Benefit Fatigue

I write this essay on the occasion of 2 “benefit” concerts scheduled here in Austin TX this week. On the face of if they are both extremely worthy causes that I for one would like to see benefit in some way. I am not entirely convinced however that a concert put on to raise funds in the Live Music capital of the World, where people are regularly accustomed to seeing music for free, is the way to best serve these interests. In many respects I think they both illustrate a greater discussion on the effectiveness of such endeavors and ultimately speaks to the motivations of the people behind them.

The first is on November 1st to raise money for local musician Darcie Deaville who is recuperating from the lingering effects of a head concussion, and the second in November 4th ostensibly to benefit the “Don Walser Memorial Fund,” the best explanation of which I’ve been given is to cover expenses associated with his recent passing. For the record, I have been asked to participate in both and I have declined both, however emphasizing my hearty endorsement of both causes. Simply put, I just don’t see how my getting up on a stage at a venue can “benefit” anyone besides my own ego and personal aggrandizement.

True enough, I did indeed fly to Brooklyn NY just last month to play a very similar event for the late German Goldenshteyn. In that case, he had passed away on the eve of the release of his debut recording, robbing his family from the chance of finally reaping some little financial reward from his life as a musician. By putting together a “tribute” band, led by one of his most devoted students, we were able to raise in one concert enough funds to provide him with a proper headstone, and give a little money to his widow. Plans are in the works for this very same group to perform elsewhere, donating the entirety of its performance fees and all sales and royalties of his CD to his widow. My and my compatriots motivations are crystal clear. “Bury the Dead, Protect the widow, educate the Orphan,” literally the creed of the Odd Fellows of which I am presently Noble Grand of my local Lodge.

The motivations behind these two local events, however charitable they may seem at first blush, are not as clear to me however.

A few months ago my old friend and Violin shop fellow employee Darcie Deaville took a bad fall off a ladder in her home. At first she was worried that she had broken her playing hand, which she had in fact, but took little notice that she had beaten her head fully against a thick glass end-table, shattering it. Losing the ability to play for even a few days spells disaster for the self employed musician. Only a few months earlier, Darcie had taken herself off the Violin shop’s health insurance plan, so her she is with her hand broken and now way to make her coin and a stack of medical bills piling up. Eventually, she got good news from her doctors telling her hand would heal nicely and should be back to her usual brilliant fiddling self. However, it was also about that time that she ascertained that she wasn’t thinking “right.” Doctors now tell her she has a concussion or maybe worse.

I actually named this release.
Darcie is a dear friend and a wonderfully gifted musician of great depth and creativity. But I’m certain she wouldn’t mind me saying that I think she’s also kinda nuts, and sometimes a little crazier than that. I’m pretty damn nutty myself sometimes I don’t mind sharing with you, and some of you reading this have seen me go through some mighty disturbing passages of mental illness. From what I can tell, it’s part of the package you get with an artistic nature and a creative bent.

What I mean to say with Darcie’s injury is that I’m not terribly certain whats the head being knocked around and what’s a few glasses of wine on a empty stomach coupled to a lifetime of demons barely held off at bay. A few years back Darcie blew more than a few minds with her one-woman show (Tornado In Slo-Mo) where she speaks frankly and openly about her years of suffering the business end of legion abuses, sexual and psychological. The fact she’s still with us and not in the dirt of a nuthouse after what she’s had to endure is a testament to her force of positive will and the constant cultivation of good energy. I place her among my gallery of person heroes in fact. She mentioned to me for instance that a pal of hers said the fall may have actually some knocked sense in, rather than the other way.

When I was approached to play her benefit concert, I asked the nice lady who called me why she thought anyone would come and see me or one of my bands play. I'm not being coy when I say that literally cannot draw anything close to a crowd in this town and I play regularly in local bars for no cover charge. Did she think that adding my name to a concert bill would amount to any more money coming in? I asked what the goal amount to be raised was and what those funds would be going to? These all seemed like pretty reasonable questions to me, but they really put this gal off her game. She had no good answer, and couldn’t follow my logic about my ability to be helpful. I repeated to her that Darcie is my pal and I’d take a bullet for her, no foolin’, but what exactly did she want from me? The nice lady said she’d get back to me, and to date I ain’t heard from her. In the meantime they have secured appearances from several fine local groups who might actually draw an audience, most notably her former employers the Austin Lounge Lizards.

Granted, they would probably be a better draw if they weren’t doing a two-night stand at the Cactus Café the weekend before, but I guess that goes to motivation. Just why are these people going through this exercise, when the end result is dubious at best? (In the case of the Lizards I’d posit guilt as a likely motivator, but that’s a story for Darcie to tell on her own.)

I am reminded of a long conversation Darcie and I had one late winter night as we were closing up the violin shop. We were relating our financial miseries to one another and bemoaning the need of this day-job, which created some security, it ultimately choked our creative drive. “You know Mark,” she related. “I don’t need any help. I don’t need a handout. I just need to be employed. It’s just as simple as that. I can get by just fine if I would be allowed to do what I do.”

Indeed, maybe these people who so willingly gather publicly to “help” a sister musician, possibly wouldn’t have to be doing so now if they would have only hired her to do her thing in the first place. The fact is Darcie is one of this towns most gifted songwriting instrumentalists, with a unique sound and approach on both guitar and fiddle, two instruments I can tell you it’s nearly impossible to create your own signature sound with. At this very hour she is working on a new recording that is as good a record as I have ever heard, especially in the acoustic music milieu. It is as masterfully played, musically engaging and as down right interesting a project as any Bad Liver album was, if not better. Rather than make a public showing of your “support” at a single nights concert may I humbly suggest that you hire her to play a gig for you, or in your band, or your recording project or heaven forbid, buy one of her many CD’s. That I think would be a real “benefit.” To you mostly, but also to her.

Now the Don Walser show on the other hand is a different can of worms altogether.

On March 10th, 1998, on the occasion of recording a solo record at Don’s home, he told me that he wished for me and his son Al to administer the estate his recordings. I’m not certain he ever followed up with paperwork, but I come from a place where a man’s word is his bond. At the time I was in the process of re-issuing the Texas Plainsmen CD and had planned on releasing quite a few more, but silly me, I gave all the profits to the Walsers and never held any back to make another run. I could have simply sold the thing and kept all the money and no one would have ever been the wiser. ‘Ceptin’ me of course. Rightly or wrongly, I feel I am directly and personally obligated to keep Don’s admonitions at the forefront of my actions concerning the exploitation of his musical legacy.

I have been approached to re-release those CD’s with Varese Sarabande, but I found the negotiations with that company to be the most distasteful I have yet encountered in my professional life (and people I have a soundtrack out on Sony and major motion picture with 20th Century Fox. In other words, know from being screwed over.) Suffice it to say I would be very surprised if the Walser family saw a significant paycheck from these people, ever. (I pray to God Almighty that I am all wrong about this, but all indications are to the contrary.)

Thus, I could go on for pages about the Don Walser compilation CD that Varese Sarabande released this week. And of the long list of crass and self serving agendas that I have witnessed lining up behind that release and the timing of this “benefit” concert. To be polite as I possibly can be in the public arena I will simply state that I think that once again, the best interests of the Walser family are not being attended to in a respectful manner. Thus, I care not to participate.

I’ve asked Al Walser how much of a debt he’s been left with as personally I think the securing of a anonymous benefactor behind the scenes is a far more effective way to solve the Family’s burden than to trot it out in the public street. (I would start hustling gelt from some of the financially comfortable people Don’s music helped enriched. There’s quite a list and the guilt they must live with should cover all the bills and then some.)

And not to put too fine a point on it, from the line up of musicians appearing at the Broken Spoke on November 4th, I myself see mostly a list of people who probably should have paid their tributes to the man while he was still here to hear it. God knows he would have appreciated a visitor. Even a damn phone call. Howard Kalish ; the Pure Texas Band, Gurf Morlix and Slaid Cleves all get a pass however. They were each regular visitors to Don’s death-bed, genuine friends to him even in his last difficult days. These other people appear to me like they’re jumping on a public grief bandwagon, and I wouldn’t be able to hold a professional composure in the presence of such horse crap. Especially if they start shilling a CD that the Walser family won’t see a decent profit from.

Enough said. This kinda stuff makes me profoundly sad.

Actually, what I'm really most sad about is that we have to do this damn benefits in the first damn place. What kind of culture allows this sort of behavior? What kind of people are we that only our fellow artists will come to our aid when we finally hit the last rung of the latter? And in a nation where the richest among us continue to grow richer? I resent profoundly the notion that those who do nothing but bring goodness and light into the world must be made to beg for scraps off the table. Doug Sahm had no health insurance and succumbed slowly to a easily treated illness. Kookie Martinez died a pauper leaving a widow with debt. German had no headstone. If I died tomorrow my wife would find herself homeless in a matter of months. It's shameful and sickening.

Shameful, shameful, shameful.

I'll try and end with a humorous aside:

My old partner Danny Barnes once said, only half joking, to a gal asking Bad Livers to play some worthy benefit gig somewhere, “Honey, I’m in the Barnes benefit business, and we play benefits for that cause every night…” We didn’t get asked to play too many of them after that.


What Is This Miracle Called Movie Music?

The Austin Chronicle has published my latest story, on the recording session for the opening scene from the movie "Infamous."

I originally wrote it for Bass Player Magazine's "Session Notes" monthly collumn, but they deemed it too long. Oh well. The local boys felt it was good enough, but decided to skip the print version and run it as a "Web Extra." Bass Player may in fact run it in a highly edited form however, we'll see.

No matter, the pay check is the same size. Hope you like it.


Youngers of Zion at the National Folk Festival

Here's a good picture of the Youngers of Zion playing an afterhours jam session at Buzz and Ned's Real BBQ, the official BBQ Joint of Hyper-Opinionated Food Crazy Klezmer Musicians. (See a full report from Frank London's Klezmer Brass All Star session there at last year's festival.)

It was the perfect capper to a weekend of great music and great times at the National Folk Festival, now in its second year in Richmond VA. I caught amazing sets by Papa Don Vappie and his Creole Serenaders, the Lost Bayou Ramblers, Richard Hagopian and my old pal Santiago Jimenez, Jr. This could be one of the best curated Folk Festival I've ever been at much less played. There wasn't a stinker act in the bunch.

Here are two little bits of our mainstage performances on Sunday evening in Windows Media Player format. A "C" Hora set and The Theme to Sweet Touch Nee Hour Radio Show.

We are currently formulating a sceme to get us all back there to Richmond again for next years hijinks, if for nothing else than to eat some more of thos AMAZING beef ribs.....


It's all your fault...

You may be seeing my name as a byline in various publications soon. After the non-linear obituary for my friend Don Walser was published by the Austin Chronicle, a few other publications that I know folks at asked me to write a piece to two for them as well. I have since penned obits for Don in No Depression and Sing OUT! (that's how they like it spelled,) as well as a 4000 word bit on Klez Kamp for SO!. The Chronicle may be running my story about working on the film Infamous soon, and a highly edited version of the same tale will appear in Bass Player next month.

Over the years all four editors of these magazines have asked me to contribute for them. I have written the odd bit here and there, but I laughed off any suggestion about writing seriously for them or anyone for that matter. And I'll share with you the reason why.

1) In our society you either write or are written about. It's not cricket to do both. In fact, I've been told over and over again that if I am to be successful at all I must stop doing all the things I do and focus on one thing, and one thing only. Try as I might and as much as I like what comes with "success" I am completely unable to be or do anything other than what I'm doing. I still firmly believe that I do things that are worth being written about, and if I become a 'writer" I'll get put in that other category.

2) In my many years of putting out music and traveling around, I was subjected regularly to some of the worst writing I have ever seen or read, and it was about me and my efforts, and it was almost always completely wrong.

3) I love to read. I do it all the time. Have all my life. I'm a Jew and they don't call us "people of the book" for nothing. Further I love writers. Some are my friends. I would never want to suck at it. I try to remember what Charles Bukowski liked to say, "I'm not that good a writer, it's just everybody else is just so damn bad."

4) I assume that the thoughts that I have in my head are just as plain and simple as anybody else's. What could I possibly offer the world that hasn't already been explained very well elsewhere by somebody else better than I could have?

Mishegoss I know. All completely internalized craziness actually.

So, let's get it out there right now. If you don't want me out there being a writer, talking my shit in the public forum, you can find me a gig playing music. If I could pay my mortgage the way I did for years, making recordings, travelling around playing music, I would go back to it in a heartbeat. If, like my old pal Kevin Smith, I got a call from say Dwight Yoakum’s people to go out for 9 months out on the road, I would be packed and out the door quicker than you can say "union wages."

But I haven't. In fact, I haven't been employed (seriously) to play bass in nearly 3 calendar years. None of the many musical projects I have running, playing any instrument actually, have yet to make enough income to even report to the IRS. In fact, in one month of published writing I have outpaced my gigging income for the 10 months prior.

I don't mind writing. Not at all. It's just not what I think I was put here to do. Find me a decent paying gig, and I'll never write another word. Promise.


A note from Director Douglas McGrath

I felt a word was in order about the unusual situation that exists between my film and “Capote.” Who knew that Dan Futterman, the gifted screenwriter of “Capote,” and I would be in the same predicament as those people who made the competing asteroid-hitting-the-earth movies?

I remember when I first heard about the other movie. I had called Bingham Ray, for whom I had made my film of “Nicholas Nickleby,” to say that I wanted to send him my new film about Truman Capote. In his characteristically economic way, he said, “It’s on my desk.”

I glanced down at my desk where the script was. “How can that be,” I asked, “since it’s still on my desk?”

He said, “I’m looking at it right now: ‘Capote’ by Dan—“ At this point, there followed what we in the WASP community call an uncomfortable silence.

That was the summer of 2003, and Dan and I were both going out at the same time with a film not only about the same author, but about the same time in that author’s life. Furthermore, in addition to his script, Dan had a spectacular asset: his pal, Philip Seymour Hoffman, was attached to star. (When I heard of his casting, I told my wife, “Philip is a great choice for Truman.” I think it’s safe to say I’ve been vindicated on this point.)

We made a deal early on with Warner Independent to make the movie. We had our money but no Truman. The “Capote” team had their Truman but no money. And for a couple of years, we both looked for what we needed. Funnily enough, within a couple of months, we both found it. They got their money and started shooting in the fall of 2004, we found our Truman and started shooting a few months later. Because the other film had started first, Warners wanted to hold our picture so the two films didn’t step on each other.

What was it about this tiny man that made him big enough for two pictures? I’ll tell you what it was for me. What interested me was not the story of a writer from New York going to Kansas to write about a terrible crime, nor was it of interest that he was a gay writer from New York going to Kansas. What I found fascinating was that Truman Capote was a gay writer from the very top of New York society going to Kansas to write about this crime. He was court jester and confidante to the cream of Manhattan high society, and I placed everything in the story within that context.

Knowing he is coming from that chic and spoiled world makes his early time in Kansas a comic one. (His version of a care package, for instance, was when Babe Paley sent him a tin of beluga caviar.) But what starts out as a comedy of manners slowly descends into something darker, and in the middle of the film, I bring him back to New York to show how his deepening ties to the murderer Perry Smith are changing him. I end the picture in New York, as well, consciously echoing the beginning, but now all the lunches that looked so pretty and fun seem wrong, because he has been irrevocably altered by what happened in Kansas.

The gradual but ultimate shift from light to dark, from comic to tragic, match the shape of Capote’s life: his early years were marked by his insouciant wit and effervescence, his outrageous self-assertion, and the beguiling, almost sunny pleasure he took in conquering the world. These were succeeded by the later years of bitterness, a failure to produce the work he promised, a break with friends, reckless and ill-chosen love affairs, and a debilitating taste for drink and pills that only hastened his decline. It is that shift, from the triumphant to the tragic, that “Infamous” chronicles.

While it was a surprise to me on that call with Bingham Ray to learn that there was another script on the same subject, I can’t say it was a mystery. Given the riveting contradictions in Capote’s character, the rich range of people who made up his circle, and the comic and dramatic turns that marked the period, the real wonder is that there were only two scripts.

I salute our friends on the other film, and am happy to welcome you to ours.

Soundtrack to "Infamous" -Do Not Buy it

So friends, you may soon see in your favorite local store the soundtrack to the film "Infamous," which I contributed some music to. I am very unhappy to see this particular label releasing this product as they have a long track record of not paying proper royalties.

Thus, NEITHER I NOR ANY OF THE MUSICIANS INVOLVED WILL RECEIVE ANY OF THE MONEY that is collected from it's sale, not from CD's, or downloads or anything. If you really want to have these tunes on your iPod, a smart guy could do a Google search and find them posted on-line pretty quickly. Posted for almost a year now in fact. See if I'm lying. Additionally, they chose the worst of my other selections to put on the soundtrack, so not only am I screwed, but embarrasingly so. "Heartaches" is a really dumb tune that the studio came up with (they could get the publishing cheap in other words) and then my job was to polish the turd into something that wouldn't be too awful for a dance sequence. Craft, yet not Art. If they had chose the tune "Tropicana" instead I could be at least a little rewarded by having what could have been my best studio work made available to the a wide audience. I still wouldn'y see a penny in royalties, thanks to the way the contracts are written.

To be further clear, the liner notes to the soundtrack release ARE A DAMNABLE LIE. A very fine singer indeed, Ms. Paltrow did NOT in fact perform any of her singing live "on camera" as advertised. And the version of "Goldmine in the Sky" performed by Daniel Craig, also a very fine fellow and not a bad vocalist, is also NOT the on camera rendition but a LA studio concoction that the director himself found "corny" and rejected.

Please go see the film, but don't be suckered into buying any of the music. None of the musicians will ever see a nickle from it, and these Hollywood characters have enough money as it is.


"Infamous" opens in theatres Oct. 14th

Here's the poster that you won't see in theaters.

If you look real close, you can actually see me just above "Daniels." When it was found that we were paid SAG wages on the shoot however, and thus my "image" would have to be paid for, they yanked the musicians off the poster that eventuall went to print.

I have yet to see anything but the trailer (which you can find here) but look for the fat guy in the rented tux, flailing on his string bass wildly in the opening sequence. The film already debuted at the Venice Film Festival in Italy (met with a reported 15 minute standing ovation,) and will have it's formal US Premiere in NYC today. The Cast & Crew showing of the film here in Austin isn't until Wednesday, and I'm on pins and needles.

I have written a little story about the recording of that scene with Gwyneth Paltrow, which has already gotten some great press, for both the Austin Chronicle and Bass Player magazine. I'll post links when they do get published.

I acted poorly as an extra, but my music is as good as anything I've ever come up with and I am especially pleased with the opening scene which was a monster to try and pull off.

(For the record, as Music Consultant I provided all the music in the opening scene, and any music seen on camera. Composer Rachel Portman wrote the score and most of the music in the trailer they got from just about anybody's guess.)

Go see the damn thing and let me know how you think we did.