Sunday, July 5, 2020

Serenity Gardens (06.29.20)

Enjoying a great evening at Serenity Gardens in Second Life. Photo by Kat.

You know how, for all these years of doing live shows in Second Life, I've almost always managed to pop up a blog post within a day or two afterwards? It's not always exactly about the show I just did, though that's always part of it.

So why, wondered no one, has it been almost a week since my last show and I'm just now getting around to writing something? No reason at all. Nothing unusual has been happening, beyond the unusual aspects of pandemic and civil unrest and everything else that the year 2020 has represented. Here's the weird thing: for a lot of folks, it's been a holiday weekend, with a good number of people taking days off work at the end of last week coming into Independence Day on Saturday. But me? Not so much. I was busy as could be all throughout last week, and then spent much of the weekend just relaxing, which felt necessary. One thing I did not do, very purposefully, was to put myself in a situation where COVID-19 transmission was a likely (or even possible) occurrence. 

Why Don't Enough People Wear Masks?
Something you've probably seen many times in recent days are photos and video footage of people partying and having fun. Things like that in a typical year might put a smile on your face, but in the midst of a pandemic, it's horrifying. There were young people dancing closely at lakes in Michigan and Wisconsin, families packed together at beaches and political events, and more. And in almost all of those pics and vids, from Trump's event at Mount Rushmore to gay men dancing at Fire Island to rich folks partying in the Hollywood Hills, barely a mask could be seen.

I could be disingenuous and pretend that I can't imagine why these folks would be so cavalier in the midst of a global health crisis, but let's be real here. We all know the reasons.

• Some people think COVID-19 doesn't exist and is some kind of hoax meant to allow the government to control them.

• Some people think that the very act of wearing a mask is some kind of political statement that doesn't align with their beliefs.

• Some people find the actual wearing of a mask to be so inhibitive of their ability to breathe (or, more likely, don't like the way they look in one) that they claim they can't wear one.

I'll try to be nice, but the name for all of those people is this: stupid and inconsiderate assholes. Here's what's going to happen: more and more people will continue to contract the novel coronavirus, hospitals will be overwhelmed, and local/state governments will be forced to go back to a full shutdown situation. If an overwhelming majority of people could either isolate themselves or use masks along with strong social distancing and great hygiene, we'd kick COVID-19's ass in a month or two.

A few images of people on July 3/4, 2020 who are completely ignoring social distancing and mask wearing. What will happen is this: these people will be heading home, and many of them will a) get sick themselves and b) pass it along to people at work, elderly relatives, neighbors and more. And then those people will pass it along to others. This is why it will end up taking years to get past this pandemic. History will not look kindly on these folks.

But we all know that's not going to happen. The United States has now passed 3,000,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, and over 132,000 people have died of it. That might be the tip of the iceberg; the deaths might be being underreported, and by the time we get done with this godforsaken year, over a half million Americans might be dead from a disease that could have been manageable.

So what did I do on the 244th birthday of the USA? I stayed home and did stuff with my family. That included the fun task of cleaning our home and preparing it for a new furnishing arrival in the form of a new sectional sofa that Kat had chosen awhile back. It's in our freshly-cleaned living room now and looks great. We did have some neighbors holding reasonably-sized parties, and I was happy to wave at them and wish them a Happy 4th from a good distance away.

The Show
Ah yes, the show. I was a little concerned going into the show; my throat had been problematic for a couple of days beforehand. I never really considered canceling the show, but I had a feeling that my vocal power and range might be impacted. So, I carefully put together a set list of songs that were more on the mellow end of things, and it all worked out just fine.

Why remind people about the pandemic when they're trying to escape real life? Because it's too damn important to pretend it doesn't exist in any life. I'll keep wearing a mask for as long as I feel compelled to wear one in public in the real world, and that might be a long time. Photo by Kat.

We had a nice crowd at Serenity Gardens, and I'm always glad when some of Grace McDunnough's crowd sticks around for my show. While Grace and I aren't identical in our styles or repertoire, I feel there's enough vibe crossover between our respective sounds that her audience is able to enjoy me, and mine her.

Enjoying some chill tunes and some fun people at Serenity Gardens. Photo by Kat. 

The other thing I wanted to mention about this show: at the moment I was strumming my first chord of my first song, I started hearing some commotion going on downstairs in my kitchen/living room area. I sent Kat down to do some reconnaissance, and it turned out we had a random visit from a plumber who stopped by to continue work on something he'd started months ago but abandoned, presumably due to COVID. Anyway, despite some drilling and banging noises, it didn't impact my show at all, and honestly, many worse things could have been going on to derail my show in some way. This wasn't one of them.

Serenity Gardens set list...
Things Behind the Sun (Nick Drake)
Summer Breeze (Seals & Crofts)
Invisible Sun (The Police)
*Barely Breathing (Duncan Sheik) 
Norwegian Wood (Beatles)
Ashes to Ashes (David Bowie)
Carey (Joni Mitchell)
*Prelude to Pickles (Zak Claxton)
Pickles (Zak Claxton)
Doin’ Time (Sublime)
Hand in Pocket (Alanis Morissette)
Blew the Dust Away (They Stole My Crayon) 
Bein’ Green (Kermit the Frog)

*Indicates the first time I've done this song in SL.

Massive thanks to all who hung out at this show. It was a good one! Special thanks to the following who helped support the show...
hynesyte Harbour, AaronCabottJones Resident, Sesh Kamachi, Christine Haiku, Jaron Metaluna, Pato Milo, Alex Zelin, Trouble Streeter, Kat Claxton, Grace McDunnough, rosea3162 Resident, Nina Brandenburg, my excellent manager Maali Beck, and the fabulous team at Serenity Gardens, Tilly Rose and Ilsa Wilde!

Serenity Gardens (06.15.20)

I can't recall a single bad show at Serenity Gardens (except that one time my audio gear failed and I sounded like a Zakbot). It's a great place to play or otherwise experience live music in Second Life. Photo by Kat.

I'm doing something later today that I wish wasn't necessary, and that probably isn't: I'm getting tested for COVID-19.

No, I don't think I have COVID-19. My only symptom is an annoying but rather minor sore throat that's been hanging out for about a week. I've had a couple of other things going on that loosely fit the coronavirus profile, like occasional bouts of random tiredness during the day. Frankly, I'm pretty sure I've felt that way for a lot longer than COVID-19 has been a thing.

But here where I live in Los Angeles County, testing is available and free, and it's convenient as well. Basically it's a drive-thru process. I've watched videos of my friends having it done. You schedule an appointment, and then pull up to a station where they check your ID, and then you are handed a little kit containing a swab, a small capsule, and a couple of plastic bags. From what I've seen, they want you to cough a few times, and then swab the inside of your mouth in various places. Then the now-contaminated swab goes in the capsule, which is placed inside both bags. It seems like the safety of the health care workers at these testing facilities is paramount, which is as it should be. You don't even open your car window other than the moments you get the test kit and when you drop it off, which seems to be done via an extendable rod to minimize the proximity of the workers and the people being tested.

Anyway, that's today. I should be clear that I'm doing this purely out of an abundance of caution for peace of mind, rather than any real suspicion that I have COVID-19. My sore throat is most likely a result of post-nasal drip (side note: I hate that term) via allergies that tend to affect me in the spring (and year-round due to these cats that live here).

I continue to perform in SL while wearing a mask. Until I can comfortably be among people in real life unmasked, I stay that way in the virtual world as well. Photo by Kat.

Black Lives Matter... A Musical Tribute
Despite my throat being ouchy, I was very intent on going on with the show for my bi-weekly performance at Serenity Gardens in Second Life. I'd already confirmed with some rehearsing on Saturday that I was able to sing reasonably well, or at least well enough to do a decent SL show. The reason I wanted to be sure I could perform -- beyond the aspect that my shows are few and far between these days, and each one is important to me -- is that I'd planned on a rather special theme.

I always am grateful that audiences at Serenity Gardens are accepting of whatever it is I choose to play. Photo by Kat.

I think this is a well-known fact, but I'll say it anyway: nearly everything you hear in modern music for the past 50+ years has its roots in black songwriters and performers. And yes, I mean everything. You can trace a path from nearly any song you hear today in any genre to its black roots. Let's say you like a heavy metal band (and yes, I'm purposefully choosing an example from a genre that's predominantly white today) like Mastodon. They were influenced by other contemporary metal bands like High On Fire. They, in turn, were influenced by classic metal bands like Black Sabbath, who were influenced by heavy blues bands of the time like Cream, who were influenced by traditional blues artists like Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Son House, Elmore James, Leadbelly and many others who were uniformly African-American.

I can show you a similar path for nearly any style of music today, from EDM to trap to hip hop to country and beyond. The fact is that unless you are focused on baroque, classical, or romantic-era music, the songs you love have their origins with black artists.

The Show
With everything that's been happening throughout the world regarding civil unrest and protests in regard to the treatment of black people by various authorities, I knew it was an opportunity to highlight the contributions of black people to the music I love. What I didn't realize -- until I actually sat down to create a set list as such -- is that out of my 500+ songs that I do as a solo artist, only a tiny fraction of them are by black artists.

Why? I don't know. Anything I write to explain it will sound like some kind of excuse. I will say one thing that perhaps explains this disparity, and it's that I tend to only do songs that I feel I can perform genuinely. There are aspects about the experiences of being a black person that I could never, ever truly understand. No one looks at me and makes assumptions based purely on the color of my skin. To the best of my knowledge, no one has ever denied me opportunities, or treated me with less respect, based on what I look like or where my ancestors were from. I believe that's why, consciously or otherwise, my musical repertoire is by white artists on a more than 90% basis.

But the weird thing is that while I'm not always confident in performing music by black artists, the music I listen to is filled with tons of black writers and performers. I need to get over whatever lack of confidence I have to perform these songs to the best of my ability, and make sure they're included in more of my sets.

A lovely live music environment. Photo by Kat.

For last night's show at Serenity Gardens, I was able to pull out seven songs in my repertoire that I felt I could do reasonably well, and filled out the rest of my set with originals. We had a pretty good crowd there. Normally Grace McDunnough is doing the set before me there, but I found out afterwards that a lightning strike had taken out her mixer (yikes!), so Abby Jaidov was onstage when I arrived and I enjoyed listening to her as I got ready to do my show.

Serenity Gardens set list...
Blew the Dust Away (They Stole My Crayon) 
Falling Down (Zak Claxton)
This Afternoon (Zak Claxton)
Pickles (Zak Claxton)
Always Tomorrow (Zak Claxton)
Off the Wall (Michael Jackson)
What’s Going on? (Marvin Gaye)
Hello (Lionel Richie)
Someday (Mariah Carey)
I Believe When I Fall In Love (Stevie Wonder)
Bold as Love (Jimi Hendrix)
Take Me With U (Prince)

Huge thanks to all who hung out for my show and who appreciated what I was doing in tribute to BLM, with special thanks to the following who helped support the show!
AaronCabottJones Resident, Tyche Szondi, Kat Claxton, Yummi Burrito, Alex Zelin, Trouble Streeter, Kat Chauveau, Diana Renoir, Abby Jaidov, SaritaTwisted Resident, my excellent manager Maali Beck, and the fabulous team at Serenity Gardens, Tilly Rose and Ilsa Wilde!

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Serenity Gardens (06.01.20)

This was a rare show at Serenity Gardens where I was compelled to play songs that spoke to the moment. Photo by Kat.

Where to even start...

I often use this blog as a method to report on my activities as a musician, but I also use it to record events going on in my life and the world around me. For the past couple of months, a lot of that content has been focused on the COVID-19 pandemic, which is pretty understandable given its impact on all of our lives. But life happens quickly, and for the past week, things have changed radically due to the murder of George Floyd. I don't need to tell the story; we've all seen the vile images of former Minneapolis police office Derek Chauvin killing Floyd in the street. It's sickening to see.

What happened since then, starting May 26 and strongly ramping up over the past weekend, is perhaps the greatest period of civil unrest ever seen in the USA. Again, it's not necessary for me to illustrate the specifics of this; it will be in every history book and web site for years to come. Cities across America have been the sites of angry demonstrations, and along with those protests come the most negative aspects of a justifiably angry populace, with various opportunists taking advantage of the situation in the streets by looting and burning. At this very moment, Los Angeles Country (where I've lived for most of my life, since 1975) is under a strict curfew for the past few evenings, and it continues until the situation resolves. States have called in the National Guard to help control the populace. It's obviously an ongoing situation.

But instead of repeating things that are in the top headlines for everyone in the world right now, I thought I'd try something new. Last night's show at Serenity Gardens was a little different than my usual mellow and fun performance. I had chosen my songs over the weekend, while watching livestream news footage of dozens of cities across the US, and I couldn't morally get up on Monday night and do random songs and pretend that nothing was going on. So what follows is an expanded version of my set list, and an explanation of what it was about that song that made me select it.

My Heart (Neil Young)
Neil actually found his way into my set list in three ways for this show, as shall be illustrated below. I opened with "My Heart" because I knew, moments before my show having witnessed Trump's tear-gassing peace protestors to get a photo op at St. James, the moment I allowed anger to become my predominant emotion, I'd have trouble pushing it aside. "My Heart" is the opening track of one of Neil's darker albums, Sleeps With Angels, and has a verse in it that says, "When dreams come crashing down like trees / I don't know what love can do / When life is hanging in the breeze / I don't know what love can do," and I thought that was very appropriate for my feelings for the entire situation.

For What It’s Worth (Buffalo Springfield)
This is a classic protest song, almost to the point of being a cliche. Written and sung by Steven Stills when he was in Buffalo Springfield (along with the aforementioned Mr. Young), it's a song that was inspired by demonstrations on the Sunset Strip in the late '60s here in Los Angeles. Those specific protests, I should mention, were in regard to abuse of authority by police.

All Lives, You Say? (Wilco)
Well, this one is kinda obvious, no? Jeff Tweedy and his lovely band Wilco came out with this song in 2017, shortly after Jeff's dad passed away. The proceeds for the song gave tens of thousands of dollars to the Southern Poverty Law Center and other anti-hate organizations. Jeff said at the time, "My dad was named after a Civil War general, and he voted for Barack Obama twice. He used to say 'If you know better, you can do better.' America - we know better. We can do better." I agree.

During the show, I used an analogy of a neighborhood with a house on fire to illustrate the reason we say "Black Lives Matter" as opposed to "All Lives Matter". Photo by Kat.

*Takin It To The Streets (Doobie Brothers)
Again, this one is on the nose. It's a hard song to perform because I have to arrange keyboard lines for guitar (and transpose it down a step because I'm no Michael McDonald). But the message of the song that resonates best with me is the opening line: "You don't know me, but I'm your brother." I hope that's true of me.

Abrasion (They Stole My Crayon)
This is a) the only TSMC song that I performed this night and b) the only specific politically-focused song that TSMC has written thus far (though we have some others in the works). It's a planned song for our next album that hopefully will happen soonish. The lyrics are by Christina and Bunny, but the music on this one is my contribution, I'm happy to say, with its fun and slightly jarring 21/8 time signature. Key lyric: "We live with this / Your indifference / Our onus is / Help each other live."

One thing I will say: I have never felt unwelcome at Serenity Gardens to perform the music I want, no matter what it is. Not every venue in SL or real life for that matter is as respectful and open to the artist as they are. Photo by Kat.

*Wild World (Cat Stevens)
As I mentioned at the show, this is more of an interpersonal break-up song than anything specific toward the protests, but if the world has been anything lately, it's been wild. Also, this lyric jumped out at me in its appropriate description of the moment: "You know I've seen a lot of what the world can do / And it's breaking my heart in two."

Ohio (Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young)
The third appearance of Neil Young in the set is a very important one. For anyone unaware, "Ohio" was written May 4, 1970, the day of the shooting of 13 unarmed students by National Guard troops at Kent State University in Ohio. National Guard troops have been called into a number of cities over the past several days, including here in the Los Angeles area. It remains to be seen what the tally of violence will be, especially after Trump threatened to send in US military to keep order. Anyway, I couldn't have done this show without doing this song.

Tangerine (Led Zeppelin)
My reason for playing "Tangerine"? I didn't have one. Sometimes it's necessary to break up the series of heavy tunes with something less focused on the moment. So, "Tangerine" is off the more acoustic-oriented side of Zep III, and is written to a lost love. Perhaps that melancholy and wistful vibe is something I feel when I think about how our lives have changed as a whole so drastically and so quickly.

Lest we forget: while all this madness is blanketing the country right now, it's happening in the midst of a pandemic. I will continue to wear my mask in SL until the time I'd feel comfortable being among the public maskless in real life. Photo by Kat.

This Afternoon (Zak Claxton)
Similar to "Tangerine", I wanted to take my foot off the gas for a couple of tunes because I knew how my set was going to end. "This Afternoon" is probably the original song of mine I've performed most in SL throughout my 13+ years of doing shows in-world. Definitely a song of yearning, the applicable lyric is as follows: "This afternoon / another day gone by / The pain I hold inside will be my ruin."

Nowhere Man (The Beatles)
I believe I mentioned at the show that I had chosen "Nowhere Man" as a shout-out to the people in our lives who simply -- and understandably -- don't want to get involved or take sides in a conflict, even if the results will eventually affect them and the ones they love personally. The lines that tell the story: "Nowhere man please listen / You don't know what you're missing / Nowhere man, the world is at your command." I chose that not to denigrate this kind of person but to make them aware that each and every person can have a massive effect in changing the world, for better or for worse.

Goodbye Blue Sky (Pink Floyd)
This is a truly frightening song off a dark, dark album. Within the framework of war and its aftermath, it felt all too applicable right after the threat of martial law and the visuals of various law enforcement agencies with their militarized approach to "controlling" protestors. Seeing the firing of rounds and tear gas containers at Americans in the streets of the cities where they live, while images of looting and arson dominated the evening news, brought to mind the lyrics, "Did you see the frightened ones? / Did you hear the falling bombs? / The flames are all long gone, but the pain lingers on."

*It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) (Bob Dylan)
I'll tell you: this is perhaps my favorite Bob Dylan song, and I'd been thinking of covering it for years. While the song isn't focused on protest or civil rights, it is an epic that cynically lambasts many aspects of American culture. Dylan was born in Hibbing, MN, and since his state was the flashpoint of all this stuff, I used it as an opportunity to do this song. Key verse... "Disillusioned words like bullets bark / As human gods aim for their mark / Made everything from toy guns that spark / To flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark / It's easy to see without looking too far / That not much is really sacred."

*We Shall Overcome (Traditional)
I wasn't sure I was going to actually do this. I hemmed and hawed quite a bit before committing to it. It's literally the key anthem of the civil rights movement, and before I do a song, I always need to ask myself, "Do I have the right to sing this? Can this message be considered genuine coming from me?" If the answer if no, I don't do the song. But "We Shall Overcome" is a protest song for activists who support civil rights and the equal treatment of people of all races, religions, and backgrounds. That describes... me. The only problem was that the most well-known arrangement of the song is pretty repetitive and has a melody that, while easy to memorize and sing for crowds of people as it as intended, is kinda blah. Sorry. But then I stumbled on a version Bruce Springsteen did live, and while I also didn't do his arrangement either, I figured out one for myself and I think it went alright.

My "angry" show last night wasn't for everyone, but throughout the show we had a decent crowd and I was grateful to those who stuck it out. Photo by Kat.

*Indicates songs I've never performed before in SL.

So, that's what I did, and that's where things are. And ultimately, do I ever change anything when I focus my music performance on polarizing or controversial issues? I can't say; I genuinely don't know. But I do know that I've always felt that silence is tantamount to complicity, and I simply can't live with myself knowing I had the opportunity to make an impact, even a small one, and ignored it.

I will say thanks to the people, Zaksters and otherwise, who listened while, through music and message, I made my state of mind very clear in my support for the Black Lives Matter protestors. I did mention my disgust at the looting and other opportunistic behavior that comes along with the protests... but it also could be said that many of the protests would be going largely ignored if not for the terrible aspect of theft and property loss. It doesn't justify it in any way, nor does it justify the often brutal acts of abuse of power that law enforcement (and now, apparently, military) have done in trying to control the protests. Not all of them, no. This is not an all-of-nothing equation, even though some folks would prefer that.

And now, from my curfew-enacted home in Los Angeles County, I bid you a pleasant evening. Also, thanks to everyone who was at the show, and special thanks to the following who helped support it.Tyche Szondi, Jaron Metaluna, Kat Chauveau, Trouble Streeter, Grace McDunnough, Kat Claxton, my excellent manager Maali Beck, and the fabulous team at Serenity Gardens, Tilly Rose and Ilsa Wilde!

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Serenity Gardens (05.18.20)

Beautiful Serenity Gardens, from a vantage point I never get to see. Photo by Kat.

It's funny; I have a number of good friends who are fellow Second Life performers, and it's not atypical for some of them to do multiple shows a day, almost every day. There was a time, some ten years ago, where my typical frequency of shows was 3-4 per week, every week, and that felt like a lot to me. The rare occasions where I had multiple shows in a single day seemed horrible to me. So the fact that I did two shows in three days... Saturday at Templemore and then Monday at Serenity Gardens... felt rather excessive compared to my relatively lackadaisical frequency of performances. But I was happy to do these two shows, which both went very well in their own ways, and musically, they couldn't have been more different.

General Update
Before I get into the show, I thought I'd do a little "State of the Zak" report. We are, after all, in the midst of "interesting times" as they say, and I am pretty sure that, assuming I survive for awhile, I'll be looking back at posts from this time frame years from now.

The current global statistics for COVID-19 are pretty awful, despite the best efforts of various countries to keep it under control. At this moment, the statistics read as follows: 4,946,171 cases worldwide, with 322,579 deaths. In the USA, the numbers remain grim... 1,558,175 confirmed cases, and 92,478 deceased as a result. And yet, the current big matter of controversy is in regard to re-opening society and business, trying to get back to what was previously considered normal.

Just in case you assume that idiocy is a trait limited to Americans, I present some Canadian anti-quarantine protestors. Interestingly -- and predictably -- there has been a noted rise in COVID-19 infection rates in places that have had anti-lockdown protests.

My advice, for what it's worth, is that "normal" as we knew it before the current coronavirus pandemic, will never be back again. Yes, there will be effective treatments and vaccines eventually. But the process of going through this has already changed us. The old adage, "You can't go home again," applies here. The places you will return to, be they offices or gyms or hair salons or beaches, will be populated by people who are different than they were before, and that includes you.

Don't Let History Repeat Itself
Meanwhile, as per above, the act of protecting society from this pandemic has already become a huge polarizing issue in the USA. Perhaps one thing we can learn from history is to try and not repeat the bad aspects of it. One of the major pandemic events in this country was the influenza outbreak of 1918/1919. Known erroneously as the "Spanish Flu", this outbreak of the H1N1 virus is one of the most deadly in human history, having infected 500 million people (about a third of the world's population at the time), with a death toll between 17 million to 50 million, and possibly as high as 100 million. The reason it was so deadly wasn't because of the disease itself, but because of the aspects of malnourishment, overcrowded medical camps and hospitals, and poor hygiene at the time, which led to bacterial superinfection.

We've come a long way since then, both in terms of medical science and the living conditions that most people enjoy. But one thing you'll notice on the historical chart below are several distinct waves of mortality in the 1918/1919 outbreak. The worst one by far happened a good five months into the epidemic period. The reason -- which should sound very familiar to people of today -- is that there was a premature push to re-open society and business. People were angry about being told to wear masks in public; San Francisco had an "Anti-Mask League". Also, churches were particularly vocal about being forced to close, saying that the state had no right to prevent people from worshipping as per their constitutional rights.

A mortality chart from the 1918/1919 influenza pandemic. Note what happens about five months in, as restrictions were eased and people got back out in public again. Let's hope that's not the result this time around.

So, politicians caved to public pressure, as they tend to do, and the results speak for themselves. The grand majority of deaths happened after the initial period of re-opening, and that necessitated another longer and more strict period of quarantine. It's why the pandemic lasted from spring 1918 all the way through summer 1919. On a personal basis, I find it interesting that the same type of influenza A (H1N1) that killed millions of people 100 years back was the one I ended up getting in the outbreak of 2009. Trust me, it was awful, and I was an otherwise healthy 39-year-old man at the time. It's my goal to make it through the entire pandemic on the sidelines, and never acquire COVID-19 (at least until there's a proven cure).

Speaking of me, I'll be continuing to take precautions against COVID-19 infection for a long time to come. I really don't anticipate any situation for months and months where you won't see me outfitted in a mask when I'm outside the house. I really don't care at all what any other person's opinion is about that. I'll keep protecting myself and my family as long as I feel there's the slightest possibility that we'll contract this disease.

Back to the Show
It's always important to me to not bore my audience, many of whom come to every one of my shows. Because of that, I not only switch up the songs from show to show but also switch up the entire vibe of the show based on the music I choose to play. For this show at Serenity Gardens, I really made it a point to do a big departure from the previous show on Saturday, so most of the music I played was stuff that is very familiar and beloved by people. That being said, I also pulled out a number of songs that don't find their way to the top of my set list very often.

I can't be sure what song I'm playing here, but I imagine it's probably "Pickles", my current ridiculous hit song in SL. Photo by Kat.

I do want to note that seeing one particular audience member really kind of made my whole night. As my blog readers are aware, I used to perform pretty regularly at a venue called The Islands of New England, and those shows were hosted by a woman named Christine Haiku, who in turn became a good friend over the course of time. For personal reasons, Christine decided to depart from Second Life a couple of years ago as people tend to do from time to time, so when I started my show and looked into the crowd, it was fantastic to see her there. Overall, while we didn't have a giant crowd last night, everyone there was engaged and seemingly really into the music, and that always makes me happy.

Fun show, good crowd. Photo by Kat.

Just like in reality, if I'm in public around people, I'm in a mask. No mask, no Zak. Photo by Kat.

Serenity Gardens set list...
If It Makes You Happy (Sheryl Crow)
Bertha (Grateful Dead)
Lost Cause (Beck)
Old Man (Neil Young)
Mary Jane's Last Dance (Tom Petty)
Big Yellow Taxi (Joni Mitchell)
Swing Lo Magellan (Dirty Projectors)
Pickles (Zak Claxton)
Woodstock (Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young)
Wild Horses (Rolling Stones)
Mother (Pink Floyd)
Lola (The Kinks)

Big giant huge thanks to everyone who came out to Serenity Gardens to hear me play music, with special super thanks to the following patrons of the arts who helped support my show!
Kat Chauveau, Lauralynn Foxtrot, LadyMacDeath222 Resident, Jaron Metaluna, Trouble Streeter, Sydney Verlaine, Grace McDunnough, go2smoky Resident, Tyche Szondi, Triana Caldera, Kat Claxton, Asimia Hero, Christine Haiku, my excellent manager Maali Beck, and the fabulous team at Serenity Gardens, Tilly Rose and Ilsa Wilde!

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Lutz City of Templemore (05.16.20)

It's always a special and amazing experience to perform at Templemore. Photo by Kat.

It had been just over a year since my last show at Lutz City of Templemore, back in May 2019. For all the reasons you already know, it feels like a lot longer than one year. The past two months feel like several years already. But apart from all that, Templemore only has live shows very sporadically, and whenever I get the invitation to perform there, it's a big honor... something I mentioned very sincerely a couple of times during yesterday's show. Because a show at Templemore is such a rare and special occasion, I always prepare a set list that's a step apart from the ordinary, and we'll get to that in a bit. First, as I always seem to do, a few words on Templemore itself.

A One-Of-A-Kind Experience in Second Life
Even if you're not a person who looks deeply into the details of design, you might visit Templemore and still be in awe of the overall look of the sim without really understanding what makes it a one-of-a-kind place in Second Life. But there are two aspects of Templemore that are consistent throughout: decay and facade. It's seems oddly specific... the idea of, perhaps, an abandoned space that even when new was more of an illusion than based on reality. Overrun with vines and weeds and rot and rust and fading painted surfaces, you'll see buildings and various objects that are merely stage props, as if you'd wandered into a location that was used for a film set or stage show from decades ago. The scaffolding has been left up, various items strewn about as if the original owners had left in a hurry... it's completely mind-blowing that Luis chose this particular school of design for this magical virtual place.

My view from the outdoor stage at Templemore. Photo by Kat.

Or perhaps, with Luis' real-life background in event production and stage design, it's natural that he'd have a viewpoint that few others would even consider, much less render so well. But I've said it before and I'll say it again: there are many amazing environments in Second Life, but few that have been so visually enthralling to me. Mind you, it comes with a price; it's definitely a test of the power of your computer's graphics card, with so much to render and interact with. While seeing the place in its full high-resolution glory with all the shadows and particles in their proper place is something everyone should do at some point, in order for me to function as a performer there, I really dial graphic settings down to minimum so I can at least move myself on and off the stage. When I'm there, I have a job to do, and hopefully my live music soundtrack adds to the overall vibe of the place.

As great as many of them are, live music venues in SL really don't get any better than this. Photo by Kat.

Different Places, Different Tunes
There's something I've always done in SL that I think some other artists do (and many don't). Since I don't take song requests, it's always up to me to curate a batch of music before my show, aka preparing my set list. And yes, there's an element in my choices based on what I feel like playing, or how my voice is feeling and what I think I am most capable of playing at that time. However, there's also a big aspect of the venue itself driving my choices. With Templemore, I have two guidelines for the songs I choose. First, I have an awareness that Templemore's crowd tends to be a bit more adventurous in their tastes than many other spots in SL. Don't get me wrong; there's nothing at all wrong with performing more familiar popular tunes. I do that stuff fairly often at other places. But at Templemore, I really do have the faith in the audience that they'll be into stuff that's much more esoteric, even if it's their first time hearing it. The second personal rule at Templemore is something I do in tribute to Garrett Lutz, a Templemore friend and regular attendee of my shows there until he passed away in August 2017. The sim was renamed in his honor sometime afterwards. Garrett was the only person in SL who let me know that they were a huge fan of Sun Kil Moon, a band I cover pretty regularly, so I make it a point to always do at least one Sun Kil Moon song each time I play there in his honor.

Playing some music in honor of Garrett Lutz. Photo by Kat.

Great crowd, very engaged and into the music. Photo by Kat.

Additionally, Templemore is a place where I've historically debuted new songs, or at least songs I've never performed in SL before. Many of these songs end up becoming regulars in my set lists at subsequent shows. It's not that I'm hesitant to do new-to-me tunes at other places; it's just that I know how much they'll be recognized and appreciated there. Each time Luis reaches out to book me for a Templemore show, pretty much the first thing I do is start thinking of what song(s) I'd like to add to my repertoire for the show. This show was no exception (see set list below).

At every Templemore venue, there always seems to be a VIP area somewhere. This one rightfully has Gravey, Luis and friends chilling during my set. Photo by Kat.

As I've mentioned many times, I will continue to wear a mask in SL for as long as it's necessary to wear one in reality. More than most folks in the virtual world, my pixel self generally reflects almost every aspect of my fleshy life. Photo by Kat.

Great SL Musicians
Without fail, when I perform at Templemore, I've found myself on a bill with other musicians who are among my personal favorites in Second Life, and yesterday was no exception. The show kicked off at 3PM with J Lively, followed by my set at 4PM, and then consecutively, it was Oblee, Gravey Jones, and Parker Static. I know these things are a matter of subjective taste, but I can say without hesitation that these are among the best performers in all of SL, and I know the feeling is mutual among these artists. While chilling during Oblee's spectacular set after mine, he mentioned something about being honored to be playing between two "legends" (aka myself and Gravey), and while I've never thought of myself as anything really special as a performing musician in SL or otherwise, it does feel good to get that kind of validation from a fellow artist.

Luis' promo poster for the show. I'm honored to be on a bill with these great musicians!

Lutz City of Templemore set list...
Northern Sky (Nick Drake)
Crosses (José González)
Loading Zones (Kurt Vile)
Carry Me Ohio (Sun Kil Moon)
On the Floor (Chastity Belt)
*One Slip (Pink Floyd)
Trouble Child (Joni Mitchell)
*Hey Ya (OutKast)
Blew The Dust Away (They Stole My Crayon)
*Solsbury Hill (Peter Gabriel)
Bull Black Nova (Wilco)

*Indicates the first time I've performed this song in SL.

Thanks SO much to everyone who made it to Templemore for the show, and extra special thanks to the following who helped support it!
Obeloinkment Wrigglesworth, Yaeleigh Resident, rosea3162 Resident, Amelie9 Sautereau, Kat Claxton, paula31atnight Resident, MariamMyrh Resident, Alexander Huntsman, Gann Gigamon, Nina Brandenburg, Trouble Streeter, Leondra Larsson, Alex Zelin, ohhbehave Resident, GideonHerschel Resident, Diana Renoir, my excellent manager Maali Beck, Templemore's amazing hostess Bee Blackrain, and Templemore's phenomenal owners Luis Lockjaw and Grace Sixpence!

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Serenity Gardens (05.04.20)

In these strange days, a fun show at Serenity Gardens is one of the few things that still feel normal. Photo by Kat.

This show report is coming along a bit later than usual; my apologies. It's been an extraordinarily busy time for me recently, as I've mentioned to just about anyone who seems inclined to listen. One thing that's preoccupied me lately is the fact that some areas of the USA are starting to "reopen". That is, the restrictions that were put in place to fight COVID-19 are beginning to be relaxed. Here in California, we were told on Monday that Friday, May 8, some of our retail stores and other commercial and entertainment entities that had been previously closed can once again be open for business, in varying degrees of limitation. None of this will happen all at once, and different areas of the country are each reacting based on their own set of criteria, and have different schedules to begin "getting back to normal". I have some advice for folks who are understandably concerned about immediately jumping back into society as it was before the pandemic happened. It's just one word.


Let's make sure you understand something. You are not compelled to do things that other people do. Got friends who are raring to go out to the club and party? Let them. Got neighbors who scoff at you for continuing to wear a mask or other protective gear when out amongst other people? Let them. Got a job where people are coming back into the office without taking basic precautions? Let them. You should continue to do the things that you know are right for you. End of story.

The most important thing to keep in mind: there is no "getting back to normal". Normal has a new definition now, and the sooner you accept and work within that new framework of life, the less frustrating it will be. So, as I said above: if you still see indications that COVID-19 is an imminent danger to yourself and your family wherever you live, don't allow anyone -- friends, media, employers, economic pundits, and so on -- pressure you to feel otherwise.

This photo, taken today (May 10) at a restaurant in Castle Rock, CO, is utterly horrifying to me. Not a mask in sight, and no attempt by the restaurant or its patrons to stay safely socially distant from each other. If you want this disease to hang around for years and years, this is how to do it.

My Reasons
Before you accuse me of having a privileged attitude about all this, let me beat you to the punch: that is correct. Thus far, I've had no personal economic impact during the pandemic (beyond my retirement fund taking a giant shit along with everyone else's). My business, which is the planning and execution of marketing programs, is as busy or busier than ever before, since my clients have been extremely reliant on my kinds of services to reach their customers throughout the quarantine period thus far.

But let me also add that, speaking of personal interests, mine also stem from the fact that I have been the victim of previous pandemics and other communicable diseases. I caught and suffered badly from the 2009 H1N1 outbreak, and then my entire family got nailed by H3N2 in 2012. I've had severe pneumonia twice in the past ten years, and am constantly fighting my propensity to chronic bronchitis. If I do get COVID-19, it's impossible to say what the outcome would be, but the fact that there's no vaccine nor any approved treatment path makes it something that would possibly kill me.

So, regardless of what the federal or state or local governments mandate, you'll see me continuing to avoid crowded public places, and protecting myself to the best of my ability when I am forced to interact with people. "But wait," you ask, "what if it's a year or more until there is a vaccine?" My answer is that I have no problem doing the simple things that will keep myself and my family alive for however long it takes. As a mature adult human being, I'm not going to allow impatience or boredom to dictate my actions. If that means I never again can do some of the things I previously enjoyed, so be it. I'll find other things to enjoy.

I'm going to keep doing what I've been doing... minimizing my contact with the public and staying protected in the rare situations that have me being among people. If it's a year of this or more, so be it. Photo by Kat.

Choose Wisely
Last note on this topic, for now anyway. If I see individuals or businesses who are purposefully taking actions (or being willfully negligent) in ways that can bring harm to me and those I love, I will "vote with my wallet" and do everything I can to make sure that I choose to aid those who don't do those things... and not assist the infringing parties in any way. Sometimes those things are subtle, like not recommending people for jobs, or not referring business to people whom I'd otherwise have been glad to help. Sometimes those things are direct, like choosing where to shop or whom to bank with and so on. But the economic impact of COVID-19 will have ramifications that many people aren't yet considering, and many of them may never know why things just didn't seem to ever turn back around for them. But I'll know.

Final, final note: on Saturday May 9, I did venture out of the house for my first excursion away from my immediate neighborhood in over two months. We'd wanted to break our case of cabin fever while still not putting ourselves in any kind of danger, so Christina, my son and I piled in the Jeep and took a nice little cruise along the ocean here in Redondo Beach. It was only about a half hour drive that culminated in us being extra courageous by chancing a drive-thru lunch from Carl's Jr., but it was a lovely day and it was nice to be out and about, even while in a car and with masks over our faces the entire time. I only had one weird moment, while waiting for a light at the corner of PCH and Knob Hill, and realizing we were right next to the infamous Kensington, an assisted living facility that became one of the biggest flare-up points for COVID-19 in LA County. I found myself holding my breath until we passed it entirely.

The Show
It was the "every other Monday night" day of my show at Serenity Gardens in Second Life, and damn... per above, I've been super busy lately. It's to the point that my weekends seem to be fair game for clients to contact me and want to hit various goals and deadlines that would have been laughable until recent times. What that meant in regard to my show this week was that I had less time than usual to plan out my set list. That having been said, it still came together pretty well, with the addition of a Simon & Garfunkel song I'd never done before. Ironically, while we're all still bound to our homes, the song "Homeward Bound" was done without a trace of irony.

I find that strumming a guitar and singing to people at Serenity Gardens is quite therapeutic, and hopefully my audience feels the same. Photo by Kat.

Pixel people prance as I play passionate pretty songs. Photo by Kat.

I'll continue to wear my mask in SL for as long as it's necessary for me to do so here in reality. Photo by Kat.

One thing that wasn't very well planned, though, was purely the number of songs I'd put into the set. For some reason, I left myself no leeway by selecting exactly 12 songs to perform. Well, that's not enough. It's not an exact science, this planning of sets. Some songs are longer; others are short. Sometimes I chat more with my audience between tunes; other times, I go through several songs in a row while barely saying a word to people. This means that my sets can be as low as 11 songs, and as high as 14, within the space of my hour-long show. What I did this week, with the limited time I had, was to pull exactly 12 songs. It's always a mistake, because while it never hurts to put a few unplayed songs back, not having enough to do a full gig is a serious problem. Seeing I still had over five minutes left in my show, I hurriedly grabbed a random tune from my shoot of lyrics, and it was "Easy" by Commodores. I had to kind of laugh my way through it; while it's a fine song, it's not a very high-energy tune that I'd usually pick for a closer.

Serenity Gardens set list...
Radio Free Europe (R.E.M.)
Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (Neil Young)
*Homeward Bound (Simon & Garfunkel)
Where Did You Sleep Last Night? (Leadbelly/Nirvana)
Never Run Away (Kurt Vile)
Nearly Lost You (Screaming Trees)
Roxanne (The Police)
Waking Light (Beck)
Pickles (Zak Claxton)
The Arrangement (Joni Mitchell)
Blew The Dust Away (They Stole My Crayon)
Peace Love & Understanding (Elvis Costello)
Easy (Commodores)

*Indicates the first time I've performed this song in SL.

Huge thanks to all the people who came to have fun with me, and extra super special thanks to the following who helped support my show.
AaronCabottJones Resident, hynesyte Harbour, Jambalaya Fonck, go2smoky Resident, Tyche Szondi, Asimia Heron, Triana Caldera, Trouble Streeter, Karmagrl Resident, Kat Claxton, my excellent manager Maali Beck, and the fabulous team at Serenity Gardens, Tilly Rose and Ilsa Wilde!

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Serenity Gardens (04.20.20)

Serenity Gardens, a lovely virtual place to spend some time with me and my music every other Monday night. Photo by Kat.

In typical years, I'd have written a lighthearted post about having performed on 4/20, and probably included some info on the supposed reasons that "420" has long been a code name for anything having to do with marijuana. For those of you who are wondering, the "420" reference goes back at least to my own high school days in the early/mid '80s. My own assumption at the time was that 4:20PM was the ideal time to get high. You were off school, you had time to get home or perhaps meet up with your stoner friends, the parents weren't back from work yet, and you could put on your Floyd album and chill instead of doing homework or whatever the fuck you were supposed to be doing on a Thursday afternoon. That was my thought at the time, anyway.

But, as we all know, it's anything but a typical year. I will tell you something that I mentioned to my audience last night at Serenity Gardens, and it's that I never do my live shows in Second Life impaired by drug or alcohol use. Never. Zero. Zilch. The reason is not that I'm some kind of saint who doesn't touch intoxicating substances. I don't do shows while impaired because I am incapable of doing them well in an altered state. I get too self-conscious, and that goes against the free-flowing vibe of my show. You would know if I was high while performing. I would relate to the audience less, be more self-conscious, and wouldn't play guitar or sing as well as I do (which isn't completely amazing to begin with and certainly doesn't need any help being worse). Plus, I'd be more prone to be anxious and less focused on playing music and making sure people were having fun. None of it adds up to a good experience for myself or my crowd. I stopped performing while intoxicated in my early 20s after a number of pretty awful gigs whee I should never have been up on a stage. Anyway, now you know. The fun and silly Zak you see and hear at SL shows is just me being my usual self (which is why I often refer to myself at show as "the musical fool of Second Life").

Grocery Store Day
It's Tuesday, which has become my grocery shopping day here in pandemic land. Let me explain something to you: I live a block and a half from my local Vons grocery store. I can walk there in under three minutes, door to door. Having lived in this neighborhood since 1995, I've been very familiar with treating the store like my personal pantry. Out of something like eggs or milk or whatever? No problem. Bip over to Vons, buy it, be back in 10 minutes total. No problem.

Obviously, COVID-19 changed all that in a huge way. First, like most smart people, we're trying to minimize our exposure to other human beings, meaning that instead of making a shopping trip whenever we feel like it, we make sure to go rarely and just get all that we'll need to last a week or more. Side note: many things, we do buy in advance, like canned goods and other non-perishables. But for things with limited expirations, or things you use a lot of on a regular basis, you have little choice other than to shop every now and then.

Anyway, Tuesday is my shopping day, and I'm indeed running low on a few essentials. I think the first couple of times, I was too distracted by the newness of everything... "Look, people are starting to wear masks! Oh no, there's still no toilet paper!" and the like. But now, as we grind through the weeks and weeks of quarantine, the thought of going to the store is just a big ball of anxiety. It's nothing terrible; not like panic attacks or anything like that. But it's definitely not something I look forward to, other than getting it over with. Frankly, I don't like being near people at all these days. I find myself slightly holding my breath when I have to pass by someone in an aisle, even if we're both wearing masks (as is the law right now). I don't like having to look behind me to make sure I'm not having my social distance violated while in line at check-out. And the last couple of times I went there, I had that psychologically-induced sensation of feeling like bugs were crawling on me when I got back. Some of it is pure paranoia, and some of it is prudent caution in the face of a pandemic. So despite all that, my family needs things, and I'm the designated person who handles that, so as always, I'll do what I need to do to make sure my family stays well (and well fed).

Me in my pandemic outfit inside Vons.

The one saving grace about going outside anywhere is seeing stuff like this.

The Show
I didn't think I had a specific theme going when I put together my set list for last night at Serenity Gardens, but as I played through the songs, it became apparent to me that thoughts of isolation and loneliness were common ground for many of the songs I chose. It's funny, because I'm not really burdened by those thoughts and feelings... it's more from the empathy in seeing it in other people. One note: I did my song "Broken Day" which for a variety of reasons I had put aside for a long time. A quick Google search tells my that my last performance of that song was on March 6, 2014 at the final show at Molaskey's Pub... over six years ago. I actually found I enjoyed doing the song last night regardless of its self-pitying vibe, and I'll probably whip it out more often.

All photos by Kat.

Serenity Gardens set list...
Is She Really Going Out With Him? (Joe Jackson)
Longing On (They Stole My Crayon)
Nobody Home (Pink Floyd)
*Invisible Sun (The Police)
Redemption Song (Bob Marley)
Mad World (Tears for Fears)
Broken Day (Zak Claxton)
Rocket Man (Elton John)
Pickles (Zak Claxton)
Sleeper in the Valley (Laura Veirs)
It's Easy Like Walking (The Sadies w/Kurt Vile)
My God Is the Sun (Queens of the Stone Age)
*Serenity Improv #4,903 (Zak Claxton)

*Indicates the first time I've performed this song in SL.

Big thanks to all who hung out at the show, and super duper thanks to the following who helped support it!
AaronCabottJones Resident, Alaina Nightfire, Linaya Beck, Lauralynn Foxtrot, Turn Pike, Maurice Mistwallow, Asimia Heron, Kat Claxton, Trouble Streeter, Jaron Metaluna, Alex Zelin, go2smoky Resident, Bee Blackrain, Triana Caldera, my excellent manager Maali Beck, and the fabulous team at Serenity Gardens, Tilly Rose and Ilsa Wilde!