It wasn’t supposed to end like this

Tom Petty, June, 2010. Photo by Amber, CC-BY-SA 2.0

“The thing about the Heartbreakers is, it’s still holy to me,” he said with no air of loftiness or pretense. “There’s a holiness there. If that were to go away, I don’t think I would be interested in it, and I don’t think they would. We’re a real rock ’n’ roll band — always have been. And to us, in the era we came up in, it was a religion in a way. It was more than commerce, it wasn’t about that. It was about something much greater.

“It was about moving people, and changing the world, and I really believed in rock ’n’ roll — I still do.”  – Tom Petty, September 27, 2017

Here is a fine remembrance of Tom Petty, by Randy Lewis, who interviewed the artist for the Los Angeles Times on September 27 – two days after the successful end of his 40th anniversary tour, and five days before his death, at age 66, of cardiac arrest.

Here’s a nice clip of Tom, performing one of  iconic songs at his last concert at the Hollywood bowl. I’ve always loved this anthem of courage – don’t we all need it now!

Thanks for 40 years of music and inspiration, Tom!

Notes from 2017 – Stille Nacht

“Stille Nacht” is Silent Night in German. On this night, 102 years ago, millions of young men in Europe lay shivering in trenches in northern France. The finest summer anyone could remember had erupted into the most violent war the world had seen. Longing for home, the German troops began singing Stille Nacht. British soldiers joined in with Silent Night. Before long, soldiers on both sides rose from their trenches to shake hands with “the enemy” and share cigarettes, cookies from home, bottles of wine, and song.

British and German soldiers together, Dec. 25, 1914

British and German soldiers together, Dec. 25, 1914

This is the most moving modern story of Christmas Eve I know. But my subject this evening is not the song but Silence itself. At Solstice time, the earth itself pauses. Religious people of many faiths celebrate different holidays.The external busy-ness of the season stops, at least for a day, but I’ve learned from wise meditation teachers that the inner noise will continue unless we turn toward inner silence with intention.

Awareness of inner stillness and silence is the source of renewal and healing says Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche, a Tibetan Bon Buddhist master. “Silence has it’s own language.”

Anam Thubten Rinpoche, of the Tibetan Nyingma tradition tells students who come to him for advice to “Go back home and be quiet. Silence is wiser than our discursive minds.” Tibetan Buddhist practice can be extremely complex, but Anam Thubten gives this simple instruction:

“Meditation is the art of simply sitting in silence. Sitting means just sit, just rest, just let be. Let everything be as it is. When we know how to let everything be as it is, we then we don’t have to try and be some kind of divine terminator attempting to destroy the world of delusion and sorrow. The world of delusion and sorrow is already falling apart and disappearing on its own. It sounds simple but it is also subtle. We just let everything be just as it is. Once we know that, we know everything. We have unlocked the secret to enlightenment. To sit actually means just let everything be as it is, and let the world of ideas, concepts, and sorrow dissolve on its own, which always happens. This is the highest technique.”The Magic of Awareness.

Naturally the hardest part of that instruction is letting myself be as I am – abandoning all the self-improvement projecst, the “Oh, maybe I can blog about this” mentality, and all of that. “Rest,” says Tenzin Wangyal, is nothing less than “the doorway to our true nature.”

More of that in coming episodes. Meanwhile, as a Christmas Eve gift, here is a wonderful rendition of a beautiful Shaker song, by Yo yo Ma and Allison Kraus, a song the places our true nature at the center of this holiday, and all our days…


Leonard Cohen 1934-2016. CC-BY-SA-2.0

Leonard Cohen 1934-2016. CC-BY-SA-2.0

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
– from “Anthem” by Leonard Cohen

Those who know Leonard Cohen’s poetry, music, novels, and songs, know he is irreplaceable. Those who don’t know his work actually do, for unless you were raised by wolves, you’ve enjoyed some version of “Hallelujah,” which I understand has passed “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” as the most widely covered song of all time.  Both awaken something within us to hope in a dark time.

“Hallelujah,” written in 1984, was initially rejected by a recording company as not commercial enough. A Jeff Buckley cover ten years later brought it public attention, and since then, at least 200 artists have recorded their own versions, though to hear most of the 30 verses, you have to find Leonard’s version on youTube.

I first became aware of Leonard Cohen’s music through Judy Collin’s stunning cover of “Suzanne,” almost 50 years ago.  It was covers, rather than his own gravelly voice that won him initial acclaim, though I remember vividly how his renditions of “The Stranger Song,” and “Sisters of Mercy,” were perfect for the moody western, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, 1971.   “He was just some Joseph looking for a manger,” Cohen sings in the opening scene, as Warren Beaty, a hapless gambler, rides into a forsaken mining town under a lowering sky.  That’s one of those lines that has stayed with me ever since.

I don’t really have a single favorite Leonard Cohen song – so many of them are memorable. What comes to mind this morning, and is best heard Cohen’s own voice, is “Joan of Arc,” another ballad that awakens hope in some deep, visceral way as it paints the portrait of time of darkness and suffering. It still sends chills down my spine.

I send this post out to Leonard in memory of a debt of gratitude that can only be repaid as we seek for something deeper and brighter behind the apparent disasters of our lives.

Young Jimmy in Flanders

This day began on a solemn note. Personal business had taken me to the city where my parents are buried. I stopped by the cemetery on my way out, pulled some dandelions and left some flowers. Such a visit puts me in a reflective mood, but even seeing my dad’s WWII veteran headstone didn’t jog my memory and remind me of what a solemn day this is for the whole world.

Only during my ride home, with my iPod playing music at random, did I recall the importance of August 2 when I heard Andy Stewart’s song, “Young Jimmy in Flanders.” World War I began one hundred years ago today.

Andy Stewart

Andy Stewart was frontman for “Silly Wizard,” a Scottish folk-rock group. He also released four solo albums. Fire in the Glen, 1985, features a song about his grandfather, Jamie, who served as piper with a Scottish regiment in the first world war, and somehow survived.

There’s poignancy at the very thought of bagpipers versus machine guns, and Stewart pulls no punches in condemning the blindness and stupidity that embroiled the world in slaughter:

Jimmy went to Flanders so many years ago,
To the Somme, to Ypres, and Arras, not so many years ago.
He played his pipes to battle,
And the laddies died like cattle,
And the brandy was drunk in Whitehall,
A million miles away.

This week, by choice and circumstance, I was on a media fast except for CNN during the time it took to eat in the motel breakfast. That was time enough. Eggs and toast and chaos in Gaza for breakfast nook; war as reality TV; we’ll be right back after this message. Today, I reflected that “The Middle East,” as it exists today, is a direct result of the first world war.

On August 2, 1914, German cavalry crossed into Luxembourg to seize control of railway lines. In a very real sense, one could say there is no end in sight to the conflict that was ignited that day.

All trees must pass

George Harrison memorial tree, 2010 by Al Pavongkanan. Creative Commons

George Harrison memorial tree, 2010 by Al Pavongkanan. Creative Commons

George Harrison spent the last years of his life in Los Angeles. In 2004, three years after his passing, a memorial pine tree was planted in his memory in Griffith Park. Harrison, an avid gardener, would probably have enjoyed the irony – the tree was destroyed by beetles. Harrison once said his biggest break was getting into the Beatles, and his second biggest break was getting out.

A new tree will be planted beside the plaque which reads, “In memory of a great humanitarian, who touched the world as an artist, musician, and gardener.”

It is also an appropriate time to appreciate one of the great truths his music told:

Happy birthday Taj Mahal!!

Taj Mahal, 2005. Creative Commons

Taj Mahal, 2005. Creative Commons

Today is the birthday of Henry Saint Clair Fredericks, Jr., one of my all time favorite blues musicians, whose stage name is Taj Mahal.  He was born May 17, 1942, in Harlem to musical parents. His mother sang in a gospel choir, and his father, Henry Sr., was a West Indian jazz singer and piano player, whom Ella Fitzgerald called “The Genius.” The family used a shortwave radio to listen to world music.

Henry Jr. developed an early love for music and mastered a number of instruments, but had an equal interest in farming after the family moved to Springfield, Massachusetts. He went to work on a dairy farm at 16, and at the University of Massachusetts, he majored in animal husbandry before deciding to pursue a career in music. He chose Taj Mahal as a stage name after recurring dreams of Gandhi, India, and social tolerance. In 1964 he traveled to Santa Monica where he formed a band with Ry Cooder and won a recording contract a short while later.

Mary and I heard him once at the Palms Playhouse, in Davis, CA, when it was still housed in the barn on a family farm, a casual and intimate venue musicians loved. We were in the second row, right in front of Taj as he hammered away on a grand piano. He’s a big man, tall enough for the NBA, and he threw himself into the music. It was an unforgettable evening.

I play this music when I want something upbeat –  roots music in the widest sense of the term, evoking that impulse toward joy that makes people everywhere want to sing.

Happy birthday Taj, and many, many more!

Remembering Kate Wolf

Lately I’ve been thinking about Kate Wolf (1942-1986), a singer and songwriter from this part of the country who was just beginning to draw national attention when leukemia took her at the age of 44.  Growing up, she listened to Dylan, The Weavers, The Carter Family, and Merle Haggard (1).  Her poetic lyrics celebrated backroads and small towns and her music wove the “high lonesome” sound of bluegrass into landscape of northern California.

Once I loaned a friend one of Kate’s albums.  When she returned it she mentioned that her 10 year old son listened to several songs and said, “Wow, that music is really sad.”  Pothos comes to mind, a Greek word I have used here before, that signifies a restlessness, an unrequited and unrequitable longing for what lies beyond the horizon.  Pothos is the affliction of dreamers and it’s woven as a minor chord through much of this music, even when it seems most concrete:

Here in California fruit hangs heavy on the vines,
But there’s no gold, I thought I’d warn you,
And the hills turn brown in the summertime.
– from “Here in California” by Kate Wolf

In April, 1986, Kate was diagnosed with leukemia.  After chemotherapy, she went into full remission, started work on a retrospective album, and scheduled another tour.  The disease returned in the fall, however, and we lost her on December 10.  Her long time friend and touring partner, Utah Phillips covered the remaining shows she’d booked, including one in Placerville Mary and I had tickets for.

He led the crowd in singing her songs and said something I’ve never forgotten. “At the end of her life, Kate told me she knew why she’d gotten cancer.  She took in people’s pain, the pain of living.  It was the source of her art, but she realized too late that she never learned to let it go.”  Phillips warned everyone to beware of clinging to grief and reminded us of the threads of hope and joy we also find in her music.

Kate’s music has been covered by musicians like Emmy Lou Harris, Nanci Griffith, and Peter Rowan.  You can sample her songs on, a website her family maintains, as well as on iTunes. Once you listen, these songs find a home in your head and heart, for as Kate Wolf put it in “Brother Warrior:”

We are crying for a vision
That all living things can share
And those who care
Are with us everywhere.