It was late one afternoon in the year 2012 as I departed from Ohlone Park, where I had been sleeping all day in the sun. As I walked slowly into town, I had felt a kind of pathos that I related, not specifically to my homeless condition, but to my overall position on the planet.
“I really am not meant for this world,” I told myself. “Who am I trying to fool?”
At that thought, a very slow strain of song began to well up inside me. Very low notes, in a minor key, sung very slowly. I remember likening the strain to a dirge — to music that might accompany a funeral.
I must have appeared to be either very pensive or very downtrodden. I recall a woman with dark hair stopping to look at me. She gestured toward me as though to ask me if I needed help, or if I wanted to talk. But I only looked at her and smiled — and kept on going.
The theme developed into eight measures of true melancholy and darkness. I couldn’t get the music of my mind. Then, as I entered onto Shattuck Avenue, I ran into my friends Jerome and D’Angelo — two very large African-American men with whom I was camping out at the time. (We were sleeping in a vacant lot, and I felt their presence often protected me, as I sometimes stayed up working on my laptop throughout the night.)
“Jerome!” I cried. “D’Angelo — I’ve got this song in me. It’s deep. I’m not quite sure where it came from.”
“Can we hear it?” asked Jerome.
“Of course,” I replied. “But let’s seek a place in private.”
The three of us then walked to the Redwoods, where we stood beneath the tall trees during the setting sun. No one was within sight, as I slowly sang the eerie melody. I sang four measures slowly, then paused. I then sang the same four measures again, getting even slower at the end.
Their reactions are unforgettable to this day.
D’Angelo looked aghast, almost shocked — almost terrified.
“You better take that song right back where it came from!” He cried. “That is dark – it’s a song of death! I believe it is evil!”
“No, no,” Jerome, a brilliant writer, was quick to disagree. “Dark is good. Andy should keep that passage – and expand upon it.”
I recall watching D’Angelo look over to his best friend Jerome silently. Of course, anyone who knows me knows already that I took Jerome’s advice.
I walked slowly about the city of Berkeley that evening. I walked in dark corridors, in quiet places where people were not gathered. By the end of the night, I had the A Part, and the B Part, and a little bridge.
I also has a Dell laptop in those days, with Finale software installed. So it wasn’t long before I came up with the saxophone solo, the wooden clarinet, the harp, and other instruments. It was at first wooden and pastoral, then brassy and urban. I remember going over to this guy Lorenzo’s apartment with it – I remember playing the fully sequenced version below for a homeless journalist we called James the Greater.
It was on that night that the Urban Elegy was born.
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