Monday, December 12, 2016

"Pick It Up" - The Stories Behind the Songs



"Pick it Up": The Stories Behind the Song

Baker's Half Dozen

Mickey Baker was, of course, a greatly influential guitarist, most famous for his Groove Records hit, "Love is Strange", with Sylvia Robinson. The song was written by Bo Diddley and features a nine note Baker guitar lick.
By the time "Love is Strange" peaked on the charts in November 1957, I had been the young, mystified owner of a Roy Rodgers motif guitar for about a year. I had already learned all the songs in the book that came with the guitar, "Red River Valley", "Home on the Range", and a dozen others.
When I heard that rippin' Baker lick, I was pretty sure that was the path for me. I wasn't sure how he made his guitar sound like that, but I knew I could pick out that lick. I did and was on my way to what quickly became an addiction to pickin' out licks.
Mickey Baker had another role in my development as a guitarist. This influence came through his book, "Jazz Guitar I", which I was given sometime around 1960. The book is not a "song" based approach, but rather just presents dozens of chords, along with a good explanation of why a G7b5b9, for example, is so named. Also, he shows arpeggios, exercises, and some jazzy licks – just what young fingers need to develop. The chords comped behind the solos in "Baker's Half Dozen" are entirely comprised of chords I learned from "Jazz Guitar I".

I Crossed the Line

A clear reference to "I Walk the Line", I intended this song to be a tribute to the Cash style. The story is of a young person who, in envy of material possessions, starts a long slide from which leads to an apparent shooting that earns him a death sentence. It's an allegory for all the decisions we make that "cross the line" and the consequences that follow.

You Could Have Fooled Me

This is an implied "cheatin'" song. "I never really loved you" is offered up to explain why the straying party feels justified in the affair. The one who is left loses not only his home, but his memories of better times – apparently, he was just deluded. Also, I wanted a groove like "Silver Wings" and the band delivered a great one.

This Time It's Different

Gotta have the killin' song. Each year for Austin's annual "Dead Sweethearts Ball", I've written a killin' song. I do not subscribe to domestic violence – it's a terrible thing. However, it is fun to write about from a safe distance. In this song, inspired by all those murder shows on tv, I hope the first time listener is led to believe that "this time he's not coming home" because he ran off with some barroom floozy. Not so, we learn later in the song. The wronged wife follows and executes that spouse and his lover. She expects to be caught and punished, but he just went a little too far. This is Waylonesque two beat/waltz in the fashion of "Amanda"… we love ya', Waylon.

Pick It Up

I've always been an admirer of O'Henry style irony in a story. In this song, I made up a character, Carl, who sells pencils on a corner. He respects money – it's hard to come by – so much so that he'll chase a runaway penny down the street. But when he uncovers a lottery ticket worth $50,000, he becomes disdainful of the value of a penny and just leaves one lying on the ground… and he pays a stiff price. There's a pretty clear moral to this story – but the song ends abruptly ahead to disclosing this moral.

Deep Fat Fried

When I was young, almost all food was prepared by frying… chicken, steaks, okra, potatoes. With the introduction of modern deep fat fryers, you might be led to believe that all food is friable. I've played a dozens of state fairs and have seen a dizzying array of deep fat edibles, from funnel cake, to deep fat fried Oreos.
Musically, this song aurally references Merle Travis' talkin' blues like "Smoke that Cigarette", or "So Round, So Firm", with a little Travis-picked intro.

Bartender, Tell Me

Overheard in a bar as I was setting up for a gig: "Hey, bartender… where's the liquor store?" It just seemed like a button waiting to have a coat sewn onto it…. so, I took it upon myself to write that song. Also, this song is a recollection of how the lyrics of country tunes suddenly take on deep meaning when you find that you're the flapper on the chicken wing of love.
The groove of "Bartender…" is the result of a study of Willie Nelson's early shuffles such as "Undo the Right"… drums and bass settle into a nice shuffle, held in place by the piano. The rhythm guitar hits evenly on every beat, as opposed to the usual 2-4 accents. It's a difficult groove to establish and the entire band does a great job with it.

Note to Self

Once again, if you listen to you audience, you'll pick up some song titles. One night, during a gig with The Texas Hummingbirds, my bandmate, Karen Poston, announced to the crowd that we would be back the following week. I heard a disgruntled girl, clearly expecting something more than the stripped down, "family singing" group that was the Texas Hummingbirds, say a little too loudly, "Note to self: don't go." Although the lyrics have nothing to do with drunk sorority sisters, her calendar commentary became the hook line of the song.
That's not all, though. I've always remembered to introduction to the early self-help book, "I'm OK, You're OK", in which the author tells a story of a potential reader who refuses to read the book, saying, "I ain't livin' nearly as good as I already know how." The character in this story KNOWS better, but he's like dieter with a quart of ice cream in the freezer… he just can't stop himself.
T Jarrod Bonta establishes the song's groove with a piano lick similar to that in Gene Watson's "14K Mind". This is topped with a little Les Paul inspired intro lick.

(Chicken Pickin') the Hen, Pt. 1

This is the one song on "Pick It Up" that I didn't write, but, in a way it's the inspiration for the entire project.
I first heard this song when I was surfing the web for tunes that were issued on Stan Lewis' labels, Jewel and Paula. I found "The Hen, Pt. 1" on YouTube and it just blew my socks off… a great B-3 led funky tune with sax lead and a great jazz/blues guitar solo. However, there was no clue as to the players except the mysterious Louis Chachere on B-3.
So I dug around for additional information – where it was recorded, when it was recorded, and who were the other players. I had assumed these were New Orleans guys… possibly associated with The Meters, or some other well know funk-masters in a hired gun role.
Finally, I got a tip when I learned that Louis Chachere had produced a single by a late 60s girl group called "The Trinikas" – and that it had been recorded in Kansas City at The Cavern (recording studio), the same studio in which I had recorded in 1970. A little further digging revealed that Chachere had played regularly at a club in KC during that time. The guitar player was none other than Calvin Keys, and KC veteran, Dwight Foster played sax. The drummer was known only as "Woodchuck". I don't know how let slip by the opportunity to hear this band at the time.

Wrong John

Yet another club experience. Small crowd… I asked if John was there and 12 of 18 people responded. But each was the WRONG JOHN. It has nothing to do with selecting the correct restroom, by the way. Yet another parable about fixing yourself before you think another relationship is going to do the trick.

I Am, Therefore I Drink

The Latin translation would be "Sum ergo Bebe" and it just follows as a corollary to Rene Descartes' "Critique of Pure Reason… I think therefore I am." I assume a little intelligence on the part of the listener, since there's not a lot in this song. My favorite part is the bridge which explains the many reasons a person might drink. We generally leave out the coda when we play this live since the lyrics are too hard to remember.

It's Not What I Need

I bought at Fender Jazzmaster a couple years back, knowing I really didn't need this guitar, but I'd always thought it was Fender's best design. It wasn't really a bad choice, but the same mechanism that resulted in inducting this guitar into my twang arsenal can lead us to eat/drink too much, buy those impulse items at the store, get into questionable relationships and so on… you get the picture? If not, listen to the song.

Barely Legal

"Barely Legal" was originally created for a Bear Family compilation. The requirement was that each song had to have "Bear" in the title. I don't know why it didn't end up on the comp, but I think it makes a good addition to "Pick It Up".

That's What Friends are For

I wrote this just because I thought it was funny. I wanted a Carl Smith "Hey Joe" type tune. I often poll the audience after this song to ask which men and which women can identify with this tune in which a guy offers to look after his friend's sweetheart – his motives are questionable. No one ever raises his or her hand. I tell the audience that this confirms my hypothesis: "All men are liars, all women are angels."
Musically, this carries on the Tunesmith's groove, along with a Maddox Brother's unruly studio mob hollering during solos.

Pick It Up, Epilogue

This record was seriously delayed by an accident that left me unable to walk for a several weeks… but I recovered, a little worse for wear, but pretty mobile. Anyway… it's good to be alive.

-Jim Stringer

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Groove 101

Stringer's Groove 101

These are songs that, to my way of thinking, really drive home the concept of "groove", and I think all players, beginner and experienced alike, could learn from studying just how this feel was created in each song.


1. "You Can't Sit Down", 

Phil Upchurch. From the first trumpet screech to the last chord on the B3, this recording JUMPS!!! Everytime it listen to it, I get the same old chill that I got the first time I heard it. It sounds LOUD, and wild and yet extremely well played. I know every player in the band understood exactly what the objective was and did not have to be told how to achieve it. One of the my favorite things about the performance is that after the drum solo, the drums stop and the organ brings that band back in! Great turn around on the cliche.

2. "Honky Tonk", Bill Doggett.

 A masterpiece of understatement. Beginning with the most ubiquitous blues guitar lick of all time (da-DANG-da-DANG...), then a whole chorus of just the organ pumping chords beneath that lick. Billy Butler and Clifford Scott play schorching solos, paradigms of the genre, but the groove never gets in the way... always just drawing you further in. Most musicians lean too hard when they try to cover (or copy) this tune like they're sawing logs in the hot sun, when they should be sittin' on the porch drinkin' a big ol' mint julip.

3. "Hideaway", Freddy King. 

Once again, a masterfull bit of understatement. Drummers -- this is what a back-beat double shuffle should be -- not a bunch of cymbals ringing, nor a snare drum resounding like colliding trains! I love how the piano punctuates, but never takes over the groove, which happens all too easily. And of course, there's the Peter Gunn straight 8's forced over the shuffle. A really brilliant band effort.

4. "Mustang Sally", Wilson Pickett and the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section

Overplay can make a song into a cliche. But in my experience, there are few players that can capture the relentless, but subtle groove established by Roger Hawkins ever in the pocket, and never over the top drumming, enhanced by Jimmy Johnson's guitar riffing. I saw Wilson Pickett live several times and though his show had the energy of a tent revival, the traveling band could never quite match the subtle mastery of the Swampers.

5. Love and Happiness, Al Green

A close call here... "Take Me to the River" is a great groove also, but I think this track is carried more by the song structure, whereas "Love And Happiness" stands on just the groove and is harder to reproduce in its delicate balance in tempo, interplay between Teenie Hodges riff, and Howard Grimes drums, smooth as an ice rink. Not technically part of the "groove", Teenie Hodges eight note intro lick, simple and memorable, sets up the whole song. Maybe guitarists should more often ask themselves, "What would Teenie do?"

6. Rip it Up, Little Richard with Earl Palmer

My experience playing this song is the the drummer will start banging on cymbals -- because after all, we're rippin' it up, right. But Earl Palmer on drums is the key to this groove... he does it with his snare drum until, restraining from cymbals until the sax solo. Bassist Frank Fields and guitarist Edgar Blanchard, both Dave Bartholomew alums, pretty much follow Palmer's lead and create yet another relentless, yet restrained groove. Few bands have the discipline to apply themselves as one to create such a memorable groove. "Lucille" is a close challenger for this list, again, largely due to Palmer's incredible New Orleans beat. Also, Little Richard's piano is a strong contributor. Also, interestingly, The Everly Brother's version of "Lucille" is a contender largely due to the incredible ride cymbal pattern -- likely Buddy Harman. In addition, the track is adorned by a pedal steel solo!

7. Cleanup Woman, Betty Wright, Clarence "Little Beaver" Hale

This track is such a great example of dividing the groove. The guitars and bass are rhythmically complex -- so the drums must be simple. I would listen to this groove played without any vocal or horn section for the entirety of the song -- it's that fascinating. Players who have tried covers of "Cleanup Woman" know how difficult it is to hold tempo throughout. If this gets even a tiny bit faster or slower, the dancability is ruined. Guitarists "Little Beaver" and Jerome Smith (KC and the Sunshine Band, believe it or not) establish the groove, but it would become tiresome if the drums didn't hold it down. Interestingly, Betty Wright recorded a lot of material, and though she has a beautiful voice with a 4 octave range, but she never recreated the magic of this track which though associated with her name, was not actually about the vocal, lyrics, etc.

How to Make Up a Story for Kids (and Grandkids)

How to Make Up a Story for Kids (and Grand kids)

by Jim Stringer on Sunday, April 4, 2010 at 3:59pm ·

How to Make up Stories for Your Kids (and Grand kids) 


I'm going to tell you how to make up stories for your kids, grandkids, etc., that they'll love and will forever etch out your place in their lives. In addition, these stories will put ‘em to sleep at bedtime, and keep them as quiet as a Packard straight-eight when in the car. 

I don't have an English Degree... never wrote a novel. My skills in this department were initially garnered from my Dad who told me similar bedtime stories when I was a kid, permanently damaging my mind, no doubt. I then honed this creative cutting edge with stories for my own three kids. Now I’ve extended into grandkids, nieces and nephews… even other people’s kids, so watch out. 

This is a recipe, or a template, not a fill in the blank. You have to make up the characters, plot, dialog, etc. It requires little or no skill, effort, imagination or intelligence… perfect for the average, worn out, nearly brain-dead working parent. 

1. The characters 
First and foremost, the characters are your kids. If you have two or more kids, they still need all to be in the story. It’s no harder for the most part. 

Second, each kid has an animal friend. My own kids had Morris and Nadine D’Taquinbunee (Rabbits of French extraction), Paul and Pauly Possum, Randy The Squirrel… grandson Cooper’s best friend is Alan the Alligator. They all live in the neighborhood and go to the same schools. 

Third, they meet others, most often elves or other animals. They are usually a little skeptical of these new acquaintances, but always make friends. 

2. The Setting 
It always starts in the morning at home. Main character decides to go to animal friend’s house to cook up some activity. The story may leave the home setting – if they do leave, then the more insanely removed from home, the better. One of my kids Morris and Nadine stories always started with a ride on a green Honda motorcycle to a little grassy spot where Morris and Nadine liked to hang out. Cooper and Alan the Alligator often travel on flying jet skis to underwater locales, other planets, etc. However the plots are always equally mundane. The Story ALWAYS ends with the kids saying goodbye to their animal friend, and always involve eating dinner, getting ready for bed and going to sleep. The stories don’t end (like “they lived happily ever after”), they just go to sleep and wake up the next day, in the next story. 

3. The Plot 
As mentioned in #2, mundane is perfectly fine. They may go to the bakery to get a donut, look for colored rocks, learn a dance, make up a song (I’ll have a future note on writing songs for your kids), build a fort… or any of the things your kids have actually done that day. In one of my recent stories for grandson, Mason, we went to Allen Field House at KU, just as we had actually done that day… but in the story, they asked him (and his animal friend, Ollie the Otter – he likes otters) to play on the team to take an injured players place. Of course, then they came home, ate dinner and went to sleep.

4. Don’t be bound to outcome 
Probably, you won’t even have to make up much of the plot… your kids will continually chime in with, “…and then they…”. Just go with it… repeat what they said and add another line like “…and you know what they saw?” They’ll probably tell you. It’s not Steinbeck. 

5. Names 
For some reason, animal friends in my stories often have alliterative names (Alan the Alligator, Ollie the Otter) and the kids seem to like that. However, the elves and development characters usually have more forgettable (you don’t have to remember them from story to story), but ridiculous names. Elves might be “Pffflllght” (Bronx cheer), Poohpocklenut, Ba-dip-ba-dip-ba-dip-Bill, or Jeeeeeeeeeeyum (say ALL the long e’s.) It makes ‘em laugh. 

6. No-no’s 
Nothin’ scary -- at least not really scary. The ghosts turn out to be friendly; monsters invite them home for Chinese checkers, etc. 

Nobody gets hurt unless it’s a scrape on the knee that your main character actually received that day… you get the picture. 

Nobody gets lost, at least not that they can’t find their way out of easily. 

Don’t moralize… you can work some good behavior into the plot, but these stories should be fun. They’ll spot the propaganda (besides the eating dinner and going to bed at the end of the story.) 

7. Series 
Kids also like continuity. The characters can remember things they did in other stories, meet some of the same characters, visit the same places, or draw on their experience from other stories. Repetition makes your job easier, and they’ll help you because they’ll remember every tiny detail! 

8. Finally, some hints for props 
My kids like motorcycles, bicycles that turned into jets, bicycles that turned into horses (particularly magic, talking horses), skateboards that turned into space ships. They also always like finding hidden things, no matter how mundane, although these everyday items often turn out to be magic. 

Also, the kids like having things from their real, everyday life thrown in randomly. Like, Mason’s shirt gets wet swimming with Ollie Otter, so he puts on the new shirt his mom bought him that day. 

The perk for you, the parent, is that telling stories to (with) your kids will make you closer… and they’ll like you a little more. Make your bedtime stories a little more boring and the kids will go right to sleep… make the car stories longer… you’ll have the quietest ride of your life. Good luck. 
--Reprinted from my original "note" on Facebook.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

After the 2016 Election

Yesterday was election day and today, I'm immensely depressed. Songwriter that I am, I often find inspiration in loss -- and today, I'm inspired, therefore, I write.

The results of the "election" verify what we've suspected -- our country is deeply polarized. It's hard to imagine a more clear cut choice that Trump vs. Clinton. The results clearly delineate the two sides and it's very evenly divided -- the popular vote was roughly 50%-50% with Clinton slightly ahead.

By examining the exit polls:

If you are a white woman with a college degree, you voted for Clinton, 51% to 43%. If you are a white woman with no college degree, you voted for Trump, 62% to 34%.

If you are a white male with a college degree, you voted for Trump, 54% to 39%. If you are a white man with no college degree, you voted for Trump 72% to 23%.

ALL other groups sampled, women and men, college or no college, voted overwhelmingly for Ms. Clinton.

For the record, I voted for Bernie Sanders in the primary, and in the general election, I voted for Ms. Clinton. Clearly, I'm out of step with my peer group -- college educated white male.

I have voted for the progressive candidate in every election of my adult life. I would follow this path again without question and I just can't understand why this is not, by a large measure, the majority position.

So... here's the subject of my rumination: why have I been so consistently out of step with the majority in my peer group?

The first clue lies in the fact that I'm writing a blog, unlikely to be read by anyone (other than myself when I look back to see how clever I am), and equally as unlikely to sway anyone's opinion. I should be out forming my fantasy football team (whatever that entails), making business deals to fatten my investment portfolio, shootin' some animals, spittin' on the floor, swaggering. Pretty large clue.

Second clue -- I have chosen for a large percentage of my life to study, write and perform a music often associated with uneducated, white men. I have a particular distaste for mass marketed music of the past 20 years. Only a musician who has chosen this trail can appreciate how isolated is this route!

And third, I'm 68 years old, three grown children, five grand-kids, one on the way... and still seeking relevance. One of the stunning revelations of aging -- not that your body and mind can fail, that you get wrinkled and saggy. Yes that.... but the isolation you feel from your culture. I don't "get" new music; most modern movies seem trivial and uninteresting; great new literature is seemingly non-existent. And conversely, younger people don't get my lyrics or my music; if they read my blog entries, they lose interest after a few sentences (ironically, if this applies to you, you'll never read this sentence); they've never even heard of the people who have shaped my life, or the events that swept me up and dropped me where I stand now.

So... I can't understand how this election was not a clear choice for Hillary Clinton. How could this result possibly follow in a society to which I belong.

And there's the last clue to the source of my feeling of isolation -- that I continually expect reason to prevail. That superstition, bias and prejudice will recede. That people will make choices based upon enlightened self-interest, anticipated consequences of their actions, and willingness to accept delayed gratification. That critical thinking will displace knee-jerk reactions.

That's why I remain, as always -- 

Jim                                       vs.                            Jim's peer group

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

How to Lead a Band - Part I

OK... I'm not Bob Wills, Woody Herman, Benny Goodman, or Johann Strauss the Elder, nor even the Younger. I'm just a seat of the pants geetar picker who start his first band at age 12, and has been at it now for 55 years. If you're reading this after 2015, then add an appropriate number of years on to that figure... I assume that if you can read, you can probably add.

I've played probably close to 10,000 gigs plus or minus, both as leader and sideman, so this blog comes from the perspective of both. I've played for as many as 25,000 people, and as few as zero... that's right -- ZERO. (I'm not sure I like ZERO, but I'd far preferred the ONE GOOD LISTENER to 25,000 inebriated idiots, just for the record.)

First, here's a few things that leaders should be aware of, follow by some things that sidemen should be aware of. If you're in a "band" and it's very democratic and no one is really the leader... enjoy your childhood. This is not the real world.

For leaders dealing with sidemen (learned by experiences as a sidemen)

1. Respect your band. Sidemen are your peers... not your servants. Treat them with ultimate respect, listen to what they play, and enjoy!

2. Sidemen are human and like most creative people, have somewhat fragile egos. Don't confuse "professional" and "hey, I'm giving them money", with "needs no praise or encouragement." Express your appreciation first time and every time.

3. NEVER NEVER NEVER, no matter how badly deserved, criticize a player's performance in front of his peers and the audience. If you have a problem with a performance, address it privately. (This does not apply for certain substance induced behavior which needs to be addressed immediately... you know what I mean and you know the difference.)

4. Hire great players who are good human beings, then let them play -- no need to micromanage. Roots music is NOT Beethoven. It's fun to hear what great players -- specialists in their instruments -- contribute to your music. This doesn't mean you can't guide or shape... just trust that you're going to hear some great licks that you never would have thought of.

5. Know your repertoire. Everyone forgets a lyric now and again -- this isn't what I mean. I mean know the songs. For covers: who wrote it, what other versions have been recorded, the meaning of the lyrics, where it was recorded, who were the players. This doesn't mean you have to cough this up to the crowd before (or after) each song. But it's part of making it real... if you don't know this stuff, you're just regurgitating. For originals: when you wrote it, why you wrote it, when you recorded it, who recorded with you. You get the picture? If you're not inside the music, your band will be off in the pasture.

6. Talk to the audience, not the band. Yes... you need to be sure the band knows what song is up. Even a regular band often needs the key. Most of us in Austin play with at least a half dozen other bands, many times the same songs but in a different key, with a different groove, intro and all.

7. Be sure your sidemen pay attention. Lead the band -- be sure they know who has an upcoming solo... cue breaks when needed. Also, cue endings -- but, keep in mind, a good musician will guide the band musically with their outro lick, if it's not a rehearsed ending. Trying to cut off the band visually before an outro lick reaches its logical conclusions will almost certainly cause a train wreck.

8. Make the band look good. Often, an audience need guidance -- cue them in on the virtuosity that's happening on stage. When your band looks good, you look good.

9. It's all about the song. Yes -- I know there are charismatic stars who could sing the preamble to the constitution and make it sparkle. But, without fail, I'd rather hear a good band working well together. And, if you have good, appropriate repertoire, well ordered and well played, it'll work. If everyone plays "the song", it'll be great.

For sidemen (learned by experience as a band leader)

1. Watch the leader. It doesn't matter what kind of music you're playing -- symphony orchestra to garage band -- or, for that matter, garage orchestra. This is how you play together and all music sounds best when the musicians play together. I can't think of anything that irritates me more than having to holler to get the attention of a player who's lost in a daze.

2. Commit. Be there in your entirety. If you're dragging your gear out to a gig because you think it'll make you more attractive in the eyes of the opposite sex, your in the wrong business -- it might for a night or two, but the attraction is on the surface and wears off quickly. Nope... BE THERE. Stay connected to your bandmates emotionally. Make it happen! That's what makes it fun!

3. The gig is not practice. Know the songs, learn the lyrics, know your parts, know how to play those parts, know the melody, know the groove... or be quick to pick up.

4. Dress for the gig. Don't wear the clothes you wore to change your oil that afternoon. Show some respect for your audience... dress appropriately, but dress for the gig, not for couch. Miles Davis said he wanted his audiences to think he was special, so he dressed the part.

5. Don't whine. Keep your eyes off your watch. Don't complain about the leader's song selection -- just play it to the best of your ability. A player who complains just signs his own pink slip.

6. Maintain your gear. You were hired for the gig to make good sounds. Broken cables, noisy tubes, rattling speakers, and intermittent pickups do not make good sounds. It might be a good idea to step off stage and take a peek at how your gear looks to the audience -- if it makes you feel like you're looking into the shower in Bubba's trailer, maybe you should dig out the handy wipes.

7. Don't show up drunk or whatever! I once played a gig as a sideman alongside a player who was so screwed up that he sat down and went to sleep in the middle of a song! After the gig, he looked at me and said, "Are you playing tonight?"  Believe me, this guy would never play another gig in my band. Everyone has their threshold... know yours and don't step over.

8. Be musically flexible. Rock and roll, jazz, country, bluegrass, and virtually all roots music is largely improvised... be ready to go with the flow. Even in non-improvised music, some nights the tempo may be slower or faster... the group louder or softer. Don't be so committed to your particular concept that you can't change to make the ensemble sound its best. Maybe your amp doesn't sound like you want it to sound... hey, just play the sound that it IS making.

9. Listen. Possibly the largest difference between poor or mediocre players and top notch players is the higher level player's ability to listen to the other players and to the whole group, not just their own part. Players who have not yet mastered their instrument will be so intent upon keeping it together that they don't hear the other players... they'll be too loud/soft for the band, or they'll determinedly pound on a wrong chord. They rush, drag, play inappropriate or out of genre parts, noodle over other players fills. So... just listen and be a contributing part of the whole.

10. Make the leader look good. I've done thousands of sideman gigs and I know some front people are egotistical, blathering idiots. (I've had my own moronic periods.) Still.. while you're on the gig, if you make the leader look bad, it winds up making you look bad, and pretty much like an idiot for taking the gig in the first place. Do your best... take it up with the leader when you're off the gig and/or don't take that gig again! A corollary -- don't step on the leader's patter. It may be stupid and you may have heard it every night for the last 10 years. The audience has NOT heard it as often as you have. Think about Steve Martin saying, "Excuse ME!" for the millionth time, to thunderous applause. You may be wittier... if so, get your own gigs. For tonight, just go with it.


Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Part V - Some Life Lessons

Some Life Lessons

Action vs. Consequences

It's alarming that an innocuous action such as putting your foot down on, what turned out to be, a non-existent step, can be one of those before and after points in life. Although I expect to recover as fully as possible, nothing will ever be the same for me again.

Not only did I disrupt my own life, but also the life of my wife, my co-workers, and everyone that I am associated with socially an professionally. The ratio of consequence to action is extremely high -- very small action with huge consequences.

Life Goes On

I'm almost like a ghost, dwelling in the world I previously inhabited. 

I found replacements for gigs... and the gigs went on a scheduled. Different, to be sure, but the Earth continued to rotate.

My racquetball playing friends are still running and sweating. I'm sure they don't really miss my presence in any material way.

Everyone can be replaced -- and this is actually a relief in many ways. At this age, it's sometimes nice to know that life will go on.

Betrayed by my Body

That knee always worked on steps before. And, I never developed blood clots in my lungs. I have felt my age for several years now -- minor aches and pains, night vision not so great, trouble remembering names. If you don't think this will happen to you, think again.

Still, I had the vague feeling of invincibility that most of us feel throughout our lives. Just because everyone else has things like cancer, strokes, heart attacks, Alzheimers, etc., it doesn't mean that I will! But I can't feel that way any more -- particularly after the blood clot episode.

I can bravely say that I'm not afraid of death -- I already feels detached from modern culture, I hate the political climate in our country and the world, and I feel satisfied with what I've done with my life, and how I've resolved my existential questions.

I do, however, have a dread of becoming a burden on those close to me; and this experience has given me a taste of what this would be like.

Loss of Independence

I can't walk unaided... I can't drive... I can't come and go at will. Thank gawd for Amazon -- I've had items as insignificant as a light bulb shipped to me, as brick and mortar merchants are inaccessible to me.

It's like being a seventeen year old, driving for a year, who has been grounded. The pain of the injury, surgery, and post op, is minor compared to the loss of independence. I know its getting better and I know I'll regain my independence, but it's painfully slow in coming. Each day is long, right now... I know as I look back on it, it will seem like a short episode.

Constantly Moving Goal

Recuperating from this injury is hard for a goal oriented person. Imagine playing a football like game where the goal line was constantly moving. I can make estimates about my progress and what to expect -- but these estimates are elastic. Where you thought you might be in four weeks, turns out to be where you ARE at eight weeks. It's hard to plan ahead -- I've just decided to make only short range plans for the next six months. And by short range, I mean what I'm going to do RIGHT NOW -- not tomorrow, not next week, and certainly not next month.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

PART IV: Recovery and Hurdles Along the Way

This section will be in "diary" form and I've included this entry largely for my own perspective, though I hope it will be of interest to others who have had quadriceps tendon repair. It's just my own experience -- if there's anything I've learned it's that each individual progresses at his own pace.

January 16, 2015 "Operation Day"

Early day -- 6:00am at the venue where my surgery would be performed: Texas Orthopedics in northwest Austin. I don't really remember much about this day other than they knocked me out and when I came to, I had a big bandage on my right leg. I had opted for a "nerve block", so I could feel absolutely no pain at the incision. Somehow, Dana managed to get me piled back in the car, and we picked up the prescribed pain meds on the way home -- Hydrocodone for pain, and Diazepam for potential muscle spasms. I was pretty much out for the day.

January 17, 2015 "The Day After"

I slept... the nerve block was still in effect so I didn't really need pain meds. However, I couldn't get up easily, though this is just something you learn as you go along. I actually had to have a PT person come out to show me such tricks as getting up out of a chair, going down and up a single stair (our house has TWO of these small steps.)

January 18, 2015 "Fun (or NOT) with Diazepam"

The nerve block began expiring. Post op instructions said to try to stay "ahead of the pain". So... I tried. However, I soon learned that Hydrocodone and I do NOT agree on many things. I don't have the nausea that many people complain of, but did have the following: rash, itching, drowsiness, depression, and BIG time issues with NUMBER 2. Ouch...

When my leg began twitching, I added the diazepam to the mix. Turns out, I also experience many of the side effects of this drug, too -- particularly "impaired motor functions", "impaired coordination", "impaired balance", and, apparently a touch of the "anterograde amnesia", since I really can't remember much from the days I took diazepam.

Unfortunately, this kept me off my feet (on the walker) for a couple of days... who needs a setback at this point in recovery.

January 26, 2015 "Learning to Scoot"

I had my first follow-up appointment with the Orthopedic Surgeon. They removed the staples and said the incision was healing well. My mobility at this point is still "light toe touch" on the walker.

Let me tell you... getting 20 feet on a walker with "light toe touch" is an athletic feat. My triceps will be good and strong after this, even if everything else is completely gone to pot.

The plan was to begin early PT around February 9. I was eager to continue down the road to rehab.

February 2, 2015 "Pain in the Ankle"

I began having severe pain in my right calf. By Thursday, the pain was so intense that I had trouble making the 20 foot trip to the bathroom.

February 5 - Feb 10, 2015 "Six Days on the Road"

The calf pain was worse... I called Texas Orthopedics. My surgeon's physician's assistant told me to go to ARA (Austin Radiological Association) for a ultrasound on my leg... N O W. So... we piled into the car.

I figured that they'd do a test... tell me everything was fine... go home and bite my lip. But... this is NOT what happened!

Instead, they told me that I had developed major blood clots in my femoral vein and multiple pulmonary clots. Serious stuff. They told me to go immediately to ER. We did, and I went from ER to ICU where stayed for the next three days.

I was first told that the pulmonary clots were the most dangerous and that they were planning to do a "procedure" to stick some sort of tube down my neck into my lungs, then pump a drug (something like this link) to break up the blood clots.

However, after the radiologist reviewed the CT Scan, the physician in charge decided the pulmonary clots were too small to be dangerous and that they should perform the "tPA" procedure on my leg... let the body take care of the pulmonary clots.

They did something to desensitize my leg, and gave me some mild sedative. First in was a "portal" about the size of a coffee stirrer into a vein in the back of my leg. Through this, they threaded three IVs (or a XII -- ha ha) into the vein. One tube carried the tBA (the clot busting substance"; a second was an Ultra Sonic carrier -- high frequency vibrations; and, the third was a saline cooling solution to keep the Ultra Sonic motion from overheating my body. All this was guided in real time via an X-Ray display. When the tubes were all inserted, I could still see two of the captured images on the displays -- one of my hip joint, and the area in the femoral vein where the largest part of the clot resided. The other image was just below the knee, the portal insertion joint.

The attending physician, Dr. Poley, told Dana that I'd slept through the whole thing. I'm glad that I fooled them... I was awake for the whole thing!

From Radiology, I was moved back to ICU. Seton has some good staff... attending nurses (Travis, Josh), clinical assistants, and attending physicians (Dr. Kalyanaswamy... pronounced exactly as it's spelled) were really good, friendly, responsive to questions, and informative. This is good -- I was to keep my leg immobile for at least 24 hours.

Sometime during the night after this procedure, the insertion point began oozing blood -- not just a little bit. I mean it was pooling on the floor. The nurse on duty, Josh, was, I'm sure, alarmed. However, he immediately called the company that provides the equipment for this procedure, and managed to reach Dr. Poley. It turns out, although it's not what they intend, it's not unusual. Keep in mind, the insertion portal was like a coffee stirrer or small soda straw. So... .they just cleaned, changed pads under the leg, until morning when the redressed the leg.

Late in the morning or early afternoon, the opted to inspect the progress. I was taken back to the same (or similar) radiology lab, where they examined the blood clot. Once again, I was sedated, but awake, and I heard a round of "look at that!" from all the staff. Turns out, this was the GOOD response... the clot was largely dissolved and full circulation was restored to my leg. They pulled the entire apparatus out. Before closing the portal, the sent a "stint" up the vein (similar to how they do the heart thing), to help clean the vein. Back to ICU... until Sunday when they moved me up to the orthopedics wing for recovery. Much better... much MUCH better.

I still had a couple of days to spend in IMC (intermediate care) while they fed me Heparin, a powerful anti-coagulant, and monitored my blood by withdrawing copious quantities from a dozen or so pin pricks in my left arm.

I'm glad they were doing all this, but what I can tolerate five, six, seven... maybe even eight times... becomes REALLY irritating the fifteenth or twentieth times! Yikes... what do they do with all that blood?

Finally, on Tuesday morning, Dr. K (what they call Dr. Kalyanaswamy) came by... I asked when I might be released. She said, "This morning... in about an hour." I have to admit, it brought tears of joy to my eyes... I immediately called Dana. She was caught off-guard, but was equally as happy as I.

My advice... Seton is a really good hospital, and the people are very nice and seemingly quite competent. However -- DON'T GET STUFF THAT MAKES YOU WIND UP IN THE HOSPITAL. "Out of the" is a much better relationship to the hospital than "in the".

I'll be taking a blood thinner for probably 3 to 6 months, and this is not without issues. But this is a relatively new drug call Xarelto and doesn't involve dietary restrictions or constant dose monitoring and dose alteration like the alternative, Coumadin. Unfortunately, being new to the market and sold only under the brand name, Xarelto is also expensive.

A really proactive and energetic social services person at Seton, Emily, found me a card that would cover the first 15 days of Xarelto, for which Walgreens was asking $565. THANK YOU EMILY!!!

Walgreens, by the way, was less than helpful about anything. As a result, we had the prescription transferred to Costco where, as in every other aspect of Costco's operation, the pharmacy staff was very helpful. Also, for the same prescription that Walgreens would charge me $565, Costco would have charged about $300. So... next time you start to go to Walgreens, think twice. Go to Costco -- if you don't have a membership, GET ONE!

So... out of the hospital... .home... back to learning to walk again!

February 12 "Checkup"

I had my first post-hospital appointment with my primary care physician. I had written down all my questions -- the most important of which was, "Can I re-start rehab on my leg?" The answer was affirmative... if I could have jumped up and click my heels, I would have. Oh happy day.

Possibly the most interesting aspect of my trip to Austin Diagnostic Clinic was getting from the car (Dana let me off at the circle drive entrance while she parked) to the doctor's office on the 2nd floor.

I told Dana that I'd meet her inside. My means of locomotion is a walker, an alternative to crutches which I just don't trust -- I mean, why not a pogo stick?

However, moving with a walker when you're restricted to "light toe touch" on one leg is physically demanding. You take a step on the good leg, then lift yourself fully off the ground with your triceps, lightly touch the toe, and quickly again support yourself on the good foot. Although I know much of my body has suffered from this whole event -- obviously, I have not been able to play racquetball -- my triceps will be powerful. Going the 200 or so feet from the entrance to the office was exhausting. Thankfully, Dana found a wheel chair and I got a free ride for about half the distance. There's got to be a better way, you would think.

February 16 "Learning to Bend"

For my visit to my orthopedic surgeon, I was rewarded by the loosening of my leg brace to 30 degrees flexation, and no lock on extension. And, the big thing... I can place full weight on the "bad" leg. Instead of hitching along on the walker, I can move normally -- the walker just serves as protection. I've been running laps inside the house -- currently trying to get 200 - 250 steps a day.

Also, I began Physical Therapy (PT) on February 20. I selected Austin Physical Therapy Specialists... I read good Yelp reviews, and the office is very close to my house -- within walking distance... er, if I could actually walk.

March 1 and March 2 "Return to the Stage"

I played my gigs on March 1 (Jim's Country Jam) and March 2 (The White Horse). I refuse to use a walker to get into a gig. I had human crutches. Since I can walk reasonably well, albeit slowly, I just needed reliable support, similar to what's provided by the walker. My wife and I practiced at home for several days before the gigs.

Of course, the tricky part is stairs. At the March 1 gig, there is a flat path into the venue, but three relatively steep steps onto the stage. Going UP is easy -- good leg on the step, raise and plant the bad leg. Going DOWN is harder... bad leg leads and there's a tendency to flex and support with the weak quadriceps. This was a preview a feeling I'll probably fight for months, if not years, to come -- this is how my leg was injured in the first place... going down stairs.

The other challenge to playing gigs is that I have very little stamina. Even sitting on a chair, playing and singing uses considerable energy. As of March 3, after these two gigs, short as they were, I'm pretty exhausted. I'm playing only 9 shows in March 2015 as compared to 29 shows in March 2014. I'm not sure when I might feel like working more.... I'll just take it day by day.

March 3 "Walk In PT"

Today was my fifth PT session. A session consists of:

1. Electro-stimulus. They attach four electrodes to above and below, on each side of my knee. A current passes between the electrodes that automatically contracts the muscles surrounding the knee. It feels much like allowing a pack of crazed, microscopic gerbils to run wild under your skin. It doesn't really hurt -- but it's a little disquieting. And it really does feel good when it stops.

2. Deep message of the quadriceps. Since the muscle is partially atrophied, this can be painful -- but I'm sure this is vitally essential at this point to prevent adhesion and to promote circulation.

3. Ankle Pumps. This is a seemingly trivial, but very important exercise. You just elevate your feet, dangle your heels over the edge of the support, and wiggle your foot. It helps to reduce swelling and to prevent blod clots -- I sure don't need any more of those! I'm doing a set of 30 at least twice a day.

4. Quad Sets. This exercise consist of flexing the quadriceps muscle, just short of the pain threshold. Again, I'm doing these daily, twice daily, 30 reps holding for 5 seconds each.

5. Squeezing ball between my knees. I don't know the name of this exercise, however, it's the one exercise that makes me feel a little lactic acid buildup -- a good burn.

6. Heel raise. Lay back, knee on the riser, high side at the knee -- lift my heel as high as possible, short of pain. It's pretty obvious what this is intended to accomplish, given that this is the primary function of the quadriceps muscles -- extension of the leg.

7. Laser treatment. This helps with the scarring from the incision. It gets a little warm, but it doesn't hurt and it seems to work. The incision is now completely healed. The scar will be there for life -- but it's just another of life's tattoos.