Music as – – – the better alternative

The author with the Lewis' - father & daughter
The author with the Lewis’ – father & daughter

If music is balm for the soul, what else might it be?

A lot, according to Peter Lewis – musician, composer, songwriter and founding member of the 1960s rock band Moby Grape. Lewis and his daughter Arwen Lewis – also musician, composer, songwriter, and someone who holds down a day job as a waitress – explored this question at a recent event at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club.

The event was officially billed as a discussion (with live music!) of Music as an Alternative to Adversity. It evolved into a rambling discourse on good love and bad, on the sixties, spirituality and freedom, and how music winds through it all. The elder Lewis did the lion’s share of talking, with daughter Arwen benevolently looking on. But Arwen, an accomplished musician who bears a resemblance to her glamorous paternal grandmother Loretta Young, repeatedly brought her father back to the song they were about to sing.

It was an hour of memorable music and musical food for thought:

Peter Lewis on music overcoming adversity: “When you get born you cry until you’re fed; later you’re singing for your supper. It’s spiritual. Spirits move through us, and through each other – but there are all kinds of different songs.”

On “Sailing,” the first song played by the duo: “I wrote this with Skip Spence of Moby Grape; its first recording will be released in February. It’s about longing. Songs are not written in a vacuum; you feel something – and the song is born.” Spence, who suffered from addiction, bad drugs and schizophrenia, died in 1999 at the age of 53.

On loneliness and the blues: Arwen – “I live with my parents near Santa Barbara and drive 65 miles a day to work as a waitress. I wrote ‘The Lompoc Blues’ when I was having a bad day.” Peter: “We live in a nice community near the Air Force base and the penitentiary. But you can go all day and never see anybody smiling.”

On being the son (and granddaughter) of a famous movie star – Peter: “I asked my mom what it was like . . . She was brought to Hollywood by her mom, who ran a boardinghouse. I went to Purdue, in the pilots program; it was my mom’s boyfriend who got me in. I wasn’t one of the seven best pilots in America. But it was a scary deal, the draft. I’m in this line, and you don’t go home from the induction center; I was crying like a baby.” (According to his Wikipedia page, Lewis served in the Air Force, and afterwards worked as a commercial pilot.) “My mom said, ‘Either cut your hair or get out of my house.’” Loretta Young, whose two sisters also began acting as children, died in 2000 after retiring from a noted career in film and television. Arwen: “She used acting as an alternative to adversity.”

On bad love – Arwen: “I sing lead in this, which is more sing-song-y. It’s about the sixties, when there was a lot of loneliness . . .” Peter: “Love’s a two-way street. We were all trying to be characters in a Jack Kerouac novel – so you write some facetious tunes. The sixties were not so much about rebellion as about freedom.” The duo then launched into a song that included the lines, “If you can’t learn from my mistakes, honey I can’t learn from yours;” and eventually, “If you can’t pay for my mistakes, honey I can’t pay for yours.”

Nearing the end of their time, Arwen reminded her talkative father that they still had several songs to go. Only one could be squeezed in: a closing number with an almost Latin/blues rhythm, “You must believe in love.”

Good love won.

 

Jan McInnis: Clean Comedy & Attitude

Jan & crowd
Clean comedy packs ’em in

“I went up in a hot air balloon 2200 feet in the air,” says Jan McInnis, whose taste in adventure is as zany as her comedic genius. “The scariest part was as we were climbing in, the guy asked us our weight. I’m not telling him that! I gave him my goal weight. This thing may crash, but that secret’s dying with me!”

The above (copyrighted) quip was included in the latest Keynote Chronicle newsletter circulated by comedian McInnis, sometimes known as The Work Lady. She is also co-star, with Kent Rader, in the Baby Boomer Comedy Show.

It’s hard to read The Keynote Chronicle – or see McInnis onstage – without either a chuckle or a guffaw, or two or three or more. And at the same time, you may fail to notice that the material is utterly without profanity, vulgarity or in-your-face sexual innuendo – the basic elements of much of today’s comedy. A Wall Street Journal article once noted that her clean comedy “still has plenty of attitude.”

Jan pic
Comedian Jan McInnis

This writer first saw Jan McInnis at a comedy competition more than a decade ago at San Francisco’s Boom Boom Room. She didn’t win the competition – although she said recently that she is now good friends with others she met at that event – but I have followed her career ever since. 2016 seemed a good time to interview her about the trajectory of that career.

McInnis grew up in D.C., the second of four children in a fairly traditional family whose home was in a nearby Virginia suburb. “My parents said they’d pay for college anywhere in the state,” she says. “So I chose Virginia Tech, which was as far away as you could get from D.C.” She earned a traditional (communications) degree, and went to work back in D.C. at a few traditional jobs, including the National Ocean Service and the National Academy of Sciences, where she worked on the original “Planet Earth” PBS television series. But her lifelong ambition to do stand-up comedy never let go, and at 34 McInnis started doing open-mike gigs. She spent two and a half years working at her day job while doing comedy clubs up and down the east coast. This involved grueling hours and often staying in what the clubs referred to as “Comedy Condos,” that customarily housed “twenty-something boys.” McInnis, meanwhile, was aiming for a manageable career. “The great thing about working in marketing (at the traditional jobs),” she says, “is that I knew about the convention market – as opposed to clubs.” And The Work Lady was born.

Jan onstage
McInnis joking on the big stage

McInnis moved across the country to Los Angeles 16 years ago – “It was either New York or L.A., because otherwise nobody’s going to see me” – and never looked back. From early on her parents were fans. “They heard me on the radio in D.C. a lot,” she says, “and I made sure they only saw me at the good clubs.”

There are apparently all sorts of clubs. “My goal when I started out working in tough one-nighters,” she writes in a recent book, “was to get so successful that I’d never again have to perform in a room in which you can hear the blender.”

On the road to what is today a highly successful career, McInnis performed at venues that would seem to make the noisy bar appealing: in a bakery, on a gigantic bowling alley with people inside gigantic, see-through bowling balls rolling by, on a turntable (“Lazy Susan for those of you over 50”) that made a 360-degree lap every 10 minutes, and in “a multimillion-dollar gymnasium with a $20 sound system.”

If you’ve missed McInnis at these or other appearances, you may be seeing her before today’s  political dust settles. She does a spot-on Hillary Clinton.

 

One Bright New Voice for Justice

Migrant Crisis

My money is on today’s young people.

Faced with problems local, national and global that earlier generations could barely have imagined they remain undaunted. They take on mountainous debt to get good educations despite bleak job prospects, they resist any attempt to be told how to act or think or vote, and they expose themselves to the world on social media to an extent utterly frightening to their grandparents.

As one grandparent, this writer can only applaud.

This is a snapshot of one college student whom I applaud. I have never met emerging artist Brennen French; I was introduced to his art because despite the thousands of miles and several generations that separate us it speaks my language.

French, the son of a college professor and a retirement home administrator, grew up in one of the many American small towns that saw the economy tank and opportunities vanish in the last half of the 20th century, when plants closed and jobs went overseas. Though his own family was comfortably middle class, he learned firsthand about poverty, racism and injustice – and seems determined to confront those issues in the best way he can. As his website explains, he “found his voice for justice in his art.”

Two works illustrate how that goal is playing out, as French pursues an art degree at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania. “The Rise of Feminism (Break the Chains, Rise Up, Be Free)” (below) is an homage to women from around the world who have made significant contributions to women’s rights through their accomplishments in a variety of fields. With a powerfully drawn female figure centering the piece (while breaking her chains,) French has created a design with multiple interpretations, using profiles of some of the women he references. He includes initials just in case, but viewers could recognize many of them without clues: Virginia Woolf, Susan B. Anthony, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, nearly two dozen profiles rising from silhouetted crowds of anonymous others.

In “America’s Response to the Syrian Migrant Crisis,” (above) French uses somber tones to portray an endless line of refugees, fronted by a garishly contrasting image of an American TV talking head, a red Starbucks cup on the screen behind her. “I created this in the winter of 2015,” French explains, “to raise awareness of the current migrant crisis. At the time, American news feeds were flooded with the Starbucks Red Cup ‘scandal.’ I was shocked that news organizations felt this story was important enough to dedicate two weeks’ worth of airtime, time that could have been given to discussing the Migrant Crisis.”

Voices for justice may be around for a long time yet.

The Rise of Feminism

 

On Jazz, Optimism and World Peace

Some of the things in short supply these days: optimism, compassion, comfort and joy and the conviction that light will always overcomes darkness.

Dave Len Scott Photo by Nicholas Wilson-nwilsonphoto.com
Dave Len Scott
Photo by Nicholas Wilson-nwilsonphoto.com

Two San Francisco-based musicians are quietly at work to advance all of the above. Dave Len Scott and Vernon Bush lead multi-pronged lives that are exhausting to consider, but they offer a strong endorsement of the energy that derives from choosing this particular line of work.

Occasionally the two get together to reinforce the notion that faith, hope and love continue to win out.

Scott, who teaches at Sonoma State University, is a trumpet player, pianist, composer, conductor and dispenser of peace and joy. His bio explains that he is “equally comfortable in improvisational/jazz and ensemble/classical idioms.” Bush, noted for his “Inspire Choirs” that are premised on the African proverb, If you can speak you can sing, is a singer, composer and performer who works closely with San Francisco’s historic Glide Memorial Church. He is also co-founder, with Marybeth Tereszkiewicz, of Tree of Life Cross-Cultural Arts Camp, a yearly two to three week summer program for children in the small school communities of KwaZulu Natal, South Africa. Both Scott and Bush make a respectable living through their art, but what they do essentially for free, for the benefit of their brothers and sisters on the planet, sets them apart from many (happily by no means all!) of their fellow musical professionals.

The two get together occasionally (and will do so regularly throughout the spring of 2016) for “Live at Five” evening services at another San Francisco church, of which this writer is fortunate to be a member. Scott advertises the musical segments of the events thus: “Vernon Bush is a gentle soul and a gifted choir leader. To shine positivity and love is just Vernon’s way. Anyone who comes to sing with Vernon (first Monday of every month, 7 pm) at Calvary will come away feeling better about everything, feeling loved! I am certain!”

Certainty of goodness (and feeling loved) might be added to the things in short supply today. But a recent “Live at Five” service led, musically, by Scott and Bush, featured a chorus-with-drums rendition of this Chinese proverb:

Where there is light in the soul

There is beauty in the person

Where there is beauty in the person

There is harmony in the home

Where there is harmony in the home

There is honor in the nation

Where there is honor in the nation

There is peace in the world.

Vernon Bush
Vernon Bush

It may be an unfortunate fact that there is not a lot of peace in the world. But thankfully there are people like Dave Len Scott and Vernon Bush out there bringing light to the soul.

A Memorable MLK Day Celebration

MLK on darkness

Dr. King would, I think, have approved.

One celebration of his legacy involved a collaboration between members of a fairly mainline Presbyterian church in an affluent area of San Francisco and members of a soul-spirited Pentecostal church in the city’s Bayview community, where crime and poverty run rampant. The partnership – and friendship – between the two unlikely groups has been growing ever since its beginning in response to the mass shootings at Charleston’s Emanuel African American Methodist Episcopal Church in June of 2015.

For openers, the African American Pentecostal pastor preached (only minimally more reserved and shorter than is his custom) to the mostly white Presbyterians. His message was primarily about the Biblical admonition to welcome the alien and show hospitality to strangers. He also had a few words about justice rolling down like a river, and about Martin Luther King Jr’s assertion that love will overcome racism, materialism and militarism.

MLK Day cable car

After the service some fifty or so Presbyterians boarded motorized cable cars and sang their way across town to the Pentecostal church. There the white pastor preached to the now-multicolor congregation about the Biblical suggestion that nothing much is required of believers other than to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with the Creator. He also had a few words about some of the ads he had noticed on the trip over. Dr. King, he suggested, probably didn’t live, work and die primarily so there would be three-day mattress sales, or a 25% MLK Weekend discount on leather jackets.

During the second service, which another minister termed Presbycostal, there was a generous amount of rousing hallelujah music led by the hosts and several gospel pieces from the visitors, whose choir director and trumpet-playing musician in residence made the trip.

MLK Day Dave & choir

After the second service the hosts surprised their guests with lunch in the adjacent social hall: homemade salads, chips and dips and plates of fried chicken. A dozen or so small children, varying shades of white, brown and black, snagged their fried chicken early and set to entertaining themselves by jumping up and down a stairway below a banner that read “The Audacity to Believe.”

One of the visitors remarked to one of the hostesses, as everyone dispersed, “I think we had a lot more fun than anybody at the weekend sales.”

MLK Day lunch

 

A Poetic Happy New Year to Us All

Dawn

The dawn of a new year brings the best and the worst: promise of new beginnings, anguish over old endings.  Great new ideas to nurture, bad old ideas to quash. The new year’s plans, the old year’s mistakes. And, then of course, there are those pesky resolutions.

How about — as opposed to New Year’s resolutions — a little irresolution for 2016? The talented singer/songwriter Michelle Krell apparently turns to poetry from time to time. This rumination on life and time was enclosed with her holiday letter. It is presented below, with her permission, as a New Year’s gift to readers: the procrastinators, the disorganized, the well-intentioned, God bless us every one.

THE BACKLOG

Youth has no unfinished projects

No half-written melodies

No scribbled first lines of a musical comedy starring somebody famous

No first pencil sketch for a rolling 19th century landscape in oils

No first brushstrokes for a portrait, you know, a masterpiece like the Mona Lisa

No evenly-spaced staff lines mapped out with hundreds of tiny sixteenth-notes in pencil, some crossed out

No shoeboxes with unsorted glass beads on broken strings

No velvet bag of unrepaired, unmatched earrings, some plastic, from the 1970s

No shelves of unread books

No socks needing to be matched with mates missing for 9 years or more

No basket of mending from when your aunt was alive, you got it when you cleared out her house

No collection of spools of thread from the ‘30s from the same aunt, the thread permanently, hopelessly tangled

No boxes of unsorted photos from decades of family reunions

No garden that has had no improvements since you bought the house 20 years ago

No roses that are far past their lifetime and needed to be dug up long ago

No battered and faded curtains that would dissolve if washed; and why are they still up?

No seed of a book of poetry in which poems have been re-written until they stopped breathing

No undated lists of good intentions on wide-ruled binder paper

No itemized plans for rearranging small possessions that can now not be found

No single favorite patent leather shoe that knows the mystery of its lost mate, but will not tell

No collection of old toothbrushes that have a use which will reveal itself someday

No half-begun intricate stencil decoration across the upper wall of the baby’s room; he now has a family and lives in Toledo

No splintered and rusted garden shed that would look like Sunset Magazine, or could perhaps…

No pile of gravel overcome with weeds—the beginnings of an elaborate walkway through what are now rusted garden benches next to a ghost of a trellis for grapevines that never climbed anywhere

There are no grapes and no hint of a garden path

But—there could be…

On Stage with Ann Randolph

Ann Randolph 10.15
Randolph On Stage

Does she know something we all should know?

It’s not your dream career trajectory: Living (and working) in a locked facility for chronically mentally ill to get through college. Sliming fish on an Alaskan production line. Braving Arctic winds and a dozen macho racist shipmates for a year on a fishing skiff. Broke, in New York, solving the problem with an ad that reads: Alaskan Bush Woman seeks room and board in exchange for tutoring in the arts and/or companionship. . .

It worked for Ann Randolph. But she would be the first to say it wasn’t exactly a piece of cake.

Actress/comedienne Randolph is currently on stage at San Francisco’s Marsh Theater with her solo show “Inappropriate In All the Right Ways.” It’s part autobiography (she was told early on, “Ann, that’s inappropriate”) part stand-up hilarity, part therapy and 100% fun.

Randolph is best known recently for her solo show Loveland (“Riotously demented and brilliantly humane,”) but she’s been making headlines for a long time. Her life and career path have featured stunning successes – Best Solo Show awards in San Francisco and Los Angeles, a long list of other awards and citations for acting, writing and directing – and crushing lows. Among the latter would be the incidents cited above, alongside her close friendship with Mel Brooks and his late wife Anne Bancroft, who recognized her genius and were backing the progress of her solo show toward Broadway when Bancroft was diagnosed with the cancer that would soon end her life.

Randolph, though, does know this: it’s not about the highs and lows, it’s about the trajectory. Through her shows, her writing workshops, and her generous pro-bono appearances before groups like the end-of-life nonprofit that caught the attention of this writer, the high-energy Randolph explores that theme.

Randolph with the author
Randolph with the author

And following life trajectories is Adventure Theater at its best. Randolph pulls her audiences into the act with markers of her own ups and downs – Sacrifice! Synchronicity! Visualization! Fake it ‘til you make it! – and then turns the tables. Given pencils and ruled tablets when they entered, audience members are invited to do 5-minute life lists of their own. When time is called there’s a jazzy sing-along moment and then – spoiler alert – they are also invited to take the stage.

Nobody leaves a performance of “Inappropriate” without being moved to laughter; many leave after discovering something about their own life trajectory. It’s a show like no other.

If you’re in San Francisco before “Inappropriate” closes (it’s been extended! Weekends through 12/13) you can catch Ann Randolph in a show. Or find her doing a writing workshop near you.