The Musicave

It all started with the rug. Alex found it on a Nextdoor type app. We didn’t need a rug, but she wanted to soften up the concrete floor of our unfinished basement and this one appeared to be in good shape and basically free.

She had already hung white fabric walls and a mini-chandelier in the space to try to make it more like a room than a bunch of two by fours and some insulation.

The rug pulled it all together. Its boho-chicness brought to mind an intimate acoustic concert space with a barefoot musician singing amongst flickering candles. We decided then and there to create a music room.

A leather couch someone was giving away, a repurposed neo-classical fireplace mantel, an old upright piano, and we felt like we were channeling the Chateau Marmont in its rock-era heyday.

To cap it all off, we were at Ballard’s Outlet and found a bunch of misfit letters. There was no M, so we turned a W upside down. There were not enough identical sizes, colors, textures or fonts. But we came up with our sign. It read MUSICAVE (yes, with one C, and the E is a funky cheetah print- the most Rock & Roll of all the letters).

We proudly showed off the basement to the first friend who came over. He saw the sign and said “Music Avenue?”

“Sure, that too,” I replied.



My Old Friend

It’s like an old friend’s voice when you hear it again after a long time apart. The vibrations warm and familiar. Melodic timing. Notes combining to make chords.

I took my acoustic guitar for granted until recently. It’s not an expensive Martin, or a Taylor or a Gibson- it’s a Yamaha FG, which I just learned stands for “First Guitar”. Well this “First Guitar” has been in my possession now for over 30 years, and still sounds better to me than many a fancy guitar I’ve played alongside.

This guitar has traveled from Atlanta to LA and back again over the course of many years. I used to play it just about every night. It’s got some dings and scratches, but nothing serious. On the head there’s a bird with wings spread, and one ding that resembles one of the bird’s wings on the body. I find that one kind of poetic.

The musical poet Jackson Browne was talking about guitars in a radio interview and he said one of his favorites is a guitar he found in a store window. He didn’t even know the make of the instrument but it had the name Cody Lee scratched into it, apparently the name of the previous owner, so that’s what he called it. Jackson then went on to play a haunting rendition of  “Something Fine”.

At first I learned only the intro to songs. I could play the heck out of the bassy first few notes of the Stones Under My Thumb. The hammer-ons and pull-offs of Zeppelin’s Black Dog. The three sweet acoustic intro chords of The Almond Brother’s Sweet Melissa.

I eventually learned complete songs and even wrote songs of my own, but unfortunately today my guitar gently weeps in the corner of the room from lack of attention. I’ve even lost the fingertip callouses I had built up proudly from regular playing.

Fortunately, my wife has always encouraged my playing- even when I was still in the song intro stage, and even while (still?) finding my voice- and she has been slowly redoing a room in our unfinished basement that we’re calling “The Musicave”.

We’ve got the requisite oriental rug, funky crystal chandelier, a cozy caramel leather couch, and an old fireplace mantle that she repurposed.

I don’t know if the FG will live down there, but I’m sure it will be a frequent guest. I kinda’ like it to be close by, like an old friend should be.


Farewell Tour

The Who Farewell Tour tickets were to go on sale soon, so all we had to do was come up with some money, get in line early to secure tickets, and convince my mom it was a good idea. That third one was going to be a doozy.

My mom loved us and all, but she was strict, and not just with her own kids- she would scold anyone: The mailman who gave her the neighbor’s mail by accident, the gas meter-reader who walked through her bushes instead of around, even the poor kid working at the mall store who had the music loud enough to actually hear it.

She was also the one who cooked all our meals, cleaned all our clothes, and kept us all on our different schedules like clockwork.

Dinners were mostly at home around the dinner table. She used to summon us with a train whistle when we were young kids running loose around the neighborhood. As we got older, we didn’t need a whistle, we’d just sit around waiting for the food to come out; our teenage bodies requiring constant fuel.

We gathered around the table that night as usual. The meal consisted of meat and my most and least favorite things: potatoes and Brussels sprouts. I guess I grabbed a bigger heaping of potatoes than normal since I got a smack on the backside of my hand from the wooden spatula my mom was holding. I held my temper and pushed around the gooey eyeball-shaped Brussels sprouts while I prepared my pitch for going to The Who in Birmingham.

About midway through the meal, my dad said something my mom laughed at, and I saw an opening. “Mom, who was your favorite band growing up?” “Well, we didn’t really have bands like you do, per se…. We liked types of music.” “Okay, then what was your favorite type of music?” “When I was young? I don’t know, maybe classical.” She was killing me, but I was determined. “Well, you like Tom Jones, right? I mean, you have the album.” My dad took this as a cue and he sang: “What’s new pussycat…” Then together they sang, “whoa, ooh whoa, ooh whoa oh!” I about gagged on my potatoes, but realized this was my opening.

“So, what if Tom Jones announced a retirement tour and he was coming to a town near here? You’d want to go right?” “Oh, is Tom Jones retiring?” “I don’t know mom, I was making a point.” “What’s your point then?”

I couldn’t hold it in any longer, so I just spit it out. “The Who is retiring and the closest concert to us is in Birmingham and Dave and I want to go.” She looked at my dad, who shrugged like he didn’t have anything to do with this, and didn’t really want to. “Eat your Brussels sprouts and we’ll see,” she said.

I spent the next ten minutes trying to finish those nasty things and prove to my mom I meant business.

I made a point of showing her my empty plate before offering to do the dishes. She stepped aside with a surprised look on her face. “So, when is this concert?” she asked as she eyed every plate I washed to make sure it was clean enough to put in the dishwasher, and then made sure every item was put in its rightful dishwasher place.

“It’s the Tuesday after Thanksgiving.” “A school night?” she asked rhetorically.

I realized I still had some work to do if I was ever going to see The Who live.


The Kids Are Alright

We were at Dave’s cousin’s place, who was out of town with her parents. We walked around to a side gate which was locked. “You don’t have a key?” Dave shook his head, “we’ll climb the fence” he said in his usual matter-of-fact way. So much for belonging. In a matter of minutes, we’d scaled the fence and were basically breaking-and-entering. But not to steal anything. We were just there for the pool.

After a quick dip, we settled into a couple of lounge chairs to soak up some of what we considered healthy 1980’s sunshine. I shut my eyes and felt the warmth down to my bones. The bright sun created psychedelic images through my closed eyelids. I still had the Baba O’Riley synth going through my head, and I was just about to doze off, when I sensed a giant shadow above me like a bird, but bigger. I felt a whoosh of air and heard a loud splash. This would be Conor who had jumped off the roof, instead of climbing the fence.

Conor was known for grand entrances. This was a guy who created dress-up Fridays at school; not as a school-sponsored thing mind you, just something he did for kicks. One Friday he’d be Steve Martin from the Jerk, carrying a broken chair, the next he’d be dressed as our principal, Mr. Whaley, down to the tan leisure suit with wide lapels and fat tie and even a walkie-talkie on his hip. “Go for Whaley,” he’d say into his walkie-talkie, totally in character, “we’ve got a smoker outside the designated smoking area, code 10, code 10!.”

But the ultimate Conor entrance would be later the next year at senior prom, when he’d take a mannequin as his date. He named her Monica, dressed her in a silky sequin-belted sea-green number, even bought her a corsage. The photographer asked him why the mannequin, and he said “the girls here are all plastic anyway.”

In all fairness, there were some great girls at our school. Better than us really. We weren’t bad guys, we just wanted to have some fun, and since the girls in our grade seemed to be all sincerity and seriousness, we hung out more with the girls in the grade below. They were dubbed the Smurfs. The nickname came from the girls in our grade who saw this gaggle of younger, one-year-more naïve girls as an annoyance, and the name just stuck. Dave’s cousin, who’s pool we were borrowing, happened to be a Smurf.

Conor dried himself off and popped a beer from a cooler that appeared out of nowhere. I say out of nowhere, because that’s how it always seemed. I mean, we were teenagers who probably should have been drinking Gatorade but we always had beer at the ready. “You hear about The Who retiring?” Conor asked. “Dude,” Dave said with an inflection that meant “what a shame.” “Any Smurfs coming today?” Conor asked. “Nah,” Dave said, “just us.” Dave didn’t really get our infatuation with the Smurfs, maybe since his cousin was one, or maybe it was that feeling of not wanting to go backwards. Dave and I were always looking ahead, trying to do things that we hadn’t yet done.

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My Generation

Atlanta in the 1980’s was an ever-evolving tapestry. Like a 16-year-old boy, it was full of ideas, hope, and testosterone. For years, the little brother to older and bigger cities. But after all the hand-me-downs and noogies, Atlanta had finally gotten its driver’s license. As had I, and looking for a car of my own.

From the candy-apple red, to the curves, to the easily removal top, she exuded sex appeal. Her name rolled off the tongue like foreplay: Alfa Romeo Spider Veloce. This was an R-rated car and I was a PG-17 kid… in the eyes of my father anyway. Unfortunately, he was the one person I had to convince to buy the car for me: and for that I would need detailed information.

My dad was a stickler for details. He would read a manual before even touching a new device. I, on the other hand, had to touch, feel, maybe break something before I could really understand it.

This was the pre-internet early-1980’s, so I couldn’t just Google the information. I had to go out of my way. I had to go to the dreaded library. I borrowed my dad’s brown-turd-of-a-car, with a name that stuck to your tongue as you tried to spit it out: Chevy Citation.

My dad had bought the Chevy after Car & Driver magazine had given it a front page with the headline: “Outperforms a Ferrari Boxer.” As I drove down Heards Ferry- one of Atlanta’s many hilly and winding roads named after ferrymen- I jammed the sticky gearbox into 3rdgear, I wondered in what category this rattlebox could have surpassed a Ferrari. To me, this turd on wheels felt more like driving a covered wagon to the ferry, than a Ferrari to the library.

The library was not the most user-friendly experience back then. I’m not even sure “user-friendly” was in the lexicon of the day. Once past the judgy-looking lady at the front desk, who glared at me over her reading glasses just waiting to shush me, I tried flipping through the giant filing system. This behemoth held thousands of 3×5 notecards, which meticulously catalogued everything in the place. This was Google’s Lucy. After a good ten minutes of dead-ends and frustrated noises on my part, I noticed the judgy-lady coming my way. Oh, crap, do I just walk away so I don’t catch the wraith of this woman?Too late, she was quicker than she looked.

“May I help you?” she asked icily. “Uh, I’m looking for information on cars?” “Have you tried a car dealer?” she said, apparently wanting me gone as much as I wanted to be gone at that moment. But my quest was too important to abandon. “I, uh, I’m trying to talk my dad into buying me a used Alfa Romeo, and I need some stuff to convince him.” The lady took the reading glasses off her nose and put them back in her hair. “Convertible?” she almost cooed. Wow, if I get this kind of reaction from just a mention, imagine what driving it would be like? 

About an hour later, I had all the documents I needed, and the librarian’s phone number. She slipped it to me on my way out. Her name was Liz and she insisted I take her for a ride one day… with the top down.

The first piece of evidence I presented to my dad was a Car & Driver magazine article that Liz helped me track down on micro-fiche and even Xeroxed for me. For some reason my dad still trusted the magazine. I think he was in denial that his Citation was anything short of what he had been sold. “Look dad, Car & Driver calls it ‘a dream’.” “Yeah, you’re dreaming alright,” was his response. He then grabbed the Xerox copy and said “where’d you get this anyway?” “The library…. Look, a friend of mine’s dad, who’s loaded, is willing to give this car to me for cheap.” I figured this would make my dad listen. After-all, he was the most frugal man with money I knew. Probably the only heart surgeon driving a Chevy Citation anyway. “You went to the library?” was all he said, in a surprised tone, as he left the room.

I waited until the first olive from his martini glass was in his mouth before I hit him up again. From years of observation, this was my window when all was good. By the second olive, everything was an argument.

“Here is a current Kelly Blue Book,” I said as I handed him the book. “I’ve earmarked a page I want you to see.” He smiled at my unwillingness to cave as he looked over the details. “$12,000 dollars?” he snorted. “My brand new Chevy Citation was only $6,500, and it outperforms the Ferrari Boxer.” But does it. Really?I thought about saying, but I held my tongue and pulled out more evidence. “Current used car ads. Notice your Chevy tends to lose value rather quickly. The Alfa Romeo does not.”

He was already into his second olive. That was fast, I thought, I’d better wrap this up. “He’s willing to sell it to me, as a friend of his son’s, for $7,000.” He shook his head, but he didn’t say no.

My next move was a little more subtle. At the advice of Liz the librarian, I’d rented “The Graduate”. After the argumentative stage of martini drinking, my dad would sometimes get a case of melancholy. Bring on the melancholy, I thought.

I stayed quiet throughout the film, even when the red Alfa Romeo made its appearance. I’m still not sure if it registered with him that this was the car, in an older version. He cleared his throat at the end of the film, and I looked over to see him wipe his eye. Was that a tear or just an eye rub? I’ll never know, but the next day he bought me the car.

Car & Driver got this one right: driving around Atlanta in the Alfa Romeo was a dream. You know when you hug someone and everything fits just right?  Well the leather seats in this thing were like that kind of hug, and the smooth burled wood steering wheel and stick-shift handle felt like they were made for my hands. I took the top down and cranked up the aftermarket Blaupunkt 6-speaker stereo. It sounded like a symphony in that small space, but this was no classical score. No, this was The Who’s “Baba O’Riley” aka “Teenage Wasteland.”

We listened to a lot of music, me and my friends, from Springsteen to Zeppelin, from Jimmy Buffet, to Soft Cell. (Yeah, Soft Cell. Tainted Love. You know the song even if you won’t admit to liking it). The Who, however, was a constant. I’d say the soundtrack of our lives. They had a sweeping powerful operatic vibe and a little of that snarly young rock attitude that we connected with at our age.

“Baba O’Riley” started off with a pulsing synthesizer that built into a pounding piano, and a crescendo of deep thumping drums… And that was just the intro! By the time Roger Daltry’s voice took off with “Out here in the fields”, I was rocketing down Jett Road in my convertible with the top down. Jett Road was somewhat unique for Atlanta: relatively straight, long, and traffic-free. Being Atlanta, there were hills, but they were of the rolling kind, which made it all the more fun to speed on.

Off of Jett Rd. there was an appropriately named Tanglewood Trail. Oh, the tangled webs it weaved. This area of Buckhead was an enclave of old and new money. There were the houses with tennis courts and swimming pools of course, and then the one on Tanglewood with the basement disco: professional sound-system, professional lighting, even a disco ball hanging from the ceiling. The son and daughter went to our school. Rumor was that the father was in the music business and owned the rights to some Beatles songs, among others.

I always felt a little out-of-place in this area, even as a doctor’s son. You remember the car he drove, right? Well today I felt like these were my people as I turned my bright red Alfa Romeo onto Tanglewood Trail. I pulled into a driveway across the street from the disco house just as Baba O’Riley was reaching its final verse and Roger Daltry screamed “they’re all wasted!”

My friend Dave was sitting, shirtless, on his old dark-orange Camaro. The color was more like rust. I don’t believe this was a Camaro approved and applied color. Dave directed me where to park. I was just about to turn off the car when the DJ made an announcement that would change both of our lives forever: “Okay Who fans. Dates have been set for the farewell tour. Yes, I said farewell. Now if you haven’t seen them live, you’d better do everything and anything to get there because this is your last chance! Unfortunately, the closest to Atlanta they’ll be is Birmingham, Alabama…”

“Dude!” was all Dave said, but I could tell by the inflection that he meant “this is a once in a generation event and we have got to get tickets!”


Blue Sky

The Allman Brothers at the Fox Theater was my first small venue concert. My Uncle Jim was visiting Atlanta and asked if I wanted to go. I wasn’t a huge fan, I mean at 15, I wasn’t yet a Ramblin’ Man and the intensity of Whipping Post wasn’t fully appreciated, but hey who turns down a free concert.

We settled into our seats in the Moorish-themed theater with a ceiling that looked like a starry night sky. The stage was crowded with the gear of a band that claimed two drummers with full kits, and two lead guitarists. I can’t tell you what song they started or ended with, but I was surprised that I liked and knew almost every one.

Over the years, certain Allman Brothers songs have become deeper and richer to me: Jessica with its rolling bassy piano always makes me think of the beginnings of road trips, melancholy sweet Melissa reminds me of lost love, and the country roads feeling of Blue Sky takes me away from the crazy fast-paced world we live in.

Now as an uncle myself, I hope that I can share in a moment that will not only be remembered, but grow and take on a life of its own, like the one my uncle provided me.



Songs of a City

Cities have songs and musical genres that match each place: sometimes seasonally, sometimes geographically.

When I lived in LA, a friend of mine asked me to write for a documentary he was doing about famed Brazilian musician Laurindo Almeida. We interviewed him weeks before he died and the documentary turned into a tribute concert. The man was a poet and reminisced about how diving with sea turtles in his native Rio painted his dreams and influenced his musical style. He then moved to LA where he had lived for many years, composing for films like the Godfather.

He told me just before his death, what painted his recent dreams in LA was the freeways, and he wanted to do some kind of musical piece that spoke to that. I guessed he was referring to the cars constantly moving in every direction, reflecting light during the day, and giving off light at night. Maybe the ocean-like sound it all created.

LA does have a vibe that you can feel from the road. If LA were a song, it could be a cool jazz samba, like Laurindo Almeida was known for, or it could be a folky tale about driving 500 miles today and never leaving LA, like in the Michelle Shocked song “Come a Long Way.” I’d say depending on where you are in LA, a different song could relate: maybe the Go Go’s “We Got the Beat” for Santa Monica on a clear sunny day; some Jimmy Buffet for Marina del Rey; Joni Mitchell, CSN or Counting Crows for Laurel Canyon…

If Atlanta, where I now live, were a song it might be a rap or hip hop number by Ludacris or Usher. It could be any number of R.E.M. songs, or maybe an older southern rock number like “Champagne Jam” by the appropriately named Atlanta Rhythm Section. This song talks about partying with some “high class booze” and makes me think of the scrappy upbringing of this always growing metropolis with a chip on its shoulder.

What would your city songs be?

Music Doodle

A Touch of many Countries in the City

Our first year in Atlanta, we were expecting holiday guests in our new home but didn’t have enough beds. We walked into a couple of mattress stores and thought we had walked into a car dealership by accident: not only by the sticker shock, but by the sales strategies as well. Car dealers always try to get the customer in the car, and mattress dealers are the same with getting the customer in the bed.

These were the kinds of places that rent out large stores in busy areas, and sometimes have a guy out front dressed as a mattress to bring in customers. You always wonder how they stay in business—I mean how many mattresses can they possibly sell? And being inside, you get the same feeling. The two places we visited were so empty and quiet, I almost fell to sleep on one of the beds we tried out. Unfortunately (for the salesman) we weren’t taking one home with us—no matter how hard he tried to tell us, and sell us on a sale that he said was only good until the end of that day. I just couldn’t see spending thousands of dollars on a guest bed, especially when we had more than one guest room to fill.

Alex is the consummate hostess and her guestrooms are generally as cush, if not more, than our own room. She didn’t seem to believe her uncle who always quoted the old adage that guests, like fish, go bad after a few days.

I suggested we try Craig’s List for a slightly used bed, which she thought was revolting…until she checked it out for herself. There were some beds listed as never used, or only used in a guestroom, that were a tenth of the price of the large mattress dealers.

Now we used Craig’s List to sell stuff before we left LA and had some good experiences. People would come over and generally pay what you were asking, no hassles. In Atlanta we were on the buying end and it was, shall I say “interesting.”

The first mattress we found was in Doraville. The guy on the phone had a very southern accent and we thought he said the mattress was new. I was excited to show Alex a little more of the Atlanta area, and I remembered Doraville being in an old Atlanta Rhythm Section song called, appropriately, “Doraville.” The lyrics went, “a touch of country in the city.” Quaint, right?


Well, we pulled off of 285 right before Spaghetti Junction (the giant tangled interchange) and there we were—Doraville. “Not the best part I’m sure” I said to Alex. “I don’t think it can get worse. Let’s hope the mattress comes from the good part of town,” she shot back.

We pulled into a neighborhood not far from there and we were greeted by a big good-ole-boy and his two Dobermans. He led us to a back room where the mattress was, and while we entered the room he got distracted by a phone call. Alex looked at me like “we are going to die, let’s get out of here,” but we had driven almost an hour, so I was bound and determined to check out this mattress. Unfortunately, it looked like the mattress was new to humans, but used by dogs. There was a pee stain on the underside. We made our way out of there as fast as an Atlanta Rhythm Section guitar riff.

I had one more card up my sleeve to redeem Atlanta in the eyes of Alex, my California by way of Florida girl: Buford Highway Farmer’s Market, right next to Doraville. I know, by the name it sounds like another good-ole-boy situation, but it is quite the opposite.

Alex is such a great cook that people always tell her she should have her own restaurant. The Buford Highway Farmer’s Market is one of a couple places in Atlanta that chefs shop. This place seems to have as much square footage as an Ikea, but unlike Ikea, they don’t just have Swedish meatballs, they have a whole Swedish food aisle, and a Jamaican food aisle, and a Ukrainian food aisle. You name the ethnicity or geographic area, and this place has an aisle for it. This place is so diverse, Donald Trump would shut it down if he could.

So Alex and I were in heaven. I mean, the world’s foods under one roof, and an as seemingly well-represented group of shoppers. We heard more foreign tongues than English. There was a giant fish tank that you could pick fresh fish from and a fishmonger area that rivaled Pike Market in Seattle. They didn’t throw fish at you like up there, but they had as wide, if not wider of a selection.

Redeemed, and with a car full of groceries and bellies full of food samples, we headed home. Perhaps we would have to shop elsewhere for mattresses, but we knew we could always come back to the shadow of Doraville for any culinary treat we could imagine.