Monday, February 17, 2020

New Zak Claxton Demo Collection: 02.16.20

Surrounded by guitars and keyboards and recording gear. Me, this entire weekend.

This was an ICS weekend; that's when my friend Bunny and I each try to create as many brand new songs out of thin air as possible in a very limited time frame. We both wrote and worked on our new material beginning on Saturday and wrapped it up today (Sunday), and I'm super happy with the new batch of tunes. For a previous and more detailed explanation of our fun trying this idea from the The Immersion Composition Society, see my previous post on the matter.

I managed to come up with ten pieces of music, but ended up being able to write lyrics and and sing vocals to complete the seven songs I did in 24 hours... which you can check out below. Keep in mind, these are demos. There are literally mistakes in each song! The point was to get the songs out and captured quickly.

And here are a few notes on each tune.

"Your Promises Don't Keep"
I've long been an admirer of bands with a tight, stripped-down sound that still give off a spacious vibe. Those range from The Police to Talking Heads and many more. It's not a style that's easy to adopt or that comes naturally to me, but I love listening to stuff like this so much that I wanted to try one of my own. I also find it makes my butt wiggle.

"Heart of the Sky"
This was one of those rare times where I picked up the guitar and without any thinking, this entire song came out. Like, zero thought, zero effort. It came through me rather than from me. I don't know where it originated, but I just sat back and recorded it immediately and that's what you hear here. It's pretty obvious that my lifelong love of Neil Young is shining through on this one. It is some pretty straightforward rock that will likely end up on a Zak Claxton solo album.

"Stand Up"
It's the same general idea as the Bob Marley tune. Far too often these days, I run into people with a defeatist vibe, and while it's completely understandable given the current circumstances of the world, I am firmly convinced that when people fight for the things they believe in, good things happen. Most people are far stronger than they think they are.

"Our Love Fills the Earth"
Hmm. Probably not the best song on here. It's what I call a lazy song, where you don't think and just let your hands roam your fingerboard in familiar ways. The saving grace on this song is the fucked up synthesizer making little dissonant chimes at various places. The lyric is sorta hippie-dippy, but again, it's a lot of music to do in a day or so.

"I Could Have Done More"
So, this is a truly sad song, and while it didn't exist until yesterday, it's been kind of rattling around in my head after the death of a close friend in August of last year. Despite the mood of the song, I don't have any specific guilt over the loss of Rachael, but there's always that voice inside of yourself that asks if you could have been a better person to someone who's no longer with us. I did this one in one take, just piano and voice. I didn't write out the progression or the melody beforehand... just let my hands play on their own and sang what came out of me at the moment.

"My Little Jungle"
This is the only purposeful instrumental of the day (as opposed to having given up on trying to write lyrics). My son had given me a kalimba -- a kind of small African thumb piano -- for a Christmas present this year, and I'd been wanting to use it for a tune ever since. So, that's my kalimba, and those are my handclaps, and I just improvised through the whole thing, and I like it.

"The Special Place"
Why do I occasionally do dance music? How about, "Why don't I do dance music more often?" I've actually created a ton of various kinds of synth pop, disco, and EDM over the years, having gotten into keyboards and synthesizers (and drum machines and sequencers and arpeggiators and so on) while in my teens. I'm just more known as an acoustic and rock kinda guy, but I grew up in the '80s and '90s when the forerunners of synth-based dance music all spawned, and have a ton of love for bands like Depeche Mode, ABC, Thomas Dolby and many others. It was fun doing this, and yeah, the song is about sex, but plenty of great music is too.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Serenity Gardens (02.10.20)

Rocking on a Monday night, as I do every other week at Serenity Gardens in Second Life. Photo by Kat.

It's pretty rare these days that I happen to have live music shows on consecutive days, and on a general basis, it's not something I prefer to do. The reason is rather murky, but it mostly has to do with the fact that I really like to prepare well for my shows, carefully choosing my set list, going through and warming up for each song. It all takes time and energy, which are two things that I generally don't have in abundance these days. Since I'd played Sunday evening for the MrNoCal Memorial at Triana's Music Trivia, I found myself onstage less than 24 hours later for my bi-weekly show at Serenity Gardens.

But there's an upside to doing live shows on a more regular basis, which is that I can kind of stay in a groove, feeling warmed up and ready to rock with both my voice and my guitar. As I got ready to play, there was no strain in hitting notes on the high or low end of my vocal range. My fingers jumped to each chord as if they were born in those shapes. Don't get me wrong... I get to that point eventually for most of my shows, but it felt particularly easy to hit the ground running for this one. Feeling like that gave me a big boost of confidence, and that, in turn, let me jump into the start of this show being about as good as I can be, and it stayed that way for the subsequent hour.

To be clear, I still don't want to do more shows than I currently do. My life is filled with things to do. There are never enough hours in any day to do all the things that I have to do, much less the things I want to do. There are so many things to know, to learn, to experience. I don't get bored; how could I? But that still leaves me with no desire to fill up my calendar with music shows, in Second Life or otherwise.

Life... Take Advantage Of It
I sometimes imagine myself as a character in a fictional narrative called "Things to Do While You're Alive". Go with me on this pitch... you wake up one day and you're dead. You start asking around about the afterlife, and you find there are plenty of things to do. You can travel through vast distances of time and space, unencumbered by the physical laws of our universe. You can meet other beings in this new realm and get to know them. But what you find in the midst of this amazing new dimension is that you miss the things that you can only do as a living, breathing entity. Your regret is that you didn't take advantage of being alive while you were alive.

Don't laugh; I think this could be a decent book or film. But you get the idea; by having some awareness that you only have the limited, relatively short span of your life to do all the things you enjoy, you might be inspired to get off your ass and do those things, or take some chances that you otherwise might be scared to do. What those things entail are, of course, different for each person. I seem to see so many cases of people who always want to take the safest path, the one with the least amount of risk, and I can't help but feel that they might experience some regrets about the things they didn't do while they were capable of doing so. Why not take up that instrument, or ask that person out to dinner, or travel to that place you always wanted to, or devote time getting behind a political cause, or writing that book, or building that web site, or... whatever the thing is that you'll wish you'd done later on? I rarely am regretful of the things I do, as opposed to the things I don't.

Back to the Show
So, I was feeling nice and confident when I hit the stage at Serenity on Monday night. Grace McDunnough had just done her typically excellent set before me, and everything just worked. We had a reasonably good-sized crowd the entire time, and I felt like my set list was super strong. I often arrange the songs of my set in a particular order before a show, and I have reasons for some of my choices. For example, I don't like to have my opening song be one that's particularly challenging to sing, and yet I do want it to be something that might work for the kind of venue I'm playing, or after the artist who performed before me. But after the first song or two, I'm constantly shuffling my tunes to match my mood, or to plan ahead for how I want the set to wrap up given the vibe of the evening. Last night, I ended up pushing my three most rocking tunes toward the back of the set list, when I'd be nice and pumped up to do the harder-edged stuff.

I also found out during my show that it was the fifth anniversary of Serenity Gardens, and that gave me a chance to talk about what a terrific venue it truly is. It's been going on three years that I started doing my regular show there, and I can say with no reservations that it truly is one of the best-ever places in Second Life to experience live music, primarily due to the warm and welcoming nature of the owner and hosts, the low-key and non-judgmental vibe of the outdoor setting, and the fact that a wide variety of music is performed there, so there's something for everyone. In any case, happy fifth anniversary to Ilsa and Serenity Gardens!

Me, onstage in a pretty setting. Photo by Kat.

Out of my 13+ years of doing live music in Second Life, my shows at Serenity have been among my best anywhere. Happy 5th! Photo by Kat.

Good times, good crowd of people who really seemed to enjoy good music. I ask for nothing more! Photo by Kat.

Anyway, as I said up top... it is sometimes a temptation to play live music more often than I do in Second Life, or anywhere for that matter. But at the same time, my days are really full and I make it a point to live my life in a way that means I have few regrets at the end of it... or afterwards. That often means doing lots of things, but not focusing all your time on any one thing. That's what works for me... you might feel differently, and that's okay too.

Serenity Gardens set list...
Pink Moon (Nick Drake)
Falling Down (Zak Claxton)
Among the Leaves (Sun Kil Moon)
Bang and Blame (R.E.M.)
On a Plain (Nirvana)
Waiting for the Sun (The Doors)
Say Goodbye (Beck)
Birds (Neil Young)
Pickles (Zak Claxton)
You Oughta Know (Alanis Morissette)
Vasoline (Stone Temple Pilots)
Black Hole Sun (Soundgarden)
*Serenity Improv #4199 (Zak Claxton)

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

Big thanks to all the folks who came out to the Zak Show, with special thanks to the following who helped support it!
AaronCabottJones Resident, Diana Renoir, ColdAsh Resident, Tpenta Vanalten, Kat Claxton, go2smoky Resident, Trouble Streeter, Asimia Heron, patchworkpink Resident, Grace McDunnough, my excellent manager Maali Beck, and the fabulous team at Serenity Gardens, Tilly Rose and Ilsa Wilde!

Monday, February 10, 2020

Triana's Music Trivia/MrNoCal Honey Tribute (02.09,.20)

A special event at Triana's Music Trivia to celebrate the life of a friend. Photo by Kat.

Here's a topic I've touched on before that I wish wasn't necessary to bring up... but it is. How important are your "virtual friends" in your life? These are the people whom you only know from some kind of online interaction, which could range from Second Life to Facebook to Twitter to YouTube to any number of multiplayer gaming platforms. People whom perhaps you've never met face to face, and whom you likely never will? And when one of those people passes away, should you feel any less sense of loss just because you never had any physical contact with the person?

I know the answer, because I've unfortunately experienced the loss of a virtual friend on a number of occasions. People whom I've only known as a screen name on a forum, or an avatar in a virtual world, but one with whom I've interacted over the course of years sometimes, and who in every sense of the word has become a close friend. I recall getting to know a woman named Delinda Dyrssen in Second Life back in the 2000s who tragically passed away at age 32 from kidney disease. I recall being every bit as sad at her passing as I'd been on occasions where real life friends and family members had died. There have been too many others from my online experiences, like my pal Dak Lander whom I knew from my music/audio forums. I really knew these people... their likes and dislikes, their family, their history. There are plenty of people -- coworkers, neighbors, and others with whom I interacted in daily life for years -- who I didn't know nearly as well as these folks whom in many cases, I never even had the opportunity to shake their hand or give them a hug.

I started participating in online interaction with people in the mid-90s via platforms like Usenet, so I have some experience in feeling the loss of a person in a purely virtual friendship. Many folks from previous generations to mine ("OK Boomer") simply don't understand this reaction. "But you never even met the person," I've heard said on multiple occasions. But I know what friendship is all about, and it has little to do with being in physical proximity to other humans. It's about finding people who grab your interest, or with whom you feel a connection based on your shared tastes and priorities. It's all the things that make up friendship with those in immediate proximity, but without the limitations of the people who happen to be local to you.

MrNoCal Honey
I am not going to talk about the real name of the man I knew as NoCal because of reasons that may be apparent momentarily. I met him via my participation in Triana's Music Trivia in Second Life, which means I first ran across him in 2006. He was a character in the best sense of the word. He was silly. He was profane. He was also flamboyantly gay, which also made him funny to me. I laughed a lot around NoCal. I'd see him every Sunday evening at TMT for years and years, and over the course of that time, I got to know him pretty well. I became friends with him on Facebook as well, and that's where I got to know more about his real life. He had a lot of admirable qualities, one of which was his difficult choice to sacrifice a good portion of his own life to care for his mother, who was going through increasingly worse dementia. He lived with her in a relatively small town. I always felt somewhat bad for NoCal in that he was a guy who would have loved to break out of the seemingly sheltered environment of his life, but that simply wasn't an option that he allowed himself.

Triana put up a nice little memorial area and slide show for the event. Photo by Kat.

As you might guess from our having met via a music trivia event, NoCal's knowledge of music from many genres was superb. He had done occasional gigs as a DJ, and especially on the pop side of things, he would be one of the constant winning players at TMT. He really seemed to enjoy our times at Trivia, where he could break out of his shell and fully be himself. While most people in Second Life make it a point to change their appearance (or at least their virtual clothing) from time to time, NoCal almost always looked exactly the same, wearing a white "Frankie Say Relax" t-shirt (the one that was popular for about five minutes in real-life 1984), along with a little crown, fishnet stockings, and a rainbow-shaded thong that had a codpiece with a picture of William Shatner.

I'm not positive that all of NoCal's real life friends and family knew this side of him. That's why I am not identifying him by his real name here. I know that I respect people's privacy, and since I'm not completely aware of what his wishes would be in that regard, even after his death I do not want to "out" him to anyone. My only regret in regard to NoCal happened back in March 2012. Kat and I had planned a little vacation to Las Vegas along with our friends from TMT, including Triana, Diana, Xerxes, and NoCal. I got sick shortly before the trip, and a day or two before we were scheduled to leave, I ended up being diagnosed with severe pneumonia. As a result, my one opportunity to hang out with the guy in person never happened. NoCal very rarely travelled... that Vegas trip was the first time in his life he'd gone west of the Mississippi. He'd spent about 30 years working in the same customer service job and living what I'd consider to be a cloistered life, and I really wish I'd been able to see him on that one possible occasion.

As time went by, Second Life started becoming problematic for NoCal's computer -- a not-uncommon occurrence for folks -- and he stopped coming to Trivia on a regular basis. I still kept up with him via Facebook over the past couple of years. The last time we hung out in the virtual realm was when Triana was ending the weekly trivia event, and NoCal managed to make it back into SL one last time, on June 30 of last year. NoCal was his same old self, and I enjoyed that moment a lot. But a couple of weeks ago, I was sitting here and my phone rang and it was Triana, who was crying, and she let me know that NoCal had passed away on January 28. He was 54 years old. It was sad and shocking and everything you'd anticipate feeling from the sudden loss of a friend.

A Salute to a Friend
After the shock had settled in some, Triana and Diana both got in touch with me proposing the idea of having some kind of memorial event for NoCal's friends in Second Life. It had been since last June that Triana had held a trivia event, and she decided to host a special NoCal edition of TMT, and had me play live music afterwards. It was great to see a number of folks there with whom I'd only associated via Trivia, and we all shared our feelings of loss from NoCal's passing.

For years, the buzzer to enter the Trivia game was a model of NoCal himself, if that tells you what he meant to us. Photo by Kat.

Some of NoCal's close friends, dressed in homage to the man himself. Photo by Kat.

Me, playing music for my fellow friends of NoCal. Photo by Triana.

I chose to do a set of music that mostly included songs that had some kind of meaning to NoCal. These were tunes that I'd done before on the many occasions that I'd done live shows at TMT, and included those I'd done specifically for NoCal's enjoyment. In keeping with NoCal's fun and silly spirit, I didn't limit the tunes to sad and somber stuff, or even overly sentimental songs (though I did include an appropriate number of those as well). NoCal was a guy who loved to laugh, and I very purposefully did some extremely silly stuff, like a bizarre mash-up of my song "Triana" with Boston's "More Than a Feeling" (something that happened by accident while I was warming up, and decided to add to the set that night).

TMT/MrNoCal Honey Memorial set list...
While My Guitar Gently Weeps (Beatles)

Borderline (Madonna)
Losing My Religion (REM)
Save It For Later (English Beat)
I Dreamed a Dream (Les Miserables)
Possession (Sarah McLachlan)
Fire & Rain (James Taylor)
NoCal, You Got It Going On (Flight of the Conchords)
Tribute (Tenacious D)
The Rainbow Connection (Kermit the Frog)
You're Like a Cloud (Zak Claxton)
Triana (Zak Claxton)

Thanks to all fo NoCal's friends from TMT who came by the memorial event, and who hung out for the show. He was a wonderful guy and we're all lucky to have had the time with him that we did!

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Serenity Gardens (01.27.20)

A small but happy crowd at Serenity Gardens enjoys the Zak Show. Photo by Kat.

I definitely want to tell you about last night's show at Serenity Gardens, but first I want to write a few words about Kobe Bean Bryant.

The start of Sunday was a pretty typical weekend morning for me. It was my first actual weekend in a long time, with my recent trade show behind me, and I was looking forward to relaxing (which, I'm happy to say, I successfully did for the most part). Saturday had been very chill, with a lot of time kicking back and taking care of a few things that I'd been unable to do with all the work that makes up the start of each January for me. I restrung one of my guitars, played some video games, took care of some house stuff, and everything was fine. Sunday started similarly, though I did make a run to the grocery store out of necessity. But then, like many people around the world, I got slammed with some news that was extremely shocking. I was in another room, and Christina opened the door with a look on her face that told me that some bad news was forthcoming. She paused for a moment.

"Kobe Bryant was killed in a helicopter crash," she said solemnly.

Those words didn't make any sense to me. Kobe? Kobe couldn't die. That simply wasn't possible. It had to be some kind of Internet hoax. Kobe was superhuman. He was on a different level than everyone else. He was the person who fought through every challenge, who not only endeavored to be great but to be great in comparison to greatness. People like that don't die, do they?

After a moment or two of those kinds of irrational thoughts, I did what most people probably did when they heard the news... I started scouring Twitter and other Internet sources for information. The news didn't get any better as the day went on, especially after getting confirmation that Kobe's daughter GiGi was also killed in the accident, along with a number of other people who'd been in the helicopter traveling from Orange County to Thousand Oaks. It was entirely depressing. I'm not sure how the impact of his passing is around the world and across the USA, but here in the Los Angeles area, it's particularly devastating. I actually found myself glad that my father, who passed away in 2017, was not around to experience this. He, like I, was a huge admirer of Kobe, and we spent many conversations over the years talking about Kobe's drive to greatness.

I was aware of Kobe even before he entered the NBA in 1996, at the time the youngest player in history to do so. I followed his career moment by moment, watching him play with a style that had never been seen before in the NBA. It's said that when he and the rest of the NBA players who made up the 2008 USA Olympic basketball team went to Beijing, every other player was simply astounded at Kobe's work ethic. It had always been the case, but to see it there in person was mind blowing to the other all-star players. As an athlete, Kobe was always a level above those around him.

I know very well that Kobe wasn't perfect. There are no perfect humans. I know that some people will dwell only on what they perceive are the negative actions he may have taken, and that's okay. I'm in no way negating that viewpoint. I suppose the only thing I would say in that regard is to take a close look at your entire life... everything you've done that's been good for other people, and bad for other people. Ask yourself if you will be remembered for only one aspect of your life, be it good or bad. And be honest; I'm talking about your entire life, from childhood to this moment. Again, there are no perfect people. If you are going to be remembered, I hope for your sake that a) the good you did far outweighed the bad and b) that the positive impacts you had are those that were the most meaningful to the largest number of people.

To wrap this up, just for the sake of documenting the feeling that Kobe's death has left on myself and my fellow people in the greater Los Angeles area, here's the usually jovial Jimmy Fallon in the opening of the Tonight Show last night. Like Jimmy and a lot of people, I don't shed tears for Kobe the great athlete, but rather for Kobe the great person. Flawed, but great nonetheless.

The Show
I didn't say shit about Kobe as any part of my show last night, because frankly, a lot of people have said a lot of things, and I just needed a little time where there was no focus on tragedy and negativity. All I did was play music and chat with the crowd, and have what I consider to be a pretty typical Zak Show. I found that I hadn't been being very adventurous in my set lists lately, and while I didn't pull out any brand new (to me) tunes, I did reach a little deeper into my repertoire and played a good percentage of tunes that went beyond the safe zone of songs with which everyone was already familiar.

I want to say that when I do that, it's on purpose, and it comes with a risk. People are creatures of comfort, and almost nothing is more comfortable than hearing a song that you've heard hundreds of times before. The risk is that a lot of people don't want live music shows to be challenging to them as a listener. There's nothing wrong with that, but it definitely explains why the more well-attended shows are generally by those artists who do familiar pop songs, and that's fine. It's the same thing in the real world, where beloved pop artists will sell out stadiums while lesser-known indie artists perform at small clubs and theaters. What I will say is that I'm very, very happy to offer some music that appeals to people who, like myself, enjoy the process of discovery as much as they do hearing well-performed music in general. On many occasions, through my SL shows I've turned people on to artists they might have never otherwise known about, and they became big fans of that music. That genuinely makes me proud, and I have no plans of doing my shows any other way.

Me, rocking the songs that no one knows. Photo by Kat.

Whether the crowds are big or small, Serenity Gardens remains one of the best places to experience live music in Second Life. Photo by Kat.

One other note. While I certainly have every intention of continuing my shows in Second Life, it's also been brought to my attention that with the number of people who no longer participate in SL but had formerly enjoyed my shows there, I need to start expanding my methods of live performance, as I used to do more regularly. This is a hint that sometime very soon, I'll be letting you know about information regarding some non-SL shows I have planned. Perhaps as early as this coming weekend, it might be fun to schedule a live video show. It's been awhile since my last Zak Claxton Happy Fun Show, so don't be surprised when I appear on your Facebook feed.

Serenity Gardens set list...
Northern Sky (Nick Drake)
Doubt It (Zak Claxton)
Never Run Away (Kurt Vile)
Hummingbird (Seals & Crofts)
De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da (The Police)
Antiphon (Midlake)
It’s Choade My Dear (Connan Mockasin)
Bag of Nothing (They Stole My Crayon)
Peaceful Easy Feeling (Eagles)
Lost Cause (Beck)
We’re Your Friends Man (The Bevis Frond)
What I Got (Sublime)
Rocky Mountain High (John Denver)

Thanks to all who came out to the show, and big-ass thanks to the following who helped support it!
Kat Chauveau, AaronCabottJones Resident, Kat Claxton, Shannyn Fall, elijahem Resident, Trouble Streeter, Grace McDunnough, my excellent manager Maali Beck, and the fabulous team at Serenity Gardens, Tilly Rose and Ilsa Wilde!

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Serenity Gardens (01.13.20)

It was great to be back at Serenity Gardens, doing my Zak thing. Photo by Kat.

Well hello there, readers. It's my first post of a new decade. Or is it?

Time is weird, and no matter what you think about it, you're almost certainly wrong. What time is it now? Depends on where you are. And what is "now"? Is it when I'm writing these words? Is it when you're reading them? If you read this again later, is it still "now"? If you want to go deep into the abstract aspects of time, it goes all the way up to the theories of Albert Einstein that prove that time and space are relativistic, rather than the same for everyone at every point in the universe. Time is literally different depending on the frame of reference of the observer. If I was flying in an orbit around a black hole, for example, time would seem normal to me. But if you were watching me from a distance, I would appear to slow down and eventually seem to nearly stop. That's gravitational time dilation, and we've reached a point in technology here on Earth that absolutely proves it, with our manmade satellites having to be recalibrated to account for these differences in order to function for things like GPS navigation functions.

But we're not talking about anything as cool as that. Instead, this argument is the rather pedestrian aspect of calendars, and when we actual mark the start of decades and centuries and the like. There's a valid argument that, for example, the 21st century didn't begin on January 1, 2000, but rather on January 1, 2001. This is true because the first year of the Gregorian calendar was 1 AD, and... yeah, I get it, but it's all really silly to me. The thing I can say with certainty is that decade references like "the '90s" are aligned with their numbers, running in that example from 1990-1999. So, I am pretty confident that we are now in the '20s, making this the first post of the decade. So, we're back where we started when I began this post.

The NAMM Show
Every January for me since 1993 -- 27 years ago, astoundingly -- my life gets somewhat taken over by the preparation and execution of something called The NAMM Show. It's a huge trade show for the music and audio products industry, the area of business that's kept a roof over my head ever since I got out of college. NAMM is such a large and important event that companies in my industry often start preparing for it in the summertime to be sure to be ready for it in January. On my end of things -- marketing and advertising and public relations and the like -- my first NAMM deadlines for this year's show were all the way back in early November, and almost every day between then and now have had some NAMM-related task to accomplish. It's a massive undertaking and getting ready for it can make for a super stressful time of year.

However, most of the stress involved is in the preparation for the show, rather than the show itself. Once I roll into the convention center, I'm usually feeling pretty good about things, and all of the planning and organization and creation of the content that I do for my job is well received. While experiencing a little bit of anticipatory anxiety is pretty normal for most people exhibiting at a large trade show, I have gotten better over the years at not allowing it to overwhelm me, and while I am definitely looking forward to its successful conclusion as I do every year, I don't have any of the pointless dread that I've felt going into the show as I used to experience when I was younger. I think things will be fine.

Back to Serenity
So, what would have been my previous show at Serenity Gardens was scheduled during the time that Ilsa Flannigan shuts down for the holidays, and the show two weeks before that was when I was in the midst of a round of bronchitis, which forced me to do an hour-long story reading rather than a musical performance. It had therefore been six weeks since the last time I was able to do a full-on Zak Show at Serenity, and I was definitely ready to get back up on that stage and do what I do.

Ilsa tends to redecorate Serenity Gardens based on the seasons, while still leaving the recognizable aspects of the structure in place. It looked great for my show. Photo by Kat.

I was a little concerned about my voice after a couple of rounds of illnesses, but it held up fine and everyone seemed to have a good time. Photo by Kat.

Just me. Photo by Kat.

The show went really well. Since I am still partially recovering from the cold I got right after the bronchitis (yeah, it's been a fun season of sickness), I was a little concerned about how my voice would hold up, but it turned out that everything felt great as I was launching into my first song, and stayed that way throughout. Given the circumstances of my time and attention being pulled in fifty direction due to my upcoming trade show, I knew this particular set at Serenity wasn't the best time to try and add new songs, but that's something I look forward to doing at subsequent shows. By the time of my next show there, on Monday January 27, my voice should be sufficiently recovered from NAMM to try some new stuff then. We'll see if my sanity is equally recovered to follow through on this.

Serenity Gardens set list...
Wonderwall (Oasis)
Things Behind the Sun (Nick Drake)
This Afternoon (Zak Claxton)
Help Me (Joni Mitchell)
Dead Flowers (Rolling Stones)
Wichita Lineman (Glen Campbell)
Thank U (Alanis Morissette)
Adia (Sarah McLachlan)
Blew the Dust Away (They Stole My Crayon)
Pickles (Zak Claxton)
Don’t Let It Pass (Junip)
She Keeps Me Warm (Mary Lambert)
Shame Chamber (Kurt Vile)

Big thanks to everyone who came to Serenity Gardens for the show, and special judos to the following who helped support it!
Kat Chauveau, Bee Blackrain, Trouble Streeter, Sesh Kamachi, Kat Claxton, Kitzie Lane, Skeat Abonwood, my excellent manager Maali Beck, and the fabulous team at Serenity Gardens, Tilly Rose and Ilsa Wilde!

Monday, December 23, 2019

Homes For Our Troops (12.22.19)

Getting my holiday show for Homes For Our Troops started at Veterans Isle in Second Life. Photo by Kat.

Life is funny. When you're young, you think you have an idea of what it means to be "grown up". You associate it with things like being independent, responsible for your own needs and perhaps supporting a family and so on. And even as time goes by and you get older, there's no guarantee that at any specific point, you'll truly think of yourself as being a mature adult. You can have a job, have kids, buy a home, drive a nice car, any of those things that you recognized as being part of the process of being an adult, probably based on how you saw your parents and other older people who were influences on you.

However, I've found that there are steps beyond the things I mentioned above that allow you to start getting an understanding of what maturity is all about. I think that you truly have matured when you start spending your time and effort in making a difference in the world beyond the things that are your immediate personal priorities. It's 100% understandable that you give most of your focus on the actions you take to keep yourself and your loved ones happy and healthy and successful. No one would argue that. But as time goes by and you find that you are capable of doing those things, you hopefully realize that you are capable of more.

Photo by Kat.

One nice thing that performing live music in Second Life has given me is the opportunity to do just that... help others beyond myself and my family and friends. I can do this things because I am aware of and appreciate that I've been very fortunate to be in a position that I am able to take care of my own needs and still find that I have room to try and help others. Not everyone is in that position. But since I am, it's important to me to try and use whatever extra level of effort that I have to try and give back to the world in various ways. Second Life has provided a very convenient way to do that, in many different areas. I believe my first kind of charitable show was for the Relay for Life organization for the American Cancer Society, who has long held SL-based fundraising events. I've done plenty of other since then... shows benefitting the National Kidney Foundation, animal shelters, personal fundraisers for people facing various serious illnesses or tragic circumstances, and of course the Feed-a-Smile charity for school kids in Kenya. I've done multiple benefit shows for each of these and more. But to some folks, perhaps the most perplexing of the causes I support with my music is the Homes For Our Troops organization.

Peace, Love & Understanding
I've done many shows for HFOT in Second Life. At least a couple of times each year, Frets Nirvana asks if I can be a part of his monthly fundraising shows, and I don't think I've ever turned him down. Why would a person like me, who is utterly opposed to violence and military conflict, interested in supporting such a cause? I'd think the answer would be simple, but I'll say it anyway.

If someone is sent into an area in conflict and is severely injured, the top priority should be to ensure that those people are well taken care of upon their return. Sadly, that has never proven to be the case in America. More than 10% of our country's homeless population are military veterans. For those who make it back and are lucky enough to have a place to live, it is often not fit for the challenges they face via the injuries sustained in protecting our country.

I appreciate many things about about Homes For Our Troops. First, Charity Navigator gives HFOT a score of 91.69/100, meaning that they are very transparent with their fund distribution and that a huge portion of the money raised goes straight to those in need. I am always careful to support causes where the charity itself doesn't take an inordinate percentage of the funds as "operating expenses". Consumer Reports lists Homes For Our Troops as one of the highest-rated veterans charities in the country.

HFOT has a very specific mission... "TO BUILD AND DONATE SPECIALLY ADAPTED CUSTOM HOMES NATIONWIDE FOR SEVERELY INJURED POST-9/11 VETERANS, TO ENABLE THEM TO REBUILD THEIR LIVES." In 2019, the organization built 18 custom homes for these deserving servicemen/women. When I think about the idea that through the efforts of people like Frets, and my small part in joining him a couple of times per year to strum my guitar and sing a little and help raise some money... sure, it's a drop in the bucket, but every drop adds up. If you ever find yourself wondering if it's worthwhile... well, look at these folks and you tell me.

Christmas Songs
One other thing I want to mention. I generally have a few shows in the holiday season, and obviously it's the only time of year where I can do certain holiday-themed songs. They don'e go over so well when you pull them out in August. However, I ran into a bout of bronchitis this year -- not unusual for me in December, I should add. So my show last Monday had no singing at all; it became a story hour instead, which was fun. But when I found out I was performing on December 22 for the monthly HFOT benefit at Veterans Isle in SL, I knew that would be my one shot to pull out all the Christmasy musical goodness, and so I did. I didn't do an entire hour-long show of Christmas music; I know that people get burned out on that music, especially after hearing it basically daily for weeks. Instead, I mixed up some holiday tunes with some others that just had a good vibe for the event.

But I will say that while I do some Christmas songs in a super traditional way, I also try and throw my own arrangements together for certain tunes, and I really enjoy taking a well-known song and making it a little more my own, which I did for a couple of the songs I performed. And one last note: if you find yourself with an opportunity to use whatever talents you have to help other people... I can't advise you highly enough to do so. It feels great, and you will be aware that you've transcended into a new level of humanity. Think of it as "leveling up" in the video game we call life.

Photo by Kat.

Homes For Our Troops set list...
Airport Bar (Martin Courtney)
God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen (Traditional)
Among the Leaves (Sun Kil Moon)
Holly Jolly Christmas (Burl Ives)
Long December (Counting Crows)
America (Simon & Garfunkel)
Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth (Traditional/David Bowie)
Comes a Time (Neil Young)
Peace Love & Understanding (Elvis Costello)
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas (Blane/Martin)
Your Song (Elton John)
Walk on the Wild Side (Lou Reed)
The Christmas Song (Nat King Cole)

Huge thanks to each and every person who came by my show at Veterans Isle, with special thanks to the generous people who helped to put on the event and those who gave to the cause. You are all heroes!

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

'A Christmas Carol' at Serenity Gardens (12.16.19)

Not my typical kind of show... but pretty fun nonetheless. Photo by Kat.

As the old saying goes, when life hands you lemons, make lemonade. Or, when life hands you bronchitis, make a complete fool out of yourself by doing the weirdest live performance that you've ever attempted.

Perhaps I should back up a bit. I'd been dealing with something that is, unfortunately, quite familiar to me. Starting a number of weeks ago, I'd noticed that I was wheezing a bit. There was an annoying whistle while I was exhaling, especially at night, and I was getting coughing fits from time to time. This is never a good sign, but in my typical fashion, I decided to ignore it and hope it would just magically go away on its own. I should also note here that as a smoker for decades, there's always that niggling thought that perhaps my wheezing and coughing fits meant that I was actually close to death in some way. But I try not to get paranoid, at least very often, and besides, I was super busy with work and life.

Well, it didn't go away. I was feeling pretty ill and the coughing and wheezing seemed to be worsening, so last Thursday, after a particularly bad morning of breathing problems the day before, I went down the street to Ocean Medical here in Redondo Beach. Ocean Medical is an urgent care center for most people; for me, they've been my primary care physician for the past 25 years or so. I like them. After an examination which showed me to be otherwise healthy with the exception of my poor lungs, a diagnosis of bronchitis was given... something I've had far too often in life and that probably would be less of an issue if I didn't smoke, which is a whole other story. But my fine medical professional Casey prescribed me a strong antibiotic along with a steroid and an inhaler, and within a few days, I was feeling a million times better. Note: yes, I'll be finishing my antibiotics. People who don't finish their antibiotics are dangers to the entire world, creating superbugs from the strong bacteria that survive the initial onslaught. But I digress.

What, you don't take selfies in the exam room? Whatever. I can't be the only one.

Did You Have a Point To All This?
Yes. Yes I did. I was scheduled to do my bi-weekly live music show at Serenity Gardens in Second Life on Monday December 16, and as I mentioned, I was starting to feel a lot better. But there's a big difference between a person feeling well enough to, say, work and go grocery shopping and do laundry, versus standing and singing at full volume for a full hour. Singing requires very strong lung power (which should seem obvious, but sometimes isn't for people who've never done it on a professional basis), and while I'm definitely getting better and better, I was not yet in a place where I could confidently do my typical Zak Show.

The obvious solution would be to cancel the show, and on Saturday, I came within moments of just messaging Ilsa Flannigan who runs Serenity Gardens and letting her know that I simply wasn't healthy enough to make the show. She'd have understood and it would have been fine; these things happen all the time with live performers, especially here in the middle of sickness season. She'd have easily found someone to sub in for me that night. No big thing.

But I really do enjoy my shows there, and missing one night of a bi-weekly show means you're missing for a full month. But I knew singing was out of the question. As an experienced musician, I knew that one option would be to simply get out my guitar or keyboards and do a full hour of instrumental music with no singing at all... but it's been my general observation that audiences in Second Life are either into that kind of thing or not, and frankly my crowd really enjoys the more intimate and personal aspect of a show with vocals. So then, a thought occurred to me, and it wasn't a new one; I'd considered this possibility on many other occasions but never went through with it. What if, I thought, I did a show that wasn't based on music at all? What if I spent an hour telling some kind of story instead? Talking, while still taxing, isn't nearly as hard as singing, lung-wise.

Scrooge McClaxton, professional dramatic actor. Photo by Nina Rose Setner.

I made the decision there on the spot. I'd do some kind of storytelling or acting performance instead of singing. But what to do? Well, it's the time of year that in music or other kinds of performance that the holidays are an expected theme... and there was one story that had been integral to my life around Christmastime my entire life. It was Charles Dickens' classic 1843 tale A Christmas Carol, sometimes popularly known as Scrooge due to its memorable main character. So I set about thinking through what I'd want to do for a good performance of the short book. Being who I am and wanting to put on a memorable show, my mind went to the full extreme of building a set and rehearsing a special version of the tale and having multiple avatars in SL to enact the whole thing. Then I remembered that I had less than two days to pull this off, so I scrapped all of those ideas and settled on getting an appropriate Scrooge-looking outfit (was there one available on the SL marketplace? Of course there was), and a Victorian-era chair, and just reading the book. This... almost worked.

Timing and Pacing
let me tell you a little difference between playing music and acting in a play. When you go to a concert, there's no real expectation of what songs are going to be performed, or how many of them will be done. If I have an hour-long set, this ranges somewhere between 11-14 songs, depending on the length of each tune and the time I spend between songs chatting with the crowd, and other typical factors. No one knows or cares if I get through all the songs I might have planned to play; each song is a little three- or four-minute self-contained work of art.

But a movie or play or other acting performance is very different. It is a longer single work with a start, a middle, and an end, and randomly skipping any of these parts leads to a less than ideal experience for the audience. Sure, you have episodic presentations like a TV series where you can have small parts of a story spread out over a long time frame... but I didn't have a long time frame. I had exactly an hour between when Grace McDunnough's set ended ay 6:00 and Aaron Cabot Jones' set started at 7:00. Had I planned this out weeks ahead of time, I could have gone through and heavily rehearsed and edited and planned out what would fit well in an hour time slot while still getting across the meat of the story. But no, I had a day, basically.

I will say that fortunately, my audiences in Second Life are very forgiving. While I did manage to get through all of A Christmas Carol before my show ended, I had this realization with about 20 minutes left in my show that I had well over half the book still to go, including all of the most important plot elements. I think I'd just started the visit from the ghost of Christmas past at that point. Yeah. So I started "fast forwarding" through the story in ways that were neither graceful nor unnoticeable. In fact, I think I said, "And then several other things happened!" a few times while frantically scrolling my iPad's Kindle app to find the next point of the plot to which I could jump. I found myself laughing about this, and my crowd all understood this as well.

Usually my audience is dancing, but many of them struck an appropriate pose for story hour. Photo by Kat.

On the bright side, while I'm not a very experienced or well-trained or perhaps talented actor, I managed to maintain a small level of consistency while trying to do 11 different voices in various Victorian-era male and female and ghostly English accents. I'd like to think that the majority of people couldn't do that, or at least would be smart enough to not try. But I did, and sometimes, that's what it's all about. Make the effort. You don't have to be great. No matter what it is that you find yourself doing... singing, acting, dancing, cooking, crafting, and much more... if you're trying it and enjoying it, you're miles ahead of the person who never even tries.

So I'm quite happy with the silly dramatic performance I did last night, and apparently I wasn't the only one. Ilsa told me after the show that she had a number of people requesting that we make "Holiday Story Time" an annual event, and with a little more time to prepare and plan and rehearse, I'll bet it could actually be something really good, as opposed to being good in spite of itself as last night's show could charitably be called. Bah! Humbug!

Huge thanks to everyone who came out to Serenity Gardens for this unusual Zak Show, with special thanks to those who helped support the show!
Triana Caldera, Maurice Mistwallow, Kat Claxton, Harley Wytchwood, Kitzie Lane, Barbara Mixemup, Celeste Ewing, my excellent manager Maali Beck, and the fabulous team at Serenity Gardens, Tilly Rose and Ilsa Wilde!