Calvin Trillin, Alice, Barbara, and Me: A Love Song

It’s quite a stretch for me to compare myself with Calvin Trillin, the prolifically urbane and quick-witted humorist, memoirist, and “deadline poet.”  He melted the barriers between reportage and first-person narrative nonfiction; most of my writing is either legal advice to insurance companies or press releases touting folk concerts.  He charms readers by sharing his everyman viewpoint on food, culture, and travel; my food experiences are limited by whatever diet I’m on, and I attend cultural events only after the buzz has died off and the tickets have gone on discount.

Nevertheless, the Deadline Poet and I have a few things in common.  We are city kids, raised by second-generation working-class Jewish parents.  We can come across as detached and enigmatic.  And, both of our lives were changed forever when we found the loves of our lives.

Calvin Trillin found his Alice at a party in 1963.  Fortunately, although he was instantly smitten, his tongue untied; and,.  as Alice later told him, he “was never funnier” than he was that night.  “Do you mean I peaked in December of 1963?,” he’d ask.  “I’m afraid so,” she’d reply.   They were married for 35 years, until she succumbed to complications from lung cancer in 2001.

Calvin Trillin’s slim 78-page memoir of his giddily happy marriage,  “About Alice,” is packed with humor, heartbreak, and a husband’s unashamed adoration of his wife.  As I am not Calvin Trillin, I’ll do my best with this blog.

Barbara is exactly what I had always pined for:  That is, she is not me.

I have a few feeble excuses for being me:  I am male.  I grew up with virtually no parenting.  By skipping school grades, I wound up two, then three, and then an untenable four years younger than my classmates, which meant that I missed most of the rites of the teenage years.  I married my first wife when I was barely 20 and came out of that marriage some fifteen years later with barely a clue as to how to be a self-reliant man.  Worse: because I had never been able to rely on anyone but myself to learn how to behave in the world, I was a tinhorn autodidact.  Rather than ask questions or pay quiet attention, I blundered through the challenges of independence and single parenthood with the stupid belief that I could figure things out by using my own intuition and doing what felt best.

Barbara is the antidote to that bumbling autodidact, me.

Though it may seem superficial, I think a husband and wife need to be a bit impressed by one another.  Calvin admired Alice for her lifetime of accomplishments, as a college professor, learning consultant to public television, and film producer.

Barbara’s accomplishments have always wowed me and created endless conversation between us.  Her career started when she boldly left college midstream and moved to New York, where she discovered graphic design by managing to get into a course tought by Milton Glaser.  After getting her degree in graphic design, she wrangled a job designing book jackets at the publisher Alfred A. Knopf.  There (at adjoining desks with her college buddy Chip Kidd), she threw out all the old rules and turned book-jacket design into an edgy art form.  A mantel full of awards, recognitions, and teaching opportunities followed.  Barbara went on to become the art director for Martha Stewart Living magazine before returning to Knopf.  A year ago, seeing the chance for one more creative chapter in her life, she put her fears (mostly)aside and became a graduate student to learn a new trade, interactive design.

I do not have a glimmer as to how Barbara can instantly summon up beauty, whether in a book jacket, a CD package, a garden, or the tie that will not clash horribly with my suit.  But I am so mystified and delighted by that rare talent that I am weak in the knees.

Calvin Trillin described Alice as  “the voice of reason, the sensible person who kept everything on an even keel despite the antics of her marginally goofy husband.”  Although I am not marginally goofy, Barbara’s even keel has straightened me up as well.

I come from a family that has little truck with one another, in which birthdays are often ignored, negligent telephone droughts can go on for months, and the prevailing attitude of one relative to another is mostly indifference.  I always yearned for a close-knit family that cared deeply for one another.  (I even long overstayed a romance with one woman almost entirely because she came from that sort of family).  Barbara, on the other hand, is a fierce family lioness (the photo above is cropped from a group photo in which she is surrounded by family members…note the serene and protective smile).  She is deeply loyal and loving with friends, family, and other people’s children.  Within weeks of our meeting, I began to call her orbit a “love sauna.”  I suppose she knew even earlier that I had come to her from love Siberia.  Having been rightened by her even keel, I have been able to bring a bit of that nurturing and gentle energy into my own relations.

Although I am tediously calm and almost never raise my voice, my trial-lawyer attitude toward the world can be shamefully combative.  I once publicly hounded a mail-order company that refused to acknowledge that it had overcharged me $10 to the point that it went out of business.  The wife of a proprietor with whom I had a business dispute once wrote to me to say that her husband was not well, and I would be to blame if he died as a result of our heated correspondence.  I can lose my patience with small-time offenses like texting while driving, throwing cigarette butts on the street, and misusing apostrophes.

Barbara, however, is a placid sea of kindness and accommodation.  Although sometimes this turning of the other cheek gets her nothing more than two wounded cheeks, more often she disarms the conflict and rebuilds connections.  In a single recent phone call, she kindly responded to someone who had severely disappointed her,  and then used the opportunity to send a plum bit of business to someone who had once tried to destroy her career.

Not that she has ice water in her veins.  Alice Trillin objected to being portrayed by Calvin as (in her words) a “dietitian in sensible shoes,” and in fact Calvin admitted that this “sit-com” description did not do justice to her sense of childlike wonder: “The only adult I ever knew who might respond to encountering a deer on a forest path by saying, ‘Wowsers!’.”  Barbara also is filled with secret mischief and a shameless weakness for guilty pleasures.  Her work takes her into contact with celebrities from Barbara Walters to Stephen Sondheim to David Byrne; when George Plimpton or Laurie Anderson come up on conversation, she’ll always have an anecdote about her visit to Plimpton’s penthouse apartment or sharing a piece of birthday cake with Laurie in her Canal Street flat.  But, she does not boast, and she is never jaded by that life.  And, when a friend like David Rakoff dies, she weeps.  Like all of us, Barbara is on a perpetual diet; but it is never so strict that it can’t include liberal amounts of cheating, especially when there is ice cream in the freezer.

I am rarely invited to the sort of cocktail party at which Calvin met Alice.  So, Barbara and I met the new-fangled way, on the Internet (though, we later decided to lie and say we met “in France,” which as the Coneheads knew is usually sufficient to prevent any other inquiries.  This ruse failed when we embellished the story with an improbable filigree about how we came to speak after I tripped over her foot).  I had been single for fifteen years, having made the rookie mistake of dating inappropriate women for years at a time when weeks would have sufficed, in part because romance was just not important enough to motivate me to do it right.  Barbara was separated after a long marriage and was devoted to raising her children, then 15 and 10.  Like Calvin’s, my tongue untied during our nonstop email correspondence, in which we flirted and teased about everything from her favorite author Richard Ford (me: “If you read Richard Ford, does that mean I have to read Cosmo?”) to the pet names we would give each other (I insisted that she take the name Exie, from her screen name Ex Libris but based on a masked pro wrestler acquaintance who called himself Mister X).  Finally, when it was time to meet, Barbara made me promise that, even if we were completely repulsed by one another, we would continue to email.

Like everything, Barbara approached courtship with her whole heart, a fretful wariness, and finally the courage to put that wariness aside.  I’m sure she did not sleep for the entire time.  Yet, six months after the day we met, I surprised her with a proposal on a cliff overlooking the Hudson (how could she not have guessed, when the location was “Romantic Poet’s Look Park?), and she surprised me by accepting.  My trump card then was this bit of sonnet-like doggerel, read aloud to her (note that by then, her nickname was Minni, short for the Dutch endearment minniken):

 Soneta Amorosa (An Improper Proposal)

Men often think to do it on one knee—

Alas, at my age, I might not get up – or

Reveal their true intentions startlingly,

Risking massive coronaries long pre-nup. 

You and I, though, fell in love through prose.

My lord! How modern! Pixels ne’er were sweeter!

Ergo, this yearning sonnet I’ve composed –

My iambs reach for you in pentameter. 

Yes, I know it’s been scanty months since we

Met blushingly at Egan’s, white with foam.

Impatient though this prayer seems to be,

No less am I, Dear Friend, for our new home. 

Note: If you’d also have our lives entwine,

Inspect now the first letters of each line.

So much for deadline poetry.

After Alice passed away, Calvin received a letter from a young woman who confided that she sometimes looked at her boyfriend and wondered, “Will he love me as much as Calvin loved Alice?”  Contrary to all reason, and surely because of some one-time loophole in the laws of karma, this is the kind of question that never has to be asked in my marriage.


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A Travel Guide to Crete

Thinking of a vacation in Crete? Here is what we learned after tons of research and ten days of travel.

WHY DID WE LOVE CRETE?:  It’s got everything:  Sandy beaches with clear deep-blue water, charming harborfront towns with Venetian/Turkish buildings, 5000-year-old historic sites, a club scene, generous and friendly people who speak English (it’s a required subject in school), plenty of outdoor activities, and a varied and healthy Mediterranean cuisine.  Ten days was not long enough to explore the island.

GETTING THERE:  Crete is a short flight from Athens.  The folks we ran into who had taken the overnight ferry from the mainland complained of the long trip and seasickness.  We looked at some tours that included Crete and other islands, but they seemed to rushed and to involve too much travel.  Instead, we booked hotels in three cities, rented a car, and explored Crete on our own. .

RENT A CAR?:  Absolutely.   For a short trip, you can stay in one of the harbor towns and book bus tours to some tourist sites; but, for a longer stay, there’s no way to see the island without wheels.  (And, cab fare to and from the airports to Chania or Iraklio can cost as much as a car rental).  You’ll get better rental rates by reserving in advance on line with an international company like Budget, rather than renting in person when you arrive.  That’s also the best way to get a car with an automatic transmission, which are scarce.   Speaking of which:

DRIVING IN CRETE:  You will hear horror stories about driving in Crete, which in fact has the highest accident rate in Europe.  Forget those stories – here’s the fact.  On the main roads, drivers “create” two lanes – slower drivers drive on the shoulder, and faster drivers zip by on their left (often veering blindly into oncoming traffic lanes).  Just stay in the slow “lane,” and enjoy the sunsets.  You will never feel uncomfortable.  In the cities (which can be trafficky), riders on motorbikes weave in and out of traffic and go through stop signs and red lights.  Avoid them and wish them well.   Unless you are accustomed to driving in rural Iowa, you won’t have trouble driving in Crete.

Note, the steering wheel is on the left and you drive on the right – same as in the US.  Parking is not an issue except in the dense tourist areas of the harborfront towns.  In those towns, there is free street parking surrounding the no-car historic districts.  In Chania, the free parking area is on the waterfront at Tolon Square at the foot of Theotopoulou Street.  In Rethymnon, it is surrounding the soccer stadium.  Chania does require a bit of circling and looking for a spot.

A Foreigner's Guide to Driving on Crete |

IS CRETE EXPENSIVE? This is maybe the best part.  None of the gorgeous hotels we stayed in cost more than $100 per night, and most meals were in the $10-15 range.  The local beers are about $4 for the large half-liter bottles, and a half-liter of house wine is $6-8.  This is true even for the open-air cafes on the waterfront, where you’d expect to pay extra for the ambience and location.   Greece is on the Euro, which when we visited cost $1.02 in dollars; a weaker dollar will of course raise these prices.

CITIES AND HOTELS:  Crete’s cities are concentrated along the northern coast.  The southern part of the island is mostly undeveloped and much of the southern coast is accessible only by boat.  From west to east, the larger northern cities are Chania (also, Hania), Rethymno (Rethymnon), Iraklio (Heraklion), and Agios Nikolaus (“Ag Nik”).  Chania, Rethymno, and Ag Nik are gorgeous harborfront towns with strollable harbors, waterfront tavernas, and cobblestone historic lanes filled with shops.  Iraklio is more urban and crowded.

We spent three days in Chania, two days in Rethymno, and three days in a villa in the wine country south of Iraklio, from which we visited Iraklia and Ag Nik.

In Chania, we had a balcony room overlooking the harbor, at Hotel Nostos,   Here’s a view from our balcony:

Photo: View from our balcony. Chania, Crete. 6.8.14

Chania is an easygoing and compact town focused around the harbor promenade and the historic quarter.  There are a couple of small town beaches just west of town, but much better beaches can be reached by car.

In Rethymno, we stayed in the heart of the historic district at Veneto Suites  .  The room had a kitchenette and its own adjoining garden patio:

Photo: Our balcony. Rethymno, Crete 6.13.14.

(By the way, Lonely Planet was a perfect guidebook for Crete).  Rethymno is much more sprawling than Chania, with a massive Venetian fortress, more than a mile of waterfront, and a very large historic/shopping district.  Stop by Yoirgos Hatziparaskos’s workshop at 30 Manouil Bernardou, where he has made phyllo dough by hand for 50 years; and buy some of his baklava.   The Folk Art Museum on the same block is also worth a visit.  And, the Mona Lisa ice cream shop near the Loggia is great for sheep’s-milk ice cream.


And, in the wine country near Iraklio, we stayed at Villa Kerasia  Villa Kerasia is about 15km from Iraklio.  It is a small country villa with swimming pool, built by the very genial host, Bobis, who also cooks dinner for his guests, makes his own wine, and seems to be known by everybody in Crete.  If Bobis is not cooking, there are a few tavernas in adjoining towns; needing to drive to them for dinner was a drawback to staying in Kerasia. On the other hand, here is the view from our window:

Photo: View from our window. Kerasia, Crete. 6.16.14.

EAT IN CRETE: There are some fancy restaurants in Crete, but there’s no particular reason to try them.  The island is full of restaurants, tavernas and cafes that do a fine job with Cretan cuisine.  Fresh salads (especially, Greek salad with cucumber, tomato, herbs and cheese), simply-grilled fish or chicken, a bruschetta-like appetizer called dakos, meze platters, fried potato, all are easy, healthy, and inexpensive.   Lonely Planet was a good reference for the best places in town.

A small tip (10%) is welcome but not expected.  At the end of the meal, every restaurant will provide something sweet for dessert and a small carafe of raki (similar to grappa) without charge.  We never found a restaurant where customers dressed up for dinner.  On the waterfront, it seems that every restaurant employs a tout (we called them “hookers”) to lure strollers in for drinks or dinner.  (Other places countered with signs announcing “We Do Not Pressure You!  We Respect You!”)  Although the guidebooks advise to steer clear of these places, the hookers are charming, and we enjoyed these restaurants just as much as those that were away from the main strolling areas.

WHAT TO DO IN CRETE:  This is like listing what to do in New York City.  But, of the ten “Best Things” listed in Lonely Planet, we hit eight of them.  Here’s the skinny on some:

1.   The Samaria Gorge  This is a 16km-long gorge that you scramble down until arriving at the Libyan Sea.  The best way to experience it is on an arranged bus tour.  Although we saw these tours available on-line for $90, we booked with our hotel desk in Chania for 22 Euros.  The walk is not easy – it’s a long and rocky descent of 5000 feet in elevation, involves multiple crossings of the river, and even with walking sticks it took a toll on our knees and hips – and there is no way out except to complete it.  There are multiple spring-fed fountains to replenish your water, and rest stops with bathrooms.  There is no food available until Km13, when you leave the national park and there is a welcome café with beer, ice cream, and hot dogs.  At Km16, you arrive at the town of Agia Roumeli, on the Libyan Sea (a bus service is also available for the last 2 km).  There are many tavernas and a nice beach to enjoy there.  From Agia Roumeli you must take a boat to Chora Sfakion, the nearest place served by roads, for your ride back.

2.  Elefonisi Beach is a pink-sand, turquoise-water paradise on the southwest corner of Crete, on the Libyan Sea.  Lonely Planet called it the place that most Crete visitors want to go but most never get to, because it’s an hour’s drive through twisty mountain roads from Chania.  But, it was a perfect restorative after the Samaria Gorge.

A note about beaches:  Almost all beaches on Crete are set up with lounge chairs and umbrellas.  If the beach is public, you’ll be charged 6 or 7 Euro to use two chairs for the day.  If the chairs are set up  by a beachfront restaurant, you’ll be expected to order a drink or snack as your “rental fee.”  Because siesta time on Crete is from 3 to 6, or maybe to beat the heat, the beaches fill up in the morning and clear out by about 1pm.    The bathers we saw in Crete dressed modestly, though we heard that there are a couple of clothing-optional beaches on the southern coast.

3.  Spinalonga:  This is a former leper colony off the northern coast, near Ag Nik.  It is worth booking a ferry ride and walking tour (15 Euro from Ag Nik, although ferries from Plaka are shorter), which also stops for a swim on the way out.  The short tour focuses on how the lepers on Spinalonga created their own society, economy, and families, and is worth hearing.  Time is left to climb to the top of the island, which has gorgeous views.

4.  Knossos Palace:  This 4,000-year-old palace complex is the oldest archaeological site in Europe.  Some on-line commentators dismiss it because a large part of it was reconstructed on the original ruins.  Hey, let the haters hate.  It’s fun to see where the legends of King Minos, the Minotaur, and the Labyrinth began, to see the frescoes (some of which are re-created), and to imagine palace life in the Bronze Age.  The site is about 5km from downtown Iraklio.  It has a large free parking lot.  Admission is 4 Euro (10 Euro for a combination pass with the Archaeological Museum in Iraklio), and a group tour will cost 10 Euro.

5.  Archaeological Museum, Iraklio:  This museum, in the middle of downtown Iraklio, is certainly impressive, with thousands of household items, weapons, and pieces of art unearthed from across Crete.  We were pretty well numbed and overwhelmed after the first couple of rooms.  They would do well with an audioguide or printed guide to the highlights, because there really are only so many primitive clay bull-like figures a person can see in one day.

There are plenty of sites we didn’t get to.  The guide books list other beaches, lakes, gorges, and towns to visit.  We didn’t get to any of the wineries in the wine country surrounding Villa Kerasia, which  are open for tours and tastings.  But, there’s always next time!







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The Pursuit of Happiness/Georgia On My Mind

Because I live in New Jersey, my idea of a happy life has mostly been to get the hell out and live somewhere less vapid, brutish, and rampantly assaholic.  In fact, we’ve spent five years “interviewing” more likely locations.  (Our current favorites are Savannah during the teaching year and Martha’s Vineyard over the summers).  If only we’d known that modern technology could have saved us all that travel.  Take this ten-question quiz, and the good folks at TIME Magazine will automatically match you up with the state that most suits you.  Go ahead.  I’ll wait.

Remarkably, when we took the test, each of us came up Georgia.  Guess I’d better start developing a taste for mint juleps.

But, look.  I know that happiness doesn’t come at the butt end of a moving van, even if that van is headed away from Jersey.  To quote Confucius by way of Buckaroo Banzai, no matter where you go, that’s where you are.  And, even more to the point:  No matter where I go, when I get there I’ll be retired, displaced, and staring into the face of the pursuit of happiness.

So, after 56 years, what exactly do I know about my own happiness?

My first thought is, not much.  When I look back at my life so far, it seems to me that instead of pursuing happiness, I’ve been content with avoiding unhappiness.  Not to cue the violins, but I’m an abandoned kid.  Inevitably, an abandoned kid grows into an adult who is convinced that he is unlovable, undeserving of happiness, and baffled by the ways that other people seem to slide easily and contentedly through the world.  So, I’ve never had a nose for joy.  Mostly, “joy” for me has been the cold relief of avoiding a constant toxic feeling of wrongness and shame.

But, that’s not really fair.  True, I haven’t spent my life chasing pleasure.  There’ve been no sports cars, five-star restaurants, or beachfront resorts.  I cringe at the idea of getting a massage or other “pampering.”  Heck, I’ve never even tasted coffee or tried a cigarette.  My life has been much smaller:  Holding down a workaday job, being a husband and father, a few hobbies mostly in the homely worlds of folk music and community theater.  Nevertheless, like the great majority of Americans, I would say I’m happy.  I mean, it’s not like I am clueless when asked to choose between Red Lobster and Le Bernardin.  I have some instinct for joy.  So, what is it that makes me happy?

Thoreau, by way of LL Cool J, said:  “Do what you love.”  (Thoreau continued, “Know your own bone,” advice that seems directly related to his famed love for solitude).  That would make a nice motto on some poster with a playful kitten, but really, it’s not very helpful.  “Do what you love” means, happiness is doing things that make you happy.  Sort of begs the question, no?

If pursuing happiness were as easy as “doing what you love,” then we’d all be blissed-out pleasure zombies, rather than thin-lipped, rueful, and rudderless.  Yes, we all have hobbies, interests, diversions, sometimes even passions.  But, despite all those pastimes, we no more know what makes us happy than we know how our cells accomplish mitosis.

Just consider the groaning shelf of “what to do when you retire” books at your local bookstore.  The audience for those books are folks who fear that, without a job to fill our waking hours, we’ll fill them instead with reality television, outlet-mall shopping, and Bud Light swilled from cans.   If people believed that “doing what you love,” whether golf, ballroom dancing, or building model ships in bottles, would actually produce happiness, we’d never see “what to do when you retire” books.

And yet, somehow, we are happy.  We stumble through life, doing what we do rather than “doing what we love.”  And, doing what we do makes us happy.  How does the one lead to the other?  Let’s see.

  • For me, most of my waking hours are spent practicing law.  Most lawyers, and especially trial lawyers like me, hate their jobs.  But, I get real happiness from mine.  I enjoy the problem-solving, the Dutch-uncle schmoozing, the gathering teetering piles of facts and law into a solid structure.   However misguidedly, those parts of being a lawyer make me feel competent, clear-thinking, and effective.  And, that makes me happy.
  • The next largest block of my time is spent being a husband.  My marriage has an unusually strong balance of yin and yang.  Barbara’s awesome strengths are in creating visual beauty, giving love loyally, and intuiting emotional truths.   In the hollow of that womanly curve, she allows me, and confidently expects me, to try to be a good man, which means for example accepting and cherishing her love, being confident, respectful, and reliable, and knowing when to advise and when to hold my peace.  When I can live up to that role, it feels like being forty feet tall.  And, that makes me happy.
  • And yes, I do have hobbies.  They’ve always been creative hobbies:  Writing, teaching, acting, singing, songwriting, and most recently creating a concert series.  I’m an awful actor, mediocre professor, and made a fair botch of my short career as a singer/songwriter.  And yet, creating my classes, writing my songs or articles or reviews, taking a concert series from a little hole in the wall to a pulsing community with thousands of participants, all made me feel creative and engaged.  And, that’s made me feel happy.

I do what I do.  And, at their best, the things I do make me feel competent, creative, and nurturing.  There, I think, is the secret of my future happiness.  Doing what I love is not about playing ultimate Frisbee or reading the classics or learning the piano.  Doing what I love is putting myself in a position to be creative, build community, nurture others, be a good man.  Whether that means teaching at community college, leading walking tours, or volunteering to give advice at small claims court, this has to be the goal.  As long as there are mint juleps waiting.


November 5, 2013 · 6:32 am

About Happiness

It took eight years and a Wallace Shawn play for me to appreciate Ella, the last woman I dated before I met Barbara.  It turns out that Ella, with Wally’s help, taught me two important lessons:  First, that there is value in seeking out the remarkable rather than making do with the mundane; and, second, that it is essential to happiness for each of us to find our own “remarkable”…which is not always what we expect.

Ella was an icily beautiful and shamelessly mercenary Russian woman who knew exactly what she wanted:  A wealthy man who could make a better life for her and her daughter.  And by better life, she meant a fabulous life.  One night at a restaurant, she asked me to assure her that I wanted the “five-star lifestyle” she craved.  “You know what I hate?,” she lamented. “Cheap men.  Men who want discounts.  Men who use coupons.”  I hastily tossed my Groupon under the table; soon, she followed.

Because, the fact is, I have never wanted a five-star lifestyle (or even a life that could be called a “life style”).  If Barbara would go along with it, I would happily eat at diners, stay in roadside motels, and entertain myself with whatever diversions are available at the discount ticket outlets.  I drive a fourteen-year-old Camry.  I cringe at $100 theater tickets and $40 restaurant plates.

In fact, my cheap manliness has gone deeper than clipping coupons.  For most of my single life, I dated whatever women happened to be available, interested, and more or less suitable.  I approached dating the way most shoppers approach buying a vacuum cleaner:  Of the five models on display, that one looks good enough, and lo, one more shopping chore is done.  Similarly, for almost my entire work life I’ve taken jobs that demand little creativity or emotional investment, and provide no particular satisfaction.  I’ve taken a similar approach to clothes, cars, food, and the other pleasures of life.

So, maybe I am the “cheap man” that Ella despised…or, maybe, there’s some other reason.  As to which, cue Wally Shawn.

A few weeks back, Barbara let me know that she was dying to see Wallace Shawn’s play, “The Designated Mourner,” in its short revival at The Public Theater.  I flinched when I saw that tickets were $90.  What could possibly make 80 minutes of theater worth $90? Isn’t there a movie version on Netflix?  Won’t it soon be produced in some nearby community theater?

Nevertheless, the dutiful husband, after I found that the entire run was sold out I stood in the lobby of the theater for five hours to get wait-list seats.  And, for my troubles, I learned two things.

First, The Designated Mourner was a pretty remarkable experience.  To be crass about it, sometimes 80 minutes of remarkable theater at $90 can be worth more than a whole week of run-of-the-mill entertainment selected from the discount lists.  I’m guessing that the same is true for remarkable music, remarkable bottles of wine, remarkable restaurants, and so on.  This is in keeping with the moral I gleaned from Anthony Bourdain’s latest book, “Medium Raw”:  If need be, go hungry for six days out of the week, and spend all your money on one transcendent dining experience on the seventh.

(Notice any resemblance?)

Perhaps I am late to this life lesson.  I scoffed at Ella’s “five-star lifestyle,” but really, she was saying only that she preferred the remarkable, the memorable, and the precious over the mundane.  And, although Barbara’s day-to-day tastes are more modest, she also has tried to pry into my hard head the message that we must not be cheap men and women when we are presented with the occasional remarkable piece of clothing, remarkable chance to travel, or indeed remarkable friend.

Second, I learned something from Wally Shawn’s character in the play.  Jack is an admitted “lowbrow”…someone “who likes to take the easy way in the cultural sphere – the funny papers, pinups. You know, cheap entertainment.”  He pretends to be a highbrow – “you know, saving the Rembrandt from the burning building rather than the baby” – but finally embraces his true lowbrow tastes (including lavishing attention on a bag of pornography, which he refers to as his “Experiment in Privacy”).  Jack’s quest is to find his own definition of “remarkable.”

In other words, it is one thing to be willing to hold out for what I really want, rather than settling for what is merely easy.  But, it is another thing entirely to recognize what I want in the first place.

Like Jack (who confronts his own Lowbrowness after he leaves his wife and loses all of his friends who “can read John Donne”), and indeed like the Wallace Shawn character in “My Dinner With Andre” (who waxes elegiac about the pleasure of finding that no roaches are swimming in last night’s cup of coffee), I will soon need to ask myself the hard questions about what makes me happy.

Wise people like Barbara have a finely-tuned instinct for happiness:  For her, it’s family, beauty, deeply creative work and a successful rhubarb pie.  But, I’ve never really considered what makes me happy.  Oddly, it’s never been important to me.  I spend hundreds of hours organizing concerts (and, before that, threw myself into community theater and songwriting) :  Does that mean that my happiness is in creating entertainment?  I get an undeniable thrill from bicycling across gorgeous landscapes:  Should I seek out more adventure travel?  And, is my lowbrow enjoyment of diners, motels, reality television, Lee Childs potboilers, folk music, and Rutt’s Hut deep-fried hot dogs real happiness, or just my Cheap Manliness?

Given my current plan to downscale my work life in about four years, it’s time to ponder the Remarkable (no matter how unremarkable), and my own happiness.  I’ll consider this my own Experiment in Privacy.

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September 3, 2013 · 9:26 am

What We (Don’t) Talk About When We (Don’t) Talk About Race

I don’t like to write about things that everyone else is already discussing.  The recent constant discussions of race, however, are mostly interesting in what they don’t say.  Unless that silence is broken, we are missing yet another opportunity to wrestle intelligently with this issue.

Race is a damned ticklish issue.  It is a cauldron of dehumanization, class conflict, fear, oppression, and mutual ghettoization.  It’s no surprise that otherwise-fearless thinkers stay away from this issue, since almost any statement is potentially inflammatory or, at the least, insensitive and wrong.

What we get instead are non-discussions of race.  We get knee-jerk outrage that racism still exists.  (Did that sad-sack neighborhood vigilante unfairly assume that every black teenager is a criminal?  Let’s put him on the pillory and congratulate ourselves that such medieval thinking exists only among a few rednecks living in dogtrot shacks, shall we?).  We get sanitized courthouse commentary — hell, we got an entire second-degree-murder trial — in which the issue of race is carefully avoided.  It is as if we fear that if we look too long at this issue, we’ll become pillars of salt, white and black.

An Internet meme recently buzzed past, in which an Episcopal bishop is credited with saying, “I want to live in a world where George Zimmerman offered Trayvon Martin a ride home to get him out of the rain that night.”  Jesus H. Tap-Dancing Christ On A Cross, Bishop.  Every person who has forwarded this meme down the line is basically looking down primly from a moral high ground at the unfortunate deluded few whose hearts, heavy with hatred, can be lightened only by the Rapture.  ’cause, we sure aren’t living in that world now; and, dreaming of The Rainbow Connection isn’t likely to get us there anytime soon.

So, what is it that we’re not talking about when we don’t talk about race?

Example One:  At the Florida trial, the victim’s friend Rachel Jeantel testified that the victim had told her that he was being followed by a “creepy-ass cracker.”  For a moment at least, the issue of racial distrust and fear was a part of the trial.  And then, the curtains closed.  The witness swore on cross-examination that there was nothing racial about the term “cracker.”  Partisans filled the yammering Internet with gotcha comments, arguing that the scales were now balanced because the dead kid had used the word “cracker” before he was shot through the heart.  It’s OK…EVERYBODY’S a racist!  No harm, no foul!

No one, it seems, wanted to discuss the uncomfortable significance of a black teenager feeling nervous about being followed by a “cracker.”  No one wanted to talk about the experience of a black kid as a sometimes resident of “The Retreat At Twin Lakes,” a formerly-all-white gated community where a rash of petty crime was being blamed on the few black residents.  This is Sanford, Florida, where in 1946 Jackie Robinson and his Dodgers farm team were confronted by Klan members, where the mayor ordered Robinson not to play, and where Robinson had to leave town in the middle of the night to avoid violence.  You bet it’s significant that the man following Trayvon Martin around the Retreat At Twin Lakes was a creepy cracker.  But, that’s something it seems we don’t care to talk about.

Example Two:  Two Washington Post columnists have become lightning rods in the past week, for writing about the fear and mistrust that middle-class whites might have when encountering young black men.  On July 15,  Richard Cohen’s column invited politicians to “own up to the painful complexity of the problem and acknowledge the widespread fear of crime committed by young black males,” whom he said are “understandably suspected” of being criminals because they are overwhelmingly the people who are arrested for committing crimes.  (Some years earlier, Cohen had defended D.C. jewelers who locked black window-shoppers out of their stores because, “especially in cities like Washington and New York, the menace comes from young black males. Both blacks and whites believe those young black males are the ones most likely to bop them over the head”).  The next day, columnist Kathleen Parker wrote that it is only “human nature” and “common sense,” not racism, to be wary of young black men if young black men have been committing crimes in your apartment complex.

These two columns have produced a shitstorm of malevolence.  Everyone, it seems, believes themselves to be too smart and pure of heart to give in to this sort of “human nature.”  Everyone, it seems, knows that what Cohen and Parker wrote is misanthropic racism.  And yet, if that were true, then the Bishop’s dreamy offer-a-ride-home world has already come.  The fact is, that world hasn’t come.  In the screwed-up real world, many white people cross the street nervously when they see a group of young black men.  They carry deep misgivings, stereotypes, and fears, which are so socially unacceptable that they are never aired and therefore are never dispelled.  It is truly the hate that dare not speak its name.

So, here’s the thing.  As long as our response to race is a glib “ebony and ivory together in perfect harmony”…as long as we choose to tell the tall tale that we live in a colorblind society rather than discuss the truth of racial fear and mistrust…as long as we rely on saccharine memes about George Zimmerman offering Trayvon Martin a Coke and a smile…then we will never have a meaningful discussion of race.  We certainly aren’t having one now.


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July 18, 2013 · 5:13 pm

My Old Man

Father’s Day is set appropriately in mid-June, that tail end of Spring lousy with baseball, beer, and boozy screen-porch sentimentality.  Everyone, it seemed, was jostling last month to deliver an encomium to his Dear Old Dad.  I, though, am a wallflower at that orgy.  I have nothing at all to say about the wonders of growing up with a Pop, or even about the sadness of losing one.  My father, y’see, chose to go 1500 miles away and to pretend that I don’t exist.

If you listen to Steve Goodman’s brilliant song “My Old Man” or read this week’s Richard Ford essay “The Song Of The Suburbs,” you’ll get the impression that growing up with a father produces a lifetime of stories.  Not true for me.  Because my dad left when I was seven, I have barely a cocktail-party anecdote.

I remember him mostly as a self-invented “character”:  A jocular, impenetrable, and always larger-than-life fellow who cultivated a drily-amused plummy voice, a jazz hipster wardrobe, and an inventory of scripted “bits” that spared him from any sort of authentic connection to other people.  I’m sure that women (and apparently there were several during his marriage to my mom) saw him as charming, dangerous within acceptable limits, and maddeningly aloof.  My impression is that he lived his life as though rules did not apply to him, which (as we know from “Mad Men”) can be irresistible.

There is no way that my parents’ marriage was ever going to last.  She married him for the exact reasons that he was not marriage material:  He was rakish, unpredictable, and spontaneous.  She was ostentatious, self-absorbed, and brittle.  Their marriage must have felt like the closing act of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (or Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, or hell, anything starring Elizabeth Taylor after National Velvet).  For as long as they could live the edgy life, taking daring cross-country drives chasing nonexistent jobs or mingling in the nightclub culture of Batista-era Miami Beach or working as a bandleader at the Borscht-Belt Catskills hotels, there was enough bubbly high octane in their marriage to keep it going.  But, by the time Fidel took power, they had two babies and a suburban apartment in New Jersey.  The party was over.  After a series of false starts, my old man left for good.

There is nothing remarkable about parents getting divorced.  The unusual part of this story is that my father left and never looked back.  He didn’t simply disappear, as fathers sometimes do.  He moved in with and married his girlfriend, left for Oklahoma and, for almost fifty years, has simply chosen not to acknowledge my existence.

I’ve always known my dad’s address and his telephone number, and he’s always known mine.   Perhaps five times in those fifty years, I’ve been in the Oklahoma area and have gone to visit him.  Every time, he’s been studiously polite and thoughtful, the way you’d be if a business associate came calling.  He takes me to dinner, introduces me to his wife’s family, gives me little gifts to take away with me.  And, every time, after he drops me at the airport and promises to stay in touch, he forgets that I ever existed.

I thought of my dad on the day George Carlin died, June 2008.  George’s  on-stage voice, with its carefully-cultivated tone of knowing bemusement (“Why is it that someone going slower than you is an idiot, but someone going faster than you is a maniac?”),  reminded me of my father’s way of talking.   So, after maybe five years of silence, I called him.  I told him my latest news, which produced no reaction at all.  I asked him about his life, which elicited one-word responses.  After a short and awkward call, we hung up and he promised to send me his email address.  He never did.  He has not contacted me in the five years since then.

My old man is 83 next month.  I don’t expect I’ll ever speak to him again.  So, what have I learned from a lifetime of fatherlessness?

It would be too easy to talk about how I never learned how to be a man because I never had a father.  I do suspect that boys watch their dads closely, and adopt or reject their fathers’ values and manner.  So, it’s true that I never watched my Dad avoid a brawl, or copied my Dad’s way of shaking hands, or had anyone to teach me how to tie a Windsor knot.  But, if that is the only effect of fatherlessness, it’s awfully easy to overcome.  We parentless kids know full well that we haven’t learned the ways of the world.  We become as intensely observant as someone who’s lost his sight or hearing.  And, we learn.  It’s not as though I’ve gone through life with my neckties untied.

No, the lasting effect of my fatherlessness is the same as the lasting effect of my motherlessness.  When a parent chooses not to be a parent (or is an alcoholic, or mentally ill), the only way that the child can hold his world together is to excuse the parent and blame himself.  To blame the parent means accepting that the parent can’t be relied on; that the child is completely on his own; and that all that is left is anger and despair.  I found it far easier to believe that my parents were blameless, and that they chose not to parent me because I was so unlovable as to be not worth parenting.

Over a half-century, I’ve learned how to shake hands and tie a Windsor knot.  I’ve mostly gotten over my lifelong conviction that I must be unworthy of love (and of the parentless kid’s constant sense of cluelessness in social situations).  But, most of all, after many decades, I’ve given up on contacting my old man and believing that I can convince him to be my parent.  And that is the most important Father’s Day gift of all.

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July 12, 2013 · 5:14 pm

From Behind the Cigar: Five Things Uncle Sol Knows About Running A Concert Series

My last post , about the challenges of making it as an acoustic singer/songwriter, got read a lot.  So, rather than going back to writing about my marriage, religion, battling football mascots and Wallace Shawn’s penis, I’m giving Solly one more turn on his bully pulpit.   After fourteen years as a concert presenter, here are five things your Uncle Sol has figured out.

Who the heck is Sol to blow hot air about concert presenting?  Look: Don Kirshner I ain’t.  But, then, Don Kirshner never had to figure out how to draw a crowd to a folk music concert in a rented suburban church, with a minuscule budget and a staff of aging volunteers.  So, listen up!

Here’s my story.  Fourteen years ago I got the “Hey kids!  Let’s put on a show!” bug.  I started by taking over a local folk series in a 100-seat converted schoolhouse.  Now, our series is in a 450-seat venue and we sell out about 3/4 of our concerts, with a 9,000-person mailing list and 600 multi-show subscribers.  How’d that happen?  Well, it doesn’t hurt to be in a crowded, wealthy, entertainment-hungry suburb.  But, dumb luck isn’t the whole story.  Here, then, are  five things your Uncle Sol has learned about running a concert series.  Care for a cigar?

1.  You Don’t Know Shit (But, You Can Learn)

Admit this to yourself:  You know the music you like, but you don’t know what’s going to succeed in your space.  You can listen to piles of CDs, stay up all night at music conference “guerilla showcases,” hear that “special something” in that gal who plays the ukulele…but unless Rosanne Cash is asking to play your church basement coffeehouse, you have no idea which new artists are going to sell tickets for you.  Neither do I.

Thankfully, there is a solution to this lack-of-shit-knowingness: Hard work.

Get on the mailing lists of all the venues you respect, and watch who they’re booking (take note of who’s selling out).  Subscribe to SingOut! (please…they need us now more than ever, plus they pay old Solly to write their CD reviews), No Depression, Acoustic Live, and see who’s getting the buzz.  Ask your audience, over and over again, who they want to see (we do this by having every audience member fill out a questionnaire at every concert, then drawing two winners at random to get signed CDs from the performer).  Listen to the radio.

Once you’re intrigued by a particular artist, watch her live videos on YouTube.  Study her past and future tour schedule to see the kind of places she’s playing, the ticket prices, and also whether she’s overexposed in your area.  See if there are any concert reviews on line (taking note of any mentions of the “sparse crowd”).  See if her Web site includes active social networking and mentions a publicist.  Look up her attendance history on Pollstar (a coupla hundred bucks to subscribe, money well spent).  Track the timing of her next CD release if she gets good radio play.

Sure, you can book your artists the way some of my neighboring presenters do.  One books only performers she’s “discovered” at Folk Alliance conferences.  One books only artists who tickle his personal fancy (usually English harmony groups and virtuoso flatpicking guitarists) and only those he’s seen perform live.  One won’t book blues, zydeco, Klezmer, or anything else that’s not “his kind” of music.  Guess what?  These guys don’t sell tickets.

2.  Buy Low, Sell Low (and give the rest away)

Didja see the article in the Times Sunday Magazine today, about how people will spend hundreds of dollars to see the musical acts they crave?  Didja see any folk acts mentioned?  Nope.  Fact is, we folk presenters can succeed only by always giving a sucker an even break.

First, buy low.  Not for profit, as they say, is a tax status, not a business plan.  Focus on artists who have a good draw but don’t charge a premium for it.  Smart performers who like to stay busy (Christine Lavin, The Kennedys, Patty Larkin, Red Molly, Susan Werner…) will always fill your room at a reasonable guarantee.  But don’t be a Chazer, Bubbie: Give them a generous bonus (percentage) after your break-even point, so they have skin in the game and get a fair share of the door.  And if sales went really well, give them a little extra or a voucher for breakfast the next morning at their hotel.

Second, sell low.  Our market is price-sensitive.  F’rinstance, this weekend my local folk venue had a triple bill of “emerging” artists, priced at $27.  Too much, guys.  In our series, we charge $15-20 for an emerging artist, $25 to see a Tom Paxton or Richard Shindell, and a top price of $30 for a Marc Cohn or Nick Lowe.  No parking costs, no ticketing fees, no tax.  Listen to Solly:  giving value is a big part of our biz.

Third, give the rest away.  Figure out what else you can manage to give your audience.  We give free refreshments at intermission, we hand out mints to the audience as they leave (along with a quick personal thanks-for-coming to each audience member), and three times a year we swallow most of the costs and charge $10 admission to see emerging artists like David Wax Museum or Treasa Leveasseur.  As P.T. Barnum Guthrie once said, you’ll never go broke overestimating your audience’s love of a good bargain.

And, trust Solly:  You won’t go broke.  As Sam-boy Walton would say, you’re making it up on volume.  And, since “volume” in our biz means more people coming to your concerts, you’re going to be one happy boychick.

3.  There’s No Crying In Folk Music

A volunteer-run folk concert can be a fraught thing.  The performer is driving for hours, often not knowing how he’ll be treated once he arrives.  The volunteers are giving up prime weekend nights to work for the pure love of music (and an occasional free CD).  Your job is make everyone walk out happy.

So, here are Solly’s secrets to happiness:  Food, recognition, and community.

First, everybody eats!  In our series, everyone eats like Fershlugginer lumberjacks.  We put out a big communal dinner for the volunteers and performers to share.  They freakin’ LOVE that:  The performers will often mention the dinner during their sets, and the volunteers always call ahead of time to find out what’s on the menu.  We fill the green room with snacks.  THEN, all the volunteers go out to a diner after the show, on us.  Yes, this adds about $250 to our expenses, which might not be in your budget; but take it from Solly, a little bit of chow makes a big difference.  Anyone remember that concert presenter whose trademark was free banana pudding at every concert?

Second, don’t forget a little lagniappe.  Our volunteers get thank-you gifts, maybe some mail-order cakes or gift certificates, during our winter break.  Our performers get a little canvas bag filled with local artisanal foods to snack on during the long drive to the next gig.  Warning: you will get hugged for this.

Finally, it’s no fun unless you all get along.  So, we organize parties and concert outings for our volunteers.  Hey, it’s good to be part of the audience sometimes.

Didja ever hear the episode of This American Life, about the gift shop at the Smithsonian that kept losing cash and merchandise?  Turned out the volunteers were just taking whatever they wanted.  Their theory was that they were working for free, so they were entitled.  Moral?  Make your volunteers feel rewarded.  They deserve it.  And, they won’t steal your favorite coffee mug.

4.  Be Mister Cellophane

Okay, here’s where Solly gets to complain about his friends.  (Ya know I love ya, right?).

At one local folk venue, the volunteers distract the audience by constantly moving around the concert room.  At another, the sound crew chatters throughout the concert.  At one nearby venue, the presenter introduces the performer by putting on about five minutes of jokey schtick, including an interview of the artist; in another (which divides its evenings into two opener sets and two feature sets), there are long jokey emcee announcements before and after each Fershlugginer segment.  The presenter at one of my neighbor venues owns a specialty-food business and frequently uses his concerts, and his concert mailing list, to pitch his products.  Finally, MANY venues are run by presenters who are also performers, who book themselves to open most of the shows.

Don’t be those guys.  Like a baseball umpire or a good sound guy, if you’re doing your job right no one will notice you.  Keep the artist announcement down to two sentences.  Mingle amiably with your audience during intermission and ask how they’re enjoying the concert.  Be Mister Cellophane.

5.  They Like Us!  They Really Like Us! 

They say in  business school that it takes 8 times more effort to find a new customer than to keep an old one.  For us, that means making new audience members into “regulars.”

You know the basics.  Have a great sound system.  Create a comfortable and pleasant environment.  Book consistently incredible acts.  Don’t let anyone leave without signing up for the mailing list.

Here’s one more thing: Get your audience members invested in your concert series.  I see more and more series offering memberships:  For a nominal amount (say $100 for a season), patrons become “members,” and are entitled to perks like VIP seating or advance ticketing or freebies.  Then, when Saturday night comes around, they’re likely to choose to go to the place where they’ve put down some money for special treatment.  We now have six hundred members. Six.  Freaking.  Hundred.  Kinda handy when we have to fill another 100 seats for Cherish The Ladies, knowwhattimean?

Also, I run an online group called “The Booking Club.”  The members are our series’ oldest and most loyal patrons.  When a new booking opportunity comes up, I post a message to the Club, asking for their opinions.  It’s a great help to me, and it makes every member of the Club feel invested in the series and in the bookings they recommended.  By the way, it’s amazing how many shows your audience members see, and how much knowledge they have.  Tap that, Bubbie.

Okay.  As they say in show business, always leave ’em wanting more.  Solly, out.


Filed under concert presenting, music, singer songwriter, Uncategorized, working musician

Is That You, ASSSes (Acoustic Solo Singer Songwriters)? It’s Me, Uncle Sol.

Please, call me Sol.  I book the talent for a large and busy acoustic-music concert series, have a gig writing music reviews for a major folk-music magazine, attend the big music conferences, and sit like a freakin’ pasha judging hundreds of artists for music-conference showcase competitions.  In other words, in our very small world of acoustic music, I’ve heard a B-minor-diminished chord or two.  If you are an Acoustic Solo Singer Songwriter (or as one of my talent-booking colleagues puts it, an ASSS), I’d like you to sit back and listen to your Uncle Solly.  I’ve got some things to say.

Solly’s First AdviceYou’re A Damned Hard Sell

Look.  ASSSes are a hard sell to audiences.  This is not your fault.  Do you remember the scene from “Animal House,” where Stephen Bishop gets his acoustic guitar smashed by John Belushi after he starts to sing a folk song?  No one ever asked, “why is that funny”?

Why is it hell to try to make it as an acoustic singer/songwriter?  For one thing, EVERYONE YOU KNOW, AND HIS BROTHER, HIS SISTER, AND HIS COCKER SPANIEL  IS ALSO AN ACOUSTIC SINGER/SONGWRITER.  They jam the open mics in local coffee shops.  They break out their Yamaha acoustics at family gatherings.  A few years ago, an organization called Just Plain Folks held a songwriting competition.  560,000 songwriters submitted songs.  Five. Hundred. Sixty. Freaking. Thousand.

As Kris Kristofferson would say, Blame It On The Stones (and on the Beatles).  Nearly everyone who was old enough to form an “E” chord picked up a guitar Back In The Day and found out how easy is it to strum some chords and sing along.  From there, the urge to write songs was irresistible.  Comes the era of home-made CDs, and we’ve got trouble, right here in ASSS City.  Because that means that hundreds of thousands of our fellow ‘boomers and gen-x-ers are making mountains of music, often without any particular aptitude or having honed their chops on song structure, narrative, harmony, or style.

I remember once being at a workshop for guitarists, given by the great Jack Williams.  He turned to the thirty or so singer/songwriters in the group and asked for anyone to play by ear the first notes of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.  Not only did no one do it; no one was willing even to try.  Brother, if acoustic songwriters don’t know intervals and scales, you can bet the songs they write won’t have harmonic tension, dissonances, meaningful structure, or melodic interest.  Just sayin’.

Here’s another reason why an ASSS is a hard sell.  The Public has come to fear and loathe any acoustic singer/songwriter they don’t know.  Partly, this is because there’s so much mediocre acoustic music out there, and folks are deathly afraid they’ll be stuck in their seats, applauding meekly while being bored silly.  Partly, this is because it’s really damned hard to command an audience with nothing but a voice, an acoustic guitar, and some folksy patter.  Not that there aren’t geniuses who can capture an audience with a few vibrating strings, like Jake Shimobokuro or Dave Matthews or Chris Smither.  Or maybe you.  But, trust Solly on this…the public will not take the chance that Joe No-Name at the Hungry Bean Café will hold their interest, because the odds are stacked so heavily against it.

Speaking of Joe No-Name, one more reason you’re a hard sell is that name that Mama gave you.  A million singer/songwriters, each going by her own hard-to-remember first and last names.  Good for you if you were born Peyton Tochterman or Brian Gundersdorf; but how’s the public supposed to remember they heard a catchy ditty from Diana Jones or John Flynn?  Look:  Just consider how journeyman songwriters have suddenly become bookable by calling themselves The Tallest Man On Earth or The Sea The Sea or The Copper Ponies or such.  Okay?  Just humor me on this.

Solly’s Second Advice: This Is A Hell Of A “Business”

Picture an aging folkie, dragging his weary ass from his demanding day job to a dim church basement, where he’s failed to draw even a double-digit crowd to his coffeehouse to hear an acoustic singer/songwriter.  As he packs up the last uneaten slice of Sara Lee pound cake, you ask when he’s going to call it quits.  And, of course, he says, “What? And give up show business?”

Acoustic-music presenters are unfailingly generous-hearted big spirits, and their (usually unpaid) labors of love keep the music going.  But, we’re talking honestly here, right?  Most of them don’t know from business.  That’s a problem for you.

Take it from Solly.  When it comes to creating a concert series, you can never put in enough time.  Researching and booking the right artists, going to the music conferences, drafting press releases and online calendar listings, doing community outreach, creating posters, patron hand-holding, ticketing, special events, problem-solving, special requests, volunteer-wrangling, tech advancing, green room snack-buying, hospitality advancing, bookkeeping, mail list grooming, radio and newspaper schmoozing, insurance, PROs, taking out the garbage and turning off the lights…lemme sit down, your Uncle Solly’s getting tired just thinking about it.

Unfortunately, for most presenters, something’s gotta give.  And that affects you.  Chances are, it’ll take a year and dozens of unanswered emails for you to get booked, and after all that effort the gig is barely promoted and the joint is an unappealing church basement and you wind up with a small audience and a smaller fee.  Yet, in our biz this is considered to be a primo “listening room” booking.

@[100000295729172:2048:Christine DeLeon] performing her Great Folk Scare at a packed songwriter's workshop at The Folk The Folk @[33773051951:274:The Folk Project (New Jersey)] festival. Musicians everywhere.

Solly’s Third Advice: Talent Will Out

Okay, enough bad news, bubbaleh.  You may be asking, “So how can I ever build a career when the decks are stacked against unknown singer/songwriters?”  To this, there is an answer:  In these days of the long tail, talent will out.

You know this “long tail” idea, right?  Back when we were burning incense in our dorm rooms, a musician got known either by getting a record contract and radio play or by doing nonstop live shows in small rooms.  Mostly, everyone bought the same popular albums.  You were either The Who, or you were just, who? Then came the Internet, home-made CDs, iTunes, YouTube, and social media.  Now, instead of Dylan selling 100,000 albums, a hundred artists sell 1000 albums each.  That’s the long tail.

With this long tail, I can guarantee you, talent will out.  If you are making good music and putting it where it can be heard, your music will get discovered, people will become fans, fans will feel invested in your music and tell their friends, your songs will get downloaded, and presenters will take notice.  Anyone who says, “I can’t get work until I’m known, and I can’t get known unless I work” is either living in the past or hasn’t paid her WiFi bill.

Of course, there’s success and then there’s Success.  When I think of singer/songwriters, I think of college basketball players.  OK, just go with me here. When I watch a college game, I’m amazed at how talented the players are.  And yet, I know that only a very few of them will make it into the NBA.  Something incredible and undefinable separates the true stars from merely very talented.  The players that don’t make the pros can continue to play great ball, but on another level, like the semi-pro clubs.

Et tu, singer/songwriters.  There is always the chance that you are the next Mumfords, John Mayer, or Josh Ritter.  If so, don’t forget your Uncle Solly on your way up.  If not, though, there is a clear and well-worn path to solid, though modest, long-tail success as an acoustic performer.

I’m thinking of the incredibly talented Slaid Cleaves.  Do you ever look at the annual Parade Magazine issue called “What People Earn”?  I won’t ask.  I know you do, just like I do.  A few years back, I was surprised to see Slaid as one of the folks on the magazine cover, with the text “Slaid Cleaves.  Singer/Songwriter.  $30,000/year.”  I’m sure Slaid does much better now, but the point is, he’s one of the many hundreds of working singer/songwriters who are making an okay living by being astoundingly talented, hardworking, and smart about their careers.  (Check out Slaid’s “Advice To A Young Musician,” and while you’re there, show him some love and preorder his new CD).  Jamie Anderson has make a living as a touring musician for 20 years by supplementing her music income with private music lessons and freelance writing.   Kim and Reggie Harris play concerts in the evening and do workshops and school programs in the afternoons.  Nick Annis tours with his tools and does handyman work.

Point is:  A talented singer/songwriter will get recognition.  A hard-working, smart, AND talented singer/songwriter can make a living at music, and maybe even a great living.  But I’m being honest with you here: if you’ve given it all you’ve got, and your career is not getting off the ground, chances are it’s not gonna happen.


Solly’s Last Advice:  Isn’t That A Party?

If you’re still awake, you’ve got my drift:  This is a gol-darned hard business, and fame and fortune aren’t likely.  But, there’s every opportunity for a talented ASSS to be a working musician.  My last piece of advice is that there’s more to the working musician’s life than just driving thousands of miles for hundreds of dollars.

Of course, there’s the time on stage.  I’m guessing that you love that part.  Back when I was a performing songwriter, I loved writing songs but I hated being on stage…to me, performing was always like taking a final exam:  It might go well, it might go badly, but all in all I’d rather not be taking the exam at all.  You, though, love this stuff.

Second, working musicians are part of a rich and warm-hearted community.  In every music hot spot from Nashville to Northampton, performers know each other, make music together, and do what they can to support each other.  Try saying the same about your local bar association.

I don’t think it’s ever easy.  Because I run a large concert venue (by folk standards….Madison Square Garden it ain’t), a lot of the artists I present are household names, with top-ten hits and big awards.  Almost all of them are still working their butts off to make a living at music.  But, they’re doing it.  And, mostly, they’re loving it.  Chances are, you can, too.  Trust your Uncle Solly on that.  Okay?



May 27, 2013 · 3:04 pm