Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Happy Hanukkah from Cinder Bridge

On Sunday, December 18, Cinder Bridge officially became part of the problem.

We participated in another multi-band holiday benefit that day. As I've mentioned before, I like doing benefits. And this one helped out the Community Food Bank, a great cause that's in dire need of the funds. So why "problem"?

Back when we were invited to this shindig, Ron the Drummer pointed out that they'd probably want us to play holiday songs at a holiday show. I sent a message to the organizer, Rik of Tucson Rock Alliance, and asked him.

Rik said they'd like everybody to learn at least one holiday cover.

And that is why, on December 18, even though I spend every holiday season complaining about holiday music being crammed down our throats, we played a rousing, jazzed up version of "Oh Hanukkah" and a highly abridged version of "The Linus and Lucy Theme" from A Charlie Brown Christmas.

That doesn't count as selling out, though, right? Supermarkets never play "Oh Hanukkah," Not even the Barenaked Ladies version.

And "Linus and Lucy" by the Vince Guaraldi Trio rocks no matter what holidays you celebrate or what music you like.

* * *

Happy Hanukkah, everybody. For those of you who have never celebrated it, it starts on the 25th day of Kislev in the Jewish calendar. This year, that's sundown tonight.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Get thee behind me, drummer

When we play an event that features multiple bands, it's typical for the organizer or venue to provide the sound equipment. Speakers, for instance. Or microphones.

Last night's Gift of Love benefit did us one better, though. They had everybody use the same drum kit, which was on a raised platform at the back of the stage. This meant much quicker loading and unloading between sets—good for the audience and convenient for the bands. It also made things ... interesting for Ron and me.

For those of you just tuning in, Cinder Bridge is a duo. Ron plays drums. I sing and play keyboard. In general, we perform side by side. At first that was pretty much for aesthetic purposes. The standard setup in which the drummer sits behind everybody else looks kind of odd when "everybody else" is just me:

Ron the Drummer watches Susan's back

More importantly, though, communication becomes difficult when we're stacked that way.

Take the set list. If there's an original song we especially want people to pay attention to, we often put it after a cover that everybody already knows. In this case, we had our big message song, "Everybody Knows About Me," right after the Rolling Stones' "Miss You." But everyone at Gift of Love was really into "Miss You," and I felt weird about plunging them right into a very slow, very depressing tune.

Normally when this kind of thing happens, whoever wants to change the order glances over at the other person and says, "Let's play [name of song] next." Sneaking a look back at Ron, though, I realized there was no way to convey the information either quickly or inconspicuously. So I turned back around and went into "Everybody Knows About Me."

Then, during the first few measures of our fifth song, before I started singing, the guy who organized the event came over and told me they were running late, so this would be the last thing we played. There was no way Ron could hear him, and no way for me to tell him what was going on. Nothing to do but keep going.

None of this turned out to be a real problem. The audience applauded for "Everybody Knows About Me" longer than anything else—some people were actually slow-dancing to it. And the organizer came up immediately after our de facto last song, thanked us for coming, and announced the next performers.

Still, weird. How do larger bands deal with this? I felt like we should have walkie-talkies or something.

* * *

Thanks to Don Martin for taking the photo, and for letting us pilfer it.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Grown and sexy

Cinder Bridge is doing a couple of benefits this month. The first one, on Saturday, December 10, is Gift of Love, a Christmas toy drive.

In addition to being a good cause, Gift of Love has introduced me to a term I wasn't familiar with. The print is probably too small for you to read here, but there's a note about the dress code on the poster:
This is an exclusive "grown and sexy" event
Dress to impress
I'd never encountered "grown and sexy" before. Maybe that's because I'm out of touch with the new and happening slang. Or, maybe it's because I've been living in Tucson, the capital of casual, for too long. At any rate, I made a mental note to dress up. And then it hit me ...

There's a reason I wear jeans and sensible shoes to gigs. I mean, besides the fact that I wear jeans and sensible shoes everywhere it's permissible to do so. Gigs aren't just sauntering onto the stage and playing. They involve much hauling of equipment. This is not something easily done in a dress and shoes that are designed to be worn with a dress.

I might be able to pull it off with slacks. But jeans are just better when it comes to manual labor. Before the fashion industry noticed that jeans existed, that's what jeans were for.

So, Ron and I look forward to seeing the audience decked out ... but we'll be dressed as the working class heroes we are.

* * *

Just in case you're in the vicinity and can't read any of the fine print on that poster, here's the relevant info for Gift of Love.
When: Saturday, Dec. 10, 2 p.m. to 2 a.m. (We play at 8)
Where: Whisky Tango, 140 S. Kolb Rd., Tucson, AZ
Why: Toys for kids who can't afford 'em!
Cover: Free if you bring a toy donation

Monday, December 5, 2011

Checking it twice

For a while now I've had a theory that someone must like Christmas music. Well, I found him! Here he is!

On a related note, I have a request for Whole Foods, which seems to have gone from throwing a few Christmas songs into the playlist to doing all Christmas all the time. If you must torture those of us who aren't into this genre, could you at least ease up on "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town"? Two versions of it in a row is a little excessive.

Sunday, November 27, 2011


92.9 KWMT switched formats last week. Since the end of 2003, they had called themselves "The Mountain" and played AAA (adult album alternative) music, which included stuff on the fringes of mainstream pop/acoustic rock. But over the years their playlist became increasingly more bland, and now they've finally made the leap to hot AC (adult contemporary). Basically mainstream pop music from the 1980s on up. It's very bright and happy now, and even more bland.

Yeah, I know. You're probably not in Tucson and don't care. None of this would be worth mentioning except that a few years ago, I could imagine Cinder Bridge songs on the Mountain. Now, even if we managed to hit the big time and get on commercial radio, I don't see them touching our fringier or slower tunes.


Oh well. At least KXCI Community Radio is still around.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Occupy the North Pole

It has begun. I heard Christmas music in two different stores today. Three full days before Thanksgiving.

Hey, maybe the Occupy movement can add this to their list of demands.

A girl can dream ...

Monday, November 14, 2011

Sweat 'til you get wet

Discovered a new open mic jam today. It's every Sunday at a place called Beau Brummel Club, less than two miles from where I live. I don't go to open mics much anymore, as I stash my keyboard at Ron the Drummer's house, but the guy who runs this one said there'd be a keyboard available to play. Sold.

I played a Cinder Bridge song by myself. I played another Cinder Bridge song with a couple other musicians jamming on it with me (they'd never heard it before). Instead of selecting another original for the finale, I decided it would be more fun to just jam out on something improvised. A whole bunch of other musicians took the stage, I asked somebody to pick a key, and off we went.

Here's the impressive part. One or two guys actually sang parts of the improvised piece.

I can't even imagine how you do that. Yeah, the lyrics were goofy, with a lot of repetition, but I still don't get it. When I jam on the keyboard, all I have to know is what chord I'm supposed to be playing. Because I have to stay within the parameters of that chord, I have some guidance. But lyrics could be anything at all.

The only words I remember from our jam (retroactively titled something like "Ladies Don't Like to Take Showers") were "Sweat 'til you get wet." Not profound, but pretty clever for being dreamed up on the spot.

Friday, November 11, 2011

This goes to 11

Happy Veterans Day, veterans. Here's hoping the world treats you kindly today—and every day.

On a more lighthearted, yet much louder note, 11/11/11 is also Nigel Tufnel Day.

If you don't get it, you have to rent This Is Spinal Tap. Immediately.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Suspiciously sad

Jerry strummed the first few chords of his next song. To his right was Mike, another guitar player. I sat behind him at Duncan Stitt's keyboard. We were sharing the stage at a songwriters' open mic.

"The songs Susan and Mike just played were pretty happy," said Jerry. "I'm going to play a sad song."

He did—a lovely, wistful breakup tune. When he finished, it was my turn again.

"Like the last song, mine is also a sad tale, filled with regret," I said, and launched into Quicksand.

* * *

It was a running theme. Every time one of the performers played something that wasn't cheerful, they would point it out. As if music is by default happy and upbeat, and anything that deviates from this requires an apology, or at least an explanation.

I'm not sure why. Songs are meant to convey a full range of emotions. Sadness is kind of an important one. And when I'm feeling down, the last thing I want to do is listen to music that tries to convince me all is right with the world. I seek out something that suits my mood. Only after a few sad or angry songs am I ready to consider anything more upbeat.

So why were we defensive about what we'd written?

Do some listeners conflate "sad" with "low energy" and "boring"?

Have we as a society bought into positive thinking to such a degree that we don't want to acknowledge negativity even in our art?

What do you think? Do you avoid sad songs? If yes, why?

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Psychosomatic? Or just somatic?

psy·cho·so·mat·ic [sahy-koh-suh-mat-ik, -soh-]
  1. of or pertaining to a physical disorder that is caused by or notably influenced by emotional factors.
  2. pertaining to or involving both the mind and the body.

Over the years, I've come to doubt the existence of psychosomatic illnesses. People like to believe in them. The idea that our mind can make our body sick is intriguing, and besides, it provides an easy explanation for all those inconvenient ailments that haven't yet been diagnosed, or even discovered. Problem is, nobody seems to have taken the trouble to prove that emotional stress can manifest as physical symptoms.

Every once in a while I get into a debate with somebody about this. While they allow for the possibility that "psychosomatic" is at times shorthand for "I don't know what's wrong with you and don't want to tell you that," they believe that psychologically induced illnesses can happen. They aren't experts in the field or anything; they just think it's intuitively obvious.

For those people, here's a quote on the subject from a licensed clinical psychologist who's been practicing for over 25 years:
Physicians have referred many people to me before they had a diagnosis, even doctors who don’t know what else to do for their patients. ALL of them eventually received a medical diagnosis. That’s right. ALL OF THEM.

(Full post here.)
My opinion on psychosomatic illness can be swayed by real evidence—evidence that amounts to more than "We've ruled out everything else we happen to know about." 'til then, true believers, the burden of proof is on you.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The ABCs of music sales

A few months ago I decided to buy a certain album. It never happened. Either the CD skipped my mind when I was within range of a place to obtain it, or I didn't have time to stop in.

But I've been jonesing for new music after a long stretch of listening to the same tunes on the iPod. So this evening, as I walked past a hip little independent CD store on my way to grocery shopping, I decided to take the plunge.

I made my way to the Ms. Started scanning. And scanning. And scanning.

Ah yes. I'd forgotten.

The hip little independent CD store, like so many other CD stores, doesn't alphabetize its CDs. Or, rather, it does only to a point. All the Ma bands and artists are together, but within Ma it's a total free-for-all.

The result: It took much longer than it should have to discover that this store does not, in fact, carry anything by Barry Manilow.

* * *

I have a theory about why filing is so sloppy in these places. The longer customers have to flip through CDs to find what they're looking for, the more likely they'll be to stumble across something else they wanted, but hadn't been thinking about. While looking for Manilow, for instance, I saw the Dave Matthews Band and combed through their stuff for a song I liked.

It's a clever strategy, but one that ought to be retired. Music retailers, please take note ...

#1: There has been a tremendous drop in CD sales over the past 10 years. I don't need to tell you this. If you're managing to survive now, it's largely because so much of your competition has died.

#2: Gen-Xers (and people older than Gen-Xers) like CDs. We like digital downloads too, but we're more likely than Millennials to crave a product we can hold in our hands.

#3: One of the draws of digital music is that it takes no time at all to find what we're looking for. Enter your search term, hit return, and there it is.

#4: Traveling to a brick-and-mortar store, poking around to locate our selections, and then walking back to checkout is already a greater time commitment than we absolutely have to invest. It annoys customers to spend many minutes on top of that, attempting to dig through your inventory, simply because no one could bother to shelve it properly.

#5: Gen-Xers are grown-ups. Have been for quite a while. We've got obligations, responsibilities, places to be. We're going to be even more annoyed than your average high school student (who probably doesn't want your CDs anyway) if we're delayed for no good reason.

* * *

The above rant is mostly pointless. In 10 or 20 years, I'll reread this and get all nostalgic about how people were still actually buying CDs. But just for grins and giggles, give my words some thought. Maybe with enhanced alphabetization, you'll be one of the few retailers that survive long enough to occupy the coveted collector's-item niche.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Fight for Your Right (to Satire)

A few years ago, we made it to the second round of Tucson's Acoustic Battle of the Bands. To make things interesting, everybody participating was tasked with learning a new cover song ...

... from the Beastie Boys.

Beastie Boys tunes performed by sensitive folk singers are about as hilarious as you'd expect them to be. We had fun with it. Our pick was "Fight for Your Right (to Party)." We added a vocal melody (so nobody had to suffer the trauma of hearing me rap) and inserted a piano riff that kinda sorta echoed the original guitar riff but didn't sound anything like it. To make the goof complete, we played it totally straight.

What we didn't realize was that the Beastie Boys themselves didn't take the song any more seriously than we did.
... the Beasties hated the whole rocker scene, feeling it was populated by obnoxious, testosterone-laden douchebags. They wanted to poke fun at mindless party anthems like "Smoking in the Boys Room," so they cut the lyrics to "Fight for Your Right" as an in-joke before going on tour ... Thinking the song's success was hilarious, the Beasties made what they assumed was an equally ridiculous video to go along with it.

Slowly, they began to realize that the whole "parody" part was lost on most of the listening public, and the majority of their newfound fan base was now made up of the same toolbags they were making fun of.
Beastie Boys: That is awesome. I would have liked your song a whole lot more—or, you know, at all—if I'd realized it was satire.

In case you were curious, here's our heartfelt version, live from Ron the Drummer's living room.

Friday, October 7, 2011

By what definition?

Exciting development for people who have myalgic encephalomyelitis, known to most of the world as "chronic fatigue syndrome." The Journal of Internal Medicine has published Myalgic Encephalomyelitis: International Consensus Criteria, which lays out a new case definition for the disease ...

Wait ... where are you going?

* * *

If you are not an ME sufferer, caregiver, or advocate, you're probably about to bail. The topic sounds dry and boring. It doesn't affect you directly. There are other things you'd rather do with your time.

Please bear with me. There's a reason you should know about this, and I'll try to make it as un-boring as possible.

Here goes ...

* * *

What's the International Consensus Criteria?

A set of criteria that physicians can use to diagnose myalgic encephalomyelitis.

I'm already bored.

It gets better. Humor me, OK?

Oh, all right. But what's the big deal? They couldn't diagnose ME before?

Not very well. Over the past few decades, several case definitions have proliferated. The worst ones are little more than a wastebasket diagnosis. Essentially, "If you're really really fatigued for at least six months and you've ruled out every other disease we can think of that might cause this, then maybe you have it."

The ICC is much more specific. For instance, to be diagnosed, you must have post-exertional neuroimmune exhaustion, which is a fancy way of saying that you can't exert yourself without causing yourself even more pain and making your symptoms worse. Other diseases that cause fatigue (there are many) don't have that feature.

If you feel like learning about the details, go here. If not, just know that the ICC is much better at distinguishing ME from conditions that are not ME.

No offense, but explain to me again why I'm supposed to care about this? I don't have ME.

Do you like being manipulated? Lied to?

Eh? No ...

OK. If you read the news, you may occasionally encounter a story about how a particular kind of talk therapy (cognitive behavioral therapy) and a particular exercise program (graded exercise therapy) can help people with "chronic fatigue syndrome." Some brand new study proves it! Yay!

What's the problem with that? And what does it have to do with the ICC?

The case definition used in the study makes or breaks the study's validity. The bad ones, as mentioned above, are too broad. Subjects who meet the criteria for a bogus definition may not have ME at all. Maybe they have a different disease. Or maybe they have depression, which can be helped by talk therapy and exercise.

To complicate matters further, subjects who actually have ME are more likely to drop out of the study or not participate at all. Remember the bit about post-exertional neuroimmune exhaustion? Exercise is dangerous for people who have it. If they push too hard, they can hurt themselves—sometimes permanently.

So with the ICC in place, these psychological researchers will realize they've been studying the wrong people? They'll start studying the right people?

Eh, probably not. Other ME scientists have been bringing up the sampling bias problem for years, and the psychological researchers have soundly ignored them.

Oh. What about the media, then? Will journalists call bad scientists on bad science because of the ICC?

Based on what's happened before, also doubtful. Most reporters won't know the ICC exists.

I can see why you'd find that annoying. But to be honest with you, I have my own problems right now. Bigger problems than exposure to shoddy journalism. How does any of this affect me?

Do you consider yourself a good person? A fair person?

See, the issue with these stories is that they imply something about the disease and the people who have it. If sufferers get better with a little talk therapy and exercise, then ME can't be that big of a deal, right? And when you hear about people who go on disability because of "chronic fatigue syndrome," you think they must be getting away with something. How dare they take taxpayer money when all they need to do is see a shrink and do some sit-ups?

When these news stories convince you that ME isn't a big deal, they turn you against your fellow human beings. They succeed in stealing your compassion.

That kind of sucks, when you put it that way.

It does. But now that you know ME means a lot more than "tired all the time"—and that it responds badly to exercise—you can't be played by a press release.

At some point, another story will be published about how talk therapy and exercise help people with ME. When you see it, you can ask, "By what definition of ME?"

Sunday, September 25, 2011


The gig started out sunny and clear and hot. But by the time we finished our cover of "Miss You," a massive gray cloud had inched over the park. The cloud provided welcome shade. It also looked like it might make our day a little wetter before it moved on. Hard to tell.

"Our next song is 'Rain Dance,'" I told the Pet Rock audience. Glancing up at the sky, I added, "Which shouldn't be taken literally."

We played the song. Immediately thereafter it began to rain.

I looked up at the sky again. "I said not literally!"

Maybe we should forget about gigging and start hiring ourselves out to communities suffering from drought.

Pet Rock

Busy busy busy. I haven't had any time to post about our upcoming gig (starting at 1 p.m. today), and I don't really have time to do it now, either. Fortunately, we have this flyer. Click to enlarge!

That pretty much covers it. The only thing I have to add is that "Pet Rock" is the coolest benefit name ever.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Mass hysteria?

Over a thousand people have become sick while working in Cambodian shoe and garment factories. Stricken employees report dizziness, nausea, exhaustion, and shortness of breath; hundreds have required brief hospitalization.

With no concrete explanation for the symptoms, a few people with an interest in such things have leapt to the obvious conclusion:
It's been almost 50 years since girls at a boarding school in Tanganyika (now Tanzania) were struck by an illness whose symptoms — fainting, nausea and helpless laughter — soon spread to other communities. Or consider the Pok√©mon contagion in 1997, when 12,000 Japanese children experienced fits, nausea and shortness of breath after watching a television cartoon. Sufferers of World Trade Center syndrome, meanwhile, blamed proximity to Ground Zero for coughs and other respiratory problems long after airborne contaminants posed any health threat.

All these are examples of mass hysteria, a bizarre yet surprisingly common phenomenon that is increasingly recognized as a significant health and social problem. For centuries it has crossed cultures and religions, taking on different forms to keep pace with popular obsessions and fears. In our post-9/11 world, it thrives on the anxiety caused by terrorist attacks, nuclear radiation and environmental gloom.

More ...
It's an interesting theory. Far more interesting than the symptoms turning out to be real. Time won't sell any magazines with headlines like "Toxins are Toxic" or "Flu Virus Gives People Flu."

The problem is, hysteria doesn't have any real evidence behind it. Failing to discover a virus or toxin that's making people sick doesn't mean the virus or toxin doesn't exist. It may simply mean we haven't found it yet. Think how many people died of AIDS before anybody knew what HIV was.

Is hysteria a real thing? Do we have any way of finding out?

Here's my challenge to any researcher who backs the mass hysteria hypothesis:

Test it.

This should be relatively easy if you have access to facilities, grant money, and cheap graduate student labor. Bring subjects into an experiment that's ostensibly about something else. While everyone is answering survey questions on an unrelated topic, have numerous confederates (people pretending to be subjects, but who are in on the experiment) fake some kind of medical issue. Seizures, maybe, or fainting.

Then see if the one real subject in the room starts feeling and mimicking the "symptoms."

It took me five seconds to think up this experiment, and I'm not even a psychologist.

I hope some enterprising mental health professional takes up the challenge, because this isn't just a matter of scientific curiosity. Ask people with myalgic encephalomyelitis. When there was an outbreak of the disease in Incline Village, Nevada, back in 1984, the CDC declared it to be mass hysteria despite evidence of neurological problems. 27 years later, the victims haven't recovered ... and most of the scant funding that exists for their disease goes to psychological research.

If patients have to prove that their illnesses are real, then the scientific community should have to prove that mass hysteria is real. It's only fair.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

All-request weekend

KLPX had an all-request weekend this weekend. Which struck me as odd. How many people request songs on the radio anymore?

Requests were a big deal when I was 12 and discovering different kinds of music. I loved calling the station, actually getting through, talking to the DJ, and then waiting by the stereo, hand over the tape player's record button.

Sometimes my song would be played, sometimes not. Either way, I'd get the thrill of the chase.

When I was 12, the Internet as we know it didn't exist. You couldn't buy almost any song that had ever been recorded for chump change. You couldn't do a four-second YouTube search and, more likely than not, listen for free.

I realize, on an intellectual level, that there must still be people in this city who don't have Internet access. I guess I've been spoiled so well for so long, it's hard for me to fully comprehend.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Contains adult language

I'm writing a song featuring a romantic partner with a mercurial personality. You may know the type. One minute, he (or she) is a joy to be with; the next minute, she (or he) turns on you. The character is fictional—I've never dated a psycho—but I've heard enough harrowing tales from friends that I think I can get the details right. I'm having a lot of fun with this.

Anyway, there's a line in the last chorus that I want to tweak:
Pile on the weight
'til I'm down on my knees
The problem is "weight." It sounds good, but it's not quite what I'm going for. "Weight" conveys angst, burden. The thing my character piles on is more like the emotional equivalent of manure, unpleasant and absurd at the same time. "Manure" is pretty good, actually, but too many syllables. Hmm. What means the same thing but only has one ...

(Insert moment of realization here.)

Awww, shit.

* * *

Walking down the corridors of Elm Place Middle School, I had an epiphany. I needed to learn how to swear.

Ever since kindergarten, I'd occupied the lowest rung on the social ladder. I was the kid it was OK to be mean to. I was the kid you couldn't be nice to even if you wanted to, because then everybody else would be mean to you too.

The most frustrating part was, when the abuse came, I couldn't do much but take it. Witty comebacks weren't my strong suit. If I'd known how to hold my own in a verbal duel, really hurt my tormenters, they probably would have left me alone in the first place.

Swearing would solve that problem. Anytime somebody started in on me, I could just curse at them. The strategy wasn't as good as improvising clever, cutting remarks, but it was better than nothing.

So I incorporated a few four-letter words into my vocabulary and let loose. And the results were amazing.

Don't get me wrong. My fellow seventh-graders didn't slink away with their tails between their legs. I was still their easiest prey. Regardless, it felt pretty good to have something to say when they singled me out. Even if "suck shit" (my stock phrase) wasn't particularly clever, it conveyed what I considered useful information:
  1. I am a badass.
  2. Your pathetic taunts don't bother me in the least, because I am a badass.
  3. Also: suck shit.
* * *

Swearing didn't come naturally when I began my campaign. I was a total goody-two-shoes, very obedient, and hadn't indulged in the habit since I was four and my mother forbade me from repeating some of the more interesting words I'd picked up from older kids in the neighborhood. To say the S-word or the F-word at all, much less in front of other people, I had to push past a deep-seated sense of taboo.

But I kept at it. I conditioned myself to swear without internally flinching. And I made an unexpected discovery:

Curse words are fucking awesome.

Seriously. How had I gotten by without them before? They were like salt on scrambled eggs. They made everything better. And more emphatic. Now when I bitched about something, people would know I really fuckin' meant it.

As cool as it was to swear at my enemies, it was way cooler to swear alongside my friends. (Other kids could safely be my friends as long as they were in a different grade or went to a different school.) We were slick and tough and grownup, slipping profanity into as many utterances as we could while acting as nonchalant about it as possible.

One friend, Lisa, opined that people shouldn't make such a big deal about swearing. Words were just words. There was no logical reason that a select few should be placed in a different category than the rest. I agreed with her in principle, but not in practice. If "fuck" had no more power to shock than "darn," what would be the point of saying it? We had to collectively pretend it had magical offensive properties or it didn't work.

* * *

Walking down the corridors of Highland Park High School, I came to a realization. The whole swearing thing was kind of played.

My original reason for learning to do it had evaporated. High school kids were nicer. Most of them left me to my own devices. And while four-letter words were still great fun in their own right, they were also victims of their own success. What good were they for emphasis if I used them in every other sentence?

With a little sadness, I decided to dial it down. Keep it clean most of the time. That way, when I dropped the occasional F-bomb, people would know I was serious.

* * *

Here's the funny thing. Although I grew to love profanity in everyday life, I never cared for it in music.

My first exposure to explicit lyrics came courtesy of Billy Joel's The Nylon Curtain. Specifically from one of my favorite songs on the album, Laura:
Here I am
Feeling like a fucking fool
Do I react the way exactly
She intends me to?
Even though the album debuted in what was probably the early stages of my pottymouth phase, that caught me off guard. It's one thing for me to say "fucking" and entirely another for Billy Joel to sing it.

I understood why he wrote it that way, mind you. His narrator didn't feel like a freaking fool or a flipping fool or even a goddamn fool. The word he wanted was "fucking," and he wasn't about to weaken his point by sanitizing it. On reflection, I respected the choice.

And yet, I knew that if it had been me writing that song, I would have chosen something else.

The problem is, no matter how well a particular swear word works in terms of semantics and phonetics and rhythm, it tends not to flow seamlessly with the rest of the lyrics. A swear word calls attention to itself. That's its entire purpose. Drop one into your song, and instead of being carried along by the story, suddenly your listener is thinking, "Ooh, the F-word."

* * *

I suppose I should consider myself lucky that it took 66 songs before I encountered the "best word is a bad word" dilemma as a songwriter. But I still need to resolve it, so ...
Pile on the ______
'til I'm down on my knees
"Shit" really is perfect in terms of meaning and singability, but for all the reasons above, I'm just not going there.

"Crap" would fill in the blank, but it lacks something. It sounds too much like what I really want to say is "shit," but I'm censoring myself. Even if that's true, it's not what I want listeners to notice.

Looks like we're back to "weight." It's not absolutely, precisely what I want, but it doesn't stand out or sound wrong either. Sometimes you have to settle for good enough. In this case, doing so will make for a more balanced song as a whole.

The song, by the way, is almost finished. When we have an arrangement together and we have time to record it, I'll post it up here.

You'll like it. It's the shit.

* * *

Editor's note: I hope I haven't offended anybody with this piece. I try to keep this little blog family friendly most of the time, but the words are what they are, and I hate that asterisk bullsh*t. If you are not offended by such things and have ever wondered why certain words have the power to offend, read Why We Curse by psychologist Steven Pinker. Turns out Lisa and I were both wrong.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Viola surprise

Today's rehearsal was a little different. A violist named Rose sat in and jammed with us. On viola.

Every now and again I'll be writing a song and think, "This would sound better on acoustic guitar than piano." Or, "We could really ramp this part up with bass." Less frequently I'll think organ, electric guitar, maybe even cello. I do my best to come up with a decent arrangement on keyboard for live performances, and I file away the arrangements I hear in my head for when we record and bring in some session players.

Up until a couple weeks ago, I'd never thought, "I wonder how that would sound with viola."

But Rose heard us at our last gig, liked us a bunch, and asked if we'd like to play on the album she's recording. She also said that if we had any songs we thought she could contribute to, she'd be happy to do it.

So, viola. Viola? OK. I pondered everything we've written and made a list of songs that could maybe ... possibly ... be enhanced by that particular instrument. Couldn't hurt to try.

We did. Wow.

Viola, it turns out, adds a beautiful, rich texture to piano and drums. I guess I knew that already from listening to other people's stuff, but I'd never thought it could work for ours.

The jam reminded me of how, once you write a song and release it to the world, it's not entirely yours anymore. It can do things you never thought about, go in directions you hadn't imagined.



Monday, September 5, 2011

Evil deeds and common ground

The media is continuing to churn out articles about how a few beleaguered psychiatrists have received death threats from patients with myalgic encephalomyelitis. The psychiatrists, who claim they can treat ME with talk therapy and exercise, say these patients are angered by any assertion that their disease is psychological.

In response, Dr. Malcolm Hooper has written a letter offering more backstory and a reality check. It begins:
No right-minded person condones any campaign of vilification against psychiatrists but equally, no right-minded person can condone what psychiatrists like Wessely have done to the UK ME community over the last 25 years.
There's a lot of good stuff in that letter. Stuff about how ME—a neurological illness that attacks the immune system and leaves many sufferers completely incapacitated—is not in any way psychological. But the thing that stands out to me is that first sentence. Before he goes on the attack, he states in no uncertain terms that death threats are bad.

That's been the response I've seen everywhere in the ME blogosphere. While most patients and advocates suspect that these psychiatrists are exaggerating their claims, everyone has taken care to say that IF the threats are happening, they shouldn't be.

* * *

In related news, the public was recently treated to a first-person account by Simon Wessely, a primary target of the alleged death threats. I could spend several pages debating his main arguments, but I'll set them aside for now and focus on this statement:
Our critics have devoted much energy (irony intended) to denouncing us as pawns of the drug or insurance industries. I have been called a new Dr Mengele, the next Dr Shipman ... I am frequently accused of having thrown a CFS-suffering child into water to see if he would sink or swim.
Ah yes. The kid in the pool.

Dr. Wessely is referring to Ean Proctor. At age 12, Ean was taken from his parents and placed in an institution. Those responsible for his care believed his symptoms of near paralysis weren't real. To prove it, they threw him facedown into the deep end of a swimming pool. Their experiment failed, and they had to rescue him when he couldn't move his limbs to save himself.

Wessely almost certainly didn't pick up Ean Proctor with his own hands and toss him into the water. I've never seen anybody accuse him of doing so. What he is accused of—what is a matter of record—is his involvement in Ean's case. As a senior registrar in psychiatry, he declared Ean's disease to be psychological and recommended that the boy be removed from his family.

* * *

The "death threats" story, presented unquestioningly in article after article, has become a source of frustration for ME patients and advocates. As one sufferer noted in a comment to my last post on the subject,
The truth of the situation is that even if death threats have been sent, it is by a tiny minority of the hundreds of thousands of people with ME in this country - yet it's the whole community who is being attacked here. And of course, the whole story just increases people's belief that we're somehow psychologically unbalanced.
Which leads to an interesting question: How would psychiatrists react if the tables were turned?

ME advocates can cite a number of cases where children and adults with ME were forced into institutions for believing they were sick. Do all therapists think this is appropriate or helpful? Hopefully not. But what if a series of articles were published describing what happened to Ean Proctor, Sophia Mirza, Brian Nicholson, Ryan Baldwin, the child from Spain, and others in gory detail? What if these articles referred to "psychiatrists" who pushed for such measures without mentioning any of them by name?

Psychiatrists who do not agree with such measures might feel unfairly singled out.

* * *

In a 1994 lecture, Simon Wessely said, "I will argue that ME is simply a belief, the belief that one has an illness called ME." He and others in the "Wessely School" have since backed off of that proposition, arguing instead that ME is a genuine, serious disease with a psychological component.

The ME community still disagrees with this watered-down version of the psychiatric perspective. That said, the watering down has significant real-world implications. If ME is fully psychological, then you can make an argument for institutionalizing people whose "illness beliefs" have rendered them completely dysfunctional. If ME is a real disease with psychological factors thrown in, then forcing patients into a psych ward because they believe they have a real disease doesn't make a lot of sense.

So here's my proposal.

ME advocates will publicly oppose death threats, harassment, and abuse, as we have done from the beginning.

In return, psychiatrists will publicly oppose the involuntary commitment of ME patients into psychiatric units.

What do you think, psychiatrists? Do we have a deal?

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Death threats

If you've been following the news lately, you may have come across a story or two about a small group of psychiatrists who study myalgic encephalomyelitis, aka "chronic fatigue syndrome." The psychiatrists in question say they've received death threats from ME patients ... the very people they're trying to help! Gasp!

The reason for the threats, they claim, is that patients with ME—a disease that causes chronic pain, debilitating exhaustion, and worsening of symptoms after even minimal exertion—are opposed to research that implies their illness could be linked to psychological problems.

"I have moved my research interests to studies of Gulf war syndrome and other conditions linked to war zones," says Simon Wessely, one of the more famous (or infamous) ME psychiatrists. "That has taken me to Iraq and Afghanistan where quite frankly I feel a lot safer – and I don't mean that as a joke."

He argues that the threats are potentially as damaging to medical research as attacks made by animal rights activists.

The ME community has responded by collectively rolling its eyes.

Digging a bit deeper

Before you jump to any conclusions, rest assured that ME patients and advocates do NOT believe that death threats are a legitimate means of activism or self-expression. There's a lot of anger, yes, but assassination attempts are not on the table.

So why aren't they taking the threats seriously?

First of all, there's more than a little skepticism that the threats exist. From Hillary Johnson, author of Osler's Web:
In a BBC radio interview, [Wessely] also reportedly told a reporter that he and his mates have started taking precautions that animal researchers in their institution employ ... The reporter failed to ask Wessely to elaborate, unfortunately. The BBC cited a brief letter that ended with the phrase, "You will all pay." That's a death threat?
From Phoebe Snowden, a journalist whose career ended due to ME, in response to a brief on the subject from Times Higher Education:
I am horrified by your standards of journalism. Where is the evidence that any of these "threats" exist, and why are you people reporting this ludicrous story without questioning its validity?
Here's Angela Kennedy, a social sciences researcher and parent of someone with ME, poking one of the biggest holes in the story's credibility:
In 2007 I was once falsely accused of 'personally harassing' Professor Wessely by a Wikipedia administrator, claiming Professor Wessely had told him this himself. I publicly oppose and critique psychogenic explanations for ME/CFS, on both a political and academic level. I have NEVER harassed Professor Wessely or contacted him ... When I wrote to Professor Wessely's employers, asking that he clarify he had no part in the false claims made on Wikipedia in 2007, they refused to provide that clarification.
So, there's that.

Mind you, I have no trouble believing that there's been hate mail. A researcher quoted in The Guardian described a plausible example:
"I published a study which these extremists did not like and was subjected to a staggering volley of horrible abuse," said Professor Myra McClure, head of infectious diseases at Imperial College London. "One man wrote he was having pleasure imagining that he was watching me drown. He sent that every day for months."
Again, the ME community doesn't advocate harassment. But I'd guess that most would understand where the letter writer's anger comes from. That's because they understand the consequences of the psychiatric perspective.

For instance ...

In 1988, 12-year-old Ean Proctor had been sick for two years with ME, deteriorating to the point where he could no longer walk or speak. Simon Wessely (at the time a senior registrar in psychiatry, not yet famous enough to be getting death threats) made the case that Ean's symptoms were psychiatric, and that he needed to be removed from his home so he could escape the influence of his "overinvolved" parents.

They removed him, stuck him in a psychiatric ward, and severely restricted contact with his family. Treatment included not taking him to the bathroom so he'd be forced to go there unassisted. (Didn't work. He wet himself and sat for hours in soiled clothes.) Treatment also involved pushing Ean in his wheelchair very fast, then stopping abruptly to make him do something to prevent falling out. (Didn't work. He toppled onto the floor.)

And then there was this:
... the sick child was forcibly thrown into a hospital swimming pool with no floating aids because psychiatrists wanted to prove that he could use his limbs and that he would be forced to do so to save himself from drowning. He could not save himself and sank to the bottom of the pool.
On the bright side, they fished him out before he died. But the incident might explain that letter writer's oddly specific fantasy—why he imagined watching McClure drown instead of, say, being attacked by a swarm of killer bees.

And again

You may be thinking that what happened to Ean was an isolated incident. It's not.

In 2003, an ME sufferer named Sophia Mirza was sectioned in Britain—police broke down the door and took her to a psychiatric hospital. Two years later, she died from complications of the disease. Though Mirza only spent 13 days in the hospital, her mother has gone on record saying that the ordeal had a devastating effect on her already fragile condition. She had actually been improving until that point.

Just three weeks ago, a 12-year-old girl in Spain was taken by police to a local psychiatric ward. Although she's been diagnosed with severe ME by specialists, Social Services thought she should be attending school. They're forbidding the girl's mother (who also has ME) from seeing her.

Don't assume this kind of thing can't happen here. It has happened here.

Death threats

Most ME sufferers don't experience an involuntary trip to the pysch ward. Unfortunately, they also don't receive useful treatments. The lion's share of funding for ME goes to psychological research promoted by the aforementioned psychiatrists; as a result, the best many patients can get is cognitive behavioral therapy and graded exercise therapy. While this form of psychological intervention isn't quite as bad for desperately sick people as throwing them facedown into the deep end of a swimming pool, studies show it does more harm than good.

With no treatments that address the biological roots of their disease, ME sufferers tend to die earlier.

And then there are the extreme cases. Given what happened to Sophia Mirza, that kid in Spain has good reason to fear for her life.

On the flip side, not one psychiatrist has died at the hands of an ME patient.

Maybe the media is chasing the wrong story.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Ten years

Ten years ago today, I bought my first keyboard. It was kind of a big deal.

I'd been toying with the idea for some time. While I already had a good upright piano to practice on, I wanted something a little more fun. A little more portable. I had this crazy notion that maybe one day I'd be in a band, and I couldn't do that with an instrument that didn't fit in a carrying case.

My cautious, prudent side was skeptical. Keyboards cost a lot of money. Yes, I could buy one and still make rent, but what if I lost my job somewhere down the line? Then that keyboard-sized hole in my savings might really mean something.

Eventually my cautious, prudent side was overruled. I decided to take the plunge.

And so, on Saturday, August 18, 2001, I went to Rainbow Guitars and tried out all the decent choices. It quickly came down to two different Rolands. One cost $1,600. The other cost $1,100. I didn't care so much about the extra voices the more expensive one offered—all I really needed was one good piano voice. But I did like its best piano voices just a little bit better.

I kept switching from one Roland to the other, trying to figure out how much I cared. Finally, I settled on the RD700, the more expensive of the two. I'd be living with the sound quality for a long time. If I was going to do this, I should do it right.

Then I stalled. Even though I'd been contemplating this for weeks, simply plunking down $1,600 (plus $400 for amp, keyboard stand, and bench) after spending less than an hour in the store seemed so impulsive. My cautious, prudent side warned me that I'd be second-guessing myself later if it felt like an impulse buy.

So I made a deal with Cautious and Prudent. I'd come back in a week, after giving the decision some time to settle, and I'd buy everything then.

Done and done. A week later, August 25, 2001, I was the proud owner of a really decent professional keyboard.

Now, on the tenth anniversary of that day, I think back to the logic that finally made me OK with the idea.

If I do this now and lose my job later, I'm not going to regret the lost savings. I'm going to be happy that I got my hands on a keyboard when I had the chance.

Today I'm a freelancer. Financial stability is elusive. Some weeks are better than others.

I don't regret the lost savings. I'm glad I got my hands on that keyboard when I had the chance.

Happy anniversary.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

In praise (mostly) of technology

My hard drive is officially dead. The guy I hired to try to fix it called me today and said his attempts had failed. He could try to recover the data, but that would cost at least $600. Eh, no.

There goes the Cinder Bridge mailing list. Poof.

And yet, I am not hating technology this week. Technology was my friend at Saturday's FireFest gig. Technology enabled a listener to record a couple of our songs with a small, presumably affordable camera; now the videos are on YouTube, Facebook, and the blog.

After we played, a new fan wanted to sign up for the mailing list. I didn't have pen and paper on me. He got onto Cinder Bridge's Facebook page from his smartphone and hit the "Like" button so he'd get updates that way.

He probably wouldn't have had the ability to do that just eight years ago, when the band was getting started.

So all in all, tech remains on my good side. For now.

On another note, if you were on our mailing list, or you would like to be on our mailing list, send me e-mail at susan (at) cinderbridge.com. We'll set you up.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Live from FireFest

The awesome Frank Ramos likes to go to music events around Tucson and videorecord the performers. Here are a couple of songs he captured from last night's gig.

"The Line." You may appreciate this if you've ever spent a lot of time in the company of an addict, particularly one whose fortunes are tied to yours.

Our ME/CFS advocacy song. Frank was only able to get the last few words of my introductory spiel, so here's a caption:

I wrote this song about somebody living with myalgic encephalomyelitis, a disease that causes chronic pain, crushing exhaustion, and in many cases, early death. If you're wondering why you've never heard of myalgic encephalomyelitis, that's probably because it's more commonly known as "chronic fatigue syndrome," which is a stupid name for a serious disease. The song is called "Everybody Knows About Me."

Thanks, Frank!

Friday, August 19, 2011

The gig you may not have heard about

My "work" computer's hard drive died a week and a half ago. Since then, I've been running around, dealing with the fallout. I got the drive diagnosed, bought a new computer, set up the new computer, and stumbled through Windows 7 after clinging for many years to XP, an older and much less annoying operating system.

Fortunately, I had all my freelance work backed up elsewhere.

Unfortunately, I hadn't thought to back up anything else. Like Cinder Bridge files.

Like the Cinder Bridge mailing list.

We have a gig tomorrow night. I've sent out invitations to local Facebook friends, and we've contacted a handful of people outside of Facebook, but there are quite a few fans whose contact information we don't have anywhere else.


There's still a chance the old hard drive can be saved. I'll find out one way or another next week. In the meantime, if you're on our mailing list and haven't heard from us, we're not ignoring you.

Oh, and if you're in the vicinity and would like to hear us Saturday night, here's the pertinent info:


Saturday, August 20, 7 p.m., to Sunday, August 21, 2 a.m. Cinder Bridge plays from 9 to 10 p.m.

People's Imports/Party to the People
276 S. Park Ave.
Tucson, AZ

Other info
Other bands include One Heartbeat, Lunasong, and 8 Minutes to Burn. In addition to live music, FireFest offers organic food, healthy drinks, and belly dancers. BYOB.

Hope to see you there. If you sign up for our mailing list, I'll try not to lose you this time.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Breaking news: People like music!

A new medical study shows that music may have beneficial effects on cancer patients. For instance ...
The authors ... found evidence that music interventions may have a beneficial effect on several physiologic responses, including reducing heart and respiratory rates. These results are also consistent with findings from another Cochrane systematic review on the use of music with coronary heart disease patients, which also found a reduction in heart rate.
(Full Medscape article here. If you hit a registration wall, you can currently get around it by googling cancer music anxiety and clicking the first search result.)

This is interesting stuff, worth exploring further. The headline, though, is what caught my attention:

Music Lowers Anxiety and Boosts Mood in Cancer Patients

Really? Gosh, Medscape, that's fascinating! Who'd have thunk that people with cancer get the same emotional goodies out of music as everybody else?

Sunday, August 7, 2011

When practice doesn't quite make perfect

Occasionally I write a song that's hard for me to sing. I don't mean emotionally. I mean technically. Maybe part of it is out of my range, or there's a note I have to sustain for a long time without breathing.

"You're the writer," I hear you cry. "Why would you make it difficult for yourself?" Well, mostly I don't. If I can, I tailor my songs to my strengths. But every once in a while it just doesn't sound as good the easy way. So I write it the way I think it should sound, and then practice the hell out of it.

Hold Me in Your Arms is a good example. It's a love song, and it begins with me humming over a minimal piano accompaniment. The notes would be in my range if I were na-na-ing them, but they're uncomfortably low when hummed. To do the passage without cracking or sounding weak, I have to hold my face in a way that doesn't obstruct the airflow.

Practicing this has helped a lot, but I still haven't been able to count on hitting the notes consistently.

Yesterday at rehearsal, I sang the song for the first time in a while. And just before we started, a thought popped into my head. What if I just hummed louder?

Yep. That did it. I'd been humming softly for a more sultry effect, but going louder didn't change the feel. All I had to do was back off the mic a little.

Practice is good. But sometimes it helps to come to a sticky spot fresh.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Grocery story serenader, part 2

Give a little bit
Give a little bit of your love to me
Making my way through Sunflower's frozen meat selections, I sing along with Supertramp. Softly, on and off. Just because I like singing in grocery stores doesn't mean anyone else wants to hear me.
There's so much that we need to share
So send a smile and show you care
The song isn't in my range. Even the people who've paid to hear me sing wouldn't listen now.
Now's the time that we need to share
So find yourself, we're on our way back home
I notice him in the produce section while scoping out cabbage and celery. He's a few feet away, shopping with his wife, also singing along. Quietly, surreptitiously.
See the man with the lonely eyes
Oh, take his hand, you'll be surprised
I sing a couple of lines to the guy, loudly this time, looking right at him. He smiles. Says something about it being a good song.

Another brief connection, made possible by music.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Shout-out from BScene Live

Ooh, look! Don Martin and Courtney Ludwig did a write-up on the Concert to Aid Victims of the Southern Arizona Fires for BScene Live. Cinder Bridge gets a mention in the seventh paragraph:
Listening to and photographing Cinder Bridge, a two-piece band, which included the vocals and keyboards of Susan Wenger and the percussion of Ron Amistadi was very intriguing to me. Susan's voice had the sound of folk mixed in with the vocals of Melissa Etheridge. Ron’s kit was simple, yet with so many sounds were produced with the use of "Hot Rods" (the drumsticks he was using) which made for a lighter sound.
Full article, with pictures, here.

Neat. People often compare my vocals to Carole King's, sometimes to Janis Joplin's. That's the first time I've gotten Melissa Etheridge.

Also, kudos to Don and/or Courtney for knowing what hot rods are.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Songwriters in the round

Image by Hugh MacLeod, Gapingvoid.com

I wasn't sure I wanted to go.

Duncan Stitt, a fellow songwriter and keyboardist, had invited me to something called "Songwriters in the Round." The format: A bunch of songwriters meet somewhere—this time at somebody's house. Three get up on stage at a time, taking turns performing their original songs. You can bring a set list if you want, but to really have fun with it, you're encouraged to decide what to play on the fly, based on what the performer before you sings.

I love everything about this kind of gathering. I love hearing other people's songs, finding out what inspired those songs, and sharing my own. It's just ... I was tired. I'd come home from rehearsal, cooked a meal, and felt like I was done for the night. The best going-out option I could imagine was to see a movie with friends. The only thing I'd be required to do is sit and stare at the screen.

I was more in the mood to consume than perform.

But gatherings like this don't happen often—especially ones in which somebody else brings the keyboard—so I sucked it up and dragged myself over. And within five minutes of arriving, I forgot about ever feeling tired or antisocial. Good times were upon us.

The experience of the small group varied widely, from a guy who'd never played in public before to professional songwriters who'd successfully sold their tunes in Nashville. But everybody was interesting and friendly and good to talk to. Everybody had songs that were worth listening to.

I'm glad I went. Passive entertainment will always be there if I want it. Collaborative entertainment is better for the soul.

* * *

If you're a songwriter who lives in or around Tucson, you can get in on the next Songwriters in the Round. Go to www.meetup.com/songwriters-tucson and join the Meetup group. Don't worry if you're not an experienced performer. The guy who'd never played in public before almost didn't show up due to nerves, but afterword said this was probably the most fun he'd ever had with his clothes on.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Manilow and me

I tend to float through my days blissfully unaware of pop culture. Keeping up with music news isn't a big priority. Despite that, I found myself surprised to learn that Barry Manilow had debuted a new album in June—his first collection of new material in a decade—without me noticing. I was a huge fan of his back in the day, so ...

What? Why are you looking at me like that?

Anyway, the album, 15 Minutes, is apparently somewhat of a departure from his usual style, more guitar-driven than his previous work. I checked out a few clips on Amazon.com, and ...


Shut up!

* * *

"At the Cooooopa ... Copacabaaaaaana ..."

"What are you singing?" I asked.

It seemed like a reasonable question to me, but my friend Tina could hardly believe it. I'd never heard "Copacabana"? I'd never heard of Barry Manilow? My awareness of pop culture at age nine wasn't much better than today, so yes on both counts.

Not long after that conversation, I caught "Copacabana" on the radio and listened carefully.

"It's a pretty stupid song," I told Tina the next day. "And you sing it better than he does."

But for some reason, "Copacabana" started to grow on me. Enough that I asked my mother to buy me the album when I was home sick. She brought me back a copy of Even Now, and I wore out my little kiddie record player's needle on "Copacabana." Every other song on the record was a keeper too. Soon I was spending countless hours in the living room, parked in front of the stereo, listening to Barry Manilow's Greatest Hits.

What wasn't to like? Catchy melodies, heartfelt lyrics, great piano arrangements—Barry Manilow had it all.

Alas, other members of the household didn't share this assessment. My mom mostly tried to ignore the music, if memory serves, but my dad was not one to suffer in silence. We had constant battles over the volume when he got home from work. I had no idea how funny this was at the time. I could have blasted Judas Priest at them. I could have spun Led Zepplin backwards, trying to find satanic messages. I'd say they didn't know how good they had it, except that they probably would have preferred the satanic messages.

Anyway. Somewhere around the age of 11, my musical tastes went in a different direction. I started listening to the "adult contemporary" station whose format would today be considered classic rock-ish. I discovered Chicago and the Eagles. A friend introduced me to "Hey Jude" and it blew my little mind.

Barry Manilow fell by the wayside. This wasn't a conscious decision on my part. I wasn't convinced by my parents and other naysayers to stop liking him—in fact, I never really stopped liking him. I just moved on.

* * *

Home alone one night, flipping through radio stations, I came across a Barry Manilow song—"Weekend in New England," I think—on Lite Rock 94.9. Yay! I was in my 30s at this point and hadn't heard him in ... I couldn't even remember how long.

I settled in to listen, and ...

Oh god.

He sounds like THAT?

All these years, I'd assumed everybody made fun of Manilow because he was sappy. But no. At long last, I heard what everybody else heard. The earnestness. The lack of any kind of edge combined with a dropping of the Gs ("yearnin'"). The highly produced arrangements, complete with violins and soft brass.

Bring them all together and you had a perfect storm of cheese.

After the first shockwave of realization, a discomfiting thought hit me: If there was a time when I could listen to this and not hear the cheese, it was because I hadn't been filtering it through a half-dozen layers of cynicism.

There was a time when those layers simply didn't exist.

So now what? Would I join the ranks of all the people who made fun of Barry Manilow's music? Chalk up my previous adoration to not knowing any better?

I didn't want to. I couldn't. Those songs were my friends when I didn't have a lot of friends. They made a long, rough patch of childhood a little more joyful. Who can ask any more from music than that?

Besides, love him or hate him, you couldn't doubt the man's sincerity. He meant every word he sang. He performed the way he did because he wanted to, not because people considered his sound cool at the time. Hell, even at the height of his popularity, Barry Manilow was never cool. He was just Barry Manilow.

Above all? I wanted to preserve that kid who hadn't yet grown all those layers of cynicism. Who could listen to the earnestness and the dropped Gs and the violins and just accept his music for what it was intended to be. This went far beyond nostalgia. If I treated Barry Manilow like a joke, those last vestiges of my innocence would dry up and blow away.

So I decided. And to this day, I still smile when I hear one of his songs.

And I'm buying his new album, dammit.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Recorded at the River's Edge

Maybe you couldn't make it to our Breakfast Club gig at the River's Edge a couple weeks ago ...

And maybe you missed the live webcast of said gig ...

Good news! The webcast has been archived, and you can watch/listen to the entire thing at your convenience (with a few ads thrown in).

[UPDATE: Turns out these videos don't work in Internet Explorer. If all you see are black squares where the video is supposed to be, try viewing from another browser. Firefox and Chrome work.]

Here's our first set. If you do ME/CFS advocacy, check out 27:20, where we announce "Everybody Knows About Me."

An 11-minute interview with Carolyn "Trouble" Cary.

Our second set. Due to technical difficulties, the video stalls a lot during the first song and the beginning of the second, but everything works after that.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Rock stars and surf dogs

Ron and Susan at the Concert to Aid Victims
of the Southern Arizona Fires. Photo by Don Martin

Thursday's benefit for victims of the Southern Arizona fires went swimmingly. People came, made cash contributions, bought raffle tickets, donated tons of stuff, listened to live music, and generally had a good time.

As a member of one of the bands that provided entertainment, I thoroughly enjoyed myself. How could I not? I got to get up on stage with Ron the Drummer, sing a bunch of songs, and play rock star for an hour and change. For this we earned a mountain of gratitude—as if doing what we loved were some kind of sacrifice.

Later that night I talked with Amy Mason, one of the main organizers, about how impressed I was that she could pull off an event of this magnitude within a week. She has a knack for this sort of thing, though, and she loves to help people. As she put it, everybody has something to contribute.

The whole thing reminded me of this:

If you can't spare the five minutes to watch, here's a summary. After training extensively to become a service dog, Ricochet had to be dropped from the program because she wouldn't quit chasing birds. Her trainer was disappointed ... until she realized that Ricochet had a talent for, of all things, surfing. Now Ricochet surfs to raise money for charity, and she is much more joyful and focused.

The takeaway message: Critters of all species do better for themselves and for others when we let them be who they are.

Unfortunately, if you're a critter of the two-legged variety, life doesn't always work out this way. Last night I got to do what I love for a good cause. Today ... let's just say I spent a lot of time chasing birds. There is no benevolent master to tell me I'm exempt from all the stuff I'm not good at. No way to meet all my obligations by doing the one thing I happen to like doing.

So I'm grateful for the moments when I can be who I am. Especially grateful when everyone around me is cool with who that is.

Susan of Cinder Bridge, looking far too pleased with herself.
Photo by Don Martin.

Monday, June 20, 2011


So, we've got these fires raging in Arizona, and they're a pretty big deal. Over ten thousand people have had to evacuate their homes in Southern Arizona alone.

Last week, music scenesters Amy Mason, Carolyn Cary (who interviewed us on Saturday), and Dave Owens decided they would do something to help. They'd put together a couple of benefit concerts, complete with bands, raffles, a bake sale, and a place to drop off donation items.

The first benefit will be at the C-Note this Thursday. The Dave Owens band is headlining. Cinder Bridge is one of the other four "special guest" bands. There's no door charge, but donations are very, very much appreciated.

Color me blown away. You don't realize it when you go to one of these things, but putting a benefit together is hard. Really hard. It involves planning and hiring and making sure everything conforms to fire codes and just generally a lot of work. These guys put the Concert to Aid Victims of the Southern Arizona Fires together within days.

Ron and I have it easy. All we have to do is show up on time, play, get our stuff off the stage as quickly as possible, and hang back and listen to the other bands.

Anyway. If you live in Tucson, please come out and reward these fine people's efforts. Great cause, great party.
Date: Thursday, June 23

Time: 4-11:30 p.m.
The Bryan Dean Trio: 4–5
Cinder Bridge: 5:30–6:30
Savage Zoo: 7–8
Arizona Bay Outriders: 8:30–9:30
The Dave Owens Band: 10–11
Place: The C-Note, 1302 W. Roger Rd., Tucson AZ

Cover: Please donate!
More info at BSceneLive.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Amazing feats of memory

Any time we play at a new venue, in front of new people, our goal is to exceed expectations. Whoever hires us is taking a gamble. We want them to win big.

Which brings us to today's River's Edge debut. The audience liked us a lot. The people who put everything together thought we were great. But the exceeding of expectations came from an unexpected place.

In between sets, the band did an interview with Carolyn "Trouble" Cary. One of her first questions was where we'd be playing next. She handed me the mic, and I responded:

"The Concert to Aid Victims of the Southern Arizona Fires. It's Thursday from 4 to 11:30 at the C-Note, and we'll be playing from 5:30 to 6:30."

Carolyn, familiar with the benefit, was so impressed that I could recite its entire name.

I had spent some time the previous night memorizing "Concert to Aid Victims of the Southern Arizona Fires." It's a mouthful. I didn't want to get it wrong.

I honestly didn't expect anybody to notice when I got it right.

* * *

Thanks to Carolyn and Gregg for setting everything up, and to the River's Edge for letting us play in their playground. We had a lot of fun.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Live from the River's Edge

Gig Saturday! Specifically, a Breakfast Club Show at the River's Edge Lounge.

This will be our first time playing at River's Edge, so I'm psyched. Curious, too. Not too many bars open in the morning and serve steak and eggs along with Bloody Marys.

The folks behind the event are also webcasting it. If you're a little farther flung than Tucson, or if circumstances don't permit you to venture out that day, you'll be able to see us remotely.

The live performance:

Date: Saturday, June 18
Time: 11 a.m.–1 p.m. MST
Place: The River’s Edge Lounge, 4635 N. Flowing Wells Rd., Tucson, AZ
Directions: Over here
Cover: None

The webcast:


Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Sticking points

I've finally gotten an air-conditioning unit installed in the tiny room that doubles as my office and practice space. Good news, as Tucson temperatures have climbed into triple digits. This means I can work all day without risking heatstroke. Even better, now that conditions don't violate OSHA regulations, I can finally get my piano tuner in there.

This needs to happen as soon as possible, as my piano has spent the past week or so committing acts of mutiny. First the B below middle C started sticking. Then D above middle C did the same thing. Then G below middle C wanted a piece of the action, deciding that sometimes it would play F# when pressed.

I'm doing the best I can to ignore all of this when I play, but ... You know how you sound when your dentist asks you a question, and you answer the best you can with both of her hands in your mouth?

Yeah. Like that.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Fun for all ages

Do you ever see some new toy out on the market and wish you could be a kid again so you could play with it?

This happens to me now and again. I don't have much use for Wii games as an adult, but eight-year-old me would have been all over them. I hate texting, but the ability to surreptitiously pass notes to friends in different classes—or at different schools—would have been the height of entertainment in elementary school.

Last night's gig evoked a little of that feeling. A guy who works where Ron the Drummer gives drum lessons set up an open mic, inviting both students and teachers at the music school to perform. Cinder Bridge started things off with a half hour set, and then Ron and I sat back to watch the other performers. The youngest participant, karaokeing her way through "Hard Knock Life," looked to be around seven.

Man, why didn't anyone set up kid-friendly open mics when I was a kid? My piano teacher held a recital every year, but that was a serious, formal dress-up affair, and most of the students were kids. How fun would it have been to perform just because you felt like it that weekend? To share the stage with confident adults, and aspire to be as good as them someday?

The hitch, of course, would be the parents. They might enjoy driving their offspring to an open mic as a one-off. They might not want to hear showtunes performed by little kids every week.

Come to think of it, my parents probably wouldn't have bought us a Wii if they'd existed when I was in first grade. And no way would they have let me bring a cell phone to school.

A hard knock life indeed.

Seriously, though, it would be nice if kids could make their own entertainment this way. Actively participate in creative culture rather than just parking themselves in front of the TV and becoming passive consumers.

It would be nice if I could go back in time and do that.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Reverse engineering

A few years ago I wrote about a song lyric whose meaning eludes many listeners: "the cross is in the ballpark." For the uninformed, this is an oft-repeated line in "The Obvious Child" by Paul Simon. It first appears here:
And in remembering a road sign
I am remembering a girl when I was young
And we said These songs are true
These days are ours
These tears are free
And hey
The cross is in the ballpark
The cross is in the ballpark
My mother had told me she'd heard in an interview that Paul Simon just liked the sound of that line. It didn't mean anything. I googled around to see if this was true, found nothing to either confirm or deny, and figured she had her facts straight. Then over the weekend, nearly three years later, an anonymous commenter contributed this quote, with a link to the original Time interview:
"It got me thinking when that first popped out," Paul Simon says " ... 'The cross is in the ball park.' "The first thing I thought of was Billy Graham, or the Pope, or evangelical gatherings. But I came to feel what that's really about is the cross that we bear. The burdens that we carry are doable, they're in the ball park."
So it does have a meaning Yay! But my mom wasn't entirely wrong. Simon didn't come up with those words to express an idea. The words came first, followed by thoughts about what the words might mean. In fact, he rejected his own first interpretation in favor of one he liked better.

Kind of like a line in "Hey Jude." Before Paul McCartney brought John Lennon in on that song, he'd written "The movement you need is on your shoulders." It didn't mean anything to McCartney—it was just a placeholder to be discarded as soon as he or Lennon thought of something better. But Lennon was having none of that. "Leave it in," he said. "I know what it means."

I wonder how often this happens to songwriters. I wonder if it happens more to certain kinds of songwriters than others.

For me, not much. My typical process involves stumbling upon an evocative way to express some idea I've been playing with. The idea comes first. But once or twice, I've been struck by phrases that stuck in my head because they sounded cool, even if I didn't know what they meant.

Back when Ron the Drummer and I were trying to figure out what to call the band, one possibility that leapt to mind was "Half Moon Halo." I don't remember how or why I thought of that. Most likely I was free associating alliterative words. Anyway, I loved the name, but couldn't bring myself to seriously consider it because it didn't mean anything. I couldn't even make up something plausible sounding, as I eventually did for "Cinder Bridge."

Four years later, I started writing a song that reflected my growing discomfort with the kind of person I was. I didn't think I was evil, but I didn't feel like I was very good either, and I wasn't sure where that left me:
There's a hell for all the sinners
There's a heaven for the saints
But there ain't no place for the people in between
A good start, but what next? Somehow "half moon halo" snuck back into my consciousness, and I found a home for it at last.
I am walking down an unpaved road
In the middle of a lonely night
Half moon halo shines down on the scene
Not quite an exact metaphor for anything, but the imagery pleased me.

Have you ever invented a phrase, then reverse-engineered the meaning? If so, what was the phrase, and how did the meaning evolve?

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Poisoning the atmosphere

About half an hour into our meal, the music changed.

Chris and I were eating at Applebee's, chosen for its close proximity to our ultimate destination, the movie theater. The restaurant's background music was fairly eclectic, jumping from UB40 to George Thorogood. Every now and again we'd comment on the playlist; largely we ignored it.

All was well until something came on that neither of us quite recognized. Some artist we had never heard before. Someone who ... wasn't very good, actually.

Realization dawned. It was karaoke night.

We did our best to resume the conversation, but we were thwarted at every turn. What the singers lacked in skill, they made up for in volume. Even the ones who weren't half bad managed to be annoying somehow.

We left without ordering dessert.

* * *

The uncomfortable part? As we griped about how we could hardly hear each other, I remembered all the people who have asked Cinder Bridge to turn down over the years. The coffeehouse goers who came to talk to each other and didn't care for live music enhancing the atmosphere.

In our defense, we don't go to these places intending to get in the patrons' faces. If somebody hires us to play, we assume they have a pretty good handle on what their customers like—they don't want people leaving before dessert or those last few cups of coffee. And in our defense, a lot of people at our atmosphere gigs have given positive feedback, left tips, bought CDs, or signed up for our mailing list.

That said, consider this an open apology to all those we've annoyed.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Tagging ourselves

We've needed to update our business cards for a while now. This is the one we've been using for the past couple years:

The first problem? Check out the URL in the bottom left corner. Nobody uses Myspace anymore. Or at least we don't. I haven't felt the need to send people there since discovering how to put our songs on the sidebar of this blog.

Additionally, the tagline bugs me. It's accurate—a number of listeners who've seen us live have said they were surprised to hear such a big, full sound from just a keyboardist and a drummer. But if you've never heard us, is "little band, big sound" going to make you curious enough to try us out?

This time around, we went with one of my original ideas:

When I ran this past Ron the Drummer a few years ago, he had reservations. Why typecast ourselves as a coffeehouse band when we didn't want to limit ourselves to coffeehouses? I saw his point. But on reflection, "coffeehouse stadium rock" is a good description of our sound. We do singer-songwritery stuff that fits in well with the coffeehouse genre. We also play a lot louder than the typical singer-songwriter who brings herself and an acoustic guitar to a cafe. There's only so much you can turn down when drums are involved.

I haven't had a chance yet to hand one of these out to somebody who's unfamiliar with the band. However, I did get to give it to our producer yesterday when he visited Phoenix. He loved it. Thought it was hilarious. I'll take that as a good sign.

Here's hoping a lot of people ask for our cards in the near future.