We’re All Stardust

David Bowie passed away peacefully yesterday. He fought against the cancer eating away at his body for a year and a half, and all the while, he was creating more art to share with the world. Throughout his storied career, he put out 25 – twenty-five – albums. That is an absolutely insane body of work. That’s not even mentioning how many different times he reinvented his style and himself. He was never afraid to embrace new things (or if he was, he didn’t let that fear slow him down) and immerse himself in the sheer passion and beauty and weirdness that was life and this sad, strange, incredible little rock we ride through space.

Like millions of others, I was a fan of Bowie. I admired him as a musician, as an actor, and as a man. I was a weird kid, into learning and comic books and other things that got me labeled as a nerd and kept my peers from inviting me to things, so to see someone dress and act so flamboyantly/bad-ass/striking and still pull off so much charm gave me a little hope that some day I could just own my interests and quirks and pull off my own style with the same success.

And while the first time I think I really saw David Bowie was as Jareth the Goblin King in Labyrinth (a movie I must have watched a hundred times as a kid), rocking an outfit nobody should have realistically been able to pull off, I was already a fan and didn’t know it. I got a lot of my musical taste listening to the bands and artists that my dad liked, so I had already picked up and jammed out to a score of Bowie songs before I even knew his name. They still put a smile on my face years later. It’s good music, great songs.

Now… all that being said, I have to admit that I was never the kind of guy to buy albums. I didn’t obsess over a band’s entire catalogue. Hell, half the time I couldn’t tell you the name of a song that’s playing, or even who performed it. I just know what I like and enjoy it when it comes on.

I wasn’t and am not as well-versed in David Bowie’s work as many others are or even as much as I probably should be, considering my tastes and how much I admire who he was, what he accomplished and what he put out. If you’ve paid any attention to the things I’ve written before, however, you’ll know there is at least one unshakeable truth about me: I believe in and unabashedly love art in all its forms. I may be the Story Man, but paintings, performances, poems, and especially music all serve to provide an outlet for energy, and an escape from the stress and the mundane.

To that end, when a brilliant artist passes, it’s felt less like a ripple than a wave. There is a sudden void where once there was vibrancy. A light was extinguished and with it, an eternal darkness covers all of the potential art that could have been. Even passing fans are deeply troubled by the ceasure of that existence.

But as that sadness permeates in our chest and behind our eyes, we find ourselves doing what we do whenever a great artist passes: revisiting the things they gifted to us. When Robin Williams passed away, we turned on the films that made us laugh and cry throughout the years of our lives. When the tragic news broke about David Bowie, we immediately turned the records on, we popped in Labyrinth and The Man Who Fell to Earth and even The Prestige, because even though his turn as Tesla was relatively brief, it was performed with gravitas.

We’re left with so much music and so much influence and we use what he gave us to help cope with the fact he can’t give us more, that we can’t see him perform live, that we can’t meet him.

David Bowie was an artist. He was more than that, especially to his friends and family, but to most of us, he was an artist. What puts him on a different level than so many others is that he was his art. Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke, the Goblin King. As many times as he changed his musical styles, he changed his personas and allowed it all to work together to create something haunting, strange, beautiful, captivating, passionate, and ethereal. He constantly shifted his art, but he always lived and breathed it. So rarely are there Michael Jacksons and Robin Williamses and Freddy Mercurys and David Bowies that when they leave us, everyone has to stop and take a breath because those people are creative giants who have affected not only the world with what they’ve created and how they created it, but also because of the inarguable imprint they’ve left on the sheer concept of art. They inspire new styles, new chances, new bravery. They help us cope by showing us beauty in the world when we’ve forgotten how to look for it alone.

Lou Anders wrote a touching tribute to David Bowie that puts into words so much better the things I feel and wanted to say. You can and should read it here: Something Happened On the Day He Died.

Rob Bricken wrote a more comprehensive analysis of the impact David Bowie left on music, art, science fiction, and really, the world. You can and should read it here: All the Ways David Bowie Changed Our Lives and Expanded Our Minds.

Bowie’s influence has and will stay with us on an emotional and inspirational level. It’s a juggernaut of strangeness and versatility that can’t easily be shaken. And why would you want to? I’ve heard it said that physiologically we’re made from the same elements as the stars. What better evidence that we’re Stardust than hanging on to Bowie?

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Go Out And Get ‘Em, and a Birthday Note

Through high school, there were teachers I hated, teachers I respected, teachers I had crushes on and teachers who left absolutely no lasting impression on me whatsoever. There are very few, though, that I genuinely consider friends.

I was a teacher’s aid for Chad Sant’s more traditional academic course (History, I believe, though I was more concerned with grading papers and giving girls back massages), but the class I was an actual student in was his acting class.

I had never really done acting before that class. I took it because I needed electives, it seemed easy, and a couple girls I had crushes on were in it. Participation was mandatory. There were a lot of improv games: park bench, questions, sausage…that last one isn’t what you might think. We also had to memorize monologues and perform them for the class.

I liked being a smart-ass. I liked pushing the limits and being a class clown. All the same, I had yet to acquire my comfort for the spotlight. I was nervous being in front of so many people and reciting something or becoming somebody I wasn’t or reading something I had written. So it was with complete skepticism that I met Chad’s suggestion I should audition for the school play.

Now, this was senior year. I had never acted on stage before where others had been doing it for 6 years or more. I had quit band after 8th grade because I was afraid of anything that might get me picked on. But Chad insisted, my friends encouraged me and I went in and did a cold read that I thought went fucking terribly. I tossed the script in the trash on my way out, headed to the mall and – I don’t recall exactly – probably got drunk that weekend. I was an angry, lonely seventeen year old. I had a routine.

Cut to a week later when I happened by Chad’s classroom and found the cast list posted on his door. To my surprise, I had been cast as Dallas Winston in S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders. I hemmed and hawed over it for almost a week before grudgingly accepting. I had never read the book. I didn’t even finish the script. Chad brought the movie in for us to watch and that was the first time I discovered that I died in the end and fuck yes, this was actually going to be awesome.

Spoiler alert, but that book has been out almost 50 years and the film for over 30. Matt Dillon played my character. Tom Cruise still had a fucked up nose and crooked teeth. It was truly a different time.

Anyway, the show did not go off without its hitches. In the premiere show for the school, in front of the artsy kids, the special needs kids, several teachers and the principal of the school, the gun I was supposed to pull on the policeman got caught in the pocket of my leather jacket. I let out a frustrated, “FUCK”, at which point I was gunned down, the lights dimmed and I could hear one of the girls backstage say, “Whaaat did he just say?”

I didn’t get in trouble. It still makes me laugh, because it really did warrant at least a detention. At least one. But Chad told the principal to chalk it up to nerves and when I apologized, he turned to me and said, “Huh? Oh. Yeah. Don’t….do that again.”

There are plenty of other stories from that show and the two others (Grease, Pirates of Penzance) I performed in under his direction. But this isn’t about me, as much as I like to talk about myself.

I bring up my experiences in theater because it opened up a lot for me. It opened up a love for the craft I never could have imagined. I’ve only done six shows, some high school drama competitions, a couple Renaissance Faires and a couple short indy films, but holy shit has it influenced my life.

I began writing more – short fictions, poems with plot, starts of novels, screenplays – because I fell in love with the art of storytelling. I owe being an author, screenwriter and poet in part to that.

I moved to Los Angeles when I was 21 because of a want to be an actor/writer. I failed so fucking hard. But that dream led me to one of the loves of my life and some of the best friends I’ve ever known. I felt more at home there than anywhere and I want to move back. The dream of acting led me there.

My theater experience in school led me to a few shows with city theater groups. I met another love of my life through that, in a passionate, ill-advised tryst. Through her, I was introduced to the karaoke bar I fell in love with until it closed. Through experience in musical theater, I was given the opportunity to judge karaoke contests and everything that entailed.

Chad Sant set me on this path as an artist. He took me aside and told me he believed in me. More than that, that he needed me to help complete his casts and bring everything together. Now, that’s bullshit. I was absolutely replaceable. Almost all of us were. But he made me feel like I wasn’t. He drove me to and from rehearsals. He talked to me about life between classes. He treated me like an adult and didn’t hold back when discussing and debating mature topics. He didn’t treat me like I was stupid.

Chad has purchased each book I’ve put out so far. He has brought them into his classrooms and told his students about me. He’s made an effort to keep in touch since I’ve graduated and put in a good word.

And you know what?  I’m not the only one he does this for. He’s gone to Jessica Singleton’s comedy shows. He regularly goes out for dinner with several of his more prestigious former students. He keeps us all apprised on each other and instills in us a sense of accomplishment not just in ourselves but with these former colleagues we suffered through high school with. He helps us maintain a sense of camaraderie through years without communication.

He’s a good man. A kind man. An inspiring man. He’s funny and smart and he sees potential in people. I wrote before that testing doesn’t equal teaching, and Chad is a perfect example of the educator who goes above and beyond to make sure his students are invested in learning, in being something more than themselves. When he sees the capabilities a person possesses, he pushes them to accept that role and pursue that path.

He convinced me to pursue that path and gave me the confidence and encouragement to keep the journey going. Those dreams and experiences have taken me to some of the best, most adventurous, most instructive, most fun, most challenging moments of my life.

Anyway, it was his birthday yesterday. It isn’t much, Mr. Sant, but here you go:

***

The toll of the bell indicated the day was over. Christian watched his students push themselves out of folding seats and pull their backpacks up from the aisles before filing out of the theater. A few kids raised their hands to high five and fist bump him as they passed. He did so pleasantly, a smile on his face, and wished them an awesome weekend.

After the last of his pupils passed through into the lobby, he pulled the faded red doors shut and locked them tight. He turned and strode down the stairs, carpet torn from decades of trampling feet and inattention. At the front of the theater, he lifted one leg and hoisted himself up on the stage. It had been spraypainted the kind of shiny silver-black obsidian was, but each year more and more slivers broke free, revealing the dark brown wood beneath.

Christian didn’t care. This was his dominion. The stage. In front of the crowd and under the spotlight. He glanced out at the seats, empty now by sight but always occupied by the spectres of captive audiences past.

He turned his back to the audience. It was a faux pas during performance, but he stayed behind for himself tonight, unconcerned with the judgement of memories. Instead, he faced the set piece his students had spent the past few weeks diligently constructing and painting. The prized portion was the massive forefront of a castle, twisted through by artificial trees on either side.

The show wasn’t due to start for another month during which he hoped the rehearsals would smooth themselves out a bit more. They often did due to the power of repetition and the growing confidence of his actors in their own abilities. Unimpressed by the standard recycled fare of shows most schools used, he had penned his own fantasy epic with a compelling romantic subplot. His colleague described it as The Princess Bride meets A Midsummer Night’s Dream and implored him to submit it for more professional venues. Christian resisted, insisting he had written it for his students. He wanted to give the kids an opportunity to be a part of something that had never been done before. Something that would be wholly theirs.

Well, mostly theirs.

While Christian had indeed written it himself, he had yet to reveal where the inspiration for the tale had sprung from. Indeed, he didn’t plan on ever confessing. There was too much risk to his reputation, his life, and those who trusted in him.

He lifted his hands and held them before him, palms pressed together and fingertips pointed towards the set piece. He closed his eyes and slowly pulled his hands away from each other. Almost immediately, he felt the fabric separating. A warm gust of air hit him full in the face, fresh with the scent of berries that carried no name. He could hear the gentle songs of four-winged birds as they zipped on by. The fertile soil of a well-worn path stretched out until it replaced the worn wooden floor beneath his feet. He didn’t need to open his eyes to know the passage to the other realm had opened smoothly.

“Mr. Sant?” a voice asked meekly.

The teacher whirled to his right, eyes wide in surprise. He saw Billy Tamlin standing there, a sheaf of papers barely held in his shaking hand. He was a quiet boy that kept to himself unless he was on stage. On stage, he broke out of his shell into a truly wonderful talent.

“I forgot my script…”

Christian swore to himself. He must have forgotten to lock the back door, the one leading out into the side hall, utilized for quick changes and getting any actors who escaped through the crowd back into the theater unseen.

Well. He hadn’t wanted to tell anyone where his inspiration had truly come from, but there was an expression about best laid plans.

The Darker Side of Karaoke

I was initially going to title this, “Karaoke: King of Monsters” because I can’t stop thinking of Godzilla and also I think I’m much funnier than I actually am. Then I was going to title it, “Karrioke” after the woman who won second place in last night’s finals, but you don’t know her so that just…wouldn’t have worked.

The title I chose, though, fits perfectly. I discovered some things about the “mimicking people’s songs” market that have kind of upset me. All it took was a competiton and seven weeks of alcohol.

I love karaoke. Even bad karaoke. I even love karaoke I hate, because even with my ears bleeding and my soul dying with every butchered version of Creep and Hotel California and Rolling in the Deep, the heart of karaoke is beating strong. Even as the steadily expanding group of fucked up rednecks in the corner crow the lyrics to Friends in Low Places in every possible octave and scale, I know the purpose of karaoke is being realized. It’s a beautiful purpose, that.

I performed in a musical back in 2008 called The Boyfriend. It was written by Sandy Wilson and performed originally in the early 1950’s. Set in 1920’s France, it’s a very gay (excessively happy, not homosexual), colorful comedic play about flappers and proper young ladies falling in love. The songs were addictive. The costumes…I had to shave my beard, part my hair to the side and wear a white shirt with red and white striped pants and red suspenders. I haven’t been more ass-kick worthy since I rocked a bowl cut hairdo.

I met a woman in the production (she’s now married, two kids, lounge sings with her husband as a living; it’s awesome) that I ended up sparking a very passionate relationship with. It was something exceptional but, while I don’t want to downplay what we had, she haphazardly introduced me to something that made my life even richer: the karaoke bar.

She lived in an apartment complex connected to a dive bar called the Woodshed Lounge. When I turned 21, I went in a couple times with her. Then I started going in a lot more on my own and with my friends. I didn’t go for the karaoke. I went for the atmosphere. I got to know everyone on the staff: the bartenders, the servers, the karaoke jockeys, the bar backs, the security. I had, uh, relations with some and became incredibly close friends with most. Everyone knew me by name and had my rum and coke ready for me as I walked in the door. It was my Cheers.

I would go there most nights and drink or write or both. I get claustrophobic at home; it’s too quiet. The business of a bar, the caterwauling that bachelorette parties would ejaculate into the mic had a strange focusing effect on me. I seldom sang karaoke unless I was with friends or super drunk, but it happened on occasion. Hey Jude, Wicked Game. If I was sick and my voice dropped, Folsom Prison Blues.

It was a good bar. It was my bar. And I learned while I frequented there the beauty in karaoke.

See, there are incredible singers that go up there and do an amazing job. Trained vocalists, band members, theater performers, naturally gifted folks. Then there are people who go up there and take a song, drag it out into an alley and murder it with the clawed end of a hammer. But the thing they all have in common is that they’re having fun. They’re called up there and maybe they know the song, maybe they don’t, maybe their friend signed them up for something. Maybe they know they suck or think they’re good but either way, doesn’t matter. It’s not about art, it’s about cutting loose and relaxing. It’s about acting a fool and/or putting on a show in front of a large group of people and there’s something pure in that.

Anyway, the Woodshed closed down right after Christmas last year and it bothers me half a year later. It was bad news for me and good news for any bars looking to step their karaoke game up.

A friend of mine in particular was workinf at a much larger local bar with several other bars inside it. He had one section to himself for karaoke that he hosted and he was able to move that from one night a week to five nights. It generated such good reception that he was able to sponsor a karaoke competition that would send one man and one woman down to Nevada to compete nationally.

My friend, knowing I had experience with musical theater and knowing I had on a couple occasions acted as a fill-in judge  at the Woodshed, asked if I would be one of the 2-3 judges for seven weeks in exchange for free drinks. I said yes, of course, because it seemed like fun at the time. And it was.

It was also awful.

Being a judge for seven consecutive weeks is rough. You see a lot of the same contestants come back, trying to get a spot in the finals. Some just aren’t good. Some were vocal coaches and lead singers and seriously, what the fuck am I supposed to say to that? All my fellow judges and I could do was give feedback and tell us what we wanted to see/hear more of, what worked for us and what didn’t and in the end, hope they would utilize that somehow to get better.

Even the worst of them was so much better by the end of the qualifiers. Some of it was our advice (and honestly, some of it was because they ignored it), but a large chunk was just stepping their fucking game up. It was their competition to win or lose and most of them treated it that way.

But guess what? Some people are still just never going to be at that level. Even if they are, consider this: the judges all judge on the same scale (30 points for vocal talent, 20 for stage presence and appearance), but the judges all have different tastes, styles and grading perceptions. Most of the people who got through to the finals I felt deserved it and some I didn’t. I’m sure the other judges felt the same way. But it’s a numbers game and sometimes things get a little fucked up along the way.

And because of that, here’s a fun thing that leads to: resentment. “Oh, it’s just bar karaoke”, you might say, to which I counter that it’s a singing competition, regardless of the method of delivery. You have people busting their ass and who pride themselves on their singing and then their voice catches or the numbers don’t shake out their way or someone will come in for the first time and catch us completely off guard with an incredible performance. So week after week are passing and they’re not making it to the finals.

“What did I do wrong?  What can I do to fix it? What song should I sing?” First off, I’ll never recommend a song to you unless I’ve heard you sing it previously. Secondly, these are things I answer while you’re on stage. I’m not holding back. Cornering me by the bar afterwards isn’t going to make things different.

And it sucks, man. You develop relationships with people. You like their quirks and their personalities. After the show is over, you might even grab a drink together. So it sucks when you can’t pass someone through and they blame you for it. Or they cry. Or they blame themselves.

Performing is an emotional thing and it takes guts and it’s very ego-based. You are demanding attention so that you can give something of yourself back and when it’s ill-received or you fall short of victory, it often makes you feel like shit.

Seven weeks I passed judgment on strangers and friends. Seven weeks I had to see crushing disappointment and anger and tears. And, of course, elation from the winners, which is completely awesome to see, but still. Seven weeks of friends and family members mean-mugging and asking me what the fuck am I thinking and doing.

I almost didn’t go the seventh week and had my friend find a replacement because I didn’t want the pressure. I knew it was the last shot these people had and I didn’t want to be responsible for preventing that for anyone. Ultimately, I decided I had an obligation because I was the one person who had, so far, been there every week. I knew better than anyone what progress was being made and who was putting up their best performance.

I didn’t judge the finals. I’m glad. It would have been a bitch anyway, because the talent was top notch. But for the first time, I got to sit back and just listen to the performances. And holy shit, the crowd was full of people who hated me for not passing them or their friends or families, and people kept getting in my face, demanding to know who I thought would win. So that sucked. The performances were incredible and it was nice to see how many people came together to support some talented singers trying to make a dream come true. But I pretty much took it up the ass for doing my best to get them there.

One final piece of advice for anyone in a competition or planning to compete: if you’re told that maybe you picked the wrong song, pick a different song the next week. If you’re told it’s okay but are given specific things to work on, work on those things instead of picking a different song. A different song at that point could mean brand-new things to work on. Refinement is important.

Be careful about picking difficult songs. They’ll only impress the judges and get you points if you can perform it and you’re not straining on notes or stumbling over runs or lyrics.

And sometimes, if you feel super strongly about it,  do whatever the fuck you want. It might backfire completely, but it might work out, too.

Most importantly, have fun. Feel your songs. Sing to the judges and the crowd but sing FOR you. And never let a bad performance or a loss ever make you feel less about yourself.