Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Serenity Gardens (10.07.19)

Rocking with my skeleton crew at Serenity Gardens. Photo by Kat.

I want to tell you about last night's terrific show at Serenity Gardens, but first I want to tell you about the Kurds. Don't worry; I'll make this quick. There are many great sources of information about sociology and history you can find for a deeper dig on this topic. My point here is brief.

The Kurds are an ancient ethnic group of people based in the Middle East, in an area known as Kurdistan that is situated in southeastern Turkey, northwestern Iran, northern Iraq, and northern Syria. They are a minority group that has their own language and culture. The Kurds have been invaluable allies of the USA in the fight against terrorism in the post 9/11 era. We owe them a lot, and promised them protection in return, as they've been a persecuted people who have been subject to genocide. Specifically, the governments of Turkey and Iraq have been particularly cruel to the Kurds. It's not a small group; in Turkey alone, there are roughly 15 million Kurds who make up about 20% of the population, and Turkey would like nothing more than to wipe them off the face of the planet. The treatment of Kurds in Turkey are a major human rights tragedy.

On Monday, President Trump announced a major withdrawal of troops from northern Syria, which will allow Turkey to invade the area and crush the Kurdish people. The Kurds have been particularly valuable to the USA in fighting Islamic State extremists. Now they are being abandoned during their time of need. To say that this is morally repugnant is a huge understatement. Even the president's Republican cronies have decried the decision. It's just another of Trump's decisions that is meant to increase his personal gain, and is a longterm blow to the United States with the resulting increase in terrorism. The Turkish military, just one day after the announcement, was already advancing into Kurdish territory now that they are no longer under protection of US forces.

The area known as Kurdistan crosses the boundaries of a number of countries, though the largest section of Kurd population resides in southeastern Turkey. The have been invaluable allies in the US's war on terrorism, and now we are leaving them to be slaughtered.

I don't spend a lot of time on this blog talking about the many actions of Donald Trump that have the potential to ruin our country, but this is a particularly egregious one. My only hope -- and I am optimistic that this will come to pass -- that each and every step the president has taken to personally gain in both financial and political aspects at the expense of the country will not only become public knowledge, but that he, personally, will be required to surrender any ill-gotten gains and will also be required to serve the same kind of punishments as any other person who committed the types of crimes he is openly undertaking.

Back to the Show
As you're probably aware, before I do a show in Second Life -- or anywhere for that matter -- I put together a set list. This is different than some performers who prefer to play whatever comes to mind at the moment, or like their audiences to choose songs for them. I don't; I like planning ahead and preparing the songs I'm going to play. Anyway, I was doing just that on Sunday when I inadvertently put in two songs by the same artist, and then noted I'd also had two original songs by me, and two songs by my band They Stole My Crayon. That got me thinking... why not do a "twofer" show? Some of you might recall this from your local rock radio station who would do two songs by each artist -- usually on a Tuesday -- calling it "Two for Tuesday". Well, I play on Mondays, and it doesn't roll off the tongue as easily as the radio trope, but I still ended up fleshing out my set list for Serenity Gardens with two songs by each artist.

I love how Ilsa goes all out to decorate Serenity Gardens at Halloween and throughout the year. Photo by Kat.

Good show, good times. Photo by Kat.

This wasn't my first "twofer" show in SL, but my most recent previous one was in July 2013, so it's not a theme I adopt very often. In any case, I really do enjoy trying to make each show special in some way, and giving my audience a somewhat unique experience each time.I will say that everyone seemed to like this particular show, and I'm glad it worked out well.

Serenity Gardens set list...
Ohio (Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young)
Don’t Let It Bring You Down (Neil Young)
Always Tomorrow (Zak Claxton)
This Afternoon (Zak Claxton)
*Voices Carry (’Til Tuesday)
Save Me (Aimee Mann)
Vendetta (They Stole My Crayon)
Blew the Dust Away (They Stole My Crayon)
Perfect Day (Lou Reed)
Walk on the Wild Side (Lou Reed)
Losing My Religion (R.E.M.)
Radio Free Europe (R.E.M.)

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

Huge thanks to everyone who attended the show at Serenity gardens, with extra special super thanks to the following who helped support it!
Triana Caldera, Trouble Streeter, go2smoky Resident, Alex Zelin, Asimia Heron, Kat Claxton, Aurelie Chenaux, my excellent manager Maali Beck, and the fabulous team at Serenity Gardens, Tilly Rose and Ilsa Wilde!

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Celebration of Life for Thea Dee at Ground Zero (09.28.19)

Making music for Thea Dee's many friends at the celebration of her life at Ground Zero. Photo by Kat.

As I wrote about at the time, it was exactly a month ago that I lost one of my closest friends to cancer-related illness. Rachael Emborg, known throughout the online virtual world of Second Life as Thea Dee, was 49 years old. She would have been 50 on October 7.

When people pass away -- especially when it's unexpected and at a relatively young age -- the friends and family who were close to them are often left with no sense of closure or resolution. That's why various types of memorial events exist. It allows those of us who remain to process our feelings about the person, to share stories, and to honor their memory. That's why I was very, very happy when Meegan Danitz mentioned to me that the folks in Thea's circle of friends were planning some kind of memorial event. Jon Larson confirmed the details of the event a short while later. As was appropriate for someone who had loved the live music scene in Second Life, the "Celebration of Life for Thea Dee" would be comprised of a series of performances at what had been her home venue... Ground Zero.

The poster for Thea's celebration of life. I felt honored to be included among these great musical performers.

While I was glad that the event had been organized and scheduled, that's not to say that any kind of memorial event is easy. Human psychology being what it is, we have defense mechanisms that shelter us from dealing with information we'd prefer not to process. One of those is repression, and it's understandable that with something as terrible as the sudden death of a close friend or family member, many people try to avoid thinking about it. After all, we're still here and have lives we need to lead, and too much dwelling on the emotional impact of our loss doesn't allow us to handle our day to day responsibilities. And that, in and of itself, is why memorial events are important. It is a moment where we can acknowledge those feelings along with people who share the loss, and it offers a cathartic experience that may be difficult at the time, but allows people to be more at peace afterwards.

Thea's Friends... Onstage and Off
Jon had asked if I could perform at the event, and I let him know that there was nothing in life I'd rather do. While I take no credit for Thea's popularity in Second Life -- that was all due to her own merits -- I did let her know about SL's existence back in 2010, and some of her first experiences in world were attending my shows. It would only be right that I do live music at her memorial. I will say that as soon as I saw the list of performers the organizers had chosen, I knew right away that they'd made great decisions. In addition to myself, there was Funky Freddie, Red Heaven, The Follow, Voodoo Shilton & Jon Larson, and Lyndon Heart. I knew for a fact that these folks represented Thea's personal favorites. She and I had many conversations over the years about the SL music scene, and there was no doubt that this entire list of musical artists represented those who had a special place in her heart.

A slideshow of photos of Thea ran throughout the event. Photo by Kat.

Chelsea and Gmetal, two of Thea's large group of close friends. Photo by Kat.

Likewise, a quick scan of the crowd let me know that Thea's best friends were out in full force. These were the folks whom she spoke about constantly, and with whom she spent the majority of her time in SL. To say she was well liked is a massive understatement. Dozens and dozens of people quickly filled the beach-like setting of Ground Zero, a venue that she'd helped run. It was heartwarming to see them all arriving as I prepared to perform.

A Unique Perspective
I decided that while many of the people involved in the event knew Thea primarily through her activities within SL, my personal perspective on her extended back to 1991 or so, when we were college students together in our early 20s. I wanted to share some stories about her that gave people a look into her background as a person, and I did some of that in between songs. I enjoyed being able to tell people how in college, she'd majored in theatre production and design... something that definitely raised the bar of the work she did with the in-world group Guerrilla Burlesque.

Speaking of songs, while I often put a good amount of thought into the music I plan and prepare for every show, this may have been the most difficult set list I ever did for any live show of my life. I really wanted to hot three different goals with my music selections: 1) songs/artists that I knew she personally loved, 2) songs that were representational of Thea as a person, and 3) songs that would be expressive of our collective feelings of loss as her friends. It's a tough balancing act... some of her favorite music was very upbeat and happy, and obviously you can run into a conflict of what may be appropriate for a memorial event. However, I feel pretty good that each song I played had some specific meaning to the event and to the folks attending, and I'd often explain the reason for my choice of a song as I launched into it.

I loved scanning the folks in the crowd and seeing so many of Thea's friends there to support each other and honor her memory. Photo by Kat.

The Mystical Power Outage
I should preface this next story by admitting that I don't believe in ghosts, spirits, or, frankly, any kind of afterlife. This is my personal outlook and I fully support and respect everyone's right to believe what they want in regard to what happens to one's soul after death. But something very strange and in some ways inexplicable happened about two-thirds of the way through my performance. The lights and other devices here seemed to flicker momentarily, and the alarm on my power systems sounded. Then Kat received a community alert from our local police department, saying that there was a utility pole on fire and that power lines had gone down just a block from my home.

In case you suspect that I'm exaggerating what happened with the power outage, here's the actual alert that Kat received. That power line that went down was mere blocks from my home, and seemed to affect everyone in the area except for me, personally.

Well, here's the weird thing: by all rights, I should have lost power completely and vanished from the stage as my computer and audio systems went down. My neighbors lost power. Kat's computer crashed so hard that it reinitialized her preference settings in SL when she got back in! But -- and I have no way of explaining how or why it happened this way -- all of my stuff stayed up and running. My computer, my mixer, my monitor, my audio interface... it was like the power outage never happened for me, and I kept on playing music with zero interruption. I told Meegan about this after my set ended, and she replied that Rachael was there holding the wires together. I can't offer any better explanation than that one.

Snot, Sweat, and Tears
I did more than my share of crying during the days following Thea's death, but I promised myself that at least while I was actually onstage and performing, I'd focus on the positive and leave the tears behind while honoring her life during this opportunity to do so.

Well, that didn't work. There was one particular moment where I started to mention how smart Thea was and how committed she was to wanting to help others, along with my ideas as to what she might have been able to do under other circumstances in her life. I don't even think I got these words out completely, but while I was talking to the crowd, I had this vision of Thea as a Congressional representative from Utah, standing next to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar, and... well, that was it. I do recall looking down at my guitar during the subsequent song and realizing it was literally coated with snot, sweat, and tears (no blood, thankfully). I will say that I made it through every song, and while my vocal performance of singing while simultaneously weeping probably wasn't among my best, I think the crowd all fully understood how difficult it was for me to be onstage and handling these emotions while trying to do justice to the music Thea loved.

Playing this show was one of the most difficult and yet fulfilling performances I've ever done as a musician. Photo by Kat.

Kat and I stayed around after my show for quite some time, enjoying the music of my fellow SL performers. Thea had great taste and I truly enjoy the music of the artists that had been chosen to play the event. In typical SL fashion, both of us started having computer issues (freezing up and so on), and we popped in and out for the remainder of the day to check out the various people performing.

Goodbye, My Friend
One emotion that I hadn't expected but was definitely present throughout the "Celebration of Life for Thea Dee" was an intense sense of pride. Pride that I had been a beloved friend to this wonderful person. Pride that her wonderful friends had stepped up to organize this event. Pride that I was able to make it through the whole performance without being completely overwhelmed by my own emotions. Whether you knew her as Thea or Rachael, she was a remarkable woman whose strength and kindness and beauty were to be admired, and I have no problem saying truthfully that while I'll miss her for as long as I live, the larger and more important sense I have of her is that I was tremendously lucky to have had her as a friend for the time that I did. Life itself is finite and fleeting at best; the real secret to being successful lies in how you bring happiness and love to others. My friend Thea did that in droves. It was a life well led.

Celebration of Life for Thea Dee at Ground Zero set list...
All I Want (Joni Mitchell)
You’ve Got a Friend (James Taylor)
I Believe When I Fall In Love (Stevie Wonder)
Just Like Heaven (The Cure)
Sour Girl (Stone Temple Pilots)
Golden Years (David Bowie)
Northern Sky (Nick Drake)
Half Moon Bay (Sun Kil Moon)
Time Stand Still (Rush)
*Shining Star (Earth Wind & Fire)

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



Thursday, September 26, 2019

Serenity Gardens (09.23.19)

Enjoying a lovely first evening of fall on Monday night at Serenity Gardens. Photo by Kat.

Ahhhh... autumn.

People tend to say that we don't have real seasons here in Southern California, and they're mostly correct. Throughout the year, where I live in a suburb of Los Angeles called Redondo Beach, the temperature variance is minuscule compared to most of the world, and actual severe weather -- storms, extreme temperatures, and so on -- are almost unheard of. With few exceptions, about the worst it gets here is a bit chilly or rather warm. So what difference does autumn make versus summer?

Weather information on Redondo Beach, CA. My city has some of the best weather in the world, and certainly ranks more favorably than just about anywhere else in the USA. Chart from city-data.com.

There's something about the fall season that is still very appealing. The slightly cooler temps, the more focused vibe compared to the lackadaisical summer months, the holidays, football season... there are tangibles such as these, but also a lot of more nebulous aspects that make autumn my personal favorite time of year. Since my bi-weekly Monday night show at Serenity Gardens happened to occur literally on the first day of Fall 2019, I wasn't going to miss the opportunity to curate a set list that paid some homage to autumn, and I did just that. But before I talk about that, I want to mention some stuff about streaming music and digital distribution.

How Do People Listen To Music in 2019?
I'm not going to get into a big dissertation on this topic; many others have done it already and done it well. I will state the simple and obvious facts, though.

From the 1930s through the late 1990s, the only choices that people had to listen to music were a) through physical media, like a vinyl record, a Compact Disc, a cassette and so on, or b) on the radio or other broadcast medium (like MTV when they used to be a music channel). If you were a recording artist, your income was based primarily on how many pieces of physical media you could sell. Back in those days, concert tickets were cheaper because the live show was primarily meant as a vehicle for artists to promote their latest recording.

We all know what happened after that. The Internet increasingly became part of our lives as the new century got underway, and anything that could be digitized and moved around the world in a blink of an eye was done so, and one of the first things that was affected by digital distribution was music. It started out illegally, with people taking songs off of CDs, moving them into their computers, and posting them on peer-to-peer file sharing services. Eventually, like many things, big business saw the opportunity to use the technology in legitimate ways, and people began paying for and downloading music with systems like Apple's iTunes.

This was fine; artists still received a reasonable level of compensation from paid downloads. But the next thing that happened in the flow of technology was the elimination of the need to "own" the music. It could reside in a cloud, and people could access it anywhere they had an Internet connection (which these days is pretty much everywhere). Instead of purchasing songs and albums, people could just stream the audio... to their homes, their phones, their cars and so on. However, what changed drastically for the artists who create the music was the compensation. Instead of receiving $0.70 for a downloaded song, they got fractions of a penny for that song being streamed. Artists who get thousands of songs streamed in a month would get a royalty payment of a few cents. If you wonder why concert tickets are now often hundreds of dollars, that's why. Musical artists have no real means of income other than live performance.

Why am I talking about this today? Well, my band They Stole My Crayon made the decision at the time of our album's release in 2016 to forego digital distribution via streaming services. We knew that any possibility of at least being recompensed for the costs and time of recording our music would be negated by the tiny payments from streaming services. However, the reality in 2019 is that in many cases, if your music isn't on Spotify and other popular services around the world, in some ways it might as well not exist. We have been very happy with download platforms like Bandcamp, but that is still considered kind of an underground service for indie artists.

Some of these online music store logos will be very familiar to you; others you've probably never even heard of. But these are the places that attract people in various territories around the world to discover and listen to music, and if your music isn't there, you might as well not exist.

Interestingly, people are still more interested in listening for free than anything else. While YouTube has its own fledgling music service, they are already the world's number one platform for music listening via video uploads that don't pay the musical creators a damn penny. It's a tough battle to fight, frankly. In any case, we'll soon be making an announcement in regard to our music's availability in ways that it hadn't been previously. Last weekend, we renegotiated our digital distribution with Tunecore, and sometime in the next couple of weeks, I will be posting about new ways to experience and enjoy The Crayon's music. That's it for now.

First Show of Autumn
As I was saying, I'd looked at the calendar and noted that my show at Serenity Gardens was literally on the first day of Fall 2019, and that led me to create a set list that had a fall feel. I've previously talked about the music I associate with autumn, and last year I did a fun exercise where I posted five autumnal songs each week for the entire fall season. I was happy to have a specific focus of my performance, and I truly enjoy the vibe of autumn songs as much as any other part of the season.

Me, looking kinda spooky onstage. Photo by Kat.

I always love the Halloween/fall decor at Serenity Gardens. Photo by Kat.

I mean, even the furniture gets spooky there this time of year. Awesome. Photo by Kat.

I should note that once again, I appreciated playing directly after Grace McDunnough... her choice of material and her lovely voice always puts me in a great mood right before I take the stage. Also, Ilsa Flannigan (Serenity Gardens owner) is meticulous about decorating the sim for the various seasons, and the place looked great all tricked out in a Halloween vibe. It's always fun when you play a familiar place that's somehow new. We had a good crowd and I liked adding a couple of new tunes to the set that played off my autumn theme.

Serenity Gardens set list...
Pink Moon (Nick Drake)
Carolina In My Mind (James Taylor)
The Last Time I Saw Richard (Joni Mitchell)
Blew the Dust Away (They Stole My Crayon)
Pecan Pie (Golden Smog)
*Autumn Sunglasses (Robyn Hitchcock)
Falling Down (Zak Claxton)
Year of the Cat (Al Stewart)
Any Major Dude (Steely Dan)
Longing On (They Stole My Crayon)
*’Tis Autumn (Nat King Cole)
Doubt It (Zak Claxton)
I’ve Been Waiting for You (Neil Young)

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

Big ol' thanks to every person who hung out for my show, with special super thanks to the following who helped support it!
courageous Chrome, Kat Chauveau, Cory Warcliffe, Cash Benelli, AaronCabottJones Resident, Nina Brandenburg, Diana Renoir, Trouble Streeter, Alex Zelin, Kat Claxton, my excellent manager Maali Beck, and the fabulous team at Serenity Gardens, Tilly Rose and Ilsa Wilde!

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

They Stole My Crayon "River Shallows" Lyric Video


Here's something you should know about me. While I admire people who specialize in a particular area and are amazingly good at what they do, I've never really been that kind of human being. Instead, I tend to do a whole lot of different things reasonably well, and throughout my life, if I discover something that interests me, I'll give it a shot. If you want to think of that worldview in a negative sense, the phrase "Jack of all trades, master of none" is probably applicable to me in many ways.

At the same time, there's an advantage to doing things for one's self. One of them is that when I find myself with a block of time, there are myriad ways to fill it in some productive sense. Coming into this past weekend, for example, I felt like I was on the edge of terminal burnout. It had truly been a rough couple of weeks for me on many fronts, some large and some small. While I knew that some total downtime was required, I don't do well with typical relaxing; I get bored too easily and I feel like time is wasted when I literally do nothing. I knew I'd feel better if I'd accomplished something that was essentially just for myself.

After chilling for awhile on Saturday, it came to me: I'd long been wanting to do something promotional for the music of my band They Stole My Crayon. Creating new music at the moment has too many obstacles, but doing something with our existing batch of tunes had been on my list for some time. So that's what I did; I made a new lyric video for our song "River Shallows" that you can watch below.

"River Shallows" by They Stole My Crayon. Watch it on YouTube if you want.

How Do You Make a Music Video?
Ugh, don't ask me. Seriously, just go watch some music videos. The best of them are like little art films, and are obviously well planned out, and use filmmaking tools like soundstages and visual effects and choreography and all that (and presumably have a budget and so on). My videos rarely come close to that. I've done a couple of videos that border on being good: "Falling Down" from my first solo album, and "Blew the Dust Away" by the Crayon (with this latest video drawing on that same style). But even in those cases, it was very nebulous as to what the point of the video was before we started shooting, and the results speak for themselves.

But in this case, I had no plans at all to make a video this weekend until maybe noon on Saturday. With my only plan being to make a lyric video for one of the songs off the 2016 self-titled TSMC album, I opened up Final Cut Pro X and just started plopping down clips. What clips? Well, whenever we go places together as a band -- most often being Joshua Tree -- we just take various footage no matter what. The idea is that sometime, for some reason, we might find these things useful, and guess what? It's true.


Anyway, for those who aren't aware, there is very powerful video editing software available these days at reasonable prices. What this kind of software allows you to do is to import video footage of almost any variety, edit and combine the clips, add visual effects and text overlays, synchronize the video to audio to music, and then output the whole thing for whatever you intend on doing with the video. This is nothing new; nonlinear video editing has been computer-based for decades now. But for a random person with a typical computer to be able to do this is a room at his house is still pretty neat to me.

I developed a particular style for They Stole My Crayon videos early on, and it was reinforced in subsequent videos I've done for the band. I tend to overlay various clips of footage with slightly psychedelic results. Most of the footage I had at my disposal for the video were clips of our many trips into Joshua Tree, and several of those were with our friend and unofficial tour manager Jess Smith, so she makes the occasional appearance in this one.

Just by happenstance, I did have a few clips from when we were planning on shooting a "real" video for "River Shallows" and I was able to find those (hallelujah!) and implement them here. So, that's it. Plopped some images together, made them look weird, and then plopped some text over them for the lyrics. Done, and done. Enjoy!

Friday, September 13, 2019

Serenity Gardens (09.09.19)

My view from the stage on Monday night at Serenity Gardens. I was doing a set that was mostly dedicated to and inspired by my friend Thea Dee. Photo by Triana Caldera.

Regular readers of this blog know that 95% of the time, my show reports go up the day after any of my live music performances. It's something I enjoy doing, and getting it done fulfills some slightly OCD-ish behavioral patterns I seem to have. But here we are, four days after my most recent show, and I'm just now getting to this entry. What gives?

Well, it's the most mundane of reasons: I got busy. One of my business clients was intent on doing a large web overhaul before their big trade show started, so I've been doing 12 to 14-hour work days this entire week. And then, on Wednesday night, I had a whole other type of obligation, one of the fun variety. We're going to actually talk about that event before going back in time to talk about my show. Doing things backwards is kind of my trademark, so with no further adieu...

Wednesday Night: Rehearsing with Liquid
Liquid is my old cover band that had its heyday in the 2000s. The band is comprised of Randy Harmon on vocals, Phil Gilbreth on bass, Dante Silva on drums, and me on guitar and backing vocals. We're all good friends, but then band had gone on infinite hiatus at one point, and it had been seven years since the last time we played live. Well, a year or so ago, Randy's younger daughter Megan requested that we get back together to perform at her wedding in October 2019, and the time went by and suddenly here we were, a month or so out from the date. We all felt it would be a good idea to get at least one rehearsal in before playing at event with 100 or so people there. So that's what we did; I met the guys at a rehearsal facility in Gardena called Grooveworks (nice place and reasonably priced... I recommend it), and we spent several hours on Wednesday night jamming through the whole set that had been chosen for the wedding.

A still from the short clip I did on Facebook live during the first Liquid practice since our last gig seven years ago. I have no idea how long it will remain visible, but you can watch us feeling our way through a couple of tunes on Facebook here.

I was expecting to have a good time with those guys; I wasn't expecting the band to sound nearly as good as we did after all those years since we last played together. I was frankly astonished at how relatively tight we still were, and if you enjoy classic hard rock from bands like Bad Company, Queen, Van Halen, Led Zeppelin, Cream and the like, we're still a force to be reckoned with. The jam went great and I'm totally looking forward to the wedding next month (which will also involve a short three-day getaway for Kat and myself, being held up in Kern County at a facility near Lake Isabella).

Some Songs for Thea at Serenity Gardens
Let's get back to the actual topic here. As per my most recent post, I've been dealing with grief lately due to the loss of my close friend Rachael Emborg, known by many of you Second Life people as as Thea Dee. My show on Monday night at Serenity Gardens in Second Life, a place where she'd visited so many times to watch my perform, was my first live show of any kind since her passing, and I couldn't have possibly done the show without acknowledging her impact on me as a close friend.

So, when putting together my song list, I very purposefully included a number of tunes that had some connection to her. It genuinely felt good, in a cathartic way, to do that. Obviously, a number of the people who come to my shows were also friends of Thea, and it was a good opportunity, I think, for all of us to come together and acknowledge the importance of her presence in our respective lives and how much we'd miss that.

A lovely sunset and a peaceful time for songs for a friend. Photo by Trouble Streeter.

Serenity Gardens from above. Photo by Aurelie Chenaux.

Of course, me being me, I also felt compelled to make at least a slight fool of myself by attempting to perform the music of one of Thea's favorite bands, which seemed the right thing to do at the time. That band is Rush, whose repertoire I am very, very familiar with, even to the extent of having had a little Rush tribute side-project band when I was about 15 (we were called Permanent Waves). But at no point did I claim to be able to sing like Geddy Lee. Few can. Even Geddy himself isn't fully capable of singing like himself at this juncture. But for Thea's sake, because I imagined her laughing at my attempt to sing a good half-octave above my range, I did a couple of Rush tunes in the set, and I was happy to do so. I also did some songs I knew she enjoyed, and some that were significant to how I was feeling about her passing. All in all, I left the stage after my show feeling better than I had before getting on. That's a good sign.

One more thing I wanted to note: I've recently been contacted by some of Thea's closest friends, who are going to be putting on a special show in remembrance of her on Saturday September 28. I will be performing there, and I'll fill everyone in on details ASAP.

Me being me. Photo by Triana Caldera.

Serenity Gardens set list...
This Afternoon (Zak Claxton)
Wish You Were Here (Pink Floyd)
*Time Stand Still (Rush)
Time in a Bottle (Jim Croce)
Dead Flowers (Rolling Stones)
Blew the Dust Away (They Stole My Crayon)
Better Man (Pearl Jam)
Ashes to Ashes (David Bowie)
Things Behind the Sun (Nick Drake)
Tea in the Sahara (The Police)
Something Else (Zak Claxton)
Closer To the Heart (Rush)

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

Thanks to all who came to the show, and special thanks tot he following who helped support it!
AaronCabottJones Resident, Harley Wytchwood, Tyche Szondi, Triana Caldera, Kat Chauveau, Trouble Streeter, Nina Brandenburg, cia Beach, Aurelie Chenaux, my excellent manager Maali Beck, and the fabulous team at Serenity Gardens, Tilly Rose and Ilsa Wilde!

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Rachael Emborg (Thea Dee) - 1969-2019

Rachael in 2011. This is how I choose to remember her... happy and with a gleam in her eye.

Writing is something that usually comes easily to me. It's what I've done every day for my career in marketing communications and media for the past 25+ years. It's something I'm good at, and that I enjoy. But for this particular writing assignment, I've sat for a long time, staring at the cursor blinking on a blank page. I've also started this several times, only to backspace my way through multiple sentences. Some things are harder to write than others, and this is one of the most difficult grouping of words I've ever had to put together: my friend Rachael Emborg, known to many as Thea, has died. She was 49 years old.

I have the great fortune of having known Rachael over a longer period of our respective lives than many of our other mutual friends and acquaintances. We became friends in our early 20s while students in college, and then reconnected later on. Over the subsequent nine years, she has been one of my closest friends and confidants. And now, suddenly and unexpectedly, she is gone. I've not yet reached the point of fully accepting this fact. I can write it, I can say it, and yet there's still a part of me who thinks that it's all some kind of big mistake, a terrible but untrue rumor, and that somehow she's going to pop up at my next live music show in Second Life, or that any moment I'll see a new message from her in my email or Facebook messages. But I am, at heart, a pragmatist and a realist. Those things will not happen. It hurts to acknowledge it, but it's true.

As opposed to wallowing in self pity, which would be pretty easy to do, I am writing this piece about Rachael with a purpose. The aspect of her passing that angers me is that it was not unavoidable. While there were aspects to her long string of health problems that might have been different based on genetic and lifestyle factors, Rachael would not be dead today if we lived in a place where health care was accessible for all, and where massive income and wealth disparity was not an ingrained part of our lives.

But first, let me tell you my own story of Rachael.

October 2010
I could start this story at the start, but where's the fun in that? Might as well start in the middle, because that's the most crucial part of this story, for me anyway. I was perusing Facebook on October 7, 2010, when I noticed that a buddy of mine from college, Chris Norris, had posted a birthday greeting on the wall of someone named Rachael Emborg. I wasn't familiar with the name, but I knew the face. When I'd last been in touch with her, she was named Rachael Greenberg. We'd been classmates at Cal State Dominguez Hills in the early '90s, and we'd been great friends. Right away, I reached out to her to send my own birthday wishes, and she responded immediately. We started chatting and she asked if I was still being active as a musician. I told her yes, and that I was doing live shows in this online virtual world thing called Second Life, which she said she'd like to check out. But before I get to the rest of that part of our friendship, let's back up to the beginning.

Adorable little Rachael circa 1973. Note: I appropriated all photos for this piece from public posts on Rachael's Facebook. Hopefully no one will mind.

September 1991
I met Rachael at the start of the school year in 1991. While she and I were the same age, I was a little bit ahead of her in school; I'd been there for a couple of years when she started. We were both involved in the highly-regarded music program there... it was my major and her minor (with her major being theatre design and technology). Nevertheless, as music students, she and I were both required to have a performance class, and we both ended up in University Chorus. She was an alto while I led the chorus's bass section. If you're wondering whether Rachael could sing well, the answer is a wholehearted yes. She had a very pretty voice, clear and always on key.

This is Rachael (left) as I knew her in college at CSUDH. It's on her graduation day in May 1994. Yes, that's our classmate, actress Niecy Nash, next to her.

I liked her right away. She was this cute redheaded girl with a sharp wit and a healthy helping of sarcasm. We'd hang out before and after class, occasionally grabbing lunch or a beer together at the student union there on campus. The following year, I was required to have some independent study credits to complete my bachelor's degree, and I opted to teach the school's audio recording lab class. Rachael was one of my students, and I can tell you from that experience that she was outstandingly smart. Despite having less direct experience in recording studios compared to some of my other students, she locked into new concepts very quickly, and when she had a question, it was the "right" question.

I graduated from there in fall 1992, and started working in my career right away. Like most people at that stage in their lives, I was focused on moving on from my school years. Another four or five years would go by until one day, in a moment of bizarre randomness, I was driving back to my office from lunch when I looked at the car next to me on a busy street in West Los Angeles, and there was Rachael staring back at me. We laughed and pulled over, and I spent some time standing with her by the side of the road, hearing what she'd been doing with her life. It was great to see her. That brief moment in 1996 or so would be the last time I'd ever be in physical proximity to her. I'm glad, thinking back, that we ended that chance meeting with a big hug before we went our respective ways.

Diving Into Second Life
Let's get back to 2010. I'd connected with Rachael on Facebook and told her I was doing live music in Second Life. However, to be clear, I did not do anything other than that. I didn't say, "Hey, you should join SL and come see my shows!", or anything like that. I've been thanked many times by a number of people for having brought Rachael into SL, but the truth is that I really did nothing at all beyond letting her know that SL existed. 100% of everything that happened after that was Rachael's own doing.

I remember being somewhat astounded that just a few months after discovering SL, she had already voraciously devoured knowledge about the platform, how to build, how to do scripting and so on. Perhaps even more impressive was that she'd developed a diverse community of friends who shared her interests and outlooks. Again, I had nothing to do with that. She did start out in Second Life by attending my shows and getting to know some folks in the SL live music scene through that pathway, but all the other things in which she was involved happened completely via her own efforts to explore different scenes and and establish friendships with myriad people, most of whom I'd likely never have met except via her connection to them. She did tons of stuff in SL, from being a live DJ to running a live music venue to putting on artistic virtual dance performances and much more. For a really well-written and thorough piece on Rachael's involvement in (and impact upon) on Second Life, please read this memorial blog by her friend Cherryblonde Scribe.

Here I am on stage, performing at Rachael's Second Life-based live music venue Ground Zero that she ran with the help of some great friends including GMetal Svartur.

One particular moment, I think, helps illustrate the impact that Rachael had on her fellow residents of the virtual world. When she was diagnosed with cancer and began treatment, like many people, she was suddenly faced with the burden of extremely high medical expenses. In 2015, her friends put together a benefit concert event to help raise funds for her, calling it "The Road Forward". A number of SL's best live performers, including me, were thrilled for the opportunity to do something to help her. Hundreds and hundreds of people attended and donated to her cause. She, of course, was completely mortified and embarrassed by the whole thing -- she hated to be thought of as a victim of any kind -- while still being tremendously appreciative. The event raised over $4,000 USD (over L$1,000,000 in Second Life currency) in a single day.

Rachael's benefit show in 2015. Photo by Mat Powers Matlack.

Being Friends
As most people get older, the pure role of friends in their lives is often diminished, taking a backseat to family, coworkers, and the other people whose frequent proximity is based as much on adult responsibility as it is by choice. But in the case of Rachael, pretty much immediately after reconnecting in 2010, we resumed our friendship that had begun almost 20 years earlier. We communicated frequently via all manner of text messages and occasionally voice chats and in Second Life. It was pretty much part of our daily activity to at least say hello and hear a little bit about what was going on in each other's lives.

Much has already been written about Rachael's life and interests, so I'll just focus on one area that was meaningful to both of us: music. Her tastes were unusually broad. She was a huge fan of classic funk and R&B, and couldn't get enough of bands like Earth, Wind & Fire. At the same time, she absolutely loved technically-driven rock, and she was a big Rush fan. I remember how excited she was when she and her husband got to see Rush on their R40 tour. Rachael and I also shared a huge love for artists and bands like David Bowie, Prince, and the Police.

Rachael and her husband Taber at Rush's "R40" concert in summer 2015.

I always enjoyed sharing new music with her. While working on my own music, she was often a sounding board to give me her opinions as I was in the creation stage of new songs. Rachael attended hundreds of my music shows in Second Life over the years, and also was a frequent participant at Triana's Music Trivia in SL. I'll tell you, she was extraordinarily knowledgeable about music, and had a far superior awareness of certain areas of pop, dance, and R&B music compared to me.

The only other thing I want to note about Rachael as a person was that she was fiercely defensive of the things she found to be important to her. Despite going through serious illnesses, she was always there to step up and support her friends in time of need. She abhorred injustice and was never afraid to speak out about the issues that were important to her. We had many conversations about the state of the world and our country, and she had deep concerns about the current direction of the USA, with specific focus on issues like domestic terrorism, white nationalism, abuse of power, women's rights and much more. Had she been healthy, I can imagine that she would have wanted to be an even stronger voice for those in need.

While Rachael felt self-conscious about showing herself in photos after dealing with the results of chemotherapy and other cancer treatment, she'd still post occasional pics to let people know she was hanging in there. Fall 2015.

Why Rachael Should Still Be Alive
One of the final conversations I had with Rachael happened last weekend, and I wish it wasn't so goddamn depressing to think about. It was just a week ago, on Saturday August 24.

RACHAEL: Found out today my insurance will only pay for 5 days of in home oxygen per calendar year.

ME: What the fucking fuck? What does that mean? They pay for 5 days? What do they expect you would do for the other 360 days?

RACHAEL: I don't know.

ME: That can't possibly be right. If a doctor says that you need oxygen to survive, the insurance company can't just fucking kill you. There has to be some recourse.

RACHAEL: Not really.


She and I spoke again on Sunday, briefly. I asked her how she was feeling that day. She said she was doing okay. Four days later, she was gone. I'd tried messaging her each day in between and received no response, which was highly worrisome under the circumstances. I now know that she'd declined rapidly and that on Thursday August 29, after fighting so hard for so many years -- against cancer, against diabetes, against abject poverty, against a variety of other health issues, against political factors that went against every element in her soul she knew to be good and right -- she let go and was removed from the ventilator that had been keeping her alive. She was 49 years old. She would have been 50 in October. It should be needless to say that people in developed countries shouldn't die before their 50th birthday. No person anywhere should die that young.

Rachael's final photo, taken and posted on August 9, 2019. I love that she is smiling here.

The biggest factor that absolutely contributed to her early demise was that she and her husband were simply not capable of sustaining jobs that allowed them to live in reasonably safe and comfortable circumstances. During the entire time I knew her, she was on the verge of being homeless, or not being able to pay for the simplest necessities like food and utilities. I am purposefully not going into details on this matter because I respect their dignity and privacy. I will say that the world in which we live, where more and more people live in poverty and the quality of life of the former middle class has nosedived, while a tiny percentage of the population has more wealth and income than the huge majority of people, was one of the reasons that Rachael needlessly died at a young age.

The other factor is that while Rachael did receive health care, it was certainly not at the level that would have been the case had she been able to pay for better diagnostics and medical treatment. It was a constant nightmare just trying to pay for the insulin that she required to stay alive. And, as you can see from our conversation above, even had she made it through this most recent health emergency, there would have been a huge fight with her insurance provider to get oxygen so she was allowed the luxury of continuing to breathe. This angers me to a degree that few things in life ever have.

I could be bitter and self-pitying about Rachael being gone, and it's very difficult to not go in that direction. Instead, I want to redirect that negativity into something I know Rachael would support. Keep in mind that while she is gone, there are hundreds of thousands of people in similar circumstances who are still alive and still have the possibility of avoiding her fate. For Rachael and for those who are still among the living, I ask that when you look at political candidates, you find out their stances on matters like universal healthcare and wealth/income disparity. In a different world where all people are treated with dignity and compassion, she'd still be alive right now and I wouldn't have to be writing this memorial to her. It's a terrible thing to have to do.

There will be those who feel that it's not right to politicize Rachael's passing in any way, and trust me... I'd rather that not to have to be the direction I've taken. But I can tell you, were the roles reversed and it was me who'd died unnecessarily, I will clearly say to all: please, for the love of God, politicize the fuck out of my death. Make sure that people know that with their vote, they can have a hand in preventing similar tragedies.


That's All
I thought about Rachael often in the time frame between our college years and reconnecting in 2010. When you have a person in your life with a light that shines as brightly as hers did, it leaves an imprint on your soul. I was lucky enough to have spent a good chunk of the past nine years with her being part of my life, and for that, I am grateful.

Knowing that I won't have the pleasure of interacting with her again is a hard pill to swallow. I can say this: no matter how long I live, I will never, ever forget her. Any time that I have an opportunity to help someone in need, I will think of her and hope she would approve of my efforts. She was brave and strong. Proud and beautiful. Being her friend was a privilege and an honor, and I will never stop missing her, or loving her.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Serenity Gardens (08.26.19)

One of Second Life's premier live music venues, Serenity Gardens. Photo by Kat.

I sometimes -- okay, often, or pretty much always -- use this blog for topics other than its seeming purpose, which is simply to give reports on the music I create and perform. I don't do this with any kind of subterfuge; while the posts are almost always titled by the name of a venue where I perform and the date I played there, my "side topic" is usually the first thing you read when you click one of my blog entries.

Why?
There are a number of reasons I use this blog for things other than talking about my live music shows and new music creation. The first one is super easy: writing about music is boring and repetitive. Trust me, I speak from personal experience, with my career job being in the marketing of music and music creative products. I can't imagine how useless this blog would be if every post was a nearly identical report of the places I play, my musical repertoire, and so on. No offense toward anyone who exclusively writes reviews of music recordings and performances... hats off to you all. But as both a writer and musician on a professional level, I'd fling myself off a bridge before doing that day in, day out for my whole life.

The second reason is pretty simple: there's a lot of important shit going on in the world, and I'd like to believe that from time to time, I'm capable of offering a perspective that allows people to understand things in a way that aren't necessarily explained well by other sources of information. Before you chuckle smugly about my claim that this silly blog is a news source, you might not know that I do get thousands of page views each month. It's not a lot, but it's significant enough that I know for a fact people are coming here to do more than read what songs I chose to play at my most recent show in Second Life.

Third and final reason: I'm a low-key writing whore. While I often have to create thousands and thousands of written words each week for clients of my marketing communications business, that writing is purpose-based toward increasing the brand awareness and sales performance of those companies. The writing I do here is for me, and really no one else. I can't tell you how many times I've used my own blog as a research tool for various things that have happened in my life. It's indexed by Google (hell, this is a Google-owned Blogger blog) and the results are quick and effective. But regardless, when I write about news stories or political action or whatever topic I feel like covering at that moment, it's purely because I feel like it. It helps counterbalance the seemingly endless flow of words I have to generate to earn a living. Those words are for them; these are for me.

And Now, The Show
I usually am pretty good about writing and posting these blog entries the following day after my shows, but not this time. My workload has been excessively busy in recent times, which, to be clear, is a good thing for any business owner. But it does remind you of why the word "busy" is at the root of "business", because there are times where I can start working before 7am and find myself still cranking it out 12+ hours later with barely a break. But again, no complaints.

My virtual self, rocking onstage. Photo by Kat.

A nice crowd for a typical Monday evening at Serenity Gardens. Photo by Kat.

Monday night's show at Serenity Gardens was excellent, and the reason is pretty easy to understand. First and foremost, i started with a high-quality crowd already there from Grace McDunnough's audience. Second, I managed to put together what ended up being a really strong set list that included a couple of new ones (for me), both of which having gone very well for a first effort. Third, I'd just restrung my Takamine Pro Series P5DC, and the guitar was just singing (which assisted my singing in singing).

Serenity Gardens set list...
You’re So Vain (Carly Simon)
Crosses (José González)
*Drive (R.E.M.)
Games Without Frontiers (Peter Gabriel)
Wichita Lineman (Glen Campbell)
Friday I’m In Love (The Cure)
Free Man in Paris (Joni Mitchell)
Something Else (Zak Claxton)
Gardenia (Iggy Pop)
*Vasoline (Stone Temple Pilots)
Pickles (Zak Claxton)
Everything Is Scary (German Error Message)
Tea for the Tillerman (Cat Stevens)
Serenity Improv #4,368 (Zak Claxton)

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

Big thanks to everyone who hung out at Serenity gardens for the show, and bigger thanks to the following who helped support the show! You rock!
Kat Chauveau, Kat Claxton, Jano Runo, JT Qork, AaronCabottJones Resident, Nina Brandenburg, Triana Caldera, Trouble Streeter, Tricks Sockington, my excellent manager Maali Beck, and the fabulous team at Serenity Gardens, Tilly Rose and Ilsa Wilde!