Sunday, December 24, 2017

Feed-a-Smile Benefit (12.23.17)

Feeding people with music at Feed-a-Smile. What an odd idea, and yet somehow, it works. Photo by Kat.

Before you begin to define what music can do for the world, you first must ask yourself what music is, and the more you think about it, the weirder it is. Music is sound... vibrations that travel through a medium such as air, with molecules crashing into one another in the space between the source and your eardrum where it is perceived and processed by your brain. We musicians take various sounds and organize them in some way that is pleasing or at least interesting to ourselves and other humans, and we call that music. It's an art form based on... what? Vibrations and air? It's bizarre. Does music even exist? Is it all some dream we share?

Now, in this modern era, let's get even more weird. I stand in a room in front of a microphone with a guitar in my hand. My vocal chords vibrate. The strings of my guitar vibrate. These vibrations are converted into electrical signals which are then converted into digital data which travels literally into space, going to satellites and back to various parts of the planet where they are received thousands of miles away by equipment that can decode them and changed back into acoustic vibrations that hit the eardrums of various people who are able to listen to these vibrations almost instantaneously. It boggles the mind.

Regardless, music has been part of the human experience since time immemorial, and it's an important part of the daily lives of a good percentage of people. Music is considered an art by those who create it, and entertainment by those who receive and enjoy it. But it can sometimes be something more than that. Music can affect a human's emotional state. Music can be considered happy, or sad, or thrilling, or calming. No one really knows why; it's a part of our humanity, embedded in our DNA, perhaps from a time before we'd even evolved into the beings we are.

The final thing I want to say about music is that it can be inspiring. Just ask Brique Zeiner, my lovely friend who runs the Feed-a-Smile charity via Second Life. As I've written about many times before, Brique is a wonderful human being who has dedicated a good portion of her life to helping children in Africa via a foundation called Live and Learn in Kenya. At some point, Brique quite correctly deduced that music-based events in Second Life draw the largest crowds, and that Second Life musicians each have their own followings, which is a good combination for successful fundraising.

I had no idea that this show would end up being the most successful fundraising event I'd ever done, which just goes to show you that until you strum that first chord, you never know what's going to happen. Photo by Kat.

While now based in Germany, Brique actually grew up in the same suburb of Los Angeles I call my home: Redondo Beach, California. We share many of the same influences in life, which perhaps is one reason why I am so supportive of her efforts to help feed and educate these kids. Her inspiration is likely more based on religious reasons than mine, but even as the atheist that I am, I see nothing but good in helping to create a generation of people who see that their lives are important and have meaning. It's not only good for them; it's good for the world. If you want to fight terrorism, dropping bombs does nothing except create new terrorists. Dropping music and love instead lets them know that people want to offer them happiness, hope, and a chance at a good life.

L$100,000 in One Hour
So, I'll get to the point now. Unlike most SL shows I do, when I perform at Brique's SL venue Lavender Field for Feed-a-Smile, the goal is not just to make good music and bring a little happiness to the people who happen to come to my show. It's to raise money for her cause. I've done plenty of successful fundraiser shows in Second Life for various worthwhile causes. I've probably done a dozen shows or more for Feed-a-Smile alone. I don't have a specific amount of money raised to be considered successful. Sometimes you just don't get a large crowd to show up; sometimes those who do simply aren't able to contribute more than they can afford. There's nothing wrong with any of that, and frankly, I wasn't expecting a good crowd or a large amount of funds raised at yesterday's show. It was two days before Christmas. A lot of folks are at the end of their limit in terms of spending, having bought gifts for friends and family, or budgeting for travel over the holiday season, and so on. All completely understandable.

That's why, at about the halfway point of my show when Kat tapped me to glance at her monitor, I was truly shocked to see that we'd already raised over L$50,000. She alerted me again while later to show me the number was then at L$75,000. And at the very end, as I got off the virtual stage, I turned around to see the donation counter having just passed L$100,000. That's about $400 USD. In one hour. Pardon my language, but holy shit! Look, if we'd raised L$20,000, I would have been very happy. Here's why: the way Brique has set up Feed-a-Smile is very smart. The numbers work out so that basically each L$100 (about $0.40 USD) donated gives a kid a hot meal. Each L$100 equals a meal, so if I'd raised L$20,000 as I would at a typical successful show, that's wonderful. It's the equivalent of 200 meals. That's really nice.

I don't know, frankly, what happened yesterday. I do know that several of my Zakster fans were being very generous with donations, but I also get the idea that someone else in that crowd was being an angel benefactor, matching and doubling (or even tripling) funds being donated by others. All I know if this: at the end of my show, we'd raised enough for a thousand meals for the school kids in Nakuru, Kenya. I've performed at plenty of successful fundraisers in the past for many worthwhile causes, but never have I been a part of raising that much that fast. Here I am the following day, and I'm still in shock and disbelief about it.

Just... wow. Photo by Kat.

Kat and I after my show, listening to Beth Odets while still in shock over the L$100,000 show I'd just completed. Photo by Kip Yellowjacket.

In addition to what these generous people did for the kids, I can tell you what it did for me. It filled me with happiness and a renewed belief in the positive nature of humanity. Thinking about it today, on Christmas Eve, it's particularly touching to consider how people can be so kind to others whom they'll almost certainly never meet. But that's what makes the world a great and wonderful place. It's an ancient proverb that a society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they'll never get to enjoy. What I witnessed yesterday was the selfless act of people who are literally changing the lives of strangers for no reason other than that it's the right thing to do, with no expectation of personal reward other than being able to feel good about having made the world a little brighter for a moment.

I have no way of thanking those people individually; their donations are anonymous to me. Therefore, I can only thank them collectively, and tell them that what they did was amazing. My own small part of having invited some folks to attend and then spending an hour making live music was really minor compared to what they did; they are the heroes, and they merit all of our respect and admiration.

Feed-a-Smile set list...
Northern Sky (Nick Drake)
Hunger Strike (Temple of the Dog)
River (Joni Mitchell)
Same Sun (Real Estate)
God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen (Traditional)
The Waiting Boy (Zak Claxton)
She’s Always a Woman (Billy Joel)
Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth (Traditional/David Bowie)
Nothing Compares 2 U (Prince)
I Am a Child (Neil Young)
The Christmas Song (Net King Cole)
Low Key (Tweedy)

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Serenity Gardens (12.18.17)

Rocking in a winter wonderland, at Serenity Gardens. Photo by Kat.

Even a short hiatus from playing live can throw a musician off his/her game a little bit. My last show was on November 28, and it was just a couple of days later that the tell-tale signs of a bad cold started coming on. That cold ended up hitting me like a brick and progressing into a chest/sinus infection shortly thereafter. Thanks to the miracles of modern medicine, I was back on my feet pretty quickly, but in the meantime I had to cancel a couple of shows... it's hard to sing with a hacking cough, as you'd imagine.

That made me all the more appreciative to see a good-sized crowd gathering for my return to Serenity Gardens in Second Life. It had been a somewhat rough day, even as far as Mondays go. I got a call from an old friend who let me know that a former business colleague of ours, a gentleman named Richard Ruse, had passed away due to complications stemming from an aggressive form of cancer. I don't know how old Richard was, but he always seemed like a young guy to me; he was maybe 60 or so, if that. It saddened me greatly because Richard was truly one of the good guys... hilariously funny, super smart, and both an admirable businessman and a phenomenal musician. We'd worked at the same company in the '90s, when I was in my twenties. We'd discussed partnering our respective sales/marketing companies in the mid-2000s. Learning of his death was like a part of my youth having been ripped out from under my feet.

But as a fellow musician -- and I know this to be true -- the best way to honor a man like that is by performing music in his memory. So, amidst a bunch of other music I played, I dedicated one song to Richard (James Taylor's "Fire and Rain"). I didn't want to dwell on it or bring down the otherwise festive mood at the show, but I knew it was the right thing to do. I'm glad I did; I feel a little more at peace with his passing today than I would have otherwise.

All photos by Kat Claxton.

Speaking of the show... damn, for having been on hiatus for close to three weeks (most of which I was completely unable to sing and barely touched my guitar), it went really, really well. Serenity Gardens was all decked out in winter/holiday decor. I threw on a Santa hat for the occasion. We had a good crowd right from the start. Also, love them or hate them, there are certain songs that one can do this time of year that aren't even considered at other times. I'm not just talking about Christmas songs. You simply look stupid playing "Long December" in August.

Serenity Gardens set list...
This Afternoon (Zak Claxton)
Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth (Traditional/David Bowie)
Jane (Barenaked Ladies)
Ashes to Ashes (David Bowie)
California (Joni Mitchell)
Falling Down (Zak Claxton)
Pink Moon (Nick Drake)
From the Beginning (Emerson, Lake & Palmer)
Holly Jolly Christmas (Burl Ives)
Long December (Counting Crows)
Pretty Pimpin’ (Kurt Vile)
Fire & Rain (James Taylor)
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas (Blane/Martin)
Serenity Improv (Zak Claxton)

Big thanks to each and every person who came out to the show last night, with special thanks to the following who helped support it!
ErikKottzen Resident, Triana Caldera, Snow Carrasco, Robert69 Little, RoxxyyRoller Resident, go2smoky Resident, Kat Claxton, Asimia Heron, TheaDee Resident, Bob43 Silversmith, Tyche Szondi, my happy manager Maali Beck, and the great management team of Serenity Gardens, Tilly Rose and Ilsa Wilde!

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.