Archive for the ‘Semper Stories’ Category

Why do people create music?

Sunday, March 21st, 2010

Are you a musician? Can you tell me, why do people create music?

Never mind that music seems to help our egos quite early in life to figure out who we will be. Forget that our favorite music will, in later years, magically transport us back to those particular times, events and people that we associate with it.

Remember your parents telling you to “Turn that down!”? Well, your music just didn’t sound like theirs did. Now, of course, It is my turn to wonder what is the music that our kids will find sentimental as they rock on the veranda of the assisted living place 50 years from now. Will the whoomp of the subwoofer paralyze the caregivers as high volume rap favorites waft through the halls?

Why do people create music in the first place? In my case, improvisation, albeit usually over some kind of structural form, was always more interesting, rather than reproducing music that had already been written.

In the liner notes for the Miles Davis record “Kind of Blue” pianist Bill Evans wrote about the art of improvisation.

Bill said about those who would improvise that they “… must practice a particular discipline, that of allowing the idea to express itself in communication with their hands in such a direct way that deliberation cannot interfere.” The full quote may be found here

In my own life, music has been much like breathing, it is just something that came in and out of me from a very early age. I cannot take any special credit for it, it is just a gift that was given. But why did it seem like such a good fit and change the shape of my life so drastically?

Let me share a favorite verse of mine, crafted by the great jazz lyricist, Gene Lees. Here he describes what he thinks is real about the madness that causes some of us to live and breathe the alchemy of music. This is a man who reportedly took a year or more to write the exquisite lyric to the jazz chestnut “Waltz for Debby”

For years I had lost two lines in the middle of this wonderful verse. I emailed Gene and, after searching, he couldn’t find them either. Finally I came upon my original note, written with my music calligraphy pen from decades ago, and here it is. A tiny fragment of exquisite verse encased in a poetic form from another age.

This may not explain why people create music, but it is certainly a most eloquent expression of appreciation for the phenomenon.


Music is a strange and useless thing.
It doesn’t offer cover from the storm.
It doesn’t (really) ease the sting
of living; nor nourish us, nor keep us warm.
And men expend their lives in search of sound,
learning how to juggle bits of noise,
and by their swift illusions to confound
the heart with fleeting and evasive joys.
Yet I am full of quaking gratitude
that this exalted folly still exists,
that in an age of cold computer mood,
a piper still can whistle in the mists.
His notes are pebbles falling into time.
How sweetly mad it is, and how sublime.

Gene Lees

Not used with permission.
Gene, I know you won’t mind.


Song and Spirit

Tuesday, March 16th, 2010

Are you ever just amazed at how much hostility the religions of the world have shown each other over the ages? So much blood has been spilled over whose God is better that it defies any explanation, from the head or from the heart.

There seems to be a chasm of infinite depth between the true spirituality of the seeker and the organized politics of what has come to be known as religion.

In any event, two exceptional men of my acquaintance have developed a really fine project called Song and Spirit.

It is a humble jaunt into the ether of the interfaith.

A Franciscan monk and a Jewish Maggid (storyteller), hanging out, singing songs and telling stories. Pretty darned peaceful. Some Tibetan bowls set the mood nicely.

Their site is You may find it quite interesting.

Sign up for their email list or invite them to open some hearts at a place near you.

If you’ve never heard The Lord’s Prayer sung in Hebrew or a Muslim prayer sung by a Catholic and Jewish duet, this is your chance. I think it’s such a fine idea. That’s why I play keyboards with them.

I found tears on my face through much of their first performance a few weeks ago and I really can’t say why. Good tears, though.


Elvis Presley ’56

Thursday, December 10th, 2009

There have been a few explosions in American music that continue to reverberate around the world.

Some time ago, probably before the 1900s, some maniac played a minor blues scale on top of a major chord. The major chord came from Celtic and other European folk forms and the pentatonic blues scale came straight out of Africa via a slave ship. This shotgun wedding gave birth to bluegrass, jazz, gospel and blues. American music subsequently turned the whole world on its newly awakened ear. Musicians in Jamaica heard radio from New Orleans and infused R&B with more African derived rhythms, cross-pollinating it into Blue Beat, Ska, Reggae and Soca. Blues and Jazz festivals thrive from Denmark to Japan, and American music in all its pagan splendor, roots and branches of a million twists and turns, is the prevailing popular culture of the world. Quincy Jones points out that “When folks forgo their own musical culture in favor of American music, it’s not because of a marketing plan, it’s because it speaks to their souls.”

This pervasive influence wouldn’t have been possible without a second resounding explosion. As Muddy Waters stated: “The blues had a baby and they named it Rock and Roll.” It’s post-WWII, and there’s a new crop of kids in unprecedented numbers. We weren’t yet called a “demographic bulge” but we sure were. Preachers and nay-sayers were warning that these “jungle rhythms” were dangerous and that seemed to be just the ticket in the Eisenhower era. I remember seeing Elvis on TV and being aware that this music had power to upset people, to draw a line between “us” and “them.” The originators of the style were the wrong color to be beamed into white living rooms, but we eventually sought them out. We wanted a full-strength dose of this magic.

The explosion was seismic. As it continued into the tumultuous ’60s, it reflected, addressed and affected social events and society at large. No African influence, no field hollers….no blues, no rock and roll. No Johnny Otis, no Little Richard…… and no Beatles. No anonymous cracker playing the blues on a guitar (a European instrument) and no Woody Guthrie. No Woody, no Bob Dylan. Bob has got to be one of the most influential people of the last century, if for no other reason than he’s credited with goading the Beatles to become politically aware and take responsibility for their massive influence. Dylan is arguably more influential, even as a singer, than Elvis. Nobody tries to sing like the King, but thousands of guys are still trying to sing like Dylan.

Every significant creative aspect of pop music happened in the ’60s. The deck has just been endlessly reshuffled since then. Every “new” sound, from synths to studio wizardry is a trifling cosmetic change. That backbeat and the ability to express emotions and celebrate life is still inherent in the music.

Elvis in ’56 is still more dangerous than a thousand death metal bands. Marilyn Manson is an after school special compared to James Brown and Hank Williams. The preacher was right. The music made us move, think, question and pointed the way to something more human and more spiritual than what was laid out so carefully before us. That jungle rhythm is still a call to dance and a call to stand up for our values. That African groove is in our DNA… some of us paler folk just left the “dark continent” a little bit earlier. Elvis was on fire in ’56 and the world was ripe with possibility. If you still believe, it still is.

Posted by Nolan Mendenhall

Pancho and Lefty

Thursday, December 10th, 2009

Okay, so I’m a bit obsessed with this song.
I have a particular love for story songs and Townes Van Zandt was a Zen master of the form. I can’t help but refer to the fine line between madness and great talent when it comes to the late Van Zandt. Those unmistakable roots in his imagery and the lineage of great story tellers from the great state of Texas also had a down side. He grew up in an era and an area where his early odd behavior resulted in electroshock treatments. Over the ensuing years a lot of fellow artists, fans and loving women tried to keep that bright flame going, not always for altruistic reasons. The light went out on a cold new years eve when Townes slipped away due to his medical problems and chronic alcoholism.

There are a lot of great versions out there of course. Willie Nelson’s hit record is somewhat marred by the pop trappings of the day, but his youtube performance with Bob Dylan runs deep. Any version of the song has merit because the story works on so many levels. It involves the listener because of what’s left unsaid. Did Lefty turn Pancho in? Was it for the money? Pancho was a mythic figure, a bandit admired by law enforcement. His redemption and that of Lefty is that a song exists about them, an extension of a venerable folk tradition… conveying the essence of great events in song. Great friendship, betrayal, redemption, forgiveness and acceptance…. a terse American short story. It could have been written by Hemingway, except for that haunting melody.

Living on the road my friend
Was gonna keep you free and clean
Now you wear your skin like iron
Your breath as hard as kerosene
You weren’t your mama’s only boy
But her favorite one it seems
She began to cry when you said goodbye
And sank into your dreams

Pancho was a bandit boys
His horse as fast as polished steel
Wore his gun outside his pants
For all the honest world to feel
Pancho met his match you know
On the deserts down in Mexico
Nobody heard his dying words
But that’s the way it goes

All the federales say
They could have had him any day
They only let him slip away
Out of kindness I suppose

Lefty he can’t sing the blues
All night long like he used to
The dust that Pancho bit down south
Ended up in Lefty’s mouth
The day they laid poor Pancho low
Lefty split for Ohio
Where he got the bread to go
There ain’t nobody knows

All the federales say
They could have had him any day
They only let him hang around
Out of kindness I suppose

The poets tell how Pancho fell
Lefty’s livin’ in a cheap hotel
The desert’s quiet and Cleveland’s cold
So the story ends we’re told
Pancho needs your prayers it’s true
But save a few for Lefty too
He just did what he had to do
Now he’s growing old

A few gray federales say
They could have had him any day
They only let him slip away
Out of kindness I suppose

TOWNES VAN ZANDT, Nobody heard his dying words, but that’s the way it goes.

Posted by Nolan Mendenhall

Too Late

Wednesday, December 9th, 2009

Though it is too late too attend this particular date, you might enjoy this writing from Nolan Mendenhall, our music producer friend and bass player regarding a performance of a great band, Grievous Angel.

“The media has an unquenchable appetite for intrigue. Following sluggish ticket sales in Norway it was widely reported that we’re breaking up…. quite to the contrary. Although I have retained separate management, strictly for my wrestling career, ALL of the boys will be at
MEMPHIS SMOKE in beautiful ROYAL OAK on SUNDAY, DEC. 6. Join Roscoe, Billy, Nolan and Todd for a coupla sets of American roots music. The festivities begin at 8:30. We’re hoping that Andy Rooney’s unfounded and vicious remarks last week won’t affect the gate.”

If you would like to check out the band, visit

You can also email Nolan at and ask him to put you on his list of distinguished guests. You won’t be disappointed.

Let the festivities begin.
Happy Holidays to all.

Semper Stories

Tuesday, July 7th, 2009

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Connectedly yours,
Randy Leipnik,
Semper Media Group