How I Wish I Knew

There has been a great deal of melancholia lately among people I know, many deeply cared for. The young and newly single mother, wondering if she’ll ever find genuine love for the first time let alone again. Another young woman whose joyous anticipation along with her husband of their first child together has now turned to grief as the baby has passed away while still in her womb. The depression monster eating people alive, stealing whatever joy they might have while leaving them numb and indifferent to life’s pleasures. Yours truly, watching his employer turn out the lights, searching for and wondering who will be his next employer if in fact there will be one. To put it simply, not a ton of recent fun.

It’s challenging, knowing what and what not to say when people are hurting. The challenge exponentially rises when you are the one in pain, ofttimes leaving you unwilling to talk about things at the exact time you most need to communicate concerning that which seeks your slow destruction. John Donne was right; no man is an island. However, it is not only the final death of one affecting us all. It is the little births and deaths among those we know, joys and sorrows we share out of love bringing us together as we help each other through the bloody cold mud that life so often churns for us to stumble through.

We laugh with those who laugh, comfort those who mourn, and grieve with those who grieve. Sometimes all we can offer is our presence, as any words we might have to offer sound too trite, too cliched to say aloud. Yet these times of being there are often far more valuable than anything we might have uttered. In a world demanding all communication and contact be at its convenience, with phone calls abhorred and texts answered at leisure, making oneself available for another is a sadly revolutionary notion. There is surprising healing in presence; well, surprising to those caught up in a world of omnipresent communication but minimal contact.

Yes, sometimes we don’t know what to say. This doesn’t leave us incapable of reaching out. A hug, a hand on the shoulder, a reassuring smile; these speak volumes. What matters is the love behind the effort. None of us always have the right words. But we can do the right thing. Even when we wish we know what to say.

Staring Down

Do you ever wonder why you are where you are at any given moment?

Often it doesn’t make sense. We know life is a procession of instances where we learn and/or share what has already been learned, but far too often the sardonic adage of when you’re up to your neck in alligators it’s difficult to remember the original objective was draining the swamp comes to mind. It’s easy to say “trust God – Romans 8:28.” It’s quite a different thing to do when you’re recalling a loved one now gone away, wishing with all you have you could talk to them jut once more. Heaven awaits those who believe, yet eternity remains an eternity away.

Lessons learned at my employer prior to the current one occasionally come to mind, and often come in quite handy where I now work. It would be easy to say said lessons were why I was there. However, there was one moment when … well, here’s the story.

I held the not terribly lofty position of customer service manager. Translation: I was responsible for servicing the customers by expediting their sojourn through the checkstands. A tad difficult when you were at the last remaining store in the Western Hemisphere that rang everything manually, and on any day ending in a y you didn’t have enough cashiers, thus forcing you to call department heads who were invariably swamped with their own projects. But hey. Someone had to pay for those illegal museum shipments. But I digress.

One afternoon, a customer approached me holding a ladies wallet. She said she had found it in one of the potted plants outside the store. Said wallet had the individual’s drivers license, cellphone, and car keys, leading to the logical conclusion they would be looking for it. I thanked the guest, and doubtless in direct violation of any number of the company’s five bajillion rules designed to turn all into mindless drones (but hey, it gave us Sunday off) held on to the wallet instead of immediately having it locked away in the store safe.

A few minutes later, a police officer came in and asked me if we carried marbles; his son wanted some. It occurred to me to mention the wallet. He said he’d keep an eye out for anyone looking for it.

Shortly thereafter, a young woman entered the store. She was very petite and not unattractive. She headed straight toward me and said, “I believe you have something of mine.” Which I did; a quick glance at the drivers license declared the wallet was hers.

I handed it to her.

She began to cry.

Now, I’ve been in similar situations where tears of relief came in response to a returned, intact wallet or purse. Thus, I commented it was okay.

Actually, no it wasn’t, as the young woman replied with the reason she was crying.

Her father had just died.

Needless to say, this was not a topic covered in the customer service manager handbook.

The young woman asked if there was somewhere she could sit down. The only thing available was the store wheelchair, so I grabbed it and sat her down. She said she desperately needed to use the restroom, so I pushed her in the wheelchair across the store to same.

Once she emerged, she said she didn’t think she could stand, so I sat her back down in the wheelchair and gave her a slow tour of the store, alternating between expressing sentiments shared by those of us in the unfortunate fellowship she had now entered and doing my best to comfort her. Sometimes she cried. Sometimes she even laughed at one of my silly comments. And so we continued for a half-hour or so until she felt together enough to drive home. We hugged, and she left.

I haven’t seen her since.

I pray she’s doing okay.

I pray I did my Dad proud.

And yes, I believe that moment was why I was there.

Lord Of The Past

Lord of the here and now
Lord of the come what may
I want to believe somehow
That You can heal these wounds of yesterday
So now I’m asking You
To do what You want to do
Be the Lord of my past
Oh how I want You to
Be the Lord of the past

— from “Lord Of The Past” by Bob Bennett

This past Sunday, the mysterious yet not mythical Mrs. Dude and I were in Southern California attending a concert featuring three veterans of contemporary Christian music back when it was still called that: Bob Bennett, Michele Pillar, and Kelly Willard. Each would take a turn performing one of their songs with the other artists providing backing vocals where suggested, all unobtrusively backed by a smooth instrumental quartet featuring respected studio and stage (over twenty years backing Neil Diamond live) guitarist Hadley Hockensmith.

During one of his times Bennett dusted off one of his more obscure tunes. Originally released as a new track to enhance a long out of print compilation, later rerecorded for a mostly stripped down release featuring him alone with his guitar, Bennett introduced “Lord of the Past” by commenting on the song’s core message, adding how many mistakenly believe that Jesus’ forgiving, via the Cross, the penalty of our sins is commensurate with eliminating the consequences of our sin. In short, no it does not. Which can be a very, very hard lesson to learn.

There is a danger in assuming the above translates solely into our needing to accept the consequences of our actions toward others. Certainly this factors into the matter; accepting ownership of the fallout from what we have done is a vital part of any believer’s walk with Christ. That said, it is not the only part. What we do in regard to the consequences of actions by others toward us also matters. Sometimes, it is the primary action item on our life agenda.

The past several weeks have seen a torrent of harsh, often horrid accusations and occasional, pathetic recriminations regarding men in positions of power abusing their status by using it as a conduit for sexually harassing women up to and including rape. There is no excuse, nor justification, for this. Nor is there acceptability for telling abused women they need to get over it and get on with it. A woman who has had that which is intended for the divine, the expression of passionate love between man and wife that also symbolizes the passion of Christ the Bridegroom for His bride the church, threatened or stolen cannot reasonably be expected to simply hit the “what’s done is done” switch and sing hey nonny nonny as she merrily goes on her way. The violation of body, mind, and soul demands deep care to regain so much as basic societal functionality, let alone true healing.

Christianity is at its heart about forgiveness: the forgiveness offered by Jesus on the Cross; His command to His followers to forgive others even as they are forgiven by Him. While Scripture tells us God “forgets” that for which He forgives the penitent, forgiveness on an earthly level is not forgetting what others have done. It is freeing oneself from the penalty of being burdened by the actions of others. The consequences remain, yet we are no longer bound by them. New life is available.

In the same fashion, while the consequences of our past actions toward ourself and others live on, we do not have to forever live under their specter. One of depression’s most hideous lies is conflating the inescapability of our past actions consequences with said actions forever defining our present and future state of being. We are more than the sum total of our past. We are infused, transformed by the Holy Spirit. We are not condemned to repeat the past. The next time does not have to be a recycling of the last time. Today does not have to be yesterday.

The past can be and ofttimes is far better or far worse than our present. We cannot change the past. We can resolve to live our lives in the here and now, embracing today even as we embrace Christ. We can allow Him to embrace us, finding in Him healing and hope in the here and now. We can give to Him that which we can neither deny or change — namely, the past — and let the eternal Lord do what only the eternal Lord can do. He wants to help. He wants to heal.

Will we let Him?

It’s My Blog And I’ll Kvetch If I Want To

Mind if I vent?

Yesterday I posted a link to my latest blog post. It’s a review of Christian rocker Randy Rose’s new album “Songs For The Ritually Abused,” which tackles head on the issue of child abuse.

You probably haven’t read it, let alone listened to the album. Which is okay. It’s your call. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea. You’re definitely missing out, and even if the album isn’t in your musical wheelhouse (it’s heavy and leans heavily toward Goth), it should be easy to agree on child abuse being something we should all fight together. That said, if you’d rather not read the review and/or listen to the album, it’s entirely up to you. And, based on the roaring silence with which the post has been received, it’s clear at least this attempt to broach the subject is of little interest.

Now, had the post been about, say, how reprehensible Kathy Griffin’s video was, people would lap it up. Lots of people. Furthermore, should it have been one in a series of posts after posts cranked out crabbing about how Democrats are all poopyheads, or, taking the “principled conservative” angle, part of endlessly churned out copy about how Trump is a meanypants, it’s pretty much guaranteed that within a few months yours truly would have one or more gigs at a high roller, corporate owned website. I do have writing chops, and I can play the schmooze & suck up game when need be. It’d be all phony and fakery, but it could be done.

However, there are far more beneficial contributions possible than the three hundred and seventy-sixth post on today’s topic du jour. It’s the same philosophy I employ when writing country songs: given that the subjects of drinking, dancing, and honkytonking are all thoroughly covered, I’ll work on discussing something else.

That is what people want, isn’t it? A lot of them in the political junkie category say that’s what they want. We’re tired of all politics all the time, they moan. Give us something different! Break out of the echo chamber! Politics is downstream from culture!

Okay, here’s something different.

The response?

Not much of anything.

Oh, there’s the occasional “that’s nice.” But overall? Zip. Nada. Nyet. And while I’ve grown used to it, it still rankles a bit. (Okay, more than a bit.)

Now, it’s impossible to write all this and remain unaware all this leaves me wide open to charges of being a whining crybaby. Perhaps this is true. In my defense, it’s not a case of why them instead of me. Rather, it’s why not me as well.

The lyric by early Christian rock band Servant comes to mind: “Well they call me a Jesus freak / I do believe it’s true / There’s just one thing I want to know / Whose freak are you?”

Here’s the deal. The artists I write about deserve maximum exposure. They’re good people creating great music carrying an even greater message. Writing about it isn’t a choice. It’s a holy obligation. And if it’s frustrating when people who say they want something more than political yakfests, something that addresses culture and society, yet ignoring when it’s presented to them the very thing they’re asking for …

… what should be done?

That’s all.

Pirates

“Who’ll make his mark,” the captain cried
“To the devil drink a toast
We’ll glut the hold with cups of gold
We’ll feed the sea with ghosts
I see your hunger for a fortune
Could be better served beneath my flag
If you’ve the stomach for a broadside
Come aboard my pretty boys
I will take you and make you
Everything you’ve ever dreamed”

“Make fast the guns! Tonight we sail
When the high tide floods the bay
Cut free the lines and square the yards
Get the black flag stowed away
The Turk, the Arab, and the Spaniard
Will soon have pennies on their eyes
And any other laden fancy
We will take her by surprise
I will take you and make you
Everything you’ve ever dreamed”

Some posts back, I referenced Billy Smiley (Whiteheart, The Union Of Sinners and Saints) lamenting storytelling’s increasing exclusion from current Christian music. It is curious how so much of Scripture involves both storytelling and telling of stories, yet both are routinely avoided by today’s songwriters. Parables, allegories, and even the rich poetic language of traditional hymns are rare commodities indeed.

It is not solely Christian music where this dearth of depth can be found. Today’s pop music is conveyor belt fan fodder, autotuned vocals layered atop virtual instruments without soul or satisfaction for anyone wanting more than disposable, valueless mass tuneage. There has always been an element of purposeless fluff in commercial music, but today it is a flood drowning any and all efforts to keep creativity alive. Bands like The Hyperdrive Kittens face a fierce struggle to find an audience.

Six days off the Cuban coast when a sail ahead they spied
“A galleon of the treasure fleet,” the mizzen lookout cried
“Closer to the wind my boys,” the mad-eyed captain roared
“For every man that’s alive tonight will be hauling gold aboard”

“Spare us,” the galleon begged but mercy’s face had fled
Blood ran from the screaming souls the cutlass harvested
Driven to the quarterdeck the last survivor fell
“She’s ours my boys,” the captain grinned “and no one left to tell”

In the face of this dreary plastic onslaught, it should be no surprise that catalog releases now outsell new music. Latter day fans are accustomed to streaming everything and buying nothing. One time, a number one album could be expected to sell 300,000 or more copies in a week riding atop the charts. Now it is 30,000 or less. Older fans value music as art; something to cherish and collect so it can be savored time and again.

Which brings us to Emerson Lake and Palmer’s The Anthology.

The captain rose from a silk divan
With a pistol in his fist
And shot the lock from an iron box
And a blood red ruby kissed
“I give you jewellery of turquoise
A crucifix of solid gold
One hundred thousand silver pieces
It is just as I foretold
You … you see there before you
Everything you’ve ever dreamed”

Anchored in an indigo moonlit bay
Gold-eyed ‘round fires the sea thieves lay
Morning … white shells and a pipe of clay
As the wind filled their footsteps
They were far far away

Some information for the uninitiated. Emerson Lake and Palmer was one of the leading purveyors of a genre known as progressive rock. First heard in the latter part of the 1960s, as created by bands such as Procol Harum and King Crimson progressive rock was an effort to stretch rock‘n’roll past its blues roots by incorporating more adventuresome, experimental elements. This ofttimes meant bringing both jazz-flavored improvisational and classical music notions into the mix. In lesser hands this quickly devolved into unlistenable, self-indulgent drek. But when the artists knew what they were doing … well, you had the likes of Emerson Lake and Palmer.

Keith Emerson was that rarity among childhood prodigies, namely one whose artistic development did not end once they had reached adulthood. Equally well versed in classic R&B, multiple flavors of jazz, and classical with a bent toward contemporary composers, while not the first rock‘n’roller to have keyboards rather than guitar as a band’s focus Emerson took it to a level both musically and visually far beyond Jerry Lee Lewis’ kicking over the piano stool. His ritualistic Hammond organ abuse, including shoving daggers into the keyboard, was as much Emerson’s known quality as his ferocious playing, compositions and improvisational stretches alike overflowing with creative fire channeled through breathtaking virtuoso skill. He was the Jimi Hendrix of the keys, never so far removed from the known as to be unapproachable yet inventing something altogether new. After first coming to public attention with The Nice, Emerson decided to take it to the next level by working with artists at or near his own level. Bassist/vocalist/occasional guitarist Greg Lake, fresh from King Crimson’s first incarnation, and drummer/percussionist Carl Palmer from experimental band Atomic Rooster were just the ticket, and thus Emerson Lake and Palmer was born.

Our sails swell full as we brave all seas
On a westward wind to live as we please
With the wicked wild-eyed woman of Portobello town
Where we’ve been told that a purse of gold
Buys many man a crown
They will serve you and clothe you
Exchange your rags for the velvet coats of kings

“Who’ll drink a toast with me
“I give you liberty
“This town is ours tonight”

Emerson Lake and Palmer found near-instantaneous success worldwide. In the United States, all of its studio albums save its last went gold (more than 500,000 copies sold), as did two live albums. The band routinely packed arenas and stadiums. Its music filled the FM airwaves. The early and mid 1970s were the band’s glory years, and even after fervor cooled as times and tastes changed, Emerson Lake and Palmer retained a large core of devoted fans.

“Landlord, wine! Make it the finest
“Make it a cup for a seadog’s thirst
“Two long years of bones and beaches
“Fever and leeches did their worst
“So fill the night with paradise
“Bring me peach and peacock till I burst
“But first
“I want a soft touch in the right place
“I want to feel like a king tonight”

“Ten on the black to beat the Frenchman
“Back you dogs give ‘em room to turn
“Now open wide sweet Heaven’s gates
“Tonight we’re gonna see if Heaven burns
“See how she burns
“Oh she burns
“I want an angel on a gold chain
“And I’ll ride her to the stars
“It’s the last time for a long long time
“Come the daybreak we embark
“On the flood of the morning tide”
Once more the ocean cried

As is far more often than not the case with bands from its era, Emerson Lake and Palmer has seen its music repackaged and resold at a ridiculous pace over the years. Late last year, the announcement came of yet another series of reissued albums, this time with the band’s official blessing and participation. Individual albums would be remastered and also remixed, the latter effort being resumed after an abortive effort a few years back by Steven Wilson was dropped when, after having done the first two albums in the catalog, he admitted he simply was not sufficiently into the band’s music to continue. Tragically, Emerson would not see these loving preservations come to fruition; depressed over his deteriorating playing skills and the venom spat in his direction by alleged fans unwilling to forgive Emerson’s growing old, he took his life in March of this year.

As part of the project, a three CD compilation was assembled and released a few weeks ago. Given the plethora of Emerson Lake and Palmer compilations already out there – at least ten – whether anyone needs yet another one is highly debatable. However, given how this one draws all materials from the newly remastered series, not all of which have yet to be released, it warrants attention for this alone.

So how does it serve as an overview of the band’s recorded output? Sonically it is breathtaking. The subtleties, the dynamics, of Emerson Lake and Palmer’s music have never sounded better. It is easy to forget these recording are for the most part more than forty years old. The music breathes and lives, not as a simple nostalgia trip but a brilliant example of musicians turning their full force toward creating something both new and noteworthy. On this level The Anthology admirably succeeds.

Alas, the musical selections themselves in terms of best representing the band are decidedly hit and miss. It is admittedly impossible to assemble any kind of musical anthology by any name (collection, sampler, greatest hits, etc) and please everyone. There will always be cries of “how could you have left out” and “how could you have included this instead of that” and “why did you use that version of,” and so on. This duly noted, there are some puzzlers in this collection. Including both a live version and the studio version of ‘Toccata,’ originally from Brain Salad Surgery, when the two are nearly identical makes little sense. There are too many tracks from side two of Tarkus, which was not the band’s greatest moment, and omitting ‘Black Moon’ from the album of the same name is just plain odd given how it was a not unsubstantial radio hit.

“This company will return one day
“Though we feel your tears it’s the price we pay
“For there’s prizes to be taken and glory to be found
“Cut free the chains make fast your souls
“We are Eldorado bound
“I will take you for always forever together
“Until Hell call our names”

“Who’ll drink a toast with me
“To the devil and the deep blue sea”
Gold drives a man to dream

It is no more logical to expect the average Rhianna or Ed Sheeran fan to understand, let alone appreciate, Emerson Lake and Palmer than it was to have expected the average Carpenters or John Denver fan to have understood and/or appreciated Emerson Lake and Palmer back in its heyday. This is as it should be. There was a time when artists made music for music’s sake. If an audience chose to follow all the merrier; this was a byproduct rather than the sole objective. There will never be another Emerson Lake and Palmer. But, once there was, and we are all the better for it.

(Song lyrics from ‘Pirates’ by Emerson Lake and Palmer from the album Works Volume One)

Of magical powers and muddle-headed social justice warriors

NOTE: The following is my personal opinion. It in no way reflects or represents my employer, its policies and platforms, or my daily efforts on behalf of said employer to keep the company head in Purina Giraffe Chow.

 

One of the advantages of working in a toy store is watching children react to various toys. This of course involves first hand viewings of assorted temper tantrums, crying jags, screaming fits, and the like. But enough about the parents.

I bring this up because the other day I put out the first shipment of Elena of Avalor toys. For those of you minus a girl or girls aged four to ten in your household or reasonable equivalent thereof who faithfully watch Disney Channel, the recently debuted show is set in a fictional Central American country during colonial times. Elena is a Latina princess with magical powers. There’s more, of course, as any aforementioned girl or girls aged four to ten can breathlessly tell you.

Getting back to the merchandise, it’s in the front of the store, where coincidentally I’m usually stationed. This provides a prime vantage point for observing responses. Which are …

… pretty much universal for girls in the four to ten age bracket. Doesn’t matter what color the child: white, black, brown, yellow, purple with pink polkadots, etc. Immediately their eyes become big as saucers and they grab an Elena doll of various features (one sings, one comes with a horse, one comes with her sister, and all come with a special feature that automatically sucks money out of parental wallets and purses). Just as immediately, it is totally apparent their harried mothers have absolutely no idea who this character is. Apparently they’re not spending a lot of time with their children watching Disney Channel. I know parenting is tough, Mom, but once in a while put the wine down and watch some TV with the kid(s).

Now, what lesson can we draw from this? Despite the whining of some self-appointed Social Justice Warrior types, it’s quite simple. Regardless of the character’s race, and regardless of the child’s race unless they’ve already been programmed to hate, girls love princesses with magical powers. Period.

I am reminded of an afternoon I spent at a local mall after Frozen hit the theaters. It was Halloween time, and all the stores in the mall were participating in giving out candy to children. For amusement, I decided to see how many girls dressed as Elsa I could count. I gave up after it rapidly became apparent I should be counting by dozens and not one at a time. Again, as with the girls grabbing the Elena dolls, it was every color child imaginable wearing an Elsa address. The identity wasn’t with her race. It was with the character herself. Indulge me while I repeat myself: regardless of the character’s race, and regardless of the child’s race unless they’ve already been programmed to hate, girls love princesses with magical powers. Period, end of story.

Maybe if we would stop defining ourselves and each other, and dividing ourselves and each other, by our skin color we might be better off.

When It All Gets Too Real

End Sex Trafficking Now

I enjoy the great privilege of knowing Dawn Wisner Johnson, of Crumbächer fame for those of you who know your ’80s Christian rock, as a beloved friend. Dawn has a heart that cannot be measured, demonstrated over the years by how she has not only taken care of, but taken in, abandoned and abused kids as freely as animal lovers take in stray cats and dogs. It’s what she does.

Earlier today, she posted this on Facebook:

Yesterday, my family went to a funeral for a young woman who was killed as a result of her being a victim of human sex trafficking. Out of honor to the family of this victim (they are “family” to us), that is all the information I will give at this point.

When I found out this news a few months ago, I was devastated. For the past few years, I’ve been working with, helping, and supporting a non profit – Forgotten Children – headed by my good friend, Paula Daniels. I never thought that this would hit so close to home.

Friends, please take a moment to watch this interview with a victim that escaped. If you don’t have the time to do that, would you “like” this post? The more likes, the more people will see it.

I’m also very sad that when I post on Facebook about human trafficking I may get 5 “likes.” Yet, when I post about my vacations or family, 50 to 100 “likes”. How sad that is to me.

We have many working in this field to change laws and make sure that these traffickers and those “buying” the girls are caught. For that I am grateful. San Bernardino is a leader in this fight because of our district attorney Michael Ramos.

This funeral we attended yesterday was one of the hardest I’ve been to. The young daughter of this victim, wept and gave tribute to her mother. We all cried along with her. It’s time to make a change and get this horrible crime under control in our nation.

Not much more to say, is there.

Love In Action

Kerry Livgren, of the band Kansas and songs “Dust In The Wind” along with “Carry On Wayward Son” fame, recently penned a lengthy muse on Facebook:

Miracles. Everyone has heard of them, some of us have experienced them, perhaps even multiple times. I will enthusiastically confess that I am of the latter group.

The dictionary describes a miracle as “an extraordinary event manifesting divine intervention in human affairs.” For the less theologically inclined, “an extremely outstanding or unusual event, thing, or accomplishment.”

Anyone would have to admit, the Parting of the Red Sea, or Christ feeding the Five Thousand are miraculous events. But how often do relatively minor miracles get overlooked, because they are not so dramatic? Are we embarrassed to mention them, or do we even notice them?

Sometimes we have to notice that a naturalistic explanation of an event is simply not going to work. The evidence is too overwhelming.

I will give you an example, (actually three), from my own life. Although there are many others I could tell you about, and they are MUCH more dramatic, I am going to relate these three because they could so easily be explained as “just peculiar occurrences.”

Guitars. Now what could possibly be miraculous about guitars? Well, I will tell you the tale of three “miraculous” guitars I have owned.

(this segment of the story appeared in the book “Between the Strings” by John August Schroeder)

“Miracle” Number 1: (1991) In 1970, while I was in the first Kansas band, we were touring the southwest. The dryness of the atmosphere around Albuquerque caused the neck of the Gibson SG I was playing to warp beyond playability. It got to be a really serious problem. When we got back home, the band bought me a new guitar—a brand new 1969 Les Paul Deluxe Gold Top.

I played that guitar for years, writing dozens, if not scores of songs on it. It was, in fact, the only guitar I played for many years. When Kansas landed their first major recording contract a little more cash began to fill the coffers, and I decided I needed a new guitar. So I traded in that Les Paul for, of all things, a Hagstrom Swede.

It wasn’t long before I began to miss that Les Paul. It didn’t seem to matter what guitar I played; I always regretted getting rid of it. It’s something all guitarists seem to do sooner or later. Like most guitar players, I have a long list of instruments that I wish I had never gotten rid of. I don’t know why we do that, but we do.

Years went by, and guitars went by, and Kansas achieved its multi-platinum success, and still, I never forgot that Les Paul, even though at that time I could have had any guitar I wanted.

One day in 1991, my wife had gone to visit her parents. Well, I was home alone and it was a beautiful day, so I thought I’d get into my Piper Turbo Arrow and just fly around. We were living near Atlanta at the time, and I “got a wild hair” to fly off to the north west. As I continued, I got the crazy idea to fly on to Kansas and drop in on some of my old friends.

I landed in Topeka, rented a car, and drove down to “Steam Music,” the little music store where we used to hang out. As I walked in the door, a fellow I had known for years who worked there looked at me as though he had just seen a ghost. At that very moment, he was hanging a guitar up on the wall—my old Les Paul. Somebody had come in that day and traded it in.

He began to tell me the story of that guitar since it left my hands, where it had gone, who had owned it. It ended up being stolen in the southwest somewhere, and was recovered by the police. It somehow found its way back to Kansas, and when it came into the store, he immediately recognized it. And so had I.

I had played that thing so much that I literally sweated off the gold top finish. I eventually stripped it down to bare wood. And I knew that serial number; there was no question that this was my guitar. And seeing it again after all those years—and ruing the day I let it go—I told him, “Don’t even hang it up. Don’t even tell me what you want for it. Just sell it to me here and now.”

I put the guitar in my plane and flew back to Atlanta. I sent it up to Ken Hoover, who refretted it got it back into shape. But it’s not leaving again. I suppose it will go in my coffin when they bury me.

“Miracle” Number 2: (2015) I walked over to my ringing phone and picked it up. It was Bob Tolford, and friend from Atlanta. Bob would call periodically, and it was always good to hear from him.

“Hi Bob, what’s up?” He replied that he had just seen our documentary, “Miracles Out of Nowhere.” Then, he said something puzzling. “I was wondering – do you want your guitar back?” he said. Now I have many friends who are guitarists, but Bob was not one of them, so I got very curious about his question.

“You know,” he said, “the one you wrote Dust in the Wind on.”

The silence on my end of the phone spoke volumes. When I came to my senses, I said “What?? You mean you have had that guitar all these years?” You could have knocked me over with a feather. I had always wondered what happened to that guitar. Not knowing what a huge hit “Dust” was going to be, I had sold the guitar. It was an Aria acoustic, a mid-price model, and I didn’t even remember who I had sold it to. Later, of course, I regretted that decision, and often found myself wondering where it was, and who had it.

“Are you serious, Bob?” Would you ship it to me? “I’ll do better than that Kerry,” he replied. “I’ll drive it up to you.” Never was Bob so welcome in our house! The legendary Dust in the Wind guitar had returned home.

“Miracle” Number 3: (2016) I drove down to the little Berryton Post Office in order to mail some CD’s that had been ordered, and to pick up my mail. The clerk handed me the day’s mail, among which was a letter to me from one Tony Camardo, from Chicago.

When I got home, I opened his letter and began reading. At first, I just thought it was a fan letter, until he began saying that he had been to one of our shows long ago in Chicago, and that he was the guy who had traded me an old SG for the Les Paul that I was playing at the time. Once again I got very curious.

I remember trading that guitar, but I had traded several guitars back and forth and my memory was not that clear. The memory of the guitar itself was crystal clear, however. It was (another) example of trades that I would later regret.

Just the week before, I had watched our documentary again on VH1-C. The scene that caught my attention was the second Don Kirshner show, where I was playing a Tobacco Sunburst Les Paul – the very guitar mentioned in Tony’s letter. Then, to my astonishment, he went on to ask me it I wanted it back! He was willing to trade it for another guitar.

So I agreed, thanked him profusely, and a week later I had another of my old guitars back!

So are these things miracles? Are they simply instances of exceeding kindness, or are they divine interventions? Perhaps they are just extraordinary circumstances. I have my suspicions, but alas I don’t know. You tell me…

The first guitar Livgren discusses – a Gibson Les Paul Deluxe – is a jumping off point for my own guitar tale.

I start by noting two facts. One, although I am approximately as far back in talent from Livgren as Justin Bieber is from The Beatles, I do have some small amount of musical ability in terms of playing and writing. So there’s that. Second, while the Gibson Les Paul is the second most popular electric guitar in the world, expertly wielded by such guitar deities as Jimmy Page and Slash, there have been multiple models of said guitar over the decades, some more popular than others. The Deluxe, despite its name, is pretty much at the bottom of every Les Paul aficionado’s list. This is due to it using smaller pickups than the Les Paul Standard model, thus giving it less output and a less meaty tone than the Standard and variations thereof. Adding to the Deluxe’s lack of desirability is during its primary years in production (1969 through 1980 or thereabouts) Gibson was owned by a company named Norlin. Despite its music industry origins, Norlin was acquired by an Ecuadorian adult beverage manufacturer that apparently freely dispensed its product to everyone involved in decision making, as the demonstrated knowledge of quality guitar making during its Norlin ownership period was as far removed from a single clue how to go about it as … well, refer the aforementioned Bieber-Beatles comparison. One piece body for best tonality and sustain? Forget it! Let’s do slightly upscale plywood! One piece neck? That’s crazy talk! We’ll glue three pieces together! (To be fair, there are several top-flight guitar makers who prefer multi-piece necks; however in this case it was for cheapness sake as opposed to a quality issue.) And to top if off – literally – we’ll make the headstock bigger, thus making it more likely to snap off if the guitar gets dropped or otherwise jostled! BRILLIANT! Long story short: in terms of desirability and collectibility the Les Paul Deluxe is none of the above.

Naturally it’s my favorite Les Paul model. I love its sound, somewhere in-between the cut and bite of a Fender Stratocaster or Telecaster and the traditional humbucker pickup roar of most every other Les Paul. To me, it’s the perfect combination. So, despite its scorned state of being, the Les Paul Deluxe is dear to my heart.

I first owned one in my tenderheaded … er, tender teen years. It was used. (The guitar, not my head.) I had longed after it when it hung for months in my favorite music store, but the price tag was above my reach. Then someone bought it. Then a few month later it returned, definitely the worse for wear. The once pristine wine red finish was in a sorry state, with scratches and gouges a-plenty. Unfortunate, but it did serve one useful purpose: it brought the price down to where I could successfully beseech my parents for the guitar. Soon it was mine. As an added bonus, my Dad agreed to pay to have it refinished, so off it went, returning a couple of weeks later in a beautiful walnut.

Reference the aforementioned tenderheaded uniform of youth I wore. Eventually I traded my Les Paul for a Fender Stratocaster. Not that there is anything wrong with Stratocasters; they are awesome. Unfortunately, the one I acquired was anything but awesome. And someone quickly snapped up the Les Paul. I lamented my decision then, and I lament my decision today. (The Stratocaster has long since been sold.)

Fast forward thirty years. I had been surgically repaired and could once again play guitar; a tale for another time. Anyway, my regret over getting rid of the Les Paul still hung heavy. I had the money to buy one, sort of, and I wanted to rectify my previous error. So off to look for one at my preferred music store … whaddyamean they don’t make the Deluxe anymore? Swell. Okay, let’s look for a used one in good shape.

In the “too soon old, too late smart” department, I decided to scour eBay. Not that there’s anything wrong with buying most things off of the site, but when you are looking at something as personal as a guitar, especially a used one, you’re taking just a wee bit of a gamble. As in a ridiculously big one.

Nevertheless, I plowed ahead. Ah-HA! There were several listed, but one in particular caught my eye. Made in 1976. Natural finish. Professional setup (so the description said). Zillions of high quality photos of every inch of the guitar. Looked clean and sweet. Okay. Take a deep breath and click the Buy It Now button.

Then the guitar arrived.

Three things became rapidly apparent. One, the guitar was in remarkably good condition for having thirty plus years on it. There was some cosmetic damage here and there, but overall it was excellent. Two, the professional setup claim was a bit of a stretch; it immediately required readjustment of most everything adjustable, and there was a problem with the nut that had me slide a small piece of paper in-between one of the strings and its slot in order to keep the string from buzzing. Three, the previous owner or owners had played the guitar a ton. The frets were extremely worn. They also apparently never washed their hands before playing, as both sides of every single fret bore a thick cake of grime. Also, whether it was because of the incredible amount of playing needed to wear the frets down to where they were, or some other factor, the fretboard inlays – like the frets, all of them – had worked themselves out of the fingerboard to where the edges sat just above the wood, with grime caked against all edges. Swell. The guitar was still playable, and sounded wonderful, but it was an uncomfortable mess to play.

I did what I could: clean the fingerboard (which didn’t reset the inlays, alas), replace some broken or worn out plastic parts such as the toggle switch tip. An improvement for sure. Still, a far cry from satisfactory, especially considering the money I had shelled out. The end result was a seldom played guitar and me deciding what to do.

Finally, one day I had my Popeye moment. You know, that’s all I can stands and I can’t stands no more? I grabbed the guitar and went to a well-recommended repair shop in San Francisco. Didn’t like the vibe there; for some strange reason being treated like an inconvenience doesn’t warm the cuckolds of my heart. That, and the fact it would be several months before they could even look at my guitar, made it a no-go. So I went to a different well-recommended repair shop where I wasn’t laughed out of the place the moment I opened my guitar’s case and pulled out my mangy mutt.

My original idea was to have the inlays reset flush with the fingerboard and leave it at that. Said idea flew out the window when the main repair guru took one look at the guitar and, after commenting he had never seen inlays working their way out of the fingerboard like that before, said, “You have got to get this guitar refretted. These things are gone.” I reluctantly agreed, choosing the slightly more expensive stainless steel frets over the usual nickel one in order to pretty much guarantee that no matter how much I played the guitar going forward the frets would outlive me. They also replaced the nut and gave everything else the once-over. And, during the initial meeting, carefully went over with me what kind of guitar player I was as far as style so they could select the right size and shape frets to best match my playing. I appreciated that.

About a month passed. Then the call came. Guitar is done; pick it up whenever. So I rushed over. The repairman discussed how, in order to fix the inlays, they had to very carefully remove them all, re-route the fingerboard spots for them, and glue them back in. A bit out of the ordinary, but the results were flawless. I picked up my guitar, played a few notes, and immediately realized this was the best guitar I had ever played. Ever. It was perfect. Took a while to get there, but it was perfect. I’ll always miss my first Les Paul Deluxe, but this one was a more than worthy replacement.

I’ve often wondered about the person or persons who owned the guitar before the Floridian online dealer I bought it from acquired it. The grimy fingerboard aside, they took very good care of it. They obviously loved it. And, they obviously loved playing it. So why did they let it go? A somewhat melancholy thought, given how the the likeliest answers are they were either no longer able to play, or were no longer here to play, this guitar which now resides with me.

And that’s the story of my guitar. Hardly miraculous how it came into my possession. Yet, there is a touch of the miraculous how this particular guitar came to be mine, and how once given the loving care it had been more or less given its entire existence it sprang to life as a truly fine instrument. Sometimes, the least desirable turns out to be the greatest prize. All it takes is skillfully, actively applied love in action. So it is with my guitar.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I really need to practice my playing.

The Nice Guy

(Written for a friend.)

Hey there. You know that guy? Sure you do. We all know that guy. You know … the nice guy.

Great guy, the nice guy. The nice guy is always there when you need him. Need some advice, someone to lend an ear, maybe a shoulder to cry on? The nice guy is there for you. Every time.

But … well, you know. He’s just the nice guy. Nothing exciting. Nothing special. Good guy, sure. Great guy, really. But he’s … well, he’s the nice guy. That’s all.

You don’t hang out with the nice guy: don’t go out for drinks, don’t include him with the gang when you go out for dinner. None of that. I mean, let’s face it. The nice guy isn’t all that exciting. He’s probably got plans anyway, or something to do. No need to ask him to participate.

Wait … what’s that? A date? Are you kidding? No way! The nice guy doesn’t set off sparks. No sizzle. Oh, he’s good for comfort when the boyfriend goes wrong. But to actually be the boyfriend? Are you crazy? He’s just the nice guy. No way could he be Mr. Right. Just no way. Besides, what if you did date him and things went wrong? Who would you turn to? No, can’t risk it. Gotta keep him at arm’s length.

The nice guy will understand when you explain it to him. You’re sure he’ll meet some nice girl someday that’s more his speed. It’s nothing personal. It’s nothing against him. But … well, he simply doesn’t fit into your world like that. Yeah, he could probably make some girl happy. He’s the nice guy. But it’s not you. No, it never could be you.

Still, sometimes you wonder about the nice guy. Every once in a while the smile seems a little forced, the eyes a bit distant. And he does seem to be alone a lot.

Well, he probably prefers it that way. He’s fine. Of course the nice guy is fine. Isn’t he always the first with the quip, the first one there for you when you need someone? He’s fine. We all have our off days. He’s fine where he is. He must get his happiness from helping others. He must be fine. He’s the nice guy.

Although come to think of it, don’t see him much anymore …

I’m Not OK, Who Cares If You’re OK

A phrase oft heard during any given sporting event where the heavily favored team finds itself on the score’s short end is “the other team practices too.” Meaning: nothing is a given and no matter how talented, or better on paper, someone or a collection of someones is than the competition, if you dismiss the other team out of hand and don’t compete up to your ability level you will not win. Ever.

The same principle applies to life. We all have our burdens and battles; our private little hell that can and all too frequently does consume us. These must be tended to, otherwise they can severely damage us. Sometimes irrecoverably.

This duly noted, it is easy but dangerously shortsighted to exclusively focus on our own situation, neglecting to note that the other person has problems too. John Donne was right; no one is an island. We all have oppressive elements besetting our every day and every step.

To behave as though we alone are suffering while everyone else is on their own under the veneer of “they know their problems and I don’t” is pathetically short-sighted. Empathy is not contingent on complete understanding of someone else’s pain. We are all human, and we all share humanity’s common threads.

It is equally short-sighted, with a hefty dose of narcissism on the side, to focus so heavily on our own problems while neglecting to value others sufficiently to, at the least, inquire as to how they are doing that our life becomes a one-note samba of “woe is me.” The other person hurts too. Their hurt is equally important as ours. Ignoring them while bemoaning our state helps no one. It makes the other person quite apt to wonder why they should help, or care for, us when our actions and words make it apparent our concern for them extends only as far as their willingness to feel sorry for us. And, simply put, in such a scenario we are doing more than enough feeling sorry for ourselves to where the other person has zero inclination to join our pity party regardless of how deeply they care for us. We are pushing them away at a time when we most need them.

The other person matters too. Ask them how they are doing. You will be surprised how much it helps you both face the wounds and scars we all – all – bear.