Jokes might be my stock in trade, but music is my passion. In fact, if I’d realized how much music means to me years ago, I might have tried to make a living at it (because if the comedy business has been inconsistent, unfair and unpredictable, leading to a struggling, hand-to-mouth existence, at least music would have been—wait…never mind).
My musical experience is as eclectic as it is unspectacular. Played clarinet for eight years—made All-State Honor Band (33rd chair, but hey, California’s a big state!). Been in a couple of musicals in which I didn’t dance because…I can’t dance. Done a bit of cabaret singing (you’d particularly enjoy my intimate arrangement of Meat Loaf’s “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad”). Can read music and find middle C on a piano.
Growing up, my musical touchstones were vigorously bland. Mom was a HUGE Andy Williams fan—I remember sitting with her at the kitchen table with the radio covering RFK’s funeral, and Andy Williams singing “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” And at Christmas—my god, how many Christmas songs are there? He sang all of them—for years I thought he wrote ‘O Holy Night’ because it was the only version I’d ever heard.
Me, I was discovering a whole new generation of music—forget Andy, it was now the early seventies, and I was digging…the Carpenters. Mock them if you will, even though Richard is one of the greatest vocal arrangers in history and Karen had the voice of a bittersweet angel. Yes, they recorded a lot of tracks that were the audio equivalent of oatmeal, but watch some of their vids on youtube. They were sincere. And I’ll take sincere schmaltz over feigned rage any day.
First record I bought—Carole King, ‘So Far Away.’ Which became one of the biggest hits at my junior high-school radio station, KPRV. In eighth grade, our school started a five-watt radio station, and I was the on-air talent (yes kids, there was a time when schools had money, and that money went to the arts, and…). We also played the shit out of “Just You ‘N Me’ by Chicago. And strangely enough, the B-side of Elton John’s ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,’ a song called ‘Young Man’s Blues’ which was distinguished by the lyric ‘screw you.’ Repeated a lot. We were such rebels.
When I got to college, I started going to church. Now to recap, I converted to Judaism years ago, after the Jesus thing. But I recently realized that when I was going to church, it wasn’t out of any religious discipline, but because of church choir. I got to sing every week! And it’s pretty hard to get kicked out of a church choir. So I’ve done your ‘Ave Maria’s, even your ‘O Holy Night ’s (sorry, Andy). After converting, I discovered I wasn’t the only Jew who loved gospel music. Seriously, Jewish composers—try a major key!
Lately I’ve been dabbling in cabaret, which is an interesting genre. With a few exceptions, the venues are essentially piano bars, where at an open mic night, you sign up for two songs and someone plays piano for you. Now, take great songs with witty lyrics, add simple acoustic accompaniment, and put them in a tiny space filled with drunk tourists sitting five feet away and seventeen other singers who want your stage time.
I actually started singing show tunes at these open mics before I ever got my queer card. Before I identified as ‘bisexual,’ I used to be a regular at the piano bar at the Gay 90s in Minneapolis, believing that I just REALLY liked the music of Stephen Sondheim.
As much as I love music, I haven’t seen many concerts, because I never seem to have a hundred bucks to see either 1) a band who’s only done two songs I’ve heard and the rest of the concert consists of their J.R.R. Tolkein-inspired concept rock opera in its entirety or 2) a band that I loved as a kid performing less-authentic-than-karaoke cover versions of the songs I loved as a kid. With different guys.
Saw Jackson Browne at the State Fair, and during his sound check, these burly goons were sitting on the lip of the stage staring down the crowd. Lookin’ for someone to start shit. Seiously? At a Jackson Browne concert?! What, were they afraid a rowdy global warming rally would break out? Really harshed everyone’s vibe.
I peed next to jazz legend Dizzy Gillespie. Middle of one tune, I have to go, and figure I’ll just discretely scoot up the aisle. And then Dizzy Gillespie stops his band. In the middle of the song. He points me out and embarrasses me into sitting back down until intermission. Finally able to relieve myself, I notice that to my right was one of the greatest jazz trumpeters in history. Can’t really ask for an autograph in that situation.
Best concert experience ever—the Ramones, 1978. Now to set the scene, in 1978 I had yet to shed my nerd chrysalis. But—I knew that I should be into punk music. It’s like when I pulled my only prank in high school, not organically, out of a deep-seated resentment of authority, but because I thought I should pull a prank in high school.
Anyway, I didn’t have any punk clothing per se, so I wrapped my bicycle lock around my waist as a belt. In your face, people who wear normal belts! So I get to the concert venue, and the bouncer tells me I have to take off my bicycle-chain-belt. Apparently worried I would stage-dive and injure someone by hitting them with my belly.
Well, in the spirit of punk, I decided to take a stand right there. If he wasn’t going to let me in, I was damn well gonna go back to my dorm room, get the key, take off the chain, walk back to the concert and ask the nice man to let me in. And it was a great concert—all visceral and palpable, nothing but two-and-a-half minute songs followed by “1 – 2 – 3 – 4!” Kinda scared me. Did it change me? Maybe—when I got back to my room I put on a Dan Fogelberg album, but I skipped the ballads.
I have 3,382 songs on my computer, and not all of them are what you would call ‘lite rock.’ In fact, there are recordings I love in every style from opera to gangsta rap (sadly, I know of no ‘gangsta opera,’ but that would be cool!). I will say, I still have a taste for music that’s not so…angry. I admit it–I like happy songs. I like pretty songs. In a world of environmental devastation, crushing poverty, and genocide, sometimes I want my music to offer a little contrast. Something happy…and pretty. With harmonies.And maybe a little gospel feel.