Tuesday, March 18, 2014

From the woodshed: On learning, week of 3/17/14


  When I first started this blog a few years ago, I was talking almost exclusively about the technical and mental aspects of the guitar.  Since then, it's turned into a little bit of everything, and I get a kick out of that.  I hope you do, too.  However, it's been a while since I've written about the learning of music, something that's turning into a lifelong endeavor for me.  So, welcome to a new occasional series designed primarily for guitar players, but hey, everyone is welcome to join in the From the Woodshed posts.

On the Turntable

One of my teachers told me once "make sure your music library is as extensive as your usual library."  Sounds like a great philosophy to me - especially if I can get some competitions going between those two libraries of mine!  Vinyl records are the new preferred format for me, and here's four records that I can't stop listening to this week.  Hopefully they'll manifest in my playing.  If you haven't heard them, give 'em a listen.  They rock!

Miles Davis - Kind of Blue  

Check out Miles' tone on the first trumpet solo - how focused, careful, and breathtaking it is.  Then when Coltrane jumps in with the tenor sax, I'm struck with how open his heart sounds.

Thelonious Monk - Monk's Dream

I got this old and scratchy record for a buck in Richmond, VA.  Wired on Mountain Dew and up way past my bedtime, I returned home, put it on the turntable, and was blown away.  It's like the rules of music are a sidewalk, and we all walk blindly down it.  Monk laughs, steps off to the side, picks up the sidewalk, twists it like a pretzel, and puts it back down.  It's very surreal.  Check out his cover of the jazz standard Body and Soul to see what I mean.

Johnny Cash - American VI -Ain't No Grave  

Cash's last album of Rick Rubin's American series, released posthumously, has been called Rubin's eulogy to Cash.  It's spooky, moving, and addictive.  The title track is one of the heaviest things I've ever heard.

Johnny Cash - American V - A Hundred Highways

Like Ain't No Grave, this album is also part of Rubin's brilliant series.  It seems like they've both managed to capture the essence of what it must be like to be old, tired, somber, and well aware of the reaper.  Another traditional is my favorite on the track, and it's right scary.

On the bookshelf

The power of habit.  

Got me thinking about how practice is more than just about acquiring skill - it's also to build discipline and willpower.

On the music stand

One of my comrades has been learning the solo to Dream Theater's Under a Glass Moon, and I've jumped in and joined the fun.  Check out measure 148.  It's a great position-shifting exercise!  http://www.songsterr.com/a/wsa/dream-theater-under-a-glass-moon-tab-s6280t0

A quote

Just saw this on Facebook, via my mom.  It seems like this encapsulates the songwriting process for me right now:

Tear off the mask. Your face is glorious.  - Rumi 

Till next time, comrades!  That's what I've been working on.  Feel free to join the conversation in the comments below.  I'd love to get some ideas from what you've been working on!  Keep on rockin'!

- Josh

Thursday, March 13, 2014

A quick update

Comrades!  I hope you're having a great Thursday!  OK, no heavy stuff today, just a quick update to shout out to the army and give you a quick behind-the-scenes look at Revolution HQ!

In the works:   Stay tuned for the JURT III rail tour announcement soon!  I'm SO CLOSE to having everything set, and of course, this one is going to be the coolest tour yet.  And, you're invited.  DUH!  Can't wait to tour with you!

On the stage:   I've been jammin' hard over here, working on the opener of the concert season this Saturday in DC.  I'll be cheering runners on at the Rock 'n Roll Marathon at mile 18.  One thing that just makes me cackle with delight - I'll be joined by my buddy Allison Shapira, self-described as a "recovering opera singer."  Allison couldn't be much more opposite:  she's calm, collected, and sings pretty songs.  My favorite anecdote about her:  Last year, after hearing me play "Three Little Pigs" with the line earned his masters' degree from Harvard College, built his house with his architect knowledge, she said to me quite seriously "actually, the graduate program is called Harvard University."  (By the way, she's taught at the Harvard School of Business...or whatever it's called - now I'm paranoid.)
Well, she requested that we do a duet of Metallica's "Nothing Else Matters."   So, should be fun.  Hope you can make it!  It's at the Titanic Memorial, near 4th and P streets Southwest, nine till noon.

On the turntable: 

Miles Davis - Kind of Blue.  Been listening to a lot of Miles Davis lately. I got "Kind of Blue" on a brand new 182-gram reissue vinyl record (in mono!), and am just blown away by it. I've heard the album for years, but I really LISTENED recently. I've been trying to find a parallel in the music world for impressionist art, something that plays life as it appears, capturing the light and movement of a moment. Sure, sure, there's Debussy, but looking for a non-classical one. It seems as if the music I write and listen to usually involves symbolism, much like some of the more classical paintings. So, where's the impressionism? "Kind of Blue" strikes me as this. Looking forward to figuring out how to put that into my music!

On my mind:  Hey guitar players, when I talk about tone, I usually think "downstream", that is, what kind of guitar, cables, amps, picks, effects, etc, I use.  Listening to Miles Davis and Freddie Hubbard over these last few days has really gotten me thinking about the tone at the source - both the heart and the hands.  

On the paper:  Just went to Best Buy to grab some guitar strings, and my poetic side was struck with the vastness of consumer land later in the evening, when the unseen fluorescent lights bathe the aisles of promised happiness with a sinister noon never-ending, and people drifted, alone.    OK, gotta pare that down a bit and dial it back a notch, but perhaps there will be a song about it.  

See ya soon!  - Josh


Thursday, March 6, 2014

Iron and War - a Remarkable Conversation with a WWII Nurse

Sunday: “WWII”.

I forgot about it. So the next week, I wrote on my dry erase planner “WWII.”

I also forgot about that.

I read the stories in the morning about old men getting a long overdue purple heart, or their daughters remembering a father they'd never met.

And each week, I wrote “WWII” on my calendar. I wanted to talk to some of these men who had fought with guns and tanks, planes and skill, in distant lands in distant times.

I hadn't thought of the women. Like many young people, my mind had stopped at the story conveyed in black and white, and like the colors presented in the glamourized documentaries, I had viewed the conflict in those monotones.

Then one day I met Tharon.

Sitting at my DJ table, I had finished up a set of big band music at a veteran's home. She approached, thanked me for the show, and we struck up a conversation about classical music. I asked her what her story was. She had been a nurse in WWII, fighting stateside with penicillin and cotton, bandages and skill. She painted a much more complex picture of the war for me – with many colors, and insight that only a woman would have – and one I had never heard before. This is just a small part of her life story, and bit of a Remarkable Conversation.

Undated photo of Tharon and her husband

Irons in the Fire

I had asked if I could return later in the day to sit down and really talk. Stopping by that Saturday evening, we chatted while the Red Sox battled the Tigers during the playoff games on the TV. “I love baseball” she said. “So do I!” But our mutual love of America's past time was sacrificed for the sake of story telling. The TV was unplugged to provide power for the recording devices, and our walk down memory lane had begun.

“I grew up in upstate New York. I loved the piano. I played it all the time. Then my house burned down, and the piano with it. No more piano lessons...”

“Then I got another piano. The middle keys didn't work, so I didn't play it a lot. One day I came home from school, and my mother took me aside in the yard. “Tharon, your father is going to chop up the piano for wood.” He was a carpenter, you see, and he had been eying the piano for quite some time. He built a cabinet out of it.”

Did you mind?

“Well...” she paused.

“It wasn't my piano – it belonged to the family – and it was good wood.”

We talked and talked, and later in the evening, she told the another story from her early years.

“My older sister always used to beat me. I don't know why, but she always did. One day, I was in the shed, ironing clothes. I saw my mother and father get in the car and drive away. I said to myself “Tharon, she's going to come beat you.” Sure enough, five minutes later, she walks through the door, fist in the air, ready to hit me. As she walked up to me, I held the hot iron up right next to her face. We stared at each other, not saying a word. She lowered her fist, and walked away – never to beat me again.”

What were you feeling?

“I was scared. What if I had burned her face? It would have been a lifetime scar. But I had to stand up for myself. And ever since then, I always have.”

“There's a quote from my mother – it reminds me of you” I said. “she took her power back – without permission.” (terri st. cloud/bonesigharts.com)

The War

Tharon enlisted in the Army during the last six months of WWII. Once out of nursing school, she shipped to Virginia Beach, working at a hotel that had been converted to a hospital. Earlier in the day I had asked her the rather indelicate question: “Did you lose any friends in the war?” Her eyes suddenly brimmed with tears. “Yes – my two next door neighbors. They were twins, and they were like brothers to me. We grew up together. One was lost over land, when his plane went down in northern Europe, the other at sea. The military asked the family if they would like the bodies recovered, but the family said no - “they're together, just like they always were.” As the gray sky of the present day filtered light into the community room of the VA home, she choked up, her eyes brimming with tears. I, too, suddenly felt the pain of a loss of two men I had never met – and the war's shadow continued to reach across the years, almost as if adding to the clouds on that already overcast day.

We begin to speak of her service as a nurse. “The men had been lying wounded in pastures, sometimes for days. They were infected with all sorts of things. We would clean them up as best as we could. We'd start off each day with a shot of penicillin right in the Gluteus Maximus” she said, laughing.

She told me quietly “all of my guys died when they went home. I didn't lose any at the hospital – except for one man. He had been shot in the neck, and was paralyzed. He was very hoarse – but we could communicate with him. He had so much infection. All of the patients needed so much care – they would all have chill. That's how sick they were. They were just a couple of steps away from being gone themselves. They were bedridden, but I did get that one up into a chair, and one day, he wanted to go on the porch. I was about to go to lunch, and I asked him if he wanted to go back inside, because there was no one to take care of him while I was gone. “No, I'm fine! I want to stay here!” he said Well, when I got back from lunch, the Chill had come over him again, and there he is, mad at me. He never got over it...because I was gone. Of course, I understood him, and I wasn't there when he got the Chill. He eventually died, because he had so much infection in his body. He couldn't manage with less care.”

The conversation turned to what happened after the war. “They just shut the hospital right down, and sent everyone home. It's not like it is now. The families didn't know how to care for their wounded, and many probably couldn't afford the medication.”

“What did you think when you heard the hospital was shutting down – were you worried for these men?”

“No, not at first. The thought didn't occur to me at that time. Then, when I had heard what had happened to them at that time, I could see that the Army Medical Corps had just sustained them. We never cured them. We couldn't cure them. We just sustained this level of health that required a registered nurse and all of this medication and care that they got. And when they didn't get it, their body couldn't deal with it. So, I think there's a lot to be said for the Army Medical Corps......and also, they (the families) couldn't keep it up because of the expense. Everybody, if they could cut something out, they had to do it. There was no tomorrow.”

Was it difficult to work there?

“No, no, the patients were always pleasant, polite, and cooperative. If they were ever angry at us, well, we got over it. I thought they were very good patients.”

How about seeing these young men return from the battlefields with these serious injuries? Was that difficult to see?

“It bothered me later on...” she said, her voice trailing off huskily. “It's bothered me to this day....A waste of our young men....it's a waste of our young me....that's what war is. And I hate it.”

The Late 40's

“You mentioned earlier that while there was a victory overall, each person didn't feel directly responsible for it.”

“That's true – we were such a miniscule part of it, but in the whole, everyone did our job, and we won, because every little person did their job. Even a big general, he did his job.”

“Walking down the street in 1947, what was your mindset towards the war?”

“ I was very happy it was over with, we were anxious to get back into civilian life – we got out right away.”

I asked her about the post war time.

“You cannot...cannot imagine it. The movies glorify it.”

“Was it a feeling of pride? Of sadness? A mix?” I asked.

“Not that deep. It wasn't that deep. Our immediate lives changed, we were glad to get out, we had no regrets that way, but we no longer had a job, and it was hard for a lot of people to find them. It was easy for me, but hard for other people, especially to find a job that paid a living wage. You didn't have an automobile, you walked everywhere. Automobiles were expensive, and scarce during the war. They didn't manufacture them, they made guns instead. And the cars were older, and always broke down.” Here she chuckled, remembering the mechanical difficulties that plagued post war American drivers.

“What did you think when the Korean War broke out?”

“I didn't know where Korea was. I didn't give it much thought. It seemed so far away, who's going there? It was such a small country, what were we doing in there? Leave those people alone, we don't have any business being in there. That was I thought then, and I still think that today.”

“What did you think when you heard about a new conflict, from a nurses' point of view? We've had quite a few conflicts since then.”

Here she became extra animated.

“We've constantly been at war! Cut it out! Talk it out – you don't have to fight it out! You don't have to fight. Never, never, to put young mens' lives there, to kill them for your satisfaction...Talk it out.”

Did you think that before you went in to the army and saw all the carnage?

“I had no experience – I didn't know what I was getting into. I was always peaceful. I had never any guns around me, never heard a gunshot. I feel for those people who went through all that noise. It ruined a lot of hearing...a lot of hearing. And especially kids – kids are traumatized by war. It's with 'em all their life. And they don't get over it. They think they do, but...but it influences them a lot...”


  The time had grown late, and it was time for me to drive back, two hours to the north on that autumn evening.  I thanked her for the time, stories, and sharing.  I walked through the quiet halls with the occasional warriors sitting peacefully musing in wheelchairs, out into the orange glow of the sodium vapor lights of the VA home parking lot.  When I was little, I used to pretend the moon followed me home on car trips back from my grandparents.  Now that I'm older, I haven't completely given up on that idea.  But, sometimes the light takes a different form.  That night it was the orange street lamp - washing the parking lot with it's glow, twinkling in the seemingly deserted heavy industry of the cigarette plant down the street amid a maze of pipes and railroad tracks, flickering in my face as I sped north on I-95, waving from the distance as my little car sped past sleepy houses with their security lights on the quiet byways...They were like earthly stars, for sometimes the night, like it was then, is cloudy-a fine metaphor for how the passing of the years can sometimes wear us down, and obscure the stars that once shone so clearly on our younger days.

  Maybe those lights are like the quiet people like Tharon, and unlike some planet in the sky that only shines on clear nights, they're here on the ground with the rest of us, despite the clouds, quietly helping, healing, standing strong in the darkness, guiding..and seeing us home safely.

Here's to the lights...

- Josh  

Copyright 2014 Josh Urban and Tharon B.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material with the express and written permission of the authors is strictly prohibited.  

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

A semi-imaginary conversation

"People never die on schedule."  - Theodore Lorei

Unfortunately, he was right.  My grandpa Ted passed away when I was just twenty years old.  I wish his love of schedules, stemming from his German farmer heritage, would have kept him around a little longer so I could have had a real conversation with him.  The last time I talked with him was a spontaneous visit that will remain a fond memory, yet sometimes I wish I hadn't been so young and intent on talking instead of listening.
He had a wonderful (ooops, lazy writing - he wouldn't stand for that) - he had an intriguing tradition of birthday wisdom.  Every time is was somebody's birthday, him included, they would be required to share some philosophy from where they stood on the road of life.  He would usually stand up from the spaghetti dinner, wander to his bookshelf in the other room...and read the driest, most academic point that was probably quite deep, but always went over my head as a grumbling kid.

  Now, time has passed, and again, people never die on schedule.  As I sit here on what would be his 81st birthday, eating spaghetti with a few of his books on my shelf, listening to another German musician (J.S. Bach, to be precise, and one should always be precise), I think back to a few dreams I've had.  There he is, suddenly returned from the afterlife, just hanging out at a family gathering.

  My mom wrote a blog today about what birthday wisdom he might give today if he could return.  I'd like to put my own words to the idea if I may.  I'm not sure if he'd even say these things, but I've taken what I know of him, mixed it with the shadow of mortality (a bird looking over my left shoulder, if you're into the Carlos Casteneda sort of thing), and applied it to what I know of me.

I picture the two of us sitting in his living room, the freezing March day's gray sky filtering through the sheer curtains.  There he is, in a scratchy flannel shirt, sitting with one leg crossed over the other.  "Would you like a beer, Joshua?"  Walking to the kitchen, he reaches to the bottom shelf on the door of the fridge, where they always used to be.


I don't drink, but this seems like a good time to break that rule.  The smell of the Milwaukee's Best brew rises to greet my nose, as my thumb cracks open the can, and I settle back into the blue rocking chair, ready for a quick conversation - this time, to listen.

"Grandpa, it's your birthday.  That means it's time for birthday wisdom."

We talk and talk, and he laughs that glorious hissing laugh I was so fascinated with as a four year old.  A few sentences stand out.

On goals:  "The small stuff will get done.  Some people won't, but look, you'll pay your bills.  What's the point of what you're trying to do?  Seriously, what's the point?  You need to ask yourself that.  Does it stand up to the bigger plan?   Does it fit in?  How much time do you think you have?  Are you wasting it?  What is your bigger plan?  Does it matter?"

On money:  "It's almost irrelevant.  Once you have an adequate amount, it makes such little difference.  Has it ever brought you lasting happiness?  The pursuit of it can ruin you.  Pursue something else."

On fear:  "How much is fear distracting you from your plan?  Does it really help?  I used to be sure of it.  Now, not so much."

On control.  "Dale Carnegie told me personally in the afterlife that the energy spent on control can be channeled towards productive means that actually accomplish something - the irony is that letting go and refocusing actually empowers one more than trying to control."

On change:  "It happens.  Look what happened to me.  I see now that it can't be avoided.  And it's not so bad, after all."

On worry:  "Stop it.  Immediately."  He walked over to an electrical socket, and stuck a match in it.  "The ignition source has failed to ignite.  I've spent too long worrying about imaginary fires."  I sat, mouth slightly agape, rocked back in my rocking chair, and stopped swirling the half-empty beer can around.

On work:  "It seems that we were made to try and work as hard as possible, not for money, but for the sake of reaching potential."  "You mean like Bruce Springsteen Born to Run?""  "Bruce who?  "Uhhh...never mind."

  "Look, anything less than full effort means less than full potential, and potential doesn't equal money.  It's what we can do.  What can you do?  Again, how much time do you think we have here?  One must run at ...what's it called in mechanics, full throttle?"  "Yeah - yeah, I like that idea."

I had never had a conversation like this, although I can recall the uneasy feeling of being asked a question that I probably knew the answer to, but didn't like.  I had avoided it - and that one time I honestly didn't know where Afghanistan was when I was 7. (To be fair, he wasn't seriously asking, just joking around.)  But as I've grown older, I've realized that these are the questions to stand in the presence of, their light illuminating any weakness of ideas presented.  The substance that snuffs out the light is denial, and it snuffs out pretty much any chance for a real life, too.

My mind had grown too busy with my own thoughts, and I reluctantly bid him good-bye.  We shook hands - and then I pulled him in for a hug, his shirt scratching my face and smelling like a warm car in the summer one last time.  I drove away, and suddenly smacked the steering wheel.  "Man, I didn't tell him about all the stuff I've been doing!"  Glancing in the rear-view mirror, I saw him waving with one hand, standing in his slippers in the cold. That's funny - it's almost as if he was waving me forward.  Not away, mind you (although I'm sure he had a schedule to keep), but forward.  

  And it's forward we must all go - forward with the lessons, mistakes, triumphs, and experiments our ancestors make in this thing called life - forward we must go, to make our own.  I wonder what my grandson will blog about.  How about yours?  What would you say?  And most importantly - why aren't we right now?

Thanks, grandpa.  Happy Birthday.

- Josh(ua)