Every Hope is Worth Saving

It’s been a rough year.

I’m not sure what to make of 2017. What we’ve seen this year on the public stage is unlike anything I can remember. We hear casual conversation about whether our elected officials and senior federal employees colluded with Russia to soil our national election. We observe mass shootings like the one in Las Vegas, now so common we barely discuss it a week later and don’t even bother utilizing it to foster a conversation on common-sense gun control. We watch the parade of famous men from all walks of life falling from prominence when confronted with their ghastly predatory behavior. We experience nature’s record storms devastating the southeastern mainland United States and Puerto Rico as we strip down the EPA, deny climate change, and fail to provide adequate resources to those fighting to rebuild their lives.

Maybe for you this was just another year. For me it was something different. I can’t get my feet to walk solidly on a path below me. My legs are too shaky. The ground is unfirm.

Despite the turmoil, the holidays have arrived. It is the season of wishes. Here are a few I am guessing many of us share:

Don’t you wish the President of the United States was a man of grace, wisdom, and compassion whom our children could admire, instead of cementing this image of awfulness in their brains for the rest of their lives?

Don’t you wish Harvey Weinstein had been called out decades ago so that dozens of women could have been spared his lurid, violent, inexcusable acts of supremacy and self-importance?

Don’t you wish the U.S. Olympic gymnastics team comprised of child champions had been spared the physical and psychological abuse of their team doctor posing as their protector?

Don’t you wish that our absolute defense of the First Amendment wasn’t being utilized by racists unashamed to wear swastikas in public and proclaim a new day for Nazi ideology?

Don’t you wish that a tax cut for the wealthy was not broadly accepted as an apologia for the reprehensible inattention to human needs our Congress trades for the financial support that keeps them in office?

Enough already, right? I told you that for me this wasn’t just another year. This was more than enduring tone-deaf leaders who won’t lead. This wasn’t a year solely to rant. This was a year that tested my belief in fairness. This was a year that took me on an inward journey where I questioned the ability to maintain my values in a world that too often and too easily openly rejects them. This was a year where I wondered if justice was more than an eloquent ideal, and whether healing was possible in a nation that can no longer find common ground in a path forward that invokes a shared understanding of our founding principles.

And so I go looking for a hope.

Because it’s the holiday season, I am also listening to a lot of Trans-Siberian Orchestra. This music is an annual tradition in our home. Last weekend my wife and I attended the TSO concert in Southern California as we do every year around this time.

The shows are fun. They are energizing. No matter how many times we hear the same songs played live under laser beams and surges of flames, the story of hope rekindles my childlike sense of wonder and optimism. In particular of late, these lyrics keep hitting me with profound motivation:

Let it go!
Let it go!
This old world that I know
For soon everything will be changing
In a single glance
Where it all enchants
And every hope is worth saving

Paul O’Neill, the visionary who created TSO, died this past year. Yes, we lost him, too, but he left behind words like this that matter to a lot of people. At this year’s concert, music director Al Pitrelli noted in honoring his former boss that Paul used to say, “Individually we are finite, together we are infinite.”

I’m buying into that. Every hope is worth saving. We cannot give up hope. We’ve had presidents who have talked about that, in metaphor and aspiration. We can lampoon the storybook notion all we want, cynical survivalists that we are, or we can be childlike and share in the embrace of vital idealism.

In my last book, my wife picked this line as her favorite, spoken by Daphne, the wise mentor and guiding light of experience:

“Hope is the strength that keeps us going.”

I’m going to try to continue that theme in my writing this year. I can always find snippets in songs that inspire me, but maybe we can find some resets hidden in the hard events surrounding us.

Throughout the darkest hours in Puerto Rico, there were quiet acts of selflessness where local individuals stood in ten-hour lines for fuel, foregoing their own ration for an elderly friend. When we see goodness in action, we are reminded that grabbing for oneself has none of the power of building together.

I recently saw a TV news story where a judge in Minnesota met repeatedly with a pregnant young heroin addict until she assured him she would get clean and become the mother he believed she could be. He could have gone by the book and sent her away, but instead he invested the time to work with her. Today the mother has a healthy son, and the son has a healthy mother.

The national (and hopefully global) awareness of men exploiting women in the workplace is likely to instill new norms of decency in our interactions. If nothing else, the immediate fear of losing everything should shut down a lot of the oppressive behavior that morosely became too common. Deterrent is a good start. Choosing to live by example is where we need to go.

Even more than the season of wishes, this is the season of hope. We can grab firmly onto any teetering branch that is reachable and attempt to repair it, or we can walk away from the broken bough and give up against overwhelming odds of measurable impact. Those are difficult words to write without sounding preachy. It is a more difficult promise to make and keep to oneself.

We arrive at the end of this year in an awkward place. In my heart I want to move along and tackle new turf, but at the moment I feel stuck. I know I am not alone. We need to get unstuck together.

Together we are infinite.

_______________________

Lyrics Excerpt from “Christmas Dreams” by Paul O’Neill and Robert Kinkel
© Warner/Chappell Music, Inc.

Image: The Ghosts of Christmas Eve, Tran-Siberian Orchestra

Advertisements

The Inaugural: A Modest Proposal

InauguralWord on the street is that entertainment options for the 2017 Presidential Inauguration are sparse, and that President-elect Donald Trump is not at all happy about being snubbed by Hollywood.

My initial thought was that they simply call it “An Intimate Evening with Ted Nugent” and sell off the master sponsorship to the NRA. Chachi could be the MC. Yahoo would probably still overpay for the streaming rights and Trump could declare it sensational. Easy breezy.

Then I got to thinking, if I’m not part of the solution, I am the problem. I probably am the problem and will be for at least the next four years, but that’s beside the point. Better that I be helpful. I want to be helpful to PEOTUS and the incoming administration pasted together from the cast of Doctor Faustus. It should be a celebration of, well, something. The new team should be happy. I want to be there for them. To quote Candidate Trump during the debates (insert condescending tone), “It’s very important to me.”

So here’s my pitch, and this will absolutely help the President-elect save face: I will agree to personally appear at the Inauguration Ceremony, the Inaugural Ball, and the Inaugural Parade — a package deal including all three major events — performing LIVE BAND KARAOKE.

Should the organizing committee wish to run a background check on my credentials, I came in 2nd Place in a Thai restaurant competition outside Sacramento two years ago on New Year’s Eve. Okay, that wasn’t exactly Live Band Karaoke, it was a machine, but I have performed Live Band Karaoke all over the Los Angeles basin in clubs so hip no one even knows they exist. I am eminently qualified, practically a shoe-in. I will be amazing. I will be fantastic. I will be spectacular. I will not be a disaster. I will not let down my nation.

Naturally I have a few conditions:

1) Following the swearing-in, I must get an offer to become the President’s head speech writer at market rate with full Congressional retirement benefits when I am fired. Since there is absolutely nothing I admire about the Trump administration and in fact would like it to be hamstrung or eliminated, I am the perfect candidate. I also have never been a political speech writer, which according to the peer group of appointees makes me even more qualified.

2) My inclusive package multi-event fee of $10 million will be donated and shared among all the homeless within the Washington D.C. region.

3) Kellyanne has to play tambourine in the band and no sitting down will be allowed. On select tracks of my choosing she will play cowbell.

4) Jared will buy me lox and bagels for morning brunch after the celebration and cannot leave the deli until I am done talking to him.

5) Donald absolutely cannot have the mic anytime during my gig.

6) Donald must live tweet after every song I sing that “This Ken Goldstein is a live band karaoke sensation and Kanye should give him a record deal.”

7) Donald’s inaugural remarks may not be longer than any of my songs.

8) Bannon must be on the dance floor the entire night but he must dance alone.

9) Ivanka agrees to hand make three separate designer outfits for my lovely wife to accompany me, subject to my lovely wife’s creative approval. Single-origin natural fabrics grown in the USA, please. An advanced consultation on a diverse color palette is recommended but not required. We have high hopes Ivanka is cut from a different cloth.

10) A bowl of coconut pretzel M&M’s must always be in reaching distance for me when I am performing and Reince must hand them to me with a clean white glove one by one, but I will be a mensch and not require the green ones be extracted.

That is one heck of a deal for a high-profile show in desperate need of a headliner — such a bargain, three shows for the price of one! No need to send Trump Force One for me. I’ll use frequent flier miles and sleep in the lobby of the renovated Old Post Office Hotel (I hear the atrium appointments are quite lush and I wouldn’t want to create a conflict of interest actually booking a room there at taxpayer expense).

This is a one-time offer that expires at midnight on the first night of Hanukkah (Jared can help with the deadline).

Okay, let’s see if a signed deal memo shows up on my desk and PEOTUS knows a real deal when he sees one!

# # #

Quick footnote:  I do not believe coconut pretzel M&M’s currently exist. Those will be a custom order, but that is not my problem. The organizing committee will have to use its manufacturing expertise to secure the necessary innovation. A mixed bowl of coconut M&M’s and pretzel M&M’s does not count.

TSO in the Front Row

TSO1

Christmas time
And the moment’s just beginning
From last night
When we’d wished upon a star

If our kindness
This day is just pretending
If we pretend long enough
Never giving up
It just might be who we are

  • From “Promises to Keep” by Paul O’Neill & Robert Kinkel

It’s getting late. Or early. Depends on where you are. Music of the Night.

I’m just back from my almost annual two-and-a-half hours with Trans-Siberian Orchestra. It was different this year. For the first time ever my wife and I sat in the front row. I didn’t pay any special price and TSO does not sell VIP packages. We just got lucky ordering the millisecond tickets went on sale to fans. Incredibly lucky. Staggeringly lucky. Not an ordinary occurrence for yours truly.

Last night’s show at Citizens Business Bank Arena in Ontario, California was as good as any and every show we’ve seen TSO perform since we began following them around the turn of the Millennium. The difference was the intensity of, well, being in the front row. I’ve been going to rock concerts like this for over forty years now, and the few times I’ve found my way to the front row, there is nothing like it. When there is nothing between you and the musicians but a wee bit of inner space, you connect. It’s indescribable. It’s metaphysical. It’s what rock and roll is meant to be, the lines between audience and performers erased. You feel the experience in a different way. There is a pure intensity that sinks through your sensory inputs and temporarily commands possession of your emotional framework. Ideas become visceral. Passion becomes tangible. You wish it could last forever. At least I do.

Then reality returns. It has to return, so you can take the music with you and do something with it. Inspiration is a spark, not an engine. If you find a way for the spark to ignite, you carry the torch with a reason and do something with it. Moments like hanging in the front row keep me young, but my work is still my work. Part of that is sharing this stuff with you, to bring us together in the service of something productive, something that matters.

Seconds before the show began, in the dim light of pre-set, music director Al Pitrelli walked to center stage in the shadows. I was about ten feet from him. Pitrelli is a musician of such amazing talent I am humbled watching his fingers navigate the fret board at speeds I can barely imagine, let alone emulate. I looked at Pitrelli and made eye contact. I gave him the aviator’s thumbs up. He looked back at me and put his hand over his heart, a Roman Centurion salute of sorts, but kinder and more heartfelt as he often does when connecting with someone in the audience. In that moment I felt simultaneously like we had just met in person yet were old friends. I guess both of those readings are true. It is the illusion of knowingness that allows art to work. Ancient philosophers worried about the dangers of such false impressions. Old rock and rollers like me call it keeping the backbeat.

I have never met Al Pitrelli, or TSO founder/impresario Paul O’Neill, or anyone in Trans-Siberian Orchestra, despite the fact that they inspired me to write my second book, Endless Encores. I talk about the band in the book’s Preface, how brave they are to try out new material on every tour to keep moving forward, while still giving their fans the show they expect. They just give us more, music we don’t know is coming, and that lets us grow together rather than lock into a fixed expectation of the ordinary. Maybe someday I’ll get to meet these guys—who knows, what were the chances I’d end up in the front row of their show at retail?

What do I really want to share in this predawn realtime post, something I rarely do but at the moment feel compelled to publish unpolished? Is it to convince you that TSO offers a level of practiced musicianship, vibrant stagecraft, theatrical innovation, and storytelling significance that is much too rare in pop entertainment? Possibly. Is it simply to capture the moment for myself of front row showtime as a slice of life? I’d be lying if I told you otherwise. Yet here’s the real deal: Go back to the top of this post and have another look at the lyrics I excerpted.

There is a through line here. It is the holiday season, a time of pause, a time of reflection. In the ultimate irony, the venue where TSO played last night was not too far from San Bernardino, where violent tragedy again struck our nation only days ago. Families all around us are in pain. What we need to embrace is that every kind act in response to those in need is an act that restores humanity to humanity. Music, stories, and unforgettable performances can be our road back to the goodness that gives our life purpose. When art is a conduit that reminds us to act as we internalize, we are brought together toward a path that anticipates healing. We learn from the evocative, and we advance on the hard work that must be done to make sense of our brief time together.

TSO carries into my heart a sense of hope. It ties the holidays to a call of service, and it ties the years together in a continuum of incomplete measure. Sitting in the front row made it feel more real, more direct, more personal, and oh yes, more intense. We have a tremendous amount of work to do together and not much time to have an impact. Listen to the lyrics, feel the music, embrace the integration. Then do something with it.

Celebrate the holidays by doing something that really matters. And don’t forget to turn up the volume. I’ll see you in the front row, the cheap seats, or anywhere else we can make a real difference. Think hope, then make it happen.
TSO6

Records So Good We Bought Them Again (and Again)

Fleetwood Mac - RumoursI guess for me this is turning into The Year of The List! Earlier this year, inspired by a Writers Guild initiative, I catalogued a suggested collection of the Funniest Screenplays of All Time. Right around that time, inspired by the Fleetwood Mac reunion tour, I found myself thinking about musical recordings so beloved I had purchased them multiple times on replacement platforms. While the records stayed largely the same (yes, I will keep calling them records as long as I am listening to them), a series of innovations in consumer technology offered us relatively inexpensive access to personal libraries of vinyl, 8-track tape, cassette, reel-to-reel, DAT, CD, DVD, and MP3-like digital hard drive storage along the lines of iTunes. Here I am considering what I would call three-buy and above purchases for personal use, which of course live alongside AM & FM radio broadcast, satellite play, streaming services like Pandora and Spotify, and any number of less legitimate ways to file-share.

While I was pondering all thatand readying myself to attend Fleetwood Mac’s current reunion tour at the recently refurbished concert-only Fabulous Forum in Los Angeles (remembering I had attended in 1990 what I believed was the final performance of the farewell Fleetwood Mac Word Tour)what should be playing in our living room but Rumours. Yep, at home in 5.1 Dolby Surround played an album so impossibly fantastic I had bought it at least five times with each subsequent technological improvement, including the remastered scratch tracks on the latest Expanded Edition, which chronicled the development of each song. I sat there listening again to this marvel, no regrets of any kind for the many dollars spent. I have extracted so much entertainment value from this record I would gladly purchase it again. And again.

Thus it occurred to me that Rumours was not alone, and that I was not alone in the three-buy, four-buy, and even five-buy serial record purchases. Rather than pencil out my own list, I went to my social network and asked friends where they had repeatedly dumped their dough buying the same thing over and over. Below you will see an unedited list of those records, some of which I also bought a bunch of times, others of which I have never heard but may sample now. Rather than allow this list to expire in the ephemeral Facebook news feed, I decided to recreate and share it here. I think it’s a cool list, one you should feel free to expand upon in broadening our spirit of sharing.

There is definitely a late Baby-Boomer Bias to these confessions of multiple repurchase, represented no doubt by my circle of social media friends, along with our age and taste. I think you will find the publishing dates stamped for the most part between the mid 1960s and the early 1980s, when the formative years of my contemporaries had disproportionate influence on our modest discretionary spending. Not surprisingly, in the “nifty fifty” albums reported here entirely unscientifically and in no particular order, multiple appearances are logged by the Beatles, Pink Floyd, the Rolling Stones, and Elton John.

If you’re looking for any connective tissue in all these, I think you’ll need more than the music to draw a speculative conclusion. Here is my one linking observation to the extent that I recognize most of the titles: they are in one way or another albums, curated collections or song cycles of various sorts that weave into and around themselves. Much has been written about the demise of the album in this day of pop streaming shuffles. For a while when we were younger, there was a wild notion that a record album could be something of its own as a form of, dare I say it, art.

I’m not sure I have the intellectual fortitude to plow through the art manifesto, but let me just say that when I play Abbey Road I don’t skip tracks, I play it through beginning to end. Okay, on The White Album I do skip “Revolution 9” most of the time, you got me there. But Dark Side is beginning to end, Hotel California is beginning to end, and Rumours is beginning to end. Remember, when these were vinyl, that meant getting up and switching to the flip side—yes, getting up physically to hear the rest!

There is a “something of substance” in these picks that a lot of us find missing in contemporary LP equivalents that don’t even try to compose, let alone somehow unite, a dozen or more flowing songs. I think that’s why a lot of us miss the days of AOR—album oriented rock—and why we’re willing to spend anew when landmark records with recurring motifs and thematic resonance repeatedly make their way back to the virtual shelves. These albums age well, a bit like fine wine, and seldom seem dated. Absent historical and social context, most of these carefully crafted works could just as well have been recorded today and simultaneously sound modern and classic. They were expertly written, performed, and engineered with creative courage that resulted in textured, lasting impact. Good is good, great is great, and unforgettable is, well, just what the word says.

So here is a compilation of fifty records my friends found so remarkable they bought them on three, four, or even more platforms (not to mention extended or remastered versions), and will probably continue to play until their last days on the planet in whatever form they may become available:

1) Abbey Road by The Beatles

2) Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles

3) The Beatles (The White Album) by The Beatles

4) McCartney by Paul McCartney

5) Band on the Run by Paul McCartney & Wings

6) All Things Must Pass by George Harrison

7) Imagine by John Lennon

8) Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd

9) The Wall by Pink Floyd

10) Exile on Main Street by The Rolling Stones

11) Let It Bleed by The Rolling Stones

12) Madman Across the Water by Elton John

13) Goodbye Yellow Brick Road by Elton John

14) Hotel California by Eagles

15) Quadrophenia by The Who

16) Songs in the Key of Life by Stevie Wonder

17) Blonde on Blonde by Bob Dylan

18) Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen

19) What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye

20) London Calling by The Clash

21) The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars by David Bowie

22) The Joshua Tree by U2

23) Led Zeppelin II by Led Zeppelin

24) Lady Soul by Aretha Franklin

25) Songs of Love and Hate by Leonard Cohen

26) Silk Degrees by Boz Scaggs

27) The Point by Harry Nilsson

28) After the Gold Rush by Neil Young

29) John Barleycorn Must Die by Traffic

30) Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show by Dr. Hook

31) Running on Empty by Jackson Browne

32) Cheap Trick at Budokan by Cheap Trick

33) Black Sabbath by Black Sabbath

34) Candide by Leonard Bernstein

35) The Lady and the Unicorn by John Renbourn

36) Nights in the Gardens of Spain by Manuel de Falla

37) The Remains of Tom Lehrer by Tom Lehrer

38) The Doors by The Doors

39) Tapestry by Carole King

40) Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

41) Berlin by Lou Reed

42) Wheels of Fire by Cream

43) 21 by Adele

44) Crime of the Century by Supertramp

45) Bridge Over Troubled Water by Simon & Garfunkel

46) Graceland by Paul Simon

47) Dreamboat Annie by Heart

48) Pet Sounds by The Beach Boys

49) Something/Anything? by Todd Rundgren

50) Rumours by Fleetwood Mac

Which “greatest albums of all time” did we miss? Probably a lot. Add your favorites in the comments below and if there is anything you discover new in the suggestions provided, let us know what it sounds like no matter the player you choose as a conduit.

The Beatles at Sea

I don’t think I am likely to run out of things to write about The Beatles.  Scratch that.  There is no chance I will ever run out of things to write about The Beatles.

How about The Beatles on Norwegian Cruise Line making our away around the calm summer waters of the Hawaiian Islands?  That’s about as magical a place for The Beatles as I can imagine, beyond the Sea of Holes and across the Sea of Time.  Toss in a set list that spans the entirety of Beatlemania performed by one of the most gracious husband and wife musician couples I have ever met — now you’re talking magic, an experience so utterly perfect it’s hard to believe it’s even real.

TobyBeauBeatlesToby Beau is the joyous source of this sound celebration, a rock band with Texas roots dating back three decades, now performing on the main stage and in cabaret surroundings of the Pride of America.  It’s not the usual kind of place you would find me, nor where you might expect to be sharing in the sing along chorus of Hey Jude.  I think that was a big part of what made it all so wonderful, it wasn’t the expected in any sense of manner or place, and yet it all just clicked the way brilliant music and expert performance always succeed — pleasing the mind, pleasing the senses, creating realtime context that is both Yesterday and Today.

Last week my wife and I spent a week island hopping in my home state of Hawaii with about 2000 fellow NCL passengers.  No, it was not a normal thing for us to do, but playing tourist can be fun if you do it right with plenty of time for snorkeling, hiking, biking, and kayaking.  We didn’t spend much time at the buffet, but we did catch all of the live music.  Vacations can be an amazing time of discovery, where you can relax and float downstream, and whenever we hear there are Beatles tunes in the house, well, we just go check it out.  About midway through our week we ventured to the main showroom and met ax man vocalist Balde Silva, who performs every single week of the year beside his sometimes lead, sometimes harmonizing wife Rennetta Dennett Silva, the two of them still the core of Toby Beau.  Their biggest hit, My Angel Baby, came in 1978, around the time they were touring with such high power acts as the Doobie Brothers, Bob Seger, and Steve Miller.  Balde and Rennetta are music industry survivors who have reinvented themselves any number of times over the years, not only proudly still playing live music, but playing it together, having a blast, and obviously forever in love.

That brings us full circle, back to The Beatles, at sea, and the kind of love that lives forever in a set of songs that work no matter where they are played, that prove themselves over and over again precisely because they take on new meaning when bounced off new walls.  Music veterans like Toby Beau evidence what it means to play flawlessly, inserting subtleties that are different each night, reflective of the experience that unexpected places can offer, reverberating off audience participation, taking in the physical moment and replacing it with a memory.  It takes a truly inventive catalogue to pull that off endlessly without becoming rote.  Musical excellence is one part material, one part craft, one part passion, and one part ethereal.  A cruise ship is just a venue, a stage is just a platform, but layer in the mystical concoction of the lads from Liverpool with a pair of performers determined to inject love into the tunes, and the formula becomes fully extemporaneous in the emotions that swell.

Balde and Rennetta take it a step further, offering the story of The Beatles through bits of spoken history, stitching together the songs as a real life fairy tale.  This is not impersonation but tribute, commencing with the earliest days of I Want To Hold Your Hand and A Hard Day’s Night, winding the road to Yesterday and Nowhere Man, then reaching with bravado to We Can Work It Out and Back in the USSR.  We get Something by George, then we Get Back, then we Let It Be.  Hands wave in the air for Hey Jude, and then the band covers a Beatles cover with the dance floor encore, Twist and Shout.  It all takes less than an hour, less than a dozen cuts, but once again we have taken the journey anew, heard it differently, felt it reimagined, shared it somewhere we probably won’t return but can carry with us forever as its own idea — an interpretation shaped by its circumstance, constant in its creative rejuvenation.

The Beatles stayed together less than a decade, an incomprehensibly brief interlude that resulted in a body of work that remains inexhaustible in inspiration.  Balde and Rennetta have stayed in the game as long as they have because of their love of the music, their love of the art form, and their love of each other.  The combination of all that love and craft and chemistry just got added to my canon of musicality, new energy flowing through time-tested lyrics, new theater emerging from a bit of the acoustic and a mastery of the electric.  We didn’t go to sea to find it, we found it by chance, spontaneous discovery — and because we shared it, once again it is ours.

Let the music wander where it will, infuse it valiantly with love, the world is at your command.  What we discover in the familiar is the awakening of the imaginative, the surprise of the open-ended revitalized by care and intension.  You can hear it differently if you allow the phrasing to bend here, there, and everywhere — the artists’ touch a composite of admiration and trust.  Thank you again, Balde and Rennetta.  Thank you again John, Paul, George and Ringo.  The music is perfect.  The music is forever.  The music is a gift to be celebrated and loved.

Let It Be

I write this evening from London on the last day of a short business trip.  I am pounding this out on an iPad so it may be a bit less polished then some of my posts, but I want to share the passion with you somewhat unedited, while it is still fresh and resonating.

While here I enjoyed the tremendous experience of seeing the new Beatles revue, Let It Be, at the Savoy Theatre.  The experience was full of wonder and magic, precisely the way music and theatre can touch your heart when you least expect it.  The Savoy Theatre is an especially magical venue, one of the oldest working stages in London and the first public building in the world to be lit entirely by electricity in the late 19th century.

imageYes, it’s another Beatles cover show, like Beatlemania, like Rain, like so many appearances of The Fab Four.  The lads appear in multiple costumes from the Beatles era, but are not allowed to call themselves The Beatles, nor use the names John, Paul, George, or Ringo.  They refer to each other as The Bass Player or The Singer or The Drummer, and of course Billy Shears gets an appropriate shout out since he is a character of fiction.  They start in black suits and thin ties, then put on Nehru jackets, then some colorful hippy fabrics, then the Sgt. Pepper Uniforms, then wilder hippy fabrics, then the John character in the white suit and long hair followed by the John character in the shoulder length hair, military shirt and sunglasses.  You know the drill.

We open with I Saw Her Standing There, She Loves You, I Want to Hold Your Hand, then we’re off to Shea Stadium, then the Rubber Soul period, then Pepper, Magical Mystery Tour, Abbey Road, and we round it out with Get Back, the title number, and Jude.  They don’t exactly go in order, more a thematic pastiche.  There are television bits in the background showing black and white commercials of the nice lady in awe dropping the pearl in the Prell shampoo bottle, occasional blasts of Jimi Hendrix over Vietnam bombings, the marches, the flower posters, the peace signs, the weeping teens falling over each other in the stadium crowds — all of the familiar nostalgia that we have seen so often but still celebrate as boomers.  No creative breakthroughs, no big picture inventions, no stagecraft of staggering originality.  It was a concert of Beatles songs, two and a half hours with a break, four guys who didn’t look like The Beatles absent the various wigs, and the Paul character even played a right-handed (gasp!) Hofner bass.

So why was this show so different, so memorable, so moving, so unforgettable, so touching?

Two reasons.

For one, at half a century I might have been the youngest person in the audience.

The other, the audience was almost entirely British.

You might expect at a West End Beatles revue in London-town the show goers at a Saturday matinee might be mostly tourists.  They were not.  They were locals.  They came to relive their youth, if only for an afternoon, and they loved every second of it.  They were on their feet, they were twisting and shouting, they were dancing in the aisles, they clapped and sang along word for word, they echoed the chant: “All we are saying, is give peace a chance.”

No one in that room felt they were 60, or 70, or 80.  You could not tell anyone in that room that this was a 50th celebration of anything.  This was real, this was vital, this was now.

And this was British.  Very, very British.  Lovely, as they say.  Brilliant.

Yes, the image of John in Central Park is literally chiseled in Strawberry Fields.  Memories of George in Los Angeles recording studios are etched in our minds.  Ringo and Paul sightings in the Hollywood Hills have become as natural as any other celebrity on the west coast.  We share the music with the world, but somehow we came to sense that The Beatles adopted America, and Americans unofficially adopted The Beatles.  Yet they are British, beloved here in a way I never before fully understood or felt until I spent this joyous time with their countryman.  Their fans here are perpetual, like those who have shared Shakespeare and Dickens and even Lloyd Webber with the entire world.  The creativity and inspiration that has flowed generation after generation from this island in the North Atlantic never ceases to blow my mind.  The impact is astonishing, the consistency in trendsetting almost baffling.  The people here are exceptionally proud that so much of what has touched them has touched so many others all over the world.  The Beatles are a part of them and carry their love to us in ways that words cannot convey.  You simply have to be on your feet in the crowded room feeling the music penetrate your bone mass to get it.  You say you want a revolution?  That’s a revolution.

Now back to a few words on age, which I think is what really brought that tear to the corner of my eye.  When that Yellow Submarine on the scrim behind the band sails through the Sea of Holes and past the Sea of Time to the Sea of Green, something enduring becomes clear, almost too real.  John was taken from us, and hasn’t been here since I was a freshman in college.  I still feel that loss.  George has left us, and my guitar still gently weeps.  We graciously do have Paul and Ringo — Ringo is even opening an exhibit this summer at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles.  Two Beatles no longer living, but all four Beatles somehow alive.  And the fans, The Boomers born between 1945 and 1964, each day a few more slip away.  At the end of that tail, I have the least gray hair, some have all gray hair, some have no hair at all.  When the Paul character sings, “When I’m Sixty-Four,” it’s the midrange of the audience.  He was in his 20s when he wrote it.  They were all in their 20s when they created that vast catalog of songs — not a bad one to boot — all in less than a working decade.  Those songs remain as vibrant and relevant today as they were when we bought the singles on vinyl 45s.

How does that work?

The music keeps us young.  The music compels us to stay young.  When we hear and feel the music we have no ailments, no doctors to see, no life letdowns or shortcomings or missed opportunities.  We are optimists with our lives entirely ahead of us, just as we were when we first heard the needle hit the record, pops and hisses, mono and stereo.  We remember all the lyrics, every guitar riff, where the drumsticks hit the cymbals, and when it’s time to harmonize on the refrains.  We hold onto this because it keeps our youth, our joy, our hope.  When you see an aging couple set aside their walking canes, swaying their hands in the air left to right and right to left on the final chords of Hey Jude, you know magic is happening.  Time travel is indeed possible.  You are transported in mind and in toe-tapping body.  The music is that perfect, that potent, that mystical, that important.  It just feels that good.

We boomers didn’t get everything right.  We know that.  We know that peace and love and world harmony are still elusive dreams.  The Beatles make it possible for us to feel those dreams anew, to be young in a way that is transformational, a dream as only it can be, a perpetual time to Imagine.

You can always see the clock ticking.  You can always know what time it is.  You can’t take away youth.

Dodging The Greatest Hits Graveyard

I’ve kept a frequent presence at rock concerts ever since I was a kid. Back in the day, live rock and roll shows were reasonably affordable—even if you did have to sleep on the street to get tickets—because bands toured in support of the latest record they had produced. Live shows were a catalyst for selling singles and albums, pushed local radio play, sold t-shirts and memorabilia, and paid for the road antics of the bands who could live and party on “permanent vacation.”

The concert world today is obviously different because the ecosystem is so drastically different. There are still monster arena tours like U2, Springsteen, or the Rolling Stones 50th (gasp!) corporate sponsored anniversary. There are small gatherings of devoted fans at venues around 5000 seats for tireless road warriors like Cheap Trick or Chicago. There are nostalgia plays in casino showrooms or destination bars with one or two surviving members of one-hit wonder acts. And there are tremendous new stars like Adele who play the old game a new way and can still fill amphitheaters at top prices, sell plenty of music downloads, and inspire faith that the CD has a tiny bit of life left for the bygone tribe.

What I have noticed over the course of this music evolution is the underlying key to longevity and not moving down the food chain hasn’t much changed—the survivors tend to deliver a healthy balance of old and new material. This is no small problem, as the fans who come out to concerts are no doubt screaming for an artist to play their big hits. It’s natural. It’s satisfying. It’s a trap.

TSO2005A few weeks ago my wife and I went to see one of our favorite groups, the still somewhat niche band Trans-Siberian Orchestra, best known for their annual Christmas shows and the ever-present holiday single, Christmas in Sarajevo. TSO blends heavy metal power chords with classical music and electric violins, usually with an interspersed layer of spoken storytelling. Several years ago they started branching out from Christmas themes, recording and touring a fantasy tale called Beethoven’s Last Night. This was the first time we had seen the show performed live, and while it was familiar to us, it was not well-known to much of the devoted audience. That was pretty brave, I thought, to tour a concept album that was not necessarily top of mind with their audience, but then they did something I found even more courageous. Toward the end of the show, when they had finished playing Beethoven and the audience expected they would play some oldies, they instead played several entirely new songs that had not even been released online. No one had heard these songs except those who had seen the tour, and the applause following was as you might suspect a bit tentative. The nervous quiet during these songs was not because they were bad, it was because they were new. If you are a regular on the live music scene, you know that awkwardness—but without it, there are no new hits.

New music has to be debuted at some point, that’s why it’s called a debut. Audiences can be very tough on new songs, they pay good money to hear hits and the survival of any act is contingent on meeting the expectations of fans. Yet long-term success is equally contingent on innovating, and facing an audience with the unknown or unfamiliar is always a daunting prospect. Who would willingly trade thunderous applause for quiet, polite clapping? The greatest acts know they have no choice.

Most of the hot Top 40 bands in the 1970s and 1980s would periodically release Greatest Hits albums, mechanical collections of their charting singles, usually pushed by their record labels for bankable cash acceleration. Some of these became all time bestsellers, notably The Eagles and Elton John. The question I always used to wonder when I handed over my cash for a dozen song vinyl collection was whether this was the end of the band or the beginning of a new chapter. For too many, we know how that played out, and we know where those bands are playing today, if at all. A Greatest Hits or “Best of…” album was easy money, the equivalent of predictable thunderous applause. Pushing out new work would remain the heart of risk, and the genesis of going to the next level.

Nothing about this cycle is unique to music. Business is the same, especially technology wrapped as consumer products. You need to play to your familiar success, the current incarnation of your brand, but the moment that catalogue is fixed, you’re doing dinner theater rather than headlining at Carnegie Hall. Think RIM with the standing ovation worthy Blackberry, Kodak and Polaroid with endless scrapbooks of silver snapshots, perhaps now Best Buy longing for a different curtain call than their former contender Circuit City. They all climbed the charts, but staying there remains a different story.

Steve Jobs liked to say that he never believed in focus groups, because it was not the job of customers to tell you what they wanted—how could they know what they wanted when it hadn’t yet been invented? No civilian could concretely describe iTunes, the iPod, the iPhone, or the iPad prior to their release. You can only imagine how many pundits prior to the success of these inventions could tell you of their impending doom solely on the basis of unfamiliarity. Of course Apple never stopped marketing its core line of computers during this unbelievable expansion of reach, they were still playing hits while composing new material and seeding it to the faithful, those with whom they had established profound affinity and could ask to trust them further with the unknown.

I also don’t think it is a coincidence that Steve Jobs was a huge fan of The Beatles, who in an active career that spanned all of about eight years never stopped putting out new material, took themselves off the road to focus on composition and the creative process, then reinvented their sound with almost every album, including a few radical pivots like Sgt. Pepper. Is it counter intuitive that the actual career of The Beatles was so short despite all that new material and no Greatest Hits collection until after their break-up? Possibly, but if impact is the name of the game, it is hard to dispute that The Beatles succeeded most of all at avoiding that most dreaded of dead-ends, The Greatest Hits Graveyard. Their incomparable legacy remains vibrant because they pushed themselves so hard to be innovating all the time while crowd pleasing.

Celebrated descriptors like “Built to Last” and “Good to Great” are hard-won praise tied to nimble companies for navigating the same difficult balance for so many years of reinvention. It’s a lesson in courage and vision that is as difficult to learn as it is to replicate, but it is that very bravery that can guide any individual career from ordinary to enviable. Facing the anxious reception of the untried might not be pleasant when a clear alternative is available, but it’s the only trail that bypasses the one-hit wonders.