Category: Singing

Notes from a Lyricist

Nothing is certain, but it appears my debut as a lyricist will actually happen.

In January, I oozed with excitement when I told you about my new creative wrinkle. As background, in the fall of 2021 I teamed with David (another member of the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus) to create several original tunes for a Mosaic of Voices concert, scheduled for March 2022.

I wrote the lyrics. David composed the music. I was psyched for the debut of these pieces. Then, the concert was postponed. It was another Covid-related casualty.

Thankfully, the chorus has resurrected the program. On October 8 at the Kroc Center in Phoenix, we will perform the suite of pieces David and I created to capture the essence of original-and-triumphant stories submitted by members of the Phoenix LGBTQ community.

***

On Tuesday evening, as our chorus of seventy or so rehearsed two of the Mosaic of Voices pieces (Hope’s Trail and Our Second Act), I saw a few tears. As I sang in the back row of second tenors, I felt the gravity of emotion rise in the room with our voices.

I was reminded of the healing power of music and the important role that choral communities–first the Windy City Gay Chorus and now the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus–have played in my renaissance and in the lives of so many gay men.

Especially now in our chaotic country–divided, threatened, and deconstructed–we need this joyful music, this personal support, this hopeful oasis in the desert.

Without it, many of us would feel trapped and lost.

In the Pink

August has always felt like an insufferably hot way station between the sparkling summer playground of July and autumnal possibilities of September. In short, it is my least favorite time of year.

If this is your birthday month, I apologize. But, after the scorching temperatures of July 2022 in the Northern Hemisphere, we have landed squarely in the dog days of summer. September can’t come soon enough.

Even so–nearly a month after celebrating my sixty-fifth birthday–I am in the pink. I realize this is an old-timey phrase that describes the essence of feeling fit, but I don’t care. I’m a pretty traditional guy with a love of language.

According to Investopedia, “in the pink” first appeared in the late 1500s in a version of Romeo and Juliet as a reference to an excellent example of something.

Somewhere along the way, the expression evolved into a health-and-vitality reference that my parents both used. At any rate, if the phrase was good enough for William Shakespeare to include in his classic play nearly 500 years ago, it’s good enough for me.

I’m not saying I have the vitality of fifteen-year-old me pictured here in pink in 1972. But, aside from typical muscle aches after yoga or an intense workout at the gym, a new-found intolerance for gluten, and the normal forgetfulness that comes with my new Medicare status, I generally feel well for a guy who survived a mild heart attack five years ago.

And I still have a thick head of hair, though it no longer falls in my face. At this stage, I wear it short. Often under a hat to please my dermatologist and protect my fair skin from the intense rays of the Sonoran sun.

I also remember the ribbing I received from classmates for wearing this pink shirt (and other closely related pastels) back in the 60s and 70s.

At that moment in time, I wish the current much-older-and-wiser Mark Johnson could have magically appeared through an adjacent door to counsel fifteen-year-old me.

In my pink fantasy, he would simply have said …

“Never hide. Stand tall. Forget the haters. Be proud of who you are. Wear whatever colors you want. One day you will find your way. You will stand on stage. You will sing songs. The pain of the past will fade. You will raise two sons and live your own definition of masculinity. You will meet a man, fall in love, and marry him one day. The two of you will move west and create a quieter life. You will choose to wear pink again and again–and do it in style. You will survive. You will discover an open, authentic life. You will write books. You will tell stories. You will even write lyrics in your sixties. You will rise above the fray.”

Over and Over

We live in an over-inflated, over-heated, over-zealous world.

There is plenty of blame to go around. In my mind, greedy politicians and media conglomerates are two of the biggest culprits. The worst of them scream at us through our screens to woo us over and over. All for the sake of personal swagger and the almighty dollar.

I do my best to follow the important developments in the world and tune out the bluster, though–in this summer of 2022–that is virtually impossible in the United States of America.

That’s why I typically pepper my blog with stories of sweet cats, eavesdropping cacti, brilliant sunsets, lazy lizards, and personal reflections. However, I’m over-exposed and need to rant.

A simple drive down the street here in Scottsdale, Arizona (and I imagine in most American communities) snaps me back to the realities of the day.

We are surrounded by political signs and crack-pot endorsements on street corners in advance of our August 2 primary. Unfortunately, a fierce monsoon storm here on Sunday night didn’t obliterate them all. The best thing I can do is vote. My husband and I performed that democratic duty–early–on Monday.

Of course, the bluster of our society isn’t confined to politics. On Tuesday night, I tuned in to watch a few innings of the MLB (Major League Baseball) All-Star Game. The over-produced coverage on Fox assaulted my sensibilities. Over-hyped celebrity ballplayers wearing mics for in-game interviews over-shadowed the action on the field. It bored me.

That’s saying a lot, because–if you follow me–you know I’m a die-hard baseball fan. More specifically, I root for the St. Louis Cardinals. This passion flows back to the 1960s, sitting in the bleachers with my dad with my transistor radio and watching legendary players perform on the field.

My fascination and fixation with baseball was all about the relative innocence of escaping into the strategy of the game, wondering what might unfold next. In 2022, that sense of mystery has vanished.

Maybe this is really a story about what it feels like to grow older. To see the world through wiser, more questioning eyes. To demand more from our polarizing politicians, fragmented society, and ever-posturing media outlets … while the world I once knew evaporates before me.

I’ve always known I am overly sensitive–overly aware of my fair skin and frailties. According to my dermatologist on Tuesday, a cancerous patch of squamous cells (removed from the top of my left hand in mid-June through minor surgery) has over-healed.

Evidently, I was too good at smearing Aquaphor lotion on the wound, so he froze the scar tissue. It will fall off in a few weeks, and my life in the desert will go on with another chapter of survival in the books.

On Wednesday evening, I joined a group of my Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus friends at a funeral home in Mesa, Arizona.

We sang a beautiful arrangement of Over the Rainbow. It was our way of saying goodbye to Cy, our friend and long-time chorus member, who passed away recently.

It was an evening of tears, funny stories, and reflections–a tribute to a man who lived well, sang beside us, and fought hard.

It was also a good reminder for me to do my best to tune into the important stuff of life. To embrace what really matters each day. To keep doing it over and over again as long as I can. Because none of us knows what tomorrow will bring.

We May Never Pass This Way (Again)

I’m still on a high, channeling ripples of joy from my musical weekend on stage with the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus.

It feels as if the decision to step out of my comfort zone and into the spotlight for a solo has dislodged something. I feel freer to explore new things. To be more open to possibilities in the world.

I’m not talking about an entirely new me that appeared in an instant. I believe this progression began when Tom and I left Illinois nearly five years ago. The act of living, writing, and singing in a vastly different landscape has spurred my creativity.

After having a heart attack in 2017, I’ve gotten better at living in the moment, rather than postponing my dreams. We may never get tomorrow.

In the words of Jim Seals, we may never pass this way again. Seals–the singer, songwriter and guitarist of the popular Seals and Crofts duo–died June 6. He was eighty years old.

The tunes of Seals and Crofts–Summer Breeze, Hummingbird, Diamond Girl, East of Ginger Trees, I’ll Play for You, Ruby Jean and Billie Lee, We May Pass This Way (Again)– were the mellow wallpaper of the 1970s. Their distinctive, ethereal sound filled the air and the hearts of young people with hope and possibilities.

When I close my eyes and listen to this CD (yes, Tom and I still listen–proudly–to CDs on an old boom box), I am transported to 1975.

It was my freshman year at the University of Missouri in Columbia. Walking around campus in cut-off jeans and tube socks. Playing tennis with John, my roommate. Feeling the late summer breeze rush through my long, straight blond hair, which trailed down over my face.

Released in October 1974, Seals and Crofts Greatest Hits has left an indelible imprint on my past and present. Whether I remember the young Mark Johnson who tossed a Frisbee with friends in the shade of Mizzou’s iconic columns or the older version who took a chance on a stage in Tempe, Arizona in June 2022, I’ll always be a hopeful dreamer.

Thank you, Jim Seals, for all the beautiful music you created and left us. I’ll keep listening to it … no matter what this crazy universe brings.

***

Life–so they say

Is but a game and they let it slip away

Love–like the Autumn sun

Should be dying but it’s only just begun

Like the twilight in the road up ahead

They don’t see just where we’re goin’

And all the secrets in the Universe

Whisper in our ears and all the years will come and go

And take us up, always up

We may never pass this way again, we may never pass this way again, we may never pass this way again.

Feels Like Flying: The Day After

Imagine a welcoming, intimate, theatrical space where people of various stripes, orientations and political persuasions gathered for a few hours — twice in one weekend — to celebrate, sing, dance, clap, laugh, and cry in cool comfort away from the desert heat.

How is that possible in 2022? Glee, Broadway, and Disney tunes — delivered spectacularly by the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus and a duo of delicious drag queens — were the musical culprits.

It happened June 4 and 5 at the gorgeous and resonant Tempe Center for the Arts before two raucous and appreciative audiences.

Of course, I’m biased. If you follow my blog or have read my latest book, you know I sing second tenor with the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus.

Over the past several months, about forty of us — led by artistic director Marc and principal accompanist Darlene — prepared diligently for our Homecoming performances, celebrating the chorus’ 30th anniversary.

In addition to rehearsing in person regularly and navigating the relentless physical and mental challenges of Covid, we listened to our audio files at home.

We practiced in our homes and in our cars. Then, we did it all over again. The final week of preparation is a bit hellish, but in the words of Gloria Gaynor, I Will Survive. I’ve learned to pace myself.

That’s what it takes to memorize a gleeful mash-up of music. Not to mention the choralography and costuming. (“There were costumes?” you ask. Please … we’re talking about a gay chorus!)

Standing on the stage Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, I felt a myriad of emotions as I channeled Madonna in my red choir robe. Exhilaration and relief reigned during my Like a Prayer solo ….

“I have no choice. I hear your voice. Feels like flying.”

Knowing my husband Tom, older son Nick, and an entourage of faithful friends were in the audience spurred me on. Plus, I didn’t want to disappoint my friends on stage. They’ve all become important to me.

I shudder when I think of what Tom and I endured nearly five years ago … surviving my heart attack and our move across country. What pulled us through?

It’s been our resiliency and the personal connections we’ve made. With those in the chorus, kind neighbors, gentle yoga with like-minded souls on Friday mornings, endless work out sessions with friends at Club SAR, and a fun collection of experiences with other Arizona writers, readers, artists, and film lovers. They all purchased tickets for the Homecoming concerts.

I feel so thankful. I feel so much love.

Occasionally, someone will ask me why I sing with a gay chorus. Certainly, it is about the music. But it goes much deeper for me and for many of the men of all ages who I perform with.

In this crazy world, we all need to feel safe. To find a place that feels like home. To be who we are. To share our gifts. To feel valued and loved. To push beyond our comfort zones. To go after that next solo or simply be content to be appreciated as one of many voices.

Whatever the case, the members of the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus provide that encouragement and support for each other. On that note, there is one behind-the-scenes moment I need to share from my concert weekend.

One of our five Like a Prayer soloists missed the entire weekend of performances due to his partner’s sudden illness. Naturally, he was deeply disappointed. We all missed him.

About ninety minutes before our Sunday concert, as we began to warm our voices, I captured this photo and sent it to him. This was my vantage point of the theatre from the top riser for most of the weekend.

It was my way of telling Brad …

“I have no choice. I hear your voice. Feels like flying.”

Like Flying

“I have no choice. I hear your voice. Feels like flying.”

If you love Madonna or remember who she is–please say you do–these eleven words from Like a Prayer, her 1989 pop hit, may prompt your musical heart to soar.

On June 4 and 5 at the Tempe Center for the Arts, these lyrics also will comprise my solo in the Homecoming concert with the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus.

I’m a lifelong lover of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team and an ardent Arizona admirer of a majestic bald eagle that likes to pose atop a telephone pole along Hayden Road near Chapparal Park in Scottsdale every May.

Still, I don’t know what it feels like to actually fly without the aid of an aircraft.

No matter. Singing has always felt like flying–or what I imagine it to be–with the wind lifting me up as I spread my wings and raise my voice. Particularly the sensation of standing on a stage and harmonizing with a chorus of like-minded, artistic-and-musical souls.

The last time I sang a solo on stage was 1979. I was a senior at the University of Missouri and performed On and On (the way-too-precious-sounding Stephen Bishop tune) with a vocal jazz ensemble of fresh-scrubbed faces and silky-smooth voices. We called ourselves The Singsations. (I know. It was pretty corny.)

Anyway, if you’re a Baby Boomer, you know the lyrics from Bishop’s 1976 song …“Down in Jamaica, they got lots of pretty women. Steal your money, then they break your heart …”

At that point, pretending to be a straight man, I wasn’t in touch with my true orientation. It would be June 2010–long after the birth of my two sons and a failed first marriage–before I would discover the safe haven and friendship of the Windy City Gay Chorus in Chicago.

But from 2010 to 2017, I never auditioned for a solo with Windy City. I was content to be a voice among voices.

In 2022–in the autumn of my life a month before my sixty-fifth birthday, in a city where it feels like summer lasts forever–I will be singing my next solo. I’ll be surrounded by a community of about forty gay friends.

As you might imagine I’m excited and a little nervous … waiting to take the stage on June 4 and 5 with more than a dozen friends and family in the audience.

I know I will savor every note of the experience. No doubt, it will feel like flying.

In May 2021, I captured this photo of a bald eagle on stage along Hayden Road in Scottsdale, Arizona. Last Sunday, as Tom and I walked together, this magnificent creature reappeared and dazzled us by swooping down to the lake below to secure a fish for breakfast in his or her talons.

January Musings

It’s one of those days when my stream of consciousness is running in many directions. That has prompted this post about everything (or nothing depending on your point of view).

I call it January musings, because that’s the best thematic thread I can find in this ball of yarn and semi-related thoughts.

***

Morning, noon and night the fabric of our winding threads becomes a tapestry. That’s the opening lyrical line from Mighty Mosaic, one of four pieces I wrote for the March 12 Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus concert.

The song is an LGBTQA anthem of sorts to capture the complicated–and often triumphant–journeys we take to discover who we are and what we believe.

Hearing my lyrics come to life in a room of familiar voices during Tuesday night’s rehearsal brought me personal joy in a month previously laced with grief.

***

I bristle whenever I hear film directors, writers or musicians say in an interview that they don’t ever step back to watch their films, read their books, or listen to their music.

I’ll admit it. I’m a writer, who learns by retracing literary steps. I find myself revisiting themes in my writing all the time (family, love, loss, the beauty of nature, the serendipity of life) or frequently pulling one of my books off the shelf and re-reading certain passages.

Why? Because it keeps the process of telling a particular story fresh in my mind. Each of my four books is a child I have loved and guided from infancy to adulthood. They will live on the page long after I’m gone, even if nobody reads them.

Revisiting my stories also allows me to remember the richness of life: the hows … how far I’ve traveled, how far I still have to go, how much the world has changed, how much I’ve learned, how much I’ve lost, how much I’ve gained, how fortunate I am to love and be loved.

***

The ninth anniversary of my mother’s passing is January 26. Earlier this week, I looked skyward and spotted a full moon. It transported me back to a frigid January morning right after I said goodbye to her–an indelible Illinois moment in 2013–when Tom and I sat with my sister and brother-in-law at a suburban McDonald’s (the only place open for coffee at 5 a.m.) to feel the warmth and close comfort of an enormous full moon illuminating the horizon and the snow-packed streets.

The grief I felt that morning is far less present now. But the welcome sight of a full moon will forever remind me of the journey after Helen Johnson’s passing, her wisdom and undaunted spirit, and the growth that followed. All of it inspired me to chart a new trajectory, write From Fertile Ground and three more books, and even discover a poet and lyricist lurking inside.

A New Creative Wrinkle

I am especially conscious of my age and vulnerability right now. There is nothing worrisome to report. I feel well. It’s just that–early in 2022–Tom and I are focusing on important administrative tasks to protect ourselves and our families.

Specifically, we will move to Medicare later this year, because we turn sixty-five in July. We have begun to do research. We’ve met with a third party. She explained how it works. She has helped to cut through the mystery. (By the way, I used to help organizations communicate about complicated health care and retirement programs, but that background doesn’t make this transition any easier.)

We also are updating our estate plans to make certain they reflect our Arizona status and latest wishes. The pandemic isn’t the driver, but it certainly has amplified our efforts to make sure our affairs are in order. As much as I hate dwelling on my mortality, it makes sense to plan ahead.

All of this technical and legal blather has clogged my brain lately, leaving me feeling a little dim. Is it a coincidence that the light in our refrigerator should go out yesterday? I don’t think so.

We tried replacing the old bulb with a new one, but it appears we have an electrical issue. Fortunately, the appliance is doing its job. It’s keeping our food cold (and frozen in the upper compartment). It’s just that we need a flashlight to find the yogurt, milk, eggs, fruits and vegetables.

I digress. That’s not what this story is about. Ironically, in the relative darkness of early 2022–the pandemic and our refrigerator–there’s a bright and new creative wrinkle to my writing that I want to talk about. One which changes the landscape of my past experience. One that goes beyond my blogging, memoir writing, poetry, and occasional forays into fiction.

About eight months ago, Marc–the artistic director of the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus–blindsided me with this question: “Would you be interested in writing lyrics for a suite of songs for one of our concerts in 2022? It will be a celebration of diverse voices.”

Hearing these words, I think my jaw may have dropped. Once I closed my mouth and opened it again, “of course!” was my immediate response.

I could feel my smile grow ten sizes. I never imagined having an opportunity of this sort, especially concerning a topic that is so important and personal … turning the painful, transformative, and triumphant stories of Phoenix-area LGBTQA citizens into something more. Into poetry and music.

Since that early, exploratory conversation with Marc, I’ve collaborated with David (another member of the chorus) who is composing the music. I’ve written lyrics for four songs, which will be performed on March 12, 2022, at the Tempe Center for the Arts. The concert will be part of Tempe’s Pride celebration.

On the evening of Tuesday, January 18, this will all become more real. Marc and David will pass out the music to members of the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus (including me sitting in the back row and singing second tenor).

For the first time, we will begin to rehearse the music David and I have created. I know I will feel a surge of pride and energy when I see the words “Lyrics by Mark Johnson” in the upper right corner of the score.

Sometimes life serves up happy surprises. It reminds us that our existence is more than needling administrative responsibilities, the darkness of a pandemic, or the frustrations of a burned-out light bulb.

Sometimes the outcome is brighter, more hopeful; we find ourselves exploring a new creative wrinkle, doing something we are passionate about, taking on a role we never saw coming.

Yes–remarkably at the age of sixty-four–I am a lyricist.

All Spaced Out

We were all spaced out in Phoenix last weekend. Recording tracks for our Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus holiday concert that will appear on YouTube on December 20.

For safety sake, Marc, our artistic director, divided us into groups of ten or so. Group A had the morning slot Saturday. Group C the evening. I was one of two tenor twos singing in the afternoon in Group B in the “big box” room at the Parsons Center.

There I was. Standing in my blue hoodie in front of a mike, my binder of music, and a music stand. Wearing a safety shield and headphones with ear condoms. Gathering (loosely) with my gay comrades in the space where forty or fifty of us ordinarily rehearse collectively on Tuesday nights in a non-pandemic year.

Certainly, I felt strange, sanitized, and scattered. Like a sketchy character in a Ray Bradbury novel. Wandering and wondering where I would fit in the sci-fi story line. But as we began to run through our set–We Need a Little Christmas, The Nutcracker in About Three Minutes, Let It Snow, Feliz Navidad, and so on–an ounce of sweetness surfaced in the moment.

As we sang, I felt a twinge of the giddiness, excitement, and adrenalin of performance day appear. If you are an actor, singer or instrumentalist, you know that feeling of exuberance on stage. Of course, there was no one in the audience to applaud or validate what we had to offer musically. But that will come with time.

Magically, the sounds we produced on Saturday–and individual images we manufactured and projected in front of a green screen the previous week–will meld in the editing room in the next two weeks. Soon after, the end product will be unveiled. People will watch (or not), smile (or not), applaud (or not).

Some of us will even shed a tear or two. Because we know what losses we have endured in 2020. Now, more than ever, we need a little music. We need a little Christmas.