A perquisite of being in advertising is travel. A damned inconvenience is not being able to choose when you travel.
During a recent important (divisible by 10!) wedding anniversary, I was in New York shooting a commercial with a director whose specialty is food: he claims to have given the world the ur-“lemon squeeze” shot for a certain seafood restaurant. Our last set-up ran late, but when we wrapped I realized I still had time to cab it to Broadway and 51st.
Oh, how romantic it would have been to have seen Les Paul with my wife on our anniversary that Monday night at Iridium, on Broadway. This was a few months before he died, and he was still with it: charming, funny, ornery.
Since I was there with the art director of a burger commercial instead of my betrothed, I was feeling weird and wrong. When it was my turn to ask for his autograph, my thoughts turned to home.
I didn’t want to overemphasize the good time I was having without my wife, though. An anniversary message didn’t seem like the best idea—commemoration of a milestone spent 12 hours 6 minutes apart (according to Google Maps).
I handed Les my journal and said, “I wonder if you’d write some advice for my three kids.”
He looked a little perturbed. On the spot.
I suppose he was expecting a simple, typical “Best Wishes” or “To Charlie” with a big, long em dash.
“Any advice at all…” I said, trying to make him stop looking perturbed and on the spot. Even though he’d just put on a great show (telling stories and bantering—clearly the quicker wit of the two—with guest guitarist Joe Satriani), he was, after all, a nonagenarian.
He wrote something, sort of maybe smiled, handed the Moleskine back to me, and directed his attention to the next in line. It wasn’t until I’d gotten back to the hotel that I saw what he wrote: “Keep the faith, Les Paul.”
Keep the faith. Hm. Yeah.
Coined by “charismatic” New York Representative Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., the phrase in its modern usage originates in a 1966 speech, the primary topic of which was civil rights: "Keep the faith, baby; spread it gently and walk together, children."
Under pressure and in mid-twentieth century vernacular, Les had scribbled—the autographist’s equivalent of blurting—the creative survivor’s credo to my kids. It doesn’t matter if he meant for it to echo Powell, with an implied ‘baby.’
To keep me from holding up the line, Les had sighed, looked slightly cross, gazed inward into his life’s experiences for five seconds, and decided he’d encourage my kids to believe without evidence that they’re going to be part of something good, to trust the received conviction they can achieve more than they’ve thus far shown they can.
It’s a message of not just persistence, but unjustified conviction: a feeling its feeler can neither explain nor comfortably dismiss.
Got it, Hopper babies? The Faith. Les Paul said to keep it.
Thanks to Mr. Paul’s Faith we have solid-body electric guitars and multi-track recording, and the thrill of his wife’s voice building on itself like a moonrise during the marvelous “Ahh—” portion leading into his guitar solo on “How High the Moon.”
As a personal example of faith-keeping, I might point to how I’ve felt all along about this Nashville thing.
“Must be present to win” is an old joke in Music City. It means out-of-towners are going to miss the serendipitous bonding and friend-making, the spur-of-the-moment writing sessions, the sense of community that tends to set doors ajar for people. Being in the right place at the right time is hard to manage five hours north of the action.
Barbara Cloyd likes to begin her ‘Ready for the Row’ seminars by saying, “If anything I say discourages you from attempting to sell a song in Nashville, you’re welcome.”
Success runs along the lines of lottery odds, and those odds are getting worse as the trend shifts from publisher-sourced songs to artist/songwriter collaborations.
A young lady named LaTasha Dawn, who has clearly sung along with both Reba and Aretha in her car for much of her life, was hanging out at a party I went to after one of Barbara’s seminars.
Instead of the stereo blaring, songwriters were passing around a guitar over by the couch. I’d gone to get a beer and ran into LaTasha and some other people talking in a doorway.
“Are you on MySpace?” said LaTasha.
This was in 2007, before MySpace was (sorry, MySpace, but it’s now true for most of us) passé.
“What? Charlie Hopper. You have to be on MySpace.”
Earlier that day one of the publishers at the seminar said he checked writer’s MySpaces—how many “adds” a songwriter had and how many his times songs were played could all be construed as an indicator of whether he could create a following. In 2007.
Around that time I’d seen a Roz Chast cartoon, three panels labeled regressively: “Bad, Worse, Worst.” Bad was (I may have the exact words wrong) “A man over 40 with a MySpace account.” Worse was “Your Dad with a MySpace account.” Worst was “Your Dad’s band with a MySpace account.”
Roz’s truthiness was holding me back.
“Okay, first thing you have to do when you get home, you have to get on MySpace,” said LaTasha Dawn.
LaTasha vs. Roz.
I put my songs on MySpace.
At the top of the profile is a “slogan” you’re supposed to compose for yourself. Exactly 50 spaces.
I tinkered around, and ended up using every single space with mine: Inexplicably Optimistic/Insufficiently Discouraged
That’s fifty characters (no period) that’s basically just another, less catchy way of saying I’m Keeping the Faith, Baby.
Against good sense and all odds.
A second example of faith-keeping in Nashville is a man I met many years ago.
Long before this lark of writing a song and trying to sell it, I was a very young copywriter who had just gotten the assignment to write a recruitment ad for Mayflower movers.
Hey, how about a country song sung from the perspective of a truck driver!
At the time I was in a rock band, and way, way more into Bob Dylan than Bob McDill (a Songwriting Hall of Famer whose name I’ve chosen not only because he is a reasonable symbolic stand-in for all professional songwriters, but also because I just now noticed the verbal music of those two songwriters juxtaposed and am quite pleased with it).
Randomly I called a Nashville recording studio. They set up an all-star session on a modest budget, just because it was going to be fun for them, too. And fun it was, the all-stars including Charlie McCoy on harmonica (a session ace whose credits run from playing bass on Dylan’s John Wesley Harding to musical director of Hee Haw); the guitarist who played the riff on Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman;” and a keyboardist from the original Mussel Shoals studio cats who had been brought in to play the “Tombstone Blues”-y organ fills I insisted on even though they kept telling me the organ made it less Nashville .
I was a stubborn (though polite) young copywriter. And I wanted a big fat Hammond B3 organ on my Mayflower driver recruitment jingle (this was many years ago—you’ll hear decorative organ more often in country these days).
On a break, I went out to get a can of Coke.
The vibe around the vending machines was completely different, a world away from the party going on in the studio. It was quiet. Dark. Pools of light shone down on the snacks and colas, and the water fountain made a quivery, muffled hum.
An older man in a fancy stitched cowboy shirt, his hair slicked back, was considering his options at the pop machine.
As my eyes adjusted to the gloom, I recognized Slim Whitman, the yodelling cowboy singer.
Years back a series of direct response commercials had offered a collection of his music, and I knew that thin moustache, that long, sad face. I could imitate his hiccupy “Vaya con Di-ee-ee-os, my da-ahr-arling” from those ads.
“Hello, Mr. Whitman,” I said.
“Hello…?” he seemed retrieved from a soda-choosing reverie. I would say he was pleased someone recognized him.
Not knowing what to say, I said, “I really respect your work.”
“Thank you.” There was a pause.
He asked me, “What’s your name?”
“Where you from?”
He looked off into years gone past. “Ah, yes… I was in Minneapolis, several times. Nice town…”
I didn’t correct him.
“Are you recording…?” he asked me. “A radio ad,” I said.
“Ah,” he said. “I’m recording a new album. First one in awhile…” He chuckled, meaning ‘it isn’t easy.’ I inferred he was gathering himself in the vending area, taking refuge from his producer, perhaps.
“Well, good to meet you,” he said. He pressed one of the vending selections. After a fairly long period of interior klunking and clattering, the machine violently (by the standards of this hushed, dark hallway) delivered his Coke at knee level. He bent to get it and turned. I was blocking his exit. There wasn’t anything else to say, so I smiled. He smiled and left.
I believe I interrupted Slim Whitman in the act of trying to summon momentarily lost faith.
Yet I got the sense he was Inexplicably Optimistic and—after an incidental meeting with a professed fan—Insufficiently Discouraged.
Vaya con Dios, Mr. Whitman.
Keep the faith.
Have a Coke and a smile.