FRIENDSHIP (an open letter)

It’s something that I feel I’ll be exploring and uncovering for the rest of my life. What does it mean - to have a friend, to be a friend?

One thing that I can say almost for certain is that it’s about being in action. About looking for that place where you can make a difference for your friend. Help them, encourage them, hold a space for them: whichever kind of space they need. And all the while keeping questions like this in the forefront: “In what way can I most honour and serve my friend? How may I help, in some small way, with the unfolding of my friend's highest potential?”

Much of the work that we have to do, we do alone. By this this I mean our real work: the work of discovering ourselves, and of then finding a way to become an expression of what we have discovered.

Yet to do this, to truly see ourselves as we are (in all our haphazard glory!) we need good, clear mirrors. The gift of seeing ourselves as others see us is unfortunately not one that we are given at birth. It is a gift that our true friends, whenever and wherever we find them, give to us. Our true friends reflect both who we are, and who we can become. Not a “better” version of ourselves, necessarily: just one with a broader scope, a clearer eye, a firmer step and a lot less fear.

At least this is what my friends have given to me. Two of them in particular, that I’m thinking of today. A pair of fine musicians who really need no introduction.

So thank you, Heath Cullen and Slim Pickens. Thank you for opening up your doors, and your hearts, to me. For stepping back a little way along those roads you’ve already travelled, that you know so well, and walking a few miles with me. For sharing your wisdom, and your commitment to your craft. For standing with me so confidently, in a way that has fed and nourished my own confidence.

Think where man’s glory most  begins and ends
And say my glory was I had such friends
(WB Yeats)

Yes, gentlemen: this is who you are, and this is the difference you’ve made for me. Long may you run!

In friendship,

Michael

Harvest Time

Nearly a year has passed since my return from the USA. An entire year since I was transported into the midst of of the Folk Alliance International Conference & Showcase in Kansas City, Missouri. 3000 musicians gathered downtown in the Crown Central Hotel, and each one with a similar aim in mind: to give that Conference & Showcase everything they had! Two upper floors of hotel rooms booked from 10 AM to 4AM every day - each one a performance venue. There were Aussie and Canadian rooms, promoter and record company rooms, rooms managed from roots and folk music organisations from just about everywhere in the English-speaking world. Performers turning over every 1/2 hour, non-stop. And in-between: headline shows in the ballrooms downstairs, and panel discussions on every aspect of the music business, and instrument and tech displays. And of course the endless hum of discussion, and instruments being tuned, and announcements being made, and currents of people heading in all directions, lit up and ready for anything.

Hindsight has shown me that the Kansas City experience was my baptism by fire into the music industry. More than once, I hovered on the edge of overwhelm. But then there were these characters who would suddenly be there on the radar, and we’d connect, and I’d come back to ground again. And what a cast they were! Truly unforgettable.

Coming home from Kansas City (and several other USA destinations) I found my producer, Heath Cullen, applying the final few brush strokes to the album we had recorded in Los Angeles in May of the previous year. The album now had a title - Not The Express - and artwork, and a great feel, and beautiful continuity. All of those things that you want for a piece of art that you're launching out into the great world.

So much seems lik history now. The wonderful launch shows, here at home in Tantawangalo and Candelo, as well as in Adelaide, Melbourne and Byron Bay. Interviews and performances on community radio stations in Victoria, New South Wales, South Australia and The Australian Capital Territory, capped by an appearance on ABC Radio National’s cutting-edge afternoon music show, The Inside Sleeve, hosted by our Aussie national treasure of a musicologist, Mr Paul Gough.

Unfortunately, our national public radio here in Australia - an independent and creative voice within our society - has for some time been under sustained attack. Most recently, under the guise of “streamlining” into all-digital format, a number of music shows - several in particular, including The Inside Sleeve, which specifically featured new music and emerging artists, Australian and otherwise - have been cut from programming. To read more about this situation, and (possibly) to sign a petition to help save these valuable shows, click here: https://www.change.org/p/michael-mason-hands-off-radio-national-music

These past several months have seen the height of the summer season here in Australia. And of course, for those in the music trade, the height of the performing season as well, with music festivals happening all over the country. I’ve been fortunate to have played a number of small venues and house concerts over the season, but I’ve got to say that it was my performances at our premier local music event, the Cobargo Folk Festival, that really set me flying. Great surroundings, great crowd, great weather, a congenial lineup of great performers - it just doesn’t get any better! Read all about it right here, and book your ticket for next year: http://www.begadistrictnews.com.au/story/4495888/every-year-it-keeps-getting-better-cobargo-folk-festival-goes-down-a-treat/?cs=509

On the Magpie Stage at the Cobargo Folk Festival for a full band show: L to R, Sam Martin (guitar), Dan Efraemson (violin) and Matt Nightingale (double bass)

So - while it’s been great to be in Australia for the whole year, and here on the farm for much of that time - it also feels like time to get going again. For awhile now, I’ve been contacting friends in various places around the globe, sounding out what interest there might be in hosting a troubadour such as myself. Slowly, dots on the map have been lighting up and an itinerary has taken shape.

So: I’ll be leaving Australia in late April, and so far it looks like I'll be travelling through San Francisco, Sonoma, Washington State, Montana, and Arizona. Look for more specifics on my website, www.michaelmenager.com, as the weeks roll on. And destinations can be added, of course, depending upon where there's interest (and gigs!) House concerts, cafes, restaurants, festivals, folk & roots music clubs - whatever’s going, let me know about it and I’ll see if I can get there.

It’s like I’ve nurtured a harvest over this past year, and now I’m feeling like getting out and and sharing it around. Like those baskets of extra produce I’ve been taking with me lately on visits to friends …

So I hope to be seeing some of you (or even many of you) very soon!

All the best to you, as always,

Michael

Bob Dylan

This week, in Stockholm, Sweden, Patti Smith stood in for absent Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan. She performed his 1960s anthem, “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” to a packed concert hall audience.

Here are some thoughts about what was transmitted to me as I watched and listened to this extraordinary person as she made an even more extraordinary communication.

If you had a very important, crucial message to put out, what would be the best way to transmit it? 

To my way of thinking, the best way to do this would be by an indirect route. To put the message out in such a way that - on the surface - it didn’t appear as a message at all.

Take the communication implicit in Patti Smith’s appearance in Stockholm as an example. 

The performer: a member of one of the world’s most oppressed and under-threat groups, i.e. women, and someone with close ties to the LGBT community.

The song: an apocalyptic (yet compassionate) vision of times to come, “Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten /  Where black is the colour, where none is the number.” But in the midst of this scenario, the poet/troubadour walks "to the depths of the deepest dark forest”  “Where the people are many and their hands are all empty / Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters.” And the troubadour’s job: to reflect the truth “so that all souls can see it,” but even more importantly, to have experienced the truth in a personal way her or himself, to “know my song well before I start singin’." 

The way I see it, if we ever needed a roadmap through these times, there it is. There is the message from the seer: the best that he could do under the circumstances. 

Bob Dylan's ultimate status for me is that of Truthbearer, at a time when truth itself is under  murderous assault. That’s where he stands within my very small pantheon of heroes.

But the few people I have identified as heroes are not just people I observe from a distance, or read about, or admire. They are watchfires at the boundary of my consciousnessThey are lighthouses upon stormy seas. They are there to be heeded and used, even imitated up to a point - until such time as I can encode the message into myself, into my work, and can then pass it along to others.

But for now: I’m going to keep hammering, and chiseling, and digging. I’m going to get to know my song well, so that it cannot be shaken, no matter what.

And I’m going to sing it wherever I can, and as often as I can.

The prophet can point out the road. But it is up to me to put on my own thirsty boots, and to walk it.

Adelaide, My Home Away From Home...

It seems that I have been consistently, persistently distracted ever since my return from Adelaide. Not the least of these distractions has been the current flood, which still has me essentially landlocked, with a bit of a question mark over the state of my causeway. Nothing can be known firmly, however, until the waters of Devil’s Creek have receded a bit more. A good time for watching one’s thoughts, and how these insubstantial entities can so capture our attention and our energy.

But yes, Adelaide … a town that has always been good to me, right from the beginning when I landed there with Judith not long after I met her. It’s a town that’s almost quaint in its old fashioned politeness. And its long memory. My Adelaide friends and colleagues of all those years ago are my friends and colleagues still: and now loyal and enthusiastic fans as well!

In part, my Adelaide schedule followed the lines of these old friendships. A concert and talk for the migrant and refugee students of Thebarton Senior College, by request of my friend Sandor, who is a lecturer there. A house concert for friends at Seli-Hoo, a share house in Black Forest (owned by its tenants) that’s been going strong for some 30 years or more, where the art of living communally and of using resources wisely shows a definite stage of refinement. An impromptu set in the front bar of the Prince Albert Hotel in Gawler, by invitation from my old friend and wild, stompin’ and blowin’ blues howler Mr Steve Gower, who was mightily holding down the gig on that Saturday night.

And then there was a Candelo connection: via that songstress and fine slide player Miss Jodi Martin (big sister to Candelo’s premier bass lady, Robyn martin. Jodi's month-long residency at The Jade (Flinders St, Adelaide) was entitled The Songwriter’s Stage, a context in which she sat onstage “in the round” with three other singer/songwriters, chatting and swapping and collaborating, all very much on the spot and in the moment. An atmosphere so intimate that the usual boundaries between audience and performers seemed to vanish. I was lucky enough to be invited there for the very last night of Jodi’s current residency (May 25th) and felt very privileged to be included. And I definitely made some new friends! Amongst them fellow singer/songwriters Stan Bastiras and Kelly Menhennett.

On the following morning (Thursday 24th May) I was due in at Radio Adelaide in North Terrace for an 8:30 AM spot with Louise on The Breakfast Show. Not the best hour of the day for a late-staying-out musician, but Louise’s bright attitude and genuinely enthusiastic and insightful questioning quickly had me going strong. I love Community Radio anyway, but the feel around Radio Adelaide that morning was especially warm, friendly and focused. I’d go back there anytime

So, from the Radio Adelaide session it was a cab from the row off Rundle Mall out to Collinswood and that big white complex topped by those massive letters in shining brass, ABC. I got out, unloaded my guitar case, then through the big automatic glass doors and past the uniformed security man at the front desk, who told me to sit on one of the comfortable sofas in the foyer and wait. Paul Gough of The Inside Sleeve (ABC Radio National) would be down shortly.

And soon enough, there he was! All that bouncing energy, alive to the maximum, infectious. I jumped up, skipped the handshake (as I remember) and went straight for the hug.

“I like to interview standing up, walking around” Paul said to me before we began that part of things. “I just feel it’s more natural, kind of allows for a dynamic that's not there when you’re both sitting down. But you’re welcome to sit if you want to.” Taking up that offer never even entered my mind. What you hear when you follow the link below to the The Inside Sleeve broadcast of May 27th 2016 is a conversation between two men who are moving fast and catching impressions on the fly. Attempting to piece together a snapshot mosaic of one person’s life (in this case me) and of the thoughts, and lyrics, and melodies that have wound their way through it. A noble undertaking! And Paul Gough has been there doing this very same thing faithfully, week after week. Bringing all manner of musical artists - many of them independent - into touch with a wider circle of listeners. Helping these artists to touch places within themselves that will in turn touch others. Thank you again, Paul, for your time and your interest and your good company.

Friday night, May 27th at The Wheatsheaf Hotel: Michael Menager in Concert, with Chris Parkinson and John Derek Baker was, for me, one of the big surprises of the tour.. After witnessing Chris and John’s brilliant opening set on the night, I just knew I had to have both of those thunder-and-lightening guitar players up on stage with me. And together - well, we just lit it up. Everybody was having a good time: us, the audience; and (as had been the case at The Jade on Wednesday evening) everything we did - with no prior rehearsal, of course - was so spontaneous and improvised as to be infectious: the highs, the lows, the experimental places, the shimmering and sparking moments. We were all there together, players and listeners. My thanks and gratitude to everyone at The Wheatsheaf Hotel for continuing to provide a space where magic is encouraged!

And … well … there’s always more that could be told, but perhaps it’s good to stop here and to make this the wrap for Adelaide. My home-away-from-home down South. A place that’s as easy and familiar to slip into as one of those I-IV-V grooves in an easy key …

Melbourne...

Dear Friends,

I've only just returned to Tantawangalo from five fairly intensive days in the great musical city of Melbourne. I thought it would be good to write a bit while I’m still in that transitional space between everything that I experienced down there and all the things that are calling to me now that I am back home.

The city turned it on exceptionally well for me, I feel. I found myself amongst many thousands of extra visitors in town for the Australian Football League Grand Final, but in spite of this a very warm Melbournian welcome came through. Suzanne and her staff hosted a great little in-store show for me downtown at their wonderful record shop, The Basement Discs. My new CD, Not The Express, has been a featured album at The Basement for the last month. I played to a fine group of listeners from a very colourful stage that looked like it had been set up for royalty!

I also had an invitation to attend a concert of classical Indian music at Monash University, featuring master tabla player Dr Aneesh Pradhan and Dr Adrian McNeil, Eastern Music Lecturer at Monash. Dr McNeil brought his sarod to Candelo Town Hall for a performance some years back, so I already had a of hint of what I might be in for. But I have never seen or heard anything quite like the 50 minutes of solo tabla interpretations and improvisations that Dr Pradhan gifted us with. Memorable in every way!

On my very last day in town, I spent a relaxed afternoon with Pugsley Buzzard and his faultless New Orleans stride piano at the Drunken Poet Pub in Peel Street. Pugsley’s got the blues down to his bones, that’s certain, and he delivers his message with the low-down, raspy authority of Louis Armstrong and Tom Waits. The perfect mix with those couple of pints of Guinness served up by Siobhan who was tending the Drunken Poet bar on the day, with genuine Celtic grace and charm.

Along with these highlights, of course, there were any number of those sudden little cafe or on-the-street epiphanies when, all of a sudden, you just make contact with something: with a person, or a mood, or a sound, a smell, a sight, or simply with the almost overwhelming energy of the passing flow of the city itself. The pulse, the beat of the place. The sorts of gifts that fall to the traveller.

While in town I also had the honour of appearing live one evening on ABC Radio 774, Statewide Victoria.

When I returned to my accommodation after this encounter, I wrote a letter to an old friend about the experience. It’s a pretty fair summary of the event, so I'm including it here in its entirety, knowing with certainty that Bob won’t mind.

 
Dear Bob,

I was thinking of you tonight, walking up and down the main street in this suburb of Melbourne that I’m staying in. 

In a place about as small as The Plumb Crazy* (*Bob’s sailboat, where I stay when in the SF Bay Area) I might add. An old single-room house trailer (called a caravan in these parts) in somebody’s back yard. Complete with a funky (but private) kitchen and bath house. Airbnb. Itinerant accommodation, and pretty friendly.

Anyhow - back to why I was thinking of you. I was actually looking for a bowl of noodle soup - you know, like we’ve done together at an early AM hour in Oakland a few times. And what came to mind was: damn! If this were Bob’s town, he’d know exactly where to go! In fact, he’d know exactly how to drive us there, and would do so almost effortlessly, in the middle of talking stories as we usually do when we’re together.

Too bad. But perhaps another time. And who knows - maybe then it will be tacos in the Mission District of San Francisco!

Anyway, before this unsuccessful noodle search I had an interesting on-air interview with a fellow who’s a musician, writer and composer - of a hit Aussie musical, amongst other things. The two of us clicked. Especially when he asked that almost inevitable question about who my influences were - who I had listened to that had made me want to write songs.

I’d heard it before. This time though, I was ready. I had done some thinking about it.

Without hesitation, I answered “William Shakespeare. My first and most enduring influence. Classics Illustrated Comic Books. Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth. I read them as a kid. They were illustrated comics alright, but the language … it was Shakespeare in pure form, verbatim. It knocked me out. How could I not become a writer after that?”
While I was answering, I looked across the studio console at my interviewer. He was lit up. I could tell he was inspired.

Almost instantaneously, he began quoting first lines from his favourite Shakespearean sonnets. He then spoke of the condensed nature, the compactness of the language of poetry and theatre, and of how the craft of songwriting calls the writer to something different. In his words, to find air, breathing space, for the words. Space for the listener to come into the conversation.
I don’t know if our talk set any red lights flashing on the ABC Melbourne complaint line  (if they have one) but who cares? In so far as I am concerned, we were participating in a moment of truth. A moment of communion. A moment so powerful that I forgot that I was live on radio!

Casey Bennetto is the fellow’s name. He appears to be one of those people who are tuned in to the great Cosmic belly-laugh. As I was halfway through performing my first song, he picked up the big Maton Dreadnaught that was sitting next to him and started playing accompaniment spontaneously. He played pretty well, too. You have no idea how much looking over the console desk at him smiling and having a great time just had me relax. And it was totally appropriate, in view of our talk, to be doing the song together.

So anyhow - that was my night. And now: unaccustomed planes flying overhead, unaccustomed city noises. And out in the streets and neighbourhoods, everything sectioned off. Different from home. An unfamiliar place, yet full of possibility.

And here I am, answering the call of the troubadour. 

Such a call as it is!

Love,

Michael
(With Casey Bennetto, ABC Radio 774 Statewide Victoria)

California...

Dear Friends,

It’s always a good day when a new song gets written! And today has been a good day.

I’ve been riding the Amtrak Surfliner along the Southern Pacific rails that flow north and south between San Francisco and San Diego, travelling with everything that I need: two hats, my usual Akubra Stylemaster and a newly-acquired Stetson Panama for those days when California has been exactly what its Spanish name suggests, cali (hot) and fornia (oven or furnace); my Gibson LG-1 acoustic in its flight case; my lightweight Mac laptop and a library/office that fits into my courier bag; a Yoga mat and a compact preventative medicine department.

The porters on the Surfliner all dress in the old-style trainman uniform: dark blues ands stiff round caps with shiny silver badges, leather gloves and heavy watch chains hanging out of their pockets. They nod respectfully and they walk past and see me writing at my window seat, my hat slouched over my forehead. As if they understand how immensely useful this rolling workplace has been to me.

But back to the new song.

It’s gospel, straight-up. At least for now.

It’s entitled “It All Falls Down”.
It contains signs of warning, desperate times, destruction.
But at the end there is a hint of Revelation.
Does any of this sound familiar?

My thoughts pan over to Heath Cullen on Australia's Far South Coast, working his way toward mixing the material from our Los Angeles sessions in late May. The recording went magically - almost unbelievably so. We have gold to work with.

All thanks to Heath for putting the diverse pieces of this project into place, and for being always so strong and so sure. It is generally not helpful to hold on to expectations, and Mr Cullen is a man who certainly has a road of his own to travel. But if the prospect of collaborating with him ever rises up again, my gear will be packed and I will be ready.

I’m presently about a week away from my flight back to Australia. The Surfliner has carried me up and down the coast for visits with the matriarchs of our family: my mother Doris, 91years, in Carlsbad; my aunt Lee, her sister, 84 years, in Santa Barbara. Sharing stories which have illuminated the past, and which have brought the present into clear relief. Honouring my lineage, in my way. Using this time - which, like all time everywhere, is precious - to create a keepsake.

My hope is that this message will find you in the finest of health and spirits, participating as fully as possible in this gift we have which is called our life.

My very best wishes to you,

Michael