My Music Career (Part 4) The Songwriter

(This is the 10th chapter in my autobiographical series. This chapter was initially in the form of an email sent to my music fan email list on June 23, 2020. It has been edited and expanded for this blog. All the previous chapters in this series can be found on the column to the right. Go here to start at the beginning.)

I Become a Songwriter

In the previous chapter in this series, I said that I had quit the band Charon Blue in order to focus on becoming a songwriter.  I had been attending the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival in Lyons, Colorado since 1999. At the 2002 festival, during one of the many impromptu “song circles” that pop up at these festivals, I was amazed at all the people playing their own original songs. I was embarassed that I could only play cover songs. A guy next to me told me that that there was a “Song School” that took place the week before the Folks Festival and encouraged me to attend.  I think I brushed it off, saying something like “it won’t do me any good, I can’t write songs.”

Then, at the 2003 festival the following year, the same thing happened– somebody at a song circle encouraged me to attend the Song School the following year. This time I didn’t brush it off. I thought hard about it. But I was scared I would be the dunce at the school; everybody else would be writing songs and I would fail. I would be the object of ridicule. I would be embarassed and ashamed. I called up the Song School and was able to talk to Steve Syzmanski, who the director of the School. I asked him questions about what it would be like, and he said he would have one of the teachers call me. A few days later, Paul Reisler, one of the staff teachers called. I remember asking him, “will I be forced to write a song?” He said that while students are encouraged to write a song, no one is forced to. I was still scared, but I really wanted to learn songwriting. So I summoned all my courage and signed up. I told myself, even if I fail at songwriting, I can at least play lead guitar for the other songwriters there.

That first Song School in August, 2004 was a breakthrough experience for me.  I learned some of the craft of songwriting from the classes, and, during Paul Reisler’s class, actually did write a song. My fears of being ridiculed and embarassed were completely unjustified. I received support and encouragement from the other students.  I saw that others had the same insecurities as me. And even the more experienced ones were supportive of the beginners. It was a community of songwriters, and I became part of it.  I made a lot of new friends, many of whom are still good friends to this day.

Paul Reisler at the 2004 Song School

At Paul Reisler class, he paired us up with someone at random, and told us to tell our partner a story about our lives. I was paired up with Lori Grebe Cook from Chicago. I wrote “Daddy’s Little Girl” based on her story about moving from her hometown of Indianapolis to Chicago. Lori wrote “Little White Boy” for me, based on the story I told her about growing up in Mississippi in the 1950’s and 1960’s– as I explained in the first chapter of this blog series. I was so moved by her telling of my story, that I began singing “Little White Boy” at my gigs. I still sing it at gigs.

Vince and Lori Cook with me at the 2004 Song School

Over the next few years, I worked hard at writing songs.  I was introduced to a couple other students from Denver, and encouraged to start a songwriter group. We did, and began meeting monthly. (The group would grow over the years, and still exists today.) Songwriting was now my number one priority.  I continued playing gigs at whatever gig I could get, and my songs gradually replaced the cover songs I had been playing.  By 2007, I decided I needed a demo CD with my own songs. 

By this time I had upgraded from my 4-track cassette recorder to a 16-track digital recorder.  I recorded several of the songs that I had written, and selected 6 of them for the demo CD.  Since I was doing the recording myself, and playing all the instruments, I figured I’d go all the way with the Do-It-Yourself thing and do the CD artwork as well.  I took a photo of myself in the backyard, using the 10-second delay feature of the camera.  I created the CD cover and CD label, and sent the artwork and master recording off to a duplication company.  I decided on a simple, humble title:  Some Songs I Wrote.

All the songs were written between 2004 and 2006.  Most of the songs are acoustic guitar-based, although I couldn’t resist the temptation to add a few other instruments to the songs. 

At the time, I felt like I had finally discovered my true singing voice when writing “When They Go.”  The song is based on a story a friend told me about his sister.  I never play it at live shows, because I assume people will think it too slow and depressing.  Maybe that’s a mistake.  “A Special Request” is one of my personal favorites, but most of you have never heard it because I wrote it on piano, and I’m not a good enough piano player to play it live.  “The Screwup Song,” “Bipolar,” and “Invisible Prison” would be re-recorded and appear on my first full-length album, Misfit.  “Let it Go” would be re-recorded and appear on The Other Side of Nowhere.

Hidden tracks on CDs were something of a fad in those days.  So I included the original demo version of my spoken word piece “Wave the Flag and Give ’em God” as a hidden track.  It seemed appropriate to make it a hidden track because it didn’t fit the musical or lyrical style of the other other songs.  It would later re-appear in a remixed version on Word.

Playing with Julie at the Meadowlark Bar in Denver

I continued getting and playing gigs wherever I could get them.  And I continued writing songs and incorporating the new songs into the set lists.  A violinist named Julie Oxenford O’Brian began accompanying me at gigs.  That leads to my second recording, Me.

I wanted to record the new songs I had written, and also include Julie’s violin, so in 2009 I recorded a new CD. This time, I decided to use a professional studio. I choose Sawtelle Studio at Swallow Hill in Denver, with Brian Hunter as the engineer. It was my first time to record in a professional studio with a professional engineer.

The CD consisted of three songs I had written since Some Songs– “Me,” “You Could Have Had Me” and “Like a Child.”  It also included two songs written in the 2004-2006 timeframe and left off Some Songs– “I Miss Me” and the song I wrote for Lori Grebe Cook at the 2004 Song School, “Daddy’s Little Girl.”  I wrote “I Miss Me” on piano, and hired a studio pianist for the recording.

The title, Me, came from one of the new songs I had written.  And it just felt right as the album title.  I was now writing my own songs, expressing who I am.   As the final chorus of the song says:

So here I am
in this little bar
playing my guitar
This is Me.

I continued the tradition of a hidden track on Me by including the original home demo version of “Misfit.”  I wrote that song as a joke, not expecting anyone to like it.  But, along with “The Screwup Song,” it turned out to be one of my most popular songs.  It would provide me with my mission, purpose and identity.  And it would be come the title song of my third album.

I’m proud of these two recordings.  I would later make better recordings from a technical standpoint.  I would sing better on later recordings.  And I would write better songs– although some of these songs have stood the test of time and I still play them at gigs.  But these records announced to the world that I was a songwriter.  And for that reason they have sentimental value for me.

I only have a few CDs of each of these left.  You can order them on my Bandcamp site, or buy them at my live shows.  You can also download the individual songs or the full albums for both Some Songs and Me on my Bandcamp site.  Members of The Misfit Club can download them for free.  (Because of the demo nature of these recordings, they are not available to the general public on the streaming services.) The Misfit Club is my Fan Club, or supporters club.  It is one of the main ways I raise money to record new music.  Click on The Misfit Club to read about the benefits and how to join.

Coming next:  Misfit, my first full-length album, made with a producer.

My Music Career (Part 3) Denver 2000-2004

(This is the 9th chapter in my autobiographical series. This chapter was initially in the form of an email sent to my music fan email list on June 10, 2020. It has been edited and expanded for this blog. All the previous chapters in this series can be found on the column to the right. Go here to start at the beginning.)

The Move to Denver and Charon Blue

In the Spring of 2000, I got a job offer in Denver and moved there. After settling in, I started looking for a band to join. I joined a band called Charon Blue in late 2001 or maybe early 2002 and played lead guitar. We made a demo CD (available exclusively for members of my fan club, The Misfit Club to download). We played three gigs, two at Herman’s Hideaway in Denver and one at a bar in Aurora, Colorado, whose name I can’t remember.

Charon Blue Demo CD
Charon Blue at a bar in Aurora, Colorado
Charon Blue at Herman’s Hideaway in Denver

I quit Charon Blue in late 2002 or early 2003 for a couple of reasons, one of which was that I had decided to take up songwriting. That will be the subject of the next chapter.

Folk Music and Pub Songs Demo CD

I discussed my interest in folk music in previous chapters– see The Missing Years, Part 1, and The Missing Years, Part 2. From the age of 18, I’ve always had a split musical personality– half electric, half acoustic; half rock, half folk. I never really fit in in either, but I fit in both.

Since the 1970’s, I would get out the acoustic guitar and play songs for friends who came over to hang out, or at parties. By the 1990’s, before, during, and after Faded Innocence, I began taking it more seriously, taking singing lessons, and developing a repertoire of folk songs I liked. During this time, I was invited to play a couple of “gigs” at friends’ parties. After Kurt left and Faded Innocence ended, I got myself a solo gig at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

My repertoire was a mix of the songs I had learned in the 1970s– Jimmy Buffett, John Prine, Jackson Browne, Jerry Jeff Walker, etc.– and Irish pub song bands that I had been turned on to in the 1980’s, especially The Dubliners. And in the 1990’s, my mandolin-playing boss, Dave Firestine, turned me on to some funny folk songs. My repertoire followed the Irish tradition: the songs were either political, funny or sad. I don’t like happy songs, or inspirational songs, or love songs. Still hate that shit. I like songs that are real; songs about real life; songs I can relate to. Love? Gimme a break. What does a guy like me know about that? “Everything’s gonna be alright”? Bullshit. That’s not the world I live in. I like songs that tell the truth, either with humor and sarcasm, or let the sadness come out in all its glory.

Even though I had decided to start writing my own songs, I knew that it would take awhile before I would have enough to play a whole set. So, while building up a supply of my own songs, I went searching for a bar in Denver that would let me play my acoustic cover songs. So I made a home demo CD and called it “Pub Songs.” (This album is available exclusively for members of my fan club, The Misfit Club to download.) I played these songs at a few bar gigs in 2005 and 2006. But as I wrote more of my own songs, these cover songs began dropping off the set lists. About the only ones that remain from those days is “Please Don’t Bury Me” by John Prine, and “The Beer Song.”

Album Cover for Pub Songs

By 2007 I was ready to make a home demo of my own songs, which would be called “Some Songs I Wrote.” That, and the followup CD, “Me,” will be the topic of the next chapter.

My Music Career (Part 2) Tucson 1994-1999

(This is the 8th chapter in my autobiographical series. This chapter was initially in the form of an email sent to my music fan email list on June 3, 2020. It has been edited for this blog. All the previous chapters in this series can be found on the column to the right. Go here to start at the beginning.)

Faded Innocence

In 1994 I met songwriter, singer and bass player Kurt Loken. I can’t remember if I answered his ad, or he answered mine. Kurt had written a bunch of songs on bass. I figured out guitar parts to go with his bass lines, and also made arrangement suggestions. I wasn’t really a songwriter yet, although working with Kurt motivated me, and I wrote two songs. We recruited a drummer and began practicing. We played one open mic, and then I decided we needed a demo tape to get gigs. I bought a Tascam 4-track cassette recorder and other equipment, and recorded and mixed the songs. We had our photos taken, and sent the master cassettes off to companies to reproduce and for the artwork. But when the tape was done, and it was time to get gigs, the drummer had disappeared, never to be heard from again. I wanted to get a new drummer but Kurt wanted us to just play as an acoustic duo. I think we just played one gig, and then Kurt took a job in California and moved away.

The first Faded Innocence album, with the drummer, is called “Charlie’s Dream.” The cover photo is of me at Boy Scout camp in Mississippi when I was 11 or 12. I thought the photo captured the Faded Innocence band name well. It contains two of my early songwriting efforts– “Coward (Fear of Love” and “Just Another Sheep.” The other 7 songs were written by Kurt, with me creating the guitar arrangements. I incorporated everything I had learned about “modal” chords into these arrangements– you won’t find a 3rd on this album very much (see Part 1 of this series for more about that). I’m quite proud of my guitar playing this record; it was a milestone in my development as a musician.

The second album is called “Seasons Change.” It was made after the drummer disappeared. Since the first album had a childhood photo of me, for this album, we used a childhood photo of Kurt walking on the beach with his father. Perhaps an even better example of “Faded Innocence.” For the drums, I bought a Boss Dr. Rhythm drum machine, and programmed the drums for the songs on Side One. Side Two is acoustic songs with no drums. These were all Kurt’s songs, although I had a lot to do with the arrangements. In fact, I’m quite proud of my arrangements and guitar playing on this tape as well.

Last Years in Tucson

After Kurt moved to California, I was thinking hard about leaving Tucson, too. I needed a change, and wanted a city with a bigger music scene. I visited Denver in 1997 and liked the vibe there. Meanwhile, I met another songwriter named Shanna Kovacs and played a similar role with her that I did with Kurt, playing lead guitar and helping with the song arrangements. I think we only played one open mic because I moved to Denver. I recently found some 4-track cassette recordings that we had done. I hadn’t heard these in 21 years. It was pretty cool to hear those songs again.

I have made the Faded Innocence songs, and the demo recordings I made with Shanna available to members of my fan club, the Misfit Club You can join the Misfit Club for as little as $5/month.

Next: Denver 2000-2004

My Music Career (Part 1) Tucson 1988-1994

(This is the 7th chapter in my autobiographical series. It overlaps with, and supplements the previous chapter. This chapter was initially in the form of an email sent to my music fan email list on June 3, 2020. I have expanded on it for the blog. All the previous chapters in this series can be found on the column to the right. Go here to start at the beginning.)

Music Moves to the Forefront of my Life

While working at National Semiconductor in Tucson, I had become friends with Gary Roberts, another technician at work, and played casually with him. Gary was a much better musician that me at the time, and was playing some paid solo gigs in Tucson. Here’s a photo of me playing with Gary at a birthday party I organized for myself at my apartment clubhouse in Tucson.

Towards the end of the years at National Semi, I got an idea for a song about the work environment while driving home from work. I wrote it as a parody of the old Muddy Waters blues tune, “Hootchie-Cootchie Man.” When I got home I got out a pen and paper and wrote down as much as I could remember, and then added to it. It was my first song. The company Christmas party was coming up, and they were having a talent show contest. I rounded up Gary to play bass, and another guitar player/technician to play lead guitar. I sang and played harmonica, in my best Muddy Waters imitation. The song ridiculed the company management and got a huge applause. It drove home lesson I already knew from 60’s rock music: the power of combining music with political organizing.

Early Attempts at Joining Bands

I remember auditioning for a New Wave cover band, and playing “I Ran” by A Flock of Seagulls. But they never called me back, and I realized I needed to get better as a guitar player if I wanted to be in a band, so I took some advanced guitar lessons. I learned songs by The Police and The Church. Up until then, I only knew how to play triad chords– major and minor chords, at the root position and as barre chords. But now I was learning what I was told were “modal” chords– chords that had other tones besides the root, third and fifth. I remember reading an interview with Andy Summers, guitarist for the Police, where he said his motto is to “avoid the 3rd at all costs.” The 3rd is what determines if a chord is major or minor. If you leave it out, the tonality is ambiguous. Andy’s chords would have the root, 5th, and maybe the major 2nd, suspended 4th, and minor 7th. I found out later that Andy had been playing jazz before he joined The Police; these were jazz chords. It opened up a whole new world for my guitar playing. It was the secret to learning how to play the music I loved.

I ran an ad for a band and met a young woman singer. We then recruited a drummer and bass player. I was very clear in my ad that I wanted the band to cover melancholy New Wave songs by bands such as 10,000 Maniacs, The Cure, etc. But after a couple months of practicing and learning the songs, the drummer and bass player said we should do happy dance songs. I packed up my guitar and amp and walked out.

I also joined a band during this time that played original songs– generally melancholy songs. I liked that. There were 3 songwriters in the band– the drummer, bass player (a married couple) and keyboard player. The bass player and keyboard player sang. I played rhythm guitar and there was another guy who played lead guitar. We played one outdoor gig on 4th Avenue in Tucson, and then the band broke up.

Tucson Bands in the Late 80’s and Early 90’s

Meanwhile I continued going to see local original bands in local Tucson venues. Some I especially liked were If…, The Onlys and the Sand Rubies. I remember seeing the Phoenix band The Gin Blossoms before they got signed.

I was searching. Trying to figure out what to do. How can I get into a band? A band that will play gigs at Club Congress and other places? I didn’t care about making it “big.” I just wanted to be in a band that played locally at the small clubs. Even that was proving hard to do, if not impossible. Why is it so hard? What do I have to do? How do I find people?

My Silly Search for a “Career”

I mentioned in the previous chapter (The Missing Years, Part 4), that I had quit National Semiconductor and taken a job at Burr Brown in Tucson, in 1990 or 1991. But after only working there a year, they were hit by layoffs, and being the new guy, I was laid off.  The layoff package included free career counseling. I met with the counselor, and took various tests, such as the Briggs-Myers, and followed the exercises in the book, What Color is Your Parchute?

I had made the conscious decision to end my career as a radical political activist– a “professional revolutionary.” What should my career be now? I didn’t want it to be electronics, or anything technical. I had mainly become an electronics tech for the purposes of union organizing. I had no great passion for it; it was practical, that’s all. It was paying the bills.

You walk through this world, but you can’t find your song
Doing what you should, not what you want

–from the title song on my 2012 album, The Other Side of Nowhere

In hindsight, it’s obvious that I had chosen a new career– music! In fact, I remember the counselor telling me at one point, “Seems to me that your career should be music.” But I dismissed the idea; I saw no hope of making a living playing the kind of music I loved. I didn’t know how the other bands did it. I didn’t know any of the people in the bands, and I was too shy to go up them after a show and introduce myself; I didn’t “network.” To me they were stars, and I assumed they would never talk to a nobody like me. In hindsight, that was a mistake. Some of them might have had rock star pretensions, but I bet there were some who would have helped me. Maybe one of them would have served as a songwriting mentor, or helped me find people to start a band with.

It wouldn’t be until 2007, at a class at the Rocky Mountain Song School, that it finally dawned on me– you need a plan. While you have a day job to pay the bills, you work hard at your music career, build a fan base, and then maybe eventually you can transition to doing music full-time. I wonder how much more I I could have accomplished, and how much further along I would be, if I had realized that in 1991 instead of 2007? If I hadn’t been too shy to ask for help?

You just need a little help
but you’re too shy to ask
You don’t want to be a burden
You’re afraid they wil laugh

–from my song, Apollo’s Little Bastard, on my 2011 album, Misfit

A Fun Job

After going through the career counseling– and rejecting music as a career– I took another electronics technician job at a small company in Tucson in March, 1992.  The company was called Lightning, Location and Protection (LLP).  They made lightning detection systems.  My plan was to work there for just a few months until I figured out what I wanted to do for a “career.”  I was also thinking about moving to another city, since the whole reason I had moved to Tucson was no longer relevant (see the previous chapter).  But I ended up working there for 8 years.  Unlike my previous jobs, this was a small company.  Thanks to my previous year of work with the engineering department at Burr-Brown, I was now a pretty good electronics technician.  My input was valued, and I was allowed to use my creativity on this job.  There were 3 other technicians in our group, and we got along great and laughed a lot.  My boss was David Firestine, a mandolin player who ran the Irish jam sessions in Tucson.  Dave was the greatest boss I ever had, probably because he never wanted to be a boss in the first place.  He kept the environment fun and loose.  That’s why I kept working there for so long;  that’s why I never decided on a “career;” I actually enjoyed my job.     

Meanwhile I continued my efforts to get into a band.  I also began composing music ideas on the guitar and recording them to cassette. I tried to write lyrics but struggled. I needed help with lyrics but didn’t know where to turn. I didn’t know any songwriters. I didn’t know about any lyric-writing books. I didn’t know about any “song schools.”

Then, in 1994, my music career would take a big step forward when I met songwriter, singer and bass player Kurt Loken and we formed Faded Innocence. That will be the subject of the next chapter in this series.

Next: Faded Innocence

The Missing Years (Part 4)

(This is the sixth chapter of my autobiographical series. It covers 1983-1991, after I moved from Phoenix to Tucson and resigned from the SWP. The others can be found on the column to the right. Go here to start at the beginning. This chapter was initially sent to my music fan email list on September 12, 2020. I have edited it slightly for the blog.)

Independent Political Activist in Tucson, 1983-1991

After resigning from the SWP in the fall of 1983, I continued as an independent activist for the next several years.  At the time I resigned, there was a copper workers strike going on in Arizona.  The other copper companies had reached settlements with the Steelworkers union, but the Phelps-Dodge corporation demanded more concessions from the union.  The union went on strike, and for the first time in decades in the copper industry, the company tried to continue operating during the strike with scab labor.  The scabs were met by mass picket lines by the workers, and the liberal Democratic governor of Arizona, Bruce Babbitt, called out the National Guard to keep the mines open and break the strike. 

The two mining towns in Arizona where the strike was based were Ajo and Clifton/Morenci.  (Morenci was a company town, entirely owned by Phelps-Dodge, and Clifton was an adjacent independent town).  These were close-knit communities, where generations of people had worked in the mines.  The majority of the labor force was Mexican-American.  The importation of out-ot-town scabs made the strike not just a labor issue, but an issue of defending one’s community from outsiders trying to destroy it.

The union leadership, being tied to the Democratic Party, didn’t see the danger, and didn’t really do anything to rally support for the strike.  So my best friend, Eduardo, and I formed a support organization.  (Eduardo had quit the SWP right after I did.)  We organized a food drive for the striking mineworkers, helped tell their story to the media, and organized support rallies for them.  I wrote a series of articles about the strike for Labor Notes, a newsletter of the progressive wing of the labor movement.  But despite the soladarity of the workers and people of the communities, and the efforts of us and others, the strike was eventually broken, and the unions destroyed by the partnership of the New York-based Phelps-Dodge corporation and the Governor Babbitt.  It was yet another lesson in the treachery of the Democratic Party.

Union Organizer

When I moved to Tucson in 1983, I took a job at National Semiconductor, an electronics factory.  The job paid barely over minimum wage, which I think was $3.75/hour at the time.  That’s because the electronics industry in the US was largely non-union.  I decided to go back to school at the local community college for a two-year degree in electronics, so that I could become an electronics technician.  I didn’t have much interest in electronics;  I’ve never had a technical personality;  but I did it for two reasons:  one, since I didn’t want to use my college degree to teach, if I didn’t want to work shitty low-paying jobs the rest of my life, I would need to learn a skill.  The other reason was that I had decided to try and organize a union, and technicians moved around, fixing machines, so I would be able to meet and talk to a lot more workers.

By 1988 I had my electronics degree and had been working as a technician, and had an underground organizing committe of about a dozen workers.  We launched a petition campaign to get a refrigerator in the break room to store our lunches, and won.  But soon after that, layoffs began.  During the 1980’s, the deindustrialization of America had begun.  Electronics and other factories were being moved overseas.  Even the pathetically low wages we got were much more than the companies paid in other countries.  Many of our organizing committee were laid off.  The union drive fizzled out. 

Music and Fun!

After the union organizing committe ended, I decided to give up political activism and be “selfish” for the first time in my life. I was now 34-35 years old. I had given my youth to the “movement.” It was time to live a little before I was old. I was now free from the incessant SWP meetings and activity, and– with my Associates Degree in Electronics completed– more free time, I started to make up for what I missed the last 10 years.  The workforce at National Semiconductor was young.  The factory was on Tucson’s southside, which was mainly Mexican-American.  So were most of my co-workers and new friends.  I made a lot of friends there, and we partied together.  I was digging the New Wave music of the 80’s– The Cure, The Church, Modern English, Berlin, Missing Persons.  I was started going out to hear more live music in Tucson.  There were only a few live music clubs in Tucson, but I made the rounds of them.  The main one was Club Congress downtown. 

I was also dusting off my neglected acoustic guitar, electric guitar and amp, and starting to play more music. I wanted to get into a band. I took guitar lessons, and later, vocal lessons. This will be covered in more depth in the next chapter.

Coming out of Activist Retirement to Protest the Iraq War

In 1990 or 1991, I quit National Semiconductor and took an electronics technician job at Burr-Brown. This was a better job– I was working as an engineering technician, assisting the engineers. While I was working there, the first President George Bush decided to invade Iraq.  Although I had sworn off political activism for music a couple years earlier, I was so angry that I got back into it, and joined the Tucson coalition of people and groups to organize protests, this time operating as an independent.  I became a leader of the group.  We organized a march and rally in downtown Tucson.  I created a mixtape cassette of political songs to play as the marchers entered the rally site, starting with Bruce Springsteen’s antiwar anthem, “Born in the USA.” 

The antiwar coalition ended with the war.  I decide to really quit political activism for good, and focus on music, and joining a band. 

This concludes the chapters in this series called “The Missing Years,” so-called because I was reluctant to talk to them about anybody I met after 1991. I suffered a mid-life crisis when I turned 39, in 1993. I felt that I had wasted my youth, pretending to be a revolutionary, accomplishing nothing. I became very depressed. I had a great girlfriend, and she broke up with me because she didn’t want to be in a relationship with someone who was depressed all the time. I can’t blame her. But I snapped out of it six months later, deciding that what’s done is done, so why not make the best of the years to come? And that meant moving music to center stage.

Next: My Music Career, Part 1.