Window on the World
Music is my window into the world. The world I can see and touch and taste, and the world beyond. There are other windows, of course, but music, and especially the songs I write are the way I make contact and also let others inside. This comes naturally as the son of Pentecostal preachers, Dad mostly doing the talking, Mom playing the piano, organ, and accordion, both of them singing. It was in church in North Long Beach, California that I first heard the rhythm, harmonies and words that reached for a place beyond. Andre Crouch as a young man came to sing and play with the Teen Challenge Addicts Choir or his quartet, The Disciples. At the same time it was in the church parking lot in 1965 that I first heard Bob Dylan, imploring though some teenager’s open car windows, “How does it feel, to be on your own . . . like a rolling stone?” I was 12 years old.
Everyone in our house had to learn an instrument. I started on the piano, about age 6 or 7. Mom was the teacher. She was nice but I preferred going outside to play. Mom also got me singing duets at church with my brother, three years my senior. I’m the youngest of five sons. Evan, the oldest, could play the piano like Jerry Lee Lewis. Later I took up the trumpet but stopped after the 8th grade. One day in the lunch yard I saw Mike Miller playing the guitar and singing a song he wrote. Mike was into Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan but also Jimi Hendrix and Black Sabbath. Later when I learned to play the guitar I formed my first acoustic band with him. I called it Reborn.
When I was 15 I thought it was too late to start on the guitar because so many of the good guitar players had started when they were very young, seven or eight years old. (Note to everybody: It’s never too late). So I picked up the harmonica. I learned to play country and blues licks. After about six months, I grew tired of not being able to play and sing at the same time, so I got a guitar for 50 bucks. I had a job and paid for it myself. The name on it said Orlando. I was transfixed. I started learning chords and practiced changing them over and over again until I could play in time. I played for hours and hours, sometimes pressing my ear to the upper bout of the guitar, as if to get inside the guitar. I couldn’t get deep enough into those ringing tones of wood and steel. Many nights I would play until I was so tired I lay on the bed, strumming chords until I fell asleep. It was 1970 and I was 16.
As soon as I knew three chords I started writing songs. Right about then I discovered Calvary Chapel, the first one in Costa Mesa, California. I saw the band Love Song. In the little chapel they played acoustic guitars and talked about the songs they had written. I must be a visual learner because I watched and listened, and I thought, I can do that.
I never took guitar lessons, but I’ve had hundreds of teachers. Other guitar players. You hear and watch, ask questions, copy and embellish, beg, borrow and steal from every player you meet. My friend Mike was one of the first. One on the best pieces of advice he gave was this: You should learn a whole song, start to finish, because once you start playing people will ask you to play a song, and if you just know lots of bits and pieces you won’t be able to do it. Simple but powerful wisdom. Do one thing, slowly, completely. Put something whole into the world. Mike also showed me how to flat pick, with little bass runs between chords and how to do a hammer-on. He showed me how to finger pick with the Travis roll. He had a nice touch. The hands didn’t just bang on the guitar like it was a foreign object to attack, but fingers and strings merged to pull out the right timing and volume, whatever the song wanted. There was a lot of banging on the guitars too. I for one broke a lot of strings. Did I say we were 16?
We started our band. There were four of us—two acoustic guitars, a bass guitar and recorder. Three of us sang and we tried to stack our harmonies like Crosby Stills & Nash. By the summer of 1971 we were playing 2-3 days a week.
Then I went to Evangel College in Springfield, Missouri. I dropped out mid-year, spent nearly three years living in Christian communities, socked away with the Bible. Along the way I formed two other bands, got married to Debbie, went back to college, started making babies, went to Seminary for two years and came out the other end with an MA in Theology, made a second baby, started a Ph.D. program in Religion/Social Ethics at USC, finished it 10 years later. I wrote about Kurt Vonnegut – Morals and Irreligion: the Novelist as Social Ethicist. My dissertation committee, which included the novelist TC Boyle, bought it. In the meantime, we made a third baby, I built a house, then did that again. And then again and again and again.
Always the songs let me process it all—the coming of age, the forming and reforming of my mind, making and keeping a family. How does it feel? How does it feel to rearrange your mental universe, to be a wanderer, both physically and intellectually? How does it feel to build a house, to lose a friend, to make amends? How does it feel to watch your country march off to a useless war, to see prejudice and hatred preached in the name of religion? I put it in songs.
And then one day someone asks you if you have a CD (It only takes one). In 1999 I released Between. I was between so much then. Still am, truth be told. So you put it out there in the world, on CD Baby, iTunes, at your gigs. You send it to Folk DJs. They play it on the radio. And one day someone tells you your song, “Between a Smile and a Tear” is the theme of their life. Someone else says it’s one of their cancer recovery songs. Others request “This Old House,” and sing the words back to you. And then Presto! – songs you wrote because you could not help it, because you needed a way to see what the eye cannot see, to say what the words alone cannot say, have touched someone else and you have made human contact as tangible as hammer and nail.
Other people’s songs I heard along the way have done that to me, songs we all heard together. Songs by Paul Simon, Randy Newman, Tom Waits, Neil Young, Shawn Colvin, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, John Lennon, Bob Dylan, John Prine, John Fogerty, John K. Samson, Carole King, Jackson Browne, Marvin Gaye, Phoebe Snow, John Hiatt, Harry Chapin, Peter Mayer, Elliot Smith, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Marley.
One of the nicest things anyone has ever said about my music is, “What I like about your songs is there’s room to move around in them.” The words let you inside, but they don’t tell you exactly what to think or how to feel. I like the way it feels when I see someone in the audience completely locked into the moment of a sung lyric.
Sometimes the best way to process anything is just to laugh at it. I’ve done a lot of that in songs too.
One Light Many Windows is my third album and it is another labor of love. I wish everyone could hear “Abraham’s Light” right now. The more I read about Lincoln, the more impressed I am with his ability to see deeply through his own melancholic soul into the tragic and comic sides of the human drama and in the end find a hopeful expression. We need that now.
My music is acoustic to the core, bending and blending American roots genres of folk, blues, jazz, rock and gospel—all the soulful stuff that has seeped under my skin over the years. On the latest album several splendid players added their touch on mandolin, fiddle, upright and electric bass, drums, banjo, penny whistle, cornet, piano, and percussion.
I’m proud of all the songs. “One Light Many Windows” has a world music feel with lots of space to move around in sonically and lyrically. “The Girl with the Long Brown Hair” is a personal love story 40 years in the making, less than four minutes long. “Procrastination Blues,” has a New Orleans vibe and partly explains why it took me eight years to release another album. Have a listen and let me know what you think.