Sunday, July 26, 2015

Bellefontaine Cemetery - Photos and Video

I’ve been exploring Bellefontaine Cemetery for the last ten years. Each visit brings its own little discovery. Its origins go back to 1850 and since then it has been the resting place for a number of famous individuals. As you wind through the trails and hills you see familiar names on the headstones echoing the names of streets, buildings, and other landmarks throughout the city.  Our city’s long and storied history can be told through the gravestones of Bellefontaine.

There are two names that are regular stops for me each time I visit. Williams Burroughs, author of Naked Lunch, and Sara Teasdale, poet are buried there with very unassuming gravestones. Each time I visit the graves are marked with bottles of wine, flowers, books, and other offerings left behind by visitors. I’m guilty of the practice as well having left several things behind as an act of kindness and possibly some passed on inspiration.

The various tributes over the dead have a wide range of beauty. I do not think I have seen a more beautiful set of memorials than Bellefontaine. The different statues, mausoleums, and other stone works are a beauty matched in few other places. I often get strange looks when I talk about the photos I’ve taken at Bellefontaine Cemetery. I know it may be a bit strange but anyone who takes the time to visit will leave there awed and changed.

I started working on ways to showcase some of the photography I have done in Bellefontaine. The video below is my latest work merging my music and the photos I took over the last few years. The track is called The Fool.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Wisdom from mistakes

Two weeks ago I posted the video for Wisdom from mistakes on Facebook and Youtube. I’m watching it for the first time tonight since posting. The first image I see is my Grandpa smiling, some joke rolling off his lips. I consider myself lucky. Quite lucky. I have these great photos and each one is a memory of some puzzle piece of my life.

I have been blessed to be surrounded by great men my entire life. My father is still living and has escaped death more than a couple of times. His presence in my life and my children’s lives is something I am thankful for each and everyday. I have two older brothers who have seen me at my best and my worst. Those men alone have given me plenty to think about and forged a path forward demonstrating what it means to be a dad and a husband.

Outside of those individuals I was blessed to have two fantastic grandfathers. Each had their own worldview and survived WWII leaving them to impart little stories here and there about their experiences. Those stories slipped at a hint of the possibility of how close to hell a man can go. They never bragged about their experiences. They talked in low, steady tones making each word count as they talked about war. Puts things in perspective.

I was also surrounded by uncles who managed to be friends, confidants, employers, saviors and disciplinarians. Their presence in my life weighed heavily and gave context to the different lessons life was handing me as well as all of us. Having a large family means tragedy comes frequent and unexpectedly. I can still recall phone calls in the early evening and the quiet conversation of my parents as they would let us know something bad had happened.

I am 42 this year. I have not seen a fraction of what my father, my brothers, my grandfathers, or my uncles have seen. But I also know they have shown me how to navigate through whatever this life has to offer, good or bad. I think Wisdom from Mistakes just about sums that up.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Feet on the side of the road...

I can hear the wet gravel underneath my feet. Each step shifts my ankles at odd angles. Upstream I can see a stray uncle with rod in hand intently looking across the surface of the water. The sun is out and my wet trunks are cold as the sun burns my bare back.

My cousin is bent over lifting rocks looking for crawdads. The breeze shifts and I randomly swat at the horseflies buzzing around us. It only takes one bite of a horsefly to make me involuntarily sway my arms around whenever I hear the buzz of an insect. This is a part of my DNA and the reflex is embedded for the rest of my life.

The day spreads out in front of us. I’m sure no one is watching us. The adults sit in the shallow part eyes squinted in the sunlight. They talk amongst themselves. The rhythms of the trees and birds around us turn minutes into hours. The soft sound of the water downstream drowns out the distant echoes of shouts and laughter from the road.
The oaks and hickories arch over the banks of the creek. Hiding in the shadows are black snakes, poison ivy, and the occasional turtle. A truck drives quickly along the gravel road honking it’s horn as the hands go up automatically waving to strangers and family alike.

Empty beer cans stack up in piles along the beach. The coolers are lined up and act as a temporary depot for goods and services. At some point a fire is made and the smell of hot dogs cooking float across the water. We are hungrier than we realize and with wet hands we grab at paper plates and buns. The hawks overhead take our tribe in with tolerance and go about their day.

The river is about a quarter mile down as the creek flows. We walk crossing back and forth on the gravel bars. My cousin David and my brother Jim are up ahead as I get lost in the different landscapes. Each turn in the creek is another set of treasures to explore. The deep ends of the clear water act like pockets where the bigger fish hide. Steven is somewhere near by skipping rocks against the glass surface of the water.

The small rocks in my shoes hurt. I’d complain but I know it won’t make a difference. The complaint would hang in the air until someone had something more valuable to say. I find a stick weathered from the sun and water. The river is in the distance. Each of us has been told not to swim in the river. The act of drudging for a body in the river is a story told one too many times. We know better and fear the river for what it is. Nature doesn’t show mercy.

The place where the creek meets the river seems magical to me. The deep greens and blues blend into each other. The gravel is smaller and more like sand. The trees are older and larger. Their branches reach great distances in the air and cascade over the banks of the dark water. The summer rains raised the river and the current is swift. The swirls of water twist and turn in front of us. We know its power is more than we see. The breeze cuts up the muddy banks as the drunks in the canoes paddle past. I keep thinking they are fools to play in the river.

We don’t say much as we look at the houses on the stilts. The houses are like dead daddy long legs made to stand upright. They are motionless as the river moves past them. Their closed doors and boarded up windows haunt me but I am staying quiet on the subject. I am the youngest of the group and any hint of fear will start a game I don’t want to play.

The sun is set in the noon sky. The few clouds offer little relief. It is cooler under the trees but I prefer the gravel over mud. It is a territory I am familiar with and can trust. I stay in the hot sun as we turn around and head back up stream to the parts of the creek we know and call home.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

The Ballad of Queenscliff

It was close to 20 years ago I left the US for Australia. The prospect of getting as far away from St. Louis as possible appealed to me. I began writing as a full time endeavor. I needed to take a leap of faith and start a new life. I wanted to let the adventures begin and stretch out as a writer. I believed leaving the US was the best way to gather material for further writing. I needed to see life. Experience it. And to a certain extent I did experience life.

I had read Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way and quickly saw the trajectory of my life change. Each step to becoming an artist was tentative, scary, and unforgiving. I pushed boundaries. Made deals with myself and took a leap of faith. I remember saying to myself, “you don’t have a choice, you need to make music” and I did.

What I didn’t know is when you leave home and start writing, guess what… You start writing about home. It is inevitable. And when you leave one place and head to the next, you write about where you left. We can’t compare our lives to our previous selves until we leave a space. When we leave the tug of war with memories begins and quickly after the words spill on the page and the music flows. It happens to the best of us. The last thing I wanted to write about was home and yet some great songs came from those travels.

The Ballad of Queenscliff is one of those rare exceptions to the rule. At the time I was attending the University of Melbourne and failing all of my classes. I didn’t go to class much but I received a great education. During my time at Uni I met one of my best friends – Bedge. He was a fellow musician and the two of clicked immediately. We had lots of adventures both musical and otherwise. I wrote The Ballad of Queenscliff while on a weekend excursion with Bedge and some friends outside of Melbourne. The song came quickly and gave me the chance to put my hands on a moment to keep and help shape it.

I had recently stumbled across the Ballad of Queenscliff as I was digging through the Waterleftfrog Archives. The song brought back so many great memories. I dug up my old photo albums and put myself to work assembling the song as well as the video.

We have these times in our lives when things are bursting with goodness and yet we forget to savor the minutes and the scene we are starring in. The photographs tell a story and the song tells a story. Friendship, good times, and the memories of great people get craved in the recesses of our mind.

This is the Ballad of Queenscliff. Enjoy.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Take them pictures - American Boy

 I’m changing. I can feel it.

It’s not the first time I have felt a change inside me. It happens every couple of years. Sometimes I can have a decade long streak before I hit a change. Other times it can be a single picture or line and I am changed immediately. Life works within those parameters.

What’s the old saying, “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.”

The first real change for me occurred in 1990. Pretty good year for change.

Around 1994 another change hit and from then on time ebbed and flowed. I was always a little on the outside looking in. Each new adventure I took was like a snake shedding its skin. Some got it. Others didn’t.

Change is frustrating to those around you. Most people hold on to a mental image of you regardless of the circumstance. To some I am still twelve years old stealing comics and questioning any authority coming my way. Others see me as the guy in charge. Some see me as a songwriter. Others see me as an old guy needing to grow up. I seem to get it all. People need to place others in categories. Their little brains can’t comprehend people change. I get it.

My dad once told me time goes faster as you get older. I’m feeling that way now. Yesterday during my morning walk I realized I was 42 and I also realized I didn’t remember my 30s. My thirties were one of those decade long, slow changes. You find yourself in the rat race and when you look up ten years have passed. My thirties did that to me.

I just finished reading a poem by Frank Stanford called Planning the Disappearance of Those Who Have Gone

Soon I will make my appearance
But first I must take off my rings
And swords and lay them out all
Along the lupine banks of the forbidden river
In reckoning the days I have
Left on this earth I will use
No fingers

And from there I am reminded of Raymond Carver’s poem Late Fragment

And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.

Late Fragment hits home for me. I find myself asking “And did you get what you wanted from this life…” It is a good question. Tough, but good.

All of these things leads to my latest work – American Boy.

American boy is an old song written in the early 1990s. If I had to put an exact year – I would say 1992. I started writing songs in 1990 but didn’t show anyone until I left high school. The song is an ode to the American dream and to my father. Work hard and the rest will come. My father and I are a lot alike. Our independent minds need to come to their own conclusions. My mother and father lived by two basic beliefs work hard and family comes first. Everything else fell into place from those two things.

I came across cache of photos my mom had digitized. Being the creative type I merged the photos with one of my songs. It wasn’t revolutionary but it somehow struck a chord with my parents and my brothers. I’m glad it did. I have been to a couple of funerals this past year and each time I see families pouring through photos. I see how precious those photos become in times of loss. Those photos become what are left. I have an obligation to keep this up now because life is art. Art is life. These two worlds now collide. They’ve been two separate circles for me for a long time. It makes sense now to merge them. Once again I am changing. Maybe it is because I am getting older or maybe I see how important our time here must be.

Take pictures. Record voices and video. Back them up. Treasure them and share them. They will be worth more than you think.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Interview with Noah Ascher for Waterleftfrog Publications - The Strong Braus Guitar

Noah Ascher: My instruments are important to me. I have been looking for the perfect guitar for the last twenty-five years. And there are a lot of perfect guitars out there. I have essentially quit buying guitars on a frequent basis about five or six years ago. Honestly, I am glad I no longer buy guitars regularly. It is an exhausting effort. I spent weekends hitting local shops playing through as many guitars as I could get my hands on. Evenings were spent looking through Craig’s List and Ebay. I would go to sleep thinking about guitars. I would wake up thinking about guitars. It provided hours of endless distraction. There was even a period of time where I thought I might start making guitars because I wanted something different. 

 In the end I had to ask myself what this really about. The way I see it is that real purpose of having a guitar or guitars is to make music. I found I was diverting more time looking for this elusive holy grail and not making music. I don’t know when the switch actually occurred but it has been sometime that I have felt the need to venture out and look at guitars.

When I started recording on a regular basis I found that the guitar I was using could pretty much sound how I wanted it to with the help of the rapidly improving technology. I found myself appreciating each of my guitars for the quirks they brought to the table as opposed to looking for something that I didn’t have. 

All of this leads to one of my favorite guitars – the Strong Braus guitar. The fact that I have a Strong Braus guitar is in and of itself an odd statement. The Strong Braus are the band that I have played with for about four years. I’ve known the guys in the band for most of my life and it is always a good time when we get together. We essentially stick to Zeppelin and Black Crowes covers. The funny part is – I don’t play guitar in the band. I sing and play harmonica. There are already two guitarists in the band and they cover a wide range of sonic territory so for me to pick up and play guitar in this band is overkill. 

But I digress. The Strong Braus guitar is one of my favorite guitars. I picked up the guitar on a trip to Memphis / Nashville with three of the guys from the Strong Braus. The goal was to head to Memphis and Nashville for the day. The plan was to shop for guitars – at least that was my plan. I don’t think anyone else bought anything now that I think of it. We headed to Memphis in a rented car, told too many stories and laughed our way into downtown Memphis. Our intention was to head to Nashville after lunch. It wasn’t until we finished our lunch that we realized Nashville was a good 4 hours from Memphis. We are not individuals who deter a good time. We decided to explore Memphis and found a Guitar Center within driving distance. 

As we entered the Guitar Center I immediately saw a white Fender Jaguar HH that was on clearance due to a large crack on the top of the guitar near the input jack. I have always liked damaged goods. I don’t want perfect. I want battle-scarred instruments. In my mind the damage tells a story and I am all about stories. To say the guitar was calling to me is an understatement. My buddy Scott was next to me saying – “This has got you written all over it.”

I love Jazzmaster and Jaguar body styles. I am also more of a Fender guy than anything so this already had enough going for it. The fact that I was on a road trip with my friends further solidified my love for this guitar. See – it had story before we even left the shop. 

The reason I love the guitar is for the story. Fortunately it also has a good sound and is pretty versatile. With two humbuckers and some different knobs, the combination of sounds I can get out of it is something I appreciate. The other thing that I love about the guitar is the tremolo bar. I have struggled to find the right tremolo for me. I love the look of Bigsby but they don’t work for me. I think Floyd Roses are cool but I think you need an MIT degree to really use one. I like strats but don’t think of using a tremolo on a strat is something I can make sound good. When I came across this tremolo I realized I had found something that really works for me. I don’t do deep dive bombs. I don’t scrunch on a solo. I smoothly alter the pitch for subtle effect. This tremolo does that for me in a very nice way. 

To date I have used the Strong Braus guitar on a ton of recordings and find it to be the guitar I go to almost all of the time. It covers a lot of sounds and allows me to think about the song and arrangements rather than wonder if I have the perfect guitar. I think it has done a lot for me. The original intention of using it in the Strong Braus is far removed from what I use it for now and that is fine with me.