Wednesday, May 20, 2009

For Free

It is a scene so common that it usually escapes notice. I had decided to spend another sun-kissed California spring day throwing away some money shopping and, as I pulled the car into a parking spot, a sound caught my ear. It was the ring of guitar strings and the percussive slap of palm of wood.

There on the sidewalk down the block, standing near Starbucks, Noah's Bagels and the market, a street musician was playing and singing to the oblivious shoppers passing by. I couldn't quite pick put his words, but there was something sweet about the sounds that were reaching me.

My brother James is a professional musician, one of the fortunate ones who makes a living with his gifts, so perhaps my gratitude for his good fortune explains why I sometimes give a listen and drop some change for the musicians who play under the street lights instead of the spotlights. I had a stop or two to make first, but I promised myself to head on down and listen for a while when I was through.

James is not a star, but he has been a working musician for more than three decades, starting when he was a teenager. Making music is the only job he has ever had. That’s him, playing behind the superstar Italian rocker. There he is, playing with the quirky jazz rock orchestra. There he is at the all-star jam closing out Montreux Jazz Festival, with Sting or Miles or Bocelli. He took part in a Pavarotti & Friends for War Child concert. He has played for the Pope in Rome --- and for the comrades in Red Square. He's been on the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London and at the House of Blues on the Sunset Strip, and he's toured in Paris, Tokyo, Rio and Sydney. He lives comfortably, if not lavishly, but he lives his dream of making music his life, not just his livelihood.

This morning I read an article in Forbes about the 2008 top 10 wage earners from American Idol. I probably haven’t watched the show more than a dozen times since the end of the second season, having grown weary of the formula and the "man behind the curtain" manipulations of public opinion. In the shows I have sampled in its eight seasons, I have seen a rare few bright lights, several decent talents and too many mediocrities, but only one singer has caught my attention, my time and my money.

He has long since stood on his own: a truly rare vocal talent, a gifted and subtle interpreter of lyrics, an activist for children's causes, an idiosyncratic and interesting man who is a collection of dichotomies. That is why Clay Aiken joins india.arie and Green Day on my list of the most compelling new artists of this decade.

Clay was #6 on the Forbes list, having earned $2.2 million dollars in a year when he did not even tour. Clay has made a Pollstar-estimated $30 million touring since 2003, not including merchandising, his earnings from 5 million CDs and over 1 million CD singles sold, and his New York Times Best Selling memoir Learning to Sing.

Beyond his superb voice, Clay has become an appealing comic actor, as those who have seen him on "Scrubs" or last week's "30 Rock" season finale, or on Broadway in "Monty Python's Spamalot" can attest. That makes sense: his concerts are part glorious vocals and part standup comedy, and he has been an absolute riot during his many visits to his buddy Jimmy Kimmel's late night show.

Clay never, to my knowledge, sang on the street. As a child, he stood on the carpet samples as his mother worked at Sears, and he would sing for a dollar. He was, for a time, part of the Raleigh Boys Choir, he sang in church and he was later the only boy in his school choir. He did a few musicals, he sang in his uncle's band and he went from singing in the North Carolina Connection variety shows to hosting them before he was twenty. He has said that he became well enough known in his community as the boy with the big voice that he grew weary of being called The Singer.

In a turn of fate, he started working as a camp counselor at the Y, grew frustrated withn seeing children with disabilities excluded from many of the camp's activities, and decided to go to college and pursue a degree in special education.

He admits that music became his Plan B.

Clay had fallen in love with the puzzle that is autism and decided to become a teacher for children with developmental disabilities.

Life threw a curve at his Plan A.

I've seen a photo of the marquee at a Raleigh-area theatre: in the months before his life changed, "Clayton" Aiken starred in another local music show.

Music called him back when he decided to audition for American Idol at the behest of a friend. Now Clay Aiken is a singer and an entertainer, but he still works with children through his UNICEF Ambassadorship and his own Bubel/Aiken Foundation, which seeks to incorporate kids with disabilities into the full range of activities and opprotunities available to their typically developing peers.

Two men, two ways of making a life in music.

Here is the third.

I finished in the card shop and, as I got closer, I could hear the words this Guitar Man was singing: a familiar song, but his own arrangement and tempo. His voice was sweet, his guitar work was strong and he looked almost impossibly happy, standing there by his open guitar case.

I touched the dollar out of my pocket as I heard him sing:

“Don’t stop believing, hold on to that feeling...”

I listened for a while, then dropped the dollar. As I walked away, I said, “You sound great, man.”

And he smiled, sang “Bless you” and he kept on singing and playing.

I know nothing about the Guitar Man on the street, nothing of his life or his back story. I do not know if he was well-known, and part of a local version of the Joshua Bell subway experiment, if he's an eccentric who loaded his guitar into the back of his BMW and headed back to his law office, or if he was in line that night for a spot at the shelter.

I do know that the look on his face as he sang and played was one of absolute bliss.

And I know that I have seen that same look on James's face, and on Clay's.

Perhaps, if the twists of life had been different, Guitar Man would be playing at the Fillmore, or preparing for his next world tour backing up Steely Dan.

Maybe James would have ended up with a desk job, and found himself jamming whenever he could at the local open mic night.

And maybe Clay would have become North Carolina Teacher of the Year --- and kept on hosting those local talent shows on the weekends.

But when music is in your blood, it finds a way to express itself. There are, of course, musicians who have become jaded. For them, it has become more about the reqward than the process, more about the fame than about creativity.

But on the street, in that passing monment, and on stages across the country and the world, I have seen the love and joy that making and sharing music brought to three very different men. In the turning of fate, I believe all would still be driven to express it, that all would retain their passion for their art, and, even if financial rewards eluded them, that all would gladly make music...

For free.

For James, for Clay, for the Guitar Man:

“Don’t stop believing...”

I slept last night in a good hotel
I went shopping today for jewels
The wind rushed around in the dirty town
And the children let out from the schools
I was standing on a noisy corner
Waiting for the walking green
Across the street he stood
And he played real good
On his clarinet, for free

Now me I play for fortunes
And those velvet curtain calls
I’ve got a black limousine
And two gentlemen
Escorting me to the halls
And I play if you have the money
Or if you’re a friend to me
But the one man band
By the quick lunch stand
He was playing real good, for free

Nobody stopped to hear him
Though he played so sweet and high
They knew he had never
Been on their t.v.
So they passed his music by
I meant to go over and ask for a song
Maybe put on a harmony...
I heard his refrain
As the signal changed
He was playing real good, for free

--- Joni Mitchell, “For Free”