Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Santa Claus, Jesus Christ and Lee Harvey Oswald

Today is November 22, another day closer to the holidays and a date which seemingly diminishes in importance in the eyes of Americans with each passing year. This date, however, marks the birth of the great American myth, the magnitude and belief of which rivals those of the nativity of Jesus Christ and the midnight appearance in living rooms the world over by a jolly, fat philanthropist, ostensibly by way of the chimney flue. The difference between these three fairy tales is that, of the three, only one can be, and has been, proven to be entirely based on fiction.

The great American myth is, that on November 22, 1963, Lee Harvey Oswald, hidden in a sixth floor window above Dealey Plaza single-handedly changed the face of American politics and policy.

Belief in the American myth relies on the same human traits which foster belief in all things supernatural. When we are afraid of the unknown, we make things up that allow us to feel good, or we gladly adopt theories that have been made up for us. We humans are an exceptionally lazy species. Facing the truth requires not only courage, that rarest of all human traits, but also thought. It is infinitely less taxing to accept propaganda as truth, than to think with discernment and to arrive at a logical conclusion based on facts. Facts can be unpleasant and contrary to a world view that allows us to sleep soundly. The truth is that the world is round and, as we sleep, somewhere on this ever-shrinking planet, there are forces hard at work trying to kill us. There are also forces hard at work trying to bring about the ultimate success and survival of mankind. But either scenario is too much to bear for most humans and so we sleep through the night, having said our prayers and clinging to whatever faith gives us comfort.

The American myth of Lee Harvey Oswald differs from the myths of Santa Claus and Jesus Christ in a most compelling way. The existence of Lee Harvey Oswald as a real person can be proven by facts. Those facts give us a detailed history of the man and his actions which is an impossibility where it concerns the other two personages. If we examine a number of items in the lives of the three myths we would find the following:

Legal proof of birth...

Lee Harvey Oswald, yes

Santa Claus, questionable at best

Jesus Christ, entirely a matter of blind faith in virgin birth.

Proof of attendance at an accredited school...

Lee Harvey Oswald, has the records to prove it.

Santa Claus, no records on file.

Jesus Christ, no schools in the area and busing had not yet become fashionable.

Records of military service...

Lee Harvey Oswald, Records exist reflecting service in the United States Marine Corps.

Santa Claus, no records but was rumored to have been a conscientious objector.

Jesus Christ, military experience was limited to turning over a few money tables with twelve unemployed homeless men in tow. Very small scale gang activities, really.

Known place of residence...

Lee Harvey Oswald, a list of his addresses exists in the files of the FBI, the CIA, the IRS and a host of alphabetized government organizations.

Santa Claus, reportedly resides at the north pole although satellite photography does not bear this out.

Jesus Christ, According to legend, lived with his parents at an unknown locale and spent the last three years of his life "sponging".


Lee Harvey Oswald, records of employment exist.

Santa Claus, professional gift giver. Also thought to keep herds of reindeer and elves.

Jesus Christ, unsuccessful carpenter who turned to the pulpit for his daily bread. Proof still outstanding.

Proof of death...

Lee Harvey Oswald, documented on national television and witnessed by millions as it happened.

Santa Claus, spuriously reported to still be hard at work although this would be in violation of mandatory age-related retirement laws.

Jesus Christ, No body has ever been found. There are eye-witness statements that he took it to heaven with him but none of these eye-witnesses have come forward for questioning, nor could their current whereabouts be established.

There we have a brief summary of the available statistical evidence. Isn't it curious that every detail in the life of the central character of the American myth is substantiated by facts notably absent in the biographical statistics furnished on behalf of Santa and Jesus. Now let us examine the acts of the subjects of these three myths and see if there is a pattern of deception.

Once a year, on Christmas Eve, Santa Claus loads his bag of toys onto a sleigh which is drawn, through the sky mind you, by flying reindeer. Through some sort of time-suspension mechanism, he manages to visit every single household on the planet and leaves gifts for the good little children. For the bad children he leaves a stick and a lump of coal. None of this has been proven. There have been ashy footprints evidenced leading from fireplace to Christmas tree but in every case these were found to match shoes hidden in the master bedroom closet. Forensic studies should also reveal red fibers clinging to fireplace walls or reindeer dung on rooftops. None have been found. We can only conclude that the vast majority believe in Santa Claus because they simply choose to do so. It just feels good.

Jesus Christ was supposed to have fed thousands of hungry devotees with three fish and five loaves of bread...or was it five fish and three loaves of bread. Either way, the ratio of hungry devotees to food would indicate that the fish were actually sperm whales or that the devotees were well-fed circus midgets devoid of appetite. He also was reported to have turned water to wine. Any self-respecting frat-boy has transformed his share of beer into water so it doesn't seem to be a miracle of world-changing proportions to accomplish the reverse. Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead...of course he did!Where is he? Why won't he show himself? Any pictures? Jesus got into some trouble with the wrong people and they crucified him. Here is the punch line to the entire myth of Jesus. After being dead for three days, he paraded around showing his wounds to the members of his gang and then casually floated up to heaven saying, "I'll be Back." Savior?...or decide.

Lee Harvey Oswald shot John Kennedy. This is what is believed by many rational people. People who have cars, use cel phones and don't bark at vacuum cleaners. People who in all other respects act like sane, thinking human beings. Analyzing all or even a portion of the evidence to the contrary would be far beyond the scope of my argument. There is so much evidence and there are so many volumes written on the subject that a seeker of the truth will find all the truth he is willing to seek. In asking the question of whether Oswald did indeed shoot kennedy, I will focus on only two items which, when taken together, prove beyond doubt that the myth of the kennedy assassination is just as factual as the existence of Santa Claus and the immortality of Jesus Christ.

Item one, on the evening of his arrest and interrogation by the Dallas Police, Oswald's face and hands were examined and tested for the presence of gun powder residue. None was found. Oswald had not fired a gun that day and yet he stood accused of killing Dallas Police officer Tippet at close range as well as shooting the President in a still to be duplicated feat of marksmanship.

Item two, the rifle identified as the murder weapon was virtually "un-aimable" as it was found. The sights were out of adjustment to the point that it would have been impossible to shoot with any degree of accuracy much less for it to have been the actual murder weapon.

These are only two items, and yet these two items stand alone as proof that the fairy tale of Lee Harvey Oswald is a sham. No-one can prove that Santa Claus exists, but the relatively harmless story lives on because no-one can prove that he doesn't. There is not a shred of proof in the existence of the man called Jesus. But because of the dearth of proof to the contrary, the story of his life has inspired peace, love, death and destruction in relatively equal measure for two thousand years.

But the myth that was born forty-three years ago today is not fogged by the mist of time or the inaccuracies of ancient translations. The truth is the truth regardless of our belief. Some of us sleep easier knowing that Rudolph will soon land on the roof. Some of us sleep in the arms of a belief in an afterlife walking hand-in-hand with Jesus. Some of us wish that Lee Harvey Oswald really was what they say he was, if only to cling to a theory that provides a neat and tidy resolution to the ugliest of nationally televised episodes. But anyone who thinks...anyone who thinks long and hard... anyone with the courage to face the logical conclusions of that thought may not sleep so well tonight.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Technique, Part 1

A teenager went to his parents seeking permission to get a tattoo. After pleading his case, the parents promised to discuss the matter before rendering a final decision.

"Why do you suppose Johnny wants a tattoo?" the mother asks.

"Gosh, I don't know" dad says, "Maybe he just feels the need to express himself."

"Yes" answers mom,"He is probably at that stage of development where he feels the urge to show his budding individuality."

"Why don't we put the question to him?" says dad, "Let's ask him why he wants to show his individuality in this irreversible manner."

And so the Parents summoned Johnny. In answer to their question, Johnny rolled his eyes and groaned, "Aw jeez, everybody's getting a tattoo, It's no big deal."

And therein lies the dichotomy of today's entry. How can a person in the arts, a person whose wherewithal depends on popular success, express his individuality while conforming to the fiscal requirements of the "flavor of the day" distribution machine that makes that "individuality" a marketable commodity?

Entertainment company executives are ever vigilant for the next new thing. But the next new thing had better be instantly popular. The search is peppered with comments such as "we need something fresh" and "something totally new" and "something nobody has ever heard before" and then the creativity crusher, "Yeah, something just exactly like..." well, you can fill in the blank with any star of the moment.

I wrestle with this question on a much smaller scale. My concern as a teacher of music is, how does one acquire the proper technical skills to maintain a long career, while still allowing freedom of individual expression? I firmly believe that only an intimate knowledge of the rules gives one the right to break them. I also believe that it is infinitely more valuable to learn to feed one's self than merely to be fed. A friend of mine who is a drummer had the opportunity to spend some time with the great Shelly Manne. He asked him if it would be possible to take a few lessons, to which Shelly answered, "Well kid, I can show you how to hold your knife and fork, but you'll have to learn how to eat on your own."

If a bass or guitar student comes to me and asks that I teach them a solo or a particularly difficult passage, my answer is a simple one...No. What I will teach are the knowledge and skills which will allow that person to fend for himself and never have the need to ask to be spoon fed. If a musician spends time, and a great deal of it, with his ears and mind open and his hands on his instrument, copying a solo passage will be no large accomplishment.

The study of singing is a different matter altogether. A guitarist could conceivably play his guitar with a baseball bat or a claw hammer for dramatic effect, and then simply sweep up the pieces and get a new guitar. But a singer's instrument is his body and damage done through poor technique can be irreversible. But, and this is a big but,(heh heh, I said big but) what if this singer is someone with a measure of success, and what if that success is predicated on a style of singing that compromises technique to the point that some measure of damage to the instrument occurs? What if the popularity of this singer's work would be diminished if he were to adopt a style of singing in line with strict proper technique?

My services were once endorsed to a singer of some renown. This person had a great deal of success in terms of record sales and awards. While he was preparing to go on tour he was suffering from vocal fatigue during rehearsals and had fears of losing his voice. He was swallowing all sorts of curatives, using atomizers, and had been frantically seeking advice from Doctors, colleagues and Tarot readers. I was virtually a last resort. I told him to forget anything that he had been taught or told, and to allow me an absolutely clean pallet. I asked him not to think, not to try to figure out what we were doing and not to read anything into the exercises I prescribed, but just to do them religiously twice daily. And then we did the simplest of exercises, never straining and never approaching the range limit of his voice. I just had him phonate using vowels, voiced consonants and proper singing technique without explanations. We recorded a twenty minute workout and he promised to sing to the tape twice daily for a week. I must add that he thought I was a bit nuts in taking such an elementary approach so I didn't charge him for my time but promised, with all confidence in my approach, that if he followed my instructions he would get positive results. I also instructed him never to think about the exercises or my approach or even that we had met, while he was rehearsing. It was of extreme importance that my influence on his technique not affect his style in any way. The exercises had to do their work subliminally and behind the scenes.

I never expected to hear from him again because I didn't think that he bought into my approach. I thought that he was looking for something much more complicated and mysterious. Four days later he shouted through the telephone that I was a genius and had saved the day. It seems that he was ready for simplicity. He followed my instructions to the letter and found that he was still singing in his well known style, but with more power and less strain. The exercises were "massaging" his vocal mechanism much as a trainer would do for a football player's strained muscles

And so, we achieved somewhat of a balance. We applied elements of proper technique to a successful style that absolutely could not be tampered with, and had positive results. Self-expression and popularity can coexist with a bit of creative thought. Don't be afraid to look under the same old rocks, and don't be afraid to let simplicity be your guide.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Inspiration...or Ignorance

As my dear old grandmother liked to say, "Life can be hard, but it's a lot harder when you're stupid." Well, maybe it wasn't my grandmother that said it, but someone did and it makes plenty of sense to me. My grandmother used to say a lot of things, some wiser than others, but she usually said those things in German unless she was particularly angry. Then she would speak in a polyglot of serbo-croation-hungarian-german and the best thing to do would be to seek cover until some of the words were again familiar enough to be recognizable as language. But, I digress.

Things can be much more difficult when stupidity is brought to the table. In my experience, this holds true in almost every endeavor. I describe stupidity as ignorance left unattended. Ignorance is innocent in and of itself. Ignorance is, in actual fact, required if learning is to be accomplished. Ignorance is the checkered tablecloth in the pizzeria of knowledge, for without ignorance, we would be ignorant of what toppings are missing from the pizza of our dreams.

In music as in all the arts, endeavors can be divided into two groups, those works which arise out of inspiration, and those which are achieved only after long and conscientious bouts of hand to hand combat with the tools of the trade.

When I was a child making sand castles on the beach, there were two methods of which I was aware to build a beautiful sandcastle. The "inspirational" method was to pick up a handful of very wet sand and let it drip through the fingers. The result would be controlled primarily by gravity as the wet sand would build up in blobs that loosely resembled turrets and towers. These castles were beautiful, graceful and fairy-like in appearance, and required no architectural premeditation. The world is full of natural wonders created by the elements over the millennia in just such a fashion. They are beautiful to look at and some believe that they are proof of the existence of a god who apparently sits in the heavens dropping handfuls of wet sand for the amazement of man. Those who believe this are not ignorant, they are stupid. There is ample information available to explain the formation of such "wonders", but they choose to think that some supernatural power is hard at work whose only rewards are the oohing and aahing of the herd.

The second method of sandcastle construction involved a combination of thinking and physical manipulation of materials. There was planning to be done, foundations to be laid, stress loads to be adhered to, tools to be invented, and esthetics to be considered. Buckets and paper cups were filled with wet sand and used as molds for the structure. This would allow for smooth surfaces on which windows or the outline of masonry could be carved with a used popsicle stick or plastic spoon. Once the structure was stable, tunnels could be excavated and there could be banners waving over the ramparts. The finished castle represented thought, intent and premeditation. or, perhaps better said, Arts and Crafts.

I worked for a time with a songwriter who was once simply and innocently ignorant. He just didn't know certain things. By things, I refer to facts like what to call certain notes and chords and how to reference rhythmic concepts. This songwriter was very creative however and there was no shortage of ideas flowing from his handful of wet sand. But the blobs would fall without structure or any sort of consistent motive. He would ask me what sort of blob would likely follow the last blob and I would try to make some sense of it all. During the process, I would try to influence his blob-dropping by calling attention to such things as the importance of remembering the esthetic quality or the emotional response to certain choices made in the structure, size or texture of the sand blobs, or chords. I would make attempts at generating in him a sense of intent. But try as I would, every chord was a newly discovered continent. He would ooh and aah and say, "Wow, that's cool, what chord is that?" and I would bite my tongue to prevent myself from blurting that it was the same one we used at a point in the song eight seconds previous to the current sand blob.

I envied his ignorance to a point because his process, or lack of one, furnished a myriad of opportunities for amazement. He was experiencing newness at every turn. It was as if he were a passenger on an electric train set and everytime he rounded the Christmas tree he would see the fireplace as something new and awe-inspiring. But as time wore on, I realized that he was just lazy and would not avail himself of the information at his disposal which would allow him to predict and furnish his own ooh and aah moments.

Ignorance can be thought of as the starting blocks from which we launch our race toward knowledge, while inspiration is the kernel from which beautiful art can grow. But it must be watered and fed with the love of education and hard work. Dream your dreams, but work hard. Because when Mr. Ignorance falls in love with Miss Lazy, they are sure to birth a child known as Stupid. And little baby Stupid will have a hard life indeed.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

The Fool and the Boat

Seven year old little Nell came into the kitchen in tears. "Daddy" she cried, "Sally is mean to me."

"Come and tell your father what happened" I said, as she crawled up on my lap nearly up-ending my mid-morning coffee.

"Sally said that if I would, sob, ride with her on her bike that we could go, sob, to the playground by the school and watch them put up the rides for the, sob, carnival and they had animals and we could look at them and, sob, and everything and she got tired so I pedaled the bike and I pedaled as, sob, hard as I could 'cause I wanted to see the animals, you know how much I love, sob, animals, don't you Daddy? sob, and when we got there she, sob, jumped off the bike and told me to watch it so nobody takes it and, sob, she's older so I remembered that I'm supposed to obey older people and I was,sob, so good and watched the bike and she was gone a long time and came, sob, back and said we had to go home 'cause she had to go to a, sob, party and she saw everything and I pedaled so hard and I never, sob, get to see anything and she saw the animals Daddy, sob, sob, sob."

"Consolidate yourself Nell" I told her, trying rather unsuccessfully to hide my amusement at her righteous indignation. "let me tell you a little story and you'll forget all about it." Little Nell said that would be allright but that she hoped it wouldn't be one of my "lesson" stories because she didn't want to learn anything right now. I told her that I know a story about a boat and that it would be exciting and full of adventures. And then I told her my "lesson" story about the Fool and the Boat.

Once upon about half-past three in the afternoon,(Nell insisted that I be specific as to time. She said that "once upon a time" is for babies and besides, it always means that it's a "lesson" story) there was a boy who lived near the sea. Everyday he looked out at the big boats in the water and dreamed that one day, if he played his cards right...

"What's played his cards right mean Daddy?"

"Uh, you know, was a good boy and didn't screw things up."


Now where was I...oh, well he thought that he would be a great sea captain and have his own ship. Well, after his parents died, he was taken in to live with a very rich uncle who gave him his very own boat when he turned eighteen years old.

" How did they die daddy?"


"The boy's parents!"

"Oh God! I don't... um, the three bears ate them I guess!"



"But the three bears are good and wouldn't eat anybody's parents!"

"Oh, well, uh, this was way before they got into show business, I mean, books. They had a pretty checkered background you know."

"What's checkered, Daddy?"

"Things aren't always as they seem, Nell, now no more interruptions and let me tell the story."

And so the boy became old enough to be a man and he became a sea captain with his own ship and everything. He had only one problem. He had never bothered to learn anything about sailing a ship. He had a shiny telescope, a captain's hat and a uniform covered in bright medals, but he didn't know a porthole from a keel. And so he sat in the tavern on the wharf and bought everyone food and rum with the money that the rich uncle had given him until he found a poor sailor who had been at sea all of his life and knew the ocean and everything in it.

"Come sail my ship for me." he said to the poor sailor.

"And what will you give me in return?" asked the poor sailor.

"Ah, you will share my dream of sailing all over the world and we will have adventures and riches." replied the captain.

And so they set off on a journey of adventure on the seven seas. The poor sailor was happy because the captain gave him new clothes, a warm bunk and plenty to eat and drink. They became friends and had many adventures together. The captain wanted to learn how to sail his boat and asked the sailor to teach him. But when he realized how much there was to learn and how hard he would have to work, he decided to let the sailor do the sailing and he would do the captaining. "Think of this ship as your own" said the captain, "because as long as I have this ship, we are in this together." And so the years passed.

One day, They saw a sail on the horizon. As the ship drew closer, her captain called over, " Ahoy! My, that is a beautiful ship you have, captain."

"Thank you, will you join us for lunch?" the captain answered. And so the two captains had lunch...which was served by the crew, which of course, consisted of the once poor sailor, who stood dutifully by as the two captains became friends.

"Who is this sailor you have here sailing your ship for you?" the second captain asked. "He doesn't seem to know what he is doing."

"But he is my friend," the first captain replied. "And we have had many adventures together."

"That will never do." said the second captain. "You can't be friends with your crew. You should throw him overboard. I think that I saw him sneak some of your best wine. Yes, you would be wise to get rid of him before he causes you any further trouble. I'm a captain like you and only captains know about these things."

And so the first captain allowed the crew of the second ship to throw the sailor overboard. But now that he was all alone, the captain did not know the first thing of how to sail his own ship. "What shall I do now?" he asked the second captain.

"Don't worry, you are with friends" the second captain said. "Let me have one of my men sail your ship for you and everything will be alright."

That night, the captain was himself thrown overboard and the two ships sailed away over the horizon. The captain had just enough strength to swim to a small island and was glad to see that his old friend, the poor sailor had washed ashore there in the night. And there they lived out the rest of their days, never saying another word to each other.

But the question is...which one was the fool?

"Oh Daddy! It was a lesson story wasn't it?"

"Well, yes. I guess it is Nell."

"But what does it mean daddy?"

"It means that when Sally tells you she will give you a ride to see the animals and you do all the work and then she expects you to watch her bike for her, and then dumps you for a party, you should have walked straight home."

"But daddy, what if someone had stolen her bike?"

"Oh Christ Nell! Fuck the bike! It wasn't yours anyway!"

"Mommy, Daddy said 'fuck' again."

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Memory, Part 2

Recently, a small circle of friends and I were solving the problems of the world over champagne when the topic of discussion drifted to memory. After going around the table, we found that there existed a wide disparity in the area of memories related to childhood experiences. One of the group claimed that her memories of early childhood were vague at best and did not reach back much further than her early teens. My personal memories are of tastes, smells, sensations and impressions which occurred as early as the age of one and a half years. Although I constantly need to play games with myself to remember day to day things, my long term memory is prodigious.

I have vivid memories of sitting in the sandbox in the hof or the enclosed yard of my family's apartment house in Salzburg and gagging as my playmate, Wolfgang, shovelled sand into his mouth with an old dinner spoon. And I remember the smell of peppermint tea. My mother would take my brother and I to a lake in the summer. She would pack a picnic lunch and she would lay a wine bottle full of peppermint tea in the shallow water to cool. When I smell a peppermint tea bag even now I am right back at the shore of that lake. I was not yet two years old.

It seems that everyone has a large capacity for the storage of memory. I believe that the gift of a good memory or the curse of forgetfulness are not at all related to intelligence but are more symptomatic of our processing power. If something is tasted, smelled, seen, heard or felt, then it follows that the information was entered into our hard drive. The retrieval of that information is a processing issue unless, of course, a softball to the temple or a quick trip through the windshield has somehow caused a major data dump.

Some years ago, I embarked on a search to find out just exactly who the fuck I was. I called this search " Just exactly who the fuck am I?" In the early stages of this fact finding mission I developed an exercise that served as a sort of de-fragging mechanism. The early stages of Disk Warrior for want of a better description. I decided that to find out who I thought I am, it may be important to ascertain who I had been, or perhaps better stated, who I thought I had been.

My living room had a large window facing the street and I was in the habit of staring out at nothing in particular when I noticed that there were twelve panes in that window. It was three panes high and four across. For some unknown reason, the number twelve suddenly represented the twelve years I had spent in the hands of the educational system prepatory to higher education. Each pane represented a grade in school and I began to play a game in which the rules were very simple. Every morning, as I prayed at the altar of the caffeine gods, I would require myself to look through the twelve panes, one at a time, and remember a single impression, occurance or sensation related to that particular grade in school. In other words, I forced myself to remember. Watch, I'll do it right now.

First grade: Walking to school in the snow, I picked up a round mass the size of a football and took it to school. Somehow, the heat of the classroom turned it into a hornet's nest overnight.

Second grade: Because I was tall, I got to stand on the desks and put up the holiday decorations that went above the blackboard.

Third grade: Ate school food for the first time...Jesus!

fourth grade:Thought I saw a picture of a girl's thing. Actually, the kid sitting next to me drew a line and said that that's really all there was to it.

Fifth grade: My teacher, Miss Sherzer, had long, strawberry blond hair and after she married the seventh grade science teacher I almost failed to pass fifth grade.

Sixth Grade: Saw my first dirty movie at Karl Reitenbach's house on New year's Eve when our parents were out to a party.

Seventh grade:First became aware of basketball.

Eighth grade: Had Italian pizza for the first time.

Ninth grade: Pulled down twenty-five rebounds in a tournament game.

Tenth grade: Was invited to the senior prom by my friend Barbara whose boyfriend was in Viet Nam.

Eleventh grade: Broke into school with stolen keys and turned a window in the music department into an aquarium...really!

Twelfth grade: Realized that my father was dying.

You see? Its really simple and fun. If you do it often, amazing shit will percolate to the surface. Sometimes it's funny, sometimes it's tragic. But those memories are in there, they belong to you, and where they may take you is so much better than cable...because it's your life that you are living and you have an inalienable right to reap the rewards of syndication.

Enjoy the reruns.