Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Hotel Chelsea (04.06.21)

Enjoying some Tuesday night rock at Hotel Chelsea in Second Life. Photo by Kat.

Hello, and welcome back. We'll talk about my show at Hotel Chelsea in Second Life in a moment (spoiler alert: it was great). First, some random stuff and things.

Half-Vaxxed Zak in a Mask
As you may recall from my previous post, I'm still ecstatic about having received the first of my two COVID-19 vaccination shots. As a larger percentage of people get vaccinated, there's a lot of information -- and misinformation -- flying around about the manner in which society as we knew it pre-pandemic is starting to return to normal. I'm not a doctor or a scientist; I'm some random musician who thinks about life and occasionally offers opinions and perspective. That being said, here are a few thoughts.

• It's gonna take some time. Here in early April 2021, an amazingly high percentage of Americans have been fully vaccinated. The number changes rapidly as millions of people each day receive their inoculations, but the most current number I have says that 62,392,065 Americans had been fully vaccinated, which is 18.8 percent of the country's population. Note that it says fully vaccinated. I am not in that group. I've had one of my two Moderna vaccines; I will not be immune to most forms of COVID-19 until mid-May, two weeks after my second dose. But around the world, those numbers are much lower, and in this country the number do vary a bit from state to state. My recommendation is to be patient and not plan on hurrying back into situations where you're among huge groups of people. And if you are...

• Keep wearing that mask. Honestly, and maybe this is just me, but after a brief adjustment period, I quickly got used to wearing a mask when I went out in public, and it just doesn't bother me that much to do so anymore. Especially during this time frame while some folks are vaccinated and others aren't, it's really important to continue masking up. While it's not highly likely, you could still transmit COVID to someone else. We're closer to the finish line, so don't drop the ball before getting into the end zone. Mixed sports metaphor aside, it's the right thing to do.

I know that some folks are opposed to wearing a mask, or think that the moment they are vaccinated, they no longer need one. There are a number of very valid reasons to keep wearing one when you interact with the public. Try not to be a dick when you continue to run into situations where masks are required.

• Don't assume everyone will be vaccinated. We all know that there are those people who don't believe in or trust vaccination under any circumstances. I don't know what to say to those people. I know I can't convince them otherwise, in the same way I can't convince people that the Earth is round or that Democrats don't eat children or that we're not secretly ruled by lizard people. In any case, there will always remain a percentage of people who will be keeping COVID alive and well, and passing it around amongst each other.

• Be patient in getting your own vaccine. Especially in the past week or so, I've talked to a bunch of people who've been trying valiantly to get an appointment for vaccination, only to find that none are available where they live. All I can say is to keep trying... it will happen. As the rush of people eligible in each age groups begins to subside, vaccines will be plentiful, and you will get yours!

Yes, Google is a large corporation and is almost certainly evil like all large corporations. But I sniffled a bit about this ad that a) hints at the return to life as we once knew it and b) shows the payoff of the messaging of the ad as this reopening of society being the result of people getting their vaccines.

I'm Taking a Vacation
Yup. It's true. For the first time since May 2019, I am taking a couple of days off work and getting out of town. We booked the trip the moment that we became aware that we'd be vaccinated in a reasonable time frame, and it's happening. I will say, the place we're going is even more remote and far less densely populated with other humans; it anything, it's safer than the place we spend our daily lives at home. But just the idea of getting a change of scenery after such a long time frame of going nowhere at all is just a joyous thought. Note that by the time we head out on this short trip, both Christina and I will be fully 100% vaccinated. To say we're looking forward to it it a huge understatement.

In the places we like to go on vacation, social distancing isn't a big challenge. Here's They Stole My Crayon in Joshua Tree in May 2019. Photo by Jess.

Voting Rights, Corporations, and Cancel Culture
Not gonna spend a lot of time on this, but when I see mind-boggling levels of hypocrisy, I feel compelled to call it out. As has been in the news recently, Georgia has passed new laws that restrict voting or make it difficult to the point that citizens are discouraged from trying to vote. As a result, a number of companies have taken action, such as Major League Baseball's change of venue for the All-Star Game, and statements from Georgia-based and other businesses condemning the new voting-restriction laws.

The GOP has been so focused on ending what they call "cancel culture" that their recent conservative conference was themed "America Uncanceled", but then immediately called on people to boycott (aka "cancel") the companies who spoke out against this action. Similarly, the GOP was the big proponent of the landmark 2010 Supreme Court case of Citizens United, which removed the restrictions on speech-related political spending based on corporate identity. And despite those things, it's the GOP -- the group who determined that "corporations are people" -- who now condemns the ability of corporate America to voice their opinions on political actions.


You can't have it both ways, Mitch. Sorry (not sorry).

Hey, How About That Show?
Oh yes. The show at Hotel Chelsea was really good. As has been the case there for the past few months, my set followed Max Kleene, and a number of his sizable audience hung out for my show as well. It's never something I expect to have happen. Second Life isn't like a real-life live music club, where people might be going to hang out for an entire evening featuring multiple performers. It's far too easy to just go see the person you enjoy and teleport the fuck out the moment that performer is done.

When planning my repertoire for this show, I decided, for the most part, to stick to artists and songs that might be a little more familiar for the crowd. It's not always my responsibility to turn people on to underground indie artists, and sometimes people just enjoy hearing some songs they love performed live in front of them. There's nothing wrong with that, though it's not something i'd enjoy doing at every single show.

A small crowd having fun at Chelsea. I'm always proud of the fact that often, a lot of my audience seems to be made up of my fellow Second Life musicians. Photo by Kat.

Me, onstage, still in a mask, as I'll remain until the time comes that I'm likely to go maskless in the real world. Photo by Kat.

I was feeling super positive and enthusiastic going into the show, and I let my crowd know that at multiple moments throughout the gig. Some of that is having started my vaccination process, but I also let folks know that just that morning, I'd scored an interview with one of the artists whom I cover on a very regular basis: Kurt Vile. I rarely mention work-related things during my SL shows, but that was too good not to share with my crowd, who are well aware of how much I enjoy Kurt and his music. 

Hotel Chelsea set list...
Save It For Later (English Beat)
Solsbury Hill (Peter Gabriel)
Wichita Lineman (Glen Campbell)
You've Got To Hide Your Love Away (Beatles)
Big Empty (Stone Temple Pilots)
Don’t Let It Pass (Junip)
Pretty Pimpin (Kurt Vile)
Any Major Dude (Steely Dan)
The Worst (Rolling Stones)
Ziggy Stardust (David Bowie)
Things Under Trees (They Stole My Crayon)
What’s the Frequency, Kenneth? (R.E.M.)

Big thanks to everyone who came to the show, with super duper thanks to the following who helped support it!
Pato Milo, noowun Wind, Crystalina Halostar, GiannaMarie777 Resident, Cavatica2015 Resident, sweetpea Shilova, Grace McDunnough, Kat Claxton, Rusty Seisenbacher, Trouble Streeter, Bee Blackrain, my terrific manager Maali Beck, and Hotel Chelsea manager Shyla the Super Gecko!

Friday, April 2, 2021

I Got My First COVID-19 Vaccine!

Sitting in the car, waiting to get my first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine on Thursday April 1, 2021.

A lot has happened over the past 24 hours, and it all felt rather significant and certainly worthwhile for relating to you people who read this blog, whomever you are. To properly explain, let's back up a bit.

Thursday, March 25, 2021
I probably could leave this part out, but.. starting in or around December 2019, the world has been afflicted by COVID-19, a serious viral pandemic that has to date killed almost three million people, has infected 130 million people, and has massively impacted the lives of literally everyone regardless of whether they had the virus or not. The first effective vaccines started becoming available to the general public in late 2020, but distribution of the vaccines (more on those in a moment) was limited to the people most likely to be seriously impacted by the virus, or who had the highest risk of exposure due to their occupation or living circumstances. For the most part, it was people over 65 and those essential employees who could not sequester themselves from viral exposure and still earn a living.

Side note: I want to be clear that I completely agree with this prioritization of vaccine distribution. I was very happy when my elderly mother was fully vaccinated. Actually, I was happy every single time I saw any random person post on social media about having been vaccinated. The people who needed it most got it first, and honestly that's a good blueprint for society as a whole.

I was happy to wait my turn to become eligible for the vaccine. By the end of this month, every American over the age of 16 will be able to be vaccinated.

Anyway, on Thursday March 25, the state of California put out a press release that announced that starting on April 1, all Californians aged 50 and over would now be eligible to receive the vaccine, and added that starting on April 15, all Californians over 16 years old could do the same. Note that at the moment, no vaccine has been approved for people younger than that yet, so essentially the state is opening vaccine distribution for everyone possible at that time. And yes, different states have had different schedules, and most countries outside the USA have yet to get nearly enough doses of any of the vaccines to properly inoculate a large percentage of their population. It will happen eventually.

Thursday, April 1, 2021
So, just one week after the announcement by Governor Gavin Newsom, the day arrived that Californians over 50 could try and get an appointment for vaccination. Note the word "try". Up until that moment, being previously ineligible, I hadn't personally looked into the process of trying to get a vaccine, though I'd heard some stories (and seen the process spoofed on Saturday Night Live) about how confusing and difficult it was. They weren't kidding.

I'm not casting any blame here. It's a herculean undertaking, trying to safely inoculate millions and millions of people in a short time frame. Los Angeles County has a fairly good web site that connects you to dozens of potential sources for the various vaccines. These sources range from pharmacies (CVS, Walgreen's, etc.) to grocery chains (Albertsons, Vons, Ralph's, and so on) to various kinds of medical facilities both permanent and temporarily set up for this task.

With more than 10,000,000 residents, Los Angeles County (where I live) is the most populous county in the United States. Getting vaccinations set up for all of us is a huge task, and I genuinely think it's being handled well under the circumstances. This is the web site I used to secure my vaccination appointment.

I woke up on Thursday morning with the goal of getting signed up for a vaccination appointment, but my initial efforts were disappointing. Like I imagine most people would, I started with the hopeful idea that a convenient spot here in my area would have available appointments. Ha! I looked into the appointment schedule for every point on the map within a 5+ mile radius of my home here in Redondo Beach. Literally nothing. Zero. Zilch. Nada. It wasn't like, "Yeah, you can get an appointment but it will be in two months." I would have been fine with that. No, it was "no appointments available" at every single place I looked into.

It's easy to understand. It's not a matter of the vaccination sites not being able to handle the number of people who want a vaccine. It's that the vaccine supply itself is still relatively limited. They can only issue appointments when they know they'll have the vaccines on hand to serve the people. Also, note that the vaccines can't just be mass produced in huge numbers; it's a slow process and some of them need to be kept at very low temperatures from the point of manufacture to the time of being administered.

Grabbing the Jab
There I was at 7AM, sipping my coffee and semi-frantically clicking through the web site, searching for any resource that could provide me with a vaccine, and coming up with nothing. I knew that eventually, something would open up and I'd be able to schedule an appointment, and I was prepared to be patient as such, but frankly I really just wanted to get it done with. Like many people, for more than a year I've been staying home as much as possible and limiting my potential for exposure to COVID-19. My last vacation of any kind was in May 2019. I want to be able to live life again in a way that's safe for myself, and for the friends and family with whom I come into contact.

Christina joined me in the office and started going through the same process I'd been doing, with the same lack of results. But then, something miraculous happened: we looked into one of the vaccination resources with which we'd been previously unfamiliar, something called Carbon Health. They are apparently a network of urgent care and primary care facilities. I saw on the map that there was a facility set up in a large church parking lot in South LA, and clicked it. And that's when the magical information popped up; when I clicked the "make appointment" button, it didn't say "no appointments available". Instead, it asked me when I'd like to make the appointment... on that very day.

I looked at Christina and made sure that she was seeing the same thing as me. She was. We saw there were open spots at 2:30PM, and before they could get scooped up, we both grabbed them. We couldn't believe it; I wasn't even sure it was truly real until a minute or two later when I got a text message and email confirmation.

I was pretty ecstatic when I finally got my appointment, and my governor was also happy for me.

Nice People in South LA
The location of the vaccination site was at 1261 W 79th Street, which, as I saw via Google Maps, was in the parking lot of a large dome-shaped structure called the Crenshaw Christian Center. It actually isn't that far from here at all distance-wise, about 11 miles away, but it's a world apart from a socioeconomic perspective. It's smack in the middle of an area called South LA which was formerly known as South Central until the stigma of that name from coverage in the '80s and '90s of gang violence, drug dealing, and prostitution required a name change to make it a more viable area for community investment and redevelopment.

Like many people in Southern California (and probably around the world), I tend to stick to my own neighborhood. If I'm going to be driving around LA, it's generally for business reasons or (pre-pandemic) occasional social outings, and it's almost never to South LA. However, I wasn't going to allow some unintentional but inherent snobbism on my behalf have me hesitate about my chance at getting the vaccine.

It wasn't exactly a quick jaunt down the street, but it was a very worthwhile and mild inconvenience that had us heading up to South LA in order to get protected from the coronavirus. Also: per my route, apparently I don't like to turn the vehicle much.

We thought we were giving ourselves a ton of extra time by leaving for the appointment a full hour ahead of time for what is at most a 30-minute drive. However, when we arrived at the intersection of Vermont and 83rd, we saw that the left turn lane was blocked off and a long line of cars stretched northward up the street. It ended up taking another full hour before we slowly made our way around the block and then up to the vaccination site, but it wasn't a big deal. We listened to KCRW and chatted while the line of cars crept through the streets.

Before we even pulled into the site, we were greeted by a friendly person who checked our IDs, and then once inside there was another wait while they cleared through the people directly in front of us. Then it was our turn. We pulled up into the directed lane of cars, and another very courteous person approached to take our information, confirm that we had no medical allergies, and so on. A few minutes later, one of the medical staff from the Los Angeles Fire Department, smiling and friendly even after serving a full day of administering inoculations to thousands of Angelenos, came up and gave us our shots. Please note that at this location, the entire operation was drive-thru. We didn't get out of our vehicle at all. Christina later said it was like In-N-Out Burger where they take your order in line at your car window, except instead of a tasty burger, we'd get a lifesaving vaccination when we pulled up.

The large parking lot of the Crenshaw Christian Center had already been being used as a major COVID testing site, so they were very well organized in getting thousands and thousands of people in and out of the place, even on the mad rush from the first day of general eligibility for those of us 50 and older.

Does the vaccine hurt? No. The exact opposite. I barely felt the needle at all, to the point where I had to ask if she'd done it yet. She placed a small band-aid on the injection spot, and then we had to wait another 20 minutes or so. This allowed the staff to ascertain that we were experiencing no immediate severe reactions to the vaccine. I should note that everything was organized and automated; once the time had elapsed, we were allowed to go on our way after getting a text notification. We waved at and thanked each of the workers we passed on our way out. The whole experience was great and I was feeling extraordinarily grateful as we left, and then headed back in the southwest direction to get home.

Another important note: this vaccine is free. You will be asked if you have medical insurance. If you do, you'll provide your insurance card at the site. If you are not insured, there is no difference. They will administer the vaccine to you regardless. The one thing you will need is an ID that shows you live in the area and that you are part of an eligible age group. 

My vaccination card (you've probably seen a lot of these lately).

My freckly shoulder and my band-aid from my painless and free vaccine.

Side Effects and Other Afterthoughts
One thing about this vaccination process: there are several versions of the COVID-19 vaccine out there, but you do not have the option of choosing which one you get. The one you get is the one that's available at the place you go on the day you go. It's not like going to your local bar and choosing which beer you like. You take the one they give you.

NOTE: I based this chart on the most recent information I could find from a variety of sources. If you have more detailed questions about the vaccines, you should ask someone with more expertise than a random blogger guy who sings and plays guitar.

At the Carbon Health site in South LA, we were given the Moderna vaccine. We experienced no immediate effects at all. Later that day and continuing into the following day, both Christina and I had minor soreness in the arm near the site of injection. Nothing serious at all. We also both felt that we had a little extra fatigue that evening and perhaps a slight feeling of being parched that was easily solvable by drinking a little extra water.

Other people have experienced stronger side effect symptoms, and yet others have had none at all. Note that a good percentage of people who've received the second dose of Moderna said it knocked them for a loop, with more powerful feelings of fatigue, low fever, and overall malaise for a couple of days. But again, it's a low price to pay to end up having near complete immunity from COVID-19, and subsequently being able to enjoy life that is slowly making its way back to normal.

Kizzy PhD.

Quick side-note on Moderna: while it takes many people to create an effective vaccine against a powerful novel virus, the mRNA-1273 Moderna vaccine development was led by a Black woman named Dr. Kizzmekia "Kizzy" Corbett. Her brilliant work is almost certainly going to end up resulting in hundreds of thousands of lives being saved, and she deserves all the credit and grateful thanks that people can offer her.

So, that's it for now. I'll continue wearing my mask and doing all of the social distancing necessary for as long as required. Our second dose happens in 28 days, and two weeks after that, I should never have to personally worry about COVID-19 again. That will be a very good day.

Monday, March 29, 2021

New Zak Claxton Demo Collection: 03.27.21

About a week ago, my friend and bandmate Bunny Knutson let me know that another ICS session had been scheduled, this time for Saturday March 27. I've written about ICS before; it's the Immersion Composition Society, a group of songwriters and music composers that do occasional exercises where they try and create 20 songs in a single day. I am not an official member of the ICS and I don't even know if "official membership" is a thing, but I do know that I've enjoyed these sessions where I'm compelled to set aside time and be creative with new music.

Side note: I've never done close to 20 songs in an ICS session, and I can't imagine how awful most of them would be if I was going purely for quantity. I've done upwards of ten songs in a day before, though, and often a few of them are good enough to further pursue.

However, creating new music doesn't always happen on demand, and even though I was easily able to pop out a big batch of basic ideas, fleshing them out as full songs proven to be challenging. I woke up Saturday morning raring to go, but nothing was coming quickly or easily. Late in the afternoon, I actually wrote a song about how terribly my songwriting session was going. That's just sad.

Despite that, when I got up on Sunday and gave a listen to what I'd managed to get down the day before, it wasn't as bad as I thought it was. So, as I do, I posted the batch of song demos to Soundcloud, and you can hear them any time.

A few notes on the few songs I got finished.

I'm slowly training myself to try and break out of some rock music cliches that I've turned to without thinking for many years. One of those habits is having a steady drum part going through an entire song. "This Time" is the only really promising song I wrote and recorded on this day.

I wasn't going to bother publishing this instrumental non-song, but then threw down a noodly lead guitar line that was so derivative of David Gilmour's work on Pink Floyd songs like "Pigs" and "Have a Cigar" that I just took it all the way.

Well... as the afternoon wore on and I became more and more frustrated with my inability to properly get my song ideas down or good lyrics written, I connected with Bunny and told him that things were going so poorly that I was going to do a song called "I'm a big dummy and I can't write music." I said this as a joke, but not finding inspiration from anywhere else, a few minutes later I actually did just that. And I will say, I spent more time laughing while recording this than any song in recent memory, so the world gets to laugh along. Be aware that this song is full of explicit language; don't play it at work or in front of kids or your mom or basically anyone.

Final note: I mentioned above that I quickly grabbed ideas for a bunch of tunes, and some of them are really potentially good. So, as opposed to thinking that I spent a whole day to create one decent song, one rip-off instrumental, and one joke song, I actually have a bunch in the bag that will get fleshed out when they're ready to become more than they are at the moment. So, all good.

Lutz City of Templemore/Benefit for Bee (03.28.21)

A lovely day at Templemore for a very special cause for a very special person. Photo by Kat.

I can subdivide the kinds of charitable benefit shows I've done into three basic categories. One is for large organizations like Relay for Life, where the money goes to a fund and is then parceled out to people in need, but also to fund research and so on. The second kind is for smaller groups, like the shows I do for Feed-a-Smile that benefit the children of a single school in Kenya who use the funds for meals and to improve the infrastructure of their educational environment.

The third kind of benefit I've done over the years, and thankfully there have been few of them, is focused on a single individual -- usually someone I know personally and often a good friend -- who is in dire need for help. And not to go into an editorial tangent, but every one of these cases has been a fellow American person who has run into a health emergency that is sending them into financial straits. It goes without saying that in almost all other developed countries, their citizens would never run into the possibility of bankruptcy the first time they have a serious medical situation, but it happens here all the time.

It's a terrible truth and I hope it changes sometime within my life with possible programs like Medicare for All, where health care is considered a human right. But for now, we're stuck with the system we have, and unfortunately my friend Brenda Hayes, known to many in Second Life as Bee Blackrain, recently found herself facing a pile of medical bills. It's the kind of thing where, when you're already fighting to recover from an illness or injury and still having to pay your rent and utilities and other bills, can send your entire life into a tailspin. 

The promo poster for the benefit show.

Let's Talk About Bee, Baby
I'm pretty sure that I first became acquainted with Bee via her role as the longtime hostess at Templemore, one of Second Life's absolute finest music venues and virtual environments. Nothing against other venue hosts... most of them do a fine job of greeting people and making them feel welcome, and encouraging tips to the venue and the performer. But right from the start, I noticed that Bee had a quality which put her in a class by herself, as far as I was concerned: she had an extraordinary knowledge of music. For example, I'd choose to cover a relatively obscure indie band, assuming no one would be aware of them, but Bee would not only chime in about how she loved the band and mention other songs they'd done, but would even mention related bands I should check out. I didn't just interact with Bee at Templemore; she'd also often show up at other venues where I'd perform, and it was always a delight to have her in my crowd.

As I've said before, I have nothing against pop music, but I usually don't expect that others will share my enthusiasm about underground bands and artists. Bee's love of music didn't seem tied to any specific genre; she'd be able to discuss everything from indie rock to EDM to hip hop with equal awareness. Adding to my simpatico toward Bee, she and I are about the same age, so we've gone through the same set of cultural influences... but unlike many others our age, she didn't stop enjoying new music that came out after her youthful years. You'd be surprised how rare that is.

Lovely Bee Blackrain dances near Luis and other Templemore people. Photo by Kat.

I'd seen Bee's Facebook post a few weeks ago about a scary health incident that happened to her while at work, and I found it highly troubling. When our mutual friend Luis Lockjaw (Templemore's amazing design guru) got in touch with me to let me know he was putting together a special surprise benefit show for her, I couldn't say yes fast enough. I can tell that Bee is like me in another way; we are both strong people and neither of us want to be viewed as any kind of victim, and prefer to lead lives of independence where we don't have to rely on others. That's why Luis set up this event without informing her.

Silliness That Happened (And Didn't)
Even though I am way overdue for a new computer, most of the time in SL I have no problem cruising around and doing simple things like getting my virtual ass on a stage. However, Templemore, in its lush design with all kinds of textures and particles and tendency to have large crowds, often turns my computer into a mostly useless laggy lump. This became apparent while I was about to start my show. Toxie Darkmatter was wrapping up her set at Templemore's new amphitheater stage, and I had positioned myself onstage, slightly off to the side.

Well, apparently, as I was starting my show, I hit the up arrow one too many times and propelled myself off the stage, landing directly in front, and of course it was at that moment that everything locked up and I couldn't move at all. I was already on the audio stream and told the audience that I'd just do the show from where I was standing.

That didn't sit at all well with Luis. As I played my first tune, I saw a large basic wooden prim appear beneath me, and then it lifted me up to stage level. Then, another prim appeared in front of me and literally bulldozed my avatar backwards until I was standing exactly where I'd wanted to be positioned. That's fucking genius. I'll tell you that after more than 14 years doing live music in Second Life, it's the first time I've been physically shoved into the spotlight, and I loved it.

Luis uses basic prim blocks to physically push me onto the stage where I belonged. Photo by Kat.

I'll talk more about my set list in a minute, but first I want to tell you about a song that I didn't play at Bee's benefit. She and I had a recent conversation on Facebook after the Grammys regarding the song "WAP" by Cardi B, and other songs with explicit lyrics came up. She brought up the infamous case of 2 Live Crew, whose song "Me So Horny" became a huge controversy back in 1989. Well, I very briefly considered doing a mellow acoustic version of "Me So Horny" at her event. I even pulled up the lyrics and ran through the song. I think I got to the fourth verse and the following set of lyrics before deciding that doing this tune probably wasn't a great plan...

You said it yourself, you like it like I do
Put your lips on my dick, and suck my asshole too

However, that didn't stop me from doing "Jesus Ranch" by Tenacious D, though I did feel compelled to give a big preamble warning about language before launching into the raunchy song.

Lots of New Tunes
I'd honestly already been planning on breaking out some previously unperformed songs at an upcoming show, and it worked out perfectly so that I could do those in front of Bee and an appreciative audience at Templemore. You can take a look at my full set list below, but this may have been the first time I've ever done six songs -- half of my set -- that I'd never performed before.

Two of them were added at the last moment. The first is a song that I literally wrote and recorded the day before the show (I'll be posting about that writing/recording session shortly) called "This Time". The other was one of my improvised songs I sometimes do at the end of a set when I've got a minute or two to fill before the next artist takes the stage (which was Oblee in this case). It's not easy to literally play and sing things that you're making up on the spot, and I may have gone slightly overboard with my lyrics on "Doin' It for the Bee".

Am I still wearing my mask in SL? Hell yes I am. Until I stop wearing one in real life, it stays on in SL. Photo by Kat.

This was my first show at the outdoor Templemore Amphitheater, which is every bit as amazing as the other many stages that rumble at Templemore. There's nothing else like it in SL. Photo by Kat.

Regardless, the day itself was super fun -- it went for ten straight hours with a bunch of excellent SL performers -- and I know that a ton of cash was raised for Bee, which was the intent of the whole thing. I am confident that this will be helpful for Bee, and perhaps will ease some of the financial pressure she faces while making a full recovery, as she will.

Templemore/Bee Blackrain Benefit set list...
*Heart-Shaped Box (Nirvana)
Barely Breathing (Duncan Sheik)
*Jesus Ranch (Tenacious D)
Crosses (Jose Gonzales)
*This Time (Zak Claxton)
*Blasphemous Rumours (Depeche Mode)
How Lucky (John Prine)
Longing On (They Stole My Crayon)
Among the Leaves (Sun Kil Moon)
River Man (Nick Drake)
*Big Deal Party (Jackal Onasis)
*Doin’ It for the Bee (Zak Claxton)

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

Big thanks to everyone who came out for my show, to all of the artists and Templemore staff who made the event happen, and most of all to Bee for being such a lovely person in every way!

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Hotel Chelsea (03.02.21)

Back to the jams with another fun Tuesday night show at Hotel Chelsea. Photo by Kat.

After dealing with the audio issues I'd had while attempting to perform on Sunday, the only criteria I truly cared about for my show at Hotel Chelsea in Second Life was that I was able to actually do said show. And, not leaving things to chance, I'd already tested out my stream previous to the show. Storytelling hour was nice for one event, but I didn't want to make it a regular thing.

Therefore, I was glad at the moment that my audience at the show let me know they could hear me just fine, and that I didn't sound like R2D2 trying to cover Kraftwerk. If I'd been able to perform as planned on Sunday for Feed-a-Smile, I'd have had an entirely different set list at Chelsea... but as it was, I'd enjoyed curating and preparing those songs, and I just ended up using the same set on Tuesday night that I'd planned to do Sunday but couldn't. All good.

Vaccines and Stuff
Before I go into more details about the show, I want to mention the current state of things in regard to the ongoing battle against COVID-19.

Saturday Night Live, in its usual excellent way of lampooning life as we know it, did a great cold open this past weekend in regard to the rather confusing nature of the vaccination plan. The first thing to note is that while there are similarities across the country, the qualifications to get the vaccine varies from state to state, and county to county. I happen to live in the most populous area in the entire United States here in Los Angeles County, so it's understandable why here in particular, the challenges of getting all of us vaccinated are among the most difficult.

The good news, as far as I can tell, is that per yesterday's announcement, it's expected that by the end of May, enough COVID-19 vaccine doses will have been produced to cover everyone in the USA. Keep in mind that this is just the first step; the vaccines still need to be administered. Therein lies the current confusion. I think the plan of vaccinating the most vulnerable people first makes the most sense, which is why many people over age 65 -- like my mom, for example -- have already receive one or both doses of the vaccine. They've also been prioritizing vaccinations for health care workers and other people who work in critical jobs that force them to interact with the public on a regular basis, and for people who have preexisting conditions that would result in a higher likelihood of death should they contract the virus. Again, I completely support and agree with this.

We now have approved, highly-effective vaccines from a variety of pharmaceutical manufacturers including Moderna, Pfizer, and Johnson & Johnson. Now it's just a matter of getting them into the people.

But What About Me?
Once you get past those groups, it's a total mystery as to how this vaccination plan works. Initially, I'd seen information that the next group up would be mine: people aged 50-65 who aren't otherwise at high risk. But then, when I went back to the official web site for the LA County Department of Public Health to see if there were any updates, the only eligible groups listed were this mentioned above, aka Phase 1A and 1B.

Let's state the obvious: it's human nature to be self-centered. I'll give you an example. My last vacation of any kind was in May 2019. That's going on two years with very little time off work and almost no change of scenery. I was sort of hoping that if I could get fully vaccinated (i.e., having received both shots and taken time to ensure that I was experiencing no side effects) that in early June, I could head out to Joshua Tree for a few days of rest and relaxation. That might still be the case, and I'm hoping it is. But I'm not counting on it.

LA County's public health site is as informative as it can be under a changing set of circumstances. Unfortunately, it still doesn't tell me when I might expect to be eligible to receive the vaccine, and it might be awhile.

I could be resentful about this, but what good what that do? The fact is, the way the authorities are prioritizing the vaccine distribution does make sense. Also, the more people from any group who get the vaccine, the less likely that the virus gets passed along to me and people in my circle of family and friends. But this, too, offers a mindset that presents a problem, which is the ability of people to understand how this all works.

So, All Is Well and No More Masks, Right?
No, just because people have started being vaccinated does not mean the virus is defeated and people can go mask-free. Illustrating this point, the actions this week from Texas governor Greg Abbott were dangerously irresponsible when he declared his state to be 100% open with all mask mandates dropped beginning March 10. Here's why.

For one thing, there's a lot we don't know. How well will the current vaccine hold up against mutations of the coronavirus, both current and future? Will people who have been vaccinated still be able to carry COVID-19 and be able to inadvertently pass it along to unsuspecting people? We actually know the answer to this one, and it's a big "yes". And per above, with the grand majority of people yet to receive the vaccine, what happens when there are huge gatherings of people for events like Easter and Spring Break and so on?

Here's the deal: even after you are vaccinated, you should continue wearing a mask. If you go into a place of business or some kind of event where mask use is not being enforced, leave immediately and do not patronize those places. If people would do these simple things for awhile longer, we can get to a point where true herd immunity is achieved and mask wearing will no longer be necessary. I look forward to that day, as do most people. But it's not here yet, and we have a ways to go before it arrives.

Me, this week. Even a brief trip out in public means that I swear a mask like any sane and responsible person.

Back to the Show
Anyway, it felt good to do a regular old Zak Show in SL. I realize that doing one show per month isn't enough; not for me or for my friends/fans who enjoy my live performances. At some point soon here, I'm going to start up some regularly scheduled alternate shows, but I have yet to decide whether they'll be in Second Life or if I'll get back to doing the video-based remote shows that I've done previously on a number of online and social media platforms.

Getting rolling onstage at Hotel Chelsea as people arrive. Photo by Kat.

Masked in reality, masked in the virtual world. Photo by Kat.

People having fun at Hotel Chelsea. Photo by Kat.

Regardless, we had a small but engaged crowd who seemed to enjoy the songs I was doing, and that's really all I ask for from an SL show. My voice and guitar playing held up well, and I was feeling good throughout the show.

Hotel Chelsea set list...
Loading Zones (Kurt Vile)
Northern Sky (Nick Drake)
I Am a Child (Neil Young)
Teach Your Children (CSNY)
Airport Bar (Martin Courtney)
Cat's In the Cradle (Harry Chapin)
Always Tomorrow (Zak Claxton)
Smells Like Teen Spirit (Nirvana)
California (Joni Mitchell)
Thank U (Alanis Morissette)
High and Dry (Radiohead)
Someday (Mariah Carey) 

Big thanks to all who came out to the Zak Show, with special extra thanks to the following who helped support it!

Christine Haiku, Maximillion Kleene, Kat Claxton, my terrific manager Maali Beck, and Hotel Chelsea manager Shyla the Super Gecko!

Monday, March 1, 2021

Lavender Field/Feed-a-Smile (02.28.21)

For the first few seconds of my show for Feed-a-Smile, things seemed to be going normally. Photo by Kat.

Last week, when I heard from my old friend Brique Zeiner who asked if I could perform for her long-enduring Feed-a-Smile fundraiser show at the Lavender Field venue, I gladly accepted, but I forgot one important thing. That thing was the fact that the previous Sunday, I'd run into some very unexpected problems with my computer's audio system. It was during a Zoom call... an interview, actually, with members of the Canadian rock band Red Heaven.

What I didn't realize was that whatever was unfortunately affecting my audio during that call would also be problematic when I went to go stream live music via my audio interface. But sure enough, after planning a set list and getting all warmed up and ready, I went to start my show and things went downhill from the very start. Moments into my first song, I started seeing the chat window fill up with people telling me that I sounded like a robot.

Kat, who was sitting here in the room as usual, turned up her speaker volume so I could hear what they meant. And indeed, no matter what I was playing, a metallic, ring-modulated pitch was coming out. It was an interesting sound that could have been useful under other circumstances, but at the time wasn't what I wanted at all. I tried the usual things... restarted my broadcast stream, quit SL and returned, and nothing helped. The whole event could have easily ended right then and there, and had it been one of my regular shows, it almost certainly would have.

The Show Must Go On
However, I'd made a commitment to Brique to help raise some funds for her excellent charity, and I knew that somehow, in some way, the show had to go on. But how? As a musician who relies on several layers of technology to reach his audience, it seemed like there was nothing I could do.

But the reality is, music is only the vehicle for entertainment that gets people to come out to fundraising events like Feed-a-Smile. The key word in the last sentence isn't "music". It's "entertainment", and if there's one thing that seems hard-wired into my silly brain, it's the ability to entertain using a varied set of tools. So, a moment after accepting defeat about the possibility of performing live music, instead of ending the show and sending everyone home, I had a different idea.

[14:10] Zak Claxton: Well everyone, gather around
[14:10] Zak Claxton: I will type you a story

And that's what I did. Three stories, actually. For the remaining 50 minutes of my show, I typed stories to my audience. I was expecting pretty much everyone to leave, but for some reason that is unknowable to me, most of them stayed. And, I have to tell you... perhaps because it was just something so entirely different from most experiences in Second Life, in spite of the lack of music, people seemed to really enjoy themselves. I had a review, in the form of a Facebook post, from Bee Lockjaw:

"One of the best Zak Claxton sets ever.... but will never look at tracking paint, high end hookers, or zucchini the same ever again! A very fun time at Lavender Fields, feeding smiles and cracking a few of our own!"

I got off the stage and joined the people once storytime started. Photo by Kat.

The Stories
I suppose I should give you a synopsis of the stories I wrote, which were all different in their own way.

The first story is one of my go-to tales of my life, and is based on an entirely true event. When I was about 11 or 12, some bigger and meaner kids tried to steal my bike, and I fended them off through guile by telling them that my bike was coated in something called tracking paint, which would allow the police to find them and come round them up.

The second story was a bit of absurdism that I invented on the spot. It was that tale of a girl comprised entirely of zucchini. It wasn't a great story, but it invoked a lot of audience participation (mostly people wondering what the fuck I was talking about).

The third and final story was loosely based on a real event in my late teen years, when my friends and I went to a party at a hotel room and found ourselves in a strange place with an unfamiliar crowd, with various hijinks that ensued.

I have to say, none of these are epic stories. If I'd had time to actually prepare a storytelling event, they probably would have been more well thought out and compelling. As it was, I pulled them all out of my nether regions with no plan whatsoever. And yet, it ended up being super fun for everyone, and most importantly, people continued to donate funds to the cause while I weaved my little webs of words for them.

I was truly expecting literally everyone to leave once it became apparent that live music wasn't going to be part of the day's festivities. I couldn't have been more mistaken. Photo by Kat.

I Love My Audience

The real thing that made the event fun was the interaction with the crowd. The stories themselves were mediocre at best; what made the event great was the reaction of the people who hung out. It started innocuously enough as several people sat down around me like children in a Kindergarten class...

[14:11] Zak Claxton: Once upon a time...
[14:11] Zak Claxton: There was a boy who liked to ride his bike.
[14:11] Zak Claxton: So one day he was out riding his bike.
[14:11] Lilly Ann Setner-Matfield (lillyannsetner): (may I have a juice box?)

And things got progressively sillier...

[14:25] Zak Claxton: There was a girl.
[14:25] Kat Claxton: Is this also a story about you?
[14:26] Zak Claxton: IT'S NOT ABOUT ME GODDAMMIT
[14:26] Lilly Ann Setner-Matfield (lillyannsetner): I already hate this story
[14:26] Zak Claxton: This girl was made of zucchini.
[14:26] Zak Claxton: \No one ever knew.
[14:26] Trouble (trouble.streeter) blinks
[14:26] Ɲιηα Rσѕε Sεтηεя (nina.brandenburg): wow
[14:26] Lilly Ann Setner-Matfield (lillyannsetner): ooOOooo
[14:26] Zak Claxton: But it was true.
[14:26] Zak Claxton: She was a human zucchini.
[14:26] Trouble (trouble.streeter): at least she wasn't made of cauliflower
[14:27] Zak Claxton: Why would she be made of cauliflower? that would be weird.

And more surreal...

[14:29] Zak Claxton: The leader of the crows flew up to her
[14:29] Zak Claxton: And said "CAW CAW CAW!" because crows can't speak.
[14:29] Kat Claxton: CROWS HAVE A LEADER??? We're all so fucked
[14:29] Zak Claxton: But the girl found she could understand the crow.
[14:30] Zak Claxton: And what the crow said was, "Hey zucchini girl! How do you taste?"
[14:30] Lilly Ann Setner-Matfield (lillyannsetner): Ok that's flirty
[14:30] Trouble (trouble.streeter): oooh. frisky crow
[14:30] Zak Claxton: And the girl said, "What are you talking about crow? I am but a normal human girl!"
[14:30] Ɲιηα Rσѕε Sεтηεя (nina.brandenburg): rofl
[14:30] Trouble (trouble.streeter): I HAVE QUESTIONS
[14:30] Zak Claxton: And the crowm speaking in Crow Tongue, said, "If you're a human girl, you must pass three tests."
[14:31] Zak Claxton: For the first test, you must dive a mile into the sea and come back with the golden locket.
[14:31] Kat Claxton: Ok, a regluar person couldn't even do that
[14:31] Trouble (trouble.streeter): crows like shiny things.
[14:31] Ɲιηα Rσѕε Sεтηεя (nina.brandenburg): they do.
[14:31] Kat Claxton: This test is already unfair
[14:31] Zak Claxton: For the second test, you must climb Mount Fartybottom and pluck off the purple leaves of the violet rose.
[14:32] Lilly Ann Setner-Matfield (lillyannsetner): ...............
[14:32] Zak Claxton: For the third test, you must fly into space and take a picture of the C-beans glittering in the moonlight."
[14:32] Lilly Ann Setner-Matfield (lillyannsetner): the hell's a c-bean

And even more weird...

[14:35] Zak Claxton: I was getting my hair cut in 1986
[14:36] Zak Claxton: And the lady who was cutting my hair was named... something.
[14:36] Zak Claxton: I don't remember.
[14:36] Zak Claxton: Anyway
[14:36] Zak Claxton: It was a Saturday
[14:36] Trouble (trouble.streeter): can we call her zucchini?
[14:36] Zak Claxton: I was 17
[14:36] Zak Claxton: This story has no zucchini
[14:36] Lilly Ann Setner-Matfield (lillyannsetner): Trouble enough with the zucchini

After awhile, everyone was a player in this bizarre performance art piece...

[14:43] Zak Claxton: And to this day, i don't know how we found the room where the party was.
[14:43] Kat Claxton: Did you follow the sounds of cracking whips?
[14:44] Zak Claxton: IT. WAS. A REGULAR. HOTEL.
[14:44] Trouble (trouble.streeter): whips happen at regular hotels too
[14:44] Lilly Ann Setner-Matfield (lillyannsetner): Stop yellin Zak it's aggressive
[14:45] Zak Claxton: There was a loud banging on the door
[14:45] Ɲιηα Rσѕε Sεтηεя (nina.brandenburg): ruh roh
[14:45] Lilly Ann Setner-Matfield (lillyannsetner): WHOA
[14:45] Zak Claxton: BANG BANG BANG
[14:45] Lilly Ann Setner-Matfield (lillyannsetner): Told ya it was a sex dungeon
[14:46] Zak Claxton: Police! DEA agents! Hotel security!
[14:47] Kip Yellowjacket: where are the innocent boys on bikes?
[14:47] Zak Claxton: Those boys grew up, Kip.
[14:47] Kip Yellowjacket: oh
[14:47] Zak Claxton: Now they're with cocaine and hookers and they're far from home, with no bikes.

And so on. It genuinely was... well, weird, but everyone seemed to be having a super good time, and I found I was as well. I'll tell you one thing; had I just packed up my stuff and stormed off after the audio system failure, it would have ruined my day. I'd have been grumbling and pissed off for the rest of Sunday and would have awoken angry about it the following day. So, I suppose the moral of this little story about storytelling is that there's a reason why the phrase "the show must go on" exists. No matter what happens, never abandon the show. There's always something you can do to brighten people's days, even if it's a bit outside the realm of your comfort level or abilities.

As usual, my Second Life avatar remained masked just like my real life self throughout the pandemic. It will indeed be a happy day when, in both real life and the virtual world, I feel comfortable being out in public without the mask. It's still gonna be awhile before that happens. Photo by Kat.

More About Feed-a-Smile
I'd be negligent if I didn't make mention of the actual reason I'd appeared at Lavender Field in Second Life that day, which was to help raise funds for Feed-a-Smile, the ongoing charitable effort run by my friend Brique as part of the Live and Learn in Kenya program. I've done many, many shows for Feed-a-Smile over the years (my first show for them was ten years ago in 2011), and have been rewarded with wonderful drawings and lovely notes from the kids in Kenya who are the recipients of the benefit's actions.

The best gift of all is seeing them sitting down at tables to eat the food for which I'd had a hand in raising the funds that paid for them. That's a tremendous feeling as a musician, to know that some sound you made resulted in a tangible bettering of another person's life. I never did benefit shows in my youth, but now I can't recommend it highly enough for all performing musicians. Nothing will ever make you feel as good.

Although she's been based in Germany for much of her life, Brique hails from my same little section of the Los Angeles area as where I've made my home, Redondo Beach, and has become a good friend over the years we've been acquainted. I will always be glad to help her efforts with Feed-a-Smile whenever I can.

I don't have many things hanging on my wall here in my office/studio, but this framed set of pictures featuring the kids of the Ronda/Barut slums of Nakuru, Kenya who are directly helped via Feed-a-Smile was a gift from my late father, and is something I treasure.

I have no way of knowing who contributed to Brique's day of fundraising, but I do want to send thanks to the folks who were present and participated in my bizarre story hour at Lavender Field. 

Tom Sparkle, Kip Yellowjacket, Trouble Streeter, Joel Eilde, Lilly Ann Setner-Matfield, Nina Rose Setner, Sunray Moonites, JameJame, Lilith Dagostino-Coonery, Diana Renoir, Beachy Piers, Bee Lockjaw, my excellent manager Maali Beck, and the wonderful lady who makes everything happen for Feed-a-Smile, Brique Topaz!

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Hotel Chelsea (02.02.21)

Another fun night with music and happy people at Hotel Chelsea. Photo by Kat.

I was going to be a smart ass and start this post by writing, "Happy New Year!", since I haven't really had the time nor the energy to post yet in 2021 despite it now being February. What's happened since my last post on December 31?

Well, there was the insurrection against the United States on January 6, and the inauguration of president Joe Biden and vice president Kamala Harris on January 20. The former of these events led to a second impeachment for former president Trump, which is still an ongoing matter even after his departure from office; the latter has led to a whirlwind of presidential actions that have already undone much of the damage caused by the Trump regime. While I certainly supported Joe in the general election, I have to admit that his performance during his two-week tenure as POTUS has actually been much more impressive than I'd anticipated.

January 6: insurrectionist assholes unsuccessfully try a coup against the USA.

January 20: Joe Biden being sworn in as the 46th president of the United States.

And then there are the things going on with me personally. January is always my busiest month of the year in my marketing communications business. Usually that involves a huge in-person trade convention, but even though that was negated by COVID-19 this year, my clients still had massive plans to help announce their new products around the same time. As a result, I was even busier than usual, and as a result held back on doing any live music performances for the entire month.

I'm Back
But that's done now, and it felt great to get back to doing something that I genuinely enjoy, which is getting back on a virtual stage and performing music for people. A quick side note: playing live music is a physical activity. It really is. It's a good thing that I've continued my routine of exercising each morning, because I definitely felt the level of effort in playing guitar and singing for an hour last night. It felt good, really, though I managed to work up a pretty good sweat in the process. It's just something that if you don't do it on a regular basis, the physical effort becomes much more apparent. Like any kind of exercise, it's easier the more you do it.

Max Kleene had the slot before me at Hotel Chelsea, and not only was it great to hear him do his thing as one of the more talented and entertaining live musicians in SL; it also meant I had a good-sized crowd already there as I began my show. It's just easier that way. Having folks there when I start my show puts me in a good mood before I've even started my first tune, and that reflects on my performance as a whole.

Polishing Off the Rust
That being said, I definitely felt a wee bit rusty when I kicked off my first couple of songs. It wasn't terrible or anything; I just seemed a little tentative. It's a well known fact among the community of the performing arts -- musicians, actors, dancers, and so on -- that the enemy of a good show is self-consciousness. I am only at my best when I am able to fully escape my focus on myself, and instead become immersed in the music I am performing, and my engagement with my audience.

It had been so long since my last show, I forgot to start a guitar-strumming animation for my first couple of songs. Whoops. Photo by Kat.

As has been the case for all of my shows since March 2020, I wear a mask in SL as a reminder that masks save lives. If that bothers people, that's their problem, not mine. Photo by Kat.

But as I said, that only took a song or two, and then I felt really at ease just doing what I do. I remember reading that Mick Jagger, one of the greatest showmen in the realm of rock and roll, having to remind himself that "This is what I do" before each performance, especially at the start of a tour. Well, I've been performing live music for people on a pretty regular basis for over 40 years now. 80% of my life, I've been playing instruments and singing in front of people. Any time I get too concerned about the quality of my show, or too focused on the perception of myself rather than what I'm performing, I really just need to step back and like Mick, remember that this is what I do and this is who I am, and then the rest comes easily and naturally.

How I Put Together My Set Lists
I think I've mentioned this before... I've probably mentioned everything before. But it's worth repeating.

Every artist and band has their own way of creating a list of songs that they'll be performing at any given show. For most large-scale bands on big tours, the set list remains virtually unchanged, night after night. It's simply easier that way; the band rehearses a certain set of songs to the point that they can be performed masterfully. The length of the set is predetermined, making it easier for venue logistics. Everything from the lighting to the projections to other aspects of the show can be pre-planned and repeated precisely.

People chilling and enjoying the show. Photo by Kat.

Onstage at Hotel Chelsea. Photo by Kat.

Outside, it's a pretty neat build, and very reminiscent of the New York City area where the real Hotel Chelsea is located. Photo by Kat.

In Second Life, it's obviously a lot different. Most artists -- probably the more popular ones -- have a list of songs that they offer to their audiences, and then play upon request. That's cool, and fun for the crowd. For them, it's like being able to choose a song on a jukebox, and I imagine that those artists do very well in tips from people who choose the music for them. 

I do not do this. It is my strong preference to play songs that I'm really feeling at the time of the performance, and I specifically curate each of my sets to match whatever vibe I'm experiencing while preparing for the show. Sometimes I put together a theme for the show. Other times, it's merely based on the mood I'm feeling that day. And yet other times, my song choices are influenced by current events. Last night, I made sure to do a song that acknowledged the start of Black History Month, and I also did a John Prine cover for the first time, having gotten into the song by a version recently released as a duet between John and Kurt Vile.

Hotel Chelsea set list...
Save It for Later (English Beat)
Ironic (Alanis Morissette)
Help Me (Joni Mitchell)
*How Lucky (John Prine)
All Lives, You Say? (Wilco)
Bang and Blame (R.E.M.)
Eleanor Rigby (Beatles)
For What It’s Worth (Buffalo Springfield)
Sleeper in the Valley (Laura Veirs)
Pink Moon (Nick Drake)
It’s Choade My Dear (Connan Mockasin)
Blew the Dust Away (They Stole My Crayon)
Accidents Will Happen (Elvis Costello)
*Hotel Chelsea Rocks Improv (Zak Claxton)

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

Thanks to everyone who came by the show at Hotel Chelsea, with super extra thanks to the following people who helped support it!
Trymetwice Resident, LillyAnnSetner Resident, Nina Brandenburg, blonde Avon, Kat Claxton, Maximillion Kleene, noowun Wind, Trouble Streeter, my terrific manager Maali Beck, and Hotel Chelsea manager Shyla the Super Gecko!