ve been enjoying writing them down and the morning contemplations that result. Being part of the Audacious Eleven podcast is one of my favorite expressions right now. Recent episodes have been about Luck in the Tarot, The Buddhist Excuse, People Behaving Badly, and What Hollywood Does to Our Favorite Books.
I have been very busy with SEO, Web Design, and Social Media Management. I really dig it. I used to keep my musical and creative writing life separate from any of my “other work.” My experience of this is entirely different now. I appreciate the orderly and concrete more than some may imagine, and this branch of my work has given me a sense of much needed productivity and stability. It has been an important factor in my feeling that much happier in creative space. I have been working a lot my friend Brian Loebig at Loebig Ink. We met a number of years ago when he was booking shows at the 5th Street Coffeehouse in Philadelphia and he recruited me to perform.
In other news, two weeks ago my good friend Betty invited me to be an extra in her actor/producer brother’s comedy horror movie. It was a blast being a vampire for a day! Last weekend, I was invited to play guitar for the very talented Brienna DeVlugt for two very different happenings – a Lord & Taylor fashion show and later that same day for a West Philly community event. In February I created a workshop focusing on non-binary gender identity at the Poly Living conference. Sometimes no matter what I do, I perpetually feel less busy and less productive than I’d like to be, but as I say, I try to be gentle with myself and take time to appreciate this eclectic cycle of events.
I have had a lot of activity out in the world given the internal shifts and changes and inner work that has needed attention. I recently had the fastest end of major relationship and beginning of new major relationship I’ve ever experienced in my life. This has been a lot to process. I am trusting. My head and heart have been spinning now for the better part of a year, and now I find myself happy and centered in a space of love.
This year, there will be songs and I predict projects I haven’t even yet considered. I am in the mood to simply see what’s next. Right now life has a lot to do with peaceful enjoyment, finding – and creating – day-to-day stride, and nurturing precious new connections.
I wrote a piece on one of my favorite albums for BiffBamPop.com. Here is a description of the column.
Each week, one of Biff Bam Pop’s illustrious writers will delve into one of their favorite things. Perhaps it’s a movie or album they’ve carried with them for years. Maybe it’s something new that moved them and they think might move you too. Each week, a new subject, a new voice writing on… something they love. This week, BBP contributor Robin Renee talks about Gary Wilson’s You Think You Really Know Me.
Check it out and let me know what you think:
I’ve been getting ready for a show this Saturday at The Soma Center in Highland Park, NJ, very much in my old stomping grounds near Rutgers University. I really like how Jessica sounds on vocals and viola. I think we have a good combo in sound and personality. This past Friday we played a mini house concert that served as a good dressed rehearsal for this weekend’s show. I didn’t feel quite ready to play one of the songs from the new material I’ve been writing, but I definitely want to get “Everybody Does the Best They Can” on Saturday’s playlist. Songs always feel like works in progress for a while after I start letting them out into the world, anyway. I do think they have to be let out in order to grow into their strongest form. Saturday will be a 2-for-1; after the concert will be Bhakti Dance! – an event I have been creating over the past year in Pennsylvania and in Ohio. I am hoping for a good “hometown” crowd for it this time. All this should feel more or less like part of the usual program; even better in a place where I am most at ease. It is actually a bit more complex at the moment, though thankfully not profoundly so – at least not anymore. 2014 has been a very weird year. I won’t write a book about it here, but suffice it to say that this year I found myself in close proximity with some practices and beliefs that were very off-putting (That would be somewhat of an understatement.). It was being called yoga, and it looked like yoga. I suppose it is yoga of a sort, but not one with which I care to interface. I can’t claim to know the inner life of anyone else, but it seemed to be a yoga of doctrine over discovery. It was clearly of mind over heart – a kind of academic belief in interconnectedness, but profoundly lacking in compassion. I could go on, but there is no need. There has been so much more to the journey than this, but one of the effects of opening my intimate circle to this bizarre detour has been to have to question all, to move through a real, but thankfully temporary fear of yoga and spiritual practice in general. I have had to rediscover for myself what these things are and what parts of them, if any, I want in my life. It has generally not been a good feeling, but it surely is powerful to tear everything down (or to have it torn down) to rebuild what is good and what matters. For a while, I wasn’t sure if I could go back to the part of my world that has been about facilitating kirtan and other yoga-related practices. Thanks to the help of genuine friends and my own journey through these months of decompression, reading, and sorting out what is helpful and for the highest good and what just isn’t, I have been teasing out and rediscovering all the elements of a contemplative, spiritual way of being that do resonate: Balance and integration are everything. Knowing and feeling the value of all beings is truth. The yoga that guides me and that is my daily way is doing the work of growth and finding the perfection in the messiness of real, everyday life, not in the aloof or abstract, but the embodied. Yoga is nothing if not about getting to the heart of love. I am relieved and quietly joyful to get back to my own daily meditation practice and my writing. The concert and Bhakti Dance will be so much fun on Saturday. I am glad to say it will come from a genuine place of opening to joy and enjoyment, finally unafraid.
Saturday, December 6th 6:30pm Soma Center *concert and Bhakti Dance! 511 Raritan Ave, Highland Park, NJ 08904 732-777-9642 w/ singer/violist Jessica Floresta Concert performance 6:30-8pm Bhakti Dance! 8:30-10pm $12/either event, $20/the evening Bhakti Dance! is a fun, transformative, alternative social event – Think of the high school dance only with great kirtan, mantra dance music, an uplifting party playlist, and none of the drama. Refreshments available.
This morning I ran across an old essay I wrote. It feels so apropos to share it. I hope you’ll forgive me for not waiting ’til Throwback Thursday.
I must be joking to soften how urgent and pertinent this feels for me in this moment. To live in spiritual openness, plurality, and fluidity, to be available to awareness of and wisdom in varied paths is a deep part of authentic spiritual growth. I want always to find new language for the great inner experiences, and to know that I may always find new ways to explore and express the same. I want always to know that how others find their way is a reason not for disdain but for celebration.
As I move in the flow of my own journey, I am discovering the ways kirtan, as much as I love it, has served to obscure some of the deepest work I need to do – the experiencing, uncovering, and writing down the blood-and-guts stories of pain, desire, memory, ecstasy, and daily life in all its messy glory. Now I am drawn to turn much of my attention to that work. Though my current focus is different, the essence of the essay below captures so much of what I feel and know in my bones tonight. I am glad to share this snapshot of what I was thinking about in October 2007, not long after the release of Live Devotion.
Buddha, Baal, and Mary— Finding your Footing Among Many Spiritual Paths
The other evening, a friend and I had a glorious opportunity to sit in a park in Bristol, PA with a fresh fruit picnic as we enjoyed the transition from summer to autumn, from evening sun to dusky night. If you don’t identify as Pagan, this is one of those nights that could beckon you toward that particular spiritual way—In the warm air, highlighted by an idyllic full moon, we savored the opportunity to sit close to the earth and to touch the grass that made its best effort to return strong from its most recent mowing, all in the company of a gorgeous, mighty oak. How easy it is to discover the Divine through nature on a night like this, and to experience the sacred energy of Goddess, God, Mother Earth, Father Sky—any of those names—ancient or new—that one may use to describe The Infinite.
I am a longtime practitioner of meditation, bhakti yoga, and eclectic Paganism. Indo-Pagan, Krishna witch—I enjoy wading through the words I might use to describe the set of practices that call to me. During our twilight picnic, my friend told me about her growing connection to the Druid path, and how she loves celebrating with her group, called a grove. She enjoys the righteous mix of reverence and mirth among its members, and that with each gathering they create anew while harkening to the ancients. We talked about how, like many modern Pagans, we both create rituals and adorn our own altars according to our personal connections to Spirit.
This friend of mine had a happy thing to report on that front – Not long ago, she added an image to her altar. Mary. Yes, Holy Mary, Mother of God. She had discovered a sweet, inner connection to Mary, opened to her guidance as a Protector, and for many nights has lit candles to honor her. It was a bit daunting at first, this foray into the icons of dominant religion by this devoutly alternative woman, but she has grown comfortable over time in talking about it with her grovemates. They welcomed her discovery of this connection, and the inner strength it brought to her and her practice. At first glance, her experience seems opposite to the religious dilemma of many, but her initial hesitation was really a lot like what so many of us go through when expanding out from the traditional religions of our families.
Most of us in the U.S. who now identify as Pagans grew up with a different tradition. For those from a Judeo-Christian background, it can be a daunting experience to step outside those boundaries and into a different way of seeing. For those of us who also grew up queer, quite possibly having been inside varying degrees of religious philosophy that called our sexual expression sin and instilled the fear of God in relation to all things Pagan is a serious 1-2 punch. You might well be caught in a dogma that told you there is only one true way. If you are feeling called to explore outside the lines, how can you move through your learned fears and get from the thought to the action?
The first time I bought a pentagram—a five pointed star, encircled, symbolizing the four sacred elements and Spirit—I have to admit, I was quite nervous. I felt in my heart that the small sterling pendant around my neck represented deep, Universal love and healing magic. But that little, irrational voice persisted… “No matter what I am feeling, is this actually the mark of the devil?” Putting time in working on the paths that call me allowed the fear to wane. It was different, yet nearly as odd when my devotion to Divine Consciousness found me honoring Jesus once again, having rediscovered that expression of light and wisdom in and through the beings of love I had come to honor.
Eventually, I got better at discerning what is true for me and what is imposed from another’s insistence—from any side of the religious equation. After all, what is the core of each religion, if not love? What is a religion but a path to the center of love along with a set of tools for help and celebration along the way? Why not find skillful, honest, and integrated ways to utilize all those tools that help us love the clearest and live the best?
Infinite numbers of seekers have realized the fabric of love, compassion, and enlightenment pervading all that is as the silence of The Buddha and as the pure love of the Christ. It has been found in an exalted Father-God and in Gaia, the living Spirit of the Earth Herself. You may find it in the named or the unnamed, a plurality of practices or a single tradition, Higher Self, or no-self.
There is no one answer or simple means to break through to a place of comfortable exploration. But as you begin to explore, consider giving yourself to the possibility that you may discover this: If you’ve been told of an “only way,” that one way may turn out to be whatever is suited uniquely to the longings of your own spiritual heart. Know that many, many seekers have walked the way of doubt, spiritual crisis, and emergence. In that, you are already a part of a beautiful tradition.
I have been remiss in keeping you up to date on the Audacious Eleven podcast – I’ve had to catch up on listening in myself! We’ve been publishing our wide-ranging conversations weekly on Fridays, and we’ve got some good ones coming up. Here are a few that have come out in recent weeks:
Show #39: Are We Crazy to Think We Can Change the World? Listen in and share your wisdom & inspiration with us.
Show #38: God(dess) Talk Hear us talk about our beliefs, rituals, The Universe, and Everything. It’s the most revealing conversation that we’ve had so far.
Show #37: Hey Strip Teasing Banana Man! STFU! This is a really f%!!&^ awesome episode, so you definitely better f*##! check it out.
Show #36: Driving Down the Shore Naked in Invisible Cars When you figure out what this conversation is about, please tell us!
I got to see Berlin @ World Cafe Live in Philadelphia last night. It was an excellent show. Postponed from May 1st because of severe weather that knocked out the venue’s power, this time there was an intense downpour to contend with to get from my car to the building, but no big deal. I went to the show with my friend Andy Campbell, who suspects Terri Nunn may be a rain goddess.
I could wax poetic about the show, which really did go above and beyond – Her voice is in excellent form, the new songs were very good, sometimes surprisingly emotional, and I really liked the way they revamped the classic tunes, especially “Pleasure Victim,” stripped down, so to speak, to piano and voice.
My friend Andy, who said he could barely remember winning anything, was chosen for the after show meet & greet in a random drawing. I was happy that he chose me as his +1, and just as happy that the show actually happened this time. We were waiting for only a short while by the stage until Terri came out to say hello to the small group of waiting fans.
Andy complemented her on the show and had a brief but deep conversation about the life and death of her father, actor Larry Nunn, about whom she sang in “Blame it on the World.” When I got to the table where she was chatting and autographing, she asked me about my choice of T-shirt.
“Sex Geek,” she read. “Well, I guess people ask you, right? Why are you a sex geek?” I explained with a winking smile attitude that I like to know as much as I can about the things in life I enjoy the most. I told her it is actually a T-shirt design by my friend Reid Mihalko, a sex and relationship educator. “What does he teach?” she asked. I wasn’t expecting to give Reid’s elevator speech in that moment, and I don’t remember exactly what I said. I think the words “openness in sexuality, honesty, and integrity” were involved in what I felt was likely way too concise a description. She smiled, said “All right!” and gave me a high-five.
I gave her a download card for All Six Senses, which is the older recording of mine I seem to enjoy the most these days. She seemed genuinely psyched that I am also a musician and I gave my music elevator speech (NOT my elevator music speech), which was probably even more truncated than the one I gave for Reid. I handed her my cassette copy of the Pleasure Victim album for her to sign. She laughed. “A cassette! Do you actually listen to this?” “Not lately,” I told her, also laughing. “It is quite an artifact, isn’t it?” She agreed.
I got my photo op and we said goodnight (I wish I had been standing more straight ahead so it doesn’t look like my shirt says “SEX GEE,” but oh well, it was in the moment.). “Keep playing,” she called out as we were walking away. I intend to – in all good ways possible.
(This piece was written by my “cousin-in-law,” Max Mania. In it, he mentions Dale, who is his wife/my cousin.)
…And they’re gone. With the death of original drummer Tommy, all four of the original members of the Ramones are gone. Even in death, the Ramones have done it their way, the pure way. I mean, think about it…A lot of bands have had some of their original members die (the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Doors, the Beach Boys, AC/DC, Nirvana, etc.), but how many have had all of their original members die? Talk about four the hard way, y’know?
Needless to say, the Ramones meant a lot to me, and to countless other people around the world. Driven by the insistent rhythm instituted by Tommy, they embodied equal parts fun, insanity and an unequaled purity of vision. In the end, they embodied everything that makes rock and roll so compelling, boiling it down into two minute bursts of perfection that were as American and as addictive as potato chips. You can’t stop with just one.
As someone who loved the Ramones when they were still a functioning unit, it’s been fascinating to watch their stature and reputation grow in the two decades since they called it quits. When I saw them for the last time, on their last tour, they were headlining the Warfield in San Francisco, capacity around 2,000. Their final studio album, Adios Amigos, was, of course, tanking, and the talk of their impending retirement didn’t seem to be causing more than a tiny ripple in American popular culture.
The Ramones circa that last year, 1996, were remarkably similar to the Ramones of 1974, the year that Tommy, Joey, Johnny and Dee Dee started the band. The Ramones often got knocked for this perceived “lack of ability to change or evolve.” I think the members of the band would have simply said they got it right the first time, so why mess with success?
And, in the end, their formula unquestionably was a success. The end of the band itself, and the beginning of their truly fatal bad luck, was, perversely, the beginning of their wider recognition and mainstream popular acknowledgement. Joey, not quite making it to his 50th birthday in 2001, also just missed the band being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – an honor bestowed upon them by their peers the very first year the band was eligible. By the time poor, tormented Dee Dee died the next year, you were starting to hear Ramones songs creep their way into commercials.
By 2004, when Johnny died, the Ramones tribute industry (for lack of a better term) was in full swing. The Ramones tribute album, We’re a Happy Family, featured a pretty stunning array of million-selling, superstar artists – U2, Metallica, Green Day, Eddie Vedder, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and most perfectly of all, KISS – performing covers of Ramones songs. At New York Yankees games, you would hear their fans chanting Hey Ho, Let’s Go! In Glasgow, locals tweaked it to Hey Ho, Glasgow! The band was a staple on charts and articles about The Greatest Bands Ever, The Greatest Songs Ever, The Greatest Fill-in-the-Blanks Ever. The adulation seemed to have no end.
Now, with both the regularity that you see the band evoked, hear their music everywhere (Dale has heard I Wanna Be Sedated at Safeway), and see the attention given to Ramones when they die, their transformation from outsiders to insiders is complete. The way they are respected and represented, you’d think they’d been actual Top 40 pop stars all along. In their article about Tommy’s death, here’s how People magazine sums the band up:
“The band influenced a generation of rockers, and their hit songs I Wanna Be Sedated and Blitzkrieg Bop, among others, earned them an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002.”
Uh, needless to say, those songs were very much not hits when they were originally released as singles in the 1970s. But now, with some 20/20 hindsight and a pinch of revisionist history, hey, the Ramones were right all along. (Related digression: I was called away from writing this by Dale, who let me know that NPR was doing an extended piece about Tommy passing away.)
And so it is that, with a perfect piece of Ramones luck, Tommy lived just long enough to see the Ramones first album, the seminal Ramones, finally be certified as a Gold Album earlier this year – 38 years after it was released. Though the music of the Ramones was generally fast and furious, their acceptance into the mainstream of the American music business is closer to the old adage: Slow and steady wins the race. Thus, not only can you hear a Ramones song in a recent Cadillac commercial, but in that same commercial the Ramones themselves are invoked as a great, original American creation.
They were that, and so much more. In all of the thousand possible ways I can think of to describe the effect the band has had on me, and my life, I think the simplest is probably the most appropriate. No matter how many thousands and thousands of times I have heard their songs, I still find it impossible not to physically respond to them. So there I was a few minutes ago, listening to Blitzkrieg Bop on NPR, tears welling up in my eyes, my foot bouncing up and down in time to Tommy’s drumming.
As the band might have put it, the mental patients have taken over the asylum, and popular culture, for better and for worse, will never be the same again. I loved the Ramones for all of their lives, and I will love the Ramones for all of my life.
The Ramones are dead. Long live the Ramones.