Monday, July 24, 2006

Weird Gigs: Part 1

I'm going to interrupt the story of my family's move to California in order to pull a few examples out of the "weird gigs" bag. A gig qualifies as weird if something out of the ordinary occurs, surrounds or pervades the natural course of events. Now, gigs in general are by definition already pre-loaded with circumstances that can tend toward weirdness so I try to cull the ones that offer something more than just "there was a big fat chick in the front row" as a qualification.

I was Musical Director for Gary Puckett (yes, that Gary Puckett) and, as we were out on a string of one-nighters, the office had booked a few "fill-in" dates to cover expenses. You never really knew what to expect on these dates. Usually they were rock clubs in smaller towns and could be quite well attended. But every once in a while it could be the type of show that made us look at each other as if to tacitly promise that what just happened would never be mentioned again.

On this occasion, we found ourselves in San Leandro, California. The theater was one of those mission-like auditoriums that work really well for chamber music, barbershop quartets, or SAT testing. This type of theater, and there's one in every town in california, puts the saying "you can hear a pin drop" into extreme focus. My first shudder came as we neared the back entrance for sound check and I saw two guys in salmon jumpsuits setting up what looked like a circular chain-link dog pen. I don't remember the exact name on the truck but let's just say it said something like "Acme Trained Dog Company". We were opening for a dog act fer chrissakes! This was going to be a long frigging day!

One look inside and our sound man turned to us and said, "Look, fuck it, it's not going to sound good...period, no matter what you do, no matter what I do, no matter what those goddamn poodles do. So let's not piss these people off until we hit the stage." Agreed all around. Incidentally, there were three poodles, they were the big boingy kind and all of them white. Of the three, two were always trying to hump and one was always shitting in that hump-back, shaky-legged way that only a smart-ass white poodle with two guys in salmon jumpsuits cleaning up after him can do.they all looked exactly the same so I hope that they were trading off between the humping and shitting.

Backstage, I got the details. This was a variety show for some sort of charity and our office had decided that it would be fun for us to spend the day in this circus rather that take a day off in San Francisco. Yeah! We decided to hang out in the dressing room and drink until we either had to play or the governor called the backstage telephone with a stay. The call never came.

Our part of the show was dismal but we had invoked road rule 1a, namely, "It never happened." The acoustics in that barn were such that i'm certain that the snare drum is still reverberating in some corner of that room twenty years later. The dogs were a big hit though. It was, after all, a variety show and there were a ton of kids in the audience. I had thought that they would have humped and shitted themselves into some sort of civilized state before they hit the stage but I have an abiding respect for the stamina...and capacity of crazy white poodles as a result of what I saw on stage that evening. Between the hind-leg walking with a beach ball on the nose and the fire hoop jumping and the shaky-legged shitting at the stage apron and the crazed squeal of the kids as the poodles humped their way about the stage...Ah, I was actually glad to be there.

But then came he weird part. Yep, it got even better, at least for me. On the bill that night was a ventriloquist. I recognized him from having seen his act on TV. After his act (which was the usual talking while pretending to drink water, and the dummy making a dummy out of the ventriloquist), some kids in wheelchairs were brought backstage to meet him and probably to get the dummy's autogragh. And then happened a truly extraordinary thing. A thing so unexpected and with such delicious results that I'll never forget it. As the kids were wheeled around the ventriloquist, he did a little impromptu act for them and pretended to argue with the dummy. Just as the argument became heated, he twisted the head right off of the body, tossed it into an open bowling bag and threw the limp body into his briefcase, slamming it shut. As he zipped up the bowling bag the kids were horrified to hear the now disembodied head plead for air as the ventriloquist seethed, "Who's the dummy now, dummy!" The kids were very quickly wheeled out of the dressing room emotionally scarred for the rest of their lives.

I'll never know if he snapped or if he was just a naturally sick bastard, but that moment, the look on those kids faces when the head was begging for air...that made the whole day worth while.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Young Man Going West

That first night in St. Louis we stayed in a small motel which was really a U-shaped group of individual bungalows surrounding an open space with a swing set, picnic tables, some barbeque grills and a swimming pool which had been covered for the winter. It was called "The Colonial Motel", and was decorated to give the guests the impression they were staying in the very room the founding fathers had occupied on the first Fourth of July. Hurricane lamps, sampler-stitched wall hangings and wood-paneled walls convinced me that the place was much more of a historical landmark than the blinking neon sign that buzzed just outside our bungalow would indicate.

My dad woke us up early in the morning and we drove two hours before stopping for breakfast somewhere in the heart of Missouri. As it was past midnight when we pulled in to the "Colonial", I missed my first opportunity to experience what would become such a fascination for me on this trip. When our breakfast waitress drawled "ah'll gitcha cowfee in jis' a minit." I felt that I had finally come to America. This was how I imagined that Americans should talk. "lemme gitcha s'more napkins." The only waitresses I had known before this were the German ladies who served sauerkraut and bratwurst at the German-American Club functions in Cleveland. And they definately didn't drawl. It seemed that the further southwest we travelled, the weather and the speech patterns changed by the mile. We were also driving on the new interstate highway and I was equally fascinated by the many layers of different colors and textures exposed as the highway cut a path through the hills of Missourri.

It seemed to me that Missouri had earned the name, the "show me state." Every five miles or so a billboard appeared enticing us to "See the Indian Caves" or "Visit the Outlaw Hideout" and "Climb Up On a Tractor Made Entirely of Old Overalls!" They really wanted to show us some...stuff.My dad resisted the urge to have our family portrait taken with plywood cutouts of the holy family in a chapel where they apparently displayed the entire New Testament carved into a single melon seed. We had to make it to Oklahoma City before we stopped for the night.

OOOOOOOOOH-klahoma da da da dee da da da dee daaaah! I never knew the words to that song but all of us sang the Oklahoma part as we crossed the border. Oklahoma! Now THIS was going to be exciting. Cowboys, outlaws, shootouts and Indians...real Indians! I half expected to be surrounded at any moment and Iimagined how my friends back home would envy me when I was kidnapped by a warrior chief and made to adopt the ways of the noble red man, scalping wayfarers along Route 66. Well, the only Indians I saw in Oklahoma were the approximately 80,000 dolls, statues, pictures, clocks and ashtrays in the gift store attached to the gas station on the outskirts of Tulsa. But one thing I did see was a real, live, walking Bison. I said, "damn! look at that buffalo!" but I was corrected in yet another dialect by a real cowboy. At least he wore a real cowboy hat, had a giant belt buckle and spit brown tobacco juice. As he hoisted himself up behind the wheel of his semi, he said to me, "That ain' no buffalo, that there is a bahs'n boy. Stanks don't it?...stoopid kid" and off he drove leaving me with a sense of admiration for his hat and accent, and profound wonder at his ability to differentiate the smell of the bison from his own. I couldn't do it on a bet, but I was a tenderfoot and by habit and training tend to leave important matters to the experts.

A short time after Oklahoma City, we found our motel. The "El Rancho Motel" in El Reno! We were sleeping in a motel that had a Spanish name! In a town that also had a Spanish name! And it was right smack dab on Route 66. In those days there was nothing "historic" about it. Just a long ribbon of cement that got you from here to there. I fell asleep dreaming of tomorrow and knowing that Route 66 would take us through Amarillo, Texas some time tomorrow. Surely there would be some Indians.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Second Exodus

It was Easter week, I was thirteen years old, there was still snow on the frozen Ohio countryside, and we were embarking on our second exodus. We were going to California! Goodbye storm windows, salt/slushy winter streets, frozen toes, and staying home from school on blizzard days. Goodbye sweaty summer nights, millions of bug bites and the smell that hovered over Cleveland in the sixties. Hello to...what? My brother and I could only wonder. All that we knew about America we had learned in the nine years spent in a Cleveland that was, for us, no different than what we might have expected if we had stayed in Europe. Weddings, funerals, holidays, picnics and most get-togethers were Austrian food and fun fests complete with home-baked bread, stuffed peppers, goulash and apple strudel .We were leaving the bosom of a large extended family. And except for Disneyland and "Beach Blanket Bingo", we had no idea what to expect of the Mythical land of California. It was as if we were going to Mars.

My father had rented a U-Haul trailer and it was hitched to our 1960 Ford Fairlane. In the trailer were my mom's sewing machine, dishes, housewares, clothes and boxes of mason jars containing the fruits and vegetables of my mom's canning efforts. Up to this time in my life, I had never seen the inside of a store-bought can of peaches. My Aunt Ruth was seeing us off. After the hugs, tears and promises of a reunion in the not too distant future, the tires crunched on the snow of our familiar street for the very last time. The street, the house and many of the neighbor's children and grandchildren are still there, but none of us have ever seen that house again.

Adventure! that's what I felt. Pure adventure. My father was eager to get to his new job, my mother was scared to death of the unknown and my brother was heartbroken at leaving his big-breasted first real girlfriend. But me? I was ready for anything. I knew that before we stopped for the night, I will have eaten in a coffee shop for the very first time. Before we stopped for the night, I will have travelled in four different states and seen four different types of street signs, four different types of traffic light, four different state patrol cars. And as we rolled past the snow-covered farms of Indiana and Illinois toward our first night ever in a motel somewhere across the Mississippi, my thoughts drifted to the new world in front of me. Was it all like Disneyland? Did everybody run up and down the beach carrying surfboards and chasing after Annette Funicello? Would the kids like me? And would my brother ever finish that first letter to the girl he'd never see again.

It was a long day's drive to St. Louis and I fell asleep somewhere in Illinois with the taste of my first coffee shop fried eggs still fresh on the taste buds of my drowsy mind. As I rubbed my eyes we were getting close to the Mississippi. I had never seen anything like it but had so many virtual images etched in my reading memory through an early fascination with Mark Twain. Even though it was nearing midnight, I thought that it must be warmer here. This was, after all, the beginnings of "the south", and as we crossed the river, the cigarette-tinged air from my dad's wind wing seemed almost balmy.

I fell asleep that night thinking of all that I had seen that day and how strange the voices of the newscasters on the motel TV sounded as they drawled my parents to sleep. Whatever tomorrow had to offer, I knew that my daily life would never be the same.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Falsetto Anyone?

I gave a great voice lesson today. It's one of my rules that every lesson must have an "aha" moment, a realization of some concept previously unknown. Normally the "aha" issues from the mouth of my, ah...student. Today, however, in attempting to explain the physical process called "Falsetto" by some and "Head Voice" by others, I simply was not making myself understood. I was pulling out all the stops, using every abstract image I could muster, and I was coming up short. And all at once, as I scribbled pictures on a legal pad..."AHA!" The fog lifted and the simplest, most logical explanation of my concept of the Falsetto fell together like a reverse film of a building implosion. And I owe it all to my girlfriend, the designer.

Well, I suppose a bit of explanation is in order. In very simple terms, we speak every day, in what I call the chest voice. That is also the register that is used for the bulk of singing in most cases, aside from the pure soprano voice. When we say "oopie doopie, what a cute little hootchie kootchie" to the neighbor's new tea-cup chihuahua in a little baby voice, chances are we are using the Head Voice or Falsetto. Increasing the range of the singing voice upward is a very misunderstood process and one which, if not done properly, can have disastrous results. The vocal mechanism is not something to be weightliftingly trained into submission.

If you can picture the vocal cords as parentheses, connected at the top and bottom, you have a rough idea of the physical form of the mechanism that vibrates to make sound in your throat. The gap between the parentheses is called the glottis and through this gap passes all of the air which comes from outside our bodies to fill the lungs. A fragile little machine but meant to last a lifetime. As we raise the pitch of a note, the vocal cords stretch like a rubber band and they vibrate faster. After a certain point, they simply won't stretch any further and the voice "breaks" or cracks and out comes the "how cute is your doggie" voice.

Extending the vocal range by trying to extend the lower voice higher, one note at a time, will not only be frustrating, but damaging as well. The only way to extend the upper register is to build the upper voice by patient, dilligent exercises after which exercises should be done that bring the upper voice down in pitch over the break. The goal is to build a voice that passes through the registers effortlessly and imperceptibly. only after extensively exercising the upper voice is this possible.

In explaining this concept to my student today, I saw that I was not making myself understood. None of my metaphors or picture drawing was making sense to her and I began to get bored with it myself. My mind drifted to my girlfriend, whose image is my default when my mind wanders. And then my thoughts drifted to a design she had been working on and how powerfully a slight graduation in color could affect a visual "aha" moment.

I told my student to think of her lower voice, her chest voice, as being the color blue. And her upper voice, her head voice or falsetto, as being the color yellow. Now, what we had to do is strengthen the yellow voice and bring it down in pitch over the range of the blue voice until the entire voice would consist of slightly graduated shades of green. The lowest note she could sing would be pure blue, and the highest note she could sing would be pure yellow. But as she sang up or down the range of her voice, the color would change so impeceptibly that the break would no longer be obvious. My student was able to grasp the color-coded concept immediately and we were able to get a good start on what would be needed in the coming lessons to prepare and train her upper voice.

I don't know how exciting this is for the reader, but i'm nuts about having such a simple way to illustrate a confusing concept. And the best part of it came to me as my mind drifted to images of a pretty girl. that's education.