My dinner with george july 2004
My Dinner With George (the Dream Is Over) 8/4/04 Neebish Island Mi
In the last year I have become irrevocably middle aged. I know that numbers mean little yet this was a bigger year for change than 40 or 50 had been. This becoming was not the sort of change of life I was looking for. Somewhere in the midst of all that is life, my energy dropped and my confidence waned.
I realized, weakly, that way more of my life was behind me than in front of me, a gruesome Hallmark moment. Why write another song, when I’ve already written so many that no one will ever hear? The ghosts of millions float in the humid air of New Orleans, laughing at me, extending to me an early welcome to their club. Depression had been my normal state; this was new and different.
My response to this malaise was to seek help, not from a youth elixir or a psychiatrist, but from a young doctor who had just moved to town. After much gabbing about politics, she determined that my blood pressure was way up, in the range that a stroke was an immediate possibility. A regimen of exercise, vitamins, amino acids and flax oil started me back on the road to recovery. Seems like I’ve been on some sort of recovery binge since the 70’s, learning much but always needing more time to recover from something new that I discovered was wrong with me. This time was simple; get healthy and change your habits or die. Four months later I am better but still not close to my goal for weight, blood pressure and general health.
I am currently on vacation in Neebish Island, MI, in a cabin on the St. Mary’s River. The island adventure started with a memorial service for Bud Hall, also known as Shawn Hall’s dad. Bud was a piano playing be-bopper whom once re-bopped and she- bopped em all over Northern Michigan. He passed in December 2003, was cremated and this memorial was to gather friends and family for one last oo-bop-she-bam. It was an odd crowd to celebrate the life of a be- bopper, but then Bud was both a Republican and a pothead musician type. Most of the folks at the memorial were outspoken Republicans, as we learned by eavesdropping on conversations at the reception after the service.
According to the service program, the organist was supposed to start with Horace Silver’s “Song For My Father”, at Bud’s request and finish with Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage.” For whatever reason, perhaps because Bud was not there to enforce his will, these songs were not played. I could have played them! The 76 people in attendance did sing the hymns in strong voices and the Pastor rocked the house with both scripture and a funny golf/ cremation story. Short remembrances from Bud’s sons were moving and Bud’s friends remembered him in happy times.
After the service, we drove to the nearby Neebish Island Community Center for a lunch buffet country church style prepared by the ladies of the Community Center. Many yummy casseroles were served, along with ham, turkey and Jell-O based salad molds along side a Food Network style salad featuring baby spinach, fresh Neebish Island raspberries and a raspberry vinaigrette. The fudge brownies seemed destined to leave at least one attendee in a diabetic coma, although a few folks seemed to be there already. Yes, at 55, I was one of the kids in the crowd.
Two days earlier, I left New Orleans too tired to care where I was going, as long as it was away from the studio and the humidity. One of my main lifelong problems has been doing too many things all the time and not sleeping enough until I become incapacitated and unable to do much of anything except music. Any lifer musician will tell you that every other aspect of life can be in utter ruin and you are still able to do good work in music. I was tired to the point of not being sure even if anything musical I’d been doing was up to snuff.
Our studio intern BJ gave us a lift to the airport. The ride seemed apocalyptic to me, unused to the AM rush hour and I squirmed all the way while Shawn and BJ chatted. The check-in and the flights were routine. Detroit has a passenger friendly airport with reasonable food. I ate too many Fig Newtons and washed them down with some Odwalla that gave me an awful bellyache. The Saginaw flight is up then down, took longer to get our luggage than it did to fly from Detroit. The rental car was fun to drive, a Mazda than seemed to have a lawnmower engine. The sights of the Michigan countryside made me happier. We had decided to stay in West Branch, in a hotel with a logging theme. The hotel offered many ways to purchase the saying “beauty is in the eye of the beer holder”, on a T-shirt, on a board on a plaque or on a coffee mug. It seems that most of Michigan was logged in the 19th century and boards sent east to build places like Philadelphia. After an afternoon of shopping in an outlet mall, where I purchased a dozen books for the trip, we settled in to a night of reading and rest.
While Shawn slept, I read, hearing the long reverberations from the indoor swimming pool outside our room. I meditated, too, but all I
kept coming back to was why I have become a lousy companion, a crummy parent, a confused businessperson and a paralyzed artist. If I’m an artist at all anymore, or if I ever was, I really don’t know anymore. I can sure whine like an artist, we know that much. Despite my steady resolve with my exercise and such, I was slipping. It had been a terrible July.
On July 5th, I had experienced one of those moments well documented in therapy and saint circles, the instant life changing realization. In a nanosecond, I was no longer sure what I was living for or why. That in itself does not sound like much more than a plot device on your average networks TV drama or the subject of hundreds of novels and poems. True, but real pain has a way of reducing complex emotional issues into lizard brain survival moments. In the time it took to ponder the homemade ice cream that had appeared before me, I was over, done, I wanted out. Escape! But to where?
No, I was not suicidal, this was just weariness coupled with a realization, valid or not, that nothing I’ve ever done mattered in the least (all Jimmy Stewart films aside). I might as well have stayed put in Howard County Indiana 50 years ago and taken over Star Roller Mills in Burlington and been a farmer in grain and livestock.
In short, I cracked up, just like that, like Humpty Dumpty. Lots of pieces and a month later I’m still looking for them. I know Humpty Dumpty was pushed by that makes no difference.
We were over at the Fischbach’s for what was a great dinner with equally fine company. Before the dinner, I was so exhausted that I had little recourse but to hope that copious amounts of the small batch Pinot Noir that John often brings back from wine country would somehow revive me. Instead I descended further and ended up delivering a soliloquy on the base elements of what constituted the road to fascism (obsession with national security, protection of corporate power, suppression of labor movement, fraudulent elections, powerful nationalism, disdain for human rights, using enemies and scapegoats as unifying figures, worshiping the military with disporportionate funding, male dominated power structure, more homophobia and rigid gender roles, controlled mass media with hyena people e mailing talking points from the white house to you via Fox, etc, the reuniting of religion and state, cronyism and corruption accepted and perverse obsession with crime and punishment) and why the Bush administration had shown itself to be walking a straight line right down the same superhighway the national socialists had walked 70 years ago in Germany. Not exactly swell dinner talk, but I was tired of Bush Bashing Lite. I wanted things to get real instantly and if this group of left leaning artists and thinkers were not grasping what was going on in the world around them, well, dammit, it was my job to tell them. I jabbed Kerry, too, reflecting that if Bush were not so heinous there would not be more than a few dozen Americans who’d vote for Kerry either. Maybe the world would have been better off if Goldwater had been elected in ‘68. For some reason I have a misguided nostalgia for the days when a leftish thinkish person could actually have a dialogue with a conservative. Long before the neo-cons and the Christian right took over, not all conservatives were as vile as today’s version. Today’s Americans seem to want pablum in huge puddles, so they can dive right in while the Kerry/Bush machines tell them everything is gonna be alright. Telling the truth about our dire straits will result in losing the election, so instead of the deficit solutions and plans for Iraq and Afghanistan, we get a policy of Security stuffed fried baloney sandwiches that could bring Elvis back to life. Kill them terrorists!
Right here on Neebish Island, we can no longer ride our small boats the few hundred yards over to Canada without being filmed by the coast guard and subjected to eventual fines. The terrorists have won when we are forced to put men in uniform on duty to watch kids in canoes. Yes, the beer in Canada is stronger; perhaps because they spend so much less on their military that they can afford the extra proof.
After my dinner table monologue, (there was a lot going on and lucky for me not everyone was listening,) I gravitated to the TV corner. John had put on a DVD of the Concert For George. Anyone my age who grew up with the Beatles is an instant softy for anything that rekindles the musical power of 63-68 years not the nostalgia.
Here was a show put on at Royal Albert Hall with Eric Clapton and Jeff Lynne leading a group of dozens. It was so well done. I watched in awe, seeing Ravi Shankar and Albert Lee and Jim Keltner and Dhani Harrison play the music of George Harrison. Songs I had not heard for years came to life. I played them in my head remembering chords and harmony parts. The music really stood the test of time. I was disturbed by Paul McCartney’s appearance, something smarmy and condescending in his manner, but other wise the people involved were so right that it was eerie. I was in awe of the playing, the songs, the sound and the filming. Best thing of it’s kind I had ever seen, right down to a Monty Python reunion and little known Liverpool ukulele songster Joe Brown finishing with “See You In My Dreams”.
As I watched, I became more and more enthralled until that moment came upon me. A large group, lead by Billy Preston was doing “Isn’t It A Pity”. I remembered the album All Things Must Pass. Then came the instant change. What had I done with my life? I remembered sitting on my couch fall of 68 singing my songs with Jim Keltner sitting next to me slapping his thighs, rehearsing for a record deal recording date that was cancelled the day we went to the studio. What had I done with my life?
I watched Ringo singing “Photograph” and remembered him beating his wife in front of us a session in 1987. One chance to work with a Beatle and he assaults his wife then keeps working into the night. What had I done with my life? I kept watching, so thrilled with the DVD but lost. Eventually the party broke up and I walked out into the humid air. I asked Brad Edelman if his knees ever got better after his years with the Saints and he was upbeat and did a half-deep knee bend and laughed. I got in the car and drove home crying.
As I crack up, I go spinning across decades around and through cultures, in and out of obscure pop culture references. In case you wondered: years ago I tried the serotonin drugs didn’t work, nor did any of the more modern versions I tried years more recently. The only thing that rouses me from my pitiful self-absorbed state is the idea of solitude, something I actually get about twice a year. Today I walked 6 miles with Shawn. I like Shawn but this was not solitude. It was exercise. Exercise, solitude, reading and working on a new piece or making a new recording of something that matters, that’s what kept me from cracking before. Now I’m battered by kids who need much then need even more, a business that needs, a relationship that needs, an ex-wife that needs and needles and me dealing with all of it badly.
Finding something that really matters is a goal. My job is listening to music. Can you imagine all the music and sound that hits my ears in the course of a year? I can still hear well, auspiciously for someone who now qualifies for an AARP card, yet my ears seem tired now. I’m tired of the assault of every derivative band, every half-formed singer or young jazzer who seem to think they need to make a CD well before they have much to say. So why complain if it’s my job to make CDs? Perhaps it’s because I don’t do this for money. I have to feel like one of the masons building a great chapel, in service. It gives one something good to do, something that makes a difference, or at least I used to think it did. There’s nothing like having people all over the world listening to music you’ve made. It impacts your nervous system in such a wondrous way and is not directly connected to fame, which is typically a bad thing. Connection good /fame bad. Money and music go together like dog food and caviar.
To serve God, to serve the universe, now that’s reason to get up each day. Make sounds for posterity. To shine up a bunch of ego driven music that lacks direction, skill, inspiration, taste and exists only for someone’s twisted need for self glorification at the expense of all of us listeners – you tell me if you wouldn’t be complaining under those circumstances.
So maybe I’ll find something else to do. Some other way to serve God, which seems somehow, opposed to serving the current batch of humans. At least my blood pressure is below stroke level. In March I discovered the reason I’d felt so rotten all the time, the reason I felt that there was a vice grip around me that was eased only by lots of exercise or self medication. I had lost touch with myself. Maybe it was in response to all the responsibility that has landed upon my shores. My feelings of failure and guilt cycle randomly, stopping my thoughts and calling up perfect re-enactment of past shameful events and wretched behaviors that cause my body to jerk and my mouth to sound off with an involuntary wail. That’s basically how I face each new day. Even here on the island I get up and worry, get up and wonder if I’ll ever finish another CD, write another story or learn to be a good parent. That’s it for now, from the slagheap of music history.