Maybe It’s Time for Something Topical

And I’m not talking about anti-itch cream. In the late sixties and early seventies, when our country was experiencing a period of civil unrest that many Gen X’rs like me relate to the times we’re going through now, there were topical songs at the top of the charts, and if you owned a radio you couldn’t get away from them. The Box Tops had a hit with “The Letter.” Jimmy Cliff scored with “Vietnam.” Bob Dylan did so many protest songs (I like “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall”) that he eventually decided not to write any more of them and turned from folk to rock and the blues. Barry McGuire “Eve of Destruction”, the Animals “We Gotta Get Out of This Place”, Creedence Clearwater Revival “Fortunate Son”, and the list goes on. After a while it got to be so much that most artists did like Bob and started to write about other things. Then in the eighties and nineties those sorts of songs moved into the inner cities with rap music. Groups like NWA pissed off the establishment. Grandmaster Flash wrote maybe the best song about the plight of urban youth with “The Message.”

My point is, where there was social trouble there was also a voice turning it into poetry that everyone, white, black, rich or poor could listen and relate to. Now that has changed, partly because of the death of radio and the birth of streaming. The artists that are popular enough in the new formats are not going to write protest songs. They just don’t have anything to be upset about. Can you imagine a Justin Beiber protest song? (I mean, about anything other than his “crew” getting hassled a club.) Can you imagine a Taylor Swift protest song? (“My plastic surgeon got my left breast wrong” or maybe “My probiotic isn’t compatible with my stool softener.”)

Regardless, there is plenty to be uneasy about in the world. I think we need to find some new artists who are willing to give us their take and their social commentary. It may not be in the form of music. It may have to be in a wholly new popular format. Maybe an app. But by whatever means it finds, using art to capture popular attention can help heal and help find solutions. I think the time for topical songs has come again.



Part One: Acknowledgement

Today begins my revision of book two in the quartet of The Peaceful Brave and Just. This one is called The Silent and Brave, and it is about the second ward of the pallbearers, Birrigat, the ward of time.

My revision process includes line by line editing of my prose as well as overall theme editing and double checking to make sure I haven’t made any errors in plot that will come back to haunt me later. It is meticulous. I could hire someone to do it, but then it wouldn’t really be my story any more. I need to get my hands dirty. I need to go back in there and fix things that I did quickly, to get them done. I also need to cut out about thirty pages or so, my usual ten percent rule. This book turned out a lot longer than I had expected, and cutting out the chaff will make it better. It always does.

Once I have done the line by line edit I will read the whole thing and see if it flows. Then I will start book three, The Prosperous and Malevolent, about the third ward of the pallbearers, Los Lewr, the ward of matter.

I digress.

The reason for this blog is acknowledgement. Acknowledgement is the first part of John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme.” I believe that composition is about his own love, about the love of God, about the love of music, about the love of art. I don’t want to list every person who has been important to me in my life. There are lots of them, and I love them all. I want to list four, and there are distinct reasons for each that relate to my ability to be a writer.

The first is my mother, Maddie O’Callin, who has encouraged my imagination for my entire life, from showing an interest in books and words to reading them aloud to my sister and I when we were little. She still encourages me, whether she knows it or not, and a lot of my interest in children’s and young adult literature and fantasy comes from her.

Second is my father, Roger Wallenius, who sent me off to the college of my choice, the University of Miami, where I took a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and Creative Writing. I did learn a lot about writing, but more importantly, I had a lot of the experiences that formed me as a person. I learned to be independent. I learned to trust my instincts.

Third is Tom Dalgan. Tom was my employer for the entire four years I was in school. He taught me the ins and outs of the restaurant industry. He taught me to tend bar. He taught me how to earn a good living with my personality, and by taking care of people. I don’t know how my father feels about the fact that I’m still tending bar now, at almost 44 years of age, but I know how I feel about it. I am tremendously grateful, because it gives me the opportunity to continue chasing my true dream of being an author and still live a comfortable life that I love. That is worth everything.

Finally, my wife, Kimberly Wallenius. I thank you for loving me. I thank you for believing in me. I thank you for having dreams of your own, for me to believe in. I thank you for the life we have together. It is wonderful, and every day I learn something new. Every day our dreams grow, and every day they come closer to becoming reality. I don’t think there’s anything else I have a right to ask for in life, and without you I wouldn’t be where I am right now, in this place that I wouldn’t trade for anything else in the world.

Thank you. I love you. My books are a part of me, and so you are part of my books, the most important part.

Long Form Music Videos

I have discussed my love of music. I was also a child of the 80’s, the MTV generation if you like, and so I watched plenty of music videos, short movies produced at great expense to highlight the performer’s talents, or their cars, or their hair, or whatever. Music videos seem to be a thing of the past, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing, but I do love watching artists actually perform their work. Now, movies are always going to have post production and editing. As a viewer it’s hard to say that I’m seeing a perfectly raw performance, but there are some movies out there of musical performances that are important to me, that I love to watch and I think have value to watch. I thought I’d list them here.

1- The Last Waltz. This is Martin Scorsese’s depiction of The Band’s last concert, on Thanksgiving Day 1976. Besides the all star line-up recorded by a true film maker, you get a crackerjack performance by the recently deceased and totally underappreciated Levon Helm. My favorite part of this show is when Eric Clapton’s guitar strap comes loose just as he’s about to rip into the solo on his signature song “Further on Up the Road.” Clapton tells Scorsese to cut (you can hear it in the audio) but the director fortunately ignores him. Robbie Robertson steps in without missing a beat and plays a blistering solo. To me it shows the true ability of performers to go on with the show no matter what happens.

2- Led Zeppelin. This also predates MTV. It is Jimmy Page’s loving restoration of the Led Zeppelin footage recorded on their rise and all the way through to Knebworth 1979, just before the death of John Bonham. Seeing the biggest band in the world play at the height of their powers is awesome. The guitar solo in Stairway to Heaven, performed acoustically at Earl’s Court, is one of my all time favorites, and Jimmy Page’s dragon kimono contrasts quite a bit with the pencil thin white slacks and blue shirt he sweats through at Knebworth while they blast out Kashmir and In the Evening in front of 200,000 people.

3- Concert for George. This 2002 concert, one year after the death of George Harrison, is more of a tear jerker, but filled with great performances as well. This was the first time Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney played together after the breakup of the Beatles. There’s a bit with Monty Python, and if Photograph doesn’t make you choke up you’re already dead. This one is important to me because it really introduced me to the work of George Harrison, the third Beatle. It allows his personality to shine through, something that John and Paul kind of kept from happening.

Honorable mentions:

Queen at Live Aid. Best. Live. Performance. Ever. If you’ve never seen it, do yourself a favor. There is no flim flammery here. Just Freddie Mercury singing like no one else will ever sing in front of the entire world and knocking it out of the park.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Live at the Olympic. Watch Tom rock out on Shake, Rattle, and Roll and then take the guitar solo on Mary Jane’s Last Dance. Awesome.

Pearl Jam Live at the Garden. I love Mike McCready.

Pink Floyd, Live at Pompeii. Another movie about a band. The best part of this one is when they show David Gilmour tracking Us and Them by himself in the studio, playing those little licks that are so familiar to us now. It’s a moment of insight into the mind of a genius guitar player.

Little Feat, Skin It Back. There is not much footage of Lowell George in action, but in this movie, if you look close at his guitar slide, you can actually see the word “Craftsman” on it. That’s right. His slide is a socket, just like you always heard he used, and the proof is right there on film.

Alabama 3, Hear the Train A’Comin. Yeah, I think I’m the only one who likes this band, and to get this video you have to order it from England. Still worth it.

Well, there you go. My favorite movies of musicians doing what they do for their audiences, live and without a net. If you have some favorites I would love to hear about them so I can check them out. I don’t really go to concerts anymore, but I love watching them in my living room with a cold beer!

Townes Van Zandt

I have an affinity to music. I play it all the time. It is an obsession. I apologize to all my visitors and the fellow travelers in my life who have to put up with it. It did not start out that way, but for the past thirty years, there’s always been something on. Sometimes I don’t even hear it. Sometimes I notice it, or if it’s not there I want to turn the music on, to add that extra layer. When I am feeling bad or bored I can listen to it but it doesn’t it move me. I don’t like those times. Then they pass, and the connection hits between and song and a moment, or the poetry in a set of lyrics and a person or event in my life. I never get tired of that feeling.

I don’t know much about music. The names of composers and the chord progressions escape me. I just know what I like, what sounds good to me. In my wilder fantasies, I would be the guy who travels from bar to bar searching out talent for record labels. On the other hand, In my night profession I have heard many bar bands, and the idea that I would have to spend the rest of my life sorting through that crap is detestable.

There is art in there. I first came across Townes Van Zandt (along with lots of others) because of the song Pancho and Lefty. It sounds like it was a surprise to Willy and Merle, too. Townes Van Zandt worked hard at his art for his whole life, and it shows. He sat and wrote, working with the words, trying to put the perfect ones in the right place, not complicated, just immediate. He played countless live shows in Nashville, in front of intimate (read, small) audiences, honing his craft. He didn’t do it for money. His albums didn’t make money. I read that by the time he died his royalties from songwriting were considerable, but it doesn’t seem like he knew about that or cared. He did it because of something inside himself.

It is not happy music. It is just real. The thoughts in my head aren’t always happy. They are full of worry, and planning, and wondering about the unseen future. I want to hear another human being who felt the same way, who cared enough to examine those feelings and put them down just right. It is healing to me.

I love words. I think they are the most important thing ever invented. Words allow us to communicate with one another across generations and lifetimes. I give a shout out to a fairly obscure artist who lived a hard life. His depression and substance abuse problems are documented. He had no idea that he’d make an impression. Townes Van Zandt still managed to sit down and do what he needed to do with words, in a way that ensures he’ll be remembered. There’s really no excuse for me.