High Notes: The Best of My Songs, Compositions, and Covers
Updated: May 17
I look at my best musical output with something like wonder. It's not simply the passage of time that makes it so alien to me. Sure, some of my favorite pieces were written years ago, but some were written very recently. Even the more recent works seem like something I couldn't possibly have had the aptitude to create. Where did the music come from? How did I do it? Will I be able to do it again?
Maybe that sounds arrogant, but probably not to musicians. We all know that we can't take responsibility for much of what goes into the arrival of a piece of music, so why be falsely modest in assessing how well we've served the muse? When we get it right, we know it. When we don't, we're harder on ourselves than any critic could ever be. This post is meant to showcase some of the times I got it mostly right. So far.
This is amateur hour, on the one hand. I've never made any money from my music and I never took to live performance on a large scale. My approach to recording and documenting my music has likewise been pretty desultory. But if I have anything in me worth sharing, it finds its way into the world through my music and my writing.
You could argue, I suppose, that in addition to amateur hour this is a vanity effort. Fair enough. Every act of putting one's creative output in front of people requires a certain amount of vanity. I can live with that. A more interesting question, to me, is whether the world needs more of anything. I also write and publish fiction and poetry, and It's as true in that world as in music that there's a surfeit of material being pumped into existence, as if through massive pipelines. It's what we do as humans, and there have never been more channels of distribution, for better or worse. Not everything you come across will be worth your time, but some of it will. Maybe that's enough. And maybe—just maybe—it's the expression of our truest self that matters most in the end. If that's the case, it's easy to see the importance of communicating our creative work to others. If we don't, it's just a tree falling in the woods.
So on with it, then. Let's get out of the way and let the music do most of the talking. YouTube performance videos are called out in the descriptions. Otherwise, all links take you to an audio-only recording on SoundCloud.
What better place to start than with an instrumental I wrote for electric guitar a couple of years ago in memory of the one and only Edward Van Halen. "Dead Star (Shining On)"
A tribute to Eddie Van Halen can only be followed by a tribute to Michael Hedges. I wrote this piece in the days of shock that followed the news of the car accident that ended his life in 1997. The title is a play on his most famous record, Aerial Boundaries, and the piece makes use of several of his trademark acoustic guitar techniques. "No Boundaries"
I guess I might as well stick to the theme of tribute, though it's already getting a little depressing. If you look back at my post from November 13, 2022, you'll see that I lost a close friend not long ago. One of the comforts I've taken since his passing is that I bothered to write a song in his honor while he was still alive to enjoy it. Here's a YouTube performance of "Water Song,"—complete with lyrics. Interestingly, the song got most of its attention when I transcribed it as an electronic instrumental using Noteflight in the early days of that site for composers. Here's the Noteflight version of "Water Song."
This one I wrote and recorded in memory of my dad. I wish he could have heard it. I think it's his kind of number. "Face to the Wind"
Unfortunately, I have one to add for my mom now, too. Rest well, Mom. "Looks Like Rain"
Since I'm in for a penny, in for a pound at this point, I might as well share another piece of memorial music. The genesis of this one was a little different, though. It wasn't written for someone I knew or admired. It grew out of a viewing of the inexorably dark and heartrending docuseries The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez. So powerful was this story of an abused young boy that I found myself pausing the movie periodically to catch my breath. And during those breaks, I would take up my guitar. By the end of the final episode, I had the bones of an acoustic guitar solo, infused with my sympathies for poor Gabriel. I decided to record it on an electric guitar. "Unbroken"
All right, let's put the final nail in this coffin of despair. As it says in the caption I wrote for SoundCloud, this acoustic instrumental was "written with the people of Newtown, Connecticut, in mind." "Coda"; here's a YouTube performance as well: "Coda," version 2
Now that I've exhausted that maudlin theme, let's head to the opposite end of the emotional spectrum with a bit of fun. This is a great example of one of those riffs that takes hold of you, won't let go, but refuses to mature before its time. I can't tell you how many times the main riff to "Hot Fusion" has surfaced when I pick up a guitar and start warming up. But it never suggested a way forward or beyond, so it became nothing more or less than a friendly thing that I could depend on to get my fingers moving ... until I discovered Noteflight. Noteflight gave me a new way to approach the piece, to separate it from the instrument and get a more aerial view. So yes, the electric guitar part you hear is an electronic simulacrum, as are the other instruments, but the tenacious riff might not have found its final form any other way. (Also see "Back When There Was Love" and "When Clouds Part" below.) "Hot Fusion"
How could any self-respecting songwriter not have written something about the soul-crushing chaos that consumed us between 2016 and early 2021? Here's the something I wrote. "Better Angels"
Random fun with GarageBand (these are short). "The Humming" | "Layer Cake" | "Out in the Cold" | "Falling to Pieces" | "False Alarm" | "From the Hip" | "Rain City Calypso"
Inspired by another event in the seemingly endless string of mass shootings that plague my country. "The One Who Suffered"
An old favorite. I remember that it was a lot of fun to play, but I'd need to practice pretty hard to get it back up to speed. "Switchback"
I recall this as being the product of my first serious musical impulse following the onset of the pandemic (I was doing more fiction writing than music making at the time). It's an instrumental for acoustic guitar. "New Normal"
My arrangement of David Lee Roth's recording of The Lovin' Spoonful hit. "Coconut Grove"
Here's another one with two versions on offer. There's the audio-only, instrumental fingerstyle version ("One Man's Junk," version 1), and then there's the twelve-string strumming version on YouTube ("One Man's Junk," version 2). There were even lyrics at one point, but they were never included in a recording.
Easing into the metal genre, here's a piece that was inspired by a riff from an old friend who's no longer with us. It's me on guitar and electronic drums. "The Devil's on Your Heels"; if my arrangement for twelve-string acoustic is more to your taste, have a gander at my YouTube performance: "The Devil's on Your Heels," version 2.
Roth-era Van Halen is my favorite rock band. Period. Yet I was never very tempted to tackle Eddie Van Halen's electric guitar riffs, which I've always found at least as mind-blowing as his lead playing. I just didn't see what I could bring to the table. When the idea of working up an acoustic version of one of Van Halen's deep cuts wormed its way into my will, however, it felt as if the stars had aligned. "Little Dreamer"; also, check it out here on YouTube: "Little Dreamer," version 2
And since we're in the metal/hard rock realm here, why not take an even longer stroll down Memory Lane? Here are some of the best instrumental rockers I wrote and recorded with my high school metal band, Entropy, in the 1980s and early 1990s. Concessions will, of course, need to be made for the production quality, especially in the case of "Confessions of a Saint," which is the result of me having shown our drummer a new thing I'd written while away at college. After one or two run-throughs, he had it. We popped a cassette tape into a boombox and hit record. No bass or anything, by the way. Just Corey and me hammering it out. He's the aforementioned friend who's no longer with us, by the way. "Confessions" holds a special place among all of my recorded music. "Something Wicked" | "Thoroughfare of Dementia" | "Nightwatch" | "Confessions of a Saint"
This has always been one of my favorite vocal recordings. The song is a tribute to a favorite coffeehouse that burned to the ground when it was one my regular haunts. "Yesterday's News"
Probably the shortest piece I've ever written. Maybe it connects psychologically with my love of good flash fiction. This is a YouTube performance, on my rarely used nylon-string Yamaha. "Another Yesterday"
I don't have any real light to shed on these, but they're two of my favorite Noteflight compositions. My Noteflight period was my deepest dive into the mechanics of making (and reading) music. There are a few more examples to be found on my SoundCloud page, for the curious and intrepid (also see "Hot Fusion" above). "Back When There Was Love" | "When Clouds Part"
Another vocal favorite. This one always went over well in live settings. "Mr. Bus Driver"
Some are quicker to come than others, from conception to completion. This was a quick one. I woke up one morning to the dramatic play of sunlight through a bedroom window. I didn't hesitate to pick up my guitar. "Sun Across My Window"
Some days I feel this version is maybe a little fast. Other days it feels about right. I'll leave it up to you. "It's My Heart"
Going back to the idea of how foreign a piece can feel to me, even though I wrote it, this is a case in point. An important milestone for any musician is when they begin to emerge from the stylistic influences of their idols. I believe that was starting to happen here. "Open to Enchantments"; or, if you prefer, the YouTube version: "Open to Enchantments," version 2
The title speaks for itself in this case. "After a Sweet Dream"
I played this at my grandmother's funeral. The title might be less than suggestive of a funeral piece, but the music seemed right. "Pay Dirt"
I'm not sure this isn't my favorite of all my acoustic guitar solos. It's a real joy to play, and for my money, it all fits together like a celestial gearbox. "Waiting for Something Wonderful"
I have virtually no memory of writing this, but I'm glad I did. "Grotto"; it's also on Youtube: "Grotto," version 2
I like to think that the sound quality here, and the fact that the melody dips beneath my vocal range, is somehow kind of fitting. Regardless, the lyrics are some of the best I've written. It's always fun to haul out the twelve-string, too. Enjoy this YouTube performance. "Ain't Goin' Anywhere Soon"
One of the nice things about writing music is that it doesn't really matter what the impetus was. I don't remember where this piece came from, but it's one that I've played often, and I think it tells its own story just fine. "Inclinations"
Is it necessary to point out that you shouldn't be hearing eighth-note triplets here but rather straight eighth notes? If so, maybe I didn't do my job in how it's played, but I think it's clear. Maybe I should have called it a waltz to remove all doubt. Anyway, have a look at this YouTube performance and decide for yourself. "The Open Sea"
For an extra dash of cred, I feel compelled to include a Beatles cover. I had "Blackbird" about half learned for a good chunk of my life, and never the vocals (who wants to take on Paul McCartney in the singing department?). But I recently decided it was time to work out the whole song, so here's a YouTube performance for you (sorry, Paul). "Blackbird"
For a long time this was a favorite to play, but I haven't run through it in quite a while now. It holds up pretty nicely, I think, key change and all. "Holding Pattern"
There's something inherently appealing about working up an acoustic-guitar instrumental that's played by strumming and flat picking instead of fingerpicking. This might be the best of mine that falls into that category. Maybe I feel that way in part because I'm still hearing the aural shadow of Michael Hedges at this stage of my development. "Great Big Sky"
I don't think anything in this post is older than this one. It's definitely one of my favorites from a certain period. "Speaking of Eyes"
This is one of the rare instances where I'm about as pleased with the production as I am with the composition itself. It's probably the best job of recording I ever did on my own. Still, by and large, the production side of things is better left to others. I've always liked the ending of this one, by the way. "Heart of Spring"
Here's kind of a one-off oddball. I wrangled a soprano vocalist and violinist to accompany me on it (the tenor vocal and acoustic guitar part are me). Try though I did, I could not for the life of me get the fiddle player to dig into the first note of each three-note pattern of his repeating part, but the piece conveys a certain amount of atmosphere, I think. "Theme for a Blood-Red Sky"
Another strummed instrumental, you say? You got it. This one comes in two flavors: "Walkin' Away," version 1, which is audio only, and "Walkin' Away," version 2, which is an up-tempo YouTube rendition.
I have fond memories of writing this. A heavy snowstorm hit Seattle and I ended up trapped at my girlfriend's (now wife's) apartment for a few gloriously carefree days. Hence the title. This is a YouTube performance. "Snowed Under"
Covering Michael Hedges is a precarious thing. If you hew too closely to the original material, you risk showing off your inevitable inferiority. If, on the other hand, you try to reinvent one of his compositions (or arrangements), you flirt with a different kind of hubris. I haven't let this prevent me from taking both approaches, but the only two numbers I feel inclined to include here are of the former variety. Just learning one of his pieces can leave you with a sense of accomplishment, after all. The following are both YouTube performances. "The 2nd Law" | "Theme from HATARI!"
Two for my daughter. Both are acoustic instrumentals on YouTube. The first was inspired by the laps she used take through the house once she learned to walk. The second came from the observation that when she started running ahead of me on our walks, she was practicing what all children must do throughout life: run ahead of their parents. "Just Passin' Through" | "Runaway Lightning"
Slipping into a country-and-western mode, here's a YouTube performance of a song I've always enjoyed playing. I even played it live a couple of times on the radio. I think the lyrics aren't half bad, and it's another chance to hear my twelve-string in action. "Hold Me Back Tonight"
As mentioned above, I don't often pull out the nylon-string guitar, but this Eric Tingstad cover was the perfect excuse. Here it is on YouTube: "Prelude from the Bridal Suite"
Not the only one of the pieces included here to have been written in my college days, this one nonetheless has an especially strong association with that time period for me. George Eliot's Adam Bede was the inspiration, for what it's worth. There's also a melodic run that I wish I'd thought of when I wrote and recorded the piece. I hear it in my head every time I listen to "Middle Man." It would fall in at the 1:19 mark, so feel free to invent your own two-bar line there. "Middle Man"
There's something both dreadful and beautiful about this one, to my ear. If music is capable of expressing realism, maybe that's where this lands. "The Same River Twice"
My take on John Gorka's holiday classic. Only on YouTube! "Christmas Bells"
A return to the country side of things with this brief acoustic instrumental. "Here in Tarnation"
Here's one that really kind of came out of the blue. I started fiddling around on the guitar and my eye landed on Speaks the Nightbird, the first book of Robert McCammon's series of period thrillers featuring young problem-solver Matthew Corbett. Before long, I realized I was writing something about the setting of that book. The YouTube performance I present here isn't perfect, but I think it has enough heart to get its point across. It's also a great testament to the aging powers of the pandemic. "Remembering Fount Royal"
And why not cap this off with a friendly bit of nonsense? One last YouTube performance, featuring my Ovation. I give you: "Yakima"
Hey, thanks for tolerating all of this. It's kind of a lot for one post, but I really wanted to have all of my favorites in one place. I only wish I had a good recording of my most recent number, "Just a Moment." It's a good one, and I've been playing it to death. Oh, well. Maybe I'll update this post if I ever lay down a respectable recording. [UPDATE: I don't know how respectable it is, but I now have a recording: "Just a Moment"]
By the way, don't feel that you have to devour everything here in a single sitting. Bookmark this baby and return whenever the mood strikes. I hope it does, too. I'm as proud of my music as I am of anything I've ever undertaken creatively. If it manages to bring you a few meaningful moments of pleasure, my work here is done.