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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.

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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.

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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?

 

48 Comments

May 27, 2013 · 3:04 pm

Hubbard, Hagiography, Hitchens and “Humprey” (Two Lessons of Scientology)

Joseph Smith was a huckster who was making a living using “seer stones” to hunt for buried treasure when he claimed that God had called him to restore the Church of Jesus Christ.  He announced that the Angel Moroni had led him to 1400-year-old golden plates, which he read using magic spectacles and translated (mostly into passages from the King James Bible and from a religious book that he had read a year or two earlier) as the “Book of Mormon.”  He then focused on bedding a string of teenaged girls, which he justified by another vision, in which God revealed to him that men should have multiple wives, and that his existing wife would be “destroyed” if she did not accept it.

Joseph Smith is now revered as a Prophet.  To this day, church members will fervently dispute that he was ever arrested for fraud, forced himself onto a string of child brides, or boasted that he had translated a set of mundane Egyptian parchments into the Book of Abraham.

Elijah Muhammad, after doing away with his predecessor Wallace Fard, grew the flock by announcing that the black race had been formed 74 trillion years ago, and even though a “big head scientist” named Mr. Yakub had created the “devil” white race 6000 years ago, their six-millenium reign over blacks would end in 1984.  He then focused on violently putting down his rivals, diverting millions of dollars intended for the needy to himself, enjoying his private jet and $150,000 jewel-studded fez, and producing at least 13 illegitimate children through at least seven mistresses, many of them young church members.

Prophet Elijah Muhammad now sits exalted at the right hand of God, according to the Nation of Islam.

Despite this well-worn story, the history of Scientology, told in the new book “Going Clear,” is fascinating, and makes me think of hagiography, of Hitchens, and of “Humprey” Bogart.

According to “Going Clear,” L. Ron Hubbard was a born huckster, who lied lavishly and compulsively about his childhood, his war record, his travels, and his accomplishments.  He falsely claimed that he grew up on the Montana ranch of his wealthy cattleman grandfather (actually it was a townhouse, and his grandfather was a working-class veterinarian); that he became a blood brother of the Blackfeet tribe at age six (nope); that he studied nuclear physics while getting his engineering degree (never studied physics, and dropped out of college as a result of poor grades); was one of the country’s most outstanding pilots (actually, he never flew an airplane and qualified only to fly gliders); was a world explorer and adventurer (nope); was a war hero who was wounded repeatedly in combat (actually, he was a substandard serviceman, never saw combat, and was hospitalized for ulcers and conjunctivitis).  And, it goes on and on, including decades of lies about the accomplishments of Scientology, the religion he founded.

Hubbard announced that he had discovered that all humans are inhabited by “thetans,” disembodied spirits that were released 75 million years ago when billions of people were brought to Earth and then blown up with hydrogen bombs by Xenu, the tyrant ruler of the Galactic Confederacy.  Hubbard sold a method to remove these thetans through the use of a sort of self-psychotherapy aided by galvanic skin response machines, which developed into the religion of Scientology.  Ron did not claim to be divine, but he did claim enlightenment and a host of supernatural powers, none of which seemed to have saved him from constant ill health, paranoia, petty vindictiveness, or enormous greed.

File:L-ron-hubbard.jpg

And yet, to this day Scientologists will forge documents, cultivate false witnesses, and persecute anyone who disputes the exalted version of Hubbard’s life story.  To the Church, Hubbard was a child prodigy, a world explorer, pilot, horseman, and adventurer, and a war hero.

Which makes me wonder, is hagiography itself a bad thing?

This is where Humprey comes in.  Prominently on the desk of my former boss is a framed picture of Humphrey Bogart.  He bought it for $1 at a garage sale, believing he’d found gold because the photograph was hand-signed by the star.  It was only later that he noticed that the photo was signed “Humprey” Bogart.  Yet, he loves that little forgery, and I love that he loves it.  I love that he has made the choice to treasure this flawed object, not only despite its flaws, but because of them.

Which reminds me of one of the many low points in my long years of dating.  I was on a first date with a woman who was a religious Jew.  At the time, I was feeling pretty cocky about Biblical history, having read a couple of books that used archaeology, historical records, and logic to show that most of the Bible stories could not have been true, and that the Torah and historical books of the Old Testament were likely written by King Josiah in the 6th Century BCE as a polemic to support his religious reforms (and to show that his tribe, Judah, was favored by God over the tribe of Israel).  Over what should have been a friendly drink, I therefore bull-headedly raised the topic of Jewish faith in light of the “fact” that the Bible stories are untrue.  Before shaking my hand goodbye forever, this poor woman answered me simply: It doesn’t matter if it’s true.  It is what we choose to believe in.  The Bible was her “Humprey” Bogart.

Ron Hubbard’s lifetime of whoppers, then, do not sour me on Scientology.  Followers believe in a different Ron Hubbard, one who walked this Earth in big boots, swashbuckling and healing and uplifting.  Does it really matter that this Ron Hubbard never existed?

However, the rest of Scientology, as described in “Going Clear,” is not so excusable.  As Hubbard notoriously said, “If a man really wants to make a million dollars, the best way would be to start his own religion.”  He (and his successor, David Miscavige) lived in unspeakable luxury while squirreling hundreds of millions of dollars into personal overseas bank accounts.  Control of church members was paramount, with followers being belittled, beaten, imprisoned, forced to undergo abortions and to cut off ties to nonbelievers, and to relinquish their worldly goods to the church.  Deserters were hunted down, and there is at least the suggestion that some were murdered.  To protect their power, church elders tirelessly persecuted all critics, including journalists, government officials, and former members who spoke out against the church.  Scientology’s practice was to file thousands of frivolous lawsuits against its opponents, and to burglarize government offices to remove files relating to investigations of the church.  Insiders lived in fear of being demoted, punished by solitary confinement, and (particularly during the reign of the rage-filled and mercurial Miscavige) beaten.

This brings me to Hitchens.  I’ve written before about “God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything,” which I consider to be a delightful lark by a brilliant polemicist who knew full well that he was just toying with ideas about religion.  The story of L. Ron Hubbard (as well as the stories of Joseph Smith, Elijah Muhammad, the Catholic church, radical Islam, and so many other religions and religious leaders) proves again that Hitchens had it backward.  It is not the case that “Religion Poisons Everything.”  The fact is that humans poison religion.  From the Salem Witch Trials, to “religious” tribal/class wars as in Northern Ireland and Sudan, to religious despots like Ron Hubbard, human greed, lust for power, misogyny, and tribalism tend to corrupt religious leaders and the religions they lead.  It is unfortunate that those very human flaws tend to overpower actual religious values, and that people who are hungry for religious experience and community can be so easily misled by those very flawed humans.

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Filed under identity politics, philosophy, religion, Uncategorized