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Mirrors and Changes
© 1974, 2007 Bob Zentz
(text of the original booklet that accompanied the LP "Mirrors and Changes" in 1974)
About the Title
Mirrors and Changes
Time, Friend, Time
The Morning After Love
This Old Earth
I Want My Son To Be A Country Boy
Someone Else's Songs
The Ramblin' Conrad Story Pr. I
Picker and a Grinner
The Ramblin' Conrad Story Pt. II
He Was Just Like Some Old Jukebox
The Ramblin' Contrad Story Pt. III
Veterans' Auction Hall
ABOUT THE TITLE:
I call this collection "Mirrors and Changes" because it is a kind of a portfolio of reflections. I guess the central theme here is a strange beast called time.
So all these songs are little adventures in time travel -- seen through the mirrors of memory, and reflecting the changes that are inevitable ... with time.
One special night, after playing in a bar in Virginia Beach, a fellow from the audience gave me a bouzouki and said, "You know, sometimes I think instruments are like people ... and I think this one will take better care of you that it did of me." And so, I give you this album of handmade songs, hoping you will care for them as they have for me.
This album is a collage of things I have felt, people I've known, places I've been and things I've hoped for. Music came to me in the form of those typical young piano lessons - at least three teachers' worth -- classical, semi-classical and pop, and finally there was that nine-fingered piano picker from a country band who showed me music "where there weren't no notes," and taught me to play instead of practice! Out house was always filled with music ... Mom is a good piano player and Dad used to play sax in several of the big dance orchestras ... but best of all was my Grandpa Charlie! He was a traveling salesman who played the harmonica and jews harp and shared his love for old-time country music with me.
I came to music via a counselor at Camp White Mountain, West Virginia, one summer in the late '50s. A guitar and banjo playing counselor, I might add, who introduced me to folk songs. Then it was The Weavers, Kingston Trio, Pete Seeger, and many other groups and individuals. I had my first guitar and banjo before I graduated from high school, and from then on it was learning from every possible source ... singers, songwriters, instrumentalists and entertainers.
I guess I've always loved words and poetry, and during the turmoil of the '60s I learned to greatly appreciate such writers as Tom Paxton who wedded traditional sounding melodies to contemporary lyrics. Somehow, along the line I started writing songs and came to love the feeling of creating songs out of life, and in some strange way these songs have given me a small pauper's acre of peace and order in this world.
Thanks to the people who have helped me know myself, so that I might know these songs ....
Side 1, Band 1. MIRRORS AND CHANGES
If these two sides have a theme, that theme must be time ... the way times change and the way time changes us. I've always read a lot of science fiction and was always fascinated by the paradoxes of time travel, so, in a way, this record starts with a look at who you were, and by making peace with who you were, you can more easily face what you might become, while realizing who you are. LYRICS
(As a small child, Grampa used to take me to Cockran's Barbershop and I was always hypnotized by the infinite number of reflections in the mirrors ....)
Side 1, Band 2. FACES
Once in a while we find ourselves able to write about things outside of our experience. Occasionally, we can even create a character whose actions we cannot fully anticipate. This is really an eerie song -- almost frightening -- until you realize the possibilities that arise out of this fellow's catharsis in the last verse and chorus. LYRICS
(If you discover what happens to him, please let me know.)
Side 1, Band 3. TIME, FRIEND, TIME
Time as a quantity has always amazed me. We can ignore it, we can savor it, we can waste it, but in the end we have only the memory of what we did with it in which to find our heaven or hell. LYRICS
Side 1, Band 4. THE MORNING AFTER LOVE
There is a time when we find ourselves between love and loneliness ... a beautiful, delicate time best described as melancholy ... a word that for me has always meant an acute sensitivity to the little signs of the way things were or the way they might have been. It is a time of learning again to grow on your own. LYRICS
Side 1, Band 5. THIS OLD EARTH
The state of the earth today is a result of a "crisis" crisis (nuclear, population, ecology, energy, ...?). Something has to happen, not so much in Washington or in the Girl Scouts, but in the attitude of every man -- in his realization that one cannot take without giving. LYRICS
Side 1, Band 6. I WANT MY SON TO BE A COUNTRY BOY
A song dedicated to Bryan ... fine son, fiddle player at age three, pirate, noble knight, Dracula, and spinner of all the fantasies which make childhood the tapestry of tomorrow's man. LYRICS
Side 1, Band 7. SOMEONE ELSE'S SONGS
In the past thirteen years of playing, how many times have I stood on the stage and sung someone else's songs ... but somewhere around the half-way mark, I found myself singing songs of my own. The week before coming to Connecticut to make this record was spent going over songs I had written, both old and new, and it struck me that the person who had written the earlier songs was very far removed from the man I am today. It made me wonder just who he was, what he was like ... and yet, I had only to sing the songs again to be as close to the emotions that created them. Indeed, each song is kind of like a time machine of its own .... LYRICS
Side 2. THE RAMBLIN' CONRAD STORY (photo: Conrad's Kay guitar, by W. S. McIntosh)
It's funny to stand here and watch that old auctioneer sellin' bits of people's lives. Kinda makes you think of the pieces of your own. Sure, some are lost forever, but, somehow, I guess I manages to save a few of the precious ones for times like these.
Once there was a man named William Conrad Buhler -- a veteran, a wino, a handyman, an ex-con, a backstreet minstrel and a bar-room troubadour. I met him one cold, wet December night in '65 down on Hampton Boulevard in Norfolk, Virginia, Yeah, me and Ben and Brian, we saw him just weaving along the sidewalk, guitar on his back, and we pulled over to the curb. And there, on the street, in the rain, he took the time to sing us his song -- and we took the time to listen .... LYRICS II
Later, in the "Domino Bar and Grill," over hot cups of coffee, we talked about who he was, where he came from, and he told us some funny stories -- how he'd sung with a group called "The Blue Ridge Buddies" in the good old days. We talked about the old lady he kinda took care of, her children who were always raising hell. We could tell from his talk that he was a good man and, if he'd fallen into hard times and bad ways, well, it was just because he didn't seem to have much control over things that happened around him.
And he said, "I'm just an old ramblin' man. I ramble all around this town -- from town to town." LYRICS III
We asked him to get out his guitar and play us a few tunes, but, as soon as he did, the barkeep came over and said, "You can't play that thing in here. We don't have no entertainment license."
So, we just headed over to the "West Side Laundromat." They were open all night. They didn't have an entertainment license either -- they didn't have a bartender. We just thought we'd tape a few of the songs Conrad knew. There were all kinds of people standing around, just washing clothes. The first one he sang for us ... I think he meant for that bartender .... LYRICS IV
Driving him home, we told him about a club where he might get a singing job, if he'd just lay off the bottle. He gave us his word and said goodnight. We said we'd pick him up the next night. LYRICS V
So, the following night, we went to pick him up, but the old lady said he hadn't been in at all. She said the police probably picked him up -- that ain't unusual. Disappointed, we drove down to the club where we got on the phone and called a lot of jails. He was in the Norfolk City Jail drunk tank ... thirteen dollars and fifty cents bail.
So we told his story to the audience. Then we took out a little tape recorder and set it on the stool where the performer usually sat, in front of the microphone, and played those songs we'd recorded in the laundromat. Then we passed a hat and collected ... thirteen dollars and fifty cents. LYRICS VI
We took him down to the "The Upstairs" and Herb Selbig, the owner, hired him on the spot ... and that was just the beginning. LYRICS VII
Yes, Conrad rambled -- mostly in his mind, and in the songs he sang. Sometimes those travels were too real ... the barrooms, the prison cells ... and other times, with a gleam in his eye, they were fantasies ... roads he'd never known, places he'd never been to, or things he'd never felt. And, once in a while, he'd sing of Texas, as if it were the Promised Land .... LYRICS VIII
PICKER AND A GRINNER
Those were good times for him, I reckon ... playing coffee houses, parties, giving concerts, even a TV show. I guess he was kinda proud of laying off the booze and keeping out of trouble. LYRICS
THE RAMBLIN' CONRAD STORY (cont.)
But mostly he sang ... and people listened. I guess that's just about all any of us need -- a way to tell folks how we feel and a way to discover that they really care how we feel.
Why, some folks said, "It's a wonderful thing you boys are doin'." But there were others who said, "You're playin' with this man," or "It's not right to offer a glimpse of a better life, if you can't keep the promise forever." I remember a poet sayin' that "Hell is only half of Paradise." People have opinions, and all I know is time passed and Conrad was happy. And, somehow, a year had slipped by .... LYRICS I
And on my first leave, I went looking for him. Yeah, driving through that old neighborhood, my mind went back to that first night we'd met. I remember he was wearing that old army coat and a slouched hat pulled low against the rain. And his face ... God, the lines in that face looked like a road-map of all the hardships and misadventures society could bestow upon one of her outcast sons.
But is was a good face, and his blue eyes were gentle and filled with simple truths. And when he sang there was a hint of a smile. Ah, but his hands were hard and calloused, like the times he'd known. LYRICS II
HE WAS JUST LIKE SOME OLD JUKEBOX
So, I honked the horn and a voice said, "That you, Bob?" He always used to yell that when I'd go to pick him up on those nights we played. And we'd drive through the dark streets to the coffee houses. And sometimes we talked, and sometimes he'd play a tune as we rode along.
But, this time, he wasn't the same. His voice cracked, and his hands shook as he held the cup of black coffee in the diner. And, later, he cried because no one came to ask him to play anymore. And old Mrs. Burford, why, she was sick ... real sick ... and her children were drunker and meaner than ever.
Well, maybe Conrad was some kind of song ... a song born in the ghetto of broken lives and dreams ... a song that sings itself and, in the singing, mends those dreams an mellows those lives ... at least for a while. LYRICS
THE RAMBLIN' CONRAD STORY (cont.)
So, time passed. After the service, I went to California to chase a dream and find some realities of my own. I came home one Christmas, and returned to his neighborhood. I guess I just needed to hear him sing again. LYRICS I
Well, I called the Veterans' Home, and they said, "He's too sick to come to the phone." Well, it made me sad, and the very next day I had to get on a plane and go home to California. But he was always on my mind .... LYRICS II
VETERAN'S AUCTION HALL
I think a lot about his old guitar. Just a beat-to-hell, Kay, 1933, F-hole. Nailed together, held together by glue and tape and clamps, and love, and songs ... and life.
He's alive, you know ... in these songs, in my mind, and, perhaps, in some strange Heaven that bears a remarkable resemblance to Texas. And he's alive in those like him ... singing in bars, on street corners, crumbling back porches or park benches ... the ones who sing to be heard, because it's their only way of saying ... "Listen!:
Yes, once there was a man named "Ramblin' Conrad" who lives on only as a song may live ... when it is recalled, remembered, and sung, again, and again, and again .... LYRICS
Special heartfelt thanks to Ed Trickett and Bob Coltman for adding their spiritual, as well as musical, talents to the creation of this story. The "cantata" for Ramblin' Conrad began as a single song, several years ago, and since that time -- through various experiences and tellings of the story of this friend -- it has grown to its present form.
Special thanks, also, to Jay and Lyn Ungar for their musical contribution, and to Red McFarland for the loan of the only existing tape of Ramblin' Conrad, but, most specially, I want to thank Sandy, Caroline, and Lee, who created an atmosphere so filled with artistic sensitivity that creativity followed naturally.
R. A. Z.
2008 Bob Zentz
Bob with a picture of Ramblin' Conrad as a child, and Conrad's guitar, 1995
photograph by Martin Smith-Rodden
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