Wednesday, December 31, 2008

My Back Pages

Busman's holiday:

NOUN: Informal A vacation during which one engages in activity that is similar to one's usual work.

I write.

I always have, for as long as anyone who knows me can remember.

At so many points in my early life, I was told, "You should be a writer." Sometimes I took encouragement even from criticism: a professor once told me that my writing for a term paper was lyrical, and I was thrilled. I've been down a number of roads. I've been a dedicated but probably middling actor, I minored in theatre and art history, I hold a degree in English literature and I've worked in various fields of entertainment. And though I have sometimes made my living without my words, often working in film production, I am a writer at heart.

Expect me to break all the rules.

Over the last half a dozen years, my busman's holiday has been writing about a singer who intrigued me, some causes where our lives intersect and the vagaries of a career in entertainment. I've tried to move conversation in the direction of a better future, "using ideas as my maps." Sometimes I've seen impossible victories, most recently on November 4 with the election of Barack Obama.

The hundreds of thousands of words I've written to earn my living aren't included, but a few of the words I've played with are here on my back pages. I have a lot more to say beyond my favorite pasttime, though he'll show up from time to time.

This blog is about the rest of my life --- sometimes getting it right, and often having a hell of a good time while getting it all wrong.

2008: Singer. Actor. Activist. Dad. Oh, and Gay.


12 Days of UNICEF: Give Gifts that Give Back This Holiday Season

December 25, 2008.


December 25: UNICEF Ambassador Clay Aiken blogged today at UNICEF FieldNotes as part of UNICEF's "12 Days of UNICEF" awareness campaign. The blog, entitled Clay Aiken: Help kids in emergencies stay in school, supports UNICEF's School in a Box education kits, available through UNICEF's Inspired Gifts. Aiken, who was appointed a UNICEF Ambassador in 2004, holds a degree in special education and is a former teacher.

In the spirit of this season of giving, please read the blog, then visit the Inspired Gifts: Education & Play section. Find out how, for just a few dollars, you can make a difference in the lives of the world's children by bringing them the stabilizing force of education, during emergencies and throughout the year.

Links to other "12 Days of UNICEF" blogs follow the original article below:

Breaking News:

December 19:
This morning the U.S. Fund for UNICEF announced the "12 Days of UNICEF" blogging campaign, featuring daily blogs from UNICEF Celebrity Ambassadors and Supporters discussing life-saving gift options for children around the world.

25,000 young children die every day from preventable causes—things like malnutrition, poor sanitation and lack of safe, drinkable water.

25,000 children die every day.

UNICEF believes that number should be zero.

Here's your chance to make a real difference. In the spirit of this season of giving, what better gift than to save a child's life for just a few dollars?

U.S. Fund for UNICEF "12 Days of UNICEF" Press Release:

New York, NY (PRWEB) December 19, 2008 -- The U.S. Fund for UNICEF announced today "12 Days of UNICEF," a blogging campaign to encourage Americans to give back this holiday season with Inspired Gifts. Beginning December 19 and running through December 31, UNICEF celebrity Ambassadors and Supporters, including Lucy Liu and Clay Aiken, will post daily blogs on the UNICEF website at FieldNotes about Inspired Gifts and their impact on children around the world.

From nutrient enriched food, medicines and immunizations, to wool blankets, tents and school supplies, UNICEF's Inspired Gifts can mean a world of difference to children living in harsh circumstances due to poverty, exploitation, armed conflicts and natural disasters. Participants in the program choose an item from the collection of life-saving gifts to be shipped to children in need in one of over 150 countries and territories where UNICEF works. Recipients receive a UNICEF Acknowledgment Card identifying the item that was sent and how it will be used to save children's lives.

Celebrities lending their support to the program include Clay Aiken, Lucy Liu, Joel Madden, Nicole Richie, Alyssa Milano, Marcus Samuelsson, Al Roker, Jon McLaughlin, Mia Farrow and Sarah Jessica Parker. Some of the items they will blog about include HIV test kits, bicycles, water well hand pumps, insecticide-treated mosquito nets, measles vaccines and more.

For more information, visit Inspired Gifts or call 1-866-237-2224.

For more than 60 years, UNICEF has been the world's leading international children's organization, working in over 150 countries to address the ongoing issues that affect why kids are dying. UNICEF provides lifesaving nutrition, clean water, education, protection and emergency response saving more young lives than any other humanitarian organization in the world. While millions of children die every year of preventable causes like dehydration, upper respiratory infections and measles, UNICEF, with the support of partnering organizations and donors alike, has the global experience, resources and reach to give children the best hope of survival. For more information about UNICEF, please visit U.S. Fund for UNICEF.

Links to "12 Days of UNICEF" Blogs:

Day 1, December 19:

Marcus Samuelsson: Give the gift of nutrition

Day 2, December 20:

Alyssa Milano: Help us fight cholera and dehydration

Day 3, December 21:

Jon McLaughlin: A little can go a long way

Day 4, December 22:

Mia Farrow: We can end the nightmare of malaria

Day 5, December 23:

Téa Leoni: The best gift any mother can give

Day 6, December 24:

Lucy Liu: Give nutritious "milk and cookies" this holiday

Day 7, December 25:

Clay Aiken: Help kids in emergencies stay in school

Day 8, December 26:

Joel Madden: All children need safe, clean water

Day 9, December 27:

Nicole Richie: Give the gift of warmth and security

Day 10, December 28:

Al Roker: Help put a stop to deaths by measles

Day 11, December 29:

Benji Madden: Families need water to survive

Day 12, December 30:

Ne-Yo: The difference between life and death

On "Knowing" Clay

Friday, Decemeber 05, 2008

Why do [u]some[/u] people feel a personal connection to Clay Aiken?

Blame "Wide World of Sports."

It was ABC’s Roone Arledge, I believe, who invented the “Up Close and Personal” feature, the idea of doing personal intro packages for athletes that let the viewers in on something beyond the record, the speed, the distance, the time.

When considering people in the public eye, I admire talent and respect decency, and I think it is natural to care about people I come to “know” in a more personal way. With a little more knowledge, many will feel more than the general empathy one might have for a fellow --- though faceless --- human being.

Here’s an example: I’ve loved ice skating since I was a kid, and over time I came to know my favorite skaters beyond the national, world and Olympic medalists many of them became.

It's why it was so disappointing to me that Randy Gardner's injury took him and Tai Babilonia out of contention for an Olympic medal.

It's why I cared when Scott Hamilton had cancer.

It's why I cried when young and handsome Sergei Grinkov dropped dead on the ice after practice, leaving his partner and wife Katya Gordeeva with their infant child.

It's why I was happy when Kurt Browning married a principal ballerina of Canada's National Ballet, and why I smile when I think that they have two little boys now.

These feelings are directed at strangers, but they are real.

I have never been to an ice skating board in my life, and I have seen fewer than half a dozen skating shows in person, but skaters and skating mean something special to me.

I started with love for the sport. I love it more because I care about some of those skaters.

Music has always been an invaluable part of how I express myself, of how I connect to fellow human beings, of how I explore the world through sound and word and feeling.

I have a collection of hundreds of CDs, cassettes and records, across many different genres. There are quite a few musicians I’ve seen lots of times in concert, including two, three or four times during a single tour. Of these, I own most or all of their CDs, have a book or two about some of them and have saved a few significant articles or cover stories.

Some I enjoy for their talent alone. I don't know a thing about John Legend, for instance, except that I like his music. I have a couple of his albums, and I'd like to see him in concert some time. I don't know if he is married or single, gay or straight, self-taught or formally trained, the product of a happy home or a dysfunctional one. I don’t know if knowing more about him personally would make me like him more or less.

Though every year I discover someone new to add to my playlist, I have some favorites, old and new. I feel like I grew up with Bono and Sting, who are my contemporaries. I know a little about their families and their backgrounds, quite a bit about their causes and concerns, and a lot about their music, their inspirations, their collaborations. No doubt, I support their music and, sometimes, their causes more because I like what I know about them. I feel affection for them, and for some of my other musical heroes I’ve had a chance to work with, like Neil Young.

I idolize none.

Over nearly six years, I learned many bits and pieces about Clay Aiken, some trivial, some profound, much that he has provided himself: information from those AI packages, print and radio and television interviews, [i]Learning to Sing[/i], and M&Gs, all the way up to what was recalled in the recaps from Chat with Clay last weekend.

In a thousand different ways, I've come to “know” Clay, and I think he has the rare kind of charisma that can gather people in, that makes him a captivating performer and a riveting personality.

First and utmost was The Voice. I am not one to care much about the age or appearance of the musicians I appreciate, so if Clay, armed with that voice, still looked and dressed exactly like the guy who walked into that audition, he’d still be my favorite singer. It’s a nice little perk that he improved his look, but some of my favorite musicians ain’t gonna win no beauty contests. There are also better looking men without a fraction of his talent, and I don’t have time to waste on them.

Then there was The Man. I liked Clay for so many little things: his humor, his open affection, his devotion to children, his advocacy for inclusion and the way he truly seemed to see people from the inside out. He’s a genuine good guy. He made me think sometimes, and I loved how he made my laugh.

I loved how he defied stereotypes, how he kept proving to be more than he seemed and how, when I learned something new about him, I liked him more instead of less.

I've noticed that he changes his mind on occasion, that he can be more forthcoming over time, that after a while he drops promo spin and says how he really felt, that sometimes he likes to tease, and that he sometimes contradicts himself, just as I do. No, he doesn’t always tell the unvarnished truth, but I have never found a reason to doubt his basic honesty.

I still haven't.

When I read the [i]Rolling Stone[/i] article in the summer of 2003, I noted a number of things: Clay was polite if a little bit critical, rather old-fashioned, a Southern Baptist, not a womanizer, not gay, didn’t smoke, wasn’t racist, and he had a great (and pointed!) sense of humor.

I didn’t question “not gay” any more than I questioned “Southern Baptist” or “doesn’t smoke.” I had no reason to doubt anything he chose to reveal. Sometimes he seemed more honest than I would have considered wise, especially when his honesty was used as a weapon against him by some bloggers and comedians and deejays.

In the early days, especially, Clay was far more forthcoming than he had to be about aspects of his personal life, and though he grew more reserved, that continued well into 2006 and, in some instances, to this day. There have been a number of times he chose to be forthcoming about his personal life. He did so, yet I always considered him to be, at heart, a very private person.

It was Clay who revealed the nature of his relationship with his birth father, discussing alcoholism, family violence, racism, the mistreatment of women, and most of all, his father’s staggering [b]indifference[/b].

I didn’t spend my time grieving about it, but I cared about the man who showed so much hurt when he discussed these things with Diane Sawyer. I hoped Clay would one day hear “I love you” from a father who meant it. And I yelled “Oh, no!” when I came to the boards and learned Grissom had died ---- no reconciliation, no chance for closure.

Life stinks sometimes.

I cared that Clay had been bullied by kids like it was their job. I cared that he was dodge ball bait. I cared that he’d been taunted and called a fag, perhaps because I’d been called a nigger, and I did not understand why such virulent hatred and baseless animosity exists in this world.

Clay wrote that he’d been asked to leave his grandmother’s funeral, and described the feelings of rejection and sorrow that accompanied that.

Clay told the world, in his book and on TV, that his sister had committed suicide, and described his pain and loss, not only in that moment but in wondering, years later, if he was to blame. (“[i]This is what shock feels like.[/i] Time stood still. A horrible, frozen moment. Then I began to wail… ‘My sister is dead,’ I cried. Then in my head, [i]It’s my fault.[/i]")

Damn, that’s an intimate and painful account.

Clay, in time, told the brutal truth behind what he recounted to Leno as a hilarious story about “stealing” his car to go for pizza. (Describing his stepfather: “He reached for my belt loop, snatched at my waist and started spanking me. He spanked me with such ferocity that an old man who had also been waiting for his pizza came out and told him to stop. ‘Interfere again and I’ll hit you, too’ my dad shot back.")

It made me feel sick to read that.

Clay announced the birth of Andy’s daughter and Quiana’s son, though he doesn’t discuss either of those children. He let us know when Brett had returned safely from Iraq, though his brother has rarely interacted with fans. He shut down his fan club board for several days upon the death of his aunt, though few fans had ever met her and I don’t think she had anything to do with the running of the OFC.

Clay has, in recordings and in some of his most moving performances, shared his faith and devotion in songs that seemed addressed to his lord and savior more than they were meant for the audience, sometimes so intimately that it almost felt intrusive to watch.

Though no one might have ever found out, Clay told the world that he had anxiety attacks and difficulties coping with crowds to the extent that he started taking Paxil. (That certainly explained the times he’d suddenly become remote in dealing with the public.)

All of these things were deeply personal, honest reflections of the man behind the entertainer. I don’t know why he chose to share them, but I appreciate that he did. Perhaps Clay did not know that, in sharing some of his life, there would be people who would come to care about him on a personal basis, people who had cared initially about the phenomenal talent they had heard on television, people who loved what they saw of the man [u]and[/u] of the singer. I think it is entirely understandable why this would happen.

(It is unfortunate that, as a side effect of openness, some people wanted to know things that Clay had no intention of sharing, and attempted to dig up more personal information. How much he chooses to share has been, and should always be, his call.)

Clay Aiken is a private man, but he has sometimes revealed very personal things with stunning honesty. I’ve appreciated the insights, but I don’t push for more.

I don’t idealize Clay and I’ve never felt entitled to a thing. I’ve called him “a miracle and a mess.” I think he is a good man. I know he’s flawed --- of course he is, since he’s human. I like him. It doesn’t matter to me that he sometimes says or does things that make me roll my eyes or shake my head, because I think he does far more, as an artist and an activist, that I find interesting, intriguing, inspiring, thrilling and admirable.

I hate to put a caveat on it at all but, as much as I can love someone I don’t personally know, I love Clay Aiken.

To me, he’s not a book, he’s a whole freaking library of fascination.

I don’t remember what triggered it, but I had a conversation several years ago with one of the very few people in the fandom who became my RL friend. Among a dozen other topics, we wondered about the obsession with Clay’s sexuality in the media and talked a bit about fan reaction. Neither of us could give a sh-t if Clay was straight or gay, though we’d taken him at his word as stated early on. He had sometimes been so painfully honest: we both believed that if he was gay, with all of the other personal revelations he had shared, he would just say so. (In fact, he [u]did[/u], didn’t he, when he was ready.) In essence, his sexuality was a whole big “whatever” --- or, more accurately, a small one. Since we didn’t care, we weren’t keeping track as some did, but over the years Clay did make comments on women, marriage, family, children, etc., mixed in with thousands of bits of information that he had shared about various aspects of his life. It was simply background information to me, but I believed he was straight.

I honored what I believed was his self-identification. I think there is as much bigotry in assuming a straight person must adhere to certain stereotypical characteristics as there is in saying that a person who identifies as gay is wrong, and that he can overcome it or come out of being gay if he tries.

I simply cannot understand why some in the media and the general public think that they deserve any information on a famous person’s sexuality in the first place, unless that person volunteers to discuss it.

It wasn’t important to me why Clay said he was going to stop discussing his personal life in 2006. He said that he’d answered before, so I figured he was tired of discussing it, since I agreed that people were going to believe what they wanted to believe anyway.

On September 23, five and a half years after I first heard his voice, I found out that Clay Aiken was gay. For a little while it was a paradigm shift, and so many little things would rise to mind from time to time, but there was never a point when I felt any less for him.

I thank God, and the life I have led, for that.

I am a member of [url=][b]PFLAG[/b][/url], a donor for [url=][b]Project Angel Food[/b][/url] and, long before I ever heard of Clay Aiken, a supporter of [url=][b]Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS[/b][/url]. Many people I call my friends are gay, including some who never had to come out because they were never in, but when I was barely in my twenties, I lost a friend who committed suicide because he couldn’t face being gay. I witnessed the weight of the world fall off the shoulders of a close friend of more than a decade because he was afraid that I, a left-leaning human rights activist, might reject him when he came out to me. I have worked with gay people throughout my professional life --- loved some, liked some and couldn’t stand others, just like the hets I’ve worked with.

If I’d given it any thought, though, I might have realized that coming out is different than the other things Clay shared.

It’s different because of the way gay people are judged and sometimes condemned in this society, and how their sexuality is often reduced to a sex act or a stereotype.

Clay didn’t know if the people who loved him would walk away --- and I’m talking about his family and friends, not his fans. He didn’t know if he would have a career left. He certainly couldn’t have relied on going back to a career outside of the public eye, when everyone who pays even the slightest attention to popular culture would know his story. He didn’t know if he’d be able to make a difference by continuing to be an advocate for the causes that mean the most to him.

In this long process of coming out, every step must have been full of uncertainty. Perhaps, like others I have known, Clay is still coming out, learning to love, accept and forgive himself, finding his footing about when and how to incorporate this truth into his conversation and even how to joke about it.

I am disinclined to add to his concerns.

Just think: Clay was [b]terrified[/b] that he would be booed off the stage at his curtain call.

He was terrified that this would happen on Broadway, one of the most gay-friendly work environments in the world, terrified even though he was in a play where there’s an entire coming out scene that lovingly tweaks gay stereotypes and ends with simple acceptance, terrified when one of the audience’s favorite “Spamalot” actors is out and proud Chris Sieber?

Honestly, I might laugh at that situation if not for my personal experiences. I have seen that terror before, in seeing what friends have gone through. But I have also read the reactions of some of Clay’s fans, to this “transgression” and other things that offended them, from the “I’ll be damned” lyric to the erotic dancing used to underscore the message in "When Doves Cry" to the Mezghan photo, all the way to having a child out of wedlock and coming out as a gay father on the cover of PEOPLE Magazine. To some extent, though I don’t agree, I can understand not approving, I can understand being disappointed, I can understand those who see his actions and identity in conflict with their own deeply-held morals, values and religious beliefs. I have great sympathy for those who don’t know what to tell their young children about this man who is a role model. (I’m not going to talk about “teaching moments” when I have no children of my own.) I feel sorry for those who are having trouble seeing their way forward. I hope you find your way to a happier place. What I don’t understand, anymore than when I was a child, is the virulent hatred and the baseless animosity that a few are now expressing.

Clay has changed. Of course he has: I’ve changed dramatically over the last five years, and I started at a point of more years of life experience than he had, after all. He says he’s more jaded and guarded and, lord knows, he has reason to be. He doubtless has more experience in so many areas of his life, from the places he has visited, to the causes he espouses, to the music he makes, to the relationships he cultivates. He is undoubtedly more worldly-wise and perhaps a bit world weary.

I still believe he is a good man, an excellent role model for activism, volunteerism, inclusion and acceptance, and an extraordinary talent.

He was gay at “Take.”

He can say so now, and he seems freer and happier than at any point since he first entered the public eye.

For me, all that has changed is that I know he is gay now. Finding out, at first I had a hundred little [i]“But what about”[/i]’s and [i]“But didn’t he”[/i]’s running through my brain. I know now that some were camouflage, some were redirection and some were truth. With all that a person who is gay has to deal with in coming out, I would never call any of them lies, not even when it came directly to me from my [b]close friends[/b]. I think about the illusion of "knowing" someone in the public eye, and I realize that if a person in the closet makes one --- or a hundred --- misleading statements or actions before a faceless public, not to mention their own family and friends, it was in the interest of self-preservation.

I will blame no one for doing what they feel they must, in the face of terror, in order to [u]survive[/u], because I had a friend who did not.

Clay [u]does[/u] love women, and he showed how much in LTS Chapter Nine, “Consider Singing A Duet”. (“[i]These girls --- women now --- [/i] showed me how life should be lived. Take risks. Stand up for what you believe in. Imagine what can be… Women make good company.”)

It’s no surprise that, a dozen years later, he adores Kristy and Quiana and Angela and Jill and Tyra and Hannah.

And every aspect that Clay described of what kind of woman he wanted in his life, from OARS to The Standard, I would say that he considers he’s found in Jaymes.

There are three things I’d react to if I found out anyone I cared about was gay, after I found out that they felt happy, free and natural at last.

The first would be the very real concern about discrimination, the impact on career and daily life.

For Clay, this remains a question mark. In a way, he is in undiscovered country: he’s not a Rufus Wainwright, who has always been out as a musician and who has family bloodlines and artistic cred to support his immense talent, and he’s not an Elton John, an international superstar who had a decade of huge sales and critical acclaim before he came out. Clay is still building a career and finding a voice and, though he was the first to break free from a 19 contract, he is perhaps the only person who ever appeared on that show who is rarely mentioned without an AI reference, often negative. Though Clay has some very high profile supporters, there’s often been media disdain that doesn’t mesh at all with his accomplishments or his abilities.

I think Clay has an excellent shot at doing more theatre, and his sexual orientation won’t matter a whit there, but Broadway is struggling badly now and opportunities might be more limited for new productions. He’s proven himself as an actor, so he might finally get some more television roles as a character actor (more likely than as a leading man). I believe he has a shot at a film role, too, especially in a project helmed by Mike Nichols. One good role could lead to others.

The music industry is a large question mark for everyone right now. Touring is getting much more difficult, and Clay’s attendance numbers have been falling off for a while. He needs a larger, revitalized fan base.

I don’t know what happened between MOAM and what should have been his mainstream Album 2 that Davis / RCA decided to completely reverse course with Clay’s career. He went from being given all originals on his multi-platinum debut album (when riding the AI crest and including a few covers might have made sense) to having this label toss out the forty or fifty songs generated by the Nashville songwriters hoedown in favor of what ended up mandated for ATDW. Of the music on that gold album, the covers included some songs that are broadly considered hackneyed, though many of Clay’s interpretations are truly masterful. The originals, including the brilliant "Lover All Alone", were largely ignored.

For OMWH, Clay made an album I believe truly reflects what he wants to do with his music. (Interestingly, at least one song had been intended for Clay’s version of Album Two.) By that time, though, indifferent promotion in a far-too short window, the shift of album narrative from the personal to the generic, a lead single that is arguably the least interesting track on the CD, the chronic lack of serious promotion for radio play and a public with a short attention span had taken its toll. I don’t know what Clay will do next. It has been almost three years since I wrote several posts about what kind of covers would make up an interesting album for me, but a proposed next CD of more covers, including a hypothetical one that would perhaps be his AI songs? That would be like looking at a high school yearbook: a trip through memories, an appreciation of the past, a specimen in amber. It seems forever ago, and though I liked-to-loved his interpretations, I thought that fully a third of the numbers he performed just weren’t very good songs.

There are no “covers” in jazz or classical or folk: those genres thrive on reinterpreting the past and expanding on an iconic work. There is no shame in pop, rock, country or soul artists like James Taylor, Seal or kd lang doing covers albums: there’s no doubt that they have built their own musical legacies, so there is interest in what they do with works that inspire them. If I “fell in love” with Clay singing covers, it was for that remarkable voice, not for the snippets of songs that ranged from music I loved to that I loathed. (I did not see the JBT, but my appreciation of it comes from seeing Clay’s versatility, the amount of time he spent on stage, the introduction of new Clay Aiken songs and my enjoyment of some of the originals, probably in that order.) For Clay, uniquely among successful former contestants, the “AI karaoke” albatross continues to hang around his neck.

From a position of strength, ten years on, it might be of interest to me to see Clay revisit past hits and classic songs, because there would be a body of work that belonged to Clay Aiken, Singer. Now, though it might be a strategic move or a way to fulfill a contract, it would seem more like nostalgia than artistry to me.

Bet he’d sing them pretty, though.

I know now that Clay is capable of writing his own lyrics brilliantly, and he might greatly reduce his problems with finding material if he could work with a composer as a regular writing partner. I just don’t see in him the desire to do so and, though I’d consider it a great pity and a tremendous loss, I have to respect that that might well be his choice.

I just hope that his voice will be heard. I want to hear Clay’s voice, free of distractions, free of labels, free of encumbrances and limitations. His true, strong, remarkable and utterly inimitable voice, sometimes ringing out, sometimes caressing, sometimes snarling, sometimes thrilling, sometimes breaking a heart or healing a soul.

I am in love with Clay Aiken’s voice.

My second concern upon a person's coming out is, thank the lord, a moot point for Clay. For many of my friends who are gay men, having children was not often an option --- in fact, I can’t think of a single one who has children. Clay has Parker, his own blessing and miracle, and we have seen a few small glimpses of how much he delights in being a father. It makes me so glad for him, to know he realized his frequently articulated dream.

The third is the same as it has always been. Everyone deserves to find his heart’s home. I am very glad that he has a number of loving friends but, [u]if[/u] he desires it, I hope Clay will find a soul mate who is his romantic partner in life. Now, as before, I will ship him with no one and I have no desire to know any details. As much as possible, I hope that he can keep whoever is closest to his heart to himself.

I know enough about Clay’s personal life. It was not my fate to be his friend, so I am not meant to know more. I have always wished I knew more about his music, what inspires him, what he wants to do with this extraordinary talent of his --- specific to that gift of music, not as a means to his philanthropic ends. I have loved every rare time when he talks about music.

Even though I work in entertainment and am familiar with its dream-making machinery, I have to remind myself that I don't know Clay Aiken, and that he is not "[b]our[/b] Clay," in the affectionate and familiar parlance of my old screen name.

No, Clay is not my family, not my friend, but he is one of my loved ones. He is a gorgeously complicated whole, not just one of his attributes. I hope that is recognized one day.

And if the great wide world must hang a tag on him, I hope it will be “one hell of a singer.”

I hope people will be blown away by his talent.

Full circle, at last.

Barack Obama and the American Dream


Around the time that Barack Obama was growing up in Hawaii, I was growing up in Pasadena, California. We lived in a craftsman house surrounded by trees and, entering the etched glass front door, there was an old Persian rug in the foyer. At the bottom of the stairs, between the pocket doors leading into the living room on one side and the library on the other, I would lay face down on that rug, pretending I could fly.

I’d surround myself with comic books, an adventure story or a mystery, and a large drawing pad, and I'd spend time reading and sketching out my dreams. I’d imagine that I was on the stage, famous and beloved. I’d listen to the sound of music drifting out of the living room. Sometimes I’d pray for super powers, so I could spend my life helping people.

The world was before me, laid out across the fields of my imagination.

In truth, my life was not idyllic, though I was more fortunate than many. I didn’t grow up thinking much about race, probably because my parents had taught me to be the best person I could be, not the best person I as an African American girl could be. I had always lived in integrated neighborhoods and attended integrated schools. My family was middle class, my grandparents had been business owners, my parents were college educated. I was a dreamy, shy kid, and an excellent student.

Sometimes when walking home from school, debating whether I’d rather be a pilot or an actress, somebody would drive by and yell the n-word out of their car window.

Out there in the wider world, Martin Luther King, a man of peace, had walked from Selma to Montgomery. I had been taught to trust the police, but these police were really angry about something, holding rifles and yelling at Dr. King and the people walking with him --- students, religious leaders of many faiths, parents, working people, famous people and people who were unknown. He was walking with other black people, but also with white people, with brown people, people with roots in Asia and with the first Americans. All were peaceful.

They simply wanted everyone to be able to vote.

"Like an idea whose time has come, not even the marching of mighty armies can halt us. We are moving to the land of freedom. Let us march to the realization of the American dream.”

--- The Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. and civil rights marchers on the road from Selma to Montgomery, wearing leis symbolizing peace. The leis are said to have been the idea of Hawaiian minister Reverend Abraham Akaka.

I put aside my comic books, and started to realize that I did not need any super powers to be of service to others. I started to dream in real life, and my heroes were named Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez and Bobby Kennedy.

By the summer of 1968, two of the three had been killed, shattering my youthful illusions.

There’s just something wrong with becoming cynical when you’re barely old enough for middle school. Somehow, I didn't give up.

Through my youth, my teen years and now into my adult years, it has become obvious that Martin Luther King was right. The time for the idea had come. Slowly, at times imperceptibly, we marched on to a time when the realization of the American dream became at least a possibility for all.

For eight years now, though, that dream has been on the endangered list. Now is the time to nurture that dream before it becomes lost.

Photo (c) AP/Elaine Thompson --- Obama at Democratic event in Washington state, 2006.

This election is our chance - our moment - to restore the simple dream of those who came before us for another generation of Americans. But only if we can come together like previous generations did and close that divide between a people and its leaders in Washington.

Because in the end, the choice in this election is not between regions or religions or genders. It's not about rich versus poor; young versus old; and it is not about black versus white.

It's about the past versus the future.”

What became of that dreamy little girl of days passed? I graduated from a fine university in Los Angeles, with a major in English and minors in art and theatre arts. I became an assistant director, specializing in motion pictures, and I was invited to join the Directors Guild of America. I do a little writing from time to time. I still dream while I listen to music, enjoying a range of great music from Clay Aiken to Yo-Yo Ma. The joy of my life is service, so I do a bit from time to time for organizations ranging from Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS to UNICEF.

I learned an early lesson about looking not at the color of skin but at the content of character. I look at people instead of labels, so I still tend not to think much about race, or religion, or gender or sexual orientation, except for when I consider what a gift to my life diversity brings.

I never learned to fly, but every once in a while, I soared.

I guess I found my American dream. In these difficult economic times, it’s not always certain that I will be able to hang onto it.

And what about that kid from Hawaii, whose mother was from a small Kansas town and whose father was from Kenya? Barack served the people by becoming a community organizer. He earned a law degree from Harvard, was president of the Harvard Review, practiced as a civil rights lawyer and taught constitutional law. He served in the Illinois State Senate for eight years and is currently a member of the U.S. Senate.

I understand that he has a decent chance of becoming president of the United States.

And though he is quintessentially American, and focused on the needs and concerns of those living in this country, he is, truly, African/American, as well, with an eye on our place in the world.

He is the face of America’s future --- if we are bold enough to choose it.

The time has come.

There is no reason for me to list the facts and figures of Barack Obama’s background, education, endeavors and political career --- the information is now obvious and everywhere. I don’t need to cite his policies and positions on the issues: on the day before this historic presidential election, I can’t impart any knowledge with this blog that hasn’t been widely available before.

I simply want this to serve as a reminder that your vote can build a strong new foundation for a dream.


Forty years. I think about those marchers from Selma to Montgomery, who were turned back, attacked, and even though some were killed, they as a group persevered.

Forty years --- and I can simply stroll into my precinct and vote for the most capable and the most inspiring candidate in my lifetime.

Barack means blessed. On Tuesday, November 4, I hope we all will be blessed with the courage to seize our dreams and turn them into a bright new reality.

The time has come. Now is the time for Barack Obama. For America. For the dream.

"The true test of the American ideal is whether we're able to recognize our failings and then rise together to meet the challenges of our time. Whether we allow ourselves to be shaped by events and history, or whether we act to shape them. Whether chance of birth or circumstance decides life's big winners and losers, or whether we build a community where, at the very least, everyone has a chance to work hard, get ahead, and reach their dreams."

Gift of Life: Join UNICEF to Stop Child Deaths


--UNICEF Ambassador Clay Aiken with Somali infant, June 2008

(© US Fund for UNICEF/Nick Ysenburg)


UNICEF Ambassador Clay Aiken today launched a campaign aimed at making sure no child dies of preventable illnesses.

Here's how you can help!

Blogging at UNICEF Field Notes, Aiken writes:

Did you know that approximately 25,000 children die each day before their fifth birthday, largely due to preventable causes? Thanks to organizations like UNICEF this number is getting smaller every day. Last year, the number of child deaths worldwide declined to about 9.2 million. In 1990, that number was 12.7 million. That's definite progress, but that number should be zero.

As truly remarkable as it is that UNICEF and other organizations have been able to reduce the number of children who die from preventable illnesses by three and a half million a year in a little less than two decades, it is completely unacceptable that tens of thousands of children continue to die needlessly each and every day, children who could be saved for pennies.

During this worldwide economic crisis, many are looking for ways to save money, not to spend more. I'd like to propose that by pledging as little as a few dollars a month to UNICEF's life-saving programs, millions of dollars can be saved: dollars that would go to military intervention when struggling nations erupt into violence over meager supplies, dollars that would be spent to feed and house millions of refugees forced to flee the desperation of their homelands, dollars that would go to feeble attempts to prevent the spread of what could become a worldwide pandemic rather than taking preventative steps such as eradicating malaria.

The headlines can be bleak, and it is easy to think that it is hopeless. But thanks to UNICEF's child survival strategy, preventable child deaths have declined 27 percent since 1990 and more than 60 percent since 1960 --- proof positive that every penny donated can saves lives.

Don't let another day go by without making an effort to save a child. Whether you have five dollars a month to pledge, $50, $500 or $5,000, every dollar makes a difference.

Even a small amount makes a huge difference. For instance, $5 a month (about 15¢ per day) can ensure five children are protected from measles.

If we could all make this small commitment we may be able to see the day when no child dies of a preventable cause.
--- Clay Aiken

You can save a child's life for the price of a cup of coffee. Join Clay and UNICEF and pledge today.


--- New dad Clay Aiken with his son Parker, September 2008

(Good Morning America/abc News)

Nothing But Net


Pop singer and UNICEF Ambassador Clay Aiken appears in a new video featured on the UNICEF FieldNotes blog, Clay Aiken: Give the gift of growing up . In footage shot during his recent field visit to Somalia, Aiken demonstrates how insecticide treated bed nets provided by UNICEF are being used to protect children from malaria, a mosquito-borne disease that causes one million deaths a year among children under five in sub-Saharan Africa alone.

Malaria kills one child every thirty seconds, but the disease is both preventable and treatable.

Watch the video, then learn how easy it is for you to help give a child the gift of growing up.

The bed net needed to save a child's life costs just $10, including transportation, distribution and education on its use.

Just $10 --- the price of a couple of gourmet coffee drinks.

By acting now, your gift of $10 or more can help UNICEF save twice as many children. $50 will now save ten children instead of five; $500 will save one hundred.

Act now. Here's more:

Malaria No More's mission is simple: to end deaths due to malaria. This fall, Malaria No More has presented the U.S. Fund for UNICEF with a Challenge Match Grant of $1 million dollars to support the purchase of bed nets, their delivery,and education on their proper use in malaria-endemic countries in Africa. The grant will match each donation made to battle this childhood killer, dollar for dollar, thus working twice as hard to support UNICEF's malaria prevention and treatment programs.

Okay, then --- game on.

Donate now and join Clay Aiken, UNICEF and Malaria No More in defeating this killer of children. The task might be insurmountable for you or for me alone, but by joining together, it's a simple thing to save the life of a child.

Ten dollars.

Easy layup.

Nothing but net.

UNICEF: Whatever it takes to save a child.

Somalia: Turning Outrage into Action



UNICEF Ambassador Clay Aiken has asked the world to remember Somalia, where war and famine have combined to cause one of the world's worst humanitarian crises.

In a story reported by Reuters, Aiken says there has been scant U.S. and international attention to Somalia since a failed military intervention a decade and a half ago.

Aiken, an American pop singer and UN Goodwill Ambassador currently visiting the Somaliland region of the country, says:

There hasn't been much discussion of Somalia since the early 1990s in the U.S. The American population kind of got a bad taste of Somalia in the early 90's and hasn't really had much interest in the country since.

Somalia has been torn by civil war for nearly twenty years, with problems exacerbated by continued insurgency against an unstable central government.

Aiken has been on previous UNICEF field missions to observe rebuilding following the tsunami in Indonesia, to talk with children in IDP camps and UNICEF centers who had been forced to flee from rebel forces in Northern Uganda, to Afghanistan to witness education programs for girls and women in the post-Taliban era, and to Chiapas, Mexico, to visit survivors of devastating floods late last year.

He continues:

It's the most dangerous place for a child to be. In the lower part of the country, southern part, I feel it's a more desperate situation than any place we've ever been."

More information as it becomes available, along with links to a UNICEF in Somalia fundraising campaign currently being developed.

US Fund for UNICEF

From UNICEF Somalia:

Somalia remains volatile, beset by internal political crisis and conflict, a country severely affected by the repercussions of more than ten years of war, economic decline and destruction. Already one of the poorest countries in the world at the onset of the nineties, conditions of extreme poverty now largely prevail, with very few services and grave health risks experienced by the most vulnerable groups, children and women.


Breaking News:

UNICEF USA Ambassador Clay Aiken talks to Rahma, 9, during a visit to the Somaliland Cultural and Sports Association in Hargeisa, North West Somalia. - UNICEF photo


"NAIROBI, Kenya, 2 July 2008 – During a five-day visit to the self-declared republic of Somaliland in north-west Somalia, UNICEF USA Ambassador Clay Aiken was moved by the work that UNICEF is doing under challenging circumstances." - Source,

Aiken visited Hargeisa, Gabiley and Boroma in the northwest to witness UNICEF-supported projects in action, including programs to improve children's health, provide safe water, sanitation and hygiene, make primary education available to all, protect children and empower girls.

The American entertainer and UNICEF Ambassador, who is completing his fifth field mission, says,
In a country that’s better known for conflict, insecurity, drought and floods,it’s truly remarkable that UNICEF is still able to make a difference to the health, education and well-being of Somali children.

In Somalia, less than twenty-five percent of the population has access to basic health services and under thirty percent of children receive a primary education --- a particular concern for Aiken, a former teacher.

The country has been torn by war for nearly two decades. Due to this civil unrest, there is little effective infrastructure, and children face malnutrition, threats to health including polio and cholera, a lack of education, and random violence, among other catastrophic circumstances. Despite threats of violence to humanitarian workers, UNICEF remains in the country, responding to these acute needs.

This is Aiken's second trip to the African continent for UNICEF. In 2005, he visited Uganda to observe programs for children who have been forced to flee their homes to avoid abduction by rebel forces, and spoke with former child soldiers who are being reintegrated into Ugandan society. He has also visited Indonesia following the tsumani, observed education programs in post-Taliban Afghanistan and spent Christmas with flood victims following last winter's storms in Mexico.

Aiken continues,
Somali families want the best for their children and people really want to help bring about change. Fortunately, UNICEF has always been there and continues to provide the support needed to make a difference.

This blog will carry further information on Aiken's trip, along with information on fundraisers to assist the children of Somalia, as details develop.

To find out more about helping the world's children, visit US Fund for UNICEF.

Turning Outrage into Action: Clay Aiken, UNICEF and the Children of Somalia


Clay Aiken laughs with children he met on a UNICEF field visit to northwest Somalia.

Photo by Nick Ysenburg, US Fund for UNICEF


UNICEF Ambassador Clay Aiken has blogged about his recent visit to Somalia in a UNICEF FieldNote entitled "Where is the outrage?"

Somalia, a country of ten million located in the Horn of Africa, has been torn asunder by civil war for seventeen years. With no central government and few safe havens for those caught up in the conflict, it has been completely destabilized. Children, the most vulnerable, are among those most affected by these conditions.

Is that reason enough to be outraged?

Aiken says, in part:

...the lack of a permanent central government has contributed to Somalia's status as one of the poorest and most volatile countries in the world. Decades of civil conflict have shattered social structures and exacerbated poverty.

In such conditions—combined with an extremely arid environment and difficult terrain with settlements scattered over vast distances—a Somali child's chances of surviving to adulthood are among the lowest of children anywhere in the world.

One in every eight children do not survive to their fifth birthday, one of the highest rates of death among children in the world.

One in eight.

Is that reason enough to be outraged?

Major infectious diseases are rampant, contributing to a life expectancy of less than fifty years. There is a "very high" risk of food or waterborne diseases: bacterial and protozoal diarrhea, hepatitis A and E, and typhoid fever, and "high risks" of malaria and dengue fever. (Source: CBS News)

Nearly all of these conditions are preventable with sources of safe water, proper hygiene and improved nutrition, as well as medicines and vaccines that are readily available in the western world. Yet people, especially children, continue to die.

Is that reason enough to be outraged?

To make matters worse, aid workers and activists who are on the ground in Somalia working to improve people's lives are being targeted by insurgents, kidnapped and murdered. Many humanitarian aid organizations have been forced to withdraw from the country, but UNICEF is still there, serving the people of Somalia since 1972, at great risk to their own lives and safety. In the last few days alone, the chief of the Somalia office for the United Nations Development Program was shot dead, a fourth driver for the World Food Program was killed and a prominent Somali peace activist as murdered as he left morning prayer. (Source:

Is that reason enough to be outraged?

Somaliland, the region of the country Aiken visited, is relatively safe when compared to the utter chaos that reigns throughout most of the country, and it is there where the success of UNICEF programs is most apparent. Aiken describes his visit to UNICEF-supported schools and hospitals, centers where girls learn leadership, life-skills and play sports, and UNICEF-supported maternal and child health clinics that offer nutritional feeding and immunization. These programs save lives.

Is that reason enough to turn outrage into action?

Go to the US Fund for UNICEF and read Clay Aiken's Somalia blog, "Where is the outrage?"

Then DONATE to support UNICEF's child survival programs in Somalia.

These UNICEF programs have been proven to be effective. They need to be supported and children need to survive while the monumental task of bringing peace to Somalia continues. If the children don't survive, what future does Somalia have?

Take action.

UNICEF, Clay Aiken and Somalia's Children: How One Simple Act Can Save the World Entire


Clay Aiken, on his fifth field visit for UNICEF, laughs while surrounded by a group of Somali girls and women

- UNICEF photos by Nick Ysenburg

Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire.
--- The Talmud

UNICEF Ambassador Clay Aiken is continuing his work to promote support for the children of Somalia, following his recent trip to the northwestern region of Somaliland.

In a blog entitled Somalia: Keep spreading the word, Aiken thanks donors for raising $50,000 for Somalia's children in the last six days, and challenges UNICEF supporters to take action in advocating for children.

UNICEF is one of the few humanitarian organizations with an active presence in the war-torn country, acting as a vital lifeline for the innocent victims of war. In a previous blog, Aiken described his visit to UNICEF-supported schools and hospitals, centers where girls learn leadership, life-skills and play sports, and UNICEF-supported maternal and child health clinics that offer nutritional feeding and immunization, programs that save lives and improve the quality of living.

UNICEF has been helping children for over 60 years and has saved more children’s lives than any other organization in the world. We have the history and the experience to overcome obstacles like politics and poverty—even war—which can stand in the way of helping a child survive. While we could never do it alone, we are often the ones who reach children in need after everyone else has given up.
--- From United States Fund for UNICEF

By supporting UNICEF's programs, you can do something to make a difference.

What does it take to save a child?

Give a little, or give a lot. Here are just a few examples of what a few dollars can do:

$1.20, a little more than the price of downloading another song to your iPod, can immunize a woman and her newborn against tetanus.

$17, less than the price of a takeout pizza, can immunize a child against the six major childhood diseases.

$60, the price of the Grand Theft Auto video game, can provide enough vaccine to immunize 60 children against polio.

$200, the price for a mediocre ticket to a playoff game, can buy a large cold box for the transportation of vaccines to remote locations.

What will you do to save a child?

There are three simple things anyone can do to be a part of the solution: ask your family and friends to become involved; encourage them to become informed about UNICEF's work in Somalia, and; ask them to donate to support child survival programs in Somalia.

And remember: education is the key to ending the cycle.

$3 can provide a child with a pencil, paper pad and a pen to use in the classroom.

$16 can buy a double-sided chalkboard for classroom or outdoor use.

$176 can buy one school-in-a-box kit—a ready-made educational solution packed in a lockable metal box, containing equipment for 80 students such as pencils, erasers, exercise books, writing slates, scissors and carrier bags.
--- US Fund for UNICEF

Act now to save a life and together, one by one, we can save the world entire.

For more information on UNICEF's lifesaving work in Somalia, go to:

US Fund for UNICEF - links to articles by search - Somalia country page at international site

UNICEF Somalia - dedicated website

A selection of featured articles from UNICEF:

Protection of Children Is Critical Amid Escalating Conflict in Somalia

Volunteer-Staffed Health Center Helps Save Lives in Baidoa, Somalia

UNICEF Seeks Emergency Support for Somalia’s Undernourished Children

Temporary schools bring a sense of normalcy to young Somalis displaced by conflict

"On My Way Here" - Measuring The Gap Between the Critics and The Truth


Singer Clay Aiken talks with Kipper, Grammy-winning producer, while recording "On My Way Here"

I’ve been meaning to take a look at the histories of the musicians and technicians who contributed to Clay Aiken's wonderful new CD, "On My Way Here" since the credits were first available --- hey, I read movie credits, too, since I’ve been in them and I see the names of friends all of the time.

It took me two weeks, but as I Googled their names last night, I laughed --- and then I laughed harder.

The men performing with Clay in the "On My Way Here" video bear no resemblance to the Central Casting pop band in the “Invisible” video, as supplied by the director of that piece. These men have the look of people who have been around a while, and everything I could hear as I listened to the album revealed remarkable levels of musicianship. One of them, the guitarist, even looked a bit familiar to me, and I thought it was interesting that the pianist asked --- and was allowed --- to sing on the CD. I figured there was a story behind the names in the credits.

The CD reviews were so at odds with the evidence of my own ears. On song after song, supporting Clay’s extraordinary voice, interpretive skills and growing artistry, I could hear some especially fine musicianship and the same kind of top-flight production that earned Kipper and Sting a Grammy for "Brand New Day" as Best Pop Album. (The single named --- and singularly talented --- Kipper, Aiken's producer, has also worked with renowned jazz trumpeter Chris Botti, among other leading musicians.)

Kipper's interesting and innovative work is known within music circles, if not in the general public, but I was curious to learn about the artists playing in support of "On My Way Here." My tastes are eclectic, my collection is rather large and I've seen hundreds of live concerts, from pop to jazz to rock to blues to funk to soul to world beat... you get the idea. Listening to the CD, I heard inspired artistry and great professionalism, from the musicians to the engineering to the mix. But some of the reviews were odd, not criticizing Clay's peerless voice but everything that surrounded him, implying the CD wasn't worthwhile despite the evident vocal talent. That simply wasn't what I was hearing.

These are the men behind the “uninspired, stock music” --- as some of the critics would have it.

Keith Carlock – Drums

Keith has played and/or toured with Steely Dan, Sting, James Taylor, Donald Fagen, Walter Becker, Diana Ross, Faith Hill, The Blues Brothers Band, Leni Stern, David Johansen and the Harry Smiths, Richard Bona, Chris Botti, Wayne Krantz, Harry Belafonte, Oz Noy, Paula Abdul and Grover Washington, Jr, to name a few.
Keith was recently voted number 1 Pop drummer and number 3 Best All-Around in Modern Drummer's 2008 Readers Poll.

There's some interesting stuff at Keith's website and in this article from Drummer World Magazine.

Keith at the drums.

Freddie Washington – Bass:

Freddie joined Herbie Hancock’s band at age 19, and has played in sessions or on tour with Steely Dan, Michael Jackson, Al Jarreau, Aaron Neville, Lionel Richie, Anita Baker, B.B. King, Elton John, Stevie Wonder and Whitney Houston, Donald Fagen, The Crusaders, George Benson, Denise Williams, Johnny Mathis, Burt Bacharach, and Kenny Loggins.

He has a platinum record as the songwriter of Patrice Rushen’s smash hit, “Forget Me Nots.”

Here is Freddie's Bio and a great article on his work with Donald Fagen from Bass Player.

Freddie and his bass.

Jon Herington – Guitar:

Jon has played with Steely Dan for both recording and touring. Jon has also toured with Donald Fagen, Boz Scaggs, Bette Midler, Phoebe Snow, Madeleine Peyroux, saxophonist Bill Evans, the contemporary jazz superband Chroma, and jazz/blues organ great Jack McDuff.

Read Jon's Profile and his reviews at his website, and watch him featured on "My Old School" in this AOL video of Steely Dan.

Jon plays his guitar.

Jeff Young – Piano, Organ, Vocals:

Jeff has played with Steely Dan, Sting, Boz Scaggs, Jackson Browne, Shawn Colvin, Phoebe Snow, Michael McDonald, Curtis Stigers and many more. He appeared in the acclaimed Broadway musical “Gospel at Colonus.” Vonda Shepard once sang in his band, leading to Jeff being hired to play for several episodes of “Ally McBeal.”

Jeff on keyboards.

There's a connection between these four musicians.

The men on this CD are the longtime Steely Dan band, backing Donald Fagen and Walter Becker --- and not a single one of these “music critics” recognized them or their musicianship.

Fusing jazz, pop and blues, multiple Grammy-winners Steely Dan (Donald Fagen and Walter Becker) are one of the most acclaimed bands in music history. They are members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

This is the caliber of musician that Clay Aiken chose as his session men for "On My Way Here."

But assumptions are an interesting thing. Critic after critic, determined to dismiss any effort Clay put forward, wrote reviews with little or no bearing on the reality of the music on "On My Way Here" --- right down to trashing musicians they had praised in other reviews. According to multiple sources, Keith, Freddie, Jon and Jeff are considered among the best session men in the world --- unless they are playing with Clay Aiken, apparently.

And as for the “sound” of the album:

It was recorded and mixed by Nathaniel Kunkel.

Nathaniel’s work with Sheila Nicholls, The Crystal Method, Lyle Lovett, Graham Nash, James Taylor, and Sting, among others, “has earned him the reputation of being one of the foremost authorities on engineering in surround sound.

“Nathaniel’s mix work has garnered him industry acclaim and awards, including Grammy awards for his work with Lyle Lovett, B.B. King, The Trio (Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt and Dolly Parton), and comedian Robin Williams; Surround Music Awards for his work with Graham Nash, James Taylor and Insane Clown Posse; and an Emmy for his recent work with Sting.”

Nathaniel is the son of drummer Russell Kunkel, a longtime James Taylor sideman.

Here's a great article on his work with David Crosby and Graham Nash from Mix Online, "the world's leading magazine for the professional recording and sound production technology industry."

Read about his Studio Without Walls, and check out the artists Nathaniel has worked with.

Finally, Cameron Craig engineered the strings.

Cameron is a Grammy-winner who has worked with Duffy, The Hours, Suzanne Vega, Amy Winehouse, Tina Turner, Joe Strummer, Garbage and Blur, among many others.

Unfortunately, musician's websites are often out of date, so there's just one mention of their work with Clay. (I suppose RCA didn't think it was worthy of note in the press release for this CD.)

So it doesn’t matter what some critics say, because they clearly don’t have a clue. I know that Clay got the best in the business to work on this album, people with experience, artistry, awards and respect within the music industry, where it really counts.

Working with Kipper as producer and Jaymes Foster as executive producer, Clay Aiken got to work with the best --- and the results are evident on "On My Way Here." It’s only fitting, because Clay is one of the best, as well.

So don't believe the critics' dismissals --- hell, don't even believe my praise.

Listen for yourself.

Listen for yourself.

Day One, Year Six: The Singer, Diane and Mike


Clay's Hollywood Round AI audition, Late 2002

Clay in New York, January 2008 (Photo by Richard Drew)

“Take time to tell me you really care

And we’ll share tomorrow together

Baby, I’ll always love you forever...”

Lyrics from "Always and Forever", Clay Aiken's audition for "American Idol"

On January 28, 2003, millions of people heard you sing for the first time. I was one of the people who met you at “Take.”

Five years later, you are still here and showing a more wide-ranging talent than ever before, performing before enthusiastic and appreciative audiences while appearing in your debut on Broadway. (I’ll be in that audience later on in your run.)

Before “Spamalot”, there was Diane --- and then Mike, but before “Take,” another Diane and Mike were pivotal to your life.

Part of the reason you are where you are today is because of people named Diane and Mike.

I wonder what it was like in that house in Charlotte when Diane Bubel first heard you sing. There you were, a 23 year old special education major working as a mentor to her son Mike, a job, she has said, at which you excelled. As a CAP (Community Alternatives Program) worker, a YMCA counselor and a substitute teacher for a class of students with autism, you had already devoted yourself to delving into autism’s mysteries. You have said that singing, which had always been a part of you, had been put on the back burner.

One day, working with Mike in the Bubel household, you started to sing.

Diane heard something in that glorious voice, saw something in you that should not be denied. There was a new television talent show called “American Idol,” and Diane thought that you should be part of it. You were reluctant, not because you didn’t have the talent, but because you thought you didn’t have the image.

Diane persisted. Knowing that you would have to leave the work you had been doing with her son if you succeeded in getting a spot on the show, she insisted again and again that you should audition.

You auditioned in Charlotte, but failed to make the cut. You went to Atlanta, and got a ticket to Hollywood. You were cut in your Group Two auditions, but came back as America’s Choice in the Wild Card round. You made the Top Twelve, and three months later you finished second.

Then you started to win: sales records, magazine covers, every poll your name appeared on, industry awards.

Less than a year after your first audition, you set records with your first single --- and you founded The Bubel/Aiken Foundation to continue to spread the message of how inclusion benefits all children, regardless of ability.

Five years later, you have sold more than 6 million CDs, EPs and CD singles and earned more than $28 million in box office through your seven tours. BAF has been awarded millions of dollars to develop curriculum, programs and services, and has supported the inclusion of children with disabilities into the same life experiences as their typical peers through Let’s All Play summer camps, Champions of Change honors, ABLE to Serve grants, and numerous other grants and awards.

It started with your talents and passions, but twice, your success received a major assist from Diane and Mike.

One Diane leads to another --- and to another Mike, as well. The opportunities you earned through your finalist run on AI and your record-setting recording debut led to your first major prime time interview with Diane Sawyer of ABC News. I look back at that interview and I remember how remarkably open and candid you were, how frankly you talked about the struggles and challenges and losses of your life. (From then on, I knew I could trust you to be honest.) I also remember how Diane looked at you when you sang “Measure of A Man” and a bit of “Moon River” --- she heard it, too, that remarkable something of you.

Somewhere along the line, during your audience interaction on your seven tours, your talk show appearances (particularly the hilarious rapport you have shown with Jimmy Kimmel), your skits on “Saturday Night Live,” your “As Clay Aiken” moment on “Ed” and an even better one on “Days of Our Lives,” or your first real shot at building a character on “Scrubs,” you made it abundantly clear that you are a very funny man with a gift for taking on various characters. I had my moments as an actor before I became an assistant director of feature films and started watching other people act, and I thought it was possible that you had the makings of a good actor in you.

How did “Spamalot” happen? Did Diane Sawyer bring her husband (some guy named Mike Nichols) to one of your concerts, or did they watch you on TV? Did you met him one night at dinner at the Sawyer-Nichols household? Or was one of Mike’s professional colleagues the one who led to your second pivotal audition, the one that impressed a director with eight Tony Awards, as well as Eric Idle, who wrote the book, lyrics and music for “Spamalot” and who, with Monty Python, created the role of Sir Robin that you play now?

Once you were cut from your high school musical, and now Mike Freaking Nichols says
Clay Aiken is amazing beyond that glorious voice. Turns out he is an excellent comic actor and a master of character. People will be surprised by his wide ranging talent, since the first impression is of great country charm and a singer to remember. This guy is not only a star, he is a lot more. We are lucky to get him for Spamalot.

Surreal, isn’t it?

Clay as Sir Robin in "Spamalot" (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Today is quiet for you, your second Dark Monday following another week of cheers and laughter and the affectionate support of your talented cast mates. There have been sold out, standing room only crowds, crushes of well-wishers at the stage door, photographers shouting your name amid a blitzkrieg of flashes.

Fifteen years ago you saw an actor named Martin Moran play Huck Finn in “Big River” and now you take over the role of Sir Robin from him on Broadway. Coincidence or providence?

You have said that this is a full circle moment for you. I agree --- it’s breathtaking, really. I can’t wait to see “Spamalot” and everything that follows it.

This is a full circle moment for me, too. Five years later, you are still here and your career is growing in ways I had not imagined. You’ll have “Spamalot” at the Shubert in New York through May 4, and you are also busy working on your next album, one you have said will be a true reflection of you. Beyond that, there will be tours, television shows, and more of your service to UNICEF and The Bubel/Aiken Foundation. So this is the last time I will formally commemorate that moment, five years ago. It is dear to me, but your future is bright with promise. I prefer to bask in the warmth of your limitless potential.

And I will still laugh at the quirks and the foibles that make you deliciously human.

For all that has been, and for all that will be...

Thank you, Diane and Mike Bubel.

Thank you, Diane Sawyer and Mike Nichols.

And thank you, Clay Aiken, for a wonderful five years that is only the beginning.



Bring on the music!

And may you be blessed with love, happiness and success, from this first day of Year Six on through tens of thousand of bright tomorrows.

"Spamalot" --- and a Guy Named Monty Python


Ten Fun Things to Check Out This Weekend!

Brave, brave, brave Sir Robin (okay, maybe not) Photos by Joan Marcus

1. Clay Aiken debuts on Broadway as Sir Robin in “Monty Python’s Spamalot”.

Mike Nichols, (Spamalot’s Tony winning director) says

Clay Aiken is amazing beyond that glorious voice. Turns out he is an excellent comic actor and a master of character. People will be surprised by his wide ranging talent, since the first impression is of great country charm and a singer to remember. This guy is not only a star, he is a lot more. We are lucky to get him for Spamalot.

Eric Idle, the original Sir Robin and creator of the book, lyrics and music for Spamalot, on Clay being cast in this Tony-winning musical:

This is great news. I have been a Clay Aiken fan ever since I took my daughter to see him live on the second season of American Idol and she held up a big sign of his name. Maybe now it should read 'American Idle.'

Of the people he is working with for his Broadway debut, Clay said

I really couldn't have asked for a more wonderful group of people to work with. Let's not lie, the chance to work with legendary creative minds like Mike Nichols and Eric Idle is, on its own, a reason to jump at this opportunity. But that's not all. The producers and creative folks I have had the chance to meet and work with so far have been unbelievably welcoming and wonderful. They've really made me feel at home already, and I haven't even started yet!

See Clay and the rest of the thoroughly ridiculous, brilliant cast starting Friday, January 18, 8:00 PM, Shubert Theater, New York.

"Spamalot" also stars Jonathan Hadary, Hannah Waddingham, Christopher Seiber, Rick Holmes, David Hibbard, Tom Deckman and Brad Oscar.

Hey! You’re going to need some tickets!

Sir Robin finds his grail

2. Monty Python and The Holy Grail. The funniest movie ever made, from which “Spamalot” was “lovingly ripped off.” See for yourself.

3. Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Michael Palin, Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam in the stupidest show ever on television. It was rather brilliant, too, with the silly walks, “dead parrots, cross-dressing lumberjacks, loonies, upper class twits, and spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, baked beans, spam, spam, and spam.”

4. PythOnline. Absurd, ludicrous and essential website for all things Python.

5. Eric Idle, from Python to The Rutles to “Spamalot” to "Not the Messiah (He's a Very Naughty Boy)," based on the film "Monty Python's Life of Brian" Be prepared to go to hell if you laugh.

6. Michael Palin, Python's world traveler. “New Europe,” “Around the World in Eighty Days,” “Pole to Pole” or anywhere else he chooses to travel, go with him. Great stuff, this.

7. John Cleese. Check out this lovely collection of Cleese’s anarchic comedy: How To Irritate People, Romance With A Double Bass, and Strange Case Of The End Of Civilization.

8. Terry Gilliam. I just have to recommend Time Bandits for fun, or his masterpiece, Brazil. Visual artistry and a unique perspective, even when he’s not fighting with Terry Jones.

9. Terry Jones. Seen Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life? There you have it, no questions left. This explains everything.

10 Graham Chapman, appearing nightly in Heaven --- and at a video rental shop near you. Fiendishly funny bloke.

PS: Go see "Spamalot" --- a lot!

Noel in Mexico: UNICEF and the Spirit of the Season


Escaping the flooding in Tabasco. (Photos from the BBC)

Noel: the Christmas season, literal meaning "the birth of Christ."

At the end of October 2007, Hurricane Noel began to batter the state of Tabasco in southeastern Mexico. After more than a week of steady, torrential rain, eighty percent of Tabasco was flooded, and more than a million people were forced from their homes.

In the days following the flooding, UNICEF immediately mobilized to provide emergency supplies of food, baby formula, clean water and safe shelter for the children and families displaced by the flood. The organization is also proving thousands of recreational and school kits for children who have been displaced or whose schools have been destroyed.

Two months later, in this season of noel, many remain displaced. Much more remains to be done.

Now you have a chance to help those affected by the flooding in Mexico.

This Christmas season, UNICEF Ambassador Clay Aiken will not be on a skiing holiday in the French alps. He won't be relaxing around the fire at his North Carolina estate. Realizing that UNICEF never takes a vacation, he has decided to spend his Christmas with the children and families displaced by the floods. He will be traveling to Mexico this weekend, at the conclusion of his fourth Christmas concert tour.

In support of Clay Aiken's work on behalf of the children affected by the flooding, UNICEF has established a special donation link to challenge UNICEF supporters to raise $100,000 by the end of the year to support relief efforts in Mexico.

Clay Aiken being greeted by Indonesian children, following the tsunami. (Photo courtesy UNICEF)

Clay is just part of a UNICEF team giving of themselves in the spirit of the season. Richard Alleyne, a member of UNICEF's Tabasco delegation, was among the first to respond.

UNICEF's Richard Alleyne with mother and child at UNICEF shelter. (Photo courtesy UNICEF)

Read Richard's Field Blog, "[In the Field] On the ground in Villahermosa, Tabasco."

When I look at the first picture in this blog, I wonder who those people are and what happened to them. It could be a father and mother making way through the flood waters holding their child, as so many thousand were forced to do.

This Christmas, I recognize that for some, not only is there is no room at the inn, there is no inn and no manger at all. The time is now. Before year's end, do your part to help people survive this crisis and rebuild their lives.

In the spirit of this season of giving, please act now to help Clay Aiken and UNICEF raise $100,000 before the end of the year for those affected by the flooding in Mexico.

UNICEF Ambassador Clay Aiken & Family Celebrate Christmas With Survivors of Mexico's Floods


UNICEF Ambassador Clay Aiken celebrates Christmas at a flood shelter with the children of Ostuacan, Chiapas.

Photo courtesy US Fund for UNICEF

Last month, in the wake of Hurricane Noel, the states of Chiapas and Tabasco, Mexico suffered extensive flooding, forcing one million people from their homes. Many remain homeless and are living in UNICEF supplied shelters.

Here's your chance to share the holiday spirit with children and families waiting to return to their homes and schools.

Help Clay Aiken and UNICEF raise $100,000 by December 31 to help the children of Mexico!

In just four days, UNICEF supporters and fans of Clay Aiken have raised $44,000 toward this goal. In the spirit of the season, please do your part to help raise $100,000 to support recovery for the children and families of Chiapas and Tabasco.

In his Fieldnotes blog at the US Fund of UNICEF, Clay wrote:

Merry Christmas to all from Mexico!

I couldn’t be happier than to be with my family and UNICEF in Mexico sharing the Christmas holiday with the people of Chiapas and Tabasco who have suffered such tragedy.

They have lost so much... but they have an unbelievable spirit and contagious joy. This is the holiday season and the spirit of family and giving is alive and well here.

As upbeat and positive as the people are they still need our help. There is much to do to reconstruct their village and get their lives back to normal. Thank you on behalf of myself, UNICEF and the people of Chiapas for your generous donations… and if you haven’t already, please consider opening your heart to these wonderful people who have opened their hearts and homes to me.

Read the full blog HERE.

Here is an excerpt from this morning's news article on PR Newswire:

CHIAPAS, Mexico, Dec. 25 /PRNewswire/ -- UNICEF Ambassador and critically acclaimed recording artist Clay Aiken today wrapped up the first leg of his trip to the flood affected areas of southeast Mexico by participating in a gift exchange and "sing along" with over 300 children and their families at a camp erected for flood victims.

Aiken, who is traveling in the region with his mother and younger brother, a Marine on leave from Iraq, will also be part of a UNICEF delegation scheduled to visit the state of Tabasco over the next two days.

"The situation in Chiapas and Tabasco has really become a forgotten emergency," said the U.S. pop star who became an ambassador for the children's agency in 2004. "Telling the story of these brave people, especially the children, to a U.S. audience is the reason that I am here. Sharing this experience with my family during this time of year makes it even more special."

In one weekend last month torrential rains in Tabasco and Chiapas produced the worst flooding the region has seen in more than 50 years. More than one million residents of the two states have been affected, one third of which are children.

While an integrated humanitarian response lead by government and U.N. agencies has stabilized the emergency in Mexico, thousands remain homeless and displaced. According to UNICEF officials in the region, children are the most vulnerable in these situations. Hundreds of them are at risk of psychological trauma and many more are out of school due to extensive structural damage to school buildings.

Today's event, also attended by Hon. Isabel Aguilera de Sabines, First Lady of the state of Chiapas, was held in the city of Ostuacan where 19 deaths were recently reported after a series of mudslides engulfed the small mountain community of Juan de Grijalva and the search for six missing residents is ongoing.

Clay Aiken's $100,000 UNICEF challenge. Raise $100,000 by December 31 to help the children of Mexico!

Funds Pour in for Clay Aiken's $100,000 UNICEF Mexico Campaign, Deadline December 31


UNICEF Ambassador Clay Aiken with boy at a flood shelter, Ostuacan, Chiapas, Mexico.

Footage from "Entertainment Tonight," screencaps by Invisible926 and CAP121

Monday, December 31:

As of 2 PM PST today, more than $101,000 has been raised as a result of UNICEF Ambassador Clay Aiken's $100,000 in 10 Days for Mexican Flood Relief Campaign, exceeding the original goal!

Though the goal has been reached, there is much more that can be done. remains. The deadline for the fundraiser is the end of the day today, Monday, December 31. Please act now to support recovery for children and families in Chiapas and Tabasco!

Clay has spent Christmas week traveling on behalf of UNICEF in the flood-stricken regions of Chiapas and Tabasco, Mexico. Also participating in this humanitarian field visit are Clay's mother Faye and his brother Brett, a Marine on leave from Iraq.

In Ostuacan, Chiapas, Clay and the Honorable Isabel Aguilera de Sabines, First Lady of the state of Chiapas, participated in games with the three hundred children in the flood shelters.

Clay has spent the last two days in Tabasco's capital city of Villahermosa, visiting the largest flood shelter and meeting with the children and families residing there.

Please go HERE to make a donation to help the children and families recovering from the floods.

It has been nearly two months since massive flooding in the wake of Hurricane Noel displaced one million people, one third of them children. Additionally, seventy percent of the schools have been damaged and 100% of the state's crops were destroyed.

In the spirit of this season of giving, please do all you can to help the children return to school and help families in Chiapas and Tabasco return to their normal lives.

Please go HERE to make a secure, tax-deductible donation to UNICEF.