Thursday, September 30, 2010

Maggie's Bucket List

by Maggie Mayall

In 2004, I took a cold hard look at what I’d done with my life. Turning 50 will do that to you. Turning 50 gives you perspective. Getting old(er) ain’t for sissies. It ain’t for the faint of heart, I can tell you that.  When I turned 50, I started to wonder, “OK. Now what?”

Let’s just say—just to round things off to a nice even number—this is the halfway point. Let’s just say I stay healthy and everything goes well from now on—that I’ve survived the excessive and hard-partying 20’s, the road, a few rock bands, a long-term marriage and being a parent. Let’s just say stress and worry and a traffic accident doesn’t send me to an early grave, and luck and keeping up the good work with my lifestyle will help keep some of the genetic predispositions of my family tree at bay.

Ok, so let’s just say I make it to about 100. What do I do for the second half?

When I turned 50 I thought, “What have I left undone?  If I knew that I was going to go tomorrow, was there anything that I regretted not doing?”

First crazy thing I did was I cut my hair. It was like I was struck with an insane urge. I had to do it. I’d read once that in some cultures, cutting your hair is a spiritual cleansing and a beginning of a rebirth. I have to admit, doing that did have an effect on me: Annoyance. It was very cute, but it was a bitch to keep styled.

Well at least I didn’t get a sports car.

I thought about the fact that I had never released a record of my own. Oh, sure, I’d done a lot of recording. But when I’m 99 years and 364 days old, would I be sad that I didn’t have a record? And my answer was yes, I would be sad. So I released an album, “dig this,” in 2006—an anthology of never-released material. For good measure, I put a band together and played a few gigs. And I’m very happy I did that.

Since then, my hair’s grown out again (thank God), I lost 40 pounds (boy so THAT was a weight off my ass!) and I started working out. I’m in the best shape of my life. My goal is to be able to do at least one chin-up someday. Maybe I’ll end up some kind of geriatric body builder or something, who knows?

I started making a “Bucket List” and checking things off.

Sometimes when I tell people about my “Bucket List” they say that’s for people who are going to die.

But an emergency room nurse told me once, “Statistics show that 100% of us are going to die.”

Thank God I wasn’t in the emergency room when she told me that.

When I was 26, I went on the road to Australia with my boyfriend as part of his band. It was a crazy trip. A lot of stories there, some scandalous, but this is not the place for it. I’ll have to write that in my memoir. Which is on my Bucket List.

I loved Australia and always wanted to go back there. I especially wanted to go back there older and wiser and a lot more sane than I was when I was 26. And I always regretted that I had never seen The Great Barrier Reef. So I put that on my Bucket List.

While I was envisioning going to the Great Barrier Reef someday soon, I joined a writers’ group and started writing an online column about my life, getting a chance to hone my skills for my eventual memoir-writing. See how everything comes together?

Lo and behold, earlier this year, the stars aligned and I was able to join my husband (the former boyfriend) on the road again in Australia. After spending a week with him and the band (with no kids!), and singing with the band—something I didn’t even put on the list but should have—I got on a little plane by myself and went up to Cairns where I caught a boat out to the reef. I took a lot of underwater pictures and checked another one off.

See Alaska and walk on a glacier? Check!

Ride a bicycle in Paris? Check!

Start a new blog? Check!

River raft trip down the Grand Canyon? We did that in July. But John (the boyfriend/husband) broke a rib, so I’m going to have to be careful about dragging him along for some of this stuff.

About a month ago, my sister and I camped out in a parking lot all night somewhere near Boston for a TV show called The Amazing Race. Tried out for a Reality Show? Check!

I don’t have to worry about running out of things  to do because I keep adding to the list. I’d like to go swing a hammer somewhere, building houses for some people that need it. Anywhere in the world will do.

Also on the list: Sing the National Anthem at a professional baseball game and ride a bicycle to The Great Wall of China. I’m on a roll. I think all I have to do is envision it and when the time is right, the path to it will show itself.

I mean, after all, I’m only 56. Got another 44 years to go, right?

Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Turnaround

by Maggie Mayall

12-Bar Blues Song Recipe
1.     Start on the “1” (the root chord)
2.     Tell the first part of the story in four bars
3.     Go to the “4” (4 whole steps up from the “1”)
4.     Build the story there for another four bars
5.     Wrap up the story and climax it with a "hook,"  or “The Turnaround,” jumping to the "5," then "4," then back to "1" again (" 5-4-1") in four bars
6.     Repeat steps 1-6 for verses 2, 3, etc.
7.     Optional: Put in a bridge (usually involves going to the "4" and doing some other fancy stuff)
8.     Optional: Repeat Step 6, as desired,  and vamp to end the song

Any musician with even a minimal knowledge of the blues knows that "5-4-1" is The Turnaround.  The Turnaround is where it all comes together.

Don’t be deceived at how simple this looks.  I’ll tell you from experience, it’s not an easy form to write.  I’ve given the form a good try a few times in my day, and have only been modestly successful.  

A good blues song is a miracle.

First of all, there has to be a story with an edge, a good story with a unique way to put it.  And then there’s the necessity of the “hook” at the turnaround.  

What a thing to behold is a good blues song! Cases in point: “Goin’ To Chicago,” “Have You Ever Loved A Woman,” “St. Louis Blues,” “I’m Tore Down,” “Hound Dog,” “The Thrill Is Gone,” “Woke Up This Morning,” and of course “Room To Move,” just to name a few.

I was contemplating this several years ago as I was driving my car on one of our usual family shuttling trips. My husband, “The Bluesman” John Mayall, was relegated to the back, as our then-11-year old, Sammy, had commandeered “shotgun.”

Sammy--we called him Lil’ Dude then--with his baseball cap strategically low and tilted to one side over his wraparound shades, sat up front with an ulterior motive: to put the car radio on the local Hip-Hop station, because that's what he was into then.

Poor Bluesman.  “Aaarrrgh” is what I think I heard him say back there behind me.

Protesting at the assault on our ears, I turned it off, emitting complaints from Lil’ Dude. 

I’m not saying I don’t like Hip-Hop, because that wouldn’t be true. I refuse to close my mind to any genre of music, but my taste was still stuck in the 90’s and early 2000's, though, with Will Smith’s “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It,”  Run DMC’s “Walk This Way,” 50 Cent’s “In Da Club” and Yung Joc’s “It’s Goin’ Down,” Outkast’s “Hey Ya” and Jurassic 5’s “Work It Out.” Oh, and “Baby Got Back” by Sir Mix-a-lot, because I like a little humor.  

But the song that was playing was actually draining IQ points from my brain.  I could feel my intelligence slipping away.  So, as usual, I made this a "teaching moment" for Lil’ Dude.

"Lil' Dude," I said, "here’s how it goes:  someone sets a thing called a drum machine on a catchy Hip-Hop beat and then they add a booming bass line to it.  Then someone plays a cheesy chord and the rapper starts a monotone rap. The lyrics will go something like this...." I then kind of used a goofy Brooklyn-type accent or something, for effect.

"I’m kickin it around and the girl has got me groovin
 I like your #*#s and they shake with how you’re movin...."

"And then they change to another cheesy chord," I say. 

Lil' Dude's mouth had dropped open. 

I couldn't see his eyes, because of the shades you know, but I think I had his attention at this point.

I forge ahead:
     “You R da bomb and I like it like that, You R da bomb and it’s really @@##in phat."  (I think I'm on a roll here)

I continue, "Then the girl comes in. She doesn't really have a melody, just the key, so she vamps with what we call 'The Wobbly Singing."

"I’m your girl and I’m humpin with the bumpin and baby I’m your girl and I’m bumpin with the humpin"* 

Pause here, for effect. Drink it in, Mom, drink it in.

“Ha. Ha. Ha,” Lil’ Dude deadpanned, as he slapped the radio back on, in defiance of what I personally feel was an absolutely spot-on brilliant satire.  Then the song that came on was pretty much a copy of what I just demonstrated. 

Chalk one up for big mama.

Lil’ Dude looked at me incredulously for a moment, like I’d just performed a magic trick right there in the car.  Then he slumped down in his seat, crossing his arms.  I think there may have been a hint of admiration in his eyes, though, but I couldn’t really tell, under the shades and all.

I looked at The Bluesman in the rearview mirror.  He was smiling with me.

Eventually I had to let it go with Lil’ Dude, the same way I did with his big brother Skater Dude Zak. Thank God the Hip-Hop stage didn't last very long. They eventually come around if you leave 'em alone.


These days, The Bluesman and I and our two sons share the diverse language of music as more of an exchange. I learn a lot from them. And I actually really love most of the stuff they listen to. And I hope they've learned something from us.

But I’ll always marvel at the simple form of a good blues song.

And rejoice in The Turnaround.

(This piece originally appeared as my first essay for my column called "The Tour Bus is on Fire," in October 2006. It has been slightly edited for updating here, and, please note: *Simplified lyrics example only—No actual songs were harmed in the making of this essay.)

Friday, September 17, 2010

Brain Fire

by Maggie Mayall

Last week, we watched devastation in San Bruno, when a gas line exploded, wiping out a section of a quiet neighborhood in suburban San Francisco.

I know what it’s like to be in a firestorm.  I have seen a wall of flames up close and personal.

A couple of years ago during another of our Southern California fire seasons, the ash and soot filled the air and fell on us like snow. We cleaned it up, again, hosing down the driveway and the cars. The pool sweep worked overtime sucking up the grainy black dust that settled on the bottom. We restricted our outdoor activities for a few days, the air a thick smoky haze from a fire that burned 20 miles away. The sunsets turned burnt-orange with grey streaks—colorful, but ominous. The news programs provided round-the-clock, unrelenting coverage, bombarding us with countless images of destruction, heroism, broken hearts and satellite images of huge plumes of smoke stretching hundreds of miles over the Pacific Ocean—until we heard “10% contained” or better, breaking finally for commercials and other news.

Every fire season brings out my “Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome,” from when the Laurel Canyon Fire surprised my husband and I on a hot and lazy Sunday afternoon, September 16, 1979. When we lost it all. When we escaped with our lives and nothing but the clothes on our backs. When John dropped the garden hose and we ran like hell, driving through flames in our friend’s Chevy Suburban.

That day is still with me, in the recesses of my heart and my mind and in the cells of my body. This week, it is 31 years later. And yet, when the anniversary comes or the Santa Ana winds show up again, I can enter my own “high pressure zone.” I get brain fire. I have a heightened state of alert. I keep an eye on the horizon and listen for the thump-thump-thump of the helicopters. I can smell smoke sooner than others. I get sad. I smell destruction. I feel the pain that the new victims must be feeling.

I go back there like a soldier in combat mode.
I know what it’s like to sift through hot ashes looking for possessions—any little thing that’s left: a twisted shard of metal, a broken pot, a piece of melted glass. I know what it’s like to see the material evidence of a life vaporized. I have that tattoo branded with charcoal on my soul. The ink of it has faded, but it will always be there. I have a smell of burn that lingers in the lining of my nose. Forever.

Though we've had a reasonably mild summer and a comparatively slower fire season here in SoCal, fires nowadays are far superior, major monster home-eaters, a sign that urban over-development and global-warming drought have made conditions ripe for more devastating firestorms today. And they are not just limited to SoCal--case in point: Colorado this year.

I used to hear that a burn is a natural occurrence in the life cycle of brush and undergrowth of California chaparral. We don't hear that anymore. Maybe because these fires are not natural.

At the time of our fire, our section of Laurel Canyon had not experienced a burn in recorded history. Those were the days, too, just preceding strict brush-clearance laws in Southern California. On the day of our fire, Los Angeles’ giant fire trucks were unrehearsed in negotiating our narrow canyon roads, compounding the problem.  It took them over an hour to get to our street, Grandview Drive, but by then it was too late. Twenty-four houses burned to the ground that day.

Our Laurel Canyon Fire was small in contrast to today’s fires. It burned hot and fast, but the LAFD ended up knocking ours out comparatively quickly. Even though the trucks didn’t make it in time, they were testing a new fire-fighting plane that day called the “Super Scooper.” From our vantage-point on Mount Olympus, where we escaped, we watched them drop a whole plane-full of ocean water, like a small lake, keeping the firestorm from advancing too far.  It was awesome—but too late for us and twenty-three other homes.

After our fire, we spent three years rebuilding. We got married and started our family, rising from the ashes like the Phoenix.

We changed after that, though, eventually moving away to flatter land in the San Fernando Valley, with sidewalks and green lawns and no chaparral to burn.

Still, every year, when the fires kick up again, I relive it all. I still do.

When the Santa Ana winds start to blow and the air is hot and the brush is tinder-dry, I scan the sky. I am on alert. I smell the smoke before anyone else can, even when the windows are closed. I wake up in the middle of the night and wonder why.

And then I remember.

(this essay has been slightly edited from the original that was published in my former column, "The Tour Bus is on Fire.")