What you can expect from this Facebook page: Info about me, my music, other people’s music, thoughts about music in general, and the occasional shout-out to the work of other friends — which may have nothing to do with music, except that music is essential, it goes with everything, inspires and gets inspired by everything. Music is an essential part of what makes us human.
Want to know more? Here’s the complete backstory, which ends with the words, “Hence this Facebook page.”
If you know me, then you know that I’ve been a steady public voice pushing for sustainable development for over 30 years. You know that I’ve written books, keynoted conferences, advised governments and companies, and that nowadays I work as a public official in Sweden with the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, Sida. (Obvious but important note: This page has nothing to do with my job at Sida and everything posted here is strictly my own opinion. I have a separate FB page for my work as a public official, http://www.facebook.com/AlanAtKissonPublic)
And you also know that music has always been a small but integral part of my public work as a sustainability advocate.
It’s been over 40 years since I got my first paycheck as a musician, singing lead in a big show band called “Jubilation”, in New Orleans, USA, in 1978. Just a college kid, I’d been playing piano all my life till I picked up the guitar in ‘77 when I came to New Orleans to study science, philosophy and the arts. In 1979 I became a relatively poor student at Oxford University, UK. So I played and sang in a pub called “The Monk’s Retreat” two nights a week, covering the Eagles, John Denver, Carole King, James Taylor, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Dan Fogelburg, Don Maclean etc. The income and tips from those endless repetitions of “Fire and Rain” and “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” covered my meager food budget. They also built my chops as singer-guitarist.
Let’s skip over the part about the luminous dream I had about a guitar while living in a California forest, summer of 1982, or the fortune cookie that seemed to encourage me to move to New York and pursue a professional career as a singer, songwriter, guitarist. Let’s just say, that’s what I did. To the consternation of relatives, who thought I should be doing something else with my fancy education.
That first year in New York, I was strongly aided by my former drama teacher from high school, Patricia Jenkins. She encouraged me artistically, helped find work and a place to live. I “debuted” with a little gig at a now-defunct jazz club called Kelly’s Village West (about 15 people came). I also made my first cassette album of original songs, “Whitewing,” recorded in the bedroom-recording-studio of Darryl Cherney, an accomplished comedy songwriter who, many years later, became an environmental activist in California and radical green presidential candidate. At the time, Darryl shared a small New York apartment with a great big cat and moved furniture for a living, and I worked for him for a while as I tried to edge my way into the competitive music world of Manhattan.
There was a folk musicians’ cooperative in those days, a holdover from the 60s tied to a small club in Greenwich Village called Speakeasy. I volunteered there, producing shows and performing myself, eventually graduating from Monday-night open mike to Thursday or Sunday headliner (Fridays and Saturdays were reserved for established folk artists like Odetta or Dave Van Ronk).
Sometimes I performed in a trio with Judith Zweiman and Mark McColl, dubbed “Whitewing” after my album and song about the myth of Icarus. A high point of this phase was having one of my songs (“Epiphany Dream”) selected for inclusion in the cooperative’s highly regarded publication-with-vinyl-record, Fast Folk Musical Magazine.
I also had other “day jobs”, mostly typing and secretarial work for lawyers. (I am a very fast typist.) One of those jobs was working for Kirk D’Amico, now president & CEO of Myriad Pictures, then a rising entertainment lawyer. Kirk introduced me to a band that was looking for a guitarist and backup singer. I had never touched an electric guitar before, but I bought one, and learned, and soon I was fronting the band and writing rock songs as well. We wore skinny leather ties and called ourselves Local Colour. Soon we were playing the edgy clubs of the day — CBGB, Bitter End, 8BC, Kamikaze — and there are complex tales to be told of personnel changes and new names and the tough world of gigging in New York.
A side note: yes, I played weddings and wrote songs-on-demand for freshly-joined couples. But I also played hospitals, psychiatric wards, and institutional homes for people with challenging differences of ability. These are actually my fondest memories of being a working musician in New York, playing my songs for people who sometimes responded very deeply to specific melody or lyric.
Then, after years of patiently climbing the ladder, the big break: Kirk D’Amico offered to be my manager and, together with another very well-placed entertainment lawyer named Tim DiBaets (Tim still represents artists and directors), work to boost me into pop stardom.
Why did I ultimately turn them down, walk away from the contract, cut my hair and get a job as chief administrator for the US branch of a small, international peace organization?
The simple version of the complex story is this: I imagined life as a successful popular music artist (which was hardly a given but was suddenly a very real possibility), and realized that I didn’t want it.
Thus began a very different journey. In 1988 I and my then-partner decided to move to Seattle. We were just drawn to it. We made the decision to move before we even had jobs. But miraculously, I landed a job before we moved: as managing editor of the one-and-only magazine in the world, at least that I knew of at that time, focused on sustainability, systems thinking, philosophy and cultural change. All the things that had most motivated me in my university studies.
And now we are getting into stories best left to my books, where I explain how the musical career that I thought I had left behind kept popping up again — by a combination of external demand and inner compulsion — until I had to accept that singing, writing songs, playing the guitar was an undeniable and permanent part of my life. I had to find some way to work it into the rest of my professional identity.
So in 1997 I left my then-job as executive director of an economics think-tank, released my first two albums (“Testing the Rope” and “Whole Lotta Shoppin’ Goin’ On”), and went on a self-organized world tour of speeches and small concerts. Let’s call it a sabbatical.
One result of all that global wandering was my first book, Believing Cassandra (1999), which came with a musical CD of original songs to illustrate the text.
And so it was — from 1992 until just a few years ago — that I traveled the world, doing my “day job” as a keynote speaker, strategic adviser, organizational leader, professional trainer, facilitator, moderator, and topical expert in the field of sustainability and sustainable development. Almost everywhere, I would incorporate a bit of music: an a capella song into a keynote (see the end of my TEDx talk for an example), a small evening performance as part of a conference, or even a full-blown one-man musical from time to time.
But not everywhere! One has to use one’s judgment about these things. Mostly, having music available as a tool helped me get noticed and served as a “unique selling point” in my previous professional work. (“Do you want me to sing as part of my keynote?” “Yes, that is why we decided to engage you.”) Occasionally, however, it has perhaps been a liability. (“The senior officials are worried that you might sing at this event!” “Tell them not to worry, of course I know when not to sing.”) But incorporating music into my other, “serious” policy work, as I have somehow managed to do for a very long time, has made the journey so much more interesting and enjoyable.
So now, despite 40 years of musical activity, despite everything I’ve recorded and performed and written about music, it suddenly occurs to me — as I write this text, and launch this Facebook page, on 11 Jan 2020 — that I have never properly given my own music its due. It has always been a “tool in my toolbox,” taken out or hidden away. I have never given my own songs and compositions a proper chance to be discovered by whoever might appreciate them, enjoy them, take something from them — or at least take a little inspiration from my example of blending music and the creative arts in with serious professional work. (Because I certainly do not expect everyone to like my music.)
Hence this Facebook page.