Thursday, March 22, 2007

Basement Songs: Robert Plant "The Greatest Gift"

What can you say about a song that is like a parasite? It latches into your brain, your heart, your soul, and grows tendrils, sucking the life out of you. It becomes everything that you are, everything you think about, everything you want. A song like that is what I find so wonderful about music. A song like that is what loving music is about. It’s not something you can explain. Good song. Bad song. It’s your damn song, so who gives a shit what everyone else says. A song like that is magic. A blessing and a curse. A song like that is the definition of a basement song.

Last week I received a copy of Robert Plant’s “Fate of Nations” album that was released in 1993. Last week I was riding a wave of euphoria. Life felt good after several weeks of depression. For those of you who keep up with the blog, you know why I’m depressed so much. You may not understand it. I don’t even understand it most of the time. I like to think of myself as an optimist, but I continually find myself sinking to such depths of despair that I don’t know if there is a way out. For the first time in my life last week, I actually saw how a rational person may think taking their own life would be a means to an end. I would never do hat, but I understood how they could feel that way.

That euphoria I was riding had skipped away so suddenly, it felt like a wave pulling me under. It was the music I blamed. It couldn’t be anything else. I’m getting ahead of myself.

I received the album from a friend of mine, a guy named Jeff Giles who runs an excellent site called Jefitoblog. I’d volunteered to write a guide to the music of Robert Plant, an artist I’d admired for a long time. I’ve been a fan of Plant’s since his second solo album. Some DJ on WMMS exclaimed that he had a new record coming out and I thought this must be important. Back in those days, you listened to the DJ. The DJ was your guide to music. Anyway, I had no fucking clue who Robert Plant was. If I’d known he was the former lead singer of Led Zeppelin I probably would have run. Back in the early 80’s, Led Zeppelin was HEAVY METAL, and I was just some kid who listened to Journey. But Plant had Phil Collins playing drums for him, so I thought, he must be cool. The first time I heard “Big Log” from “The Principle of Moments” on the radio, I was mesmerized. I was hooked. Six weeks later, when my shipment of 12 albums from the Columbia Record House arrived, Plants’ LP was one of them. It would be another couple of years before I became a Zeppelin fan. Still, I continued to enjoy what Plant was doing as a solo artist. Loved the Honeydrippers. Tried to like his eccentric album “Shaken ‘n Stirred”. Banged my head and dragged Steve to see Pant in ’88 at Blossom. I remember that show more for Stevie Ray Vaughan opening. By the early 90’s, the music landscape had changed and I was into the whole alternative scene. A classic rocker like Robert Plant seemed so passé.

A couple of years ago, I heard some selections from his most recent record and really liked it. So much so, I thought I would approach my friend Jeff about this guide. He sent me copies of the Plant album I didn’t own (funny thing, turns out there were only two) and the first one I listened to was “Fate of Nations”. I was wary, of course. I knew this record contained a “Kashmir” sounding song. But the album also contained two of the most beautiful songs I’d ever heard, “29 Palms” and Plant’s elegy to his son who died when the boy was 5, “I Believe”. I had heard a couple other songs, so I didn’t expect much. I just wanted to hear the album to be familiar with the record. If you read my entry last week, you know that I‘ve been listening to it nonstop for over a week. I think about this record all of the time. I look forward to playing it every chance I get. I have not had this feeling in a long time. Just a month ago I was lamenting the fact that I hadn’t had the feeling of new discovery anymore. And then this arrived in the mailbox. I could go on about the whole album, but this is basement songs, and I need to discuss the immediate entry into the basement speakers nailed up to the cinder blocks wall of fame. That song is “The Greatest Gift”.

It begins so unexpectedly. At first I thought maybe Plant was trying to riff on Burt Bacharach’s most recent music. Strings slowly build, and simple guitar notes begin laying down the melody. Other instruments chime in. Cellos. Subtle percussion. Light keyboard textures. All of it sets up Plant’s most sincere, tender vocalization I have ever heard him perform. “Everything thing I do, I do for my love. Every place I go, she is on my mind. I’m would give the world my soul to discover. Send me just a sign. Angel on my mind.” A lost love? A true love? A wife? A child? It seems obvious what he’s singing about. But when he claims that “This is the greatest gift that I can bring to you”, I know that that gift is love. Through the two verses and the first two choruses, Plant and the musicians he’s assembled create a warm, lush sound that reminds me of something Clapton or Rode Stewart would record, but it’s more passionate. Not so slick. Then, in the bridge leading to the guitar solo, the band lets it rip for several bars. The drummer cuts loose, in a Pearl Jam, “Alive” beat the shit out of your cymbals fashion. What does this lead into? One of the most sincere guitar solos ever. Something akin to Stevie Ray’s beautiful tracks, like “Riviera Paradise” or “Lenny”. The guitar player, Kevin Scott MacMichael, was the guitarist of Cutting Crew, of all bands, who knew he had these chops? Certainly not the folks who promoted that band. Out of that solo, there’s one more time through the chorus, and then the song changes.

I call it a coda. A mandolin (or something akin to it) changes the melody. And like the opening, this mandolin begins alone. Then the drums come in, electric piano. Soot e strings and an electric guitar. Things gradually build to heartbreaking effect. That’s right, heartbreaking. This short portion of the song is the most emotional section. A brilliant move. Grab the listener with simple beauty and rip their heart out at the end so they can’t forge the song. They HAVE to hear that song again. I HAD to hear it again and again.

Like so many songs I dwelled over time and again in my parents’ basement, I have listened to this song possibly a hundred times in a week. And it gets me every time. But here is the wonderful, transcendent ting about “The Greatest Gift”. When at first, it sunk me to the lowest depths of my fears of Jake and his health; it also helped me out of that mood and has now given me hope. Whereas last week I was ready to give up, I wanted to shout at God and curse him for inflicting my son; I somehow rose above those feelings. Perhaps that was the message all along, huh? The greatest gift is love, right?

I do no good for Jake or our family by dwelling on the sadness. It’s there, man. That fucking sadness is always going to be there. And I’ll always fight through the shit. Trust me. Because on the other end of the shit is a family so wonderful I can only thank he heaven’s that I have been blessed. I am so damn in love with my wife. I only wish I could be braver for her. And Sophie and Jake are the light of every single day I live. I can’t imagine m y life without them. That’s where the shit comes from. It comes from that fear of losing them; of losing my Jake. In a way, I may have gravitated to Plant’s music because he suffered a loss so great that I want to take his pain and learn from it. I’m being selfish, but I need his pain in order to get through my own. He puts his pain out there in his music. I place it on the world through my words.

This one song has become my theme. I didn’t look for it. I didn’t ask for it to take over my emotions. But that’s what music is capable of doing. It takes us to new places, old places, dark places, and places of optimism. It inspires me. It drives me to be better, to do more. It kicks me in the ass to not give up. Damn it, Malchus, don’t lose hope.

One week. One song. I have been through the ringer. And still, as I type this, I am listening to the song for the fifth time in a row. If this were my parent’s house, my dad would have yelled down already, “Aren’t there any other songs on this record?” Sure there are. But none of them are as great as this one.


Monday, March 19, 2007

Aloha, Harry

Went to a going away party for my old friend Harry and his wife, Holly, on Saturday. First of all, let me tell you how damn old I am. I was up until almost 2 and I was dead all day Sunday. Someone please explain to me how these old rockers carry on the way they do (I'm talking to YOU Keith Richards).

Anyway, he had several friends over, but the two of us kind of gravitated to each other most of the time I was there. Harry and I used to talk so much and share our thoughts about music and movies when we worked together at Klasky. I hadn't seen him in over a year and I failed to realize how much I really missed him all of this time. And now... he's moving back to New England.

We get so caught up in our lives that some people, those peripheral important folks that provide us with creative outlets often get forgotten. I truly regret not keeping in touch with Harry all of this time. Sad thing is, we'll probably share more emails now that he's moving.

Things Harry turned me on to were most of the 70's punk movement, the Replacements, the Ramones, the art of John Waters and good baseball talk (even though he's a frickin' Red Sox fan). He has supported us on every CF Walk and my marathons and has always offered the advice of his sister, a nutritionalist, in case we had questions about what we can do for Jake. And, of course, he was always a sympathetic ear I could turn to when I needed to vent. The true definition of a good friend.

Aloha my friend. We'll meet again.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Santa Clarita Signal article

Here is the article I mentioned from the previous post.-S

Friday March 16, 2007
Family Life Lived with a Challenge

By Annemarie Donkin
Signal Staff Writer

Cystic fibrosis. The name alone is too difficult for many of its youngest patients to pronounce, many of whom lisp it as "64 Roses." Primarily hitting children of Northern European ancestry, the condition is popularly known as the "pale, blonde, blue-eyed," disease. According to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, cystic fibrosis is an inherited chronic disease that affects the lungs and digestive systems of about 30,000 children and adults in the United States.

A defective gene causes the body to produce unusually thick, sticky mucus that clogs the lungs and leads to life-threatening lung infections. It also obstructs the pancreas and stops natural enzymes from helping the body break down and absorb nutrients.

In the 1950s, few children with cystic fibrosis lived to attend elementary school. Symptoms, some of which are present at birth or develop shortly thereafter are very salty-tasting skin, persistent coughing, sometimes with phlegm, frequent lung infections, wheezing or shortness of breath, poor growth and weight gain.

But the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation reports that due to advances in research and medical treatments, many people with the disease now expect to live into their 30s, 40s and beyond. In 2005, the median age of survival was nearly 37 years.

In the Santa Clarita Valley, Julie and Scott Malchus and Mike and Sue McCarthy are two such families who are stepping up to the challenges of having a child with cystic fibrosis.

Both are active families, with bright and active children, and all participate in school and community events.

Both mothers opted to stay home to attend to twice-daily nebulizer and therapy vest treatments (a device used to help keep airways clear), regular doctor visits and frequent hospitalizations.

The families have also created a strong network of support to help, and, most notably, both families have a great outlook for the future.

The Malchus Family

Diagnosed with cystic fibrosis when he was 1 month old, Jacob Malchus has been taking nebulizer treatments since he was 2 months and therapy vest treatments since he was 2. A bright, active child who loves his trucks and action figures, he is just like any other 5-year-old.

"Jacob likes to ride his scooter, bike, and playing with his superhero action figures," said his mother, Julie Malchus, "He calls it 'playing guys.' He has full-on scenarios that go on and on."

Cystic fibrosis, like most chronic diseases, often involves the entire family, not just the child afflicted with the disease.

Sophie Malchus is a second-grader at Tesoro and helps with Jacob's care.

"She takes on more responsibility than an 8-year-old should," Scott Malchus said. "She is a very sweet and caring girl and goes out of her way and helps with his respiratory therapy. She is a happy little girl who plays handball and dolls and likes to ride her scooter. She monitors him from the other room and tells us if something is wrong."

Scott, 36, works as a production coordinator in Burbank at the Cartoon Network on "Squirrel Boy," one of his children's favorite shows.

"They take such pride that daddy works on it and love finding his name in the credits," Julie said.-

Julie studied child development at California State University, Northridge.

"I worked in a resource and referrals service for child and elder care in Valencia, but now I work part-time at Dream Dinners," she said. "The plan was for me to continue working, but I knew it was not going to work out for the first five years, but I love being at home. It was something I always wanted to do, and this kind of pushed me in that direction. I think it is a blessing being able to do this, a blessing to do this for my kids."

She said Jacob must put on his therapy vest twice a day for about 30 minutes each session.

"We have an older one like a big boom box, but bigger," she said. "It vibrates really fast and sometimes he complains it makes him itch. His cousins and sister tried it on; it is funny for a while but quickly loses its charm."

Then, Jacob uses a nebulizer - mixing two liquid medications into a vapor, Scott said.

"His breathing treatments include albuterol, pulmicort, pulmozime, for a total of 11 different medications. He takes medicine a lot. Every time he eats, he takes Pancreacarb and needs a high fat, high calorie diet to keep weight on," he said.

"If he doesn't take the treatment daily, his breathing will suffer," Julie added. "There has been research about different medications. Now there are new medications to alleviate a lot of the symptoms cystic fibrosis has. It is progressive, he will not necessarily get better, but they bring it more under control."

This year, Jacob entered preschool at Tesoro, into the "Fun for 4" programs.

"When Jacob was a baby, it was so overwhelming that I was scared to take him out of the house, but he is doing really well, because he takes his medications at snack time," Julie said. "One of the proudest moments for Jacob was right after he started classes in September and the other children asked Jacob why he had to go to the nurse's office every day. He got up in front of the class and, with the help of the teacher, explained that he had to get treatments. Jacob calmly told the class, 'If I don't take it, I will have a tummy ache,'"

In June, the Malchus family will participate in the "Great Strides for a Cure," walk in Valencia to be held June 2. Scott ran the full marathons in 2004 and 2005 and a partial in 2006. With help from family and friends around the county, he has raised more then $33,000 for cystic fibrosis research.

"He already thinks the big walk is his walk," Julie said. "This will be our sixth year. We will have about 25 in our team of family, friends, neighbors. We actually have different teams, people who represent Team Jacob all over the country."

But Scott and Julie realize it can't be all Jacob, all the time.

"We try to include Sophie," Julie said. "Of course we felt guilty, because we are doing treatments with him when she wants to hear a story. For us, we try to do things separate with both kids. Jacob likes to go to the comic book store. Then I will do something special with Sophie. She likes to get her nails done, have Chinese food - her favorite - or go to a tea party."

But generally, they are just like any other family who gets into the routine of their children.

"I remember when he was born, I had this overwhelming feeling we would never feel normal again, but normal always changes, and just like any child, we must incorporate it into our life, just have to do it," Julie said.

The McCarthy Family

A sweet, quiet, yet ferociously active little girl, 11-year-old Katie McCarthy, a sixth-grader at Mountain View Elementary, doesn't know the meaning of "can't."

Katie is active in school and participates in just about any activity she sets her mind to. Now she is talking about becoming a doctor.

In fact, after she was released March 3 from Children's Hospital in Los Angeles she was back in her beloved dance classes at the Rage in Northridge.

That night, she had extra practice to prepare for a competition, where she takes modern, hip-hop and jazz dance classes with her friends and cousin.

Her mother, Sue McCarthy, said, at 4 feet 2 inches and 58 pounds, Katie is still small but mighty, never stopping for long.

"She has been dancing and tumbling since she was 4. She used to be at the Dance Experience, but she wanted to try something new this year. Last year her team won the National Championships," Sue said.

One concession Katie makes to her condition is the dedicated IV line she wears in her arm for her daily dose of antibiotics administered for three weeks at school during lunch.

"That is so she can stay out of the hospital and try to return to her normal life as a regular 'tween," said Sue.

"I am excited to be back in school," Katie said. "I like math and want to be a dancer or either a doctor or teacher."

Her father, Mike McCarthy, said Katie was in the hospital because she was getting weak.

"Her lung function was not where it should be," he said. "She was having difficulty catching her breath."

A trade show manager for JBL Professional, Mike, 36, will once again be off to Orlando, Vegas and Germany in the next two weeks.

He said he has been with his company for 16 years and has terrific health benefits, but still it costs them more than $200 a month for medicine and $250 a month for co-pays.

"Katie takes about 15 to 20 different medications a day; stuff for her digestive and pulmonary systems, nebulizer treatments and vest treatments twice a day," Mike said. "It is our day-to-day life."

When Katie does spend a week or more in the hospital, Sue stays with her the entire time. Their 7-year-old son, Michael, also attends Mountain View Elementary and loves to play baseball.

"Michael is still too young to understand all of Katie's disease and often gets stressed when she is not home. It affects him a lot (when Katie is in the hospital.) Everyday he cries and asks 'When is my sissy coming home?'" Sue said.

A former director with the YMCA, Sue tried to work but with two young children and Katie's treatments, she found it easier to do medical transcription from home, where she can keep a more flexible schedule.

"Usually I work when they are in school until I pick them up at 2 p.m., then the fun day begins with driving kids all over the place to baseball, piano, bowling and dance," she said.

Katie was born in Simi Valley and diagnosed with cystic fibrosis at age 2 when she failed to grow and thrive.

"It was really difficult in the beginning. I didn't know what it was, and I didn't know anybody with it," Sue said. "After we moved to the Santa Clarita Valley, we became active with the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation."

Like the Malchus family, Sue said the entire family is planning to participate in the "Great Strides for A Cure Walk."

They are excited to participate again this year and plan to have family and friends raise money for support around the country.

In order to create a support network close to home, the McCarthys moved to Saugus seven years ago and bought a large house so Sue's parents, George and Judy Foertsch, could live with them and help take care of Michael when Mike is on the road and Sue is at Children's Hospital with Katie.

"We have a pretty big support team," Mike said. "Sue has two sisters and a brother living within a mile of us."

He also has a sister in Simi Valley. As a result, the McCarthy house is the place for Thanksgiving and Christmas. During the summer, they fly to Chicago and drive to Wisconsin to visit family.

"It gets a little challenging when I bring her (therapy) vest on the airplane," Mike said. "At 49 pounds, it is one of the older models and cost $16,000. Katie uses it twice a day, and we won't check it because we don't want to lose or damage it on the airplane."

Mike said last July they were flying one of the smaller United Airlines jets from Los Angeles to Chicago and had already gone through luggage check and security.

"I carried in on the plane and was told it was too large for the overhead compartment or under the seat. They wanted me to go out and check it with luggage. But the pilot happened to overhear me, took the machine and put it in the cockpit for us," Mike said.

Overall, the McCarthys feel they are very lucky to have the wonderful family they have.

"We take it one day at a time," Sue said. "From the day she was diagnosed, the average life expectancy is now up to more than 30 years old. For us, it is just normal, everyday life."

The Great Strides for A Cure Walk will be held 8:30 a.m. Saturday, June 2 at Westfield Valencia Town Center. For more information visit

Copyright:The Signal

Robert Plant makes me cry... the bastard!

I had a majority of this week's basement song entry written and it became pointless after I began listening to a 10 year old Robert Plant album, "Fate of Nations". I already knew five of the tacks on the cd, one of which is a favorite, ("29 Palms") and another that I have trouble getting through without tearing up, his tribute to his son, "I Believe". Plant's son died in 1977 when he was 5. I never gave much thought to this album, despite liking the songs I had heard. It came out during the alternative wave in '93. I was so over him by then.

So you can imagine my surprise when I began listening to the album and was blown away by the beauty and emotion that resonates in this music. What's more, a wave of sadness washes over every track. As much as I should stop listening to this music, I can’t. I just want to listen and cry my damn eyes out. I'm sure you know why.

An article about our family appeared in the local newspaper this morning. As much as I want to make people aware of Cf and finding a cure, for some reason I feel a little exposed. Raw. Helpless. Eternally helpless.

Last night I was trying to get to sleep. It was around 1:00. I couldn't stop crying. Jake was in our bed (of course) and as I lay there, I draped my arm over him for a bit. My darling boy. As I snuggled him (until he shoved my arm away), I cried some more. And a thought came to me: I haven't cried this much since I was in high school and my sweetheart moved away. That relationship broke my heart. Is my heart broken again? And if so, who broke it? God? Did God break my heart? Because I can't stop thinking that children shouldn't have to go through this shit. 11 medicines a day. And he's about to start another one!

Jacob has more strength than he knows.


PS- I'll post the article later once I finally shut off Robert Plant and get a grip.

Friday, March 09, 2007

No basement song yet

It's been a rough week and I haven't gotten to this week's installment. I plan to have it up this weekend.

Thanks for checking in.


Saturday, March 03, 2007

A message from the Grand Poobah

I want this to be an interactive experience. I may not have as much to say as some of my favorite bloggers, but I do want your feedback, especially when I make the Basement Songs posts.

I realize that some of the songs I write about many of the ten of you have never heard before. Thus, I am willing to create a Basement Song mailing list. Here's how it will work:

For each song that I write about, I will send it to whomever signs up for the list. Each week, after the post is made, I'll email the song to the folks on the list so you all can hear what I'm talking about. I think that's only fair since some of you may not get what the hell I going for if you don't have that week's particular melody swimming around in your noggin.

This is purely a selfish act on my part. See, I will be asking you all for help in the Malchus family battle against cystic fibrosis. Whether it's by donating or by volunteering, I need your help. And you'll get at least 45 new songs this year to plug into your collections.

I hope you all take me up on it. Click on the email link to the left and let the music play.


Thursday, March 01, 2007

Basement Songs "I Love N.YE." by Badly Drawn Boy

Sometimes a song latches on to your soul and refuses to let go. You may listen to it one thousand times and declare that you're through with the damn thing. And weeks, months... a year later, it will sneak up on and sucker punch you in the kidney. And like an old love that keeps a room in the darkest corner of your heart, that song lurks. Waiting. Waiting.

It's a curse, but often the greatest cure. Such is the case of Badly Drawn Boy's "I Love N.Y.E." from his wonderful soundtrack to the film "About A Boy".

I came across this album long before I even saw the movie. It must have been a good year because I did not see "About A Boy" until it was on DVD. But I had read some glowing review of Badly Drawn Boy's music stating that it was one of the greatest soundtracks since "The Graduate." I knew that Badly Drawn Boy was a hug Springsteen fan, and I am also an enormous fan of Simon and Garfunkel and "The Graduate", so I figured I couldn’t lose. And I was right.

But it's not the folk songs and the lovely lyrics that I gravitated to when I began listening to this song. "I Love N.Y.E." is an instrumental piece. Repetitive in some ways, it fits nicely into the film, but there is something so haunting and familiar about the way the guitars gently play against a celesta and the strings that I'm always lured into this one. As it slowly builds into a gorgeous ending, it's another one of those compositions that offers hope to anyone listening. Perhaps that's why I listened to it over and over that first summer after Jake was born and he went into the hospital with pneumonia.

The stress of having my child in an LA hospital, while we lived an hour away, and Sophie was back home, but Julie was with Jake... I needed a release. I needed to cry, to put it bluntly. This song helped me. It got so much anxiety and sadness and anger out of me that I was able to compose myself before I went into the hospital or I picked up Sophie on the way home from work. Turns out I'm more like my father that I care to admit. I have a difficult time showing tears in front of them. I don't want them to see me cry. Why? I'm not sure. Maybe I have this stupid notion that it will make me less of a man.

Toward the end of the song, the strings begin a counter melody and that's what always drives home everything. Those strings slowing working up the scale will forever remind me of my son. They will forever be imbedded in my psyche that sadness is just under the surface of everything I do or say. And I can't get rid of that sadness. There's nothing I can do, unless I release it with something as wonderful and beautiful as this song.

I'm sure we all have melodies that are attached to a person or a time in our lives, but like I stated at the beginning, there are some basement songs that catch you at the strangest moments and not matter what your doing, everything boils to the surface. Case in point: Sunday night we went over to Budd and Karyn's to watch some of the Academy Awards show. Three beers in, we're all having a great time. Everyone drifts to the kitchen while I'm still wading through some commercials and on comes this lame Saturn commercial. At least, I think it was lame, because I didn't see any of it. The music used during the spot was, you guessed it, "I Love N.Y.E” And out of the blue, I nearly lost it. Up to that point I had been in a splendid mood. It was so nice to be with my brother and his family. It was so nice to hear the kids playing together. It felt like the old times back in North Hollywood. And this damn song had to creep into the room and knock me upside the head.

Why? Why did it have to come that night? Don't we live with the constant reminder that Jake is fighting CF? Can't we just have one fucking night of peace? But there is no peace, is there? It will always be there, lurking around underneath with the sadness. And the soundtrack to that sadness is Badly Drawn Boy.

And yet, I can't stop listening to that song. As much as it pains me to play that song, I need that song. For three minutes and twenty seconds, I allow myself to let go and get rid of some of the sadness. And more than anything else, I need that the most.