“Are You Thinking What I’m Thinking?” opens Saturday at the P.V. Art Center

"From Swan Lake to Swanee River," by Stephen Mirich

Hold that thought!

How one art show benefited from being postponed

by Bondo Wyszpolski

On occasion, something delayed may turn out even better when it does finally happen, and this may be the case with “Are You Thinking What I’m Thinking?”, an art show that was to open on March 15 of last year but finally debuts this year, on Saturday, Sept. 25, with a reception from 6 to 9 p.m. at the Palos Verdes Art Center, and just upstairs from a remarkable exhibition of work by sculptor Eugene Daub.

Déjà vu, or take two?

“Are You Thinking What I’m Thinking?” was conceived in 2019 with 35 visual artists invited to La Venta Inn in Palos Verdes Estates to spin a wheel of fortune, upon which were attached a constantly replenished supply of fortune cookies. The usual fortune, about romance, travel, or an unexpected inheritance, had been removed from each cookie—a procedure as difficult as coaxing a hermit crab from its shell—and replaced with a random title (from my hand, no less) that the artist was then obligated to reimagine and visualize and set down in paint or pastel or any other 2D medium of their choosing.

“Fear of the Mouse,” by Fei Alexander

Among the titles that emerged on that memorable evening: “Late Thursday Night at the Aquarium,” “Lying in Wait by the Golden Gate,” “Eating Candy from the Beehive,” and “It Was Then the Bunny Snarled.” A mixed bag, to be sure. There were two requests: One, that the artist not veer into the abstract (“No puddles of paint,” said Bernard Fallon); and, two, that the work be somewhat different from what the artist was known for, so that, for instance, the viewer might say, “Really, that’s a Don Crocker? What was he on?” or “No way that was painted by Richard Stephens!” Not everyone adhered to that “challenge,” but many of the artists did.

Bronnie Towle, spinning the wheel of fortune cookies. Photo by Tony LaBruno

“Are You Thinking What I’m Thinking?” went from the front burner to the back as did so many other planned events. It would have opened with a brunch at La Venta Inn, with its panoramic view, catered by the wonderful but now defunct New York Food Company, and then it would have been on display for two weeks at the Malaga Cove Library. Instead, it’s now scheduled for seven weeks at the Palos Verdes Art Center and early in 2022 will spend a month and a half in Malaga Cove. And so, as noted earlier, the postponement seems ultimately to have been favorable for the artists—all they had to do was sit back and not sell their masterpieces.

However, there’s one more thing, another element, which wouldn’t exist had the exhibition opened last year. What follows is an admittedly subjective look into how it began, and how we believe it sets this art show apart from others.

And then came the music

This wouldn’t have happened with anyone else. In the spring of 2020, after the artists in “Are You Thinking What I’m Thinking?” had received their working titles but before the pandemic mandates, Brad Webster handed over a silver notebook with these words: “Now get started.”

“The Chocolate Night,” by Susan Whiting

He’d come up with the preposterous idea of our writing songs based on the artwork that would be in the show. I’d be penning the lyrics and he’d compose the music. Why would I readily agree? Well, as kids in the 1960s we’d recorded dozens of songs on my parents’ old reel-to-reel tape machine. Musically, we went our own ways, but one thing remained constant: We both looked forward to collaborating again.

That future we’d been waiting on finally came around early last year. Thirty-five songs? We didn’t give it a second thought at the time. Later we did realize that it wasn’t going to be a picnic, and there are still several titles that have not received lyrics let alone music. On the other hand, we’re far enough along to feel that this added component to the exhibition sets it apart from other art shows where, if there’s music, it’s some kid in the corner with a guitar doing covers or a piano trio that plays the classics but is drowned out by the chatter of people who’ve come to socialize, eat, and glance at whatever’s on the wall.

Barring a technological snafu, visitors will be able to watch a screen with images, lyrics scrolling left to right, while hearing the songs.

“Who’s Whistling at My Antiquities?” (lyrics below, after show details)

“Who’s Whistling at My Antiquities?” by Steve Shriver

I’d never have guessed that the “headings” I’d been jotting down over four decades would one day be the titles of paintings, nor could I have imagined that I’d be writing lyrics based on them as visually interpreted by a wide range of talented artists. Unwittingly, of course, what has made all this interesting are the titles themselves: How can one write standard fare when the song is called “Late Thursday Night at the Aquarium” or “Waking Up in My Halloween Costume”?

Let’s focus on just one song, “Who’s Whistling at My Antiquities?” which is the title that Steve Shriver discovered in his fortune cookie.

“First thing I thought when I pulled that title,” he says, “was ‘How did he know?’ It just felt like a theme underlying my work for many years.” And as for depicting it: “I think the image came pretty directly from the title, with the whistling lips in the center of a twirling dervish of antiquity, including clock numerals that go to the counter. The banner, by the way, reads ‘out of the mouths of children comes truth,’ referring to the fact that simplicity underlies verity.”

Steve Shriver, Brad Webster, and Warren Tarbell. Photo by Bondo Wyszpolski

Artistically speaking, Steve is widely known, and he’s also created many numerous murals, including one for downtown Hermosa Beach. He’s a noted harmonica player as well, and although Brad prefers to play all of the instruments himself, he did contact Steve, sent him the lyrics and a recording of the mostly finished song, and invited him to Warren Tarbell’s recording studio in Torrance.

“I was surprised and delighted to hear what Brad had produced from your lyrics,” Steve says. “This must be the first time any work of mine has been commemorated thus! I listened to it several times at home before I came down for the session, but other than that little intro riff, I hadn’t worked anything out beforehand. It’s not quite blues, so it took me time to figure out what harp I’d be playing, as you might have guessed by the fact that I used two.”

It all came together on a recent evening. Steve played, there were three or four takes, and then Warren began the process of weaving it into the final mix. Naturally there was a lot of discussion during the many playbacks, but eventually the song was wrapped up to everyone’s satisfaction.

Recording engineer Warren Tarbell and composer Brad Webster. Playback and mixing went on far into the night. Photo by Bondo Wyszpolski

Words inspiring visuals, inspiring lyrics, inspiring music

Later in the evening, and after Steve had departed, Brad and Warren talked about the composition and recording of “Who’s Whistling at My Antiquities?” as well as the other songs they’d worked on over the preceding months. Naturally, as the lyricist, I had a stake in what they had to say, and so I grilled them both.

Bondo: “‘Antiquities’ has plenty of words. What were your initial thoughts when you first looked over them?”

Brad: “The first thing I do, in a technical sense, is I try to get a feel for just the tempo of syllables without worrying about anything, just saying the words. And I’ll usually do that a few times.

“Seeing Through Stars,” by Karen Wharton

“But this song went many different directions. There’s probably been three or four versions of this song and then at the end, just before I recorded it, I came up with this version, and I tried to keep in mind that Steve Shriver’s harmonica was going to be added. So I gave it a little bit of either a country or a blues feel so the harmonica could fit in.”

Bondo: “Which he did, adding his own flavor.”

Getting the song to not feel forced or awkward proved to be a challenge because of the many lyrics.

Brad: “Well, I’ve got to keep working until it works for the words. With some exceptions we’ll talk and we’ll change a word here or there or a phrase or we’ll add something. And also, because of the story and the amount of words, there’s a kind of musical theater feeling to it. It could be a stage song, with acting.”

Bondo: “We hint at that. There’s clapping in the song, and some cheering, to suggest an audience in the lecture hall.”

Brad: “And then you’ll hear the way I have to sing it, and the way the harmonies come in to embellish it.”

“Island to Island by Train,” by Tom Redfield

Warren: “This was the easiest project I’ve done. So many projects stall out because the talent is difficult. In this case we just toss out ideas and then we move on them fast: Hey! How about a drum in this part? And we go, Okay, let’s try it! Nope, that’s not it! Okay, let’s try this. Ah, that’s it, man! And the whole flow of the project moves so fast. To record a song in three hours and have it mixed…”

Brad: “Every song is like that. They were very spontaneous, and that’s in keeping with the whole idea of ‘Are You Thinking What I’m Thinking?’”

“Spontaneous” shouldn’t be confused with “not thought out,” because plenty of prep does go into the crafting of the lyrics and mulling over how to build the music from them or around them. This isn’t to claim that any of these are gems, despite what Warren, sitting at the controls, says about the ongoing endeavor:

“I’ve been recording for 40 years now, and this is the best group of songs I’ve worked on. I enjoy the way the lyrics and the music work together, and the storylines are so playful, yet deep. I’ve listened to them over and over again, and it’s brilliant. I’m thrilled to be a part of this.”

“The Secret Lives of Wine,” by Robin Cowles

That’s nice to hear, but it’s not something to get a swelled head over. Personally, I credit the many artists and their visions. I was able to study each piece and then conjure up a little scenario, like writing a two-minute television skit. Sometimes a certain style of music would occur to me and I’d mention it to Brad, which is not to say he ever listened.

As for his approach to composing:

“I’m not paying any attention to the painting—that’s not completely true, but pretty much. I did pay attention to the ‘Mouse’ (“Fear of the Mouse”) and ‘Sushi’ (“Seven Days of Sushi”). But they’re just so obvious. You really just talked about those paintings, literally, and then I did, too.”

There’s a picture gallery at areyouthinkingwhatimthinking.art.

Brad mentions to Warren that he and I don’t collaborate in the usual sense, sitting across from one another, guitars in hand, that kind of thing: “We’ve known each other so long, I don’t need to do anything except see his lyrics, and I know, they’re Bondo’s lyrics. They’re like family; it’s comfortable for me to work with his words.”

“Without Having a Dog’s Name, How Will Your Master Call You?” by Joy Gonzalez

Bondo: “Family lyrics?”

Brad: “They’re not family… some bad family, yes.”

We laugh, because I often try to sneak in some ribald humor, such as these two lines that didn’t make the cut from ‘Who’s Whistling at My Antiquities?”: “And here, at last, mighty Hercules, yes, as he lifts a heavy cart./ He strains his muscles and, good Lord, let’s fly a mighty fart.”

My first run-through of “Waking Up in My Halloween Costume” was axed, partly because I kept pairing birthday suit with paternity suit (and what led to the latter). And then there was the song written from the viewpoint of a cussing dog, sort of a canine version of Fritz the Cat. Brad chucked out that one as well and admonished me to consider our audience.

Of more concern to me is my careless jumble of Greek and Roman names and then having Aphrodite chained to a rock and “rescued” by Perseus even though I’d meant to write Andromeda.

“On Being Taught Ballet by Peter Pan,” by Deborah Giese

Warren: “You look at a painting; how soon until the lyrics start to come to you? Is it pretty instantaneous?”

The answer, of course, is that it varies, but it often works by a kind of hand to mouth association. Just as each artist took a single line of print and reimagined it visually, I take something visual and reimagine it back to words. These words are then put through the wash yet again when Brad mulls over the lyrics. This is the process that needs to be emphasized. And later on, if all goes as planned, the songs will be reimagined in video or film.

The lyricist, seeking divine inspiration

But to answer Warren’s question, I begin with little bits and pieces of phrases and ideas. They may fall into line, the lyrics coming together quickly, although still in rough form. At other times I have trouble finding a way in. For instance, I’m still pondering “From Swan Lake to Swanee River” (and Steve Mirich’s painting is wonderful) although Brad likes the idea of appropriating snatches of music from both original compositions, Tchaikovsky’s and Stephen Foster’s.

“Traveling with the Pope,” by Dan Dempster

That’s a brief look into the human mechanics of how the songs illustrating the 35 artworks in “Are You Thinking What I’m Thinking?” have and continue to evolve. Other people probably write songs the same way, but I’d guess that very few have conceived of them to operate in a similar context, to enhance and “illustrate” what is already visual.

Are You Thinking What I’m Thinking? opens with a reception from 6 to 9 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 25, at the Palos Verdes Art Center, 5504 Crestridge Road, Rancho Palos Verdes. Hours, Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; closed Sunday. Appearing concurrently with Eugene Daub: Monumental. Through Nov. 13. Call (310) 541-2479 or visit pvartcenter.org. PEN/ER

And here are the lyrics to “Who’s Whistling At My Antiquities?

“Who’s Whistling at My Antiquities?”
(music: Brad Webster; lyrics: Bondo Wyszpolski)

[Sounds of clapping] Thank you,
Professor Shriver here, at your beck and call
Now behold these latest findings; I hope to share them all.
This slide depicts a shipwreck, found off the rugged coast of Crete
And this amphora’s writing, I’m sure it’s ancient Greek.

Regard these blackened scrolls, unearthed beneath Pompeii
The temple and the lighthouse once loomed above the bay.
Ah, and here’s the naked Aphrodite – chained tightly to a rock
Young Perseus, so excited, has thrown away the lock.

And… Whoever’s whistling at these antiquities
I ask you now to stop it, please
Let’s continue, shall we?

This once grand cathedral is still a symphony in stone
With fragile stained-glass windows that transmit a rosy tone.
Now look – it’s L’aura borealis, as I’m sure you must recall
We found her in the ruins of a mighty Viking’s hall.

And… Who’s that again? Who’s whistling at my antiquities?
This has to be the pinnacle of immature proclivities

Nymphs and satyrs, and a crocodile
found in a boat that sank in the Nile.
Neptune and Athena, Achilles and Hector
Their armor was found by my metal detector.

This gorgeous little fresco, it conveys exquisite feeling
We had to pry it gently from a buried Roman ceiling.
And these beveled glass mirrors and this orange-yellow lamp?
They were left behind by armies of the fleeing rebel camp.

And… I’ve had enough, I say, who whistles while I lecture?
The room is dark, the culprit knows, so I can but conjecture.

And… there’s that whistling, once again, my antiquities offended.
But just in time, you see, for class today has just now ended.

© Webster/Wyszpolski 2021


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