Monday, December 11, 2017

Go See the Doctor


I'm the worst at seeing doctors. Why? First, like millions of Americans -- especially those like me whom are self-employed -- I'm uninsured. Second, I tend to underplay any physical malady... probably a result of my upbringing, when men were told to "tough it out" when injured or not feeling well. Third, I've had a few experiences where seeing a doc was a bad experience that, while being expensive, also didn't fix whatever was going on with me at the time.

Well, those are all understandable reasons, but they're also stupid. Let me get to the point.

On Friday 12/1, I awoke with a bad sore throat. That was less than shocking; my son had been sick, and I'd spent the previous afternoon with him at a meeting at his school. Also, about half the people I know had been similarly ill in recent times. I figured I'd suffer with this minor virus for a few days, get better, and go on with my life. I certainly wasn't going to run to a doctor for a cold, which is ridiculous. I did have to cancel a live music show that I'd had scheduled for Monday, but these things happen.

Getting Better, Getting Worse
By the following Tuesday, my throat was much better, and the illness had predictably wandered toward into my lungs. Again, no big thing. A little annoying coughing and sneezing, and I'd be better in no time, right? It seemed this plan was going to work out; I was feeling more chipper within a couple of days... until nighttime came around. When I'd lay down to go to sleep, the goop in my lungs would send me into these horrible paroxysms of coughing that just wouldn't stop. I'm talking 45-60 straight minutes of horrible coughing where I was barely able to catch a breath here and there. It was awful.

And still, I had no plans of going to a doc. I got some more over-the-counter meds to try and make my lungs work more effectively, and those seemed to help a bit. But the coughing fits were becoming more and more severe and painful. As some of you may recall, back in 2012 I got a pretty serious case of pneumonia. It was my second pass at the ailment; I'd first had it in 2007. Well, some of the symptoms I was experiencing were frighteningly reminiscent of what I'd been through before. Both of those previous times, I'd waited until it was close to emergency mode, where my doctor said that if it was any worse, I'd be hospitalized.

I guess one gets a little wiser as one gets older. If you don't, you just... don't get older, if you get my drift. On Saturday night, despite having been trying to rest and get liquids and take my OTC meds, I had a coughing fit that was the worst one yet, and I made the decision right there and then -- perhaps with a little persuasion from Christina -- that I was going to nip it in the bud and see a doctor.

Easy Like Sunday Morning
Once again, morning arrived, and I was feeling pretty good... and that meant that once again, I started talking myself out of seeing a doctor. "I feel completely silly going to the doctor with a cold," was what I said. But memories of the night before lingered, with my keeping Christina up into the wee hours while I struggled to breathe, and the pain and misery that accompanied it. Keep in mind, there were no specific signs of something worse going on. I couldn't hear my lungs making any odd noises as I took deep breaths, and as long as I was upright was able to control the coughing. i didn't have a fever. I was able to function mostly normally.

I was actually apologizing to the front desk at the urgent care center, saying, "Look, this is just a cold, but I'm only here in the off-chance it's something worse," and so on. They checked my vitals, which seemed pretty decent. And then they took a chest x-ray, and sure enough, I had a noticeable infection in my lungs (which is likely in my sinuses as well). It's basically "pneumonia light" which, had I let it keep getting worse for a couple days would have absolutely grown into full-blown pneumonia. An important side note: once you've had pneumonia, your likelihood of it coming back goes up exponentially.

I will be fine, and after one day on heavy antibiotics -- a shot of Rocephin in my ass and starting a course of azithromycin -- I'm already much better. Big thanks to the folks at Ocean Medical, as usual. I'll continue on my antibiotics and keep my liquid intake heavy and get rest, as one should. But my hesitance to go see a doc could have had dire repercussions had I not gone in. I don't need to go into the details.

Just Go
Look, I get it. No one wants to feel like a hypochondriac or a wuss. No one wants to pay for expensive medical treatment over what might end up being something minor. But the flip side of taking care of an illness early on before it becomes life-threatening beats those excuses into the ground. I'm very glad I went, I'm glad I'm being treated, and I'm glad I'll be getting well quickly. Next time you have a minor illness that just isn't going away on its own after a reasonable time frame, just bite the bullet and see a doc. Even if just for peace of mind, it's worth it.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

17 Cool Songs from 2017


As the year begins waning each December, I give you a list of songs that I enjoyed in some way. These may not be the best songs of the year. They may not even be my favorite songs of the year. But they are cool songs, and yes, they came out in 2017. In alphabetical order...

Aimee Mann - "Simple Fix"

Like many people, the first time I heard Aimee Mann was in 1985, when her band 'Til Tuesday had a pop hit with "Voices Carry". Then she inexplicably popped up on backing vocals for Rush's "Time Stands Still" a couple of years later. Then, in 1999, she had the magnificent song "Save Me" from the Magnolia soundtrack. Since then, there's been nothing she's done that I haven't enjoyed, including this tune off her latest album Mental Illness. Buy it on iTunes.

Art School Jocks - "Catdog"


Four girls from Atlanta doing lo-fi basement pop? Sure, sign me up. There's something about "Catdog" that reminds me of bands I had in my early teen years, when none of us knew how to play well enough to be anything but awesome. Buy it on Bandcamp.

Beck - "Colors"



It's Beck. No matter the genre, if you expect anything less than genius, you're listening to the wrong guy. I heard it said quite well that Beck goes through an insane amount of detailed work to make his albums sound effortless. He succeeds; we all win. This is great pop. Buy it on Bandcamp.

Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile - "Over Everything"



So... I'm a huge fan of Kurt Vile and Courtney Barnett individually, so I sorta freaked out when I heard they were working on a collaboration album. When it came out, it did not disappoint. This song and the album it's on, Lotta Sea Lice, ended up toward the top of every indie rock critic list for the year. I liked it so much, I actually left my comfortable home and saw them perform it live in October. Buy it on Bandcamp.

Dave Catching - "Bought and Sold"



Most of you know that I am a huge aficionado of the Mojave Desert and visit Joshua Tree as often as possible. My friends and I are also fans of the music of the area, and have spent plenty of time seeing shows and eating ribeyes at Pappy & Harriet's. Dave Catching, a member of Eagles of Death Metal and a producer/contributor to much of the music that we call Desert Rock, released a kick-ass solo album called Shared Hallucinations Pt. 1: Sonic Salutations From The Venerable Vaults of Rancho de la Luna 1972-1984. Buy it on Bandcamp.

Grizzly Bear - "Mourning Sound"


Grizzly Bear is more of a Brooklyn hipster band than I'm used to enjoying, but I liked "Mourning Sound" from the moment I heard it. Just because it was a critical fave doesn't mean it doesn't merit being on my annual list. Buy it on iTunes.

Kalbells - "Craving Art Droplets"


I like Kalbells for three reasons. First, this song is awesome. Second, her bio says that Kalbells is the solo work of Kalmia Traver, lead singer of Rubblebucket, but I have no idea who Rubblebucket is. Third, I read somewhere that the project was named after a folder in Dropbox she was using to send stems back and forth to her engineer, which seems like something I would do. Buy it on Bandcamp.

Melkbelly - "Kid Kreative"


This is from Melkbelly's debut album, but the stuff I've heard from this band doesn't sound like most first efforts. I think they'll have more cool stuff in the future. I hope so, anyway. Buy it on Bandcamp.

Ohmme - "Fingerprints"


This might be complete bullshit, but I recall reading that Ohmme was originally called Homme, as in Josh, the frontman of QOTSA. That didn't work out, so they juxtaposed the first letters and carried on. I really don't care; I just like their vibe and their willingness to be experimental. And their voices. And stuff. Buy it on Bandcamp.

Oro Swimming Hour - "Marshmallow"


Seriously, my friend Nicholas Stevenson makes my list every year, because his sound is just great on everything he does. His latest venture has him teaming up with Oliver Wilde, and the result is spectacular in a "we recorded this in a week in a kitchen" kind of way. The songs hold up. Buy it on Bandcamp.

Palm - "Walkie Talkie"


Palm is an experimental/prog/pop band out of Philly. They're arty, noisy, and I like them. How about that? Get their music on Bandcamp.

Priests - "Nothing Feels Natural"


I know very little about this band, except they seem to be all female, they seem to sound post-punky, they seem to be out of DC, and I like them quite a lot. Buy it on Bandcamp.

Queens of the Stone Age - "The Evil Has Landed"


So, it had been a number of years since QOTSA's last album. Josh had remained busy doing various cool things, but this album was very highly anticipated. And then a bunch of people freaked the fuck out when they heard it was being produced by Mark Ronson. Look, if you want every song by a band to sound the same throughout their entire career, go listen to AC/DC. I really enjoyed Villains. No, it's not my favorite QOTSA album, but it's really good in places, such as the hooky-as-fuck song here. Buy it on iTunes.

The Sadies (feat. Kurt Vile) - "It's Easy (Like Walking)"


The Sadies are cool, but they're a little more country than I tend to like at first listen. But throw my pal Kurt Vile and a set of repetitive but great lyrics into the mix, and bingo-bango... a song I listened to and performed a ton of times in 2017. Buy it on Bandcamp.

sir Was - "In the Midst"


You ever associate a song with a particular moment? Of course you have. With "In the Midst" by sir Was (a jazzy electronica guy named Joel Wästberg from Sweden), it's Bunny, Christina and I cresting the hill up the 62 from Morongo Valley into Yucca Valley heading toward Joshua Tree and being very happy. Buy it on Bandcamp.

Spoon - "Hot Thoughts"


Spoon is one of those bands that I still think of as a new band despite having been around for like 25 years, meaning I'm just old. But they've been very influential on indie music, and their latest is really excellent. Buy it on iTunes.

Wilco - "All Lives, You Say?"


First, I enjoy so much of Jeff Tweedy's creative output, it's no surprise I'd like this kind of random single that hit over the summer. But the fact that I really appreciated the theme of the song, that Jeff dedicated it to his father who passed away this year (as did mine), and that it's a charitable effort toward causes I support, makes it a winner by all definitions. Buy it on Bandcamp.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The Islands of New England (11.28.17)

No matter how many people show up for the show, I always enjoy performing at The Islands of New England. Photo by Kat.

Even in the best of times, this period between Thanksgiving and New Year's is pretty hectic. But in this era that exemplifies the supposed Chinese curse of "May you live in interesting times," each time I look at the news is fraught with peril. What insane thing will my country's leaders do or say? Which beloved public figure will turn out to be accused of sexual harassment? What natural disaster will befall some area of the world? Where was the latest mass shooting?

It's enough to drive some people mad. I genuinely think that the people like me who perform live music have a more important role in this era on this crazy planet than we ever did before. The fact is, no matter whether it's a real life or virtual or other environment, music can pull people away from the focus of their stress for a little while. Music, as they say, soothes the savage beast. There's no direct evidence of this specifically, but imagine a person who is at the end of their rope, and could snap any second. Maybe they listen to a little Zak Claxton music and decide to put down the gun, or step away from the ledge. It's not impossible to consider this as a realistic possibility. From my position on the stage, I can't tell what's going through my audience's respective heads; I'm busy trying to play guitar and sing. But people have told me in the past that my music helped them through a rough time in their lives. It's a good feeling, and perhaps now more than ever, the simple act of putting on my guitar and stepping up to a mic might have a greater impact than at any previous time in my life.

Therefore, when I have a really good show like the one I did last night at The Islands of New England in Second Life, there's all the more a feeling of satisfaction when it's done and I'm turning off my audio stream. We can all enjoy music for music's sake alone, but we can also be aware that some people have it worse than others, or are going through a temporary but difficult time, and for those folks, music may be the one thing between themselves and despair.

People like the fact that my sets are eclectic. Why not hear more things than you expected? Photo by Kat.

Dancing and laughing are good ways to spend a Tuesday night. Photo by Kat.

I like when the venues decorate based on the season. Photo by Kat.

Am I the only person in SL playing bands like Wall of Voodoo? I probably am. Photo by Kat.

We had a great crowd of enthusiastic folks who seemed to be enjoying the show, which is good. I managed to put together a pretty cool set list that combined songs from several eras and genres, and fortunately, my voice and guitar were both behaving to an acceptable level.

The Islands of New England set list...
This Afternoon (Zak Claxton)
Northern Sky (Nick Drake)
Wildflowers (Tom Petty)
Bang and Blame (R.E.M.)
Learning to Fly (Pink Floyd)
Same Sun (Real Estate)
I’ve Been Waiting for You (Neil Young)
Is She Really Going Out with Him? (Joe Jackson)
Blew the Dust Away (They Stole My Crayon)
Words (Missing Persons)
Half Moon Bay (Sun Kil Moon)
Mexican Radio (Wall of Voodoo)

Massive thanks to everyone who came out to the show, and special extra thanks to the following who helped support it!
RansomTalmidge Resident, Stratus Mactavish, dstauffsl2 Resident, Sommer Shepherd, Radslns Hutchence, RoxxyyRoller Resident, Kiss Moonites, Caruso Hunniton, Aurelie Chenaux, Jeanne Schimmer, KB Byk, Tippy Wingtips, Old Bailey, Kat Claxton, TheaDee Resident, my lovely manager Maali beck, and the fantastic events manager of The Islands of New England, Christine Haiku!

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Serenity Gardens (11.20.17)

Small crowd, good tunes, no worries. Photo by Kat.

In as much as I'm not a huge fan of holidays in general, Thanksgiving may be my favorite one. Think about it: I like cooking, and I like eating, and I like happiness. Thanksgiving is a good excuse for all of the above. This year will be a little bittersweet, as my dad, who passed away on September 8, had been coming to my place for the event every year for over a decade. Obviously, this year will seem a little quieter without his boisterous personality involved, but I'm still doing my usual stuff to make it a fun day for myself, Christina, and my son. Everything on my traditional menu -- turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, yams, cranberry sauce, green bean casserole, bread rolls, and pie -- will remain.

I figured with it being the week of Thanksgiving, I'd do my bi-weekly live music show at Serenity Gardens with an autumn music theme... not necessarily songs about autumn itself, of which there are surprisingly few, but just songs with the vibe of the season. However, as happens occasionally, Second Life wasn't fully cooperating with my plans. I already knew SL was acting up based on posts I was seeing on Facebook, with a big percentage of my SL friends talking about getting unexpectedly booted from being in-world and not being able to log back in. Hey, these things happen. When I went into SL to do my show, things were rather glitchy; I had to re-log three times and once I positioned myself onstage, tried not to move.

Just think how many people missed the chance to hear me cover Mariah Carey, something that may never happen again. Still, it was fun. Photo by Kat.

But the secondary result of SL being wacky was that we simply didn't get a lot of people at the show. As a live performer, regardless of the legitimate circumstances of not pulling a big crowd, it's natural to feel a little disheartened when your audience is maybe 20% of the size you expect. However, I've been doing this for way too long to get genuinely concern about a poorly-attended show or two. There are far too many circumstances that aren't in the control of the artist to take that stuff to heart. Keep in mind, this stuff happens in real life as well. Few musicians I know haven't had a gig scheduled and then some unplanned event... a road closure, a flooded street, an electrical outage, and so on... derails the possibility of getting people there. You can't allow yourself to assume that no one likes you any time you don't have your ideal audience. It's simply not logical.

I will say that in some ways, it's too bad that we didn't get a lot of people there, because I think it was a particularly good show. My voice and guitar were both performing very well (with one hilariously notable exception, when I simply couldn't make my hands do what I wanted on Elton John's "Daniel"), and the set list came together even better than I'd hoped.

Serenity Gardens set list...
Things Behind the Sun (Nick Drake)
Falling Down (Zak Claxton)
Allentown (Billy Joel)
Day After Day (Badfinger)
Carry Me Ohio (Sun Kil Moon)
After the Goldrush (Neil Young)
Sleeper in the Valley (Laura Veirs)
Thanks Anyway (Zak Claxton)
*Someday (Mariah Carey)
Here I Land (Nicholas Stevenson)
Daniel (Elton John)
In My Time of Dying (Traditional)

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

Thanks to the people who did make it to the show, with special thanks to those who helped support it!
ErikKottzen Resident, Tricia Funizza, Tyche Szondi, TheaDee Resident, RoxxyyRoller Resident, Kat Claxton, my manager Maali Beck, and the great management team of Serenity Gardens, Tilly Rose and Ilsa Wilde!

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Get Ready to Surf the Blue Wave

I don't spend a bunch of time on political talk, but I do recognize when important things are happening, and I'm smart enough to know that yesterday's election results sent a clear message to everyone. I thought it might be nice to document a few things that happened on November 7, 2017.

Trump Supported a Loser and Then Immediately Stabbed Him in the Back
Perhaps the biggest news from the election was the defeat of Ed Gillespie (R) by Ralph Northam (D) as governor of Virginia. Gillespie had been being supported by Trump before the election.


As it became apparent a few hours later that Trump's choice was going to lose by a substantial margin, his tune changed.


One thing that the folks in America's heartland can all understand: no one can respect a person who is two-faced or disloyal. Trump's endorsement almost certainly helped cost Gillespie the election, and then Trump's treatment of the man he'd supported after the loss shows that he cannot be trusted under any circumstances. He has no qualms about throwing his supposed friends under the bus, and that's something anyone can see (and will continue to be more and more apparent as the Russian election interference investigation continues).

Shockingly Great Democratic Victories
A few of the many Democratic and Progressive winners from yesterday's election. Top row: Ralph Northam, Justin Fairfax, Wilmot Collins. Middle row: Danica Roem, Andrea Jenkins, Melvin Carter. Bottom row: Jenny Durkan, Vi Lyles, Ravinder Bhalla. Photos via Twitter.

As I've mentioned occasionally, the legacy of the Trump presidency is going to go in directions that no one could have anticipated. Previous to Trump's election, if you'd told me any of the following, I'd never have believed you. I think the very backlash to Trump and his regressive policies is what spurred America to make some of the following choices. It's heartening to see a wider group of voters putting aside their prejudices and giving these worthwhile candidates a chance.

• Joining Ralph Northam in Virginia's leadership is new lieutenant governor Justin Fairfax, who defeated Republican Jill Vogel.

• The new mayor of Helena, MT is an African refugee from Liberia and progressive politician named Wilmot Collins. The incumbent he beat had been mayor for 16 years.

Danica Roem was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates. In addition to being that state's first transgender delegate, her opponent was Bob Marshall, the self-proclaimed "chief homophobe" who created the infamously discriminatory "bathroom bill" legislation. Talk about sweet justice!

• She wasn't the only transgender person elected. Newly-elected Minneapolis city councilperson Andrea Jenkins is both black and transgendered. Also in Minnesota, the city of St. Paul elected its first black mayor, Melvin Carter.

• Manchester is the largest city in New Hampshire, and their incumbent Republican mayor Ted Gatsas was just defeated by Democrat Joyce Craig, the first woman to hold the position in the city's 266-year history.

• It's notable that Charlotte, NC chose Vi Lyles, the city's first black female mayor in its history. In less surprising but still great news, Seattle's new mayor is an openly lesbian woman, Jenny Durkan.

• I am very happy for Ravinder Bhalla‏, Hoboken, NJ's new mayor. There were flyers being distributed during the election that implied this Sikh man was a terrorist because he wore a turban. I think this kind of tactic will continue to have the opposite effect of its intention as more non-white, non-Christian, and non-male candidates seek election.

Just the Start
While this wave of Democratic victories is highly encouraging, it's only a small step on the road to getting our country back to where it should be. Next year, in 2018, is when the most crucial part of the process happens. Due to the anti-Trump backlash, the midterm elections have a strong chance of flipping congress to a Democratic majority. As my congressional representative Ted Lieu wrote last night...


I'm with Ted. Let's kick some ass and keep getting people out to vote at every opportunity.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Serenity Gardens (11.06.17)

Monday nights at Serenity Gardens are always good. Photo by Kat.

It’s the first Tuesday in November today, which means that it’s been exactly a year since a good chunk of the USA went to the polls, confident that they’d elected the first female president of our country. I was really feeling pretty upbeat that day; while I wasn’t a huge fan of Hillary Clinton (I’d been a supporter of Bernie Sanders), I thought she’d do a relatively good job as America’s leader. It was later that night that I, along with a whole lot of others, watched in disbelief and then dejection when Donald Trump -- while losing the popular vote -- won the presidency based on electoral votes.

To say it’s been an interesting year since then is a hideous understatement. By nearly all definitions, it’s been awful. In addition to the horror of Trump’s complete lack of understanding of the job of POTUS and the growing evidence that he and his campaign colluded with Russia to get elected, we’ve faced a series of natural disasters and several of the worst instances of gun-related mass killings in modern history (not to mention our first nuclear saber rattling in many years). On a personal level, both my father and Christina’s father passed away in consecutive months, in September and October. It's been rough.

Good Times Coming Soon
I’m not here to dwell on those negative aspects of the past year. In fact, there are some tremendous positives that have come from all this. People who had previously been mild and complacent are now active and involved. So many important issues that had been pushed under the rug are being brought to the forefront... racism, wealth disparity, sexism, sexual assault, foreign influence on our elections, the needless buildup of our nuclear arsenal and much more. These topics are more out in the open than they'd ever been before. As part of the investigation into the Russian issue, we're also finding out more about the wealthy using offshore tax havens, and that's an issue that crosses all political outlooks. It's also quite possible that the outing of powerful sexual predators like Harvey Weinstein wouldn't have happened if people hadn't adopted a new willingness to fight injustice as has happened over the past year.

While it’s terrible to see our country going through these difficult times, my honest opinion is that without this opportunity for bringing our problems out into the light — many of which were problems long before Trump arrived — we’d have kept going on with these issues as business as usual. How ironic would it be for Trump’s presidential legacy to end up being almost the exact opposite of his intents? He’ll claim that was his plan all along, of course, and that’s fine with me. In the meantime, I do the things that I can do to help make life a little better for those around me, and one of those things is playing live music.

Crazy times got you down? Live music can't fix the world's problems, but it can help some things feel better for a little while. Photo by Kat.

Rocking Serenity
Last night was a great show at Serenity Gardens. I don't measure the greatness of shows based on the size of the crowd, ever. I base it on two simple factors: a) did I play good songs and play them well? and b) were the people who were there truly enjoying the show? The answer to both questions was definitely "yes" at my show last night. I did a couple of tunes I hadn't done before and enjoyed playing both (which truly were "new" songs, both having been released in the past few months). I pulled some other tunes from the deepest recesses of my repertoire, and those were fun too.

The people who own and help operate Serenity Gardens are super nice, and extremely supportive. I can tell you, having performed at about 100 different Second Life venues over the last 11+ years, these are people who know how to do it right. They're well organized, well staffed, and treat both the artists and the visitors with respect. I hear these crazy stories of things happening at other places, and think to myself how glad I am that there are places like Serenity that truly live up to their name. I do feel a sense of serene calm while I'm playing there, and it's truly a pleasure.

Serenity Gardens is truly a nice and relaxing place for live music in SL. Photo by Kat.

My view from the stage. Photo by Kat.

Serenity Gardens set list...
Love Ain’t for Keeping (The Who)
Mexico (James Taylor)
Linger (The Cranberries)
*Same Sun (Real Estate)
Rhiannon (Fleetwood Mac)
Into the Mystic (Van Morrison)
Nearly Lost You (Screaming Trees)
Perfect Day (Lou Reed)
Six Underground (Sneaker Pimps)
Plush (Stone Temple Pilots)
Say Goodbye (Beck)
*Intercontinental Breakfast (Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile)
Saved by Zero (The Fixx)

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

Big thanks to everyone who came to the show, with special super thanks to those who helped support it!
ErikKottzen Resident, XdazedserenityX Resident, go2smoky Resident, Mikes String, not4gods Resident, Tyche Szondi, TheaDee Resident, Kat Claxton, my most awesome manager Maali Beck, and the great management team of Serenity Gardens, Tilly Rose and Ilsa Wilde!

Monday, October 30, 2017

Veterans Isle for Homes For Our Troops (10.29.17)

Raising money for a great cause at Veterans Isle in Second Life. Photo by Kat.

About once a year for the last four or five years, I've received a request from fellow Second Life musician Frets Nirvana to perform at a benefit that he hosts on the last Sunday of each month at Veterans Isle. Each time, I've said yes right away. The shows benefit a nonprofit organization called Homes For Our Troops, a 501(c)(3) charity that builds and donates specially-adapted custom homes nationwide for severely injured post-9/11 veterans to enable them to rebuild their lives.

Zak Says, "War... It's Not Good"
I've spoken about this before, but it bears repeating: I'm as opposed to war as anyone you've ever met. I find it to be one of the last holdouts of humanity's most barbaric behavior. I believe that most wars, especially modern ones, are not held for the supposedly noble reasons that are offered to the public, and are rather attempts to steal resources from other nations, and/or for the profit of individuals and companies who care more about the greedy expansion of their own assets than the horror of death and severe injury to the young people who fight in them (and who usually are doing so under misleading circumstances).

Why, then support a cause dedicated to veterans? It's for that exact reason, actually. The members of the military who fight in wars and are severely injured do not even get the courtesy of being treated with the courtesy and respect they merit after their return home. Like it or not, it's up to causes like Homes For Our Troops to help provide for people whose bodies were mangled in their attempts to do what they feel is the right thing. Should it be that way? No, no, a resounding no. But it is that way, and until it changes, I will always be happy to spend a little time playing guitar and singing to help those people in a small way.

My "Halloween Boycott" Show
I love Halloween. It's a fun holiday. That having been said, as a musician, it's extraordinarily limiting in terms of performing songs I really enjoy. I've done tons of Halloween shows, both in real life and the virtual world, where I select entire sets of spooky songs (including the song "Spooky"). When I started getting my list together for my show at Veterans Isle, the thought crossed my mind that since it was so close to Halloween, I should choose some of my scarier material. Then I threw that plan right out the window for the very legitimate reason that I didn't feel like it. Instead, I did more of a typical Zak Show. Especially considering that many of the folks at the event weren't part of my regular crowd, I wanted to give them a chance to enjoy what most people hear when they attend my shows.

My view from the stage. Photo by Kat.

We had a good crowd of generous people who all helped the cause. Photo by Kat.

Right after the show... happy, sweaty me. Photo by Kat.

We ended up doing very well for the goal of the event, which was raising funds. I'm proud to say that at the end of my set, we surpassed L$30,000, which is over $120 USD. That's pretty damn good money raised for an hour of one guy strumming a guitar, and I'm sure that the rest of the event (which featured other fine SL performers including Chapman Zane, The Vinnie Show, and Blues Heron) raised much more for the cause.

Veterans Isle/Homes For Our Troops set list...
Dusty Rhodes (Lotus Plaza)
It’s Easy like Walking (The Sadies/Kurt Vile)
Comes a Time (Neil Young)
How Soon Is Now? (The Smiths)
Man of Constant Sorrow (Traditional)
Pink Moon (Nick Drake)
Rocket Man (Elton John)
Always Tomorrow (Zak Claxton)
Half Moon Bay (Sun Kil Moon)
Tea in the Sahara (The Police)
Airport Bar (Martin Courtney)
Pigs on the Wing - Parts 1/2 (Pink Floyd)

Huge thanks to all who came out and contributed so generously! Here's a list of some of the people who were there (and happen to be in my chat log). Thanks to you all!
Sabryne Hotaling, Waya Snowpaw, Russ Bentley, Jeff Mirabeau, RoxHardcore Cyberstar, Gjackie Winkler, Lady Elicea, daallee rhapsody, Aurelie Chenaux, Kat Claxton, kayravi, flynavy beerbaum, Triana Caldera, marythemagdalen, Archer Clary, thundercloud lecker, Ceithlan Zane, Chapman Zane, klondikes Fredriksson, aryna markova, Romie Vella, Kal Habana, Alicia Underby, and most of all, Frets Nirvana who drives the entire event (and does so month after month, year after year).

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Serenity Gardens (10.23.17)

Interacting with a fun crowd at Serenity Gardens. Photo by Asimia Heron.

We're getting slammed by a record-setting fall heat wave here in Southern California. Yesterday, in my usually cool beachside town, it briefly went over 100 degrees. To put that in perspective, our average temperature for October is 69 degrees. Today is supposed to be even hotter, and like the majority of our neighbors, we do not have air conditioning here. It kind of sucks, truth be told.

It will also be pointed out to much of the country tonight as game 1 of the World Series kicks off at Dodger Stadium, where it will likely be the hottest WS game ever played. I'm not going to spend a lot of time talking about climate change on this blog; there are many better places to learn about and understand that topic elsewhere. I will take the opportunity to say that it's unquestionable -- to me and to 95% of scientists -- that man's effect on the climate is undeniable, and that for the rest of my life, extreme weather conditions will become more and more commonplace. There's no way around it at this point, so I'm going to predict that putting an AC unit in this home will be an inevitability as these hotter and hotter periods keep coming.

Do these pixels look sweaty to you? Photo by Asimia Heron.

The only reason I bring it up now is that by the time my show at Serenity Gardens got started at 6PM last night, it had cooled down to about 85 degrees. That's still a pretty toasty environment to be putting full energy into singing and playing guitar for a crowd of people. I made sure to power through a lot of water before, during, and after the show, and keeping hydrated and cool when possible is the only way to get through one of these heat blasts without bad repercussions. In any case, the show itself went really well, which surprised me. I made sure not to play too many high-energy songs in a row, which I think helped.

Where Is Kat?
As many people know -- since I bitched about it constantly -- my ladyfriend Kat (aka Christina) was recently gone for over two weeks, from September 21 to October 6, in South America. She visited Bolivia, Peru, Chile, and even Easter Island. It was something she always wanted to do, and I was very happy that she did (despite missing her while she was gone).

However, now she's on a much less joyful trip. Her father has been dealing with terminal cancer for over a year, and on Friday of last week, she got the call that he didn't have much time left. Immediately booking a flight to Seattle that day, she's been up there helping out her family, which is absolutely the right thing to do. It has been extraordinarily difficult for all of them, and all I can really do is be supportive as possible. Having been gone on vacation and immediately turning around and leaving town is not what she'd planned, and it's my hope that the situation resolves as quickly as possible so she can get back down here and start to settle into normalcy again.

The Show
Ah yes, the show. It was a good one, as I mentioned previously. I did one song I'd never done before in SL, and reached deeper into my bag of tricks to do several others I hadn't played in years. Despite the heat, my voice and guitar were both behaving reasonably well, and the people who attended seemed to have fun. No complaints. Good times. Would do again.

Rocking with my skeleton band. Photo by Asimia Heron.

Getting the show rolling. Photo by Aurelie Chenaux.

Collapsing into a chair after my performance at Serenity Gardens.

And real life sweatiness right after finishing the show.

Serenity Gardens set list...
Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (Neil Young)
Northern Sky (Nick Drake)
*Alison (Elvis Costello)
Losing My Religion (R.E.M.)
Jack Straw (Grateful Dead)
Nothing Compares 2 U (Prince)
Big Yellow Taxi (Joni Mitchell)
Peaceful Easy Feeling (Eagles)
Better Man (Pearl Jam)
Don’t Let It Bring You Down (Neil Young)
Shame Chamber (Kurt Vile)
Just Like Starting Over (John Lennon)
Tea for the Tillerman (Cat Stevens)

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

Giant thanks to all who came to the Zak Show, with special thanks to the following people who helped support it (and super duper thanks to Asimia and Aurelie for handling the photos in Kat's absence)!
snowflakenana Resident, ErikKottzen Resident, Debi Palmira, go2smoky Resident, easyglider Resident, Asimia Heron, Tyche Szondi, TheaDee Resident, Aurelie Chenaux, my sweet manager Maali Beck, and the great management team of Serenity Gardens, Tilly Rose and Ilsa Wilde!

Monday, October 16, 2017

Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile at Immanuel Cathedral Sanctuary (10.14.17)

Courtney, Kurt, and the Sea Lice onstage at Immanuel Cathedral Sanctuary on Saturday October 14. Photo by Jen Cloher.

A little background, which is sometimes helpful. I've been a fan of Philly-based singer-songwriter indie-rocker Kurt Vile for maybe 5-6 years. Despite that, I'd never taken the opportunity to see him live. Over the past couple of years, I've also gotten into the music of Australian singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett, whose 2015 full-length debut album merited a "Best New Artist" Grammy nomination (which, being the Grammys, she lost to a much less talented artist). As a performing musician, I've covered multiple songs by both artists. Separately and individually, I've truly admired and appreciated both artists. Imagine my happy surprise, then, when earlier this year, I found out they'd teamed up on a collaborative album called Lotta Sea Lice which would eventually be released on October 13.

When it was announced that they'd be touring together, it took about 0.3 seconds for Christina and I to decide to get tickets for a show here in LA, and that Bunny would accompany us to make it a full They Stole My Crayon band outing, which fortuitously was scheduled for the day following the album release, on October 14. Despite there being multiple shows in the LA area, our show at Immanuel sold out very quickly, so we were pretty stoked to be going to what was obviously a pretty hot ticket.

Heading Into K-Town
I often tell people who don't live here... Los Angeles doesn't really exist as a homogenous place. Instead, you have these pockets of extraordinarily different zones that are somehow fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. I have spent very little time in the whole Wilshire Center/Koreatown neighborhood, despite knowing the surrounding adjacent areas well. It's one of those things about living here; you have your place and your comfort zone, and that's where you tend to stay (notoriously true for those of us down in the South Bay). So, it was kind of a fun adventure figuring out the whole "where to go, what to do" for the evening. Traffic wasn't nearly as bad as I thought it might be, especially with game one of the NLCS happening at Dodger Stadium. One quick tip: if you're ever heading to see a show at Immanuel, definitely park at the UTLA lot on Berendo Street. It's across the street from the venue and costs five bucks. Winning.

I made a little map for Bunny to show him where to meet us. He was still 40 minutes late, but he gets bonus points for taking public transportation to the show.

Spicy Deliciousness at Ten Ramen
We knew it would be a good idea to grab dinner before heading into the show, and we didn't want it to be a pain in the ass, so we decided to keep it local and strolled a block up to 6th Street to eat at Ten Ramen, a relatively new spot that's getting good reviews so far. They are well-deserved; the ramen was incredible, and the dinner was very reasonably priced. A couple of tips: one, try the corn cheese appetizer (really); two, if you order your spicy tonkotsu ramen at level 3, that's like a 5 anywhere else. My sinuses were clear moments after my first sip. Whew. Damn. So good, though.

The spicy tonkotsu ramen at Ten Ramen in Koreatown. Crazy delicious.

Bunny and I, high on ramen spice. Photo by Christina.

Immanuel Cathedral Sanctuary
After dinner, we walked over to the venue, which is a Presbyterian church in a historic site... a gothic cathedral that is spectacular both inside and out. We walked in, grabbed a beer, and immediately realized we couldn't actually walk into the church interior with alcohol, a fact that should have seemed obvious. Instead, we hung out in the foyer and hallways. A couple walking by spotted Bunny's TSMC shirt and asked about it. We took the opportunity to pimp the band, of course. The crowd seemed cool, as one would expect with this combination of artists. Everyone seemed happy and pretty chill in general. We meandered inside the sanctuary and sat about 10 rows back, with a great view of the stage in this rather small hall.

This was our first show at Immanuel Cathedral Sanctuary, and hopefully not our last. Amazing! Photo by Live Nation.

A Great Opener by Jen Cloher
Courtney Barnett's wife is Jen Cloher, an indie-folk singer-songwriter who is well respected in Australia but much more underground in the US. She is fantastic in her own right, and she did a 4-5 song solo acoustic set of her own stuff as an opening act. All three of us were very impressed with both her songs and her confident performance. This was apparently her first gig in Los Angeles, and she got a much-deserved standing ovation at the end.

CB and KV (and the Sea Lice)
I've been listening to the couple of CB/KV tracks that were pre-released ahead of the album, and then in the past week having been listening closely to some of the live performances, like the in-studio radio gig they did at KCRW last week. I was, therefore, reasonably familiar with the whole album, which they played in its entirety. They also performed a couple of covers, and both Courtney and Kurt did some of their own solo stuff. By the way, in addition to Courtney and Kurt, we had the pleasure of a kick-ass backing band, featuring drummer Janet Weiss (Sleater-Kinney), bassist Rob Laakso (The Violators), and keyboardist/backing vocalist Katie Harkin (Sky Larkin). While the songs themselves were intentionally loose in a Neil Young-esque way, the band seemed tight to me in most places.

Courtney and Kurt with the awesome Janet Weiss on drums, taken from our seat at Immanuel Cathedral Sanctuary. Photo by Christina.

Another view from our seats. How cool is this place? Photo by Christina.

Sort-of-Maybe-Kinda-Correct Set List...
I am sure I'm missing 1-2 songs here, and my order is somewhat out of whack. They played the new Lotta Sea Live album in its entirety, plus 2-3 solo songs each from both Courtney and Kurt, and a couple of other covers as well.

Over Everything
Fear Is Like a Forest
Outta the Woodwork
Let It Go
Continental Breakfast
On Script
On Tour
Depreston
Life Like This
Blue Cheese
Untogether (Belly cover)
Elvis Presley Blues (Gillian Welch cover)
Dead Fox
Pretty Pimpin
Avant Gardener

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Serenity Gardens (10.09.17)

Rocking a great crowd on a lovely fall evening at Serenity Gardens. Photo by Kat.

It's so easy these days to convince yourself that the world is ending. And, while that might be true, I still feel like it's the responsibility of the performing musician to bring some happiness to his or her audiences, even if just for a little while.

Last Monday, October 2, was by all definitions a shitty day. I awoke, flipped open my iPad, and was immediately greeted with the news of the worst mass shooting in modern American history. I was still processing that horrifying information when in mid-day, I started hearing that something had happened to Tom Petty, and it seemed bad. Really bad.

Let's Talk About Tom Petty
Tom Petty was a musician in the same way that Budweiser is a beer. He might not be your favorite, but he seemed like an American institution. His music wasn't super adventurous, but it was always well written, well performed, and just sounded good. He had a helluva band with the Heartbreakers. Their songs were like a warm blanket on a cold day; you couldn't help but feel a sense of comfort when you heard just about any tune they did. While Tom went through various vibes and phases like all creative musicians, there was an element of consistency that never left you wondering who you were listening to, and that was true from their debut in the mid-70s through stuff they released in the last few years. It was just always, always good, and I know of very few musicians who, even if they didn't love Tom Petty, they respected him.

I got to meet Tom Petty once, for about a minute and a half, backstage at the Hollywood Bowl in 1995. It was a work-related event for me, but even in that short time frame, it felt like talking to a person who was just a regular guy who you might see around your neighborhood. Friendly, open, warm, and -- while this is a word that gets overused -- genuinely nice. He was a nice guy. Whether he'd been a rock star or the guy who works on your car's transmission, you'd say, "That Tom Petty is a nice guy."

Tom Petty, 1950-2017. Photo by Tina Hagerling.

Back in the '80s, my mom got to spend more time with TP than I ever did, sitting next to him for about six hours on a flight from New York to LA. She said the same thing. "He was one of the nicest people I ever met," was her reaction when I asked what he was like.

I found myself in shock when he died from a massive heart attack at age 66 on October 2. It took awhile to get past it, and I'm frankly not sure I'm fully past it now. But regardless, I did what musicians do to honor the passing of a great and influential fellow musician; at the next possible opportunity, I played his music.

The Show
I arrived at Serenity Gardens last night to find that Ilsa and her crew had decked it out in Halloween decor. More than just putting out a few silly scary items, the entire sim seemed to have been transformed for the season, with darker foliage and all kinds of vibe changes. I loved it. I can tell there's a lot of thought and effort that goes into this place, and as both a live performer and venue visitor, I really appreciate that. Sometimes, it's the little details that count. As I sat down next to Kat upon finishing my show, I noted that the poses in the chair were all changed so we both appeared zombie-like as we sat there. Cute, and fun.

Musically, I thought the show went pretty well. Since I've been doing less shows lately, both my voice and guitar had moments where I was internally yelling at myself to play better, but I expect that I'll be able to spend some more time singing and playing in upcoming times, so they should both improve. Like any other physical activity that involves muscle memory (like singing and playing guitar), you're only as good as you can be through practice and effort. It's not like it was bad, or anything. I thought a lot of it was quite good. I just have high standards for myself. While I'd planned a few tunes in tribute to Tom, I didn't go overboard, and instead of doing his tunes back-to-back in a set, I scattered them through the show, which seemed to go really well.

I'm usually all alone onstage in SL, but Serenity Gardens provided me with this skeletal backing band, which I enjoyed. Photo by Kat.

I've yet to have a bad show at Serenity Gardens. Nice place, nice people, good times every time. Photo by Kat.

You belong among the wildflowers. Photo by Kat.

Kat and I in our death poses after the show. Photo by Ilsa Flanagan.

Speaking of "after the show", no one can say I don't put in the effort to rock hard for my shows in Second Life. Photo by Kat.

Serenity Gardens set list...
This Afternoon (Zak Claxton)
*Wildflowers (Tom Petty)
Things Under Trees (They Stole My Crayon)
Bull Black Nova (Wilco)
It’s Good to be King (Tom Petty)
Never Run Away (Kurt Vile)
Pink Moon (Nick Drake)
Blew the Dust Away (They Stole My Crayon)
Carry Me Ohio (Sun Kil Moon)
Help Me (Joni Mitchell)
Ohio (Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young)
*Runnin' Down a Dream (Tom Petty)

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

Big thanks to all who came out to the show, with super duper thanks to the following who helped support it!
ErikKottzen Resident, RoxxyyRoller Resident, dls Falconer, Sesh Kamachi, Maurice Mistwallow, Tyche Szondi, Meegan Danitz, Kat Claxton, TommyTheTerrible Resident, Aurelie Chenaux, TheaDee Resident, my superb manager Maali Beck, and the great management team of Serenity Gardens, Tilly Rose and Ilsa Wilde!

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Serenity Gardens (09.25.17)

The Zak Show at Serenity Gardens took an unexpected turn on Monday night. Photo by Triana Caldera.

I suppose you could say that my first time standing up in front of a crowd of people while playing guitar and singing was in December 1980. I would have been eleven years old at the time. Since then, I've played well over a thousand shows of various kinds, from coffee shops and Irish pubs to backyard parties, street fairs, sports bars and, of course, my many, many shows in the virtual world and on live video. Basically, it's been 37 straight years of playing live, and it often feels like I've already done it all. However, last night at Serenity Gardens, I managed to involuntarily do something new that I'd never planned on doing (or wanted to) in front of a live audience: I finished a song, and started crying. Ugh! Let me tell you what happened.

I'm a Sensitive Guy... Not a "Crying in Public" Guy
I know it's not necessary to make excuses for a display of emotion. I'm not so macho that I think men aren't allowed to shed a tear on occasion, when necessary. I should, however, give you a context for this. As many of my friends are already aware, my father passed away just over two weeks ago, on Friday September 8. I had postponed all shows during the time since, in order to get myself together and to focus on handling his affairs while still taking care of life as usual. So, certainly the fact that I'd dedicated a portion of my set to my dad and his memory probably had me in a somewhat emotionally vulnerable state.

But oddly, that's not what set me off. While my dad's passing was a shock, I've been able to handle it pretty well. I'm generally a pragmatist about the ending of life; it is, as far as we know, an inevitable aspect of life itself. I miss him as a person to whom I was close (and had continued to grow closer as I got older), but he was 76. Not terribly old, but not tragically young either. His dad, I should add, died when my pop was just 26, before I was even born. I got to have 48 of my years with my father, and I consider myself fortunate for that time, most of which was very good.

A Song for Garrett
Here's what caused me to blubber in front of a crowd that had come to see me play music and generally have a good time.

Music creates connections among people that might otherwise not realize things they had in common. There's a camaraderie that happens when two people discover that they really enjoy a style of music, or a particular band or artist. I've found that with much of the music I love, the bands/artists can be pretty obscure, and so when I meet someone who really loves the same music, it tells me something about that person. Awhile back, I was doing a Second Life show at Templemore, and I did a song by Sun Kil Moon called "Carry Me Ohio". A person who called that venue home was a guy named Garrett Lutz (known as David Drew in real life), and he was super enthusiastic about the fact that someone had played Sun Kil Moon at an SL show. I even wrote about it at the time, in May. Garrett and I didn't know each other super well, other than that I'd noted he always seemed to really enjoy himself at my shows when he turned up in my audience at various places.

One thing I didn't really know about Garrett was how ill he was. He'd been afflicted with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease. There's no known cause for ALS, and currently no cure. It is a terrible disease; very few people live very long after its onset (with people like Stephen Hawking being an extremely rare notable exception). About half the people diagnosed with it die within a couple of years.

After learning about Garrett's illness and realizing that a) he might not have much time and b) we both loved this rather underground music, I made a commitment to learn more Sun Kil Moon songs so I could perform that music for him. But as they say, the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. Garrett died on August 14, but I didn't find out about it until toward the end of the month, and then my dad passed away a short while later. Hence, I never had the opportunity to learn another Sun Kil Moon song -- which can be extraordinarily complex and difficult to perform -- and do it live for Garrett. Making it even more poignant, a good friend of mine, Tyche Szondi (who had been one of Garrett's closest friends) told me that Garrett had, on multiple occasions, told her how much he enjoyed my shows. Tyche related this to me shortly after I found out that Garrett had died.

Garrett Lutz in Second Life, photographer unknown.

Keeping a Promise
Last night, being my first show back, I was determined to fulfill my promise by performing a Sun Kil Moon song that I'd never done before. The song, called "Half Moon Bay", is a beautiful tune filled with deep melancholy in both its music and lyrics. While I couldn't do it exactly as written, I think I did a fairly passable interpretation, and ended with an instrument flourish that I thought sounded very good while I played. I hit the last note and said, "That was 'Half Moon Bay' by Sun Kil Moon, going out to my friend..." and then just sobbed. I got over it remarkably quickly and jumped immediately into my next song; if you weren't listening closely, you probably didn't even notice. But I sure did!

I have to think that the reason I cried onstage for the first time in 37 years of doing live shows was actually a combination of factors. My dad passing, the thoughts of Garrett and my unfulfilled plan of doing the song for him, and the song itself all added up to be an emotional atomic bomb. Interestingly, I feel better today than I have in awhile; perhaps that was a cathartic moment that needed to happen.

My show is usually a casual hour of fun and silliness, but it was okay that last night's show got a little heavy. Photo by Triana Caldera.

Pixels don't cry, thankfully. Photo by Triana Caldera.

On a general basis in regard to the show, I should note that while my voice was feeling a bit rusty after a few weeks without singing, the show overall seemed pretty good, and people seemed to be glad they came. Regardless of all the other stuff, that's all that matters. The little four song mini-set in the middle with two songs each by Steely Dan and James Taylor was dedicated to my dad, who loved both.

Serenity Gardens set list...
Pretty Pimpin’ (Kurt Vile)
Always Tomorrow (Zak Claxton)
Carey (Joni Mitchell)
Any Major Dude (Steely Dan)
Rikki Don’t Lose That Number (Steely Dan)
You’ve Got a Friend (James Taylor)
Carolina in my Mind (James Taylor)
Falling Down (Zak Claxton)
*Half Moon Bay (Sun Kil Moon)
Blew the Dust Away (They Stole My Crayon)
Things Behind the Sun (Nick Drake)
Wish You Were Here (Pink Floyd)

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

Huge thanks to all who came out to see me play live, with super special thanks to those who helped support the show!
RoxxyyRoller Resident, Kathrise Resident, ErikKottzen Resident, go2smoky Resident, Triana Caldera, Asimia Heron, Aurelie Chenaux, Tyche Szondi, TheaDee Resident, my lovely manager Maali Beck, and the great management team of Serenity Gardens, Tilly Rose and Ilsa Wilde!

Monday, September 4, 2017

Four Memories of Steely Dan/Walter Becker (1950-2017)

Genius musician Walter Becker, one of the two people who founded and made up the constant core of Steely Dan, died yesterday. I thought I'd share some memories of Walter and the Dan, since their music was impactful in my life.

1975
I am six years old. We've moved from Marblehead, MA to Rancho Palos Verdes, CA. I'm in second grade, and my favorite thing to do is to go through my parents' big vinyl record collection and listen to the music that sparks an emotional reaction within me. Sometimes it's Beethoven, sometimes the Beatles. But if I'm feeling really rambunctious, only one song does the trick: Steely Dan's "Reelin' in the Years" off Can't Buy a Thrill, an album that was always in heavy rotation in my home in the early/mid '70s. I don't know what it was about that song; perhaps it was the driving 6/8 shuffle, or the harmonized solo guitars. But every time the song comes on, I go into this insane combination of spastic dancing and a sort of early version of parkour, jumping over furniture, caroming off walls, and rolling around the entire living room. I get seriously fucking nuts each time the song came on, from the very first bent guitar note of the intro all through the fade. I'm six, and Steely Dan is my favorite band. And you wonder why I grew up weird. Case closed.

Also: there's a naked lady on the collage artwork of the album cover, and I sneak furtive glances at her when my mom isn't around.


1979
I'm a more mature guy now at age 10, about to start middle school, and I'm really into music. I've been playing piano since I was three, and took up violin and guitar early on. Now I'm ten, and my tastes in music have become more sophisticated as I begin to appreciate what goes into creating stuff beyond the 5-6 chords I can play well. Meanwhile, the Dan has released Aja, an album that my mom would put on and listen to start to finish, and why not? Track by track, it remains one of the best albums ever released, with many moods, many shades, many feelings between putting the needle down on "Black Cow" and taking the record off the turntable after "Josie" is over. It's a mystical journey through time and space. I listen to the album over and over, just trying to hear what these guys are doing. I've already got a terrific ear and can play many pop songs just by listening to them once, astounding my parents and teachers alike. But I can't play Steely Dan -- I can't even tell what those chords are, for God's sake -- and I find this both challenging and scary.

Unlike a lot of other bands, Steely Dan seems to shun the spotlight. The guys in the band seem to be reclusive, and when they do rare interviews, their answers are heavy in sarcasm, cynicism, and rarely answer the questions being asked. I find it intriguing, and I find them funny. I also find it weird that only two guys seem to make up this band, and they have super geeky names, and they look really geeky too. Definitely not like Peter Frampton. It takes awhile before I ingest the idea that Steely Dan is whoever Donald and Walter are working with at a particular time.


1985
It's summer, I'm 16, and I'm between my junior and senior years of high school. I'm a good musician for my age, already playing in little garage bands, and leaning toward difficult music that young musicians often find compelling, such as progressive rock and metal, and a little jazz here and there. I'm enrolled at Berklee College of Music for their summer semester, and I'm at least temporarily living in Boston, 3,000 miles away from my parents. During one of the first days, I meet with a counselor who asks what I'm interested in learning. I tell her that I want to expand the level of sophistication of my music for songwriting and performing, pushing beyond the simple standard barre chords of most pop and rock. I want to play more than boring pentatonic scales and blues motifs. I don't say it like that, though. I tell her I want to play chords like Steely Dan. She understands.

Around that time, and over the subsequent years, I dig deeper into the Dan's catalog, getting into the deeper cuts from Pretzel Logic, Katy Lied, The Royal Scam and the rest. I obsessively pore over the liner notes, seeing the names of the many studio musicians who add their skills to these magnificent recordings... names like Michael McDonald, Larry Carlton, Jeff Porcaro, Hal Blaine, Rick Marotta, Chuck Rainey, Bernard Purdie and many others. As I start getting into creating my own little multitrack recordings, I marvel at the quality of the records themselves, wondering how the sounds were captured with the degree of pristine clarity that is a hallmark of the band.

I attend Musicians Institute in 1988, and then enroll in college as a music major at Cal State Dominguez Hills, where I graduate in 1992. I get much deeper into the world of music history, theory, and composition. I start to better understand the music of Steely Dan, even though I still can't really play it or write any original stuff that's comparable. In 1993, I start working in the music/audio products industry, only to discover that at trade conventions, when manufacturers wanted to show off the quality of their high-end speakers, almost always do so by playing back Steely Dan. It all makes sense.


2013
I'm in my 40s, and have had a personal backlash to heavy musicianship. I tend to listen to music that is much more about the vibe than about perfection, and hence have put Steely Dan on a remote back burner while my interest lies in exploring new music by indie bands... kind of the opposite of the Dan. But in some ways, Steely Dan is the ultimate indie band. They never, at any point in their career, created music that was purely designed to fit in with other current popular music styles. Nevertheless, when my mom gives a birthday present to Christina and I and they are excellent seats to see Steely Dan perform Aja in its entirety at what was then the Nokia Theater (now the Microsoft Theater, probably soon to be the Uber Theater, or PornHub Theater or something) in downtown LA, we are excited. The show, held in August of that year, is spectacular. It might be the best-sounding, most well-performed live music I've ever experienced in person in my life.

At the show, the band has impeccably gone through the album being featured and is now playing a selection of other hits and misses. One of them is "Hey Nineteen", and in the midst of the tune, Walter Becker starts addressing the crowd, which is jarring since the Dan summarily ignores the audience on a general basis. Walter is giving a little speech. It's somewhere between a pep talk, a rant, and sage words of advice from someone who's been there and done that many times over. He's talking about psychedelic drugs, he's talking about where to go and what to do after the show ends, he's listing the names of communities around the LA area with which the Dan is, of course, intimately familiar.


I realize, while driving back to the South Bay after the show, that despite all the amazing music I'd experienced, the most memorable portion of the night was probably Walter's chat solo. Why? I don't know. But here in September 2017, the day after Walter passed away, I feel that that I owe him a huge debt of gratitude for something that probably transcends whatever words I might write next.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Zak Claxton Happy Fun Show (09.02.17)


For the first time since February 2016, I did one of my live-streamed video shows on Ustream that I call the Zak Claxton Happy Fun Show. I started doing the ZCHFS way back in early 2010, and for awhile, I was doing them pretty regularly, interspersed with other video-based live stream shows. But frankly, my time to be a musical fool has been limited in recent years, and it's as much as I can do to keep up with a regular schedule of shows in the virtual world of Second Life.

I currently only have scheduled shows for my bi-weekly Monday night events at Serenity Gardens, so on this Saturday in between my shows, it seemed like a good time to turn on the old camera and give the ZCHFS a refresh. I will say, I'm glad I did. We didn't have a huge crowd -- just a handful of folks, though I can never tell exactly who's watching unless they join the live chat -- but the people seemed to have fun, and it was a good showcase for the style of indie acoustic music on which I'm focusing these days. Interestingly, in the time frame between my last Ustream shows, apparently they are now called "IBM Cloud Video", but that doesn't sound very rock and roll to me.






Takamine Love
I should brag for a moment about the sound of my Takamine P5DC. For the record, Takamine is a client of mine for my RL marketing firm, but I'm speaking for the moment purely as an owner and player of this guitar. I have been nothing but incredibly impressed with this guitar since I got it about a year ago, and while I didn't think it would happen this way, I've barely touched my Martin D-18V since getting the Tak. This particular model, with its solid spruce top and solid rosewood back, is part of the Pro Series, so it's handmade in Japan. It's a seriously nice, professional-quality acoustic-electric. Especially for something like the ZCHFS, where I like to move around a bit, having high-end electronics in the guitar and not being confined to a mic made the show much more dynamic. And, perhaps most importantly, the guitar sounds like God.

ZCHFS 09.02.17 set list...
Airport Bar (Martin Courtney)
Blew the Dust Away (They Stole My Crayon)
All Lives, You Say? (Wilco)
Abrasion (They Stole My Crayon)
Things Behind the Sun (Nick Drake)
Carry Me Ohio (Sun Kil Moon)
Falling Down (Zak Claxton)
Box By the Cliff (They Stole My Crayon)
Dusty Rhodes (Lotus Plaza)
Bang and Blame (R.E.M.)
*Pedestrian at Best (Courtney Barnett)
It’s Easy Like Walking (The Sadies w/Kurt Vile)

*Indicates my first performance of this song.

Thanks to all who tuned in to this ZCHFS episode. There will be more to come!