Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Serenity Gardens (02.24.20)

A good crowd at Serenity Gardens in Second Life, enjoying some new tunes from me. Photo by Kat.

Just a few minutes after I wrapped up a really satisfying live music show at Serenity Gardens last night in Second Life, my mood turned from ebullient to despondent in about three seconds when my friend Lisa Kaser messaged me on Facebook, saying, "Zak, I just learned that Kaj passed this morning. I didn't want you to just scroll across a post to learn of it."

Kaj. Three little letters, but a world of meaning. Unlike many of the friends who I initially met in Second Life, Kaj Qinan didn't stick around that virtual world for very long. She'd come to my shows from time to time back in the earlier days, around 2007-2013, usually when I was performing at one of the more hippie-focused venues. My main interaction with her in times since then has been through our interaction on Facebook, and it was there that we primarily had conversations about our mutual commitment to progressive political ideas, and for making the world a better place in which to live for all people. But she was more than just a political friend; she was a person who exuded kindness and compassion, and always seemed so genuinely interested in what was going on in people's lives.

I'd heard she had some health problems, but she never dwelled on them to the point that I realized they were serious. And then, apparently, at age 59 she passed away due to a heart ailment, details unknown to me. Kaj was a big supporter of Bernie Sanders; her final Facebook profile pic is a little collection of Bernie memes. Quite often, when I'd post some news item relating to the travesty of the Trump presidency, Kaj would be the first to repost it. She'd also come to me privately with follow-up questions about the detailed implications of some piece of news. You could always tell that she was truly interested in learning, and getting to the core of an issue.

A pic of Kaj in Second Life from back in 2013. Photo by Rosi Vinson.

Is Everyone Dying?
As my regular readers are aware, I've had far too much death in my life in recent years. One thing I'd like to address is the aspect that in previous generations, the people to whom a person would become close was mostly limited to a relatively small group of family, local friends, and coworkers. In this era, where I can develop meaningful friendships with people around the world, many of whom I will never meet in person, one has a more broad scope of friends and acquaintances, and inevitably as time goes by, some of them are going to die. The upside of being able to be in contact with a wider range of like-minded people is tempered by the aspect of having more people you know also experience tragedy in various ways.

Also, I am 50 years old, and as time goes by, the percentages dictate that more people in and around your age range are going to pass away. It can lead to the false logic that more people are dying than usual. It's not true. Last night, Christina mentioned something about the "thinning of the herd", but that's a fallacy of perception. I can think of the many people who've come along after me... in other words, who joined the world at some point past the time when I was born. I mentioned a bunch of them, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Kevin Hart, Pete Buttigieg, Greta Thunberg, and Billie Eilish. People who make an impact on the world but are young and far from the presumable point of death. The pool of life is much more like a river than a pond, with people constantly exiting and entering. It's easy to see why a person might feel like everyone is dying off, but what they really mean is that the people who are closer to their own age are starting to go, which is all part of the natural scheme of things.

In any case, Kaj will be missed by many. I had a long chat with Trista Morris last night; she felt horrible about the fact that Kaj had commissioned some artwork from her that she didn't have a chance to complete and send before Kaj's untimely passing. I told Trista that a person can't live their lives with the expectation that every single conversation one has with another person might be their last. All you can do -- and Trista certainly does -- is to try and treat people kindly at every opportunity. With Kaj, that kindness was always reflected tenfold. This morning, a good chunk of my Facebook timeline was filled with people writing wonderful memorial words about her, and frankly, that shows the kind of impact she had on people and is a beautiful legacy. It speaks to a life well lived, and through her feisty yet sweet nature, Kaj Qinan was a positive force in the lives of those around her. You can't ask for much more than that. Also, if Bernie Sanders wins the Democratic nomination for president, or (better yet) beats Donald Trump in the general election, I promise to hoist a glass specifically for Kaj... I know how happy that would have made her.

My Show
So, before that sad news hit, I was pretty happy about the show I'd just done at Serenity Gardens. I'm still happy about that. I find that the more I take risks in music performances, the more I enjoy the results. That means adding new material, or doing music that might be a step or two outside of the typical boundaries of my own style or my abilities as a musician. It's not always great, but it is always more interesting and fun for me as a performer.

People dancing and having fun at Serenity. Photo by Kat.

Of the dozens and dozens of places I've played live music in Second Life, Serenity Gardens is definitely one of the finest in all aspects. Photo by Kat.

Serenity Gardens from an angle I usually don't see. Photo by Kat.

Last night, I did two songs I'd never done before -- one original and one cover -- and nearly all of my other songs were those that I hadn't played in months and months. That meant I had to take a little extra time preparing to play, internalizing the new stuff and remembering the details of the older stuff. But it was well worth it; the crowd seemed to dig what I did and although I was a sweaty mess afterwards, that feeling of walking the tightrope (versus just taking the easy route) can be exhilarating.

Serenity Gardens set list...
Carey (Joni Mitchell)
Crosses (José González)
One of These Things First (Nick Drake)
Loading Zones (Kurt Vile)
Desire Lines (Deerhunter)
Eleanor Rigby (Beatles)
*High and Dry (Radiohead)
Vendetta (They Stole My Crayon)
*Your Promises Don’t Keep (Zak Claxton)
I’ve Been Waiting for You (Neil Young)
Everything Counts (Depeche Mode)
Texarkana (R.E.M.)
Moonage Daydream (David Bowie)

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

Big thanks to each and every person who attended last night's show, with special thanks to the following who helped support it!
AaronCabottJones Resident, ColdAsh Resident, Turn Pike, Tpenta Vanalten, Trouble Streeter, Jaron Metaluna, Grace McDunnough, Triana Caldera, Tyche Szondi, Kat Chauveau, Kat Claxton, Aurelie Chenaux, my excellent manager Maali Beck, and the fabulous team at Serenity Gardens, Tilly Rose and Ilsa Wilde!

Monday, February 17, 2020

New Zak Claxton Demo Collection: 02.16.20

Surrounded by guitars and keyboards and recording gear. Me, this entire weekend.

This was an ICS weekend; that's when my friend Bunny and I each try to create as many brand new songs out of thin air as possible in a very limited time frame. We both wrote and worked on our new material beginning on Saturday and wrapped it up today (Sunday), and I'm super happy with the new batch of tunes. For a previous and more detailed explanation of our fun trying this idea from the The Immersion Composition Society, see my previous post on the matter.

I managed to come up with ten pieces of music, but ended up being able to write lyrics and and sing vocals to complete the seven songs I did in 24 hours... which you can check out below. Keep in mind, these are demos. There are literally mistakes in each song! The point was to get the songs out and captured quickly.

And here are a few notes on each tune.

"Your Promises Don't Keep"
I've long been an admirer of bands with a tight, stripped-down sound that still give off a spacious vibe. Those range from The Police to Talking Heads and many more. It's not a style that's easy to adopt or that comes naturally to me, but I love listening to stuff like this so much that I wanted to try one of my own. I also find it makes my butt wiggle.

"Heart of the Sky"
This was one of those rare times where I picked up the guitar and without any thinking, this entire song came out. Like, zero thought, zero effort. It came through me rather than from me. I don't know where it originated, but I just sat back and recorded it immediately and that's what you hear here. It's pretty obvious that my lifelong love of Neil Young is shining through on this one. It is some pretty straightforward rock that will likely end up on a Zak Claxton solo album.

"Stand Up"
It's the same general idea as the Bob Marley tune. Far too often these days, I run into people with a defeatist vibe, and while it's completely understandable given the current circumstances of the world, I am firmly convinced that when people fight for the things they believe in, good things happen. Most people are far stronger than they think they are.

"Our Love Fills the Earth"
Hmm. Probably not the best song on here. It's what I call a lazy song, where you don't think and just let your hands roam your fingerboard in familiar ways. The saving grace on this song is the fucked up synthesizer making little dissonant chimes at various places. The lyric is sorta hippie-dippy, but again, it's a lot of music to do in a day or so.

"I Could Have Done More"
So, this is a truly sad song, and while it didn't exist until yesterday, it's been kind of rattling around in my head after the death of a close friend in August of last year. Despite the mood of the song, I don't have any specific guilt over the loss of Rachael, but there's always that voice inside of yourself that asks if you could have been a better person to someone who's no longer with us. I did this one in one take, just piano and voice. I didn't write out the progression or the melody beforehand... just let my hands play on their own and sang what came out of me at the moment.

"My Little Jungle"
This is the only purposeful instrumental of the day (as opposed to having given up on trying to write lyrics). My son had given me a kalimba -- a kind of small African thumb piano -- for a Christmas present this year, and I'd been wanting to use it for a tune ever since. So, that's my kalimba, and those are my handclaps, and I just improvised through the whole thing, and I like it.

"The Special Place"
Why do I occasionally do dance music? How about, "Why don't I do dance music more often?" I've actually created a ton of various kinds of synth pop, disco, and EDM over the years, having gotten into keyboards and synthesizers (and drum machines and sequencers and arpeggiators and so on) while in my teens. I'm just more known as an acoustic and rock kinda guy, but I grew up in the '80s and '90s when the forerunners of synth-based dance music all spawned, and have a ton of love for bands like Depeche Mode, ABC, Thomas Dolby and many others. It was fun doing this, and yeah, the song is about sex, but plenty of great music is too.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Serenity Gardens (02.10.20)

Rocking on a Monday night, as I do every other week at Serenity Gardens in Second Life. Photo by Kat.

It's pretty rare these days that I happen to have live music shows on consecutive days, and on a general basis, it's not something I prefer to do. The reason is rather murky, but it mostly has to do with the fact that I really like to prepare well for my shows, carefully choosing my set list, going through and warming up for each song. It all takes time and energy, which are two things that I generally don't have in abundance these days. Since I'd played Sunday evening for the MrNoCal Memorial at Triana's Music Trivia, I found myself onstage less than 24 hours later for my bi-weekly show at Serenity Gardens.

But there's an upside to doing live shows on a more regular basis, which is that I can kind of stay in a groove, feeling warmed up and ready to rock with both my voice and my guitar. As I got ready to play, there was no strain in hitting notes on the high or low end of my vocal range. My fingers jumped to each chord as if they were born in those shapes. Don't get me wrong... I get to that point eventually for most of my shows, but it felt particularly easy to hit the ground running for this one. Feeling like that gave me a big boost of confidence, and that, in turn, let me jump into the start of this show being about as good as I can be, and it stayed that way for the subsequent hour.

To be clear, I still don't want to do more shows than I currently do. My life is filled with things to do. There are never enough hours in any day to do all the things that I have to do, much less the things I want to do. There are so many things to know, to learn, to experience. I don't get bored; how could I? But that still leaves me with no desire to fill up my calendar with music shows, in Second Life or otherwise.

Life... Take Advantage Of It
I sometimes imagine myself as a character in a fictional narrative called "Things to Do While You're Alive". Go with me on this pitch... you wake up one day and you're dead. You start asking around about the afterlife, and you find there are plenty of things to do. You can travel through vast distances of time and space, unencumbered by the physical laws of our universe. You can meet other beings in this new realm and get to know them. But what you find in the midst of this amazing new dimension is that you miss the things that you can only do as a living, breathing entity. Your regret is that you didn't take advantage of being alive while you were alive.

Don't laugh; I think this could be a decent book or film. But you get the idea; by having some awareness that you only have the limited, relatively short span of your life to do all the things you enjoy, you might be inspired to get off your ass and do those things, or take some chances that you otherwise might be scared to do. What those things entail are, of course, different for each person. I seem to see so many cases of people who always want to take the safest path, the one with the least amount of risk, and I can't help but feel that they might experience some regrets about the things they didn't do while they were capable of doing so. Why not take up that instrument, or ask that person out to dinner, or travel to that place you always wanted to, or devote time getting behind a political cause, or writing that book, or building that web site, or... whatever the thing is that you'll wish you'd done later on? I rarely am regretful of the things I do, as opposed to the things I don't.

Back to the Show
So, I was feeling nice and confident when I hit the stage at Serenity on Monday night. Grace McDunnough had just done her typically excellent set before me, and everything just worked. We had a reasonably good-sized crowd the entire time, and I felt like my set list was super strong. I often arrange the songs of my set in a particular order before a show, and I have reasons for some of my choices. For example, I don't like to have my opening song be one that's particularly challenging to sing, and yet I do want it to be something that might work for the kind of venue I'm playing, or after the artist who performed before me. But after the first song or two, I'm constantly shuffling my tunes to match my mood, or to plan ahead for how I want the set to wrap up given the vibe of the evening. Last night, I ended up pushing my three most rocking tunes toward the back of the set list, when I'd be nice and pumped up to do the harder-edged stuff.

I also found out during my show that it was the fifth anniversary of Serenity Gardens, and that gave me a chance to talk about what a terrific venue it truly is. It's been going on three years that I started doing my regular show there, and I can say with no reservations that it truly is one of the best-ever places in Second Life to experience live music, primarily due to the warm and welcoming nature of the owner and hosts, the low-key and non-judgmental vibe of the outdoor setting, and the fact that a wide variety of music is performed there, so there's something for everyone. In any case, happy fifth anniversary to Ilsa and Serenity Gardens!

Me, onstage in a pretty setting. Photo by Kat.

Out of my 13+ years of doing live music in Second Life, my shows at Serenity have been among my best anywhere. Happy 5th! Photo by Kat.

Good times, good crowd of people who really seemed to enjoy good music. I ask for nothing more! Photo by Kat.

Anyway, as I said up top... it is sometimes a temptation to play live music more often than I do in Second Life, or anywhere for that matter. But at the same time, my days are really full and I make it a point to live my life in a way that means I have few regrets at the end of it... or afterwards. That often means doing lots of things, but not focusing all your time on any one thing. That's what works for me... you might feel differently, and that's okay too.

Serenity Gardens set list...
Pink Moon (Nick Drake)
Falling Down (Zak Claxton)
Among the Leaves (Sun Kil Moon)
Bang and Blame (R.E.M.)
On a Plain (Nirvana)
Waiting for the Sun (The Doors)
Say Goodbye (Beck)
Birds (Neil Young)
Pickles (Zak Claxton)
You Oughta Know (Alanis Morissette)
Vasoline (Stone Temple Pilots)
Black Hole Sun (Soundgarden)
*Serenity Improv #4199 (Zak Claxton)

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

Big thanks to all the folks who came out to the Zak Show, with special thanks to the following who helped support it!
AaronCabottJones Resident, Diana Renoir, ColdAsh Resident, Tpenta Vanalten, Kat Claxton, go2smoky Resident, Trouble Streeter, Asimia Heron, patchworkpink Resident, Grace McDunnough, my excellent manager Maali Beck, and the fabulous team at Serenity Gardens, Tilly Rose and Ilsa Wilde!

Monday, February 10, 2020

Triana's Music Trivia/MrNoCal Honey Tribute (02.09,.20)

A special event at Triana's Music Trivia to celebrate the life of a friend. Photo by Kat.

Here's a topic I've touched on before that I wish wasn't necessary to bring up... but it is. How important are your "virtual friends" in your life? These are the people whom you only know from some kind of online interaction, which could range from Second Life to Facebook to Twitter to YouTube to any number of multiplayer gaming platforms. People whom perhaps you've never met face to face, and whom you likely never will? And when one of those people passes away, should you feel any less sense of loss just because you never had any physical contact with the person?

I know the answer, because I've unfortunately experienced the loss of a virtual friend on a number of occasions. People whom I've only known as a screen name on a forum, or an avatar in a virtual world, but one with whom I've interacted over the course of years sometimes, and who in every sense of the word has become a close friend. I recall getting to know a woman named Delinda Dyrssen in Second Life back in the 2000s who tragically passed away at age 32 from kidney disease. I recall being every bit as sad at her passing as I'd been on occasions where real life friends and family members had died. There have been too many others from my online experiences, like my pal Dak Lander whom I knew from my music/audio forums. I really knew these people... their likes and dislikes, their family, their history. There are plenty of people -- coworkers, neighbors, and others with whom I interacted in daily life for years -- who I didn't know nearly as well as these folks whom in many cases, I never even had the opportunity to shake their hand or give them a hug.

I started participating in online interaction with people in the mid-90s via platforms like Usenet, so I have some experience in feeling the loss of a person in a purely virtual friendship. Many folks from previous generations to mine ("OK Boomer") simply don't understand this reaction. "But you never even met the person," I've heard said on multiple occasions. But I know what friendship is all about, and it has little to do with being in physical proximity to other humans. It's about finding people who grab your interest, or with whom you feel a connection based on your shared tastes and priorities. It's all the things that make up friendship with those in immediate proximity, but without the limitations of the people who happen to be local to you.

MrNoCal Honey
I am not going to talk about the real name of the man I knew as NoCal because of reasons that may be apparent momentarily. I met him via my participation in Triana's Music Trivia in Second Life, which means I first ran across him in 2006. He was a character in the best sense of the word. He was silly. He was profane. He was also flamboyantly gay, which also made him funny to me. I laughed a lot around NoCal. I'd see him every Sunday evening at TMT for years and years, and over the course of that time, I got to know him pretty well. I became friends with him on Facebook as well, and that's where I got to know more about his real life. He had a lot of admirable qualities, one of which was his difficult choice to sacrifice a good portion of his own life to care for his mother, who was going through increasingly worse dementia. He lived with her in a relatively small town. I always felt somewhat bad for NoCal in that he was a guy who would have loved to break out of the seemingly sheltered environment of his life, but that simply wasn't an option that he allowed himself.

Triana put up a nice little memorial area and slide show for the event. Photo by Kat.

As you might guess from our having met via a music trivia event, NoCal's knowledge of music from many genres was superb. He had done occasional gigs as a DJ, and especially on the pop side of things, he would be one of the constant winning players at TMT. He really seemed to enjoy our times at Trivia, where he could break out of his shell and fully be himself. While most people in Second Life make it a point to change their appearance (or at least their virtual clothing) from time to time, NoCal almost always looked exactly the same, wearing a white "Frankie Say Relax" t-shirt (the one that was popular for about five minutes in real-life 1984), along with a little crown, fishnet stockings, and a rainbow-shaded thong that had a codpiece with a picture of William Shatner.

I'm not positive that all of NoCal's real life friends and family knew this side of him. That's why I am not identifying him by his real name here. I know that I respect people's privacy, and since I'm not completely aware of what his wishes would be in that regard, even after his death I do not want to "out" him to anyone. My only regret in regard to NoCal happened back in March 2012. Kat and I had planned a little vacation to Las Vegas along with our friends from TMT, including Triana, Diana, Xerxes, and NoCal. I got sick shortly before the trip, and a day or two before we were scheduled to leave, I ended up being diagnosed with severe pneumonia. As a result, my one opportunity to hang out with the guy in person never happened. NoCal very rarely travelled... that Vegas trip was the first time in his life he'd gone west of the Mississippi. He'd spent about 30 years working in the same customer service job and living what I'd consider to be a cloistered life, and I really wish I'd been able to see him on that one possible occasion.

As time went by, Second Life started becoming problematic for NoCal's computer -- a not-uncommon occurrence for folks -- and he stopped coming to Trivia on a regular basis. I still kept up with him via Facebook over the past couple of years. The last time we hung out in the virtual realm was when Triana was ending the weekly trivia event, and NoCal managed to make it back into SL one last time, on June 30 of last year. NoCal was his same old self, and I enjoyed that moment a lot. But a couple of weeks ago, I was sitting here and my phone rang and it was Triana, who was crying, and she let me know that NoCal had passed away on January 28. He was 54 years old. It was sad and shocking and everything you'd anticipate feeling from the sudden loss of a friend.

A Salute to a Friend
After the shock had settled in some, Triana and Diana both got in touch with me proposing the idea of having some kind of memorial event for NoCal's friends in Second Life. It had been since last June that Triana had held a trivia event, and she decided to host a special NoCal edition of TMT, and had me play live music afterwards. It was great to see a number of folks there with whom I'd only associated via Trivia, and we all shared our feelings of loss from NoCal's passing.

For years, the buzzer to enter the Trivia game was a model of NoCal himself, if that tells you what he meant to us. Photo by Kat.

Some of NoCal's close friends, dressed in homage to the man himself. Photo by Kat.

Me, playing music for my fellow friends of NoCal. Photo by Triana.

I chose to do a set of music that mostly included songs that had some kind of meaning to NoCal. These were tunes that I'd done before on the many occasions that I'd done live shows at TMT, and included those I'd done specifically for NoCal's enjoyment. In keeping with NoCal's fun and silly spirit, I didn't limit the tunes to sad and somber stuff, or even overly sentimental songs (though I did include an appropriate number of those as well). NoCal was a guy who loved to laugh, and I very purposefully did some extremely silly stuff, like a bizarre mash-up of my song "Triana" with Boston's "More Than a Feeling" (something that happened by accident while I was warming up, and decided to add to the set that night).

TMT/MrNoCal Honey Memorial set list...
While My Guitar Gently Weeps (Beatles)

Borderline (Madonna)
Losing My Religion (REM)
Save It For Later (English Beat)
I Dreamed a Dream (Les Miserables)
Possession (Sarah McLachlan)
Fire & Rain (James Taylor)
NoCal, You Got It Going On (Flight of the Conchords)
Tribute (Tenacious D)
The Rainbow Connection (Kermit the Frog)
You're Like a Cloud (Zak Claxton)
Triana (Zak Claxton)

Thanks to all fo NoCal's friends from TMT who came by the memorial event, and who hung out for the show. He was a wonderful guy and we're all lucky to have had the time with him that we did!