Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Serenity Gardens (06.01.20)

This was a rare show at Serenity Gardens where I was compelled to play songs that spoke to the moment. Photo by Kat.

Where to even start...

I often use this blog as a method to report on my activities as a musician, but I also use it to record events going on in my life and the world around me. For the past couple of months, a lot of that content has been focused on the COVID-19 pandemic, which is pretty understandable given its impact on all of our lives. But life happens quickly, and for the past week, things have changed radically due to the murder of George Floyd. I don't need to tell the story; we've all seen the vile images of former Minneapolis police office Derek Chauvin killing Floyd in the street. It's sickening to see.

What happened since then, starting May 26 and strongly ramping up over the past weekend, is perhaps the greatest period of civil unrest ever seen in the USA. Again, it's not necessary for me to illustrate the specifics of this; it will be in every history book and web site for years to come. Cities across America have been the sites of angry demonstrations, and along with those protests come the most negative aspects of a justifiably angry populace, with various opportunists taking advantage of the situation in the streets by looting and burning. At this very moment, Los Angeles Country (where I've lived for most of my life, since 1975) is under a strict curfew for the past few evenings, and it continues until the situation resolves. States have called in the National Guard to help control the populace. It's obviously an ongoing situation.

But instead of repeating things that are in the top headlines for everyone in the world right now, I thought I'd try something new. Last night's show at Serenity Gardens was a little different than my usual mellow and fun performance. I had chosen my songs over the weekend, while watching livestream news footage of dozens of cities across the US, and I couldn't morally get up on Monday night and do random songs and pretend that nothing was going on. So what follows is an expanded version of my set list, and an explanation of what it was about that song that made me select it.

My Heart (Neil Young)
Neil actually found his way into my set list in three ways for this show, as shall be illustrated below. I opened with "My Heart" because I knew, moments before my show having witnessed Trump's tear-gassing peace protestors to get a photo op at St. James, the moment I allowed anger to become my predominant emotion, I'd have trouble pushing it aside. "My Heart" is the opening track of one of Neil's darker albums, Sleeps With Angels, and has a verse in it that says, "When dreams come crashing down like trees / I don't know what love can do / When life is hanging in the breeze / I don't know what love can do," and I thought that was very appropriate for my feelings for the entire situation.

For What It’s Worth (Buffalo Springfield)
This is a classic protest song, almost to the point of being a cliche. Written and sung by Steven Stills when he was in Buffalo Springfield (along with the aforementioned Mr. Young), it's a song that was inspired by demonstrations on the Sunset Strip in the late '60s here in Los Angeles. Those specific protests, I should mention, were in regard to abuse of authority by police.

All Lives, You Say? (Wilco)
Well, this one is kinda obvious, no? Jeff Tweedy and his lovely band Wilco came out with this song in 2017, shortly after Jeff's dad passed away. The proceeds for the song gave tens of thousands of dollars to the Southern Poverty Law Center and other anti-hate organizations. Jeff said at the time, "My dad was named after a Civil War general, and he voted for Barack Obama twice. He used to say 'If you know better, you can do better.' America - we know better. We can do better." I agree.

During the show, I used an analogy of a neighborhood with a house on fire to illustrate the reason we say "Black Lives Matter" as opposed to "All Lives Matter". Photo by Kat.

*Takin It To The Streets (Doobie Brothers)
Again, this one is on the nose. It's a hard song to perform because I have to arrange keyboard lines for guitar (and transpose it down a step because I'm no Michael McDonald). But the message of the song that resonates best with me is the opening line: "You don't know me, but I'm your brother." I hope that's true of me.

Abrasion (They Stole My Crayon)
This is a) the only TSMC song that I performed this night and b) the only specific politically-focused song that TSMC has written thus far (though we have some others in the works). It's a planned song for our next album that hopefully will happen soonish. The lyrics are by Christina and Bunny, but the music on this one is my contribution, I'm happy to say, with its fun and slightly jarring 21/8 time signature. Key lyric: "We live with this / Your indifference / Our onus is / Help each other live."

One thing I will say: I have never felt unwelcome at Serenity Gardens to perform the music I want, no matter what it is. Not every venue in SL or real life for that matter is as respectful and open to the artist as they are. Photo by Kat.

*Wild World (Cat Stevens)
As I mentioned at the show, this is more of an interpersonal break-up song than anything specific toward the protests, but if the world has been anything lately, it's been wild. Also, this lyric jumped out at me in its appropriate description of the moment: "You know I've seen a lot of what the world can do / And it's breaking my heart in two."

Ohio (Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young)
The third appearance of Neil Young in the set is a very important one. For anyone unaware, "Ohio" was written May 4, 1970, the day of the shooting of 13 unarmed students by National Guard troops at Kent State University in Ohio. National Guard troops have been called into a number of cities over the past several days, including here in the Los Angeles area. It remains to be seen what the tally of violence will be, especially after Trump threatened to send in US military to keep order. Anyway, I couldn't have done this show without doing this song.

Tangerine (Led Zeppelin)
My reason for playing "Tangerine"? I didn't have one. Sometimes it's necessary to break up the series of heavy tunes with something less focused on the moment. So, "Tangerine" is off the more acoustic-oriented side of Zep III, and is written to a lost love. Perhaps that melancholy and wistful vibe is something I feel when I think about how our lives have changed as a whole so drastically and so quickly.

Lest we forget: while all this madness is blanketing the country right now, it's happening in the midst of a pandemic. I will continue to wear my mask in SL until the time I'd feel comfortable being among the public maskless in real life. Photo by Kat.

This Afternoon (Zak Claxton)
Similar to "Tangerine", I wanted to take my foot off the gas for a couple of tunes because I knew how my set was going to end. "This Afternoon" is probably the original song of mine I've performed most in SL throughout my 13+ years of doing shows in-world. Definitely a song of yearning, the applicable lyric is as follows: "This afternoon / another day gone by / The pain I hold inside will be my ruin."

Nowhere Man (The Beatles)
I believe I mentioned at the show that I had chosen "Nowhere Man" as a shout-out to the people in our lives who simply -- and understandably -- don't want to get involved or take sides in a conflict, even if the results will eventually affect them and the ones they love personally. The lines that tell the story: "Nowhere man please listen / You don't know what you're missing / Nowhere man, the world is at your command." I chose that not to denigrate this kind of person but to make them aware that each and every person can have a massive effect in changing the world, for better or for worse.

Goodbye Blue Sky (Pink Floyd)
This is a truly frightening song off a dark, dark album. Within the framework of war and its aftermath, it felt all too applicable right after the threat of martial law and the visuals of various law enforcement agencies with their militarized approach to "controlling" protestors. Seeing the firing of rounds and tear gas containers at Americans in the streets of the cities where they live, while images of looting and arson dominated the evening news, brought to mind the lyrics, "Did you see the frightened ones? / Did you hear the falling bombs? / The flames are all long gone, but the pain lingers on."

*It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) (Bob Dylan)
I'll tell you: this is perhaps my favorite Bob Dylan song, and I'd been thinking of covering it for years. While the song isn't focused on protest or civil rights, it is an epic that cynically lambasts many aspects of American culture. Dylan was born in Hibbing, MN, and since his state was the flashpoint of all this stuff, I used it as an opportunity to do this song. Key verse... "Disillusioned words like bullets bark / As human gods aim for their mark / Made everything from toy guns that spark / To flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark / It's easy to see without looking too far / That not much is really sacred."

*We Shall Overcome (Traditional)
I wasn't sure I was going to actually do this. I hemmed and hawed quite a bit before committing to it. It's literally the key anthem of the civil rights movement, and before I do a song, I always need to ask myself, "Do I have the right to sing this? Can this message be considered genuine coming from me?" If the answer if no, I don't do the song. But "We Shall Overcome" is a protest song for activists who support civil rights and the equal treatment of people of all races, religions, and backgrounds. That describes... me. The only problem was that the most well-known arrangement of the song is pretty repetitive and has a melody that, while easy to memorize and sing for crowds of people as it as intended, is kinda blah. Sorry. But then I stumbled on a version Bruce Springsteen did live, and while I also didn't do his arrangement either, I figured out one for myself and I think it went alright.

My "angry" show last night wasn't for everyone, but throughout the show we had a decent crowd and I was grateful to those who stuck it out. Photo by Kat.

*Indicates songs I've never performed before in SL.

So, that's what I did, and that's where things are. And ultimately, do I ever change anything when I focus my music performance on polarizing or controversial issues? I can't say; I genuinely don't know. But I do know that I've always felt that silence is tantamount to complicity, and I simply can't live with myself knowing I had the opportunity to make an impact, even a small one, and ignored it.

I will say thanks to the people, Zaksters and otherwise, who listened while, through music and message, I made my state of mind very clear in my support for the Black Lives Matter protestors. I did mention my disgust at the looting and other opportunistic behavior that comes along with the protests... but it also could be said that many of the protests would be going largely ignored if not for the terrible aspect of theft and property loss. It doesn't justify it in any way, nor does it justify the often brutal acts of abuse of power that law enforcement (and now, apparently, military) have done in trying to control the protests. Not all of them, no. This is not an all-of-nothing equation, even though some folks would prefer that.

And now, from my curfew-enacted home in Los Angeles County, I bid you a pleasant evening. Also, thanks to everyone who was at the show, and special thanks to the following who helped support it.Tyche Szondi, Jaron Metaluna, Kat Chauveau, Trouble Streeter, Grace McDunnough, Kat Claxton, my excellent manager Maali Beck, and the fabulous team at Serenity Gardens, Tilly Rose and Ilsa Wilde!