Untotaled: Stepping Four (April 28th, 1964) … March 1, 2014

Jonathots Daily Blog

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(Transcript)

The Gospel Tones.

They were a singing group that visited our church on April 28th, 1964–actually, three friends of our pastor, who used to sing together back in college.

The southern gospel quartet–bass, baritone, lead, high tenor–an interesting blending of a musical circus atmosphere mingled with the sanctity and sobriety of the Gregorian chant.

I remember that night well. I had never seen our preacher so alive. He usually had a somberness which accompanied his sermons, granting him the authority to be holy.

But on that night he was moving around and singing low bass notes on the RCA Victor microphone which had been placed in the middle of the platform.

I got excited. Honestly, it was a little corny, but still had enough fun in it that I participated.

After the show everybody processed to the fellowship hall for cookies and punch. I grabbed three of my friends and we headed off  to a Sunday School classroom which had an off-key Wurlitzer piano, and started pounding out some songs of our own. We didn’t sound very good but we were totally enthusiastic.

Right in the middle of an exhilarating screech, one of the church elders stuck his head in, rebuked us and said we were bad children because we weren’t joining in with the rest of the church. My friends were intimidated by the austere condemnation and left to go eat their cookies, but I stayed in the room. I played and played; I sang and sang.

That night changed me. I realized I liked music. I liked entertaining.

I regathered my three friends shortly after that evening and we began to sing everywhere–nursing homes, school talent shows, street rallies, coffee houses–and later, when my buddies paired off and got married, I kept it up.

In the process I worked with the Blackwood Brothers, the Rambos, the Happy Goodmans, the Imperials and the Oak Ridge Boys.

I became an egg. Whether I was scrambled, fried, poached or put in an omelet, I was an egg. You could use me to make a cake, a souffle, or even to hold your meatloaf together.

I was not a ham and certainly not a crab.

On April 28th, 1964, listening to the Gospel Tones, I chose to become an egg. Over the years many people have tried to get me to fit into their box, but I’m an egg.

I was built for a carton. 

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Song Guy … July 28, 2012

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I didn’t know what an ordination was. Probably worse is–I didn’t care. It’s just that this guy I knew was going to be ordained and he asked our fledgling group, Soul Purpose, to sing a tune at his ordination service.

He was probably only twenty-seven years old, but because I was only twenty, I thought he was ancient. (Twenty is that age when anyone nineteen or under is a punk and anyone over twenty-three is heading for social security.

I am sure when this guy asked me to have our group sing, he was thinking about something like Amazing Grace or How Great Thou Art. That was not the way I thought. Even though I was only twenty years old, I had already written two songs, recorded them, put them on a 45 RPM record and had begun to travel around to small coffeehouses and area churches in order to convince all those willing to listen that I was worth hearing. So the invitation to sing a tune at the ordination prompted me to write another song. Now, I lived in a small town, where song-writing was normally relegated to Francis Scott Key or George Gershwin. Young men from the community–especially those who had not gone to college–were not permitted to participate in such a flamboyant activity. So the mention of writing a song was usually greeted with a frown or a snicker. It just wasn’t done.

So when I announced to my friend that I was going to write a special song just for his ordination, he was rather nervous. Matter of fact, he discouraged me from doing so in the nicest way possible. I didn’t care. You see, I wanted to be a Song Guy. One of those people who writes “the songs the whole world sings” and “wants to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony.”

So I sat down and wrote a song, fittingly entitled To Be Ordained, taught it to our group and performed it at the ordination, to surprised appreciation. I had now written three songs and was convinced that Bob Dylan was in danger.

Shortly after that I was inspired again and wrote a fourth song, called The Blood of the Son Makes Us One. About two or three months after writing that song, I attended a concert by a well-known gospel group called The Rambos, and through a series of near-mishaps and unbelievable events, got them to listen to my song. They ended up liking it. They signed it and decided to record it. I was amazed at how easy this was. I had only written four songs and I was already poised to become the next great Song Guy.

And then … I learned what I probably should have known (but of course, I wouldn’t have known it because there was no place for me to have learned it).

I arrived in Nashville to present my song in front of the music publishers, and they, being good business people, wanted to hear my “entire catalogue.” You may not know this, but those picky folks in Nashville don’t consider four songs to be a catalogue. I was in a room with a captive audience of very influential and prosperous men and women, who were anxious to hear the entire body of my work, and I didn’t even have a thumb.

It was embarrassing. It was debilitating. They wanted more … and I had nothing.

You see, I realized in that moment that I didn’t want to be a Song Guy. I wanted to be a guy who wrote A song that made lots of money and then everybody just kept giving him money because he wrote THAT song. I became aware that I had been trained to work on what I wanted to BE instead of actually practicing and performing what I could DO.

It is one of the flaws in the American dream. AFter all, the hypocrisy and presumption is in the title itself. It is a dream–a fantasy of where we want to end up, with no comprehension about what it takes to get there and even less passion for the actual labor itself.

I walked out of that office in Nashville that day resolute. I would never put myself in that position again. I realized that I DID want to be a Song Guy, but not because I wanted to be recorded, make a lot of money and be famous. It was because I really had something to say. And whether anyone ever heard it or not, it needed to escape my body–or it would possess my soul.

Within two years, I wrote an album’s worth of material, which ended up being recorded and played nationally. I then turned around and wrote a fifteen-song musical based on the Sermon on the Mount which toured across the country. When I got together with my family, I wrote at least three albums of songs, which we never actually recorded, and even today, I feel compelled to compose enough music for at least one album per year.

I actually have less attention to my work than I did when I had my four little songs at age twenty, but it doesn’t matter. I don’t write music, books or even this jonathots because I am secretly awaiting the arrival of fame and fortune. I write music because deep in my heart I want to be the Song Guy. I have to allow the music to escape.

The greatest lesson you can teach any young person (or even yourself if you missed it on the way to older) is: Don’t think about what you want to be. Just start working on what you can do. It may be the flaw in our higher educational system. We ask people what they want to be when they grow up instead of giving them a chance to do it and finding out if it wears well on their everyday bodies.

I am a Song Guy. I don’t worry about whether I’m great. I’m not concerned about sitting in rooms with the upper crust of the music industry, seeking their approval. I write songs because they’re in me, I have something to say … and God seems to enjoy listening to them.

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Iffers … July 10, 2012

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What if Mary and Russell Cring hadn’t had an argument sixty-one years ago about his numerous trips to Canada, which transferred itself into make-up sex, and culminated in a pregnancy?

What if I had decided to stay on the football team instead of pursuing the arts? Would I have ended up tackling running backs rather than blocking scenes for screenplays?

If I hadn’t asked Elizabeth Ristine out on a date, would all of my circumstances be uniquely changed–or even reversed?

If I hadn’t flown to Arizona to steal her away from college, against the wishes of her parents, would there be anything in my life that remotely resembles what it is today?

If I hadn’t boldly taken those first two songs I wrote when I was nineteen years old and gone to the recording studio in Columbus, Ohio, to press them on a 45 RPM record, would I ever have gotten the courage to do it later in my life?

If I hadn’t received the confirmation of winning the Midwest Regional Talent Exposition, would I have had the gumption to go to Nashville and think I was worthy to be heard?

What if I had skipped that Rambos concert, where I plugged one of my songs?

What if I had failed to go on the Teddy Bart Show in Nashville and never received that phone call that hooked me up with my producer, Marijohn Wilkin?

If I had skipped that brief excursion into Mobile, Alabama, would my son, Joshua, still be alive?

If a twist of fate and blind luck hadn’t produced the pregnancy of my last son, would I have been able to endure the death of Joshua and push on?

If I hadn’t moved to Sacramento, would my son, Jerrod, have ever met his wife, Angy?

If I hadn’t made the trek up to Tacoma, Washington, would my friend, Kathy, be free of her abusive relationship and my friend Richard, have followed me back to Nashville, where he ended up dying with friends–instead of alone, with strangers?

If I hadn’t decided to leave the road in 1991 in order to give my children back their own lives instead of lives entwined with mine, would they have the opportunities they enjoy today?

If I had listened to the nun at the convent in Birmingham, Alabama, who told me I had no right to pen a novel on the life of Jesus, would I be sitting here holding I’M … the legend of the son of man?

If I hadn’t done 1,123 five-minute radio broadcasts in Nashville, Tennessee, during the 1990’s, might the spark of my zeal for art and God have gradually slipped away?

If my friend, Janet, hadn’t been running away from a husband who abused her, would I ever have had the opportunity to be a friend to her ingenious sons?

And if Janet hadn’t come into my life, would there ever have been the Sumner County Symphony–with all of its delicacies, intricacies and beautiful twists and turns?

And if the housing crisis of 2008 hadn’t come along, would I have gone on the road, traveling to thousands of people to share my message, living out of a suitcase, enthralled with every moment?

And if I hadn’t come back to Nashville to take care of the house and close up shop, would Deahna have ever come into our lives and joined our family and brought me to today, where I now sit, waiting for the birth of my new grandson, Johann?

If I hadn’t awakened this morning with the idea to write this jonathots about “iffers,” would some person in South America or Germany have missed an insight on his own life that propelled him them in a fresh direction?

God gave me a life. I gave back to God my choices.

God stayed with me. I stayed with God.

The end result?

We both worked with my choices, God adding His grace–to collaborate for a wonderful life.

   

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MJ …

Question 3: Can I keep going if it doesn’t get better?

April 27, 2012

 

The producers of jonathots would humbly request a yearly subscription donation of $10 for this wonderful, inspirational opportunity.

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I met her quite by accident.

I had finally manipulated my way into getting a guest spot on the Teddy Bart Show in Nashville, Tennessee. It was one of those regional talk shows common in the 1970′s and had quite a following in a three or four state area. At least, that’s my memory. The show had never invited a gospel group onto perform before, so it was quite a victory to be appearing on the venue.

It was great. After the performance, I received a phone call from some unknown gentleman who told me that he was a representative for Marijohn Wilkin. I knew the name because she was a fairly well-known songwriter at the time, having just penned, performed and promoted the songs, One Day at a Time (Sweet Jesus) and I Have Returned.The man on the other end of the line said that he had set up a meeting for me with Ms. Wilkin for that very afternoon. He gave me directions and informed me that I needed to be there promptly at 1:30 P.M.

Well, you can imagine–I was thrilled. I had gone from being a Central Ohio boy whom nobody liked because I wouldn’t “work a job” and persisted in pursuing music, to being a fellow who had a group that won some contests, transforming into a bit older guy who had one of his songs signed by a group called The Rambos–a popular gospel group at the time. And now, having just appeared on the Teddy Bart Show, I was being pursued by a successful artist and writer for further consideration.

So as requested, promptly at 1:30 P.M., I, along with my group, arrived at Buckhorn Publishers on Music Row in Nashville, walking in the door like I kind of owned the place and announcing myself to the secretary. She stared down at her appointment book in bewilderment, disappeared into a nearby office and I realized there must be some problem. After what seemed to be an interminable delay, a slight woman finally appeared from the inner office, wearing a scarf on her head, dangling earrings and greatly resembling a gypsy princess. Her voice was husky–like she had been up for two or three nights straight, screaming at a parcel of kids. She was a bit gruff, so she kind of scared me, but through the hoarse voice and gruff mannerisms, I received an invitation to come into her office with my group.

She proceeded to explain that no appointment had been made for us and that the gentleman who called on the phone was an old alcoholic buddy of hers who occasionally pranked innocent boys and girls from Ohio who came to Nashville looking for fame and success, throwing her name around to make himself look important. I was humiliated–devastated. I was in a strange lady’s office who had the entire garb and persona to cast a spell on me.

She didn’t. Instead, she asked to hear our music. We stayed there for the next four hours and talked, laughed and cried. She became my friend. She was my producer. I spent hours and hours at her lovely home on the outskirts of Nashville, talking about music, playing music, meeting famous people and swimming in her pool–warmed to a perfect 98.6 degrees.

I remember many things about that experience, but one of the things I will always take with me is that Marijohn would occasionally fall apart. She wouldn’t show up at work and they would tell me that she was at home, trying to get over “a spell.” When I inquired further, I was given no information, and the attitude was that I should keep my nose to myself. I don’t do that very well, so I decided to drive out one time during one of those spells, to find out what was actually going on. During the drive, I had all sorts of imaginations–drug addiction, alcoholism, and … well, I was young. My brain went kind of nutzoid.

When I arrived, she was alone in her living room with her legs propped up–reading. She welcomed me in and I knelt down next to her, took her hand and asked, “Marijohn, what’s wrong with you?”

She quietly set her book aside and removed her reading classes, looked me in the eye and said, “Son, I have cardiovascular disease. Every once in a while it just hurts to move, think and breathe, and if I just shut down for a season, I appear to get better.”

I asked her if there was anything they could do. She said they were doing that–and more–but still, there were times where nothing worked as well as general “stoppage.” She also said she used those times to write, think and pray–and to look deeply into her soul. She jokingly told me that without the cardiovascular disease she might avoid all of those things.

I felt like I had stepped on holy ground. The room was so quiet, so preciously charged with spiritual energy, that I was unworthy to be there and was an interruption instead of a blessed presence of visitation. She sensed my awkwardness and said, “I’m glad you came. But you must understand–if it weren’t for this problem I have, I would never have written One Day at a Time (Sweet Jesus). I may have never have written anything at all. I would not call this condition my friend, but it is an enemy that fools me from time to time by providing me with unexpected gifts.”

I excused myself, went out and got into my beat-up Volkswagen Beetle with the dent in the nose and headed back to Nashville. I learned something that day. Here was a woman who had no particular prospects of her situation ever getting better, who ignored bitterness, rejected complacency and eschewed self-pity–to continue to produce the gift that life had provided for her.

Since that day, my youthful frame has gained miles of carriage usage. I, too, have developed pains. I, too, have acquired “spells.” And every time I am accosted with my own mortal aching, I remember that morning in that living room, where I knelt by the side of a brave woman who looked on her affliction as an affection that lured her towards beauty.

I try to do it myself. I try to be brave. I try to put my feet up and let life go by for a few minutes, so that God can come in for just a little while.

Marijohn lived for many years. I suppose the cardiovascular disease finally caught up with her and took her for one eternal “spell”–to a place where she could perpetually be creative. I suppose that will happen to all of us eventually.

Until then, our only job remains to keep going–even if it doesn’t get better.

 

Darrin … April 26, 2012

Question 2: What can I do with what I have to make things better?

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I met Darrin Gantz when I was twelve years old. He was the minister of the local Church of Christ in our small town. He was a bewildering blending of John Birch with John Lennon. What I mean is, he thought that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a communist, but he allowed us kids to listen to the Beatles on the radio on our way to church camp. Well, after all, it was the 1960’s, when chasing one’s tail was frequently rewarded with a bone of contention.

Darrin did not want to be called “Pastor.” He said that Jesus was the only Good Shepherd. Likewise, you could never call him “Reverend,” because he cited that the word appeared in scriptures only one time, in reference to Almighty God. Being a Church of Christ “minister” was the only word he would tolerate.

He believed the New Testament was the only foundation for building a church, that communion should be served every week to all souls gathered, and that baptism was the only guarantee to escape the fires of hell. (And of course,

Baptism surrounds my memories about this gentleman, because every Sunday he would invite all those at the worship service to make a decision for Christ, and if they did, that was immediately followed by a baptismal service in a tank which had been erected directly above the altar and pulpit. It was about five feet deep, seven feet wide and had all sorts of drawings of angels and doves flitting about in the background.

I was always impressed that on those occasions when somebody actually decided to take the leap, that Darrin would appear in the baptistery, with the converted soul clothed in a robe, but Darrin still wearing a shirt, tie and jacket. It was perplexing. Because after the ceremony he would reappear, completely dry, and I could never figure out how he got into and out of that water without becoming dripping wet.

My curiosity got the better of me, so one Sunday I snuck out during the preparation time for the baptism and took a peek in the room where he was preparing. There he was, standing in front of me, wearing wading boots–all the way up to the middle of his chest. Above them you could see half of a shirt with a tie, and a coat that had been trimmed to be just above the boots. He looked so funny that I couldn’t help myself. I giggled and he heard me. Fortunately for me, he was not angry, but explained that when he first became a minister, he tried going into the water in a bathing suit, but felt it was inappropriate to take off his pants for such an endeavor, and was also not comfortable being clad so scantily in front of female congregation members. So he thought and thought and thought, and finally decided to get a big pair of wading boots so he could get in and out of the water without getting wet and still maintain the integrity of his shirt and tie in the process.

I could see he had spent a whole lot of time thinking this thing through. At first I thought it was silly. After all, who cares if somebody takes his pants off, if he’s wearing a bathing suit, or for that matter, if he gets soaked to the skin? But you see, this was so important to Darrin–this baptism thing–that he found out what he could do with what he had so he could make things better.

Now honestly, as the years pressed on, Minister Darrin and I had many philosophical difference, and soon our friendship, unfortunately, fell by the wayside. But I will never forget that day when I peered at him standing there in his wading boots, getting ready to baptize. It registered with me. Because after all, the only piece of true debilitation to the human soul is when we finally convince ourselves that there’s no way to solve what we need with what we have. As long as we’ve got an inkling that we possess a chance to use existing talents to benefit our situation, we are quite endearing folks, full of hopefulness. But the minute we think we’ve run out of resources and that our problems have accumulated to such an extent that we are already defeated, we’re not only going down for the count, but are usually quite grumpy about it.

What did I learn from Minister Darrin? That the greatest gift we can give to God and ourselves is to take what we can do, using what we have and set out to make things better. Because of a surety, I know that complainers and those who give up too soon are the best friends of hell. Just refusing to give up or complain keeps you in the ranks of the chosen few.

So as I begin my day and I think about Minister Darrin, who refused to be a pastor, repelled the notion of “Reverend,” hated black people, but thought the Beatles’ rendition of Daytripper was really cool, I retain in my memory from him how to put on my own boots and wade into the mess.

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Sitting One

 I died today. 

I didn’t expect it to happen.  Then again, I did—well, not really.

No, I certainly didn’t expect it.

I’ve had moments of clarity in my life.  Amazingly enough, many of them were in the midst of a dream. For a brief second I would know the meaning of life or the missing treatment to cure cancer.  And then as quickly as it popped into my mind it was gone. I really don’t recollect dying.  Just this unbelievable sense of clear headedness—like walking into a room newly painted and knowing by the odor and brightness that the color on the wall is so splattering new that you should be careful not to touch it for fear of smearing the design. The greatest revelation of all? 

Twenty-five miles in the sky time ceases to exist.

The planet Pluto takes two hundred and forty-eight years to circle the sun. It doesn’t give a damn. 

The day of my death was the day I became free of the only burden I really ever had.  TIME.

Useless.

Time is fussy.  Time is worry. 

Time is fear.  Time is the culprit causing human-types to recoil from pending generosity. 

There just was never enough time. 

Time would not allow it.  Remember—“if time permits …”

Why if time permits?  Why not if I permit?  Why not if I dream?  Why not if I want?  Why does time get to dictate to me my passage? 

It was time that robbed me of my soulful nature.    It was time that convinced me that my selfishness was needed. 

I didn’t die. The clock in me died, leaving spirit to tick on.  

So why don’t we see the farce of time?  Why do we allow ourselves to fall under the power of the cruel despot?  Yes, time is a relentless master—very little wage for much demand.

I died today. 

Actually … a piece of time named after me was cast away.

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