A Musician's Quite Introspective Pandemic Journey
Why musician? Why matters? We all know public live performance is essential to music’s heartbeat. Without it, I can tell you there’s a load of cabin fever dangling in the air every day. How could I ever find a nesting place for my restless musical energy during a particularly crazy time? To find an answer from this local Song Dog’s perspective…read on. [Note: most all of the songs described below may be heard by googling the Dave Monterey YouTube channel]
The year 2020 began with much promise. Heartwood Crossing played February 8 at the Lake Sonoma Steelhead Festival with great fanfare to an upbeat crowd of nature lovers and festival revelers. Seems like a time long ago now. A couple of Heartwood Trio dates followed. But that was just before the whole castle began crumbling and our calendared dates fell one by one like a sad string of dominoes.
Novato Art Wine and Music Festival cancelled. Winery dates, restaurants followed suit. The pandemic had the effect of pretty much banishing live music in its entirety. Even linking up with other musicians was a tall hill to surmount given the stay-at-home directions we all took to heart. Heartwood Crossing tried planning an open air, masked and distanced rehearsal. Complications arose from the ranks; it was not to be.
Apparently though, it’s a true thing you can’t keep a good musician down. I recall watching the Rolling Stones on TV, each band member playing from a separate environment. Thought I saw Charlie Watts flopping a spoon on a garbage pail from his home kitchen…a simply dreadful period of time for consumption of live musical arts. But thanks for trying to fill the void, boys!
Taking Stock of the Lot with a Pandemic Puppy
“Okay, so where to now?” asks Song Dog. I had company, you see. As fate would have it, we’d just adopted a pup. Turns out he didn’t mind having a stay-at-home, play-at-home dad. Making live music, even if only a one-man band in his garage, was certainly on my playlist. I had around forty of what I considered to be my top original songs. The challenge, to pare that number down to half in consideration of solo performance with a couple of sets, somewhere, sometime, somehow. Besides, what else to do?
The good news is I played, recorded, listened, revised, separated those ‘solo workable songs’ from ‘them that needed a band.’ Arrived at my top twenty only to continue arranging – which would be 6-string, 12-string, electric guitar, acoustic, pedal effects, etc., etc. Everything was to roll sans harmonies and without any additional instrumentation…and one fateful day, with dog laying ever so patiently at my tapping feet, I got there. It was then I realized I had an incomparable case of ‘all dressed up and nowhere to go.’
If there was a silver lining to the exercise it was in rediscovering songs that I knew would have a future in a public arena once the corona dust had settled. I fell in love again with the poetry of the western landscape that my song Arroyo Seco successfully engages. Plus, the vocal melody recalls for me a Marty Robbins style that’s so much fun:
Long before the clouds touched the high desert mountains
The wild Spanish mustang shook his mane, and swept the plain,
Knowing summer rain was near.
Time painted dreams where the waters once streamed through the river
Now a canyon of sadness stands alone, an ocean of stone
Where the old pine tree sheds no tear.
Arroyo Seco, dry river, cut down to size,
One day you’re sleeping, another you’ll open your eyes.
Ah, yes, then writing new songs during this period of forced hibernation also took on a crisp sense of urgency. I produced more prolifically than in a typical year. The time available and the unfolding events of the times made prime ground for consulting the creative muse. The 2020-2021 pandemic (and associated cultural/political) period produced a litany of emotional changes in me. Each seemed to have its own seasonal biorhythm.
Not So Silent Spring 2020
A novel virus set up a radical change in motion. It inevitably led to me making anecdotal observations of behaviors in neighbors and townsfolk. And with the passing of songwriter John Prine due to Covid-19, a ‘finger-pickin’ good’ song Coronavirus Window View Blues came to be:
Like captured bandits we cover our snooz
Only recognize you by your shoes
Coronavirus you done changed our window view.
‘Tween bats, pangolins, monkeys and snakes
Why the hell we brew a pandemic zoo
Coronavirus you done changed our window view.
On a dark night, lost a song wright just singin’ what he had to say
That we’re halfway to heaven with paradise waitin’
And only five miles away…
What’s the Truth, Ain’t for Sale was a hook line that first got scribbled (not ironically) on the back of a sales receipt. This defiant complaint about a sense-surround atmosphere of disinformation subsequently evolved, with the help of my Heartwood co-writers, into a message of hoped-for American unity:
Changing the TV newscast, it seems someone’s tellin’ lies
Beware of who you trust – can’t count on a roll of the dice.
Compromise is impossible when the devil breaks the deal
It’s only when we hear the truth this nation can heal.
Take a good look at our stars and stripes
We’re more than a red or blue tribe,
Shake out the joys, shut off the noise
And find the light in American eyes.
Recording Takes an Interesting Detour
Heartwood Crossing thought we had the song of the times in the above up-tempo, sanity-centering anthem. The trio of vocalists were not ready to do a full-scale studio recording in early 2020 for obvious reasons. Not to mention that my folks were 87 and 90, respectively. I wanted to bring home no surprises (though I did find a way to bring some safe serenading to their back yard, even with Dad’s difficult hearing).
So, we tried a remote self-recording with home equipment, all safely distanced and proper protocols in place. We managed to get three vocals and guitars into relatively good gain comparison. But the room sound was horrendous (like we were in an auditorium), and we had trouble admitting that to ourselves until Jon, our illustrious violin player, had already mailed in his separate, self-recorded part.
Our rhythm section was scoping out a recording studio where they felt they could safely lay down their bass and drum tracks on the tune, and they did so. To bring this cameo to a close, I’d have to say our experience with these attempts at making a high quality sound recording during the pandemic were a bust. The ‘fit’ of parts never worked well in trying to put it all together on our own. I don’t think I’ll want a next life as a sound engineer in lieu of musician. But it does make you think about it.
Look, Ma! Moving Pictures with Song
Next up? Preparing my songs for video-streaming online was something I’d never done before. And it made a lot of sense to explore it during the season of laying low. Especially with traditional studio recording being less accessible. Streaming has rapidly risen in popularity and become a good avenue for ‘getting the music out there’ – sound and visual combined – which is something I’m certain will last well beyond the pandemic pall. Though, I absolutely must add…the sonic quality of making really good studio recordings will never be replaced!!
Fortunately for me, my lovely and talented wife, Carol Ann, (who knew she was also a decent videographer!!) managed to capture me performing a number of my songs in a bird’s eye view with her smart phone. We chose the background scenery; I donned performance outfits and supplied the song intro patter as if an intimate club setting, then went about delivering the strum and hum. Quite a fun art in and of itself.
[In addition to the Dave Monterey and Heartwood Crossing YouTube sites, videos of various recorded performances of mine may also be found on the web at Luther Burbank Center for the Arts (Luther Locals events) and at events sponsored by Occidental Center for the Arts. Many thanks to these two great organizations!]
Thundering Through Summer and Fall
The death of George Floyd at the end of a Minneapolis blue choke hold brought grief and indignation. A nation of concerned young folks rose up, and I saw with Black Lives Matter a rekindling of the 1960’s civil rights movement. Yet, a purity test on deed of conscience from the liberal left confused many who sought peaceful solution. I found myself thoughtful about the world of a young child in this jarring spin cycle, and I came up with a soft, melodic song conundrum I call Stormy Lullaby:
It’s never too late, my child, to hold a kite up to the wind
And raise a strong cry, justice for all must begin.
The story isn’t written, nobody knows how it ends,
The river of dreams don’t run a straight line, she’s full of turns and bends.
Sail through the night on wings of love, with a stormy lullaby.
By the time Fall rolled around many of us exhibited a hardened acceptance to the brave new world thrust upon us. I got inspired to write a rockin’ ode to persistence. ‘We will rise above this!’ is the running subtheme of The Long Haul:
The day I was born my mama said to me
You’re gonna have to suffer, son, if you want to be free.
It’s never been easy, no, it don’t come that way,
So listen up, child, what I say…we’re in this thing for the long haul
Got to show up every day and bring it all.
You wanna build a better boat, keep on the wave and stay afloat,
To find a hopeful sign, got to see it in your mind,
Sure can use a friend at the highway’s end
…We’re in this thing for the long haul.
The Winter of my Despair
Like everyone else on the planet, this Song Dog grew awfully tired of the threat that never seemed to recede. With a desire to think globally and act locally I got inspired to write a prayer for rain (California wildfires had become an indelible symbol of our planet’s vulnerability). Ultimately, the song Let It Rain became a last gasp, a cry for greater understanding that it’s really what we do, how we live, that is bringing catastrophic change to our climate:
It wasn’t coyote made the oak forest dry,
Not the deer in the wood who watched as we cried
…It was you and I, on our carbon-rich ride.
Let it rain hard and wild like an animal river
Let it roll with a lifeblood we’ll need to deliver
Thunder west of the Great Divide where the waterfall inspires
How we live and compromise, to keep out ragin’ fires,
Let it rain, let it rain…
The hoped-for vaccines were supposedly on their way “into arms.” Still, feeling at the end of my proverbial rope, I wondered aloud if it might be possible for me to ‘pull a geographic’ and just get the hell out of here. Been hard times for the eternal optimist. And I couldn’t be the only one who felt this way. My fatigue and depression coalesced with clicking cadence into a finger-pickin’ train song (with a bow to Elizabeth Cotton) Midnight Train Revisited:
Bound to hop that midnight train
Freedom from this prison in my mind,
Got all my chips a-ridin’
Maybe be some peace, I might find.
Better leavin’ this place today
Then fallin’ from the mountain just behind,
…I’m countin’ on a midnight train.
Well, I cannot complete this song blog without bringing the story completely up to date as May 2021 is upon us. In the nick of time Spring has brought reminders of just how beautiful this earthly paradise can be. The irises out front are in full bloom and the veggie garden is getting prepared. And in a fantastic trend, the number of active Covid cases in Sonoma County has plummeted to levels not seen since this debacle began. From a musical perspective, things look promising for a cautious reopening…the return of live performance! Hallelujah!
We’ve recently been reaching out to our booking contacts and have gotten a few dates in June/July for Heartwood Trio – already for placement on the calendar. Having our vaccinations makes full rehearsals again possible. So, we’ll be blowing the rust out with all the Heartwood Crossing bandos very soon. I couldn’t be more excited! Yesterday, Heartwood Trio was invited into Prairie Sun Recording Studio in Cotati to take part in the making of a compilation CD in lieu of Railroad Square Music Festival (many large gathering public events are still in wait-and-see mode).
Mostly, it feels sublime that we can contemplate going out and having fun once again! Baby steps can be good steps. Easy does it, right? All I know is, every dog’s got to have its day. My thanks to you for tuning in. I hope to see you out there soon.
Dave Monterey (Song Dog)