Like many artists, I was raised to PRODUCE and to measure success by what I’d accomplished. And I keep coming to terms with how this paradigm has been changing for me as I get older and my interests and energies shift.
I grew up surrounded by unions; union-made clothing, union-employed family members, unionized teachers, union awareness… I vividly remember the grape boycott in the 1960s due to the farm workers’ strike. https://www.history.com/news/delano-grape-strike-united-farm-workers-filipinos My first paychecks had union dues deducted from the net – the woman who trained us to be cashiers at E.J.Korvette was a die-hard union gal! There were jingles on the radio; “Look For The Union Label” and films like NORMA RAE and THE PAJAMA GAME presented unions in a supportive light.
I joined Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians in 1973 and worked “on the card” as much as possible. While I never got a gig from hanging out at Roseland, I went through reams of manuscript in my years as a music copyist and joined AFTRA & SAG when I began singing on recording sessions. When I moved to Chicago, I joined 10-208 – when we moved to Los Angeles, I joined Local 47.
With my own favorable experiences working in unions, I was distressed when Ronald Reagan (a former SAG union president himself!) took aim at the air controllers union in the early 1980s. Workers’ unions have always been under attack, but especially so over the past 40 years, as politicians and corporations have tried to divide us by vilifying the very idea of workers pulling together to demand safe work conditions and fair wages. (the nerve! how DARE we?)
There have been as many changes to unions over the years as there have been to the world at large, and some of them are not positive; more than once we’ve brought a problem to the union and not had our concerns taken seriously, or taken at ALL! (I’m remembering a New Year’s Eve gig where I had a signed contract with a club and got stiffed… and then there was the time the union didn’t follow up on thousands of dollars in residuals that were due to us and the singers we’d hired! A Dime A Dozen). Graft and corruption have seeped into the handling of pension plans, for example, and, as in many other business dealings, there’s always been the tendency for contractors to hire others on the basis of friendship (or kickback!) rather than merit.
But most musicians I know have only fantasized about enacting some of the behavior in ON THE WATERFRONT. In a more perfect world, unions would be more perfect, but in the world we actually HAVE, they are plenty good enough.
Lately I’ve come across some interesting recordings while archiving old cassettes to mp3s on my computer – including jingles I composed over 40 years ago. This has led me to ponder the “art of persuasion” that is advertising itself.
Not as overt as 3-card monte, the jingle is still a bit of a con, as it makes assumptions; about who you are, what you need, your self-image and identity, and a host of other attributes that the advertiser hopes will lead you to embrace their product, service or idea.
The following lyrics were for a Honda motorcycles pitch, and the only “given” from the ad agency was the tagline “what life oughta be”; an idealistic, dreamy message, full of hope and promise. My first attempt:
I was told this was too confrontational, ominous and maybe even a little threatening. So, back at the drawing board, I softened the message:
(You can see I was pretty enamored with the phrase “dreamin’ out loud” and wasn’t going to give it up without a fight!) But my attempt to express the urgency of how riding a Honda would change your life tracked as impatience – the underlying message being WTF is WRONG with you? Get GOING already! So – once again, a new tune with a more authoritative “leadership” narrative and slightly less punitive tone:
Ultimately I don’t think I managed to capture the right balance of the Carrot & Stick approach because I didn’t sell any of these jingles, but I certainly tried! Listening to them now, I can’t help but notice the similarities between my ultimatum messages (of life fulfillment-via-motorcycle) and that of the Trump re-election campaign; the promise of making America “Great Again!” coupled with the threat of dystopian apocalypse should anyone else win the White House.
With this much apparently at stake, it behooves us to remember that there’s only one sure-fire way to win at 3-card monte:
All the current scuttlebutt about destroying the Post Office brings to mind the many times I’ve interacted with the USPS; from early childhood I remember how special it was to receive a card or letter from Nana – with MY NAME on the envelope! – and how I signed up for penpals thru ‘TEEN magazine (which I subscribed to and received in the mail every month!!)
Getting mail is a privilege and a right for Americans thru our Constitution and it’s illegal and immoral to attempt to destroy this precious service that helps us communicate and stay connected.
Over the years I wrote and received letters and cards I treasure to this day; a letter from a neighbor who had moved away, encouraging me to keep writing poems and songs when I was a teenager, a stack of love letters and greeting cards from when my husband and I were courting, the final PAID-IN-FULL invoice from my college loans, and decades of letters from my dad… might not matter to anyone else but they sure mean a lot to ME!
One of my favorite memories of receiving mail was when Mark and I lived in NYC and would receive thick envelopes every month or two from his dad, who lived in Tucson. Enclosed with his note would be a stack of coupons he’d clipped from newspapers and magazines. In the early 1980s, Tucson was a test market for a lot of new products, so there would be coupons for items we’d never even heard of…! Dad LOVED his bargains and we felt like we could splurge trying out new things because we had those coupons he’d sent to us!
Mostly we knew he was thinking of us, and that was the best thing of all. Nothing takes the place of a letter from home.
We depend on our postal service to ship our sheet music and CD recordings to our customers. Reliance on the USPS is a non-partisan issue; personal and professional. The difficulties being heaped on our postal service now are indefensible; at every turn, postal employees are being cheated, service hours are being truncated and critical deliveries are being delayed. Today I spoke with our carrier who delivered a shipment from Germany, bills and advertising circulars and a box of vitamin supplements – and I reassured her, “we have your back. We’re union people, too. And America will not let the postal service die!”
It was supposed to be a 2-week engagement playing and singing piano-bar at the big downtown hotel in Altoona. I’d signed a contract stipulating I was to be paid $250/week + room w/breakfast and dinner. I boarded the Greyhound at Port Authority at the ungodly hour of 6:30 AM in order to arrive before my 6PM start, noshing on liverwurst sandwiches as the bus stopped at seemingly EVERY little town in Pennsylvania.
Things were not auspicious when I arrived; my room was NOT ready, so I had to wait in the lobby for 45 minutes until it had been cleaned. Then I found that the air-conditioning in the room didn’t work – something you’d rather not have to face after spending ten and half hot hours riding on the bus, desperately needing to freshen-up before the gig! After I hunted down the manager, he told me the AC would be fixed by the time I turned in, but by then there wasn’t time to get dinner before the downbeat. Oh, well!
The boisterous crowd was celebrating some bigwig’s retirement and mostly ignored me, even when I asked for requests. I kept getting the stink-eye from the manager, who became more and more inebriated as the evening wore on. He began making snarky comments while blowing smoke in my face during my first set and continued to verbally harass me nonstop during my breaks. This gig was not looking good for an entire fortnight’s duration!
Now, I was raised to be a person of my word, my rent was due soon and I couldn’t afford to bail on this gig, but I knew this abuse would continue for the entire 2 weeks if I didn’t find Plan B. So, after the 3rd set I made “an executive decision” and called my friend Jamie (collect!), to see if he’d loan me the $500 I’d expected to earn, and was incredibly relieved when he said, “Sure! Don’t put up with that! Come on back home to New York right now!” At the end of the night, I took the $32 in tips I’d earned, packed up my suitcase and walked over to the Amtrak station for the 1:30 AM train bound for Penn Station. 6 hours later I was back in Manhattan, safe and sound.
There’s an old joke my dad used to enjoy telling with the punchline, “what? and give up show biz?” The agent who had set up this engagement seemed totally unsurprised when I called later that morning to tell her what had happened, and I suspect I was not the first nor the last singer-pianist to have taken a powder on fame-&-fortune in Altoona!
I’d never played a gig like this before; my friend Mara Purl had invited me to join Teji Ito’s band to provide music for a fashion show. I was to add keyboards to the group which featured Mara on koto, Dan Erkkila on flutes, Genji Ito, Cherel Winett Ito and Guillermo on percussion and shakuhachi. Say WHA???
There was no sheet music; we were all just supposed to listen to each other and extemporize, adding whatever might fit with what everyone else was playing. I was sure the resulting cacophony would be terrible – but somehow it began to gel during the rehearsal (otherwise known as my audition!?) – and then… the gig!
The venue was an art gallery and the models were all dancers from the NYC Ballet. Their gorgeous silk attire was breathtakingly beautiful, and they seemed to float on air as they danced to our spontaneous music – it was a “happening” in the best sense of the word!
We played for about an hour and then it was over. Mara and I returned the Fender Rhodes I’d borrowed back to the friend who’d lent it to us, then brought her koto back to her Park Avenue apartment. As it was a lovely spring afternoon, I decided to walk home to my place in Chelsea.
As I passed a storefront on West 34th Street, an attractive young man popped out and invited me to “take a free personality test ” I was so surprised and in such a good mood, I (uncharacteristically for me!) agreed. It took a lot longer than I’d thought but I was sure that I was “ace-ing” it! Turns out – like everyone else who gets suckered into taking this test – not-so-much! The results were graded and it turned out that I was an amazingly defective excuse for a human being – desperately in need of the help that only Scientology could afford me.
All I could do was laugh! I’d just come from the headiest musical experience I’d ever had to that point, making music with Teiji and his group just a couple hours earlier! I’d been paid handsomely and felt on top of the world! Buoyed by that experience, I continued home in the twilight, still high from the gig. While I might have been susceptible on some other day when my self-esteem may have been shaky… “not today, L. Ron Hubbard! Not today!”
We’d done hundreds of recording sessions together and we’d been married for over 4 years before I discovered what a wonderful conductor Mark Wolfram is. Somehow I’d missed seeing him wave a baton in front of an ensemble before that.
Initially, Mark was introduced to me as another arranger at the Chicago jingle company where we both worked. His charts were always professional, sometimes brilliant – and he seemed to know his way around the recording studio. He picked up his trombone and played my charts beautifully. A consummate producer, he was detail-oriented, but always got the big picture, especially when it came to the mix. His ears were impeccable; he could always tell when a singer or musician was sharp or flat, ahead or behind the beat. He was also a skillful, safe driver behind the wheel – I trusted him and felt confident that he knew where he was going, what steps to take and how to get there – on the road and in his career. I should have known.
But I honestly had no idea how well he could conduct before I saw him in action and noticed how attentively the musicians were following him – performing for him in a way I could never get them to play for me.
Having been a “solo act” for much of my professional life, and having not played or sung in very many ensembles, my knowledge of conducting was rudimentary and my confidence as a leader was sorely lacking. Sure, I’d taken the requisite conducting course in college, but I’d always felt uneasy and embarrassed in front of a group – like a fraud – and the results I got were disappointing. I just didn’t have the “it” factor to gain and keep the attention of the ensemble, whereas Mark has a natural ease on the podium, allowing the musicians to relax, knowing that they’re in good hands with him at the helm!
Experts say there are basic qualities that the best leaders possess: communication skills, awareness, integrity, courage, vision… that great leaders guide and encourage other people to reach their goals, with the same attributes shared by great teachers – and the best music conductors. Ultimately – and ironically – strong effective leadership comes from being of service to those being led, to the project at hand, to the greater good.
I really wish more modern politicians were a fraction as imbued with these leadership qualities as my Maestro Mark.
One of the benefits of having so much more “downtime” these past five months has been the opportunity to sift through old music cassettes; revisiting songs I haven’t heard or thought of for decades, and reassessing the qualities of the writing, production, performance, etc. It’s been amazing to realize how much my tastes have changed… and in some instances, how little, as I’m just as thrilled to revisit some music as I was when I first listened, so many years earlier!
Along with re-evaluating music, I’ve been gaining fresh perspective on the people in my life; it’s always been helpful to me to see friendships in terms of energy fields, and notice how I seem to come “alive” more while hanging out with this person as opposed to that person.
I’m fortunate to have had a number of *enchanted* friendships, where I was immediately overwhelmed when meeting the person for the first time; we got on like a house a-fire, and it felt like we’d known each other our whole lives, or that we were fated to be friends. When it happens, this initial enthusiasm is so heady and intoxicating, it’s hard to resist! And sometimes it continues for a long time; I’m blessed with friends I met in the early to mid-1970s who become dearer to me with every year!
But not always. Recently I’ve become estranged from a few friends-of-many-years when I’ve realized that, though we still shared a lot of the same enthusiasms in life, they were not behaving in a way that made me feel safe – and so I had to distance myself emotionally – and sometimes entirely – from them.
This always feels weird to me – I’m a pretty retentive personality and don’t like letting go – especially when there was something so GOOD about the relationship. But sometimes it’s essential, and the only way to survive psychically. Being in pandemic lockdown, I’m more aware than ever of the importance of choosing my companions carefully. I’ve made questionable decisions when I was younger and felt better able to fend off negativity than I do now. I also know I’m more sensitive to bad juju than I used to be.
Ultimately it seems to come down to staying conscious and being willing to face reality when it presents itself; being curious and brave enough to actually see and evaluate the evidence before us. My dad had a saying, “watch the feet” – because talk is cheap, and it’s easy to assume that others have your best interests at heart when perhaps that is not the case. Then what we need to do becomes crystal clear.
Sometime in the early 1980s my Dad took the train from NYC to visit his younger brother, who lived in the harbor section of downtown Baltimore. Daddy was an avid walker, and on a whim, (between card games, probably), they strolled over to Pimlico racetrack for an afternoon’s amusement, as Uncle Larry and Aunt Katie would do on occasion. None of them were schooled in the vagaries of gambling on the ponies, but noticing that a horse named Willard Scott was set to run, my dad placed his first bet; the odds were 20 to 1, Willard Scott won and my dad went away $150 richer.
He never looked back. The Sport of Kings took over; it became a passion. His lifelong enthusiasms (books, records, acting, writing, movies, playing ukulele, banjo, guitar, etc.) all took a backseat as he worked tirelessly perfecting his handicapping “system”. Sometimes he would win, but mostly he’d lose. Then he’d go back and make further adjustments.
All of this constant tweaking would need to be shared with his loved ones as he puzzled out the permutations… with brother Larry, of course, who had gotten him started – and each of his daughters in turn, none of whom had ever expressed even the slightest interest in his methodology. He wrote out his theories (and even got some published!). He spent countless days taking the subway+bus out to Aquaduct or Belmont Park where he could place his tiny 1-dollar bets (to test out his theories), and spend time with his fellow gamblers. If he felt tired, he’d just go downstairs and place the minimum 2-dollar bets at the corner OTB storefront. Nonstop daily study and research of the racing form was a given.
Once when Larry and Katie were visiting him in NYC, my dad insisted on showing off Belmont Park. After a winning afternoon, as they drove back from Queens into Manhattan, instead of calling it a day, Dad decided it would be a good idea to keep going on out to the Meadowlands in New Jersey, where they could engage in nighttime sulky racing. None of them had a clue what made that sport tick, however, and they lost all they’d won earlier in the day. I don’t think my dad ever bet on a harness race again.
Having grown up with the idea that he was an intellectual fellow, I never understood my father’s fascination with the ponies, and why the ravenous hunger to WIN!!! took him over. I was glad that this desire was kept in check to the degree that he didn’t borrow money from the mob to feed his habit, though – and I loved watching him get SO excited about it, even if it never made sense to me. All I know for sure is that it engaged his mind, heart and soul – it made him happy – and happy is a good way for a Harris to be!
She didn’t make a big deal about it, and I know she enjoyed all of her “granddogs” and “grandcats”, but I think my mother would have really loved it if her children had given her human grandchildren. And after seeing Ben Platt perform IT TAKES TWO for Stephen Sondheim’s 90th Birthday, I’m pretty sure that he would have more than surpassed her expectations for a grandson.
Ben first got my attention in DEAR EVAN HANSEN and a couple years later he blew my mind as THE POLITICIAN. And now, I’m totally convinced – my mother would have adopted him in a heartbeat. For starters, INTO THE WOODS was my mother’s favorite show; for while she adored A FUNNY THING HAPPEN ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, she was crazy about fairy tales her whole life, and INTO THE WOODS is the only musical she bought copies of for ALL of us.
My mom’s been gone for quite a few years, so Ben has nothing to worry about – but, oh, such a handsome young man – and such a brilliant talent! She would have delighted in and spoiled him rotten!
Instead, she delighted in and spoiled our first boy, Dunkel. Fortunately, he loved his Grandma Betty right back! 🐾