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How Hard

lift me up
don’t let me break
don’t let me lose
this life of faith
I’m tough
but tough ain’t enough

Mark Stock, Ponder

Physical pain can drop us to our knees. Emotional pain can too, and then so much more. It breaks us from within, aching the heart and stirring tears of anguish or fury. Sometimes we beg, sometimes we howl. Anything to cut the pain. Anything to stand again.

There are 2 opposing versions of How Hard on this record, placed at different points in the Last Night at the Ha-Ra story arc. I howl through take 1, a rollicking blues adaption backed by the Vivid Stage group. I asked Rie Sinclair to take a shot at the reprise version, paired with just a simple, sad piano and guitar arrangement. Her unique voice on the song is transcendent and tender. I won’t explain the song’s role in this rock drama. It’s not important. How Hard is meant as a psalm really for all of us in pain and asking why.

I hope that you both renditions.

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Posted by on August 7, 2018 in Music

 

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Mad

show me what you need
spend my final dime
then tell me you need more
and I’ll glad turn to crime
live my life by your design
your wish is mine
soon you’ll find
that I’m mad

Mad is another pre-release from the Last Night at the Ha-Ra album. It is an ode to the rash and reckless behaviour that stems from a mad passion for someone, someplace, or something. At some point I think most all of us have considered it, some have embraced it, and if you have no idea what the song is about then you’re not diving deep enough. The original version, in a softer arrangement, was recorded on my 1996 LP Eskimo in the Sun and can be heard here.

David Bouet joined us on drums for this track, all the way from London! The piano coda played so soulfully by David Dower replaces the guitar on the original version. David, any chance you can come up with something sweet to replace my guitar track on that outro? I’d say he did in indeed.

Enjoy.

 
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Posted by on July 29, 2018 in Music

 

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Strange

put the needle in my arm
let it drip and I’ll be gone
in a fog of summer holidays
then plant your kiss upon my head
lay me back upon our bed
and when I’m dead
the love you see
will never be
strange

I have few fears, thankfully. Some of us spend much time suffering over the state of the planet, the incompetents in power, that mole on our back, how we are perceived by others. I do care, I just don’t dwell.

I will admit, however, to an uncomfortable fear of dementia. It comes down to the richness of life and a heavy dose of vanity. I know where I want to be interred, I know who I want at the podium and the music playing at that fateful fête (what’s on your playlist?), and I know how I want to be remembered. I don’t want to be remembered like that. No one chooses to be remembered like that.

Strange is another early release I’m sharing from the Last Night at the Ha-Ra album, sung by the character Reggie to his wife Daisy. There have been suspicions and now a prognosis, and he has asked her, the partner and true companion of his long life, to think about accepting this unthinkable favor.

Strange was recorded at La Buissonne studios in Provence in February 2018 with my Vivid Stage Productions group. Jon, David, and I played various instruments depending on the arrangement, and invited special guests to help create something truly soulful and melancholy. Pete Thomas of Elvis Costello and the Attractions joined us on drums, Sony recording artist Daniel Mille brought his sublime feel for the accordion, and Isabelle Cordier from the Avignon Symphony Orchestra packed her cello for the drive to Pernes les Fontaines, where we had hunkered down for a week of recording sessions.

Enjoy, … and create your playlist now!

 
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Posted by on July 26, 2018 in Music

 

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Daisy

Daisy
am I looking grand ’cause your dazzling
and we’re gonna shine in the bar light
at the Ha-Ra
leading the cheer out with the crowd
singing our song out in the night
tonight

Daisy is the opening track off the Last Night at the Ha-Ra album, just completed this summer. It’s a cabaret call to the night, a revelry to mix and mingle and shine, and to stop being “so bored with ourselves.” If it provokes you off the couch and out the door, well then I’ve done my job!

Daisy was recorded at La Buissonne studio in Provence, France with my Vivid Stage Productions group. Veronique Bourges of the Avignon Symphony Orchestra joined us on violin. The glasses clinking in the solo section were recorded at the Ha-Ra club in San Francisco, with the help of good friends and fellow drinkers Mike Sottak and Mike the Garbageman Page. The background chatter comes from the Lone Palm bar in SF’s Mission District. Both were recorded on my iPhone 5. Modern technology!

Click the orange button below for a listen. Please share with any and all who might enjoy enjoy. More coming soon.

Bill

 
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Posted by on July 21, 2018 in Music

 

Dispatches from the Magic Kingdom

Suggested Song: Travellin’ Band, Credence Clearwater Revival
Suggested Drink: Fogcutter cocktail: rum, brandy, gin, orange and lemon juice, orgeat syrup, sherry

I’m sitting in 36D – center section aisle (mon préféré) – and after 12 hours on this United flight from Munich I admit to some ache. The pilot has just turned on the seat belt sign and provided an update on the cool, foggy San Francisco weather adding, “we should be on the ground shortly.” Blessings to an imminent touchdown.

I haven’t written a dispatch from San Francisco since my last trip here in February. I haven’t written anything since February, actually. Why the pause, my first writing laps in 8 years or so? Now that’s a question I’ve been pondering too. The well isn’t empty, but the motivation has been flagging. I’ve been stretched with other projects, but that’s nothing new. A mystery. Perhaps we just need a breather sometimes to rethink and resync.

Is there a better city than San Francisco for inspiration, to get that figurative pen back to paper, whatever one’s form of creative art? None that I’ve know of. So here’s to a refire of the creative flame. Let’s see what develops. We’ve just touched rubber to tarmac, … and off we go.

Dispatch #1 – A Sense of Place

Noe Valley is a beautiful family neighborhood in the sunny center of San Francisco. It’s a perennial locals’ favorite but never a trendsetter. While the must-live-here-now quarters like the Marina, Hayes Valley, and the Mission bloom and fade on the shifting whims of the hyper-paid, transient hip, Noe Valley remains a priority destination for those seeking longer-term permanence in this city by the bay.

It hasn’t escaped the gentrification wave and real estate bubble burning through the city. There is a scattering of all-organic, locally sourced, gluten-free juice bars and quirky concept stores in the neighborhood now, but many of the boutiques along its 24th Street core remain in family hands after 30 years or more. Haystack Pizza, 24th Street Cheese, the Dubliner bar; I was a regular at all when Noe Valley was my first San Francisco home so way back when – the late ‘80s while studying at SFSU. I’m back in Noe Valley again this week, back to my morning buzz at Martha’s Coffee, my evening beer at the Dubliner.

Place plays an elemental role in life. It frames our quotidian and colors that community of friends and strangers who fill our days. When I take a pulse on how things are going – as I am this year – it’s the what I do, whom I love, and where I live that get the most critical reflection. Getting the where right is so important.

At 60 I’m ready for at least 1 more grand adventure, one more lifting of the anchor for parts unknown. This new course doesn’t have to be geocentric. It might just be the what or with whom. It is certainly not guided by a quest for more cash or greater security, which often fuels the flight in younger years. The eternal wanderlust for personal growth and new experiences, the adrenaline rush from knowing you’ll likely fail spectacularly … but what if not?, … that stubborn unwillingness to accept that this is it at any age; yep, this is the propellant.

I’ve rambled a bit through the years, living here and there in the States and now in France. A few of these places have left their mark, have spoken to something inside that is authentically Bill. Aix-en-Provence, where I’m living now, moves me at a deep level, and San Francisco as well. If I believed in past lives I’d say that I have wandered those streets before. And whenever I’m in the magic kingdom – Bagdad by the Bay, as the great columnist Herb Caen used to say – there’s no neighborhood that I love more than Noe Valley. Now off I go to Martha’s for the morning cup. Onward!

June 7, 2018

Dispatch #2 – Graduation Day

The motivation for this trip west was the high school graduation ceremony for my daughter Stella. One of those big life moments for her and for her proud parents as well. The wave of emotion that swept over me as she first appeared in the auditorium wasn’t a surprise – I knew what was coming the moment I’d see her in that purple cap and gown – but it was still a struggle to keep my pride in check. I’m a teary guy, what can I say?

Stoicism is a guy thing, maybe even more so an American guy thing, I’m not sure. We imagine ourselves as cowboys carved from some noble stone. What me cry? Never! Nothing stirs me more than music and certain songs can put a fine crack in the cool façade. Stella’s mother used to tease me for that vulnerability. When the Beach Boys Don’t Worry Baby came on the AM radio of my treasured ’66 Mustang, sitting behind the wheel and a warm California breeze chasing us down some coastal highway, well lets just say things would get a bit misty. I’m even moved as I write this now, hearing that brilliant third verse in my head:

she told me baby, when you race today
just take along my love with you
and if you know how much I loved you
baby nothing could go wrong with you
oh what she does to me
when she makes love to me
and she says don’t worry baby

I went to an Irma Thomas show last night at the San Francisco Jazz Center. She has a backstory that is as fascinating as the timbre and range of her voice. Doing studio work by 13, two marriages and 4 kids by 19, over 30 singles and 20 albums and a history of small victories, but always in the shadow of Aretha Franklin and Gladys Knight and other better-known contemporaries.

Irma is 77 now and still brings it big. She had the committed crowd firmly in the palm of her hand, and for good reason. Her voice remains sure and strong and after 60 years in the business she knows how to command the stage. She had us on our feet for much of the night, white handkerchiefs waving New Orleans style as she worked through an endless string of requests from her long back catalog of hits.

We’ll all be lucky to still be bringing it at 77. Doing something we love, something so natural and sure that it seems destined. When I think about the kids graduating with Stella this week, about their futures and all of the questions and uncertainty they face in a world of rapid churn and change, I can offer just 1 piece of advice: never stop trying to find your reason for being alive. It’s rarely evident and you may keep asking the big questions well past midlife. But it’s that journey of discoveries and doubts that makes life as beautiful as a teary sing-along in a classic car or the sultry voice of an American soul queen. Sing on.

June 9, 2018

Dispatch #3 – For a Few Dollars More

The average selling price of a family home in Noe Valley in April this year was a cool $2.5 million. For the monthly rent on a 2-bedroom flat prepare to fork over $4,300. Welcome to the new world of San Francisco economics.

It’s not just the lodging that hurts. A veggie sandwich at Dolores Park Cafe ran me $14 earlier this week and my chai tea at Bernie’s last night was a steep $3.50. When you remove their cost for the tea bag – about 10 cents wholesale according to my back-of-the-envelop calculation – that’s some pretty pricey boiled water. But imagining their rent along that prime spot on 24th Street, I get it.

It’s an unvirtuous upward cycle driving this madness. A surge in the tech industry is once again pulling in boatloads of high-paid software engineers and designers who are young and hip and want to live in uber-cool San Francisco, not the uber-uncool suburbs of San Jose. And with the average salary for a tech worker now hovering around $150,000 they can afford it (well okay, maybe with a roommate!).

To woo the best and brightest, many of the newly minted barons of tech like Twitter and Salesforce are setting up in downtown now, and those that remain in Silicon Valley are providing wi-fi’ed commute transport from the city and back, … which feeds the need for even more pricey condos and chai lattes and all-organic, locally sourced, gluten-free juice bars in neighborhoods like Noe Valley. Sitting at Martha’s Coffee earlier this week, I counted 7 massive luxury buses in 14 minutes rolling down 24th Street, picking up riders for the hour drive south to Google, Apple, and other large corporate centers.

So where’s the problem? The techies are happy, their employers are happy, the city with its coffers full of higher tax revenues is happy. The problem is the loss of diversity, and that has always been at the heart of San Francisco’s unique color and flair. How does a cab driver or cellist or schoolteacher afford $14 sandwiches and $4,200 leases? They don’t.

I like tech workers okay and count a number of friends among them. I just don’t want to be limited by only their interests and sensibilities. There’s only so much bar talk about stock options and fundraising and blockchain that I can take before my attention disorder gets provoked. Yawn, pass the wine please, … and where do I set up my tent?

June 10, 2018

 
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Posted by on June 7, 2018 in Essays

 

Latest Dispatches from the Magic Kingdom

Suggested Song: The More Things Change, Bill Magill
Suggested Drink: Anchor Steam Beer (brewed in SF since 1896)

I’m en route to San Francisco with just enough connection time in Munich for a cold lager and doughy pretzel.  The 11-hour leg into the magic kingdom will be long enough for a gourmet airline meal and glass of plunk wine, a couple of movies, and some typing on this first report. Perfect.

My last collection of dispatches was offered up just about one year ago. I was struck by the changes both good and bad resulting from the ongoing tech invasion, voyaged up to the wine country for a proper braising in hot, stinky mud, and went on safari for the perfect cheesecake. (That would be Zanze’s by the way, mission completed.)

What’s the plan for this trip? Well, aside from some music recording later in the week I’m keeping the expectations open and hopeful, which is how one should always approach San Francisco, this magical City by the Bay. Onward!

Dispatch #1 – All Colors of the Rainbow

I’m flying solo on this voyage so have accepted my ex’s invite to stay at the old homestead. It’s become quite the colorful residence, with ages ranging from 18 to 84, dinner debates in 3 languages, a grandma from Spain (no inglés, lo siento), our 3 French/American kids, one new boyfriend and a transgender girlfriend (both are second generation immigrants also fluent in Spanish, so that works for grandma!), and now Bill-the-former-husband sofa surfing for a week.

How my ex manages to manage this ever-entertaining circus while holding down a full time job, caring for her mother, helping with college apps, keeping the house from falling apart, and putting a dinner on the table every evening is a mystery to me.  It takes real perseverance, acceptance, a love of all things diverse, and a big heart, … and this is what makes it a truly San Francisco household.

This is a city of incredible diversity: ethnic, sexual, economic, and even meteorological (50s at the foggy beach, 80s in Dolores Park). It’s not a town for the intolerant or neophobic. If you’re uncomfortable with change or being around people of different shades, accents, or orientations of any fashion, best to avoid signing a long-term lease.

Perseverance and ambition have been the hallmarks of each wave of migrants who’ve managed to secure a foothold: the gold miners and railroaders, the Chinese and Italians and Irish and Mexicans, the gay community, the techies. You don’t come to San Francisco for a life of leisure by the sea. It’s a city of creative sweat and big energy, … and the possibilities of beautiful reward.

So here I am and being blessed with sunny blue skies. My walk this morning along West Portal Avenue for a coffee at Peet’s – a few days of adjustment will be needed for the American caffeine dosage – has left me sweating in my light pullover. It’s only 9 a.m. but I’m already thinking through neighborhood options for lunch: tacos, pasta, sushi, burgers, pizza, dim sum …. the options are endless, kinda like this town. Appetite peaked, let’s go!

February 17, 2018

Dispatch #2 – Strike Up the Band

It is an interesting twist that we immigrants to this garden paradise are proposing border walls to keep out its former owners. Mexicans were roaming these Pacific lands long before the gringos arrived in ships from Spain and wagons across the Sierras. Since then they have been driven out, then invited back to work the fruit and vegetable farms during WWI, bussed back out during the Depression, then begged back to the fields during WWII, and on and on. They are a resilient group, and despite current presidential claims to the contrary continue to play a vital, essential role in the economy and social color here in the magic kingdom.

In the studio with Eduardo Garcia and Adrian Arreguin of Nueva Generacion.

Mariachi music is distinctly Mexican. It is a festive mix of strumming guitars, brassy trumpets, sweeping violins, and nostalgic lyrics about life and love south of the border. These ensembles come large and small.  Bands of 10 or more in splendid mariachi regalia play weddings and parties, and small combos of 3 or 4 in their nicked up cowboy boots and hats wander the Mission District streets, popping into bars and restaurants for an hour of entertainment and tips before moving on.

La Rondalla was a special kind of restaurant cantina in the Mission that I frequented in my rowdier years. It had a long and dark serpentine bar, Christmas lights shaped like tiny chillies blinking year around, generous bartenders known to break into Spanish song, a crazy fun mix of patrons – from the local hispanics to city hipsters, gays and lesbians of every persuasion, punkers and college kids and anyone else out for an unpredictable night – and great mariachi music. There was a large house band and no stage. They would show up mid-evening, stand at one end of the bar and rip out song after song while the locals sang along with lyrics that most of us didn’t understand. It was a family ensemble, with dad leading up the group and his young sons and nephews and friends, some barely into double digits, playing along and learning the craft. Great energy, great fun.

I had more than a few interesting evenings at La Rondalla. One involved a close and charming friend that moved me to write Paralyzed, which is one of 14 songs being recorded now for my upcoming album. It begged for a festive arrangement, and so last year I sought out the best mariachi band in San Francisco to help adapt and play it. Nueva Generacion was the obvious choice, particularly after learning that its young leader Eduardo Garcia was one of those kids playing weekly at La Rondalla so many moons ago, most likely on the night that Paralyzed was inspired.

Life never ceases to amaze. It leads us across the paths of people from different tribes and ages, with different histories and hopes, and we make biased assumptions about them that only serve to disserve. I have to constantly remind myself: stop this! Not in my wildest imagination would I imagine that this young Mexican kid I used to watch playing violin in La Randalla would be collaborating with me on music so many years later. Thank you Eduardo! Just more magic in the magic kingdom.

February 26, 2018

 

 
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Posted by on February 17, 2018 in Essays

 

Of Toasts And Something Deeper

Suggested Song: Wall of Death, Richard & Linda Thompson
Suggested Drink: a frothy pint of Guinness. Let the toasts begin.

I was in Nashville last week for a funeral and had been invited to say a few words on behalf of my family. This kind of duty can make people squirm. To be honest I don’t mind it. It provides a rare chance to reconnect with that soulful raconteur within, a genetic companion from my paternal grandfather, who was an Irish preacher of the good word.

Toasts spill out with ease, but eulogies can be tough to get right when the material is thin. This was not the case in Nashville. In fact my challenge was less what to say and more what to leave out. For my oldest sister had suddenly departed a life of beautiful breadth and depth. She was a traveler and seeker, a generous giver and curious student, strong when strength was needed, vulnerable when our own failings were being shared.

Life is short so enjoy it now.

This popular call to carpe diem always gets a good airing at funerals and wakes. It never quite hit the intended mark for me.

Life is short. Not necessarily. All that we know for sure is that none of us have any idea for sure. Children die unexpectedly and wrinkled up folks live past 100 and most of us get plunked down somewhere in between.

I never heard my grandmother Magill say life was short. For her, life was one long adventure. She escaped the crossroads of a Pennsylvania village and ventured off to college at the dawn of the Roosevelt era – Teddy that is – when a woman’s place was well understood: hands on the pot and babies on the hip. Work and wonder would carry her on to Puerto Rico, up to Manhattan (where a degree from Columbia was added), down to deep, deep Alabama, and then overseas to the Egyptian Sudan where she married my grandfather; the one and the same mentioned above.

Grammy lived to 100 and my sister to 67. I lost a close childhood friend at 19. We can’t waste time trying to size up our allotted sand in the hourglass. Life is unpredictable. Isn’t the key to get in a grand story worth sharing?

Enjoy it now. I don’t propose suffering now, but there is more to life than margaritas deck-side. If we want our eulogists’ writing assignment to be easy then we need lead lives worth retelling. And we’re all going to have someone retelling our stories, right? No one gets out of here alive.

So my point is this: go bold, go deep, do it now. Your remaining days may not be short. You may have decades left to create a magic that reflects all the best of your gifts and passions. Then again, you may have one more day. Be the author of the narrative you want delivered on that sunny day in the chapel, or it may fall to someone much less vested in making you sound amazing. Offer a highlight reel that can’t be cut and cropped; one that keeps everyone roused and laughing between tears.

Put a pint in my hand and I’ll stay full of barley-inspired toasts to you for many a round. But if you want deeper reflections on a life that truly mattered, that left everyone who knew and touched you in a better place, take the leap now. Uncover, develop, and share that bold gift as only you can.

Dedicated to J. Catherine. You made my job so easy sister.

Bill Magill
Aix-en-Provence

 

 

 
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Posted by on February 11, 2018 in Essays

 
 
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