Death of a Piano

As a parent, you usually know when you mess up, but sometimes fails happen when you least expect it. For instance, last night at bedtime, I was looking for some relaxing piano music to help lull my daughters (3 and 7) to sleep and ended up finding this video about an old piano left on the sidewalk, and the reactions of people who pass by it.

My daughters asked if they could watch it. It seemed harmless enough. I thought it would probably be uplifting somehow, like maybe some concert pianist would sit at it and get one last nocturne out of it.

As we watched, I explained to my girls the difference between a regular piano with a long, contoured body and an upright piano, and how they were introduced to make pianos available to people with smaller homes or apartments.

I’ve been trying to inspire one of them to play because I always regretted that I didn’t learn. I took lessons as a kid but was a typical boy, more interested in playing baseball in the street. How could I know how much knowing how to play a piano would benefit me for the rest of my life? I can play the guitar bit and I love to sing, but man how I would love to sit down and play a little Beethoven or Chopin.

Anyway, a few people stopped to tinker with the piano but the camera was too far away to hear what they were playing. By the time the video was over, my girls were riveted, wondering what the fate of the old piano would be. Then . . .

they tore it to pieces.

My girls both started crying. I turned off the video exactly as I would if I were trying to protect their innocent eyes from an act of violence. Struggling to calm them and undo the damage I had unwittingly done, I said, “Come on, girls. It’s just a piano. It’s a piece of furniture that makes noise.”

It didn’t work. They cried harder. Insulting the piano only made matters worse.

Then I switched directions and acknowledged their feelings, saying, “I wish that would have ended differently, too. I was hoping someone would come by and take the piano home with them. That was sad, huh?” They both calmed down a little and, with quivering voices, said, “Mm-hm.”

Their reaction may also have been partially caused by the fact that we have an upright piano in our house. It has sat in the corner for years like an old friend, waiting for someone to muster the interest and determination to learn to make it sing again. It’s old. Like a hundred years old. I imagine it sits there silently dreaming about its glory days in some house in the 1930’s when the family piano player (almost every family had one back then) played while the others sang and danced.

I also remembered my own childhood, when I anthropomorphized absolutely everything. I would crumple up a piece of paper and throw it in the trash only to retrieve it, straighten it out, and apologize to it. (Really.) Maybe I had watched H.R. Pufnstuf too much and thought everything was alive. Or maybe children are just naturally more sensitive to the various kinds of consciousness – however subtle and immeasurable they may be – that imbue all things that are made from something that was once alive. Or perhaps an object’s usefulness, particularly the joy it brings the user, gives it a kind of personality. Plenty of musicians talk to their instruments, give them names, etc. There’s even an old expression used in love, “How about you and me making beautiful music together?”

So, though I hate to see them cry, I’m glad my girls felt sorry for that old piano. They knew it wasn’t just a piece of furniture. They know it’s much, much more. I think somehow they know, like all would-be musicians curious about an instrument, that only it can help them unlock all those secrets and fears and overwhelming feelings stirring in their young souls.

My favorite singer/songwriter, David Wilcox, (the American one, not the Canadian one), once said he was attracted to the guitar as a teenager for just that reason – because he thought it knew something about him that he didn’t, and that he couldn’t discover without its help.

When my girls busted out crying, I felt like I had done something wrong, but in the larger picture, I think my wife and I are doing alright. More importantly, I think they’re going to be alright. If they didn’t care about the old piano getting demolished, I’d be much more worried.

People Every Writer (and songwriter, singer and musician) Should Know – Mac Davis

People often say, “When you live in Los Angeles, you never know who you’ll bump into.” Well, I found that out quite literally (and the hard way) one day when I bumped – okay, crashed – into country singer and movie star Mac Davis.

For those of you too young or just unfortunate enough to not know who he is, this is him in his prime –

macdavis

I used to watch The Mac Davis Show when I was a kid and was amazed and entranced by his many talents. He was a natural performer. Pure charm. The segment of his show I enjoyed the most was called “Audience Improvisations” when people would give him random song titles and he would write the song to go with it right on the spot. It was incredible to me and one of the things that made me want to be a writer. Here’s an example. Mac’s a bit older now but as sharp and talented as ever. You’ll see my favorite song title improv in this clip. It goes like this –

My girlfriend burned her bra today.
It really was a shame.
Cuz she ain’t exactly Dolly Parton.
That sucker hardly made a flame.

I was driving down Sepulveda Boulevard one day and had just crossed Wilshire going into Westwood when there was suddenly a stopped car in front of me. I went right under it and scooped it up onto my hood. I would find out later that the woman in front of Mac realized she had missed her on-ramp to the 405 freeway and slammed on her brakes. He was able to avoid rear-ending her but because I was glancing left and right in the intersection, I saw Mac’s rear bumper too late. Mac got out – actually, climbed down out of his car – and he was not happy. Because he was one of my heroes, I recognized him immediately. I apologized. He immediately relaxed and said in his Lubbock Texas accent, “It’s okay, kid. It wasn’t your fault.”

As we waited for the police to arrive, he told me a story about how he crashed a Cadillac (I think) he called his “In The Ghetto Car” because he bought it with the money he received after Elvis Presley recorded the song he wrote by the same name. Mac wrote a ton of hits in addition to that one – Baby, Don’t Get Hooked on Me, It’s Hard To Be Humble, Texas in My Rear-View Mirror, I Believe in Music, etc. He told me he was going to star in a Disney Christmas special at Disneyland the next day and said, “I’ll wave to you.” A pretty damn cool thing to say to someone who just wrecked his rear bumper. 

I tell this story for many reasons – to show that not all celebrities are jerks, particularly those as seasoned as Mac, and those who grew up in Texas, not L.A. Mac is old school not just in terms of writing songs that actually make sense, have a clear beat, and are impossible not to like, but in terms of intelligence, class and charm, too. I was nobody to him. He didn’t say, “Hey, you’re that guy who wrote twenty stories for Chicken Soup for the Soul, aren’t you?” Nobody recognizes writers. He could have easily been unfriendly to me but he wasn’t. In fact, quite the opposite. He smiled and waved at me from Disneyland. Mac Davis is country, in every sense of the word.

So if you ever read this, Mac, thank you for your kindness, especially to someone who messed up your car. It’s easy to be nice when everything is going right, but one’s true character is revealed when things go wrong. You certainly passed that test. I hope to bump into you again someday – when we’re not driving.

Touring Paris with Jim Morrison – My Story from Chicken Soup for the Soul’s book Angels and Miracles

 

Angels and Miracles

When I was twenty-seven years old, I traveled to Paris alone. Shortly after my arrival, I met a local woman named Lauren who offered to show me around the city. I asked her to take me to Pere Lachaise Cemetery. She thought it was strange that, of all the sites of Paris, I wanted to see a graveyard first.

At that time in my life, I was obsessed with finding out what happens when people die, mainly because I had lost a good friend to a car accident several years earlier. She was one of the kindest people I had ever known. I was aware of the personal responsibility argument, but I still couldn’t understand why God would let that happen to her.

After she died, I started reading everything I could about near-death experiences and accounts of the afterlife. I also became drawn to old cemeteries, and even conducted a séance in one. I didn’t expect to communicate with my friend, and had been warned by more faithful friends that I might attract malevolent spirits, but I did it anyway because even if something bad happened, I would at least know that there was something beyond life, and that my friend might still be alive in some way. The need for hope made me reckless. Words didn’t comfort me. I needed a real experience.

Pere-Lachaise Cemetery was established in 1806 so many notable artists and luminaries are buried there such as Oscar Wilde, Marcel Proust, and Frederic Chopin. However, the grave I was most interested in seeing was Jim Morrison’s, the lead singer of The Doors, because I had been exploring his music and writings for months before this trip.

In case you’ve never seen it, here are a few shots of Pere-Lachaise Cemetery – 

I became interested in Jim Morrison’s music and poetry because he shared my obsession with death and the afterlife, perhaps because of a similar experience – he had witnessed the aftermath of a terrible car accident as a child. His poetry and raging vocals gave a voice to the darkness in me. He wrote and sang like an animal crying out in pain. There was no self-consciousness or desire to please, just raw energy. In an era of peace and love, he crashed the party and reminded everyone that the dark side was still there.

The morning of the day we went to the cemetery, Lauren and I were at a Laundromat when a young Parisian man with long, blonde hair and denim overalls came over, introduced himself as Henri, and handed Lauren an Origami rose he had just made. He looked just like a “hippy” from the 60’s and, we would discover, had the same loving nature most of them strived for. We thanked him and complimented his artistry. After talking for an hour or so, he wrote down his address and invited us to dinner that evening. We accepted.

We went to the cemetery later that day. It was very crowded. When Lauren asked someone why, we learned that we had accidentally visited on the anniversary of Jim Morrison’s death, July 3rd. That was the first coincidence.

A large crowd was gathered around his grave in reverent silence. As I read his grave marker and calculated his age, I discovered the second coincidence . . . I was the same age then that he was when he died – twenty-seven.

As I sat by his grave, I recalled the lines from his poetry that meant the most to me at that time.

“We must tie all these desperate impressions together.”

“I can forgive my injuries in the name of wisdom, luxury, romance.”

“Let me tell you about heartache and the loss of god. Wandering, wandering in hopeless night.”

A man with dreadlocks played People Are Strange on a guitar. A young girl started to cry. Her boyfriend put his arm around her. It began to rain softly, as if her sadness was affecting heaven itself.

I wondered what Jim might say if he saw us all. I imagined it might be something like, “Cheer up. I’m only dead.” After all, he had referred to death as a “beautiful friend” and asked, “Can you picture what will be? So limitless and free.” Unfortunately for those who loved him, he wasn’t afraid of dying.

That night, we took the metro across town to Henri’s apartment. His girlfriend and another couple were there. They all looked like flower children, too. We all got along wonderfully.

It was a warm night so Lauren and I sat by a window. I looked out and noticed a mural of a man’s face on the front wall of an apartment building across the street. I wasn’t able to make out who it was at first, but as I focused, I realized it was Jim Morrison! I asked Henri why it was there. He said, “That’s where he died.” He pointed to a window and said, “That was his apartment, right there.”

17_rue_beautreillis

That was the third and most chilling coincidence. We had not mentioned to Henri at the Laundromat that we were planning to visit Jim Morrison’s grave that day. In all of Paris, what were the chances of ending up across the street from the apartment where he died a few hours later? I imagined Jim had guided me there through Henri, a free spirit he would have liked and identified with.

I looked at the window of Jim’s old apartment again and saw the silhouette of a male figure passing behind the curtains. My rational mind knew it was just the current tenant, but my imagination had become unhinged. It was Jim, alive and well, pacing the floor, working on a new poem. 

hqdefault

I looked at the portrait on the wall again, illuminated by soft moonlight, and it seemed to be smiling playfully at my bewilderment. But that feeling turned into comfort as I imagined it was Jim’s way of thanking me, not just for reading his work but for getting to the soul of it. I like to believe that artists who have passed on know when someone is savoring their creations, and that they smile for a moment before returning to whatever they’re doing in heaven. I hope so.

Lauren and I said goodnight to our new friends and walked down the street toward the metro. When we reached the corner, I asked her to wait for me. I walked back to the portrait on the wall and looked up at the window of Jim’s former apartment, lit with a soft, yellow light. I tried to remember the William Blake line that inspired the name of Morrison’s band . . . “If the doors of perception were cleansed, every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”

I had been living in a cavern, but for the first time in years, death didn’t seem so final. Everything did seem infinite. I thought of the friend I had lost and finally felt a little peace. I closed my eyes, touched the mural of Jim’s face, whispered “thank you”, and walked away into the Paris night, into life.

6802686f9f9a8cdb607cb7befe7a11e7--paris-romance-romantic-paris

“This story is from Chicken Soup for the Soul: Angels and Miracles © 2016 Chicken Soup for the Soul, LLC. All rights reserved.”

For the Children

Like everyone else in America, I’ve been thoroughly disgusted and saddened by the couple who starved, tortured and abused their thirteen children for over a decade. I won’t mention their names because I think anyone who commits such atrocities should not be awarded fame, however twisted, after they’re caught. They even smiled at each other in court yesterday when the judge told them they couldn’t talk to their children for three years. Thankfully, it looks like they’ll spend the rest of their miserable lives in prison.

As a parent of two daughters, it’s unfathomable to me how not only one but two parents can do the things they did. I feel guilty when I raise my voice to my girls even a little.

When my first daughter was born six years ago, I wrote and sang 15 songs on a CD in her honor called Great Big World. Of course, the songs apply to both my girls now. I’m working on a second CD for both of them.

One of the tracks is below. I hope it provides a little therapy to anyone as troubled as I am by all the child abuse stories we hear about these days. I know I need regular therapy, and it usually comes in the form of music.

This song is also for all the children unfortunate enough to be born to parents who don’t appreciate the miraculous blessings that they are.

Becoming My Father

I did two things for my father in the ten years or so before he passed away in December of 2014.

The first was to help him finish his memoir, The Other Belfast – An Irish Youth, and self-publish it so he could hold a real book in his hands and know the stories he told and wrote for forty years would finally be read by others around the world.

I’m proud to say I helped him accomplish that because his last five years on this earth were not good ones. He was whittled away to nothing mentally and physically by Parkinson’s Disease and Dementia until he couldn’t even remember me most of the time. This is his book.

51KKgvC08VL

The second thing I did was dig up every old cassette I could find of his karaoke recordings and turn it into a CD with help from Rick Balentine – Composer (remixing) and Ryan Silo (cd design). I’m so glad I did because it’s a treasure to me now. Good Lord, could that man sing. If you like American standards, click on the link at the bottom of this post and have a listen to the song samples. Here’s his CD – 

johnrickerby

I named it “Get Rickerby Up For a Song!” because that’s what somebody would inevitably yell every time he was at the pub.

Every now and then, I mention his book and CD on some social platform because promoting his legacy helps ease the grief of losing him, particularly to diabolical brain diseases that leave only a shell of someone who was once full of passion, and the life of every party.

I remember listening to these old songs on the car radio for hours during long road trips and banging my head against the window hoping to knock myself out. (jk)  Now I love it, as my dad predicted I would, eventually. He tried to tell me the music I listened to when I was a teenager was garbage. and that someday I would come around and realize what real music was, but I refused to believe it. I’m pretty sure he’s laughing at me in heaven. I hope he’s still singing up there, too, because it was his greatest joy down here. 

John Denver – In Memoriam

a618df98635ca6bdaffa481378be0b4e--john-denver-the-muppets

Twenty long years ago, it happened, the day every John Denver fan wishes he/she could go back to, swarm that airport and sabotage the experimental plane John Denver would crash into the Pacific Ocean that day, or at least beg him not to fly. But he did, and all his fans have left is his music and the memories of the time when he was alive, when they and America were younger and more innocent.

It’s easy to be sad and cynical, but listening to the treasure trove of music John left us doesn’t allow it. Every song is an embrace, a conversation with a good friend, a celebration of the sweet and simple. Collectively, it is a call to live life the way John did – deeply, completely, fearlessly, and with great love for all living things.

I wrote a poem many years ago after my brother died. Ironically, he died only four days after John, on 10/16/97, but it applies just as much to John or anyone else we have loved and lost. I hope it gives some comfort.

Rest in peace, Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr.

How We Survive

If we are fortunate,
we are given a warning.

If not,
there is only the sudden horror,
the wrench of being torn apart;
of being reminded
that nothing is permanent,
not even the ones we love,
the ones our lives revolve around.

Life is a fragile affair.
We are all dancing
on the edge of a precipice,
a dizzying cliff so high
we can’t see the bottom.

One by one,
we lose those we love most
into the dark ravine.

So we must cherish them
without reservation.
Now.
Today.
This minute.
We will lose them
or they will lose us
someday.
This is certain.
There is no time for bickering.
And their loss
will leave a great pit in our hearts;
a pit we struggle to avoid
during the day
and fall into at night.

Some,
unable to accept this loss,
unable to determine
the value of life without them,
jump into that black pit
spiritually or physically,
hoping to find them there.

And some survive
the shock,
the denial,
the horror,
the bargaining,
the barren, empty aching,
the unanswered prayers,
the sleepless nights
when their breath is crushed
under the weight of silence
and all that it means.

Somehow, some survive all that and,
like a flower opening after a storm,
they slowly begin to remember
the one they lost
in a different way . . .

The laughter,
the irrepressible spirit,
the generous heart,
the way their smile made them feel,
the encouragement they gave
even as their own dreams were dying.

And in time, they fill the pit
with other memories,
the only memories that really matter.

We will still cry.
We will always cry.
But with loving reflection
more than hopeless longing.

And that is how we survive.
That is how the story should end.
That is how they would want it to be.

– Mark Rickerby

You, Me and Sam (for Sam Cooke fans)

This is a poem I wrote when I was courting my wife. I read it to her over the phone late one night. She had heard the few Sam Cooke songs played on the radio (You Send Me, Venus, etc.) but no others. At one point as I read it to her, she let out a little gasp, one of those sudden inhalations that let me know I really got her. Since I quote some Sam Cooke’s lyrics in the poem, I give him more credit for that gasp than myself. But for all the enjoyment his singing has given me, it is credit gratefully given.

The poem will be vastly improved by listening to the Sam Cooke song referenced while reading – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WwuCLxCfdB0

images-1

I can’t watch a sitcom so soon after the news.
Too much sadness has left my heart barren tonight.
Sirens are screaming somewhere in the distance
In this old world, it seems like nothing is right.

Television and movies seem to thrive on this stuff.
I suppose it keeps the almighty bucks rolling in.
Maybe peace and quiet never last very long
Because so many profit from horror and sin.

So let’s turn off the TV and light a few candles.
Put on some Sam Cooke – an album, not a CD.
I know they sound better, but they have no charm.
I like the lived-in crackles of an old, vinyl LP.

SAM_COOKE_NOTHING+CAN+CHANGE+THIS+LOVE-570526

Turn it up loud enough to drown out the madness,
The hubbub of all this progress for its own sake.
Sometimes all the mayhem invades me too deeply
And I need some soft music to ease the heartache.

Yeah, that’s better. Nobody could sing it like Sam.
The sweet, simple melody makes you feel so fine.
I’ve heard this song so many times, it’s part of me.
It’s like I wrote it for you; like the lyrics are mine.

t02200302_0762104712076834092

If I go
A million miles away
I’ll write a letter
Each and every day
‘Cause honey, nothin’, nothin’
Can ever change this love I have for you

There aren’t many refuges in this old city;
The silence marred by shouts and alarms.
I’m just old-fashioned – born too late, as they say.
I hide in music, but especially in your arms.

Even Sam fell victim to the night and this city,
Shot down in his prime in some seedy motel.
He had so much left to give when he was taken.
His music makes me feel like I knew him so well.

sam-cooke-jody-hewgill

Those old songs never fail to quiet my soul.
I wish this world could be the one they created.
Though I know their harmony is just an illusion.
Back then, like today, folks still fought and hated.

Music brushes away the dust of this world
And reinvents it again the way it should be.
My favorite songs are a lot like fairy tales.
They turn their back on reality, just like me.

Sam-Cooke-ls_3166067b

Music and love both serve a similar purpose
For a union of souls is the grandest refuge of all.
In this slow dance, we create our own fairy tale.
I’m the prince and you’re the belle of the ball.

4114774904_12818be2f5_o

Oh, you’re the apple of my eye
You’re cherry pie
You’re cake and ice cream
You’re sugar and spice and everything nice
You’re the girl of my dreams

Thank you for the peace you’ve given to me.
Thank you for loving me the way that you do.
I wish I could hold you just like this forever.
There’s no greater heaven than here, close to you.

903b92d5f9edbdb742de68618975dce8--sam-cooke-shooting-stars

Sam’s singing all the words I don’t tell you enough.
Strong, clear and sweet, and wrapped up in a song.
He’s smiling in heaven, singing just for you and me.
The day’s washed away, and we have all night long.

If you wanted
To leave me and roam,
When you got back,
I’d just say welcome home
Cause, honey, nothin’,
nothin’ can ever change
This love I have for you

 

 

 

Sam Cooke 1/22/31 – 12/11/64

Sam is buried at the Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, California, a few miles from where I live. I visited his grave one day (against cemetery rules) and sang a few of his songs next to it. I hope he heard in heaven and was merciful in his critique. What they lacked in virtuosity, they made up for in sincerity. 

Sam_Cooke_Grave