Working At Music


Before last night, I hadn’t been to the Freight and Salvage since they’d moved. The new space is inviting, comfortable, and the energy in there had me reaching for my notebook with the beginnings of my next song in it as I was waiting for the show to begin. It didn’t hurt that their coffee is great, either.

I went to check out the open mike that’s held there on Tuesdays. Since the only open mike I’ve ever been to was held at a bar in Mystic Seaport, and I was drunk when I performed, I decided to go about this one in more professional fashion.

Mystic was actually serendipitous. It was my first sailing trip, aboard the Brig Niagara and the last stop before I left the ship was the sea music festival at Mystic Seaport. It was a nice bonus, but I’d come to sail in square rig, I didn’t really care where we ended up. We all went down to the bar and one of my shipmates signed me up, unbeknownst to me, since I’d been singing the whole trip anyway. I ended up singing after Tom Lewis, a guy I had been watching on the stage all weekend. Total surprise on all counts, and though it turned out fine, it wasn’t exactly fun at the time, and it’s no way to make a living.

I needn’t have been so cautious last night. The Freight is a great place to sing, and there was a lot of great music to be heard. The night started out with a really kick-ass ukelele player, and there was also a duo doing original showtunes that really blew me away. They did one song called “Can’t say ‘I do'” that was just incredible. I’m in a same sex relationship, and while the lavender picket fence holds zero appeal for me, that song made me cry. Not bad for $6.50. I bought an advance ticket for next week before I left. Next time the drum goes with me.

Today I’m off to stand in the street. Or wherever looks good. I never get to go to the Wednesday Market at Civic Center in San Francisco but since I’m off this week it seems a good place to start.

Worlds Apart

That was just the recharge I needed. Well, maybe not the three nights of steady drinking, but nothing that morning coffee didn’t set right. Getting to spend the day barefoot, in my leine, listening to bands and hanging with my clan, now that was a taste of the world I want to live in.

The shape of this world, the feel of it, is more important than the details. It begins with a group I’m part of, that becomes more itself when I, or any other part of it arrives. A clan, a tribe, where hospitality is at the core and we all pitch in to do what is needful, getting it done and making it part of the fun. A group where we all are after giving and receiving our gifts, to each other, and to the world. The world is a better place for our being in it.

The Games run like that, as far as I can see. People pick up after themselves. The privies are cleaned regularly, and the campground is amazingly clean considering the fact that most of us are dependent on the facilities inside the Fairground for running water. People drink mightily, and pile their bottles by the trash cans, where they’re picked up at least once a day. People and groups are welcoming. Even if they’ve never seen you before, you’re treated as part of the clans. I always know more people when I leave than I did when I arrived. And no one cares a bit what I wear–something that rarely happens in the outside world.

The task now is to keep that energy and bring it back with me, in this neighborhood full of litter and tags, where people treat each other as strangers if they haven’t seen them before. We can do better, we will be forced to do so in the not too distant future if we don’t make the choice ourselves soon.

Yesterday was hard. I met with more indifference at Berkeley BART, which is generally my best station, than I ever have. The singing felt good, I was in better voice than I’ve been in a long time too. I can fill that space with voice and drum now, without blowing out my voice, and my repertoire has expanded back to the point where I can fill 45 minutes solid before I have to start throwing in repeats.

But there are people who smile, regardless, and people who hang around for whatever reason, and the green and growing earth is still to be seen everywhere if you look for it. I spent the weekend sleeping and walking on green grass, and there are trees to be seen from the BART train. There is grass growing through the pavement, and the UC Berkeley campus is half forest. The sunflowers have finally bloomed in my yard, and the tomatoes are ripening. The raspberry bush, all but dead two months ago, is actually going to put out flowers this year. Life, and hope, are everywhere.

What shape is your perfect world? Where do you see it peeking through in this one? Can you do anything to bring it into being?

Songs That Must Be Sung, Part 1 of 3

This trip has been growing for years. There are things to be done and songs to be sung that have to happen in Ireland, England and Scotland. I don’t expect to get to all of them this time, but there are a few biggies that absolutely have to happen. There are three of my songs in particular that have to be sung this time. The first one is The Pangs of Macha.

Back in college, I took a Celtic literature course. It was the most important course I ever took. My instructor let me write a song for my final project, based on one of the pieces we read. I chose one of the pre-tales from Kinsella’s translation of the Tain. He included a selection of stories that an Irish person of the time would have known, and which made the tale more intelligible to people of our time. It explained the reason why Cuchulain was facing Medb’s army alone.

I chose it for a variety of reasons. First, before that class, I hadn’t known who Macha was, beyond a vague awareness that she was a goddess. I’d known of the Cu since childhood. I felt her story needed to be told. I also knew what it felt like to be wronged by the men of Ulster, a story best forgotten now. I also was struck by the fact that of all the provinces of Ireland, Ulster was the one that was still not free, torn by violence. It was as if Macha’s curse was still operating, her lessons not yet learned. So I told that story, fully, leaving nothing out, adding nothing, from the only version I had that I felt was trustworthy.

I knew when I wrote it that someday I would sing it at Emain Macha. So I need to go to Navan Fort in Armagh (Ard Macha?) and do so.

Busking My Way To Ireland

I’m going to be 50 on the Winter Solstice. I’ve spent my whole life on the West Coast of the United States, specifically in the Bay Area. This really is an amazing place to live, and I applaud my parents’ good taste in choosing to settle here (they came from Ohio originally). However, I’ve never been off this continent, unless you count the fact that I have been offshore and just out of sight of land on both coasts. Both trips were in tallships and I remember vividly being aloft off the Atlantic braced against the swell furling t’gallants. On the West Coast I remember the three members of our watch tacking the Lady Washington late at night without having to wake anyone else. It took a bit of time, but we felt like giants when we were done. I wouldn’t trade either of those experiences for anything, but the fact is, I’ve never been to any other country other than Canada.

Lest this turn into a pity party, I have a plan, and what Chris Guillebeau recently called a Big Thing on his blog, The Art Of Non Conformity. I thank him for the inspiration, and all the concrete advice he gives out for free on his site, as well as his excellent book, The $100 Startup, which is a great read.

The germ of my idea is this: I will busk my way to Ireland, which is a place I have always wanted to go. Every penny that comes from my music goes in the fund to do this. My drum will take me places my salary can’t.

Now I know it will take me centuries to pass the hat for enough money to buy a plane ticket. But I also know that adventures often begin small. If I set out my hat, start singing, and say yes to every good idea that comes to me, I’ll get there, probably sooner than I think. Along the way, I’ll get a lot better at my craft, and there are other things besides busking that I already plan on doing. I have two albums half written that will grow as I stand in the BART station or on that sidewalk. Busking is like fertilizer, I have always known that. It is the greatest teacher there is.

So for now I’ll pack up my drum and my produce and head for the crop swap. I’ll be playing on the corner of Adeline and Alcatraz in Berkeley in about 2 hours. And I’ll post some more details on why I want to go, and what I plan to do when I get there in the next few days. If you are intrigued by this idea, and find my journey entertaining, please spread the word. I need as many eyes and ears as possible on this blog to make this work. Thanks for reading this far, and may your road be as much fun as mine is going to be!

The Bicycle Meditation

My main modes of travel are:

First and foremost, on foot. It was good enough for my hominid ancestors, and it’s good enough for me.

If it’s too far to walk to, given our time-starved culture, I hop on my bicycle.

If bicycling is impractical or the route required is downright frightening, I get on the bus or the BART.

If even that won’t get me where I’m going, or the load I must take is too heavy, I get a carshare car.

I realize that I am, like the salmon, swimming upstream with this way of life. I get frustrated as hell living like this. But I know that our choices are shaping our world, and I fear the direction we’re collectively driving in. I can’t go back, I don’t like where we are now, and I feel that for me this is the only way forward to a future we can live in, and live well.

It’s hard, though, trying to get across town in a world built for the automobile. It’s hard and scary sharing the road that people in cars think they own. I take the side streets whenever possible but even so, there are a few places in my daily commute where I have to use the busy arterials for short distances. Every day I’m passed at high speed, close enough to feel the wind suck at my clothes, by some entitled jerk who needs to get there a minute sooner and sees me as nothing more than an obstacle in their way.

My morning commute, being early, is actually pretty stress-free. But I used to ride in a rage-filled haze many afternoons. That wasn’t good for anyone, least of all me. This meditation has evolved over the last year or so, and has made my afternoon ride a whole lot easier.

The Bicycle Meditation

Gaia, you have given me everything. This road I roll on is made from your bones. Every part of this bicycle I ride has been made from something that came from you. Likewise my body, my very life!

Gaia, you have given me life! I offer you this bike ride, all these rides taken across Oakland, all these shining strands woven by my wheels back into the web of life, all these rides made under my own power, using the original biofuel. I offer you these, and my firm intention to stay on my feet, on this bicycle, on the bus.

Because we are world changers. We humans have the power to change your face to the point where other beings can no longer exist on it. If we take it far enough, we ourselves may no longer exist. I am glad to be aware of the ways that my choices change you, and to choose carefully, because all beings have the right to their homes, and their lives. They should never be killed without a reason, or without awareness.

But Gaia, I do ask you one thing. Protect me. Protect all bicyclists. Let us all arrive safe and happy at our destinations, having the most amazing fun, because people join a party.

And Gaia, may our numbers grow. May we become an expected, respected and protected form of traffic.

Gaia, may our numbers grow. May we be equal to the numbers of cars out here. May facilities and accommodations be built for us as well, so that we may travel safely across our cities. May every road, bridge and highway be open to us, and to all human-powered forms of transport. May I be able to travel from San Diego, California to Vancouver, B.C. if I choose. May I at least be able to ride across town with a bike trailer to buy groceries and have it be a safe and pleasant experience.

And Gaia, may our numbers grow. May we outnumber the cars. May human powered forms of transport be the way we get around. May we travel on foot, by bicycle, by scooter, skateboard and wheelchair. May we all honor and respect all road users as we travel at human speeds, that preserve social cues and let us interact with each other as we travel. May every neighborhood be a better place to live because we meet our neighbors every day on the streets, on the trails, on the buses. May we, as always, live with the consequences of our actions, and may those consequences include watching ourselves grow healthier, stronger and saner, as we watch you grow greener and healthier.


Lughnasadh is here. I invite you to think, what have you harvested? What harvests are yet to come in? Are the skies clear, or does rain threaten to undo all your hard work?

What do you wish you had planted, back in spring?

Lugh shines brightly, high overhead. Many-skilled, he invites us to work hard at our crafts, to make our lives rich and beautiful with the work of our hands, hearts, and minds. What we give to our community is as important as what we give to ourselves. What we take should always be equal to or less than what we give.