A Video Tribute To Artist David Nelson Fox

David Nelson Fox (1960 - 2016) was a poet, musician, and photographer. We played music together briefly; later I got to know him well in his professional capacity as graphic designer for The Perambulator CD. David was a Renaissance man who spent most of his adult life in the most European of American cities, San Francisco.

Like many Americans, David fell on hard times after 2008. He lost his job, used up his savings, and ended up in a homeless shelter. It was an inconceivable situation for a middle class white dude.

Eventually he moved into low-income housing and found a job, but hitting economic bottom was a turning point in his life. Both he and the city were going through changes hard and fast. He documented it all with images and poetry.

In collaboration with video editor David Lawrence, (mutual friend and former bandmate), here’s a sampling of photography by David Nelson Fox.

Over several decades, many small journals published David’s poetry. His official music career was brief—his band signed to a label, manic touring, then dropped by the label— but not before Frank Zappa saw him playing bass in Virginia and flew him out to the West Coast to audition. He didn’t get that gig, but soon moved to San Francisco and continued to write poetry and play music.

My friend passed away from cancer. He spent his last few months in full artist warrior mode, chronicling everything from diagnosis to dying with brutal, urgent, honesty. It was some of his best work.

For more, please go to his site, Keep Backwards Please, http://davidnelsonfox.blogspot.com

Milo

Rich Bitch Caught On Video

          I recently dipped back into solo theater after a 10 year break. I didn’t make the return any easier by choosing a difficult story to tell. Still, in spite of a few fumbles and stumbles, I feel pretty good about this performance of “Rich Bitch,” a short work-in-progress I did at The Marsh in San Francisco last month. It was one of four pieces presented by Charlie Varon’s students in a workshop show. The video is by Erik Holsinger.

          When I hear my fellow Americans describe our country as “classless” I am always surprised. The American Dream is a story about upward mobility. To unpack the baggage of class is really tough in a culture where money is God.

          I knew I was going to have to examine my own class privilege to tell this story, but I was rudely surprised by the relentless challenges throughout the process. Fortunately, Charlie Varon is a great teacher of autobiographical work. He’s gifted in guiding students into and out of the blind spots, and I’m grateful to him and the class for all their support.

          It’s a well-known paradox among writers that the more personal a story is, the more universal it is. “Rich Bitch” is the story of a friendship that disintegrated over class (money) issues. The running time is 22 minutes, and since I know many people probably won’t have time to watch it, I’ll ask you to consider this instead.

          Is there someone you’ve lost touch with simply because of money issues? Maybe someone you know lost their job, their identity and self esteem too, and they’re struggling to survive in the “safety net.” Or, maybe you know someone whose income skyrocketed, and they’re up there somewhere in the economic stratosphere having weird problems you might only aspire to have.

          Whatever the case, if you miss them in your life, please consider checking in.

          There are many legitimate reasons to break away from people. But fear, envy, or embarrassment often can be manageable emotions. Can the issues be worked through? It might be worth trying.

          In this age of serious political and economic upheaval, Gloria Steinem’s axiom still holds true. “The personal is political.” Even small actions can have large consequences.

          Hey, if all of us good guys can stick together, the bad guys will not win!

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Milo

"Rich Bitch" Debuts Jan 23rd

            I’m back doing solo theater! On Jan. 23rd at 7:30pm, I’ll present Rich Bitch, a work-in-progress, as part of an evening of short pieces by fellow classmates in Charlie Varon’s Solo Performance Workshop.

            Featuring Bobbie Becker, Carrie Kartman, and Evelyn Jean Pine, the show is a varied, intriguing collection of personal stories.

            Please note the location is in the upstairs theater at 1074 Valencia @ 22nd. Tickets are $8. The closest BART is 24th & Mission, and there’s parking at the New Mission Bartlett Garage at 90 Bartlett.

            I spent over a decade doing this sort of thing in LA. It’s been fascinating to get back into gear. The engine is purring like a kitten now!

See you there!

Milo

For more information, visit The Marsh's website here.

The Muse

            He placed the shiny disc right in front of my face as I sat on the couch. “Maybe you can write a song?”

            It was a freshly burned CD of instrumental versions of songs by one of his old bands. He knew I’d been taking music classes for a while, that I disliked singing only backup vocals in the group we’d just started. It was 2008. The CD glimmered at me.

            I did take Mark Zanandrea’s suggestion and write a song. It wasn’t very good. I wrote some better ones, recorded them, and these tracks became The Perambulator. Throughout the seven-year process Mark was my songwriting coach, guitarist, co-producer, and muse.

            We met 40 years ago in high school. He had an athletic build but wore glasses and his personality was half poet, half nerd. Just like me! We bonded in that inseparable teenage misfit way, commiserating over acne, wearing glasses, mean parents, and weird classmates while doing bong loads and listening to records in my room for hours and hours. We survived an awkward teenage love affair and stayed close friends. In our 20’s we hit the clubs and crawled around San Francisco’s dark underbelly together. We remained lifelong friends for 2 more decades until some odd twists of fate impelled us to take a second chance on love 10 years ago.

            One of the high school classes we had together was Creative Writing. I always wrote in the free verse style popular at the time. Mark, on the other hand, was more experimental, often writing enigmatic content in rhyming couplets. Nobody noticed he was writing song lyrics, which seems very odd to us now.

            Mark went on to write dozens of songs in different styles for many bands- The Cat Heads, X-Tal, The Androgynauts, It Thing, to name a few, as well of course to play guitar, sing, and co-produce. When one of my own humble ditties moved into the polishing phase I’d show it to him. And I discovered my dear friend and love was not going to hold my hand. In fact, here came the “Lyric Police” to bust me.

            “You can’t say that!”
            “Why not?”
            “It’s bad writing. It’s lazy writing! Find a better word!”

            I remember when Mark started learning guitar at 20. He said he would never be any good because he’d started so late. He played in the dark till his fingers bled. He got better. When it came time to play my songs we had a fine time sitting around trying out pedals and tones and riffs. I so appreciated his attention and versatility as a musician. I even let him use an ancient pedal forbidden him by every other band. “It sounds like ass,” had been the consensus forever. Actually it sounds like a keyboard and he used it on the cover of A Certain Guy. We found it delightful.

            Those formative years spent listening to music together... Beatles, Velvet Underground, The Band, Hendrix, Pere Ubu, Neil Diamond, Stevie Wonder, Iggy Pop, New York Dolls, Stones, Kinks, Donovan, Melanie, Neil Young, Bowie, etc. gave us a shorthand.

            “I can take this guitar in either a Roxy or Stones direction But then there’s this little Bolan thing too...”

            “How about you Manzanera the verses and do a Keith Bolan riff on the choruses?” What would make the bridge more Roxy-ish?”

            Mark’s co-producing role was to answer that sort of question over and over again for each song and sometimes song sections. Then I would go off, work with people, come back a year later and play him a rough mix. Most of the time he just said, “Good job!”

            Eventually we started tinkering with the M-Tron, software dear to Mark’s heart that replicates the Mellotron. We needed it to add orchestral arrangements and flourishes here and there. (The hell with more cowbell, give me vintage violins!) He did a few parts then told me I was on my own for the rest. I was devastated. How could I ever do anything as good as him? I spent hours upon hours struggling away. In the process I named my home studio Thousand Monkeys because all the monkeys were in me and eventually one of them would get something right. I didn't come up with anything brilliant, but I surprised myself with some of my keyboard arrangements and parts. Maybe I did not need my hand held after all.

            Dear muse, teacher, co-conspirator... thank you! I’m looking forward to another 40 years! 

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Milo

Farewell Assassins!

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          In stand-up comedy the expression “to kill” means to bring down the house. I was thinking of that when I formed Milo & The Assassins as a temporary band to play a couple of album release shows. Some appreciation is now due these adorable mercenaries. 

Erik Ian Walker

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          I could easily devote a whole blog to Erik-- everything he brought to the album and taught me in the band. When I began the album five years ago I came to him needing an instrumental track of one song, Look Away, so I could practice singing it. I had tried 3 different piano players and none of them could play it right. I was starting to think something was wrong with the song. Erik sat down and played exactly what I’d been hearing in my head. When I expressed my pleased astonishment, he said suavely, “I’m a rock guy.” He is so much more than a rock guy. Erik and his ensemble will perform his experimental composition evoking climate change at the multimedia Climate Music Project on Nov. 12th at the Green Fest at 5 p.m. on Pier 35. Click here to learn more about Green Fest.

Gary Hobish

          Decades ago, when I was going to SF State, I dated a bass player in a punk band. I can still hear the reverence in his voice when he spoke of “Gary Hobish of The Jars.” Flash forward to Erik and my engineer both recommending the one and same Gary Hobish to master The Perambulator in his professional capacity at A. Hammer Mastering. During our session Gary said he really liked the album. When I asked him later if he knew of a bass player for the release shows, I secretly hoped he would volunteer himself. Never mind my middle name, Gary brought considerable star power to The Assassins. While he continues to work at A. Hammer Mastering, his band True Margrit is finishing their next album, Comforting The Castaways, plus Gary is starting to play gigs with The Luminous Newts, with a double gig with True Margrit and The Luminous Newts at Ohmega Salvage on November 13th

Sean Griffin

          I wanted to do a few open mics prior to the release show and Sean cheerfully agreed to accompany me. Alas, we did not prepare very well and got into trouble, making not only your average run-of-the-mill mistakes but also some really strange mistakes. However, I must confess that after being so precise and hyper-vigilant throughout the entire album production process it was kind of fun to let go and screw up a little. Isn’t that part of rock ‘n’ roll? We then rehearsed like fiends and killed at the next open mic. Sean continues to work on original material and play guitar with his band Dead Snake Revival. 

Janet Roitz

          Janet is what is known in show biz as a “triple threat”— an accomplished singer, actor, and dancer. She can out-sing me any day! I loved having a female Assassin.  Only Janet was going to yak about costumes and make-up with me. As a result of her blogs and videos on her site Fabulous Film Songs, Janet was recently honored with a commission by the family of Warner Brothers staff songwriter M.K. Jerome to record new arrangements of several of his songs originally featured in classic films. She also continues to record as part of the duo Tumble & Ruff for Pop Song of the Month Club-- which can be found here on YouTube. 

Chris Gamper

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          Such an accomplished drummer that on a couple of songs I actually had to say, “Play stupider, you’re overthinking this.” Chris can’t help being smart. Music links up both sides of your brain and he plays in 5 bands. A sampling of genres: Alt rock with Cure For Gravity, having their CD Release event on 11.25 at The Ivy Room. Groove/funk/jazz with Hop Sauce, now playing the fourth Sunday of every month at Cato's Alehouse in Oakland. Jazz with The Fourtet playing second Friday of every month at Caffe Trieste, Berkeley.

Farewell Assassins! See ya 'round town! 

Milo

Photos by L. Herrada-Rios.

Last Chance To See Milo & The Assassins on October 16th!

          Some months ago I had a hunch that just one show would not be enough. Happily, Milo & The Assassins have a second and final show at Doc’s Lab on October 16th. Would you like me to give you 5 reasons to come out? Okay!

  1. It’s your only chance to hear the songs from my album The Perambulator, a studio project, accurately brought to life. And it’s going to be a long time before I assemble this many top caliber musicians for any live performance project.
  2. In effect, it’s a second album release celebration for those who missed the Hotel Utah show. I’ll have CD’s for sale, plus surprise swag (goodies).
  3. The other bands on the bill are terrific! True Margrit is an established Bay Area pop trio with skillful songwriting and catchy melodies. Goggy, celebrating their EP release, is True Margrit’s Margrit Eichler’s solo project and features the same almost impossible-to-achieve balance of intelligence and fun.
  4. Doc’s Lab. It’s the old Purple Onion, extensively remodeled. My parents used to hang out there in the 50’s and I love the fact I’ll be playing a room they used to frequent. Now upscale, quite posh, it’s still an intimate cellar nightclub. The sound is excellent with a bar menu from the highly rated restaurant upstairs, Doc Ricketts. I’m confident the ghosts from yesteryear are pleased.
  5.  Take a North Beach micro-vacation. Many of us locals dismiss North Beach, but in October the weather will be fine and the tourists gone. City Lights is just across the street from Doc’s. Washington Square, Coit Tower, and many of the great restaurants you remember are still there. On Sunday the meters are free and there’s a parking structure right nearby Doc’s Lab.

So mark your calendars and we’ll see you there!

Milo

Second Show Announced!

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Milo & The Assassins play at Doc’s Lab in North Beach on October 16th at the EP release party for Goggy. We are deliciously sandwiched between Goggy, Margrit Eichler’s solo project, and the full band of True Margrit.

Doc’s Lab is the old Purple Onion. Yes, that same Purple Onion where Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, The Smothers Brothers plus many others performed in the 50’s and 60’s and later in the 90’s featured garage rockers like Brian Jonestown Massacre. Although still an intimate cellar club, the venue’s had an extensive makeover, reborn posh, with great sound, fabulous bar, and food from the excellent Doc Ricketts restaurant upstairs. I sense the ghosts from those old days are friendly and love the idea of playing in a space my parents went before I was born.

More info-- showtimes and ticket links-- to follow!

Assassins Update:

Janet Roitz will be singing backing vocals. A triple threat—actor, singer, dancer—Janet has performed at ACT and the Magic Theater, teaches dance at ODC, and is one half of the musical duo Tumble & Ruff, sending out one vintage tune per month to members of the Pop Song of the Month Club. She’s also video producer of the series, “Ladies of the Nightclubs,” and you can find out more on her site, http://www.fabulousfilmsongs.com, a resource all lovers of Hollywood’s Golden Age should know about.

Drummer Eddie Berman had to bow out, and our new drummer is Chris Gamper. Chris is an amazing, versatile musician. Other bands he’s in now include Sugar Shack and Hop Sauce and his second jazz CD comes out this fall. 

That’s all for now. Rehearsals are sounding great! See you at the album release party with It Thing at the Hotel Utah on Sept. 16th or at Doc’s Lab on Oct. 16th.

Milo

It Thing Eats My Blog

Interview With Mark Zanandrea

What’s the difference between Kensington Way on CD and Kensington Way Revisited on vinyl?

       To my ears, there’s a big difference, though a casual listener might not notice all the changes. The CD was a purge of absolutely everything we had recorded. There was no editing, so it rambled and meandered far too much. It was too long! There were also some mixes I wasn’t happy with. So it needed about a half dozen remixes and some serious editing.

       On top of that, I simply don’t find CDs as pleasurable a listening experience as vinyl, so I took it down to Nashville and remastered it with Nick Davis at etown records. He built a really nice compressor from scratch that we used. It makes this record something I would happily give a friend, whereas I have a fantasy of finding all the CDs and destroying them.

What options do we have to buy the album? What about listening online?

       You can listen to the whole thing on YouTube. Of course, as a sales tactic, the video has limited fidelity, so if someone really likes it, they need to buy the vinyl. Etown records has it here.

You and Mel (Melanie Clarin DeGiovanni) are such a great team. What’s the history of your collaboration? How do the two of you work together?

       Melanie and I have been playing together since the 80’s, starting with The Catheads! I loved the way she always listened to, and complimented, the songs. After The Catheads broke up, Mel and I continued with It Thing. We have a stringent policy of recording one album per millennium.

       I think there’s a natural chemistry when we collaborate. I write most of the songs, but she does a great job of actually making them listenable. She’s also a natural at harmonies, which I’m terrible at. One of the impressive things to understand about her contributions is the way she can so quickly flesh out my ideas. All the basic tracks on the album are first takes! And that’s not after weeks, or even days, of rehearsal. I’d send her a demo, she’d listen to it, come over and say how about this? We’d run through it once or twice in my living room, and then record it directly onto my cassette deck. A few times I asked to try it again in a slightly different way, but she was always right the first time, so I always used the first take.

What about the other band members, Josh Housh and Ray Halliday?

       I’ve known both of them for years. Josh was a natural choice for me, because, while he does like to rock out and make noise, he can also rein it in and have a gentle touch. That’s very important to me. He turned out to be a perfect choice- very musical, and another great harmonist. Ray wasn’t on the album but I wanted a fuller sound for the live shows.

       I was briefly in Ray’s band, The Buckets. He’s a great songwriter. And a ham. I hope to get them both to contribute more, but right now they’re just following my lead.

What was your experience like co-producing my album The Perambulator? What do you think was your most significant contribution?

       It was fun being able to produce without being fully responsible for the outcome. It gave me a chance to listen to your material and say “Well, you know what I would do...” and then just fantasize the song through a particular genre- Which is right in my wheelhouse. Hopefully my most significant contribution was being able to help develop the sound and feel of the songs, without getting in the way of the songs.

What’s next?
       A series of essays? Or maybe I’ll take up drawing, simply because I’m so terrible at it. 

Milo

Dual ALBUM RELEASE PARTY with It Thing on 9/16

        I’m delighted to invite you to celebrate the release of my album, The Perambulator, PLUS the new vinyl album by Mark Zanandrea’s band It Thing, Kensington Way Revisited, at our Dual Album Release Party at the Hotel Utah on 9/16/16, also featuring Bernie Jungle. 

         Mark was my co-producer and guitarist, and the timing worked out perfectly to have one big party with It Thing as headliner. Critically acclaimed East Bay singer/songwriter Bernie Jungle opens the show. It’s going to be a fabulous night. Here are 5 reasons to come!

  1. My killer band, described in April’s blog, comprised of Erik Walker, Sean Yarbrough, Gary Hobish, Eddie Berman, and Janet Roitz. I wanted to call us Milo Starr Johnson & the Hired Assassins, but it was too long. So we are just Milo and the Assassins, playing most of the songs from the album plus one new tune-- a punchy set of rock ‘n’ roll cabaret!
  2. It Thing. For those that remember The Catheads with Mark Zanandrea and Melanie DeGiovanni (née Clarin), no more needs to be said. For the rest, if you enjoy electric folk, art pop, and dumbshit rock, well, please just come to the show. I will have more to say in my July blog before I hand it over to Mark to talk about Kensington Way Revisited. More about It Thing here http://www.catheads.com/it_thing.html and here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=847eLPReVqI
  3. Singer/songwriter Bernie Jungle. The East Bay Express calls his songs “lyrically phenomenal.” http://berniejungle.com
  4. Shiny objects...Vinyl records, CD’s and other merchandise will be for sale directly from the artists!
  5. Gustatory delights... The Hotel Utah has a great selection of beers, wines, and tasty food. http://www.hotelutah.com

So mark your calendars and we’ll see you there! 

Milo

One Righteous Dude

 
 

        When I first looked at Matt Cohen's website I felt concerned his engineering might make my material sound too slick. I sent him some demos. He emailed back saying how much he loved Vampire Daddy, the garage rock homage to The Cramps. Very reassuring.

        Our first meeting was in a café in December 2012. Generally a stay-at-home dad, he was very apologetic that he had to bring his young son along. But the meeting went well and the kid was cool— which usually means the parent is, too.

        After a few sessions I decided Matt should be a co-producer, with more creative input. He arranged many instrumental sections on the album and was decisive about my vocals when I could not be. He egged me on like a little brother (he’s actually about the same age as my step-brother) on the punk/J-pop vocal of A Certain Guy.

        Then there are those jobs only engineers love. I brought in a music sample for the end of Family Album. It was too fast but I really liked it. So did Matt. He enthusiastically chopped it up into a zillion digital pieces, copied and pasted them, and put it back together in the same tempo as the song.

        His many skills include drumming, playing bass and guitar, and profanity. One day I read him a whiny email from one of the musicians and he erupted, “What a fucking dick! You can tell that bastard to suck my cock. Tell him to suck your cock, too! Asshole... Fuck him and fuck his shit.”

        When my father became seriously ill I got depressed and didn’t want to think about the album. Production stopped for a few months. Then I saw this email from Matt. “How’s your Dad? Isn’t it about time we got the fuck back to work?”

        And I should also say that he plays excellent bass throughout The Perambulator.

        Matt and I grew up in the same area near San Francisco. So even though we're a decade apart, we still use the same California slang. For sure, Matt Cohen is one righteous dude, an awesome engineer, and totally rad producer. 

 

Milo

 

Got A Band

 
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        I’m excited to announce the lineup of musicians for the September release party! The Perambulator began as a demo then bloomed into a full album but it was always a studio project with many bells, whistles, and hard- to-pin-down musicians. I always knew assembling the ensemble to play the party would be a challenge.

 
 

        Erik Ian Walker’s piano and keyboards helped define my album’s overall sound, so I’m delighted that he will be playing in the party band. Erik is my favorite kind of artist- classically trained but still ready and willing to rock and roll. Although juggling myriad projects, including the stunning, experimental Climate Music Project, he agreed to play my humble ditties, and for that I am grateful.

 
 

        Eddie Berman played drums on most of the tracks on The Perambulator. A great drummer and one of the nicest guys around, he was on board for playing the party show from the very beginning. Eddie’s played in many bands since starting out in the 70’s Bay Area punk scene with No Sisters and more recently in The Unauthorized Rolling Stones.

 
 

        I met the legendary Gary Hobish (bass guitar) when he mastered The Perambulator in his professional capacity at A. Hammer Mastering. During our session he kept saying, “I really like what I’m hearing.” I guess he did, because when I asked him for referrals for musicians to play the party, he volunteered himself! Like Eddie, Gary’s roots go back to the local 70’s punk scene when he was in The Jars. Since then he’s played bass for many years with the critically acclaimed band True Margrit.

 
 

        On guitar is Sean Griffin, a Bay Area native like me. Sean was a founding member of Black Pole (Afropunk) and Bettie Black (glam/goth), and also played in Unity 5 (Brazilian/reggae) and The Liz Anah Band (americana). Now he’s studying jazz. My quest for a guitarist versatile enough to play the different styles on my album ended when I met Sean.

        All that’s left are a couple of background singers and we are good to go. It’s gonna be a great party in September! Although it might not sound precisely like the album... Hey- it could even sound better!

Milo

Love & Gratitude

     

     I’m receiving many positive words about the album− from people I know well to those I don’t know at all.

     It’s been a beautiful experience and I want to hug everybody and say, “Yay! Thank you!”

     Here are a few of my favorite comments. This came via snail mail during the holidays from someone I hardly know.

Dear Milo,

What a great CD... Amazing lyrics. Each song is unique and I love the order. Starting with Look Away was really great. Wishing you Happy Holidays! Wishing all of us more MSJ albums!

     An old high school pal bought a CD. We went through many changes together before drifting apart. Recently she wrote me this email.

Dear Milo,
I've really been enjoying your CD so much... it's so accomplished, you sound great, the music is great, and each song is so much of a story. Listening to it feels like going on a journey through your life. Well done!

     And there was this Facebook comment from an old acquaintance, a fellow writer and musician. We toiled together at a film and theater bookshop in LA while struggling to break into the film business.

Milo, I L-O-V-E "The Perambulator" !!!!!!!!
Every track is a dream. Honestly, I don't give compliments easily... YOU ROCK !!!

     My absolute favorite comment so far− and perhaps my favorite of all time− is what he wrote next in a message.

As usual, because you are a friend I'm looking for a reason why you SUCK, but I can't find a single thing. --This is a Great Album !!!

Milo

(P.S.) The painting above is a new work by my former neighbor and dear pal Bob Branaman, an original member of the Beat Generation. He did the cover art for the album.)

Trini Lopez & The Fire Bird Suite

    My earliest memories of music involve the living room of our house in the Oakland hills.  As a very young child, going down the few steps into the room, I could go left to the “Hi-Fi,” the state-of-the-art stereo system, or to the right, toward the upright piano my mother played.

    I remember the smell of the stereo. It likely had a tube amp, and the cabinet wood was well polished. I remember a warm, buttery, electric smell, and I remember standing with my palms on the material covering the speakers. It was a coarse, bumpy material, brown and black and threaded with gold. I remember sounds washing past my hands, over me, through me. I wondered why I could not see such an amazing thing. I tried: staring hard, looking all around, glancing sideways, even looking away to glance back quickly—but I could not see any trace.

    I was thrilled by the sounds. I felt transported somewhere else although I knew I was still in the living room. My parents probably fed me mostly classical music when I was very young, although between them there as a range of tastes including jazz, blues, hillbilly, folk, early rock’n’roll and the current commercial pop music. I heard all of it.

    I watched my mother play the piano. She also sang in a pretty soprano. It overwhelmed me that she could just sit down and figure out a song from the radio. This was god-like to me. My father was not musical, but he was a great appreciator and loved giving new music a listen. My parents were not happily married; my mother suffered from bouts of depression but music was therapeutic for her. I watched her play and sing; occasionally she would play and cry.  Sometimes she got stuck on a song, I remember her playing and singing “Try to Remember” from The Fantasticks endlessly. Usually she seemed happier when she finished playing, but once in a while she would stop in tears, slam down the lid, and walk away.

    Sometimes I climbed onto the piano bench and played with the keys. I would touch one note and listen to it die away into silence or mash away on as many keys as possible making a hideous racket. I’ll give my mother credit that she rarely yelled at me to stop. She was adamant that I be allowed to express my creativity. Indeed, I had art camps and outposts of mess all over the house and outside.

    At 4 I began taking ballet. Some of my happiest childhood memories are of dancing around the house and outside in various costumes. I preferred capes to tutus, especially a Batman cape that I wore to shreds. A little later, around the age of 5, I was given a record player. I wanted to play music and the stereo was off limits. Now I could explore all my parents’ records on my own, sitting, listening, poring over album covers and sleeves in my main art camp in the living room by a window across from the piano. When I danced I embodied the emotions I heard in the music, and if there were lyrics I acted out the stories. Since I had no brothers and sisters, I was on my own. I had some great children’s albums—including Peter and The Wolf, which I adored.

    I was fond of dancing to Tchaikovsky and Trini Lopez. I struggled with Stravinsky. Had it not been for the beautiful album cover art I would’ve given up on The Firebird Suite.  But I loved gazing at the album as the music played. I would imagine the Firebird coming to play with me, and showing me how to dance to this music.

    By the mid 1960’s some very interesting looking LP’s and 45’s—The Beatles, Jefferson Airplane, Bob Dylan, The Beach Boys—were appearing in the household record collection. I took them over to my record player and listened to them all. I was listening to KFRC, the local San Francisco music station, and watching Ed Sullivan and American Bandstand. The Sixties music tsunami was underway!

Milo

The Poster Child for Adult Education

My school, the San Francisco Community Music Center, ran this story about me, my teacher Jono Kornfeld, and my ”musical journey” in their December newsletter. Although the word “journey” bugs me because of its New Agey connotation, making The Perambulator did have its mythic moments and epic twists and turns. I’d like to share a few things I learned when I first embarked into the study of music.

I wanted to study music as a child, as a teen, in my 20’s —always— but when did I actually start? In my forties. I’m grateful I finally got over myself and did it. First lesson: It’s too easy to postpone your life away.

Although as an actress I’d been able to carry a tune when in character, I’d always been afraid to sing in my natural voice. The first singing teacher I happened to find was perfect: a mommy-type personality, nurturing, encouraging, unconditionally supportive. Eventually I realized I needed someone tougher, so I moved on to a coach who compelled me to reach a professional level. However, when I took up the guitar I had no luck at all in finding a suitable teacher. I ended up with overuse injuries and had to put the instrument down for years. I recently found a wonderful online instructor—inexpensive and mindful of the dangers of overuse. I wish I’d spent less time playing and more time looking. Second lesson: Finding the right teacher is crucial.

In the beginning when I practiced singing my cat would always run out the door. Several years passed. Then one day I started doing my scales, and instead of bolting outside in disgust she came over and curled up on top of my feet, purring. I knew I was getting better then! As my father the professor liked to say, “Making mistakes is how we learn.” We need to accept that for a very long, uncomfortable time our musical expressions will be sadly below par and only fortitude and diligent practice can change that fact. Third lesson: Be process oriented, not results oriented. In the common parlance: Learn not to care that you suck.    

Making music is a time consuming, athletic activity. Some years back I was studying piano, guitar, and voice. Overwhelmed with material and songs to practice, I actually felt fleeting and absurd envy toward the little kids at the school because they didn’t have to go home and make dinner! Then I discovered that if I spent about 80% of my time on the difficult sections and the rest just running through the songs it took much less time to improve noticeably (plus was easier on my body). When I told my teachers this they scowled and expressed skepticism but could not deny the good results. I realized the only edge adult students have over younger ones is wisdom. So I began to ask more questions, developed better listening skills, and continued to refine my rehearsal process. I also learned how to rest. Fourth lesson: Use wisdom to transform limitations into strengths.

As I’ve said elsewhere, I like to think of myself as a “musical Julia Child” because like her I did not discover my true calling until middle age. (Julia Child started cooking in her 40’s and began her TV career in her 50’s.) In an interview she once said that she always felt about 6 years old. To me, that means joyful, curious, fiercely connected… with a sense of wonder. When we follow our dreams, even the smallest, most modest of whims, we connect with the 6 year-old residing within each of us. And I’m not necessarily talking about some massive creative endeavor. Six years old? Maybe a batch of cookies or a long walk outside.

Don’t postpone your life.

Milo

Inspiration

 
Photo by David Nelson Fox.

Photo by David Nelson Fox.

 

What I like best about music is that I do not begin with words. Or a problem, conflict, or even an idea!

When I was a teenager I wrote the standard bad teenage poetry, translating my angst and anger into words. I wrote for my high school paper; as an editor I dealt with the words of others. I wrote so many essays in college—oh, I got totally fed up with writing essays! Later I wrote several screenplays and skits. Writing drama for me is like having a courtroom trial happening in my mind, characters are making their cases with evidence being analyzed and discussed. My stand-up comedy routines were crafted litanies of complaints, my solo theater shows mostly monologues. In all these media, I strove to incorporate the visual and auditory whenever, wherever, and however possible. But everything always began with ideas and words.

Not so with music. I sit at the keyboard doodling with notes or strumming the guitar changing chords and rhythm at random. Hearing the sounds, some emotion occurs inside me. Music is the abstract form I’ve been looking for all my life; maybe one day I might know enough to compose a good instrumental.

At the piano or guitar, a scrap of melody emerges. There’s a delicate balance between encouraging and allowing. The scrap may get bigger right away or not. It might just want to be a scrap for a while. I keep playing and listening to it, feeling the emotion, letting it give me its message. A few words come... Many songwriters say the first thing they get is the chorus and that’s usually been my experience, too. I may end up with almost the entire melody before I have a clear idea of what the song is about. Sometimes I know right away. Here’s what happened with a few of the songs.

Look Away— I wrote the beginning of the verse melody when I was 7 years old sitting at my mother’s piano in Oakland. I remembered this when I finished the composition over 40 years later. Because of this I wanted it to be about my family. It was one of the first songs I wrote and I hadn’t learned yet how to simply allow a song to happen. So I kept wrestling. Finally a particular aspect of my family, the love triangle, showed up and hung around. I saw a scene in my mind and gradually took down the dictation.

Family Album—I was strumming away on the guitar in a rhythm that suited my mood, back and forth between 2 chords. These odd, nonsensical instructions that became the chorus started coming into my head. It stayed a fragment for a long while.

The Waiting Song—I’d been strumming the guitar and stopped. Staring into space, feeling grey concrete between my ears, I felt sad and lonely. I was waiting for inspiration and heard only the ticking of the clock. This reminded me of several unhappy past relationships. A chunk of the chorus came, then, because the verses really feed into the choruses, I had a general sense of how the verses should go.

Melt—I had most of the melody but none of the chords yet. I kept playing it, sensing a confession, a feeling of redemption. Suddenly I heard “like the sun” at the top of the chorus. That told me that somewhere in the emotional landscape of the song there was no sun. Okay! I started figuring out the chords and soon realized exactly what the story was-- the story of a particularly good hug I received some years ago. I did not get the sexual double entendre for quite a while.

The moment of inspiration is so exciting! It’s my favorite part of the creative process. I always feel delighted when I start a new song. As the saying goes, “It’s all downhill from here.”

However... the ride will be interesting and definitely full of surprises! 

Milo

The Baby is Here!

The Baby is Here.png

Welcome to milostarrjohnson.com!

I’m a singer/songwriter with a previous incarnation as a solo theater artist. My debut album, The Perambulator is an eclectic collection of original tunes featuring a diverse group of top-notch San Francisco Bay Area musicians. My songs are directly inspired by music I heard growing up in the 60’s and 70’s. Retro, yes, and authentically retro, dammit.

First an album now a blog?

Never planned to do either—life is funny that way. But I love trying new things and hope you do, too. Find out more about the album and my performance background throughout the site and in upcoming blogs, plus future performances of rock’n’roll cabaret. For the past 5 years a rapidly aging person has been sitting around in her bathrobe staring into space sometimes muttering, “Fuck!” However, I guess I really did flesh out some ideas because I made an album.

When you learn how the songs evolved, you may laugh, you may relate—you may even be inspired to go on your own creative adventure or... perambulation.

So stay tuned for my blog posts on the creative process of music-making. All the musicians involved are invited to comment so we should get into some fascinating discussions. The first post will be on Melt, the last track on the album, a psychedelic blues song because—hey man, I was born in San Francisco.

Again, welcome to the new site! Stay in touch by signing up for the mailing last and grab a CD here. 

Milo