Evolution of a Song: Part Two

In reference to Part One, I sent the post to my brother Steve.   I hadn’t heard from him for quite some time, and it was wonderful to receive this email in the morning:

Bro –

This is so nice and yes, it happened exactly as you
describe.

I’ve always said there are three phases in my musical
life (which is 99% of my life, or something):

Andy Pope
The Grateful Dead
Everything else.

Equally weighted –

And you can quote me on that.

S.

What a pleasant surprise to wake up and see my brother’s email!   But he did not say anything about the libretto.  This leads to a personal confession.

I have been terrible about devaluing the songs I wrote when I was younger.  At one point I wrote a song called “Apologies to Peter Pan.”  It was the year 1974, and I was 21 years old.   Well, I thought the music was okay, but I didn’t like the lyrics.   So, later on in life, in the year 2004 in fact, I stole my own song.

I stole the music of “Apologies to Peter Pan” in order to place that music in a show I was writing, while changing all the words and, in fact, the entire meaning of the song.  One person was honest enough to object.   He explained that the lyrics were not better than the lyrics of the original song (which I do remember, by the way, in full.)

That person was right.   But what he does not know, and what no one knew till now, is the reason why I would do these things:  low self esteem.  

I simply did not believe, at around 2004 or so, that I was capable of writing a brand new song.  I had been involved in the workaday world, zipping from gig to gig on the San Francisco Bay Area Peninsula –  hustling, teaching, doing my gigs, and not really writing much at all.   I viewed writing as something I did as a Kid.   As an adult, I worked.   I taught.  I played music.   I went to PTA meetings.   I taught Vacation Bible School.  But did I write any music?

No.  Not at all.   Why not?   I no longer believed that I could.  

So instead, I thought: “Well – when I was younger, I wrote all kinds of music.   I always remember the music, but not always the lyrics.  Why don’t I just take all the old music I wrote, rearrange it, and rewrite the words?

So I stole my own music, in this pathetic and cowardly fashion, until one night, there was a psychic change.

It was the year 2010.  I was renting a hotel room at a reduced rate, in exchange for working the front desk.   I had time on my hands, and I still made visits to my mentor, Stan Beckler.

Stan Beckler

I had studied Music Theory and Composition with Stan at the U.O.P. Conservatory of Music in the 70’s.  I reconnected with him later in life, and began to pay him visits, during which my orchestrations were analyzed.   He was a wonderful man and a brilliant composer whom I admired very much.  Then in March of 2010, at the age of 86, Stan died.

That night, I couldn’t sleep.   Stan had always wanted me to write a string quartet.  But I never did.  He had also often suggested I remove the drum parts completely.   He appreciated and drew out the classical composer in me.   He’d have rather I had not gotten so heavy into the show tunes.   But he was never discouraging, always warm and wise.  It was hard to get Stan off my mind that night.  But I decided to try.

I opened the file of the piece I was writing.  It seemed that the song, “Child of No Emotion,” might make a better song with different words, to be called: “Cloaks of Art.”  As I began to arrange the music, I decided to begin with a string section.  And I tried not to think about this man whom I had loved, who had always been with me, and who now was gone.

Editing the arrangement, I would often stop and start the music over again.   My perfectionism was at a staggering peak.  I could not get it right, no matter what.  But I kept hammering away, till just before dawn.  And then — something happened.  Something entirely new, unexpected, unprecedented.

As I tried to keep stopping and starting the music, the STOP command ceased to function.  I wanted to stop the music.   But the music would not stop.

It kept playing, even after I repeatedly pressed the STOP key.   So I could no longer mess with it.  I was forced to listen to it all.   I listened to the strings, and then suddenly I realized:

This is the string quartet that Stan always wanted me to write.  And Stan is here right now.   He won’t let me keep messing with the music — because he wants to hear the whole thing!   His spirit is here, approving of me — telling me my work is complete.  I have finally satisfied my mentor.  I have written the String Quartet!

I fell down on my knees.  I thought about how when the prophet Elijah had died, Elisha was sorrowful.  And he asked God to give him a “double portion of Elijah’s spirit.”

I cried out: “Lord, give me a double portion of Stan Beckler’s spirit!”

And I don’t know how to explain it, but never again did I ever feel that I could not write music that was new and fresh.   As for “Cloaks of Art?”   The string quartet is not very long.   Twenty measures or so, before other instruments enter in, and it swells into a more symphonic sound.   But it satisfied Stan, and it marked the beginning of a new life of new music, new words.   I may not be an “entirely different composer.” But the song I sing in my heart today is an entirely different song.

Cloaks of Art

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Evolution of a Song: Part One

I often proclaim — not without pride — that I wrote most of the music to Eden in Babylon in my head, without a musical instrument, without music paper, and without music notation software.   While this statement is true, it is not true of the entire score.

There are two songs in this show that were actually written a long time ago — in 1971 and 1982 respectively.   They had different titles and different lyrics, but the same music.   Also, half of one song was written in 1984, and 1/4 of another song was also written in that period, around about 1980.   Otherwise, all the songs were written between 2010 and 2016, when I was homeless in the San Francisco Bay Area.

These older songs were obviously written by a much younger man.   So it might be interesting to explore how they evolved and found a place in Eden in Babylon.

One of the songs is “Midnight Screams.”  This song has had three different names.  First it was “Child of No Emotion.” This was the first ballad in a rock opera I wrote in 1971, called Euphoria.  

Ah, how I remember Christmas of 1971.   I came home from U.C. Davis, my brother Steve was there, I sat down at the Wurlitzer spinet on which I learned how to play piano as a little boy, and promptly played the first five songs in Euphoria.

I remember after the fifth song, “Child of No Emotion,” Steve smiled, and in an uncharacteristic departure from his usual inscrutability, I heard the words:  “I love you.”

I don’t recall having reciprocated his expression. I have always loved him, of course, but I was so self-absorbed at the time, I believe the next words I said were:

“How does Euphoria compare to Jesus Christ Superstar?” (This being 1971, the famous rock opera from England was making a big splash in the States.)

“So far,” said my admiring younger brother, “it’s better!”

I’m inwardly laughing, because I happen to think Jesus Christ Superstar is the closest a rock opera has ever come to replicating a true classical opera.   I hold it to be a masterpiece.   But back in the Day, I remember my brother and I, in our youthful arrogance, deciding we were “done” with Jesus Christ Superstar.  He had learned the entire score on his bass, and I had learned it on the piano.  We had played the score so many times together, that one day the two of us ran out in the middle of the street and stomped the two-album set — and we’re talking vinyl — to pieces.

Ah, the fond memories of misspent youth!   

I might contact Steve later on tonight because he’s really good at keeping family mementos, and it’s very likely that the Euphoria libretto is among them.   I can’t remember the last time I saw the text.  Knowing me, I probably lost it in some storage unit somewhere along the line.   Unlike Steve, I’m a minimalist.   (That’s a positive way of framing the fact that I’m very bad at hanging onto things — and very good at being able to hit the road at a moment’s notice.)

While I don’t remember many of the lyrics to “Child of No Emotion,” I do remember that the title figures on the fourth line of each verse, where the words “where the wind is howling” and “desperately prowling” are found in the present-day lyrics of “Midnight Screams.”  

I’ll look for the libretto.   Meanwhile, stay tuned for a sequel.  I forgot all about “Child of No Emotion” until I decided to write an opera in the year 2009.   In 2010, I was fortunate enough to have landed an under-the-table gig in a sleazy hotel on MacArthur Blvd, which is when I dredged up the Child and decided it was now a song with new lyrics, called “Cloaks of Art.”

There’s a story around that one that’s just a wee bit more colorful than a tale of two whippersnappers ripping an old vinyl album to bits.    

TO BE CONTINUED

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