Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Banning Tragedy

Humans have the ability to see faces in clouds, but not clouds in faces.  Therefore, when I think of a planet or asteroid or moon orbiting through space, I can picture a space rock on a cell phone distracted, texting, grumbling about the solar weather, and suddenly, be jolted and smashed by another unexpected event, or, rock, hurtling through space.  

  I was just this planet (definitely in outer space this week!) going about my business of running my orbit, when BAM - an official-looking email:  "announcing the passing of a volunteer."

"Huh?  What?  Wait, I recognize that guy.

I know him.

Knew him."

Wobbling, reading, out of orbit now.  Between a gig and traffic as unforgiving as casual acquaintances debating politics on Facebook, I read the news.  He was gone at 24.  The email was kind and professional, and, as this is a real life thing, the following is my guess, not a fact.  I'm suspecting this distant friend might have accidentally overdosed.  

  When I was a kid, I thought bad people did drugs, and good people did not.  It's the low-resolution view of childhood that works for a bit, at least in the fact of keeping one away from potentially fatal situations, but as time goes by, this theory obviously must be replaced.  I was a sober member of a band of addicts when I was 18.  The music was OK, but the lessons were better. One of the guys had made it to sobriety, and the other two did not.  I've lost touch with them, and they could very well be dead, or will be soon, walking around like kind-hearted zombies, slave to chemistry, unable to break the atomic bonds that shackle them.  (And certainly not for lack of trying.)  

  And so, countless times a cloud of seriousness has passed over my face as I leaned forward, hunched over my guitar, talking with my teenage students about the guys in the band, with their good hearts and great chops and sticky ends of their own making.  My message:  keep your mind your own, and strive upward.  Study hard.  Make something of yourself.  

  I don't know about you, but when somebody dies, I want to do something.  Ban something.  Pass a law.  Start a program.  Talk to people.  Lift them up, toss them a life preserver, rescue them from a stormy sea that flickers behind their eyes when they say "I'm good - can't complain."  

  Immediately, I heard the boarding call for that familiar train of thought.  "Man, we need a program for young people to teach them to value themselves and build leadership and...."

  Suddenly, it came to a crashing halt.  That's exactly where I had met him.  At a leadership program. He wasn't a musician struggling through the lower strata of society, a creature of the haze of dive bars and missed opportunities.  Nope.  

  He was a 15 year old when I met him, and I was 27 or so,  a facilitator at his leadership program.  I took great glee in pounding on this dorm door each morning, "GET UP, PUNKS!  RISE AND SHINE!"  That was our strange male bonding, how guys say "Hey man, you're alright." (You can't do that if the guy isn't alright.) There's a picture of a group of us, all looking out of place in our business casual wear, trying to ignore the summer swelter.  We had sat for three days learning about leadership, character development, and how to make a positive impact on the world.  He returned, year after year, volunteering, growing up, starting to find himself, getting a spiffy haircut, ready to open doors that many people don't even know exist.  

  Then he went to Lollapoolza and died.  

  I went over to Twitter to see what was up.  All I saw were endless selfies and faceless crowds, breathless musicians promoting how cool they are.  And, I mean, sure, they are.  But what a contrast.  The neon colors hurt my eyes today.  

 Sitting in traffic last night, I had to open the window and breathe real.  He's gone.  That fact sat on me like the muggy soup that we call Air in DC.  

  I don't know what happened.  This is all a guess.  Maybe it was a freak accident.  But suddenly, in a flash, all of those protective thought processes of "how can we prevent this?" and "what program can I start?" were seared away, leaving the bones of the matter, and that is, Tragedy.  

  What do you do with that weight, that inescapable fact?  Sit with it, I guess?  You can bet your life that I'll be working harder than ever to lift people up, to show them and myself that we all matter (to borrow a brilliant phrase from my mom.) I think this guy knew that, though.  Sometimes, things happen.  And you can't ban Tragedy.  

  This certainly has altered my orbit.  I'm OK, but changed.  I barely knew him, but will certainly miss him.  He leaves me with much to think about.  

  The Moon has many scars from collisions, fiery cataclysms when something hit it so hard, molten rock was splattered across it's surface.  Some of these were so dramatic, we don't even need a telescope to see the remnants of these events.   And, it shines down on us, with the pockmarked face of a goofy teenager.  I don't know the answer.  But, with this light, I can keep looking.  

  Miss ya, buddy.  



Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Project Vignette

Hey folks!

  Well, it's time to start blogging again.  Have you ever had that feeling where you cared much more about other things, but one "insignificant" item kept raising it's hand from the back of the class?  You know how it goes - you try to answer it once, but then it has another question, leaning it's arm on it's other hand for support.  "I'm not going anywhere." 

  For me, that's writing.  As a musician, writing is a support for songwriting.  I keep sitting down to write songs, and these other things keep popping up.  Untamed, meandering as the grapevines on the fence by the road, and often completely goofy, these "vignettes" won't leave me alone.  So, here you go, stories.  Here's your home.  I hope you guys enjoy 'em.  I don't know where they're coming from, but boy are they insistent. 


Zoom, zip, twist.  He flits along, catching the morning sun with his buttery butterfly wings, as elusive as a settled feeling on a bad day.  He zooms around the corner of the house, doubtlessly alighting on a big block of letters people like to pose with, but instead of LOVE, it says “Where did the summer go?”  

Old Light

A shimmer and a dance, the wind holds out it’s hand, and the trees say “sure, I’d love to”, and off they go, nimbly across the floor, scattering sparkles of sunlight that strikes my drowsy eye.  Like a hot air balloon sneaking off towards where it yearns, silently casting off it’s ropes and floating skyward, so too my gaze drifts up into the distance, and my mind floats freely. It’s a sepia sky, gazing down on starched dresses and poses for the camera, hands firmly at sides, the Past blown in on a summer breeze.  You wonder what it was like, and if they could have known how it would turn out, and what they would have done differently. If I could, would I stroll beside myself enjoying a popsicle in the old neighborhood, or perhaps stop to help my grandma fix her ‘32 Chevy with the loose battery cable in 50’s Hartford? What would I say besides “you’re welcome, ma’am”?  With a start, I’m back. Who was that sitting beside me for coffee? There’s nobody there - just the ancient light from the sun, turning this sky Sepia.  

Tick Tock

Summer has it’s first gray hair.  It always happens, sooner, or, later in the case of today’s August morning.  I was once on a date, and this August day happened there, too. Suddenly, the watch on my wrist tapped my shoulder and said “hey buddy, all good things must come to an end, so let me cut in here.”  The cicadas sing like there’s tomorrow, but you know they’ll be winding down before too long. That hairline crack blows in on the breeze, ninety degrees today but start splitting wood. I obey the order, kachunk in the early morning, my t-shirt asking “are you sure about this, buddy?” as it wipes it’s brow.  It’s easy to write off the red leaves on the gum tree as drought-related as the forest gears up for a busy day, but if you listen close, you can hear it. Tick tock.  

Monday, September 3, 2018


Driving home Saturday night, a thought appeared like a hitchhiker, and I always pick these mental ones up.

  It was 14 years ago to the day that I had started teaching guitar.  Man.  A lifetime ago, and more for some of my current students.

  In a tiny room smelling of the carpet glue of the new construction I would sit...At first they'd arrive, and we'd be mutually terrified.  That first week - woah.  One by one, with their guitar cases, folders, and needs I couldn't even come close to seeing.  Gradually, things settled in.  You'd get to think of a day of the week by the personalities of the folks stopping by for their lesson, or even the other people in the waiting room.  I'm still buddies with one of them who I've never talked to for more than a total of five minutes.  A skinny little kid who grew up to be an ace mechanic.  You should see his Camaro on Instagram.  Another little punk out on the floor, showing off his lead licks at ten years old - his social media is full of his tours and cigars now.

  It seems as if humanity is a mostly still pond - those little ripples are hiding the fish and frogs underneath, and some turn into princes, others sadness.  Some of my former students have passed on, others have rocked on, some are married, others have grown old.  All of them have shown me something, taught me something, shared a new perspective, and helped me grow up and stay young at the same time.  No longer can I vilify those I disagree with - they're too worthy of  my respect.  We've gotten to know each other through music, and guitar has been an ideal excuse to share in the bigger puzzle of trying to figure out how to live.

  A Green Day record spins on my turntable as these words appear.  American Idiot dropped right around the time all of this started.  Through this music - the "holy scriptures of the shopping malls", we'd gather around some wires and guitars and try to overthrow the average of Suburbia.  I feel that we all learned a lot in the studio.  Dealing with the suicide of a friend, the suicide of a student, how one might start to chart a path towards an ideal life, presidential elections, 12-bar blues, being black in America, lead guitar, the conservative viewpoint, healing from abuse, how to ask a girl out, songwriting, and  probably the best advice EVER:

Me:  Liam, I need to break up with this girl, but don't know how.

Liam (age 11):...uhhh...Maybe you...uh YEAH!  What if you ate a raw egg right before you have a date, and you throw up ALL OVER HER, and then she'll dump you!

(I should have done that, but I didn't.  Liam's dad had about equal advice.  I cherish those guys.)

  I'd sit in my chair, and they in theirs, and these exchanges and lessons would all take place against a backdrop of lava lamps, posters, and a seemingly average suburban landscape.  Sometimes they come back to visit, and it means the world.  They're off driving tanks and starting businesses and saving lives and grieving and growing, and they holler at me and heckle me with a smile and keep me honest.

  The lessons continue in my garage studio.  We've got a drumset (a gift from a former students' parents), a tea kettle, and a whole life left to figure out.  Influences are a big topic in my studio.  SRV, Hendrix, your friends.  Well folks, you've been many of mine.  One of the new recruits to the "Guitarmy" is 6 years old.  He saw my vinyl collection and guitars (mind you, that's all I have in the material sense, really.)  He looked up and said "wow, you're rich."

Couldn't agree more.  Thank you, thank you. 

See ya next week!

- Josh

PS.  Check out this new track I just recorded with a few of the comrades.  They're the faster guitar parts:

Monday, November 20, 2017

Ten Years

It was ten years ago today.

  She checked out.  It was voluntary.  Does that make it better?  Or worse?  We can debate laws about guns, lock up drunk drivers, but we can't legislate sadness.  Our hands can frantically try to prop up sandcastles in the surf, bloodied in desperation, yet there's always a wave lurking, catching us unawares.  "What..?!"  We are shocked, shocked to hear the news. 

  I didn't know her that well to begin with, yet her passing is still causing ripples in my mental pond.  It's funny how connected we all are at the end of the day. 

  I'd like to avoid melodrama, predisposed to it as I am.  I'm OK.  Are you?  That is the question of the hour. 

  And this brings me to what I'm doing.  Since I feel she was lost to the dark, it's time to fire up the beacons and bring some light to others.  And that's why, on the anniversary of her passing, that the Kindness Exchange starts again in earnest. 

  The idea is simple:  Do something nice for someone.  Then, if you wish, post it on social media with the hashtag #KindnessExchange.  I'm putting tagged posts on a lit "beacon tree" in my front yard, so we're literally lighting up the night.  Feel free to put up one of your own trees.  We'll get a forest of light going. 

  There will be updates, and a whole bunch of stuff going on at the Facebook group.  The podcast will be featuring a lot of stuff, too.  Have you heard about the World Bank idea?

  So, this is my way to do something.  Something for her memory, something to help someone else, and a way to help myself.  I invite you to join me. 

  I'm also aware that all of the action in the world shouldn't be a substitute for sitting and listening to the wind today....and remembering her. 

- Josh



Monday, September 11, 2017

Back on the air!

Hey crew!

  It's good to be back!  In case you missed it, Season 2 started this past Friday, with a new format:  Now a tri-weekly show, Monday will be an interview, Wednesday is a story, and Friday is a "wild card" day - Weekend Challenges, shoutouts, motivation for the party days, etc etc.  Working on getting more people involved with it, more stories, more neighbors, more heart, and more SOUL!
Off to go record the intro to Joe's's a conversation I had on the front steps of an abandoned general store in Kinnards, South Carolina.  See ya then!

- Josh

Sunday, August 27, 2017

The Weekend Challenge - Balance

The Morning Show is the blog companion to the podcast audio

  Hey there, and happy Friday to ya!  Welcome to the show, and welcome to the Weekend Challenge!
This one is a music one that really applies to all of us.  The main point:  listen to the balance.  Here's what's up.  Tomorrow afternoon I'll be putting on a special T-shirt, plugging my bright orange guitar into a loud amp, and rockin' out at a reunion show.  About 8 years ago, I was in a gospel go-go band called Posse 4 Christ.  They're having a special concert again, and have asked me to play guitar for them.  I'm thrilled.  If you're not from the DC area, "go go" music is not about boots or 60's girls, quite the opposite in fact.  It's a funky blend of soul, funk, afro-Caribbean beats, rap, and in this case, gospel.  It's highly localized, a signature sound of the Capital city, and medicine for the soul.  It's also really weird for rock musicians to play.  For starters, the arrangements tend to be really big.  In this show, there will be two keyboards, a bass, a drummer, a conga player, a timbale player, four female vocals, two male vocals, and me.  This means that the sound is huge, but it's a fine line between lush and cluttered, and I'm usually the guy who would push it over the edge.  My job is like going to your girlfriend's family party.  You need to blend, compliment, accent, and every once in a while, tell a really snazzy joke in your typical rock 'n roll style, but then blend again, letting the aunts have the spotlight.  And, of course, you've gotta keep that wonderful swing beat, and stay in the pocket, as it's called.  It's easy to say too much, and step on the keyboards.  It's easy to be too timid, and get lost in the mix, a pale imitation of a cowbell.

  It's taught me to listen to the band as a whole, and see if a guitar line would improve the setting.  If so, I play it.  If not, I don't.  It's different from "oh, there's a place where I could FIT a guitar line."  It's very conversational.  So, this weekend's challenge:  Listen to the balance of the conversation as a producer or arranger would listen to the band, and see how you can make it better.  I'll be doing the same onstage in my Posse 4 Christ T-shirt, a funky little white boy rockin' out on his orange guitar...and listening.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Giving Space a Second Glance

The Morning Show is the blog companion to the podcast audio

  Shoutout to Michael.  He said what a lot of people surely are thinking..."Eh?"  This is regarding the solar eclipse.  If you're among the thousands of rightfully perplexed like Michael, this episode is for you.

 As usual, the media, myself included, has worked itself into a frenzy, but this time, it was about the Great American Eclipse.  And it left some people...underwhelmed.  Which is a bummer, 'cause space is awesome, and leave it to us media types to ruin it.  First off, there's an important distinction to make:  The partial and TOTAL solar eclipse experiences were completely different.  The partial was fascinating, a look at orbits, geometry, symmetry, interesting phenomena, shadows, and getting weird tan lines on your face.  The total eclipse found my emotional solar plexus, and hit it with a 2x4. That's the difference to me.  And unfortunately, the hype was for the total, and not the partial.  So, understandably, if you just saw the partial, you might be feeling a little bit of "HEY, there's no wolf in the sky!" ..."FAKE NEWS!"

It reminds me of a story...I was 12, and my uncle Joe was the tech guy in the family.  eBay had just become popular, and one day in January, a big box showed up at the door.  We all gathered around, and as the cardboard was ripped apart by us little hyenas, we all saw it was...A TELESCOPE!  I almost hyperventilated.  I had wanted one so badly a year prior, but a lousy visit to the optical shop nearly crushed my dreams of astronomy.  The owner was a snob, and didn't understand that an 11 year old doesn't have the budget for a fancy scope.  But here one was, ready to rock, with a colorful picture of the Helix Nebula on the box, in blues and oranges.  The sky was...cloudy.  It's a curse of new optics.

  The first clear night, I hauled the 80mm refractor out into the back yard, under a frigid evening sky, a nearly full-moon looming in the east above the oaks and the neighbor's house.  I couldn't wait to see the splendor of the heavens...those colors in the galaxies and nebulas, those endless starfields, the rings of Saturn...

  I was 12, and didn't realize that you can't see color through a backyard telescope, that the moon washes out faint objects, and that a small telescope is an exercise in exquisite subtlety, not that solar eclipse gut punch.  I was crushed.  I've rarely been so disappointed.  I remember my mom comforting me, and glumly staring at the floor mat in the car as we rode to the grocery store.  Thankfully, I gave it a second chance.  I joined a local astronomy club (and am still a member!)  I learned about how to observe "deep sky" objects on moonless nights.  I saw the rings of Saturn, the moons and bands of Jupiter, and trained my young, and powerful, eye to see ancient light from galaxies far, far away, keeping up with older guys with fancier equipment.  I learned the constellations, the mythology, the quiet of the night. I could "star hop", using a chart to navigate light years from the suburban backyard I called home.  I spent many hours at the eyepiece of the awesome little scope that Uncle Joe had sent the family, drinking in the splendor of the heavens...not the pulsing dance music I first imagined it to be, but a delicate Chopin nocturne.  And, when I thought of it, I realized this dainty tinkling of keys was the echo of a symphony greater than human comprehension, the very birth and death of stars echoing across eternity.  And, at the end of a night of stargazing, or even on an evening when my earthly troubles seems to crowd my head to distraction and I had little time for observing, sprawling out on the lawn and looking into infinity reminds me of my place in the sky, and grounds me with perspective.

  So, if you're feeling "eh" about the eclipse, I totally get it.  The hype can be exhausting.  To cure yourself of these blues, give it a second glance. Find a buddy with a scope, or a local "star party", as they call them.  Go see the rings of Saturn, and the craters on the moon.  Go out to the country, and gaze in wonder at the countless stars sprinkled across the velvet.  But, most important of all, as one of my friends and mentors always says..."Keep looking up."  There's a stillness in the vastness, and a peace in the infinite.  And, start planning for 2024.  I'll be in Texas, watching the next total solar eclipse.  Gotta have that shadow time, man!  I'm hooked!