Sunday, May 30, 2010

Music by which to eat lunch

In an effort to promote culinary commerce, music-centered community and grammatical correctness, singer/songwriter Mark Kelly Hall will provide “music by which to eat lunch” at the Mudpie Restaurant & Coffeehouse on Saturday, June 5. The acoustic show begins at 11:30 am and continues until around 1:30. Admission is free.

Hall is a native of the Chattanooga area and now lives in Nashville. He addresses topics such as love, faith and the 70's, with an approach that is often humorous but always serious. His songs reflect the spiritual heritage of the Bible-belt South, combined with a lifelong fascination with American pop culture, and seasoned by his experiences in places far away from his native Tennessee. He performs an eclectic blend of acoustic folk/pop originals and favorites, flavored with congeniality, personal insight, and a touch of country blues.

Mudpie Restaurant
12 Frazier Ave
Chattanooga, TN 37405
Phone: 423-267-9043

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Facts v. Truth


I would've captured a screenshot that didn't feature the depressing "game over" but of course that would've required interrupting progress in the game. Which reminds me, did'ja ever notice that in movies and TV shows, players were usually shown ending a game with a big win, loud bells and cheering from the sidelines? Which showed that the creators of the movies and TV shows were either clueless about how these games normally end (in a loss of the final virtual life, or ship, or ostrich, or whatever, and a more subdued celebration of the score), or they didn't think enough viewers knew it and would be confused.

It's an odd feature of storytelling that sometimes the facts have to be manipulated in order to present the truth more effectively. Songwriters do it all the time. Not to mention producers of "reality TV." Guess it depends on the situation as to when "storytelling" becomes "lying," even in an entertainment context (director Oliver Stone, self-proclaimed "former Satanist" Mike Warnke, Milli Vanilli...any other examples come to mind?). I suspect there are some scientists using this principle to justify their public statements regarding global climate change. Which is why it's harder and harder to accept anything I hear from either side of the argument. Although those who claim graphs to be irrefutable proof and use terms like climate change deniers" (thereby subtly casting their opposition in the same category as Holocaust deniers) definitely reduce their credibility in my eyes.

At least with Pac-Man, there's no doubt who the enemy is. No wonder it's been such a popular game; we may not know when it will end, but at least we know how.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

A Simple Choice

I watched the film You’ve Got Mail last night on TV. Shutup.

Anyway, I have to admit I enjoyed it this time around about as much as the first couple of times I saw it. Shutup.

There is one scene—scene transition, actually (I took a film class in college)--that impressed me the first time around and stuck with me.

It’s where the little bookstore has closed, and Kathleen Kelly’s dream, the only life she’s known, has died with it, and all is dark and dreary and sad in the winter night. Fade to black. Then fade into blue sky, trees blossoming along the sidewalk. The hope of new life (and love?) returning. Springtime in New York.

I think I would’ve caught the significance even without the film class. It’s pretty obvious, actually. Textbook. Downright corny, even. (This ain’t Ingmar Bergman, folks).

But then, a lot of good things in life are obvious, textbook and corny. For example, I have fond memories of family holiday gatherings where my grandmother cooked a big turkey meal and stayed so busy fussing that she seldom sat down to the table where we were all crammed in (and loving it), catching glimpses of the Lions playing on TV, and chatting up a storm…followed by the men mostly relaxing, the women mostly cleaning up and the kids amusing themselves as they do. And on our departure, my mother saying “Y’all come to see us,” and the liturgical response of “Y’all come see US,” knowing they probably wouldn’t come see each other until next holiday at grandmother’s, and would probably be OK with it.

Obvious. Textbook. Corny, even. But I wouldn’t trade it for “cool” at all (although I admit the Christmas dinner I had on a Hawaii hotel terrace watching the waves with new friends was pretty nice, too. But that’s beside my point).

In so many films, by contrast to this Hanks/Ryan gem, so much of the budget is dedicated to special effects and so little on character and story (I’m talking to you, Transformers and the latter Star Wars films), that they feel more like roller coasters than movies. And leave me cold. If I want thrill rides, I’ll take my great-niece to Lake Winnepesaukah again and try to forget how even welded steel can break and metal bolts can fail and turn a good time into the next YouTube horror show. (But it was fun, Katelyn, really. Although next time I may take a kid who’s too short for certain rides).

“Cool” (whatever that may mean to you at the moment) is hard to maintain (and expensive to produce, usually). It’s exhausting to keep up with it. Which is why I don’t really regret missing out on “Lost” (I didn’t think it was a good idea to watch a plane crash every week before I went to Africa in 2004, and I never caught up). What is “alternative” today is on the shelves at Wal-Mart tomorrow, at rollback prices. And if you have to make a lot of effort to attain cool, you’ve already failed. Part of maturity is learning to own your tastes and preferences, and not feel pressured to conform to the trends. I believe those who are brave enough to “embrace the corny” in their own lives and in others’ are happier (in contrast with those Goth people—so much makeup!). And eventually the deeper things in a person’s life may surface of their own accord, expressed in a natural eloquence and simplicity and originality. As a songwriter I can say from experience that “simple but meaningful” is an achievement. This is not to be confused, by the way, with “simplistic”—that would refer to an incomplete expression of an idea, where “simple” implies wholeness with brevity.

I’m not saying every choice should be for the obvious (see the previous post); we just shouldn’t be afraid to make it if it’s right.

Unfortunately, TV people are bound by the obligation to show commercials and look for places where they can go to breaks without violating the flow of the material. Given that most directors stay up long nights (and keep many other people up with them) considering and reconsidering how they’ve arranged every second of their work, if you ask them, they’d probably say finding good places for commercials in their films is a little like finding the right time during a eulogy to pass gas. In the case of You’ve Got Mail, inevitably the commercial comes right at the aforementioned fade to black (TV people are masters of the obvious choice—been there, done that), and by the time the ads are over, the uplifting effect of the coming of Spring is fairly diluted, if not destroyed. But thanks to Netflix, this is an easily avoided problem. So look for it, and you’ll see what I mean.

Or am I thinking of Sleepless In Seattle? When Harry Met Sally? Oh, well, you get the point. Shutup.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

How to write better songs sooner

This list may sound a little harsh or negative, and I certainly don’t claim to have “arrived” as a songwriter myself (commercially or otherwise), but I have learned a few things over the years through both experience and observation, and I believe this may save some folks a step or two in writing better songs sooner. Take it as you will.


Don’t start out with any version of the phrase “I woke up this morning.”

Don’t include any of these phrases:
“walking down the street”
“walking down the road”
“trav’ling down this road”
“down on my knees, I’m begging you please”

Don’t rhyme “heart” with “start” or “part.”

Don’t say “inside my heart” when you mean “in my heart” and need an extra syllable.

Better, don’t use the word “heart” at all if you can help it (I think you can).

Don’t refer to the “feelings inside”—where the heck else would they be?

Better, avoid using the word "feelings" at all.

Don’t write about rain, especially as a metaphor for emotions, blessings, etc. Don’t even THINK of comparing rain to tears.

Don’t refer to dreams or flying, or even flying in your dreams.

Don’t rhyme “fire” with “desire.” Best to stay away from both words altogether.

Pick just about any line from the song “Amazed” by Lonestar…and don’t use it.

Don’t use words that neither you nor anyone you know whose first language is English would use in real life, just to make a rhyme and/or fill a space (unless you can do it with a wink). Desperation shows.

Don’t put the emPHAsis on the wrong sylLAble just to make it scan. That’s cheating (I’m talking to you, John Rich & Gretchen Wilson…”keepin’ it counTREE” indeed!).

Never mind that even the best of writers will ignore some or all these guidelines at some point. Some (even many) people have even had success doing it; but you’re not them. Yet. But if you make an effort to write fresh lyrics about real stuff, preferably from your own life, you’ll be one step closer. And at least your song will irritate the rest of us that much less. So until you can laugh with recognition at this article, then it’s for you. Please abide by it. You'll thank me later.

NOTE: This list does not apply to rap. No one expects rap lyrics to be good—at least not in the same way. Or anything close to it.

And praise lyrics are another level of discussion as well. Not because they're above criticism--just the opposite, I think--but because there are so many praise songs that show so little effort at maintaining any kind of lyrical standard, it's hard to know where to start. Besides, the people who write praise songs are often under the impression that their work is directly "inspired" (despite strong evidence to the contrary), so any analysis comes across as a spiritual attack or at best makes one sound like a cynical old coot. Assembling a random collection of religious and quasi-romantic phrases and setting them to music is not strictly "songwriting" in my view, but God uses the foolish to confound the wise, so who knows. God bless us all.

P.S.: On a positive note: there are many popular songs we could use as a standard to measure the quality of our lyrics. One that is way up there in my book is "Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses" written by Gene Nelson & Paul Nelson and recorded by Kathy Mattea. This is possibly THE perfect country song; one of 'em, anyway. It's simple, it's emotionally provocative, and it illustrates the theme (of the man's "countdown" to his ultimate goal of retiring to be with his wife) in a subtle way that is not just clever--it's brilliant. Eighteen...dozen...ten...four. Brilliant.

I'd be interested to hear what songs anyone else would put in either category of cliched or sublime.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Waterworks...and the opposite

Here's the reason I was off from work unexpectedly today...and will be tomorrow...and will continue to be for who knows how long.

The office is most likely OK; it's well above the waterline; just half a block down 3rd Ave. from the Davidson County Court House and public square (between the extended paths of the two bridges in the middle of this picture, on the right side of the river).

Our usual parking lot (on the other side of the river, also between the bridges, between the round white storage tanks and the stadium in this picture) is underwater. It doesn't drain well at the best of times, so this is no surprise to me.

For my part, I can't help thinking I could get a lot done if I could find a place to park and get in. Assuming the power's on. However, there's a lot going on and we're not quite essential enough to be allowed in. (I'm choosing not to take that personally). So we're on forced vacation; no complaints here, given the impact this flood is having on so many.

The big project coming up this week was to print the annual budget to be presented to the Mayor. Don't know if that will be postponed...but I have a feeling the numbers would need to be adjusted significantly if it is to reflect the new economic reality the flooding has brought to the city and county. Or they could leave it like it is...making it more like MY budgets...over-optimistic and not necessarily based on reality!

Spent some time and energy helping a couple of friends clear some wet stuff from their garage. Glad to be able to offer a little help to someone...yet it's a drop in the bucket (so to speak) compared to how much more there is to be done.

Just ran across this video of a fish caught by the same friends' neighbors yesterday...shoulda brought our nets!

People have made the statement "Well, we'll be able to tell our grandkids how we experienced this." Can't say that thrills me; even if that's true (it assumes there won't be events that eclipse it...we'll leave that discouraging thought for later) I'd trade that privilege for a retelling of "Goldilocks and the Three Bears" if it meant this had never happened. The kids would probably not be listening anyway without a fullblown multimedia presentation wired directly into their brains. Sheesh!