PANDEMIC BLUES

When the global pandemic washed across the world and brought the global economy to a standstill, I think it’s fair to say that most of us were in something of a daze, facing a future of indefinite uncertainty we’d never, ever had to contemplate. When the lockdown first took effect, I couldn’t help but think of the title of the sci-fi classic, “the day the earth stood still.”

Confined to our homes, unable to anticipate when work might resume, or what life would be like if we ever made it through this, millions of us turned to projects that would fill time, be productive, distract us from the dire state of things. The dumpster business was vigorous as all kinds of household clutter found its way into landfills in April and May. Garden shops and greeneries did gangbuster business, and new or expanded gardens sprouted. Old hobbies were resumed. Paint sales were brisk.

There was a great deal of emotion in this period. Sadness, anger, fear, despair, worry seemed to be at the top of the list, as there wasn’t much to be positive about. It was difficult to be suddenly confronted with isolation from your friends, family and workmates, unable to pursue the expressive outlets you had come to rely on for peace of mind and happiness.

The lockdown barred me from the weekly blues jams that had fulfilled my happiness outlet for the past twenty years. To fill the void, I spent many nights writing and recording songs on my simple Garageband iPad app. Just me, recording my own voice, guitar and bass and adding drums and piano from the app.  Each time one was finished, I shared it on Facebook. I called them the “Coronavirus Isolation Blues Series” (since shortened).

Over six weeks, I published ten songs in all on Youtube, some quite unremarkable. If you were to listen to them chronologically, I think you would find an evolution in my emotional state – first bewildered, melancholy, darkly humorous, devolving to sarcastic, then downright indignant! One might even characterize one or two of these as “protests songs!”

One of my favorite music friends is Jay Psaros, a talented, industrious, smart, and hard-working musician. Shortly before the pandemic hit, Jay had rented some space in  Scituate and built out a recording studio, which he now couldn’t use, except alone. An opportunity had become a worry. Jay took the opportunity seriously, and produced several superb “Facebook Live” shows from the studio that were quite successful. In another inventive promotional effort, he had his fans video themselves lip-syncing one of his songs, cut and spliced them all together, and published the compilation as a new music video.

Still, dozens of music venues had closed indefinitely, with no certainty that they would ever reopen (and less certainty today!). Performing artists had no place to play. Like Jay, they also turned to Facebook and other social media platforms to try to preserve their livelihood with virtual performances. Suddenly, we could watch Chick Corea’s practice sessions every day at 5:00, and for so many well-established performing musicians, Venmo/Paypal became “the door.” “Live From Home Open Stage” became a thing, open to anyone brave enough to click the green button. Much of it was very bad. Some of it was brilliant.

In early June, Jay and I talked about recording a few of the songs in his studio. I contacted Andy Bergsten (who was locked down in Florida) to ask for his musical direction and bass skills, and he agreed… once he was permitted to leave Florida and cleared quarantine at home.

I had this wild idea that someone might actually contribute money to this music project, so asked Andy for a few ideas, and the first words from his mouth were “Magical Moon Foundation in Marshfield, the creation of Donna Green, a talented local artist and great humanitarian. More on Donna and the Foundation below.

Over a few days in late July, four songs were recorded. Then in August, we added Bobby Mroz’s brilliant keyboards and harmonica, and all was then mixed and produced by Jay at “PB & J Records.” The songs are presented chronologically – see if you can detect the emotional shift!

They are offered to you as a gift of good will, along with a request that you pay that good will forward by clicking the link right below and help us save the Magical Moon Farm.

Here is the link to the Pandemic Blues Series on Soundcloud.

Here is the link to Magical Moon Donate

If you want to know more about these songs – or the ones that weren’t recorded – you can find a more thorough discography here.

A final word about the civil unrest and protests following the murder of George Floyd and the many victims of racial violence. I initially wondered if the pandemic songs had been rendered irrelevant by superseding events, and perhaps I should rewrite the songs to incorporate the protests. As I watched the nightly videos and reports of what was happening in Minneapolis, Seattle, St. Louis, Washington D.C., and other cities, I decided that the subject deserved a focus of its own, and and not with the whimsy that is displayed with these songs. It would take much more thought before I feel I could deal with that subject in a credible, and creditable, way.

But on that very important subject I want to leave you with a song just published by my dear friend, Chuck McDermott, in which he captures, as only a master songwriter can, the moment of our collective dilemma, in Here’s the Thing About America:

“Here’s the thing about America:  she’s as dirty as she’s clean, she’s as gentle as she’s mean, she’s everything between shear hell and fantasy…

…She’ll sing a harmony, as if she means every word, as if all those cries were heard, as if color lines were blurred, just don’t sit next to me…”

I hope this has been fun for you to read, and that I have added something to your listening. It is my most emphatic wish that we are all able to join together again, in close space, side by side, to enjoy live music and the magic of its work on our souls.

–Pete

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The Magical Moon Foundation” strives to nurture and empower children with cancer and other life-threatening conditions, supporting children and their families by teaching healthy ways to deal with challenges and stress. While there are many wonderful organizations that support research, Magical Moon uniquely strives to empower children to manifest miracles in their lives. At Magical Moon Farm children can feed their bodies with our nutrition programs, and can feed their minds and spirits with our educational, arts-themed, magical grounds. It is a safe haven for guards to be let down, for emotions to be expressed, for experiences to be shared, and for kids to simply relax and experience some fun and joy.

More important to the music community, with Andy Bergsten’s guidance and crew, MMF constructed an outdoor performing arts center where musicians could safely perform and an audience of hundreds could safely listen, with all of the social distancing that a five acre farm would provide. Magical Moon Farm has all the potential to be a… MAGICAL new-“normal” antidote to the no-live-music blues.

Pandemic Blues Discography

Discography and Psychology of the Pandemic Blues Series

Here’s the story behind all ten of the lockdown songs:

Fake News was the first song to hit Facebook (April 3). It is a laundry list of grievances against our fake President, presented with sarcasm. A demonstration of poor Garageband production capabilities, I learned several things from this: (1) it takes a long time to assemble photos and add visual content to be able to produce with iMovie (thus, I curtailed it substantially); (2) I can’t sing, and (3) this was fun, I had more to say, and I’d better improve my Garageband skilz. I almost deleted this one.

Don’t Touch Me (April 5) reflects a melancholy sense that I (as a cancer survivor) really might face death if I wasn’t careful doing something as essential to survival as buying whiskey. This was before the fight over masks, social distancing and stay-at-home had really begun in earnest. The lustrous organ of Bob Mroz in the final recording and mixing of the song really added a whole new dimension.

Bye Bye Corona (April 8) represents a shift in attitude, a bit more optimistic (in hind sight, tragically pollyannaish) that we would “do what we must do to beat her at her game.” Boy did “we” fuck that up, and I don’t mean me. With Andy’s beautiful bass lines and Bobby’s classic piano, the final recording of Bye Bye Corona represented a vast improvement.

Be Thankful (April 10) was written and recorded in a single night when I was back in a blue mood, but by this time, Elizabeth and I had been quarantined together for some time, and we were really enjoying it together as we researched “the next great cable series” and set forth to exhaust all remaining new content. The lyrics will date me when I refer to “Dick Van Dyke, the Lucy Show and Ephrem Zimbalist,” but I swear, I did find all three, although not on the same channel. And the “afternoon of cooking shows” was very much my choice.

In Payroll Protection Blues (April 12), the blue mood continued, but this song shortly followed the announcement of the “Payroll Protection Program,” around which time “my temperature began to rise and my blood run cold,” when my bank of 45 years (the biggest bank in the country) told me I was ineligible. The cynicism is starting to take over.

Things got more sardonic with The Beginning of the End (April 15), which was written and recorded the night after Trump announced that he, as President, would make all decisions on which states would get pandemic support and which wouldn’t. “When the governors suggested that his facts were contested, he threatened them with the power of his purse.” I wanted to include this in the recordings, but by late June, the lyrics had become dated already, as closely aligned to the news of that day as they were. So I wrote new lyrics to the same song, and redubbed it, “We’re Community.” It preserves the sardonica, but finishes on a more upbeat message. “What we build we build together, because we’re community.”

When the gun-toting crazies invaded the Michigan State Capitol building with assault rifles, ammo belts and camo, screaming in cops’ faces about the tyranny of a face mask order, I almost threw something at the television, and I was back in the dark mood. Pandemic Blues (April 19) targets the obscene disconnect between Trump’s maliciously partisan and incompetent war with the states over managing a virus that was then beginning an inevitable climb to an apex that still hasn’t come. I was still thinking about the Michigan covidiots, though.

On April 23, I hit another low point with the almost molasses-sluggish Got Your Back. I was totally depressed by the incomprehensibly violent reaction of so many Americans to the idea of shared sacrifice for the common good, so I went after those morons a little bit. “Free speech is a priceless thing, but when subversion is your thing, that’s a bird of a whole different feather.”

The Same Boat (April 30) was inspired by a few of the early stories about big crowds flouting all the safety warnings, egged on by the exhortations of Trump. The crowded party boats in the Ozarks inspired the name. “We’re all riders at the mercy of the Captain of a ship in a time of tempest, and he sure has lost his grip.” Honestly, as I listen to it now, I don’t know where the optimism came from.

Do Your Duty (May 15) is the last of the project, coming right as Trump’s exhortations to “LIBERATE” the states and open up the economy were reaching a fever pitch. I was outraged that such recklessness and perfidy would continue to be humored among so many other Republicans. He was openly abusing democracy. “When armed men storming Capitols demanding the right to spread disease are praised as decent people, we all better get on our knees,” “we got to work together to do what we can to end this nightmare and restore accountability.” The song got reworked some in the studio, and the title was changed to Abusing Democracy, which just makes more sense.

–Pete

B.B. King and the source of inspiration

This is going to sounds a little weird, but stay with me.

My routine Thursday nights involves taking my guitar to The Next Page Cafe in Weymouth, where an exceptional open mic blues jam happens. The host, Willie J. Laws, and his amazing band mates, Malcolm Stuckey (bass) and Osi Brathwaite (drums), are jaw dropping musicians and the crowd is enthusiastic and devoted.

The beauty of the open mic blues jam is you never know what you’re going to get. From one Thursday to the next, it is a different scene, different vibe, energy, gestalt. My objective is simply to draw from the energy of the moment and do something different, by inspiration alone – something I’ve never seen my fingers do before. It doesn’t happen that often, but it keeps me coming back.

Two Thursdays ago, during my “time” on guitar, there was a moment during a lead break of a slow blues number at which I spontaneously ripped off a string of textbook B.B. King riffs. These are riffs I’ve studied and practiced, but not ones I would typically play. They just happened to come into my fingers at the moment.

On my way home from The Next Page last Thursday night, I reflected back on the jam and wondered what inspired me at that moment to use those B.B. King signature riffs.

I learned the next day (with the rest of the world) that Mr. King had died Thursday night, right about the time those old riffs infiltrated my fingers. That was quite a Thrill!

Anyway, this was a lovely example of how and where we get our inspirations.

It’s no different from reading Cormac McCarthy novels and then dropping dialogue tags, is it?

Mr. King’s iconic guitar work, McCarthy’s ironclad prose. One style so simple, the other deep, both pushing different buttons.

I once had a conversation with Duke Robillard, one of the genuine guitar icons. I told him he was one of my main influences, and “I’ve ripped off so many of your riffs it’s embarrassing.”

He chuckled and said, “That’s the kind of compliment I like to hear. I probably got them from somebody else myself.”

UPDATE: My friend Ron Rudy reminded me of an important coda to this story. The following Thursday (last week), I made the horrendous mistake of trying to play a B.B. King song. I murdered it. It was awful. Which goes to show, inspiration cannot be forced. It either comes or it doesn’t.

Timing Is Everything

Ro Cuzon recently posted a link on Facebook to a piece written by Laura Lippman for Rogue Reader. She took an opportunity to mention one of her favorite movies, Funny Bones, starring Oliver Platt and the great Jerry Lewis.

 Every time I see a photograph of Jerry Lewis, a vivid memory of one of his greatest solo skits comes to mind. I was perhaps six or seven years old, sick with a flu and home from school. I lounged on the couch in front of the black and white television set (we’re talking 1961-1962 – don’t say a word), watching whatever I could find on one of the three channels the rabbit ears would deliver. That particular day, the morning movie was The Errand Boy (1961), starring Lewis, Brian Donleavy as “T.P. Paramutual,” and Howard McNear as “Dexter Sneak.”

 I was a Lewis fan already, because The Bellboy had come out the year before, and what six-year-old wasn’t captivated by Lewis’s goofy rubber face, idiot voice and exaggerated pratfalls?

Then there came a point in the movie when I became hypnotized.

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 Known to Lewis movie aficionados as “The Chairman of the Board,” the skit portrays Lewis’s character, Morty Tashman, a lowly errand boy in the corporate office of Paramutual Pictures, as he takes liberties in the Boardroom. He slips into the Chairman’s seat at the head of a conference table, helps himself to one of the Chairman’s cigars, and proceeds to direct an imaginary phalanx of board members in a magnificent pantomime, expertly choreographed to the incomparable “Blues In Hoss Flat” by Count Basie.

 Yes, it was comedic genius, but why? What was it in that skit that seared my memory so completely that I remember it so clearly fifty-four years later?

 The Big Band music is a factor, of course, but listening to Basie’s orchestra without the visual of Lewis doesn’t quite fit the bill.

 It is Lewis’s choreography, his timing, the deftness with which that character seamlessly moves from stealth corporate spy to ruthless bigshot, and the disconnect between the angry Chairman and the hilarious, goofy faces that are flashed in that anger.

This certainly translates to storytelling, especially as it illustrates how humor can work so well in the tough environment of crime fiction.

As anyone who’s read some of my stuff knows, I’m fond of humor. The punch line that delivers on the very last syllable. The pause before the snarky reply. The raised eyebrow before the one word riposte. I can only hope that the more I work on that, the closer I can get to the exquisite timing of men like Lewis.