Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Soul Full

Mo, in all his glory. Photo by Danny Kean via Pinterest

So there we were, driving down Highway 101 a few weekends ago, when my husband suddenly exclaimed, "WHAT IN THE.....Did you guys see that?! Tell me you saw that!!!!!" Sophia and I immediately brought our noses up out of our iPhones with guilty looks on our faces. Obviously we did not see whatever it was. I was engrossed in a rousing game of Farm Heroes; my daughter was caught in the act of Snapchatting.

"You didn't see the guy in the back of the pickup truck playing the piano with a dog on top? Oh. My. God. You have to see this."

Eddie whipped the car around so fast that it hurt my head, and went back to a small pullout at the scenic overlook by Black Rock, somewhere between Gold Beach and Brookings. And sure enough, there was a guy in the bed of a little red truck, playing an upright piano, with a rather large beagle perched on top of it, ears flapping in the coastal breeze.

That was my introduction to Danny Kean, and his adorable dog, Mo.

Lots of people have followed Danny's journey since he sold his house back east over a decade ago and starting exploring the continent with his dog, his truck and his music making machine, so I'll let other journalists give you the back story. but it took the two of us about 90 seconds to connect on a pretty deep and profound level. I think it was because I understood immediately what he was doing out there playing music to the wind, and inviting random passersby, like my daughter, to get up and take a turn improvising a tune, and then taking a photo of them for his blog.

He was finding his joy, and fixing his soul.

I guess I should probably tell you a little bit more about Danny Kean, at least so you'll understand why the two of us completely understood each other in those few moments that we spent exchanging information in a gravel parking lot by the side of the Pacific Ocean.

Dan is an incredibly talented ragtime piano player. For decades he was a professional piano pounder, mainly in parades, he said. He told me he'd play the same 20 songs over and over again, much to the delight of the people hearing him for the first time. But after playing the Maple Leaf Rag for the gazillionth time, he lost his passion for it. So he sold his house, sold his stuff, and took most prized possessions (his dog and his keyboard) on the road for a Travels with Charley-esque trip that still isn't over yet, although he's pretty much run out of funds and is starting to look for a place to park his truck for awhile.

A quick side note before I get back to my point, if you'll indulge me. John Steinbeck's Travels With Charley was one of my favorite reads as a teenager. I was already infected by the same wanderlust that led Steinbeck to road trip around the United States with his standard poodle in a little travel trailer. My wanderlust took me to islands in Greece and Alaska, but Steinbeck brought another era of the U.S. to life for me, back to an era just before my birth, and made it come alive. I'm still kind of smitten with the notion of packing up my animals and my husband and just going wherever we can go and seeing whatever we can see.

Anyway, I don't know if Danny Kean has ever read Steinbeck, but one thing he said in Travels With Charley resonates so well with me, that I already know Danny would agree.

“A sad soul can kill you quicker, far quicker, than a germ.” - John Steinbeck
I think Mr. Kean was a little bit soul sick for awhile. I think that what was once really fun, a novelty, had started to become monotonous, sucking the life out of him slowly, song by song. Now I don't know this because he told me, I'm really just reading between the lines of my own life. But the cure to fixing his soul was taking that dog on the road and playing the piano wherever the mood struck him. In forests. City corners. Islands in Alaska, and the rugged landscapes of Newfoundland and the redwoods of Northern California.

I don't mean to imply that Danny's soul was broken in any way, or that someone broke his heart, or left him sad in need of healing and mending. I think a lot of times we do it to ourselves. What I mean is this: when we're doing what we love, surrounded by people we love, and we're having fun doing it, it shouldn't feel like work. But sometimes it's possible to fall out of love with what we're doing, or the people we're surrounded by, and suddenly it's not just work. It's hard work. And for Danny Kean, playing the same 20 songs over and over and over and over and over and over again...well, you get the point. Somewhere along the way, he fell out of love with it.

I can relate. I fell out of love once with the man I was married to when he embarked on a spiritual quest that left me behind in the dust. When that happened, he became a different person, and a chunk of my soul turned black, cracked off and fell into an abyss. I had a few healing moments along the way, but ultimately the damage wasn't repaired until I admitted not only to myself, but to him that we owed it to ourselves to part ways. In fact I think at the time the analogy I used was that he and I started off on the same path, but ended up on completely different journeys. He needed to continue on his, and I needed to continue on mine. Separately. It wasn't until Eddie came along and offered me so much love that my drought-stricken heart not only filled all the way back up to the brim, I thought it might burst from all the love and affection he showered me with. No, shower isn't the right word. It's like he took a garden hose, turned the spigot all the way on, set the nozzle to Jet, then pointed it right at me and pulled the trigger. That fixed me. (Note: When I read this out loud to Eddie, he thought a fire hose would be more appropriate, but that's probably because he still wants to be a fireman when he grows up.)

I didn't tell Danny that story. Instead, I told him about how I felt when 99% of the music I loved was taken away from me. Now, I don't want you to think I'm complaining. Because I'm not. I love my job. Most of the time. But I'll admit that when I left Alaska to take the job as JPR's Northern California Program Coordinator, I was a little bit crestfallen when I found out that instead of getting to mix together all kinds of cool music on 89.7 FM (the Rhythm & News Service), that I was going to host a Classical music program. 

I'm fine with Classical music. It's quite lovely. And over the past 14 years (in fact, this week marks my 14th anniversary of moving to Redding and starting the job), I've grown very fond of the genre. But for me, someone who love love love love loves music, all kinds of music, it's a little bit limiting. Actually that's soft pedaling how I feel about it. It's extremely limiting. And now I am going to sound like I'm complaining. And that's okay, because it's how I felt for a long time, but I don't anymore. I understand and respect my audience. But it's hard to express the sadness I felt when I realized I had a taken a job where I wasn't able to share all of the different kinds of music that I loved. At least every work day was filled with music, it just wasn't the kind of music I was hoping for. It was kind of like ending up in an arranged (but comfortable) marriage after fantasizing that someday I'd fall madly in love with a handsome young man who'd sweep me off my feet, make me his bride and....well, you know. 
So don't tell my boss, but when he informed me that I'd be hosting the Classical music program, he effectively poked a tiny little hole in the bottom of my soul, and slowly, ever so slowly, the passion - that's the stuff that souls are made of - started to leak out.

I'm not saying that my soul was empty when Adam walked in the door ten years later, but I was definitely running low. I wasn't going to quit my job or anything, I've got a pretty good gig at JPR. But…since I seem to be stuck on the marriage analogy was like I had a marriage that had everything a woman from the fifties might have wanted, but with one tiny, yet important detail missing…a handsome older man who provided stability, security, a nice house with a white picket fence and a couple of kids; everything but passionate sex. I just wasn't feelin' it anymore, you know? Things had gotten a little stagnant and ho-hum, because I was missing the variety that I'd had in my younger years. I suppose I was ripe for a musical affair.

Here I go, quoting people again, but this time I'm quoting myself. I'm just going to take you back a few months to a column I wrote where I mentioned the genesis of the Mistress of the Mix. We're heading back five years ago to this very month, it might've even been today, when Adam Mankowski walked into my office and said, "Hey Val, you should write a column for A News Cafe," and my response was not exactly what he expected:

"What in the world would I write about?" I said."How about music," said he."Ohhh, that would be soooo boring." I replied. (Because I was thinking inside the box. The Classical box.)And then I started thinking (about a radio program I'd done back in my Alaska community radio days), and I told Adam how amazing it felt to weave stories and experiences with a playlist of music that went together perfectly. If only there was a way I could do something like that for the internet."
Adam, instead of holding me back, encouraged me to figure out how to make it happen. And the more I thought about it, the more excited I got. And the more excited I got, the more joyful I became about music once more. The creative juices started flowing, and my musical soul started filling back up with passion again. 

You see, I'm not writing this column for you, or for my work, or because anyone is paying me (although Doni has showered me with lemon curd and ginger snaps). I'm doing this because this is what fulfills my soul. Sharing this part of me makes me feel alive and invigorated, and honestly makes me feel like I'm still staying on top of my game. Because while during the day I'm sharing 200 year old music with my fans across a pretty big chunk of the west coast, but at night, I'm the Mistress of the Mix. And when I'm writing about something I feel passionate about, and I find just the right songs to artfully weave together to create the perfect playlist, well, I feel like my needle is right in the groove.

That's what Danny Kean is doing. He found a way to step outside of that ragtime rut he was in, and discovered a way to share music - all kinds of music - with all kinds of people all over the continent in a way that made him feel alive again. I could see it in the smile on his face as he watched Sophia climb up into the back of his truck. "Just put your hands on the keys and make a sound. See what happens, just PLAY," he said. He had a peaceful, joyful look of content on his face that told me that this journey he was on was teaching him all about how to take tedious work and turn it into play all over again, and that sharing music, and helping other people discover music, has given that man his soul back. I know that look. It's how I feel every time I finish another column.

Today's playlist is soul full. I went to my favorite soul man, Good Rockin' Derral Campbell for a little help. He's introduced me to so much great soul music over the years that he includes in his Saturday night show on JPR, "Late Night Blues." Check it out at 10pm every Saturday night on JPR (locally at 89.7 FM and streaming online), and enjoy today's Soul Fixer playlist on Spotify by clicking on the arrow below.

Peace out. Soul full.

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