Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Hotel Chelsea (07.06.21)

Enjoying a night of fine-ass rock and roll at Hotel Chelsea. Photo by Kat.

This blog -- the very existence of it -- is perplexing to some people. Trust me, I've heard about it... usually sideways from people who talk shit behind other people's backs who are, themselves, talking shit about me. "Why would he blog about every live music show?" they ask, giggling as if this was the most ridiculous activity imaginable.

Well lemme tell ya: there are reasons, and they're pretty good ones.

I'm not a big nostalgia guy. In fact, nothing makes me more filled with disdain than when, say, you're scrolling down the comments section of a YouTube video for some song or TV show from long ago, and you run into the invariable statement of, "Music was so much better in the '80s," or, "I wish I could go back to the '90s when everything was great." What a bunch of fucking pathetic shit.

That being said, much like any diary, this blog has been tremendously useful for me when I want to look back on various things. Sometimes it's in regard to my shows... I document each set list, and have records of each venue I play in Second Life (many of which no longer exist in any form except for my recollections and photos here). More often, it's about things happening in the world, both personal and global. Want to know when I last had pneumonia? It was March 2012 (and it was awful). How about the first time that all three members of They Stole My Crayon went to Joshua Tree together? That would be three months later in June 2012 (and it was great). My first big protest march of the Trump era? March 2018. You get the idea.

Are these things super important? Not all the time, no. But documenting my experiences, thoughts, and feelings has come in handy on many times for many reasons.

I think this is the first photo of myself in real life on this blog. It was from June 2008, and I was in the studio working on the Zak Claxton solo album that came out the following year. Side note: I've been doing this blog for so long that the first bunch of posts weren't here on Blogger; they were on MySpace. Seriously.

It's Not About the Shows
Probably 80% to 90% of these blog posts are titled with a focus on a live music show I've recently done, but if you look at the content of the post, while the show is covered appropriately, it's rarely the actual topic of the post. This blog documents personal triumphs and tragedies; political activism and big life events; and random mundane and/or weird shit that I might find amusing years from now.

There's no way I'd bother doing this blog if it was only about my Second Life shows... no offense to anyone who attaches a lot of importance to a guy made of pixels strumming a cartoon guitar on a computer screen. Rather, the shows give me a valid reason to consistently update this running track record of life as I see it.

What were you doing on New Year's Eve 2007? I was playing a well-attended event in Second Life, apparently. While this blog is certainly not all about the hundreds and hundreds of live music shows I've performed over the course of my life, it's pretty cool having this track record of them.

People Actually Look at This Thing
The other part of doing a blog -- a public diary, if you want to consider it that way -- is the question of whether or not it matters that people actually look at it. Otherwise, if it were only for the purposes of my personal memories, I could keep this completely locked down and private. But people do look at it. Quite a lot of people.

That's a lot of views for a random non-famous musician's silly little blog.

There have been over a quarter-million views of the stuff I write here (my own views are not counted in that total) since I started this blog. It averages over a thousand views each month. And sure, some of those are bots and other entities that don't serve any purpose... but certainly not all of them, or even a small portion.

My job in real life is in marketing communications, aka advertising and PR. I know that each "marketing touch" counts, and I know for a fact that people have discovered my music via this blog, and people write to me to talk about things they've read here. It actually matters to some people... way more than you'd assume.

Anyway, you get the idea. I write this blog because I enjoy doing it, because it's a valuable repository for my own life experiences, and because people read it and enjoy it. Those are good reasons, and anyone who has a problem with that is showing that they don't have a fucking clue about the big picture. They can -- and should -- suck my dick.

How About That Show?
Oh yeah. So, I perform at 5PM on the first Tuesday evening of each month at Hotel Chelsea in Second Life. I have the benefit of having a slot directly after Max Kleene, and truthfully, one of the main reasons I agreed to play there in that regular slot was specifically because Max was there before me. It's not a matter of having a big crowd when I start my gig. What it is, is that I feel my music goes well with his, even though we're somewhat stylistically unique from each other. But my shows are the kinds of things that his crowd could enjoy, and vice-versa. I knew it would work, and it has continued to do so.

A nice crowd of pretty SL avatars. Photo by Kat.

This show went really well. My only self-criticism is that due to the demands of real life, I haven't been playing guitar or singing in recent weeks as much as I usually do, and I should have taken more time to properly warm up before doing this event for maximum good results. That being said, I'm my own harshest critic, and most people probably felt everything was as good as it always is... which, truthfully, it probably was. I'm just a bit of a perfectionist in regard to my own abilities.

My view from the stage at Hotel Chelsea. Photo by Kat.

One song of note: I debuted "El Invento", the new tune from Swedish singer-songwriter José González. I am a huge fan of this man's work, both solo and in Junip, and I am totally looking forward to his upcoming album which will be released in September. The challenge for covering "El Invento" is that it's sung in Spanish, a language that I do not speak and only know marginally by having grown up in Southern California. Singing a song in your native language is hard enough, getting all the pitches and phrasing correct. Singing one where you don't truly know the meaning of each word nor the proper pronunciation is really, really hard, but I love the song and will likely work on it some more to the point where I'm comfortable playing it without feeling like I'm faking my way through it.

Why am I still wearing the mask? Funny you should ask; I nearly took it off before doing this show. And then I started thinking. I have visitors to my shows from all over the world... across the US and Canada, throughout Europe, Australia and more. Many of those places are very much still in the midst of the COVID-19 battle, and even here, we're still dealing with the Delta variant and people's reluctance to be vaccinated or to continue wearing masks. I'm leaving it on until the world has truly gotten to a point where COVID-19 is conquered for all intents and purposes. Photo by Kat.

Hotel Chelsea set list...
Loading Zones (Kurt Vile)
Carey (Joni Mitchell)
Heart of Gold (Neil Young)
This Afternoon (Zak Claxton)
Swirl (Charlie Martin)
*El Invento (José González)
I Believe When I Fall In Love (Stevie Wonder)
Vendetta (They Stole My Crayon)
Bird of Paradise (Cory Hanson)
Hello (Lionel Richie)
Solsbury Hill (Peter Gabriel)
Dead Flowers (Rolling Stones)
Airport Bar (Martin Courtney)
*Chelsea Improv #2978 (Zak Claxton)

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

Huge thanks to every person who took time out of their day to come enjoy the show, with special super thanks to the following who helped support it!
comitose Resident, inebriety Resident, KriJon Resident, Bee Blackrain, Maximillion Kleene, noowun Wind, zekesolomon Resident, punkdaddy Resident, Diana Renoir, Trouble Streeter, El Elephas, Kat Claxton, Guinevere Westland, my terrific manager Maali Beck, and Hotel Chelsea manager Shyla the Super Gecko!

Monday, June 14, 2021

Terry's Place (06.13.21)

Good crowd and good times at my debut at Terry's Place. Photo by Kat.

Performing at venues in Second Life where I've never played before always adds an extra tinge of excitement to my shows, and I was definitely feeling it going into my debut show at Terry's Place on Sunday. I even arrived early to chat with the co-owner Ninja Antwoord and manager Piper Antwoord, chatting with them for a bit to try and kinda get the vibe of the place. It looked cool enough; a nice simple stage design in an outdoor meadow area. Very chill. All that was good.

Still, there's that aspect of not knowing what the crowd might be like in a place you don't know, and at a time slot that you're not used to playing. I was at least slightly concerned that I'd show up for my first gig at this place and would have like three people there... especially considering I was the first one up to perform, meaning that anyone there would be attending specifically to check out my show. I even hit up the inboxes of a few of the Zakster fans, letting them know their attendance at this particular show would be extra appreciated.

I needn't have worried. Side note: almost none of the things I worry about in life actually end up being problematic, while the worst things that happen are those that I'd never really been concerned about beforehand. Life is weird that way. Anyway, we ended up having a really great crowd made up of plenty of Zaksters, random Second Life folks, and the people who hang out at the venue. It was great, and the crowd was bigger than I could have expected.

As I've said many times before, the crowd size at an SL show is less important than the crowd quality. Are people having a good time? Are they reacting to the songs? Is there fun interaction among them while I perform? My debut at Terry's Place had all of the above. Photo by Kat.

Choosing Tunes
I've discussed this before, but the act of planning out my set list for my shows is always very purposeful, and the more I know about the venue and people who go there, the easier time I have of putting together the right tunes for the right place. There are basically four pieces of criteria for my sets:

  1. My own mood.
  2. My sense of physical ability to play or sing on that day (it's a variable).
  3. The venue itself... who goes there, what's it look like, what are the owners like, etc.
  4. Any special occasion or event that requires a specific musical theme or vibe.

One thing my Zaksters know: if I'm not feeling it, I'm not playing it. It's one of the big, big reasons that I don't take requests at my shows (and no offense to the many who do, obviously). When I'm in a situation like my debut at Terry's Place, where I'm not super familiar with the vibe or the type of artists who generally play there, I do make it a point to try and chat with the owners/hosts and get their input.

Me, doing my thing, still masked up until I'm ready to not be... kinda like real life. Funny side note: I must have purchased this jacket and then completely forgot about it. When I was getting ready for the show, I was like, "What's this?" and put it on and loved it. Of course, I find it right at the start of summer when it's way too hot to be dressed as such, but the good news is that pixels don't feel heat or humidity. Photo by Kat.

It just so happened that when I asked Ninja before my show about his tastes and he said he was really into '90s alt rock and grunge, I knew we'd get along just fine. I'd already put together a good part of my set list, but then added in some of my favorites by Stone Temple Pilots, Soundgarden, Foo Fighters, and Temple of the Dog. It worked out very well. I should also add that I stuck around after my show to check out Aufwie Mysterious, who I'd never heard before. I found him to be really interesting in a great way. You probably know by now that my musical tastes lean toward unique and cool sounds, and he had them in droves.

The venue itself was perfectly suited toward a mellow Sunday afternoon, like a day in the park with a bunch of friends. Photo by Kat.

So, What Else Is Up?
Nothing. This was my first weekend post-vacation, and like most people will tell you, you kind of need a vacation from your vacation. It was a very busy post-vacation work week, and with the first weekend with no travel and nothing on my agenda except my show at Terry's Place, it felt right to do as little as possible.

You know, a lot of people find it really difficult to do nothing. I'm often like that. I always feel like any time that's not committed to work or sleep should be filled with various other kinds of productivity... making music, improving my home, whatever. Sometimes, you have to listen to your mind and your body and cut yourself some slack. It's actually okay to just chill sometimes, even for people who are generally driven to push themselves. There will be plenty of time to keep being responsible, and you might even be better at your various tasks after giving yourself a little while to regroup with some downtime.

Anything Going On in the World?
Yes, of course. There are always things going on, a large percentage of which will never even hit your radar even if it eventually ends up affecting you personally. It's impossible to be so attuned to events and issues to really know everything; that kind of awareness comes at the expense of being able to live your own life and hopefully enjoy it. A few notes, just for the record.

  • There have been 165 days in 2021 thus far, and in those 165 days, there have been 272 mass shootings. if that seems like a lot (duh), it truly is. It's 40% higher than this point last year, and 65% higher than this point in 2019. This weekend alone, while I was relaxing and putting on a show, 10 people were killed and another 50 were injured in nine shootings in six states. I can't see how anyone is okay with this.
  • There's a dangerous heat wave happening this week for most of the western USA. My friends in Phoenix will be seeing temps for multiple days as high as 118F, and some areas in SoCal are also hitting triple digits. I just want to say, I do pay a lot in rent to live here by the ocean, but this is one of the reasons why; it's not expected to even hit 80F here this week.
  • Tomorrow (June 15, 2021), California is supposed to be fully reopening from all pandemic restrictions. Frankly, I'm not entirely sure what that means to me. I know it's about lifting the capacity limitations in places like restaurants and movie theaters, and lifting any state-mandated mask regulations for vaccinated people. It's going to be a bit of a weird transition. I'll let you know how it goes.

With the world the way it is, it's no wonder that people like to escape into a virtual environment to relax and enjoy life without shootings, climate change, pandemics, and the rest of the challenges that make real life less than optimal. Photo by Kat.

Terry's Place set list...
Everlong (Foo Fighters)
Blew the Dust Away (They Stole My Crayon)
Your Song (Elton John)
Love Ain’t for Keeping (The Who)
Swirl (Charlie Martin)
Sour Girl (Stone Temple Pilots) 
The Crystal Ship (The Doors)
Pancho & Lefty (Townes Van Zandt)
Summer Breeze (Seals & Crofts)
Hunger Strike (Temple of the Dog)
Black Hole Sun (Soundgarden)
Tomorrow Never Knows (Beatles)

Huge thanks to everyone who came out for my debut at Terry's Place, with extra special thanks to the following who helped support it!
AutumnFoxx Sutherland, Diana Renoir, Alton Breck, Ray Musketeer, Alex Zelin, Nina Brandenburg, Trouble Streeter, Asimia Heron, Sassy Starlight, Bee Blackrain, JAdmiral Maelstrom, Medea Frostbite, go2smoky Resident, FallenAurora Jewell, Kat Claxton, my great manager Maali Beck, Terry's Place staff Ninja Antwoord and Piper Antwoord, and the event sponsor SL Enquirer!

Thursday, June 10, 2021

SL HopeFest for Relay for Life (06.09.21)

Enjoying a nice afternoon at the beach while raising funds for an important cause. Photo by Kat.

After spending the previous weekend in Joshua Tree and then diving headfirst back into work for a few days, it was a nice break in my midweek doldrums to do a benefit show for Relay for Life at SL HopeFest in Second Life

I've done dozens of fundraising shows for RFL, going back to when I first started performing in-world in the mid-2000s. As I tend to mention during these shows, the odds are infinitesimally low that you or someone close to you won't be affected by cancer at some point in your life, if they haven't been already. There's never a wrong time to help raise funds for research and treatment. Relay for Life is the official fundraising arm of the American Cancer Society, and Second Life has been involved with RFL from the start, so it's good karma to do what I can and lend support to an inarguably good cause.

Bring Out the People
One thing that I have definitely noticed over many charitable benefit shows in SL... it's hard to get people there, and I think I know why. They assume a few things (and not all are inaccurate in some cases)... that the show will be morbid and serious, that they'll be preached to, and that there's an expectation of a large donation to be part of the event.

I can't speak for other performers (and in fact I refuse to), but at least in my case, I always adopt a vibe of positivity during these benefit shows. Cancer is a serious topic, but the only way to defeat a serious foe is by maintaining a positive and optimistic attitude, and that's what I encourage during my shows.

Another thing to keep in mind, as far as SL shows go: just being there matters. When people look at the map and see a bunch of green dots indicating people congregating in a certain spot, they tend to want to join whatever is going on. Even if you're unable to contribute, your presence will make a difference. Also, I often explain to people at benefit shows that SL's micro-economy means that while the actual amount spent is far less than it seems (my analogy is always to state that L$1000 doesn't even buy you a grande latte at Starbucks), even tiny amounts add up. Don't avoid these shows just because you don't have much to spend. Every little bit counts.

Karma Is Real
I like the thought of doing things selflessly, but most actions (perhaps all) have some element of self-fulfillment. If I feel good about having helped others, that's also an action that helps myself, and there's nothing wrong with that; in fact, that positive emotional feedback is the main reason that causes people to continue being involved in charitable actions. But let's tak about a concept called "karma".

Karma in its literal sense is a term from Hinduism and Buddhism postulating that the sum of a person's actions in this life (and in previous lives) is what determines their fate in future existences. I am neither a Hindu or a Buddhist. In fact, I only believe in one life... the one you're living right now. Nothing that I do is based on any system of belief where the reward or punishment for good or bad behavior happens in any sort of afterlife or reincarnation.

That being said, I've seen the informal results of karma every single day. People who do good things are often those who lead happier and more fulfilling lives. People who immerse themselves in negativity, or whose actions result in harm to others, are often the most miserable. There was something I said during my show for SL HopeFest: by contributing to help find a cure for such a prevalent disease as cancer, you never know if the life that you save might end up being your own. So, we're talking about karma in the sense that John Lennon sang about in "Instant Karma". You might not have to wait for the next life to reap the benefits of your actions, be they good, bad, or otherwise.

Yup, still wearing my mask. June 15 is the date that most mask mandates are lifted here in California, and yet I am also reminded that my audience in SL is global, and many places are far removed from the improvement we've seen here in the USA. Photo by Kat.

How Was The Show?
It was good. I'd have preferred to have had a bigger crowd, but the folks running the event seemed appreciative toward the effort. As is the case for all charitable shows, the performers receive no compensation for their time and effort (except perhaps for the aforementioned karmic results), and I often contribute to these causes financially while I'm there, even though I am also donating my show itself.

But the area was on a nice and casual beachside sim, and it seemed like folks were having a good time. I was a bit concerned earlier in the day about my voice being a bit raspy, but everything was fine by the time I started my set. I always pick out a very specific list of tunes to perform during charitable shows, and each song often has some meaning to me that relates to the nature of the event.

Playing tunes, raising funds. Photo by Kat.

The setup at HopeFest with the Bellisseria community running things was done efficiently, and they were all nice people who were appreciative of the artists' contributions. Photo by Kat.

So, back to the beginning statement: I was more than glad to do this random Wednesday afternoon show for a great cause, and everything went very well. I have no complaints at all, and why would I? My life, compared to the huge majority of lives that have every been lived throughout history, is absolutely, amazingly great. I'm not immune from negative feelings -- no human is -- but I am at least logically aware of how good I have it, and I try and stay appreciative of that fact every day.

Relay for Life/SL HopeFest set list... 
Wildflowers (Tom Petty) 
Airport Bar (Martin Courtney)
Cat's In the Cradle (Harry Chapin)
Bird of Paradise (Cory Hanson)
Wish You Were Here (Pink Floyd)
Blew the Dust Away (They Stole My Crayon)
Big Yellow Taxi (Joni Mitchell)
Swirl (Charlie Martin)
Pink Moon (Nick Drake)
Comes a Time (Neil Young)
How Lucky (John Prine)
Thank U (Alanis Morissette)
*HopeFest Improv (Zak Claxton)

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

Big thanks to everyone who came out and donated so generously to RFL! It was a successful event from a fundraising standpoint, and that's what matters.

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Joshua Tree (June 3-6, 2021)

To tell you the story of our most recent trip to the desert, I have to rewind back to March 25. It was on that day that Christina and I found out that we'd be able to get vaccinated against COVID-19, and after looking at the calendar and doing a little math, we realized that we'd achieve near total immunity by mid-May, and could finally plan an activity that allowed us to get out of the cocoon of our home and into the world again. We made reservations for a trip that very day, perhaps to give us a tangible light at the end of the tunnel we'd been in along with the rest of the world. It had been over two years since our last vacation of any kind... the previous Joshua Tree trip in May 2019. Getting back to the desert and its spacious, natural beauty seemed like the perfect way to get a change of scenery and to start easing back into the public world as the pandemic restrictions began to lighten. Also, since she and I share a birthday in early June, the timing couldn't be better.

Thursday June 3
A little background: I had visited Joshua Tree and other locations in the Mojave Desert going back to when I was a kid growing up here in Southern California, but it was in 2010 that Christina and I first visited the area together, and I fell in love with the place. We'd taken a bunch of trips there since, going back at least once a year (or more) before the pandemic essentially locked the world down for most of the past 15 months.

When we started to book this adventure, we were slightly dismayed to discover that our friend Carrie Yeager had apparently sold the Desert Lily Inn and the accompanying rental cabins where we'd stayed at each of our previous trips... likely a casualty of the pandemic, though we're not sure about the details. Regardless, we felt weird booking a trip to the same spot with new owners, so we started exploring our options. I ended up finding a new cabin in the same local area via Vrbo. The rental property was called Joshua Tree Gardens, and the photos and reviews all looked stellar.

The couple of weeks leading into our vacation were completely hectic work-wise, and by the time Thursday June 3 rolled around, I was feeling completely frazzled. That, as it turns out, is the best time to drop everything and hit the road. After so many trips out there, we have a set pattern of things to do to prepare for a good desert visit, though I will say that after so long with barely leaving the house at all, at first it felt a bit surreal to be venturing out on the open road.

My typical trek across Southern California to the Mojave Desert, with one exception. The ramp to the 605N was closed, so we scurried up the 710 to the 60 instead. No biggie.

I say "open road", which is not at all a good description of our drive out. We hit a couple of serious traffic jams, and it took a good long while to reach our destination. However, being practically delirious with glee just by being away from home, and armed with a great playlist of music that I'd cultivated specifically for this trip, the entire ride out there was stress free.

The owners of the property we'd rented, a management company called Hi-Desert Dwellings, seemed to be super organized. The day before our departure, we received a little digital guidebook that told us everything we'd need to know about the cabin and much more. The place was exactly as described... off a series of dirt roads in a secluded area surrounded by rock outcroppings. It also had the really unique desert aspect of having a pond in the backyard, fed by a trickling waterfall.

The little pond in the backyard at the Joshua Tree Gardens cabin was a neat addition to our typical desert experience.

We arrived at about 4PM, unloaded the Jeep, and after resting for a short while and admiring the cabin, we did our usual run back down into Yucca Valley to get our food supplies for the trip. By the time we got back, the sun was starting to set, and we relaxed on the deck, watching the small fish swimming around and letting the stress dissipate.

It was the epitome of rest and relaxation at our newest home away from home in JTree.

After the sun began to dip below the horizon, we began to hear a sound. We're very familiar with the sounds of the desert, and... this wasn't one that we could identify. It started as a low whistle but then, as darkness descended, ramped up to high-decibel screams coming from multiple directions. We are not personally familiar with cicadas -- they aren't part of our typical West Coast ecosystem -- but it would seem that the insanely loud whistle/screeching we heard were indeed those nefarious bugs. The good news: once inside, with the doors and windows all double-paned and tightly sealed, they were barely audible, and we slept soundly after a long day of travel and adventure.

Friday June 4
We got up reasonably early as far as vacation days go. Something I should note: Joshua Tree, along with much of the rest of the country, was in the midst of a heat wave during our visit. While we've gone to the area several times in June, it was definitely the hottest overall trip we'd taken there. However, the AC in the cabin was very sufficient, to the point where it actually felt a bit cold inside compared to the blistering 100-degree heat outside. It was extremely comfortable there.

Not gonna lie; it was hot on this trip. Hot even for the desert this time of year. But honestly, it was never a real problem. We stayed inside the cool cabin during the worst of it, and it was quite bearable in the mornings and evenings.

We had no plans at all, other than a general vague list of things we do when we're in the area. Keep in mind that after 10+ trips over past decade, we've visited nearly every hiking and sightseeing area of Joshua Tree National Park. We've done the hikes. We've seen the sights. We were in no hurry to run into the Park, especially in that heat. Also, the cabin itself was comfortable and relaxing, and we both needed some time to seriously unwind.

Happy me in desert mode.

After cooking a delicious egg scramble for breakfast and enjoying the parade of nature from the cabin's backyard, we went into our respective extreme chill modes. Christina relaxed and read while I set up my minimal but effective music recording setup. I'd brought my Takamine P5DC and a rather new iPad which was running GarageBand so I could do multitrack recording and access virtual instruments, along with a new toy... a Zoom iQ6 stereo condenser mic that has a Lightning output and plugs right into my iPhone or iPad. It worked great for capturing my guitar at a much higher level of audio quality than the built-in mic, I should add. I got a couple of musical ideas, though nothing developed into a full-fledged song.

My little mobile recording rig. It's absolutely mind-blowing how easy it is with modern technology to have a little multitrack recording studio with instruments and effects that you can easily pick up and carry around with you.

This was all I needed to write and record some new musical ideas while on our vacation.

Like most of these kinds of Vrbo and Airbnb residences, this place was stocked with little activities for guests. We normally don't use many of them on our trips, but while we were kicking back late Friday afternoon, I noted that there was a Scrabble board in the living room area. I mentioned it to Christina, and... game on. She won handily, but I will say that I was getting some particularly shitty letters. At one point I had four U's. I'm just saying.

Our original plan for dinner that day was to trek up to Pioneertown and hit Pappy & Harriet's, which is inarguably the greatest dining and entertainment spot in the entire area (and possibly in the world). However, since they are still in the process of ramping up to their normal operations after a year of being basically closed due to COVID-19, they were not accepting reservations yet. It meant we'd have to head up there and wait however long it took for us to get in and get a table with very limited dining capacity. In 100 degree heat, that sounded really shitty. We changed our plans to go to the much more accessible (and still very good) Joshua Tree Saloon, and figured that Saturday night would be better for this. That having been decided, it was time to get cooking.

Christina took over the salad preparation, while I started on the pasta, sauce, and bread. Everything was going okay until I preheated the oven and put in the bread. About two minutes later, Christina asked if something was on fire, and two seconds after that, the shrieking fire alarm confirmed her suspicions. It turned out to be nothing... just some kind of schmutz that had been in the oven, which probably hadn't been used in some time.

Dinner came out alright despite my attempt at burning down the cabin.

After dinner came more relaxing times out on the back deck. Our cicadas were back, and as dusk gave way to night, we were joined by some other desert friends... namely, the bats who were diving around in search of the bugs and other foodstuffs they require. Neither of us are paranoid about things like bats; they're not there to bother us in any way, though I must admit that I have a reflexive tendency to duck when I see them swooping around in my general direction.

Lovely twilight time in the desert. Watch out for bats.

Saturday June 5
There are few better feelings than waking up in the middle of a vacation, knowing that there's basically nothing that you have to do, nowhere you have to be, and not even a semblance of a schedule to keep. We knew that we'd want to spend some time inside the Park after having spent Friday in full sloth mode, but we were in no hurry.

An accidental candid pic of myself, waking up and smoking on the back deck on Saturday morning.

We had indeed planned some meals, which is good when you don't want to be making multiple 20-mile roundtrip runs into town to get groceries. For Saturday morning, we decided one one of our favorite breakfasts, eggs Benedict. Most of you have heard me brag about being a reasonably good cook, but it's true; cooking is one of the few things in life that I'm truly good at, and for the most part, I enjoy it. Plus, let's be real... patching some legs, toasting some muffins, and whipping up a Hollandaise isn't exactly the height of gourmet technique. But the food was great and we lounged around for a short while before heading into JTNP.

Hello delicious breakfast.

I'm not sure what I can say about Joshua Tree National Park that hasn't been said many times by me, and by people who know it much better than me. I'll mention one thing: you don't need to be some super hardcore hiker or climber or other outdoors person to enjoy the Park a lot. Merely driving through, with its surreal landscape of plants and rock formations, is an incredible pleasure.

Despite how much we love our regular stops in JTNP, from Hemingway Buttress to Hidden Valley to Barker Dam to Hall of Horrors to Cholla Catcus Gardens and many more, we weren't about to commit to any major hikes when it was over 100 degrees. We took a nice cruise through the park, stopping for awhile at Quail Springs and romping around the rocks, and then going up the way to Cap Rock where we did actually walk the short nature trail despite the heat. Then we made a trip up to Keyes View, the most elevated point of JTNP with a height of about one mile and a wide vista of Coachella and other low desert areas. After that, we meandered back to our cabin home, listening to the playlist that I'd put together for this specific purpose.

Me, among the Joshua trees.

At Keyes View, where on a clear day you can look down at the Salton Sea and sometimes see all the way to Mexico.

Enjoying the desert with Christina.

Even just a few hours in the Park leaves you with a feeling of exhilaration, a natural high that makes you feel more at one with the planet and life all around you. No matter how many times I go back, I am always blown away, and leave feeling happy and wanting to get back again ASAP.

After getting back to the cabin, we came to a realization: Joshua Tree Saloon was reopening for live music for the first time on that very night, and was going to be absolutely packed. That didn't sound super fun to us, especially considering that our visit there would be the very first time we'd been in a restaurant of any kind since the pandemic began. So, instead of making lunch, we got back in the Jeep and drove the short distance down the hill and hit up the Saloon in mid-day instead.

We weren't sure what to expect, but it was great. Seating was outdoors in back. Menus were accessible via a QR code on the tables. Christina nabbed a spot in the shade, near a large fan that kept things reasonably comfortable despite the heat. We each got rib eye steaks and a cold Stella Artois, and it felt about perfect enjoying our meal in this casual environment.

Cheers! Out for a late lunch on Saturday at Joshua Tree Saloon. It was our first restaurant meal after more than a year of pandemic, and it was just perfect.

Oh hell yes.

We scurried back to the cabin after eating; it was a rather toasty 101 degrees, and we spent the rest of the day enjoying our comfortably cool home in the desert. I should mention that the air conditioning at the cabin is so functional that we had to turn it off at night, lest we felt like being genuinely cold (an odd sensation in the desert in June).

Sunday June 6
As I've mentioned many times in various writings, Christina and I have the same birthday (the same date, one year apart). When we first became acquainted around 2003 or so, it was one of the first things that drew us together. We awoke on Sunday morning and wished each other happy birthday. I was definitely happy; just being out of town and away from my view of the same interior of my home that I'd started at since February 2020 was enough to keep me in a near-permanent good mood the entire trip.

It was Christina's turn to make breakfast -- just some simple bagels sounded great after the rich meals we'd been consuming -- but while she did, something happened. I came out of the back of the house after getting showered and dressed, and she had a look of utter depression on her face. She could only point toward the back, and when I looked, I saw a small pile of yellow feathers in the shape of what seemed to be a very dead little bird, legs sticking up in the air. She'd heard a loud thump when it had flown into the sliding glass door, and it just seemed tremendously sad to have our trip end on a note like that.

I could barely eat. Look, I know it seems like such a small thing. Shit happens. Birds die. But the fact is, both of us are sensitive people, and that type of empathy comes with a price. For some reason, I decided to take another look at the bird's pitiful corpse, and... it was standing up, looking around a bit dazed, but very much alive. A couple of minutes later, it flew off, seemingly fine, and this made us both very happy.

Like any place of hospitality, our cabin had a check-in time and a check-out time. Especially being our first visit there, we wanted to be sure that we didn't overstay our welcome. After packing our stuff, we thoroughly cleaned up, making sure to leave the place in the same immaculate condition it was in when we arrived, and precisely at 11am were rolling down the gravel driveway and the dirt roads of the vicinity. Made a quick stop for gas, and then pointed the Jeep to the west and rolled toward home.  

Just about ready to go... time to close the case and hit the road back to reality.

There's a rule in the desert and other places of natural beauty: take nothing but pictures, and leave nothing but footprints. We are always careful to abide by that plan. It's always a little sad leaving Joshua Tree, but it also means we can start planning our next trip back... a conversation we've already begun.

The drive back was mostly uneventful. We did run into some more unexpected traffic; I think with society opening up again and people anxious to get out of town, there was just a good amount of people on the road that weekend... and more than a few who just sort of forgot how to drive after being at home for more than a year.

Last note: after about an hour on the road, we realized we were pretty hungry, and I had to pee, so we stopped at a commercial area in Moreno Valley and hit up a Taco Bell. As our second post-pandemic dining experience, it wasn't nearly as cool or memorable as the Joshua Tree Saloon, but I'll be damned if it wasn't the most spotlessly clean Taco Bell I've ever visited in my life. Maybe there's an upside to all of this craziness after all.

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Hotel Chelsea (06.01.21)

Rocking Hotel Chelsea on a Tuesday night. Photo by Kat.

It's an exciting time for me right now, and probably for many people, but let's talk about me. I had an excellent show last night at Hotel Chelsea in Second Life, I am about to embark on my first vacation in over two years, and my band They Stole My Crayon released a single this week... our first new music that's been put out since our album debuted in 2016. Whew! That's a lot of cool stuff. Let's start at the end and work our way back.

New Crayon Tune
Here's the deal with this. Like many bands, when we were deciding what to include on the debut album for They Stole My Crayon, we'd written more songs than we were going to include on the album. In fact, we briefly considered having our debut be a "double album", which was more of a thing in the days when music had to be on a tangible physical piece of media. But back to the point: we'd written way more songs than the 12 that ended up on the album. Some of those songs never even made it to the stage of creating a demo; others got to the demo stage but then languished. And at least three of those songs were practically finished and were serious contenders for inclusion on the album, but just didn't make it over the finish line before we set a release date for the album. This happens a lot, trust me.

After the album was released, it was our initial plan to come out with our second release soon thereafter, but then life happened. Regardless, we continued working on those and other songs that we subsequently wrote. One of those songs was "Box By The Cliff", a tune based on a demo that Bunny had done and that we all loved. We tried it out a couple of different ways in terms of how we treated the vocals and instrumental arrangement, but ultimately wanted to keep the spooky vibe of Bunny's original demo. We ended up having Christina handle the lead vocals on it, with Bunny's ghostly voice echoing her parts. I added some ambient guitar parts and bass, we screwed around with the drums and rhythmic sounds, and... that was it.

Fast forward a couple of years. I'd been itching to release something new from The Crayon... and keep in mind, we've been continuing to work on new tunes that are in various stages of completion. But "Box By The Cliff" felt like it wasn't going to get any cooler by trying to push it beyond its lo-fi state, so we did a once-over on the mix, did a quick master, and bang-zoom... a new single. It's available now on Bandcamp, and in a month you'll be able to hear it via all streaming services (Spotify, iTunes and all the rest).

Heading to the Desert
That's right. After more than two years that, at least for me, included a ton of craziness above and beyond a global pandemic, I'm finally going to take some time off work and get away from these four walls that have been my home and self-imposed prison for far too long. Christina and I are going back to our favorite magical place: Joshua Tree, CA. I'm sure I'll have some stories to share upon my return.

I really miss these rocks. Yes, these specific ones.

How About That Show?
Ah, yes indeed. I was feeling very relaxed while starting my show at Hotel Chelsea on Tuesday night, which is ironic since I'd been immersed in a stressful world from hell in recent weeks. Doing a show was probably just what I needed, now that I think about it. We had a nice crowd, including a good number that hung out after Max Kleene's set before mine.

I was excited to do two songs I hadn't done previously, both of which being brand new releases by indie artists. Cory Hanson's "Bird of Paradise" and Charlie Martin's "Swirl" will both likely become regular additions to my sets, and both debuts went super well. It was a good night and I had good energy. Also, doing a show on June 1 was a good opportunity to acknowledge the start of Pride Month, which I was happy to do during my show.

I don't think I've ever had a bad show at Chelsea, and most of them are pretty damn good. Photo by Kat.

Much like real life, I'm getting closer to the point that I'll remove the mask I'd worn in SL since the start of the pandemic. I'm in no hurry to stop reminding people that masking up and social distancing are still important parts of getting rid of this damn disease. Photo by Kat.

Hotel Chelsea set list...
Heart-Shaped Box (Nirvana)
Northern Sky (Nick Drake)
*Bird of Paradise (Cory Hanson)
Crosses (Jose Gonzales)
Man on the Moon (R.E.M.)
How Soon Is Now? (The Smiths)
Box by the Cliff (They Stole My Crayon)
*Swirl (Charlie Martin)
Bull Black Nova (Wilco)
If I Had a Tail (Queens of the Stone Age)
Here’s Where the Story Ends (The Sundays)
Moonage Daydream (David Bowie)

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

Huge thanks to everyone who came out to the show, and extra special sauce for the following who helped support it!
Zanne Boucher, Nina Brandenburg, Harley Wytchwood, Gemini Mercury, Maximillion Kleene, Tyche Szondi, Kat Chauveau, LillyAnnSetner Resident, Alex Zelin, Trouble Streeter, Rock Doghouse, Kat Claxton, dstross Resident, my terrific manager Maali Beck, and Hotel Chelsea manager Shyla the Super Gecko!

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Hotel Chelsea (05.04.21)

Doing my May 4 show at Hotel Chelsea in Second Life. Photo by Kat.

I want to talk about my show at Hotel Chelsea, which was really good, but let me first relate a couple of recent random things. I'll start by telling you about how I'm an idiot (or at least one of many examples of this fact).

Pointless Vaccine Freakout
As I noted last week, I had my second Moderna vaccination on Thursday. After the many stories of intense side effects from the second jab, I was fully prepared to spend Friday and perhaps a portion of the weekend feeling like shit. But that never happened. I was perfectly fine, and I remain so. My worst side effect symptom was some barely discernible joint pain that was so minor, I had trouble distinguishing it from typical everyday pains that people my age tend to experience.

I'd spent some time over the weekend working on some song ideas, and being the lazy bastard that I am, I was playing guitar in my bathrobe on Saturday morning hours before finally showering and getting dressed like a human. When I finally got off my ass and went to get in the shower, I looked in the mirror and noticed that in places on my chest and my thigh, the skin looked red and rash-like. Uh oh. I immediately assumed that this was some kind of bad reaction to the Moderna vaccination and that I was about to die until I showed Christina, who pointed out that the affected areas were exactly where I'd been holding the large dreadnought acoustic guitar that I'd been playing intensely. Sure enough, the red splotchy skin faded into normal hues within minutes. Crisis averted. Silly me.

Music tip: sometimes just the act of getting ready to record "for real" -- launching your DAW software, setting up mics, whatever -- can take just enough time and be just distracting enough to allow you to lose your inspiration or forget whatever musical idea you've stumbled upon. I've had this Focusrite Tape app on my iPad forever; I'm not even sure they still offer it. But there are plenty like it for your phone or tablet. When I have an idea, or even a partial idea like a riff or progression, I will often just flip open the iPad, start up that app, record my thing through the built-in mic, and then have that recording to refer to later if and when I want to flesh out the new song.

Saturday Afternoon Rock with Maneka
I'd set a reminder on Saturday for myself to check out the Zoom-based livestream show by a New York band called Maneka. I came to learn about Maneka in a weird way, but it's not atypical in the world of indie music. About five years ago, I stumbled over a song that I liked by a band called Jackal Onasis. I was impressed by the drummer/singer, a woman named Jordyn Blakely, and ended up following her on Twitter. I was happy to note that she also seemed like a cool person who I related to regarding non-musical things like political/social outlook and so on. It's never a guarantee that someone whose music you enjoy is also a human you'd like personally as well, so it's nice when that happens. Jordyn had shared earlier last week that she'd be doing a Zoom show with Maneka (the band fronted by guitarist/vocalist Devin McKnight, of whom I was aware from his time in Speedy Ortiz). He's a really innovative guitarist and interesting songwriter, so my curiosity was piqued enough to check them out.

There's Jordyn doing her drum thing at the Maneka show on Saturday May 1. I think the technical terminology to describe her as a drummer is "fucking great", or perhaps "total badass".

I don't know what I was expecting from the show beyond having something fun to do on a Saturday afternoon, but I was really impressed by the band, which also featured bass player Nicola Leel (formerly from a UK-based band called Doe), and multi-instrumentalist Elise Okusami (who releases music as Oceanator) on guitar and keys. The songs they did at the Maneka gig were vibey and cool and dissonant, which is right in my area of enjoyability, and all four musicians were outstanding. The band was seemingly well rehearsed and tight. I was hoping to like the show a lot, and I ended up enjoying it even more than I was expecting.

Left to right: Elise Okusami, Jordyn Blakely, Nicola Leel of Maneka. Ironically I don't have a pic of Maneka frontman Devin McKnight at this gig; he took this pic of the band and posted it, so he's not in it. 

Here's a live performance video from last year if you want to check out Maneka for yourself.

Back to the Show
Starting in November of last year, I've been doing shows on the first Tuesday of the month at a Second Life venue called Hotel Chelsea. Coincidentally, my very first show there was on November 3, 2020... the day of the general election here in the USA when Joe Biden (eventually) defeated Donald Trump. Perhaps my show there was a good luck charm, if you believe in such things.

It's not a super visually impressive place as far as Second Life venues go, but it's definitely a venue that's focused on the music itself, and I have to say, the management there is incredibly nice, and the crowd I get there seems very appreciative of real live music. I've never had a bad show there; even the ones that didn't get great attendance went well and left me happy afterwards.

Good times at Hotel Chelsea in SL. Photo by Kat.

As I mentioned, it was May 4, known informally as Star Wars Day (as in, "May the Fourth be with you," which I find to be like a terrible dad joke, but whatever). My shows each month there follow Max Kleene, one of SL's most popular performers and a super nice guy whom I've now known for going on 15 years. Max was wearing a giant Darth Vader helmet while playing, and covered Weird Al's spoof on "American Pie" with Star Wars-themed lyrics. He also did two Billy Joel songs. I'm not sure why; like many performers in SL who aren't me, Max allows his audience to request songs, so there may have been a Billy Joel fan in his crowd. But the oddly coincidental thing is that well in advance of the show, I'd already pulled out my own set list, which also included a Billy Joel song that I perform rarely. I opened with it after Max ended his set with a BJ song, keeping the vibe consistent in a way that I think was pleasing to the crowd.

Darth Max. Photo by Kat.

Why am I still wearing a mask in SL when I've been vaccinated in real life? For the same reasons I still wear one in real life. Especially during this time period where some people are vaccinated and others aren't, we still need to do our part to prevent the spread of the virus. Also, with the high likelihood of continued variants of COVID-19 popping up, it's just a good idea. How hard is it to just wear a fucking mask? I promise to remove my mask in SL as soon as I can be comfortable around large crowds of people with no mask in reality, whenever that may be. Photo by Kat.

My wonderful friend and longtime music supporter Diana Renoir. I don't often play many of my own originals at live shows and it had been about three years since I last did "Thanks Anyway", but when I did, I dedicated it to Diana, who was supportive of me throughout the recording of my solo album back in 2008/2009. Photo by Kat.

While many folks associate May 4 with the fun Star Wars film franchise, the date also has a bit of a darker association. That's the date that in 1970, the Ohio National Guard killed four protesting students and injured nine others. As stories about the right to protest have once again been at the top of the news for the past several years and will remain so perhaps indefinitely, I wanted to use the occasion to voice my support for this First Amendment right, and did so by performing the Neil Young-penned song "Ohio" that was inspired by this tragic event.

Hotel Chelsea set list...
Allentown (Billy Joel)
What I Got (Sublime)
Hey Ya (OutKast)
Ohio (Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young)
Man of Constant Sorrow (Traditional)
On a Plain (Nirvana)
Thank U (Alanis Morissette)
Thanks Anyway (Zak Claxton)
From the Beginning (Emerson Lake and Palmer)
The Boy in the Bubble (Paul Simon)
Mother (Pink Floyd)
Loser (Beck)

Huge thanks to everyone who came to the show at Hotel Chelsea, and special super-duper thanks to the following who helped support it!
ChasDurning122512 Resident , LeilaNairobi Resident, Bigfoot Hendrassen, not4gods Resident, noowun Wind, Christine Haiku, LillyAnnSetner Resident, Diana Renoir, Amaya Mavinelli, KriJon Resident, Trouble Streeter, Kat Claxton, Alex Zelin, inebriety Resident, Maximillion Kleene, my terrific manager Maali Beck, and Hotel Chelsea manager Shyla the Super Gecko!

Thursday, April 29, 2021

I Got My Second COVID-19 Vaccine!

Me, two minutes after my second Moderna COVID-19 vaccine on April 29, 2021.

Six weeks ago at this very moment, on March 25, 2021, I was sitting here being a typical person on a Thursday afternoon in the middle of a pandemic, and my Twitter started lighting up with info about how the state of California had finally announced a vaccination plan that included my age group. Two weeks later, on April 1 (the first day of eligibility), I woke up and after awhile of trying, got an appointment to get my first COVID-19 vaccination dose that same day. I wrote all about that entire experience at the time.

Today -- Thursday April 29 -- I got my second and (at least for now) final COVID-19 vaccination. I know it's a little ballsy saying that I feel perfectly fine only a few hours after the shot, but for the moment, that's how it is. I promise to amend the post if I spontaneously explode or turn into some kind of large amoeba over the next day or two. At the risk of tempting fate, everything has gone extraordinarily well with my entire vaccination experience.

Back to LA
My second dose of the Moderna vaccine was provided by Carbon Health, who had set up a large vaccination site in the parking lot at the Crenshaw Christian Center in South Los Angeles, about 13 miles northeast of my home here at the beach. It's on 79th Street, south of Florence between Normandie and Vermont. My appointment had carried through from my first dose four weeks earlier; I didn't need to do a thing.

Big hats off to Carbon Health in that regard; after my first dose, I got a text message and email showing that I was registered as such in their system, and then in the days preceding my second dose, I received reminder messages and a confirmation for my next appointment. They seem really together with this massive undertaking.

Had we waited awhile, we probably could have received a vaccine appointment at a spot closer to where we live, but honestly... it was a) great to get this done and out of the way and b) the people running this vaccination site could not have been more professional and efficient at moving large numbers of people through the process.

Unlike our first dose, we practically pulled straight up to the vaccination site for dose #2, as opposed to waiting in an hour-long line of cars as we did last time. Once again, everyone there was friendly and professional, and the shot itself was administered by a medical technician from the Los Angeles Fire Department. Being overly cautious, I made absolutely sure to confirm that the shot they were giving me was Moderna. Then came the painless jab, and then a 20-minute wait to once again confirm that neither Christina nor myself were experiencing any immediate reactions to the shot. Once the all-clear came through, we headed back home. 

One kind of cool thing: Carbon Health also provided an electronic version of this document that will likely come in handy at some point when I am in a position to prove my vaccination status. 

A few VERY important things I need to impart to anyone stumbling across this post.

  • The vaccine is free.
  • The vaccine is safe.
  • In almost every case, the vaccine's side effects are very mild and short-lasting, especially compared to getting COVID-19.
  • Most people don't get any side effects at all, or are so minor as to be barely noticeable.
  • If you truly want to start getting back to a free and open society across the country and around the world, the fastest way to do it is for as many people as possible to get vaccinated.

Grateful Living
Back in Spring 2020, around the time that the first lockdown orders were hitting and people were staring to speculate how long this pandemic would last, I did a little historical research. I looked at the typical time for a vaccine to be developed, the multiple phases of clinical trials to prove it safe for use, and the administration of a distribution plan to offer it to a country of 328 million people.

My earliest estimate from my perspective in March 2020 was that we'd be lucky to get a vaccine by October of 2021, and I was especially annoyed at the people -- far too many of them -- who were complaining about the initial six-week lockdown period. I knew back then it was only the very start.

This thing has impacted my life far too much over the past 14 months. Hopefully I can spend a lot less time dealing with it in upcoming months, and get back to things like music and travel and fun.

So, for me to be sitting here just 13 months later, having received both doses of a highly effective, well tested vaccine is simply amazing. It's unheard of. It's completely unprecedented in the annals of medical science. And yet, as would be completely expected from any realistic viewpoint, there are those people out there who won't take this miraculous, free, life-saving treatment because of their distrust of science and government.

I used to try and help those people, but I don't anymore. Instead, I just do the things that help ensure the safety of myself and those very close to me, and that's about it. That's the only area where I can truly be effective in making a difference. I do encourage you to do the same with any person you care about who's on the fence about getting vaccinated, or about getting their second dose if that's a necessity. Beyond those people who matter the most to you and to whom you can personally encourage and influence, the rest of them are voluntarily on their own to catch and suffer the consequences of the virus.