Hey Stranger. Welcome to the Boomtown.   1 comment

November 1, 2020

     It was a moment. We were at home, sitting and streaming the film “Runaway Jury”. The story for this 2003 release was set in New Orleans. The Big Easy has long been one of my favorite cities for the culture, the music and, of course, the food. My first visit was in 1980, and my work in the music business kept bringing me back. Seeing the transformation of John Grisham’s book, the film’s plot twists, and the performances of the four principal players—John Cusack, Dustin Hoffman, Gene Hackman and Rachel Weisz—kept me thoroughly entertained. About half a dozen pieces of recorded music were dropped into key moments of the film. One of those music tracks brings me to two guys named David.

As was often the case in the second half of the 20th century, talented musicians regularly found each other and made record deals through happenstance, a sharp A&R person, mutual friends, sheer luck, or perhaps divine guidance in the form of a Muse. In the early 1980s, two talented musicians, David Ricketts and David Baerwald, came together, and one can only assume there was a spark as they became an act.

Early on one could see and hear that their ideas were original, their music refreshing, and that something special was coming. And that’s why they weren’t an unusual signing for A&M Records. The label was a perfect fit for what their music could become. To be clear, this wasn’t really a band, but rather two talented people whose 1984 demo tape made its way to A&M. It took the better part of two years to get their first album out. They branded themselves as David and David (graphically represented as David+David). “Boomtown” was released in 1986 and a tour followed. My recollection is that the tour lasted fewer than a dozen dates. Maybe live performance was not going to be their thing. Nevertheless radio and retail loved the album and the first single “Welcome to the Boomtown”, perhaps because the lyrics provided such great imagery for the real or perceived life in Hollywood or L.A. in the 1980s.

Miss Christina drives a 9-4-4, 

Satisfaction oozes from her pores

She keeps rings on her fingers, 

marble on her floor

Cocaine in her dresser, bars on her doors

She keeps her back against the wall, So I say,

Welcome, Welcome to the boomtown

Pick a habit we’ve got plenty to go around

Welcome, Welcome to the boomtown

All that money makes such a succulent sound,

Welcome to the boomtown.

The single became a top-40 Billboard hit, and more than 35 years later it is still a great listen. As it turned out, “Boomtown” was David+David’s only album.

About two years later another unusual and wonderful album was released by A&M. Singer-songwriter Toni Childs was in her late 20s and had already spent the better part of a decade writing songs, performing with numerous artists and learning the ropes of studio recording. Signed to A&M she was given a significant enough budget to record her first album in Europe and Southern Africa. The diverse locales of the studios and the supporting musicians was reflected in the music, studio production, and lyrics of the songs on the album “Union”, many with a clear African or Afro-carribean flavor: tracks like “Stop Your Fussin’”, “Zimbabwe” and “Let The Rains Come Down”.

  The album also showcased the unique, dynamic and rich nature of Childs’ vocal style, and the talents of producer David Ricketts (yes, the same David Ricketts from David+David). Childs could belt a driving vocal in “Dont’ Walk Away”, a rhythmic island tempo in “Stop Your Fussin’”, and a measured anthem in “Zimbabwe”. Her voice had a range and power that often surprised first-time listeners. While that 1st album did well, her 2nd, “House of Hope”, was less successful. Perhaps the lead track, “I’ve Got To Go Now”—with a theme about an abusive relationship—was too heavy for a general audience even though the song was well-crafted, credible, and Ricketts’ production was first rate. She’d later also record a cover of Jimmy Cliff’s “Many Rivers To Cross”, and Childs’ version is brilliant.

Meeting Toni and working her “Union” album remains a warm memory, but Toni was not just a talented singer and songwriter. She was a force. Sort of a benevolent hurricane. I keep a dozen of her tracks close so that at anytime I can immerse myself in her music.

Almost two years after Toni’s ”Union” album, the other David—David Baerwald—was working on his first solo album. Ultimately titled “Bedtime Stories” the songs had rich, sometimes dark, storylines but I loved every minute of the music. Shortly before I left A&M in 1990 I attended a company preview meeting which concluded with a brief performance by Baerwald, in an intimate setting, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar. His set seemed to be over, yet he lingered and offered to play one more song. That was, for me, the most powerful moment.  The song was titled “Stranger”, and the lyrics brought back imagery that many of us would like to forget. He was singing about the men and women who were shuttled off to war in southeast Asia and returned, often damaged, sometimes broken. 

Brother at this moment you ain’t feeling any pain,

And your staring out the window and it looks like rain

Your a veteran and you know about monkeys on the brain

You watched every dream you had lie broken in the drain

300,000 men all different all the same 

Piled up like driftwood in the pouring rain

Hey stranger, ain’t there nothing I can say

Can you think of any way 

that you can make it through the day

Hey Stranger is there something I can do

You lost it all for me, 

There must be something I can do for you.

The lyrics continued, thinking about American society in general, not just the veterans:

A quarter of the country is 

one paycheck from the street

A tenth of the country 

has never had enough to eat

And one one-hundredth of the country 

is strangling all the rest

And every policeman on the street 

is wearing a bullet-proof vest

Hey stranger, ain’t there nothing I can say

Can you think of any way 

that you can make it through the day

Hey Stranger is there something I can do,

You lost it all for me, 

There must be something I can do for you.

I thought to myself, that is one amazing song. It reminded me of the times my friend Al Marks and I stopped at the Vietnam Memorial’s Wall of Names in Washington D.C. A few weeks later my friend Aaron Jacoves from the A&R Department stopped by my office and dropped off an advance cassette of the forthcoming album. That evening I dropped the cassette into the player in my car and drove home. The next day I called Aaron. He asked me what I thought of the album and I told him I loved it, but I was wondering what happened to “Stranger?” which wasn’t on the cassette. He said they weren’t certain it was going to be included and asked why I wanted to know. I reminded him of the performance Baerwald gave at the meeting months earlier, and how the song was just too good to be left on the proverbial “cutting room floor”. Some weeks (or months) later I received a copy of the ‘about-to-be-released’ album and was happy to see “Stranger” on the list of tracks. 

     Last week while watching “Runaway Jury” a song came quietly out of the film and I knew that voice. It was David Baerwald singing “A Bitter Tree”, a track from his second album “Triage”. I’m some 30 years removed from my days at A&M, and more years than that from “Boomtown” and “Stop Your Fussin’”. Nevertheless, music is such an important piece of fabric in our lives, sometimes when we don’t even know it. 

     When a familiar song or a familiar voice comes surprisingly through the radio or television or movie screen, we tend to perk up, listen more closely. And we are often transported to a an image, a moment, a memory. Or some piece of our personal history. Maybe a thought of one of our friends. And that’s a very good thing.

Pandemic Relief   Leave a comment

October 1, 2020

Since the first whiff of news about a possible new virus on the march to America, our lives have changed. Fewer things to do or places to go. In-person conversations with good friends are 6-feet apart (barely qualifying as in-person) and when going anywhere, we’re now ‘all masked up’. Some of us are seeing a lot more of our family members, while others are not, separated by too many miles to embark on a visit.  Zoom, zoom-room, zoom-call and zoom-meeting are now part of a wider lexicon. Since March the virtual meeting has become a communication option for people who six months ago only thought ‘zoom’ was about moving quickly. Ironically, sitting in front of a camera and zooming now means we’re not really moving at all. And yet, some of us are discovering humor, solace, entertainment and more within close quarters.     

Writer Steph Fairyington decided—among a variety of options and after consultation with her spouse—to create time within the day to stay close to their four-year old daughter and develop coping mechanisms for the lack of extracurricular activities. As she chronicled her child-raising philosophy in a recent Washington Post essay, Steph began reading “Full Catastrophe Living” by meditation teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn.  While that’s not a book title I’d be drawn to, Fairyington tells her readers that last year she created “a nightly routine following bedtime stories that included three deep breaths, moments of silence and expressions of gratitude. . . . Although the novelty of the routine amused her [daughter] enough to attempt the practice—a few deep breaths, saying something she’s grateful for—it very quickly devolved (or evolved?) into giggles and wiggles and epic levels of sarcasm that made her seem more 14 than 4. When I’d do a deep sonorous ‘om,’ she’d laugh her way through her own iteration which sounded like ‘ooooohhhhhhh.’ When I’d ask what she’s grateful for, she’d say, ‘Ice cream and farts.’ When she’d exhale too boisterously through her nose (not her mouth, like I told her to), snot would often surface on her face, unleashing spasms of utter joy.” Bottom line? They’re coping.    

Let’s take a moment to consider what we know about crocodiles and whales. What most Americans know about whales they learned from three films: “Moby Dick” (a legendary giant and anti-social Sperm whale), “Free Willy” (oxymoron alert: a friendly Orca ‘Killer’ whale), and “Star Trek: The Voyage Home” (a pair of time-traveling humpback whales). Whales live in the ocean. Then there are crocodiles, which can be found throughout the tropics in Africa, Asia, the Americas and Australia. Actually, your studies probably already confirmed that there are crocodiles in Australia. Paul Hogan provided absolute scientific confirmation in the films “Crocodile Dundee I, II, and III”.     

Earlier this month some day-sailors observed three humpback whales exploring the Alligator River in Australia’s Northern Territory. (No, there are no alligators in Australia. As with so many other things, the original European explorers got that wrong.) But there are two things worth noting.  First, there are definitely crocodiles in the Alligator River. It’s loaded with crocodiles. Second, crocodiles are absolutely carnivorous animals, feeding on almost any moving objects in their path: fish, reptiles, birds, mammals and more. (More, in this case, occasionally includes unlucky humans.)     It appears that all three humpback whales spent a few weeks in the Northern Territory, having taking a break from ocean living and embarking on a 20-mile inland swim. Hey, it happens. A dozen years ago, two humpback whales were seen enjoying the waters of the Sacramento River Delta, before heading west to San Francisco Bay and returning to the Pacific Ocean. Locals named them Delta and Dawn. Returning to the land down under, two of the three wayward whales in the Alligator River seem to have quietly returned to the sea. (No evidence of a crocodile-whale encounter was found.) The third took a little longer. Once spotted, the whale developed a fan-base of observers who tracked the humpback as it took advantage of the high tide, and it too returned to the sea.    

My final anecdote for fellow shut-ins is to tell you that there is another migration to Woodstock. Regular readers may recall that in August 2019 I wrote about the 50th Anniversary of Woodstock. The festival, not the town. The festival was perfectly chronicled and retold by Joni Mitchell in her marvelous song “Woodstock”, and no self-respecting Boomer would ever declare that they don’t know the song, never heard of the festival or hadn’t heard of the town. On this last point we’ll cut you some slack. The purists will tell you that “hey man, the concert wasn’t in Woodstock. It was in Bethel, man.” The fact that Max Yasgar’s farm was more than 50 miles from Woodstock in Bethel matters not. Simple proof? Walk into a bar frequented by music-loving Boomers and ask, “Were any of you dudes at Bethel?” Crickets. Ask again, “Were any of you dudes at Woodstock?” Expect to hear “Yeh, man” or the more assertive response, “Dude!” which suggests s/he is insulted that anyone would have to ask.    

The ghosts of Jimi Hendrix, Joe Cocker, Janis Joplin, Richie Havens, Sly Stone and others may still spend time in Woodstock, New York. But for everyone else, it’s becoming a little pricey. Peace and love have given way to a real estate boom. It seems that pandemic-weary New Yorkers—re-labeled “Cidiots”(as in City Idiots)—have been arriving in droves. Woodstock, the place, is happening again. In recent years people have been finding their way to the Woodstock area. Real estate prices have soared, private schools for their kids have long waiting lists (with tuition costs between $15,000 and $20,000 per year.) According to the Washington Post, the influx of people has accelerated during the pandemic. We’re not yet at that “will the last person leaving New York City turn off the lights” moment. The Bronx, Manhattan, Brooklyn, Staten Island, and Queens will always be there. But its like the sum total of the stress associated with living in semi-lockdown has literally driven city-lovers 100 miles north.    

Among those who relocated really early are Don and Susan LaSala. They purchased a home 20 years ago. No ordinary home—musically and historically speaking—they purchased “Big Pink”. Doesn’t ring a bell? One summer the home was occupied by Robbie Robertson, Richard Manuel, Levon Helm, Rick Danko and Garth Hudson: The Band. These five musicians backed up Bob Dylan on some of his mid-sixties touring. In 1967 the house became one of the most iconic structures in music history when The Band wrote and recorded their first full album: “Music From Big Pink”. LaSala’s home is now available as a B&B rental at $550 per night. With restrictions.    

Like I said, Woodstock is happening again. Inevitably, the recent influx has prompted a reverse migration. The Post quotes a local who “mentions a family who has decided to leave Woodstock, not because of density but to take advantage of the frothy, manic [real estate] market in Ulster County. They’re selling high and buying low. . . . They told me if the times were not so ‘nutso,’ they would have never sold.’” Nutso is, of course, in the eye of the beholder. And by buying low, their money goes further enabling them to move back into the city. In “Big Yellow Taxi” Mitchell wrote “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot”. These days it appears that parts of paradise are now very desirable parking lots. Fair is fair. The garden is always in the eye of the beholder.

Top: “Om” adapted. Upper left: Humpback breaching in Sacramento River Delta, CC. Bottom: Big Pink CC.

Democracy or Autocracy?   Leave a comment

October 1, 2020

As the editor of the coastal monthly newspaper The Lighthouse Peddler, I decided to write a cover story about the 2020 election. While not my usual subject matter, the 2020 election is clearly the most significant event during the next 30 days, and frankly, it is the election of our lives. Here’s my cover story.

For those wondering why this is the cover story of a monthly newspaper that focuses on local events, the answer is simple. Election Day is coming, and as many have already stated, no election in our various lifetimes is more important than this one. It’s clearly an event, and regardless of which side of the presidential debate you’re on, it’s important that you vote. In our opinion, the current president has not earned a second term. 

He has lied to us almost 30,000 times. He misled the public on multiple occasions about the nature and danger of the Corona Virus. He called our fallen soldiers “losers” and “suckers”. He ignored Russian bounties on American troops in Afghanistan. He abused the power of his office by enriching himself, his family, and his personal (privately-held) businesses by, for example, directing the American Ambassador in Britain to get the British Government to select his personal golf course in Scotland to host the British Open. As a writer quipped, “He hasn’t landed the tournament yet. But attempted sleaze is still sleaze.” He has used his pardon power to free unrepentant felons who have pled guilty to their crimes.

Instead of bringing the country together he has used chaos to rule this democracy. He’s promised since before the 2016 election that he has a new, better, cheaper healthcare plan. No plan has surfaced, although every time he’s asked about it he responds by saying “we’ll introduce it in the next few weeks”. The reality is that he’s been in office for 200 weeks and there is no health care plan, and at the same time he is in front of the Supreme Court right now trying to overturn the Affordable Care Act. He prefers coal, oil and nuclear energy to anything else, ignoring the obvious benefits of, for example, solar energy. He wants to restrict a woman’s rights to reproductive options. He hopes to end Social Security. He prefers autocrats like Russia’s Putin, Turkey’s Erdogan and North Korea’s Kim Jung Un, to democratically elected leaders.

In 1787, Benjamin Franklin was asked if the United States would be a monarchy or a republic. Franklin’s response was “A republic, if you can keep it.” All of that being said, vote your will. Vote your conscience. But vote.

The Voluntary Nature of Friendship   Leave a comment

September 1, 2020

    One of the most iconic paintings from the 1940s is Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks”. Hopper’s realism is front and center as he depicts four people in a downtown diner, in the late-evening or wee hours. There are three patrons and the owner or manager, all easily visible from across the street through the large window. Over the years people have wondered about these four. There is the couple. Are they a couple? Another man sits further down the counter. Business suits and a reddish-orange dress are obvious but we can’t be certain of their personal economics. Although Hopper painted this in 1942, during the early days of World War II, the country was still connected to the Great Depression, and the light coming from the diner illuminating the adjacent urban street provides more mystery than clarity. I’ve long felt that  the “Nigthawks” neighborhood could be in Chicago, or New York, or Philadelphia, or Cleveland or Milwaukee. Hopper may have been striving for a universal motif for the painting although I’m reminded of the area around New York University, not surprisingly since Hopper’s studio was in lower Manhattan near Washington Square.    

“Nighthawks” by Edward Hopper (1942)

Growing up in Milwaukee we had a local chain of restaurants known as George Webb’s, and each location was, in many respects a diner, although cleaner and with much better lighting than Hopper’s “Nighthawks”. Webbs made great hamburgers in the old-fashioned diner-style even while facing the early 1960s onslaught of the burgeoning national fast-food drive-ins. Many a late evening wasn’t complete without a stop at Webbs before calling it a night, and my friend Dean and I sometimes made the stop together. The restaurants, in an unusual decorative decision, always had two clocks on the wall, side by side. Beyond the decorative value I assume the clocks were there to remind you of the hour in case you had somewhere else to be.    

Dean Kadlec (l) and David Steffen

Dean Kadlec died on June 26. He and I started a 3-piece rock ’n’ roll band—The Nightrays—in 1961 with our drummer friend Tom Aulinger. The band lasted a few years and was an enjoyable diversion for three budding musicians. We also picked up a few bucks in spending money and discovered that, on occasion, teenage girls were attracted to rock ’n’ roll types. Duh. I graduated from high school a year earlier than Dean, but we stayed in touch while I continued to live in Milwaukee. After moving to Chicago in 1972, our conversations were less frequent but somehow an occasional conversation gave us time to catch up. When I got married he was there, and from time to time when I passed through the midwest we would see each other. My last conversation with him was in 2006. A move to California (from St. Paul, Minnesota) was imminent and I stopped in for a visit at Dean’s home in Milwaukee. After that we shared an occasional email but not much more.    

Milwaukee was also home to a few Big Boy restaurants, franchised in Milwaukee by the Marcus family, dubbing them “Marc’s Big Boy”. It was a multi-generational hangout of sorts and many of us would go to Big Boy for a slightly noisier yet welcoming end of the day. Occasionally the evening would have some special significance.    

On graduation night, 1966, my good friend Henry Michael Ogrodzinski and I were sitting at the Marc’s Big Boy restaurant on South Howell Avenue in Milwaukee. We had just graduated from Bay View High School and that evening we were sitting in a booth talking about the fact that next year we would both be doing something completely different. It was an unsurprising combination of happy and melancholy as college was the plan but on that evening neither of us were excited about going back to school.     

Michael—in those days he preferred to use his middle name—was a tall good looking guy. At local dances (sometimes when my band was playing) he liked to shift into his “British musician” persona. He’d cock his head back and forth to the beat (like Mike Smith of the Dave Clark Five) and start talking to one of the girls with his faux “British” accent. He hoped the teenage girls would fall for his act and sometimes he succeeded. Michael was a great guy. After high school we both moved on as our lives took different tracks. Earlier this year, while going through boxes of photographs I found a picture of us from those days in Milwaukee. I took a moment and decided to look him up.      

Henry Michael Ogrodzinski

Henry Michael Ogrodzinski was one month younger than me when he died in 2014, leaving behind a loving family and many friends. My adult life has had me traveling all over the world, living and working in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York, to name three. I learned that Michael was a veteran of the US Army, and an honors graduate of the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. On the memorial website it told me that “He was a longtime, dedicated aviation advocate and industry professional, serving wherever needed. His friends described Michael as “a mentor, friend and industry expert to so many in the aviation field. Henry’s love of life was apparent in everything he did.”

David Steffen (l), David Wray

All of these memories were sparked by a conversation I had this week with another friend. David Wray is a musician and a lawyer, and we became friends in 2003 when he invited me to begin teaching (and chair the music business program) at McNally Smith college in St. Paul. Dave was one of the well-educated, thoughtful, and genuine members of the college faculty and administration, helping teach young music students how to achieve their goals. He worked tirelessly to transform this small, private (and for-profit) college into a respected school of music and music business. Dave left the school in 2005, and I left after the fall semester, December 2006. (The school closed in 2017). Relocating to Mendocino County allowed Dolly and I (and our daughter Caitie) to open a new chapter in our lives. My friendship with Dave continues.    

In the October 2015 issue of The Atantic, writer Julie Beck penned an article titled “How Friendships Change in Adulthood—‘We need to catch up soon!’” It included this:
     In the hierarchy of relationships, friendships are at the bottom. Romantic partners, parents, children—all these come first. . . . Friendships are unique relationships because unlike family relationships, we choose to enter into them. And unlike other voluntary bonds, such as marriages and romantic relationships, they lack a formal structure. You wouldn’t go months without speaking with or seeing your significant other (hopefully), but you might go that long without contacting a friend.    

The voluntary nature of friendship makes it subject to life’s whims in a way that more formal relationships aren’t. In adulthood, as people grow up and go away, friendships are the relationships most likely to take a hit. You’re stuck with your family, and you’ll prioritize your spouse. But where once you could run over to Jonny’s house at a moment’s notice and see if he could come out to play, now you have to ask Jonny if he has a couple hours to get a drink in two weeks.     Throughout life, from grade school to the retirement home, friendship continues to confer health benefits, both mental and physical. But as life accelerates, people’s priorities and responsibilities shift, and friendships are affected, for better, or often, sadly, for worse.

Beck concludes her wonderful article with this: “Friendship is a relationship with no strings attached except the ones you choose to tie, one that’s just about being there, as best as you can.”    

Over time we accept that life is a journey. We have a finite amount of time on this planet to manage everything, including our friendships and relationships, but we must recognize that we are attempting to do this in a world with numerous distractions. When we neglect our friends it’s almost never because we’ve decided we don’t like them anymore. For the past 25 years we have all increasingly lived in a world where our communication with friends and everyone else is first and foremost maintained in short bursts, fragments …. email, Twitter, Facebook, texting. Yet even with these (and many more) options, we can’t keep up because each platform has been commercialized and reconstructed as a spam delivery system. The result is simple: the internet takes up excess mental space, and friendship takes work. Which brings me to my recommendation.   

Reach out to that friend, that acquaintance and rekindle the conversation. Throw a spark into the relationship. Whether it’s a phone call, a hand-written note or some short-hand form of e-communication, reach out. My experience is that they are feeling the same way and will welcome the effort. And do it soon.

David Steffen

© 2020 David Steffen

Neon Egypt: Happily “Unearthed”   Leave a comment

August 15, 2020

Listening to music should always bring an element of surprise. Preferably not the ‘ghost in the closet’ sort, but rather something new and dynamic; an unexpected pleasure. Familiarity is not a bad thing, but discovery can be far more interesting. For the uninitiated, sitting, listening and taking in the newly released album by Neon Egypt—Harrison Goldberg and Steven Miller—­­one immediately understands that this is a transportive album. Goldberg is heard on tenor, alto or soprano saxophone, accompanied by Miller playing his melodic Shendai Ceremonial Drums, a unique sonic hybrid between taiko drums and Timpani­.

     In another age I’d suggest the way to listen to Neon Egypt is to enter a high-end listening room, with a state of the art Linn turntable, dropping the needle (carefully) into the outermost groove and letting the album track through side A, and then (carefully, again) flipping the album and listening to the B-side. Of course, absent a time machine, leave that imagery aside and just play the CD. Close your eyes and you’ll probably be in that listening room anyway. At least that’s what I did. Here’s what I heard on my journey of “Unearthed”, track by track.

(1) “Return to the Golden Land” is one of the more exotic tracks. It evokes great aural imagery.  There’s no magic carpet hovering near by, but I’m certain the dancer is somewhere in the room. A perfect opening track.

(2) “Spirits and Kings” continues the introduction but at a slightly different cadence.

(3) With “Cartouche Du Jazz” the pace picks up and for the first time, the distance between Miller’s drums and Goldberg’s saxophone is far more pronounced.

(4) In “View From A Mountain Temple” the journey takes a turn. It’s as if the musicians stopped at an oasis and took some time to reflect on the journey so far, before continuing on.

(5) “Waters Of Nubia” seems to take us to the old (pre-Aswan Dam) region of the Nile. The image of Lake Nasser is too big and overpowering for this track. Instead we feel like we’re sitting along the old Nile with visions of a lone fisherman on the water. Happily.

(6) “Enter The Princes” was the track where I heard Miller’s percussion “singing lead”. Goldberg’s sax is there but I stayed focused on the marvelous rhythms.

(7) In “Luxor After Dark” Goldberg  and Miller share an alternating series of solos. One dominates, then recedes as the other is up front. It reminded me of some hundred year-old call and response.

(8) The rains arrived in “Bedouin Down”, but more quickly than I would have preferred they disappeared. Perhaps it was the age (or condition) of that original master track.

(9) “Nearly Too Far” is an hypnotic trip. I thoroughly enjoyed the ride.

(10) “Flows The Sacred River” brought me back to a happy place, where Miller and Goldberg are pulling together and bringing us with them.

(11) “Under A Scimitar Moon” feels less like the soft quarter moon, and much more like the Middle Eastern blade for which it’s named. Goldberg makes his instrument sing as if it’s trying to single-handedly keep the sword’s edge at bay. 

(12) “Towards The Sun” is a perfect closer for the album. It brings the listener back to the Golden Land.

     There are many stops along the way, yet the continuity of the 12 tracks of “Unearthed” is unmistakable. And improvisational. It’s a cover-to-cover exploration, as Harrison and Steven celebrate their journey. Like driving down a highway with hills and curves these two musicians push the boundaries of the melodies and rhythms, reinventing time signatures and melodies to fit the moment.  And yet, there is a clear common thread through the album, from start to finish. And we’re better for having gone along for the ride. Albums like “Unearthed” are meant for an immersive listening experience. We’re not looking for singles here. The idea is to explore it all and pick favorites later.

     About a decade ago, I read the following in “All About Jazz”: “This is what sets apart jazz music from many other forms of music. A friend of mine, who is a keen composer, once asked me, “Don’t you jazz musicians get bored playing the same standards all the time over and over again,” and I replied, “Well, the thing is, every time we play, it is different from the last, and we seldom know what’s going to happen next.” Whether a standard, classic, a new original or spur of the moment composition, that’s what we love about terrific musicians. We may not necessarily be familiar with the song, but we can embrace the performance. Neon Egypt’s “Unearthed” is well worth the wait, and a reminder of the power of talented musicians to move us.

Marquis de Lafayette, Charles Boyer and Seeing the Light   Leave a comment

August 1, 2020

     America and France have been friends since the days when the Marquis de Lafayette was named a major general in the Continental Army. The subsequent 1778 treaty and military support from France proved decisive in the American victory over Britain in the Revolutionary War.    

In my lifetime we were often told (or we assumed) that France was the center of the universe when it comes to fine arts, wine, food, films, music, dance, architecture and more. Let’s face it, culture always seems more credible when it has a French accent. It’s probably even more basic than that as a simple compare-and-contrast may show. After studying German in college and having traveled extensively through Europe, my anecdotal evidence is that there is a significant difference between being asked “Parlez-vous francais?” or “Sprechen Sie Deutsch?”. It’s not necessarily scientific but I have it on very good authority that a French accent—at least when it comes to films—will always prevail. Which brings me to Charles Boyer.    

Born in Figeac, France in 1899, Charles Boyer was barely 20 when he began his film career. Although his early roles were during the silent era, with the addition of sound came a steady growth in his film roles, as he began making movies on both sides of the Atlantic. By 1944 he had already made 40 films including two of his most remembered roles: as Pepe le Moko in “Algiers” and as Gregory Anton in “Gaslight”. His on screen success in the 1930s and 1940s was not surprising as his good looks and command of English (with a seductive French accent) were perfectly suited to the big screen. “You know, that accent”, my friend Frank in Chicago would say, “da womens love it”.    

“Gaslight”, a 1944 psychological thriller, was adapted from a 1938 play by Patrick Hamilton. Director George Cukor (“The Philadelphia Story”, “A Star Is Born”, “My Fair Lady”) helmed the Hollywood production of “Gaslight” with a terrific cast that included Boyer, Ingrid Bergman, Joseph Cotten and Angela Lansbury (then a teenager). The film garnered 7 Academy Award nominations (it won two), but the movie’s impact went beyond good filmmaking. The story centered on a woman (Bergman/Paula Anton) whose husband (Boyer/Gregory Anton) attempts to slowly convince her that she is going insane.    

He does this by tinkering with small elements in their relationship. He insists she is mistaken, forgetful, or delusional about many aspects of her life. The plot of “Gaslight” was so believable that the film title and premise added a verb—gaslighting—to the English lexicon. For example, a recent headline from a Los Angeles Times editorial asked “Trump’s census order defies the Constitution. Is he gaslighting, or just desperate?”. And in July the Washington Post reported that since becoming president Donald Trump has “. . . crossed the 20,000 mark — an average of 23 claims [lies] a day over a 14-month period, which included the events leading up to Trump’s impeachment trial, the worldwide pandemic that crashed the economy and the eruption of protests over the death of George Floyd in police custody.” In short, Trump’s lies are a form of gaslighting. And these days, gaslighting seems to be everywhere.    

The romantic international traveler in me always liked getting my passport stamped at every border. I recall a driving tour in the 1970s where Dolly and I crossed multiple frontiers entering The Netherlands, France, Luxembourg, Germany, Austria and Switzerland, almost always receiving a stamp in our passports as proof. A favorite memory was stopping in the principality of Lichtenstein. We had lunch in Vaduz, the capital, but first paid our 50 Swiss centimes for the (optional) passport stamp. That being said, crossing borders in Europe today is considerably less exotic but infinitely easier with the creation of the E.U.    

Gaslighting may very well have played a part in Brexit, the 2016 vote resulting in the UK leaving the European Union. The plebiscite was built on reactionary cries of national sovereignty, isolationism, racism and a general wave of right-wing politics along with a casual complacency by many on the left. The final tally was a narrow 52% to 48%. Two years after the Brexit vote an analysis by The Guardian concluded that “The past two years have felt like a vast exercise in gaslighting.” The divorce was not going smoothly and at this writing—four years after the vote—it’s still pretty ugly.     

The Brexit vote also caused the then-government of David Cameron to fall, followed by the failure of Theresa May’s government, and ultimately the election of Boris Johnson. Leaving the economics and the politics aside, the much more pressing question I was asking is what is the deal with Boris Johnson’s hair? It’s my view that Mr. Johnson’s hair seems to be a separate gaslighting effort by him, distracting us from the chaos in Britain these days, but I’ll save Boris for another day.    

Closer to home, gaslighting has lately been taking on a more ominous quality. Convicted felons (friends of the president) are pardoned. The word “hoax” is used to discredit almost any rational, credible or confirmed problem. Inspectors general in the government are being fired for doing their jobs. The Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, Alex Azar, selected one of his top aides to run the day-to-day U.S. response to the coronavirus pandemic. It was a perfect choice, given the aide’s occupation before being personally selected handle this important duty: he was a Labradoodle breeder. Yes, this administration knows all the best people. And the man responsible for overseeing the child separation policy at the border, had never spent any time resettling refugees before he was put in charge of, ah, oh let’s see, refugee resettlement.    

Science takes a back seat to magical thinking. The Senate takes vacations and tables needed legislation “while Rome burns”. We wait for additional federal monies for the unemployed, additional funding for state governments, readily-available testing for Covid-19, a fast turnaround of test results and so on. At the same time the federal government has found the energy to send in hundreds (and soon to be thousands) of unknown, unidentified para-military forces, waving them in front of us like it’s right, rational and, most importantly legal and normal. In addition to BLM and other protesters, groups of moms and military veterans have been gassed, beaten and arrested.      

It’s unlikely that California’s north coast will soon be a target for these faux-military displays, yet there are a few things we can do. Complete your census form so that California (and counties like Mendocino and Sonoma) receive a full share of federal monies in the coming decade. Register to vote, and then VOTE. And don’t be silent! Reach out regularly to our local, county, state and congressional representatives.    

Gaslighting is underway every day. We need to recognize it and “put the gas flame out.”

David Steffen

© 2020 David Steffen

From Three In Tennessee to Six In Denmark   Leave a comment

   July 1, 2020

I have always enjoyed Tennessee. My earliest memories are from a mostly teenage southern road trip—four friends—3 teens and one adult (he owned the car). Let’s just say it was an improvised adventure.

     In 1979 I began regular visits to Nashville, aka Music City USA to spend time with music people while working for A&M. One of those music people was David Conrad, a talented music-publishing exec, and a good friend. We created some memories together, including seeing some wonderful live music performances at the Cannery, Ace of Clubs, Opry and more.

Ashley Cleveland
Ashley Cleveland

     On one of my Nashville visits, probably 1987 or so, David and I, along with A&M president Gil Friesen went to the Bluebird Cafe for a ‘Music in the Round’ evening. As I recall, the featured performers were Ashley Cleveland, Pam Tillis, and Karen Staley. Pam and Karen were already into their second song when Ashley arrived, wearing an overcoat that seemed bigger than she was and with her guitar case in hand. She sat down, unpacked her guitar, joined them, and for the next 90 minutes they owned every ear in the place. The good chemistry was obvious, the music was magical. I hadn’t thought about that evening in some time, but it came racing back to my consciousness this week when I, along with many others, looked for something new to watch or listen to during another week at home.

     While casually sifting through the diversions and music offerings on YouTube I found the Tønder Festival. Never heard of it? Neither had I. This annual—since 1975—event in Tønder, Denmark is all about folk music with a significant North American influence. Think “Americana” with performers from the United States, Canada, Ireland, England, Scotland and some talented home-grown Scandinavians. During the festival, the entire town is influenced by music. Famous and less-famous artists become part of an inclusive community with the audience on the streets, squares and venues of Tønder. In fact there is a long list of world-famous artists who’ve been to Tønder but the real treat is the discovery. And that’s what happened to me.

     The video I found was a 2-hour musical performance captured in a music-in-the-round setting featuring a small group of amazing women. This special “Womens Circle” performance from 2019 featured 6 outstanding talents. There’s Tennesseean Caitlin Canty, Denmark’s Signe Svendsen, Heidi Talbot from Ireland, Irish Mythen,  from Ireland but these days living in Canada’s Prince Edward Island, Canadian Jenn Grant from Nova Scotia, and California-native Leslie Stevens.

     Sitting in single chairs set across the stage the group was introduced, and then one-by-one each woman introduced herself and performed a song from her personal repertoire. When her song finished she’d introduce the next in line and the next performer would introduce and perform a song from her own body of work. Three rounds gave us 18 songs, plus an encore by the group. And the songs, while all easily compatible with the genre “Americana” were clearly personal to each performer. 

Clockwise from upper left: Jenn Grant, Caitlin Canty, Signe Svendsen, Irish Mythen, Heidi Talbot, Leslie Stevens.
Clockwise from upper left: Jenn Grant, Caitlin Canty, Signe Svendsen, Irish Mythen, Heidi Talbot, Leslie Stevens.

     In addition to the music, there were moments when they interacted, interjected, ad-libbed, influenced and supported one another. It was clear that they were enjoying themselves, enjoying the fun and creating a comfortable and enjoyable camaraderie.

     First up was Caitlin Canty. In the first set she hoped the audience wouldn’t hold the current political climate, i.e. the unpopularity of the American president, against her. She never mentioned his name yet the reference was obvious. Her second-round song, appeared to be an impromptu choice. After speaking of her love for America, Canty began her love song, a paean with a hope for change.

It’s Raining In Los Angeles, Halleluja, Hallelu . . .

Moon Flowers open to breeze in Night’s Perfume.

The city climbs a hillside just to see the color bloom,

Peddles turn a sidewalk stream Jacaranda Blue

Where is the heart of my Country Now?

Signe Svendsen (pronounced SEE-nah) is a perfect representative of an American artist. Fair-haired and disarming, when she steps up to the mic and begins speaking, you might assume she’s a California singer-songwriter. That is until she switches to her native Danish. Born in Nyborg, Denmark, her on stage rapport with her stage-mates and the audience moves effortlessly between Danish and English. Her music at Tønder was genuine Americana in feel yet—she sang her original songs mostly in Danish. Her second-set song, “det forlyder” was dedicated to her grandmother. No English translation necessary as she delivered a performance that was readily felt.

     A young-veteran performer, Heidi Talbot toured for years as part of the Celtic music group Cherish the Ladies before going out on her own. The moment she begins to speak you hear the delightful Irish accent but that’s just scratching the surface. Her opening song was inspired and written after meeting an Australian singer backstage at a Kansas folk festival more than 15 years ago. She described him as a “young Bob Dylan”, and her song “If You Stay” is so, so good. The lyrics could be associated with almost any longing relationship and the seeming fragility of her voice delivers the message squarely to the heart.

     There’s no use in hiding my favorite until the end (and my wife, the publisher of the Peddler, agreed). Irish Mythen owned me from the introduction. Born in Ireland, naturally, she now calls Prince Edward Island, Canada home. Her ability to connect with the audience is obvious. Her songwriting is first-rate, and her performance talents with ‘just’ her voice and an acoustic guitar will surprise most. Mythen’s song “Be Still. Dance” is a driving command to rise up and become a part of the performance as she sings. 

     The strength of her skills with the 6-string acoustic guitar suggested that in a battle between performer and instrument, when all was said and done, Irish would win and the guitar would lose. That speculation was born out in her second set song “Maria” when she broke a string and lost a pickup. (She continued by using Signe’s guitar). Inspired by her relationship with her Aunt Maria, in another musical genre this song would be Mythen’s ‘power ballad’. It’s sentimental, loving and powerful, owing much to her prowess on the 6-string, and sealed when the other five performers join in, adding background vocals during the final 6 refrains. Her closing song was a ‘conversation’ with Jesus that is part prayer, part sermon, and all Irish Mythen.

     Jenn Grant followed Irish and was delightful with both her music and the brief stories about travels with a less-than one-year-old child, a son named Gus. There’s a little irony in the second set, when Grant sings “Favorite Daughter”, written when she was pregnant but, obviously, before her son was born. No daughter, yet, but a terrific song anyway.

     The final voice at Tønder was that of Californian Leslie Stevens. Clearly the youngest of the group, her stage presence is young and fresh yet her songs often show the maturity of a veteran songwriter.  She sang a song of her first love, and another, “Sinner” (the title track of her first album) was likely inspired by (as she described) her “Crazy, drinkin’, boating, plane-flying pilot, drinker, grandmother, who never baked a cookie in her life.” She closed with something most of us may hope for: “Everybody Drinks and Drives in Heaven”.

     The evening closed with a group performance of “Amazing Grace”, perfectly fitting on a number of levels. Music, in general has that ability—to move you to another place, to another plane—to connect you with the performer and the song. 

     This was a delightful two hours. Believe me, if you like Americana, and you enjoy ‘discovery’, try this concert on YouTube. Search for “Women’s Circle at Tønder Festival 2019”. 

Embracing A New York State Of Mind   Leave a comment

June 1, 2020

     There are moments when writing my column I realize that I’ve aged, a bit. I often tell friends and family that I was working for record labels promoting new releases in Chicago when I was nine years old. That mildly insignificant lie allows me to pretend that I’m in my late 50s. “To sleep, perchance to dream.”

     When I moved to Chicago in 1972 I was working for A&M Records, the label that was built by Herb Alpert’s horn and the savvy of his business partner Jerry Moss. My primary responsibility was to call on radio station people like John Gehron at WLS and Nick Acerenza at WCFL in Chicago and others, and convince them to play our records. Depending on your perspective, this wasn’t as difficult or as easy as it sounds. From time to time I would visit the stations with another label rep, and not infrequently (in 1972 and 1973) that person was Frank Giuliano. One particular week—early 1972—we were at WCFL together and as happens, Frank had a new artist in tow . . . a singer songwriter who was destined to become a superstar. That artist was New York born-and-raised, was not a teen model or hearthrob, and was loaded with plenty of attitude. My first impression was that this guy was part world-class musician and part genuine New Yorker, with a sufficient amount of chutzpah. As Nick, Frank, Billy Joel and I talked my evaluation changed to a real appreciation of his potential. And I wished he was an A&M artist.

     At the age of 23 Billy was (already) one confident artist. And with good reason. The album Frank was promoting was Joel’s first, “Cold Spring Harbor”. Produced by Artie Ripp, it would be a good first effort, but the music made it clear that Billy was going to be a star. Two of the songs stood out to me then: She’s Got A Way” and “Tomorrow is Today”. But interestingly enough, as the four of us sat in Nick’s small office, Billy clearly had already left the “Cold Spring Harbor” album in his rear-view mirror. He wanted to talk about likely tracks for his next record. Although Billy seemed shy at first, once he started talking you learned to just get out of his way. He got all of our attention when he told us about a song for his next album. As I recall, Billy said “The song’s called “Captain Jack” and it’s about a kid sitting in his room at his parents home masturbating and shooting heroin. It’s fucking great”. Absent anything to listen to (of this new song) it was still a stunning moment in Nick’s office. But it convinced me that Billy was going to be a star, and I wanted to hear more of his music.

     I’ve always liked visiting New York, and later working in Manhattan. It is something entirely different. I can talk about other cities I enjoyed traveling to—Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, D.C.—but New York is, well, New York. The rhythm has always been in the city, in the traffic, in the tunnels, on the bridges and, of course, in the people of New York. Had the founding fathers of this country placed the capital in New York it might have ruined the city. Their better instincts looked further south and the distance of a couple of hours by train or plane to Washington has enabled New York to become New York.

  

  This spring most Americans have looked for an authoritative, confident, articulate, educated, thoughtful human being to show us leadership as the corona virus became a pandemic. Think President Obama at the memorial service for the slain Reverend Clementa Pinckney in 2015. He paused during his eulogy, and after a few moments of silence, began singing “Amazing Grace”. Almost everyone (other than Michelle Obama) was surprised. And, by the way, Obama doesn’t have the singing chops of John Legend, Bill Withers or Nat King Cole. Nevertheless he was a smash that day, because his thoughtful, caring and genuinely emotional character was plain for everyone to see and he brought everyone, literally, to their feet. It was an extraordinary moment.

     In October 2001, we were all reeling. In the wake of the lives lost in the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon—and of course the lives that were lost on a plane in Shanksfield, Pennsylvania—America was pulling together. From the president to the first-responders and everyone in between, we were one nation. For months the streets of New York were filled with yellow taxicabs bedecked with American flags. A month later a concert was held at Madison Square Garden in New York to raise money for New York City’s first responders. It was an extraordinary evening where every artist brought their A-game, and much of the repertoire was perfect. Bon Jovi performed “Living On A Prayer” and David Bowie performed “Heroes”. The moment for me was Billy Joel taking the stage and performing “New York State of Mind”. He is a New Yorker, through and through. 

Some folks like to get away,

Take a holiday from the neighborhood.

Hop a flight to Miami Beach or to Hollywood.

But I’m takin’ a Greyhound 

on the Hudson River line.

I’m in a New York state of mind.

As I said a few paragraphs ago, this spring we looked for an authoritative, confident, articulate, educated, thoughtful human being to show us leadership as the corona virus became a pandemic. Many politicians and community leaders raised their voices but the voice that seemed to embody all of what we were looking for was, somewhat ironically, New York’s governor Andrew Cuomo. The Bronx-born politician has been holding daily updates for months and to a great degree they’ve been must-see TV. He’s been honest and credible, charcteristics that have seemed lacking from Washington, D.C. This year that’s changed. We’re grateful for Cuomo’s calm, informed, thoughtful leadership. And I, for one, have embraced a New York state of mind. 

David Steffen

© 2020 David Steffen

While Sheltering In Place, Consider Binging With Some Lesser Known Film and Television Titles   Leave a comment

Let me say at the outset: I’m not sitting home binge-watching Survivor, Real Housewives, American Idol or reruns of Seinfeld. But I have been thinking about some film and television treasures that might be good choices for you while we’re sheltered in place. Here are some ideas.

Centennial. Based on James A. Michener’s 1974 book (published in the lead-up to America’s bicentennial in 1976), Centennial, was a 12-part made for television mini-series. While not a chronicle of actual events, the sweep
and depth of the story, the characters and the fictionalized history of this
21-hour production is outstanding. It’s not perfect but then what television is? The cinematography, inter-woven story lines, and the historic and contemporary issues of America’s western migration come together beautifully. The large ensemble cast (100+) also helps make this worth 21 hours of your life.

Centennial’s cast includes Raymond Burr, Richard Chamberlain, Robert Conrad, Richard Crenna, Chad Everett, Brian Keith, Sally Kellerman, Donald Pleasence, Lynn Redgrave, Dennis Weaver, Timothy Dalton, Andy Griffith, Gregory Harrison, David Janssen, Robert Vaughn, A Martinez, Chief Dan George, Clint Walker and more.

Maybe you have a prefererence for real history as opposed to television history. Try The World At War. The WWII series, first broadcast in 1973, is a thoroughly compelling look at how the world went to war (long before Pearl Harbor), how allied part- nerships were created, and who were the ultimate victors were.

Narrated by Sir Laurence Olivier, the marriage of archival footage and contemporary (1973) interviews makes for an amazing journey. Baby Boomers and younger generations will be drawn in. High school and college-age students, used to getting their information from video and film should watch too. It is (or was) available on an 11-disc DVD set with a total running time of 22+ hours. Even if you be- lieve you know the story, the series will give you plenty to think about.

Connections. This BBC series, produced in 1978, is the creation of James Burke. Born in Northern Ireland, educated at Oxford, Burke developed a keen sense for science and injected this production just enough humor—often dry.

In the original 10-part series, Burke looks at the relationship between invention and discovery and how often seemingly unrelated events find themselves tied together. For example, in one episode he asks “How did a test of gold’s purity revolutionize the world 2500 years ago and lead to the atomic bomb?” In each of the ten episodes he connects the dots in an entirely unexpected and compelling fashion.

Woodstock: As I’ve written before, almost everyone who tells you they were at Woodstock in 1969 probably weren’t. The closest I got to the festival was living 900 miles east in Wisconsin. That weekend in August 1969 changed the music business in many ways, not the least of which was its confirmation of the power of music on an entire generation. Luckily the event was captured on film.

Director Michael Wadleigh’s final cut runs 225 minutes and contains performances by Crosby Stills & Nash, Richie Havens, Joan Baez, The Who, Joe Cocker and the Grease Band, Country Joe and The Fish, Arlo Guthrie, Jefferson Airplane, Melanie, Santana, Sly & the Family Stone, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. Feel the music, feel the times.

In addition to Woodstock, I have other music-documentary films to offer. All three were directed by Robert Mugge. Bob and I met in 1993 when I picked up his film Pride & Joy: The Story of Alligator Records (BMG Video). It was one of those films that almost didn’t happen. But it did, and as it turned out Bob and I would make an additional 3 films together in 1994 including Gather at the River.

Mugge also produced and directed Deep Blues: A Musical Pilgrimage at the Crossroads and Hellhounds on my Trail: The Afterlife of Robert Johnson.

Deep Blues (1990, 90 minutes) is perhaps his best. L.A. Times writer Michael Wilmington might agree. He wrote, “Robert Mugge’s “Deep Blues is a movie no blues lover, no popular music aficionado, and no devotee of American culture and folkways should miss. It’s a genuine document, deep and earthy; a peek into our national soul.” Bob is like that. He digs deep and delivers.

Pictured above: Robert Mugge, Irma Thomas, and Morgan Freeman.

Hellhounds on my Trail (1999) is one of those films that Bob and I talked about doing together. We didn’t get to complete it while I was at BMG, but happily the film got made in 1999.

For the uninitiated, Robert Johnson was a Delta Blues pioneer. An original. In his short life (27 years) he could not have anticipated that his influence would be felt by a generation of rock & rollers in the 1960s, including Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones. His influence continues today.

The title of the film is based on a legend, a truth, or perhaps an apochryphal tale. The story goes that Johnson, who died in 1938, sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads, and in return he was given mastery over the gui- tar. The New York Times’ Stephen Holden wrote about Hellhounds on My Trail: The Afterlife of Robert Johnson.

The movie focuses on a week-long tribute to Johnson presented in September 1998 by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland. Part academic study, part concert film, the movie features some wonderful performances of Johnson’s music.

Performers include Robert Lockwood Jr., Chris Whitley, Rory Block, Tracy Nelson, Marcia Ball, Irma Thomas, Bob Weir, Joe Louis Walker, Billy Branch, Keb’ Mo’, Roy Rogers (of Delta Rhythm Kings fame), Sonny Landreth and Bill Morrissey.

The final Bob Mugge film I want to mention is Gather At The River: A Bluegrass Celebration. During an extended road trip (about a month, as I recall) Bob shot almost all of the footage for three films. The centerpiece, Gather At The River was a revelation for me. Filmed during the 1994 annual celebration at the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame in Owensboro, Kentucky it features performances by Tim O’Brien, Del Mc- Coury, Ralph Stanley, Doc Watson, Johnson Mountain Boys, Hazel Dickens and Peter Rowan. Rowan narrates much of the film and his presence makes a world of difference. I’m forever thrilled about my time on the road with Robert Mugge and watching him at his craft.

While we’re sheltering in place, try any of these film and television titles for a distinctly wonderful diversion from the outside world. Search the web for a streaming availability. Any one of these titles will be worth your time and good for the soul.

David Steffen

©2020 David Steffen

Empty Streets, Empty Highways, Nervous People   Leave a comment

April 1, 2020

Mendocino County has been on my mind this week. Same for California and New York. Italy has been locked down. Borders are being closed. As of this writing the fifth largest economy in the world—California—has adopted “shelter-in place”. In varying degrees we are all in semi-solitary confinement. A trip to the grocery store, or the pharmacy, or the doctor is an adventure because (with few exceptions) those are the only places we can go. This pandemic is real. The only thing uncertain is what we— you, me, all of us—will be feeling when the restrictions are lifted.

As with any crisis there are, to be sure, non-believers. The Washington Post’s Annie Gowen quoted a Kansas woman who believes that the Corona virus is simply “mass hysteria caused by the liberal media. They want to take Trump and our economy down.” Right. Americans want to tank the entire economy. For the record, it was Mr. Trump who told thousands at a February 28 campaign rally that the Corona Virus was a “democratic hoax”. Pick your own theory: [1] A new virus has mutated from animals to humans, [2] it’s mass hysteria caused by the liberal media exaggerating this virus, or [3] it’s all a hoax. Whatever your belief, we’re seeing empty streets, empty roads, and businesses under duress.

I’ve lived in California for 25 years. About half of those years were spent in Los Angeles (1977-1990), while the other half (since 2006) have been here in northern California’s Mendocino County. Even when I wasn’t living here I visited the state often, mostly on business although occasionally simply as a tourist. I remember our first visit to Disneyland in December 1973. It was really a magical place as we met Mickey, Goofey and Minnie, took a turn on all the rides and exhausted ourselves with fun. Over the years we returned to the Magic Kingdom 6 or 8 times as friends and family visited us in California. Leave worries at the gate and enter a place of escape.

While working at BMG in New York in the ‘90s (I was running a small video and film division for the music giant) I traveled to California 3-4 times per year. My preference was almost always about catching an early flight, renting a car, and hitting the ground running when I arrived because traffic was then (and certainly is now) horrendous. One of those visits was on January 17, 1994. My flight was a 9:00am departure from JFK, getting me into Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) about 11:00am. About an hour before landing in Los Angeles the pilot announced that there had been an earthquake in the L.A. area. I rarely gave earthquakes a 2nd thought after living a dozen years in southern California and having personally experienced some rumblers and some rollers.

collapsed-freeway

Tucked into my rental car I headed from LAX to the 405/San Diego Freeway. Instead of typically heavy traffic leaving the airport and getting to the freeway, streets were clear. Taking a left turn onto the 405 I was in for a shock. All lanes of the freeway were empty. I mean, maybe a car here or a car there but essentially empty. Heading north I exited at Santa Monica Blvd. and drove to my meeting at the design firm Art Hotel in West Hollywood. While owner and designer Chris Whorf and I talked about images, packaging, and design elements for BMG’s upcoming video releases, we kept the radio on to hear the earthquake updates. I was tempted to consider driving north to Santa Clarita where we lived for 13 years. Yet the reports came in continuously.

The quake hit at 4:30am California time and lasted almost 20 seconds. For the uninitiated, when you’re there feeling the quake, 20 seconds is an eternity. The Northridge Quake, as it would be (incorrectly) labeled, registered with a 6.7 Richter Scale magnitude. The epicenter was actually closer to the city of Reseda, near the spot where the 405 meets I-5 heading north toward the Santa Clarita Valley. As to the severity of the quake, here’s a line that should get your attention: “[the quake’s] peak ground acceleration was the highest ever instrumentally recorded in an urban area in North America”. It was felt 200+ miles away in Las Vegas. Two 6.0 aftershocks followed, the first about one minute after the initial event and the second approximately 11 hours later. There were several thousand aftershocks in all. The death toll was 57, and more than 8,700 people were injured. Property damage was estimated to be almost $50 billion, making it one of the costliest natural disasters in American history.  

As it was now approaching 3:00pm, and hearing of the destruction of houses, commercial buildings, and a collapsed freeway (near Santa Clarita), my expectation of driving to my old neighborhood or keeping any of the other meetings over the next two days vanished. I called the airline, changed my flight, said goodbye to Chris, returned to LAX driving on a still empty 405, and flew back to New York. It was a brief and entirely surreal visit to La La Land.

IMG_0473

This morning I drove down the hill to beautiful downtown Gualala to pick up a few necessities. There were a total of 3 customers at Gualala Supermarket. There was 1 person at the Post Office. Trink’s Cafe appeared to be closed. Granted, it’s not the same as talking about an empty San Diego Freeway after the quake, but just the same we’ve all been caught up in a new reality. It may be temporary but it’s real. A lot of us will lose wages and income. Some may lose more. But I realized that I’m happy living up here in Mendocino County right now. I’d rather be enduring this current crisis with my friends, neighbors, and fellow business people knowing that on the other side, we’ll come out bruised, perhaps, but not beaten. At least that’s my hope.

David Steffen

© David Steffen 2020 

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