Tim McMullen's Missives and Tomes

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Another Encounter with Maury and Jim

This completes my reminiscences about Maury Muehleisen
and Jim Croce. They were truly two of my musical heroes
as songwriters, guitarists, storytellers, and performers.

I wrote "Favorite Song" as an homage to the song style
of Croce and Muehleisen only a few months before the
the tragic plane crash that took their lives.

Favorite Song by Tim McMullen

Favorite Song

You may well become my favorite song,

With a beautiful form and a beautiful style.

Your words are enough to make me smile

And enough to make me want to sing along;

I haven’t felt that in a long, long while.

You may well become my favorite page;

So many-colored pictures scattered there.

Pout and giggle, shout and stare:

Challenging the feeble chains of age

With a gentle beauty I am pleased to share.


So often I have been so close to you—

Supposed to do what I’m expected to—

It’s likely you’ll not know this song’s for you.

You may well become my favorite star,

A little bit of heaven in my night.

If I wish I may, I wish I might

Thank you for just being who you are

And for chasing weary shadows from my sight.

Repeat Chorus, then repeat first line of each verse...

And I haven’t felt that in a long, long while.

© 1973 Tim McMullen

All Rights Reserved

This is a track from my CD, I Could Write You a Song, produced by Tim Clott and I. The song was recorded by Bino Espinoza.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Support Leahy and Conyers attempt to "Bust" the insurance monopoly

This is the letter that I sent to my representatives concerning the Health Insurance industry. It was in support of bills that Senator Leahy and Congressman Conyers have introduced to fix a glaring error in the oversight of health insurance companies. Visit their site at:


The last five paragraphs are from their "stock" letter; the rest is mine.

The unconscionable profits of America's health insurance companies are crippling the economy and driving hundreds of thousands into bankruptcy.

One of our good friends has just recently been forced to sell her home, a home which had been fully paid for by her and her husband over the last thirty years. Both had worked diligently their entire adult lives. They had each retired with excellent pension plans (railroad retirement), and medical insurance. They even worked together overseeing a storage facility several days a week, just for fun.

About two years ago, he was diagnosed with cancer. He was a tough, positive fighter, and they tackled his malady head on. However, within a year, they were informed by their insurance carrier that they had "exhausted" their coverage. Our friends and their employers had been paying for this coverage their entire working lives, but within a year or so, it simply ran out. In order to continue the therapy that his doctors had prescribed, our friends had to re-mortgage their home.

Despite all their efforts, about nine months ago the husband died, and his wife, now on a fixed income, cannot repay the loan. This was not some spurious real estate or stock market speculation; this was not some outrageous, unproven medical chicanery; this was not some hopeless case in which they foolishly threw money down the drain.

Our friends had to "hock" their home, and now she has to give up that home, simply to pay for the regular medical treatment which the insurance company stopped paying because they had reached the company's self-imposed (and non-negotiable) payment limit.

It is hard to imagine that this insurance practice is not patently fraudulent and, therefore, criminal, but because of the unregulated nature of the industry, it is perfectly legal. Congress bears great responsibility for such occurrences. In many ways, Congress is at much at fault for these human tragedies as are the conscienceless, morally corrupt, for-profit insurance companies.

The McCarran-Ferguson Act of 1945 exempts health insurance companies from the antitrust regulations that apply to nearly every other industry, rules that protect consumers from anti-competitive business practices like price-fixing.

Passing health care reform with an effective public option is one key way to promote competition in the health insurance marketplace, but we must also eliminate this unjustified and unnecessary antitrust exemption currently enjoyed by insurance giants.

That's why I urge you to support the Health Insurance Industry Antitrust Enforcement Act, S. 1681 and H.R. 3596.

This legislation, which has been introduced by Sen. Patrick Leahy in the Senate and Rep. John Conyers in the House, will eliminate the outdated insurance industry antitrust exemption, and force health insurance companies to compete fairly -- like virtually every other business in America.

Thank you for supporting S. 1681 and H.R. 3596.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Another One-Sided Conversation with Maury

Twenty-five years after writing "Second-String Songman," I decided to put together a collection of Maury’s songs, including all the songs from Gingerbreadd, plus Maury’s song, “Salon and Saloon” that Croce sang on his last album and other Croce songs that seemed clearly influenced by Maury’s songwriting style. I decided to look for a picture to put on the cover of my cassette, and I stumbled across a fan site, Jim Croce: The Tribute Page, by Tom Orrechio. The group had just had a twenty-fifth anniversary “gathering” to honor the passing of Jim and Maury. They had visited Maury’s grave; they had met with members of the Croce and Muehleisen families; they had met with the duo’s producer, Tommy West; and they had passed the guitar around playing songs by or about Jim and Maury. Suddenly, I realized that here was a group that might actually appreciate the song that I had written twenty-five years earlier.

I posted the lyrics to my song and its accompanying intro, and I immediately received a request to show the song to the Muehleisen family. A few days later I received a lovely letter from Maury’s sister, Mary, thanking me for the song and saying that they would really love to hear it. Unfortunately, I had never made a recording of the song; however, my desire to allow Maury’s family to actually hear my song impelled me to try to record it. I went to Bino Espinoza, the husband of Sandra Espinoza, our high school choirmaster. A couple of years later, Bino won an Emmy for sound engineering. We recorded two songs, “Second-String Songman,” my song about Maury, written, in part to emulate Maury’s “A Song I Heard,” and “Favorite Song,” which I had consciously created to have a Croce-Muehleisen feel. These two recordings were the impetus for recording the rest of my album, I Could Write You A Song, recorded and produced by my best friend, Tim Clott. Tom Orrechio then put the song on his website; a year or so later, when Mary created her webpage for Maury, she also included the song.

I offered this reminiscence to the Jim Croce fan site—Jim Croce: The Tribute Page. http://www.jimcrocefans.com/

Someone asked the website forum “if anyone had ever seen Jim and Maury perform. What follows is my answer.

I had the opportunity to see Jim and Maury perform only once. They came to the LA area in '71 or '72 and played in a theatre in the round; the circular stage actually rotated during the entire performance. Having played in a lot of different venues myself during that time (but never on a revolving stage), I'm guessing that it was a slightly strange experience for them, especially since Jim's form of storytelling and performing was so intimate. A constantly moving target must have been slightly disconcerting....

Needless to say, Jim and Maury's performance was nothing short of amazing. I have seen hundreds of acoustic performers—pretty much every major folk performer who hit LA from 1965 to 1985, and anyone of significance who has come through since then. But Jim and Maury's performance is still vivid in my memory after 35 years. Jim's stories and introductions were awesome. Not until I saw Cheryl Wheeler perform in the mid-nineties had I seen anyone offer such an inspired mix of trenchant story telling and brilliant song writing.

Croce's persona on stage was both hilarious and spellbinding. However, when they began to play, Jim's identity was merged into Maury/Jim, the wizard songsters. Jim was a very good guitar player with a strong baritone, fun and interesting; Maury, however, was pure magic. He was everywhere in the song: rhythm, lead, syncopation, percussion, and incredible harmony vocals. Put simply—he was mesmerizing. Then, Jim would launch into the next intro, and Maury would sit, quietly bemused until the next downbeat when his flying fingers would reassert his remarkable authority in the musical mix.

Despite the billing, watch any of the videos, and you see that Jim and Maury sat side by side. They were a duo, a dynamic duo if ever there was one. The lack of acknowledgement on some of the Croce releases notwithstanding, it is quite clear that Jim and Maury regarded themselves as musical partners whose aesthetic empathy surpassed any that I have ever seen. Not even David Lindley and Jackson Brown, David Bromberg and Jerry Jeff Walker, Jesse Ed Davis and Taj Mahal had that perfect a connection.

The only guitar player I have ever seen who might have matched Maury's intuitive complement to his partner was Brownie McGee with Sonny Terry. His hands never stopped. He really didn't play chords at all, or rather, he played bass runs, lead runs, and constant chord progressions intermittently throughout a song. Maury is the only other guitar player that I have seen who had that intuitive, eclectic approach to completing a song. (This may seem strange and self-serving, but if you heard him, you would agree—the only other person I have ever heard with that kind of full-service sound was my younger brother, Tucker McMullen, when he played with Bob Ward and the Cigar Band in the late 70's, and his inspiration clearly came from David Bromberg, Amos Garrett, Jesse Ed Davis, and especially, Maury Muehleisen).

It would be nice to have the opportunity to see more of Jim and Maury's work, and perhaps more footage will be uncovered in the future. Also, I add my voice to those hoping that Maury's album will again become available. Though always regarded as a jewel, my vinyl recording is not as pristine as I would like.

Hopefully this little reminiscence hints at the wonder that was Jim Croce and Maury Muehleisen.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

My "One-Sided" Conversations with Maury

Second String Song Man
(For Maury Muehleisen)
Second string song man
Beautiful back-up band
Playing his heart out
For a part of the game
Singing the harmony
Stringing the melody
Seeing a small piece
Of another man’s fame
Nobody knew his name
Seems like quite a shame
Sang like an angel
Wrote like a demon
Held me against my will
And left me dreamin’
Sang about a song he’d heard
And never heard again
I know the music’s haunted me
Just like it haunted him
The singing of a friend
Will never end
He’d play those haunting melodies
Whispered fingers fly
He sang so high
Chorus, then Repeat First Verse
Second string song man
Beautiful back-up band
Playing his heart out
For a part of the game
©1974 Tim McMullen All Rights Reserved

In 1973, I wrote a song entitled, “Second-String Songman.” The title, as I am fond of doing with my titles and lyrics, is a triple-entendre. It made reference to a lead guitarist’s use of the B-string as a significant tool in his repertoire as well as the acknowledgement that the accompanist often is overlooked in favor of the front man; finally, it made specific reference to the fact that many backup musicians are also very talented song writers, singers, and musicians in their own right, but that they are seldom fortunate enough to have that talent recognized.

I wrote that song with several players in mind; one obvious one was my brother, Tucker McMullen, a brilliant and innovative guitarist who was playing with Bob Ward as a part of Bob Ward and the Cigar Band. However, the specific reason that I wrote that song at that time was out of a deep sense of personal loss that I felt upon hearing of the death of Jim Croce.
I was a huge fan of Jim Croce, but I was a bigger fan of his unknown accompanist, Maury Muehleisen.

In my book, Tim McMullen: Aged Fifty Years (A Life in Song), I had a chapter called “The Dear Departed.” It included a number of songs that I had written about lost loves, lost friends, lost lives, but it included four songs that I had written emulating or in honor of performers who had died.
When I got to my song, “Second-String Songman,” I had already spoken about the personal impact of the passing of my musical heroes, Phil Ochs and Townes Van Zandt. The next passage is one that I wrote for Jim Croce, but especially for Maury.

Yet another homage to a dead singer-songwriter. But unlike Phil Ochs and Townes Van Zandt, who had at least achieved some notoriety and a strong fan base, Maury Muehleisen was a true unknown. He put out one album on Capitol Records in 1970 entitled Gingerbreadd. It sold very few copies, but I, who buy everything that looks interesting (and this had David Bromberg and Eric Weissberg playing on it) bought it and instantly fell in love. He had a very sweet, delicate voice; he had an intricate, finger-picked guitar style; and he wrote such strange and interesting tunes that I was just knocked out by it. But there was no follow-up album and no news about him. Nothing.

Then, one day, I looked at an album by newcomer Jim Croce, and I saw Maury’s name on it. I bought the record and found another brilliant songwriter in Croce. Later, I read the story. When Maury’s album came out, his producers, Cashman and West, introduced him to Jim Croce, and convinced Croce to tour with Muehleisen as his accompanist, but the tour failed to raise any real interest in the record. When Croce got his big break, their roles were reversed, and Maury played behind Jim. Suddenly, his long, curly hair with Dutch-boy bangs and his fluid guitar style became instantly recognizable as “that guy behind Croce.” His style of playing and writing did, indeed, have a huge influence on Croce.
When Jim Croce died tragically, and the world mourned a hero they had just started to know (many of his hits were posthumous), Maury Muehleisen, his faithful “back-up band,” died in the plane crash with him, but the loss went all but unnoticed. It seemed like quite a shame...
(This is also dedicated to another great back-up guitarist, Jesse Ed Davis, 1948-1988).

Honoring Two Musical Giants on the Anniversary of a Tragedy

Today marks the 36th anniversary of the loss of two musical giants, Jim Croce and Maury Muehleisen, in a tragic plane crash. I wrote this on the guest page of the marvelous site created by Maury’s sister, Mary Nowak, at http://www.maurymuehleisen.com

Dear Mary,

Your wonderful dedication to your brother's life and talent has allowed so many—family, friends, fans old and new—to share an inkling of what a remarkable musician and person Maury was. Maury and Jim are famous not because of their fate, but because of the incalculable contributions they made to the hearts and minds of millions through their unique music.

This day is the anniversary of a tragedy, a sad reminder that very bad things happen to very good people, but it is also a reminder of how fleeting life is for all of us and that the way we live our lives makes a difference in this world. Jim and Maury's friendship, collaboration, musical vision, and legacy set a high standard for lives lasting three times as long. Today is a day to inspire us to have our mark in the world, however modest or grand, be a positive force in the world.

Thanks, Mary, for your love and dedication; thanks to the many who visit this site and share their love and admiration; and thanks, especially, to Maury and Jim for the inspiration—Thanks for saying, "I Love You," in a song!


I will follow this post with several posts about the marvelous Maury Muehleisen.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Ants, Antipathy, Antagonism, and The Vinegar Man

After sharing a brief story about feeling sorry for having to kill a fusillade of attacking ants, and then quoting a verse from “Six-Year Drought” by James McMurtry, Craig Bickhardt (Ninety-Mile Wind blog—see “My Blog List” below right) said:

“Sentimentality is wrung out of this and left to evaporate on the parched earth. McMurty’s lines are as hard and pitiless as the Texas plains, and yet they still touch something pulsating with life inside. I bet he sees his struggling ants and sheds no tears for them.

While I hold McMurtry's standard in the highest esteem and wouldn't change a word of it, I suppose I’m just a sucker. I’ve flirted with sentimentality all of my writing life, and maybe I’ve even crossed the line sometimes. The truth is it’s damn hard not to cross it if you feel any pity at all for the world.

Softer art for harder times? Probably won't fly. Yet we must feel something in order to be human. There must be emotion when it is warranted, and there is indeed a perceptible difference between emotion and sentimentality even though it sometimes takes a microscope to see it. After all, it’s our compassion that keeps the human race going, and we don’t want to lose that.

In the writing we can err both ways. On either side of the good, observant narrative there are pitfalls; effusiveness or stolidity. The line between is walked with a cold eye and a warm heart.”

©2009 by Craig Bickhardt

What follows is my comment:

Sentiment in the defense (or pursuit) of art is no vice! Okay, it can be...but I would make the distinction between pathos and bathos—between sentiment and sentimentality—between moving and manipulative. My guess is that for the clever, story-song teller, a certain kind of self-imposed restraint is necessary to prevent a powerful and moving story from becoming a maudlin mess.

Last time I shared my Gogi Grant story, this time I offer one of the earliest poems that I remember being moved by. I found it in a hard cover book of poems "for children" that my parents had bought for me when I was about seven. It had the typical Stevenson poems and those by Edward Lear and Eugene Field, but it also had poems by Thomas Augustine Daly in Italian dialect ("Two 'Mericana Men—about immigrants and stereotyping, and "Leetla' Giorgio Washington" with a clever twist on the cherry tree story) and one of my all-time favorite pieces, "The Vinegar Man" by Ruth Comfort Mitchell. I still use these pieces with my students and have done so for going on forty years.

The Vinegar Man

The crazy old Vinegar Man is dead! He never had missed a day before! 

Somebody went to his tumble-down shed by the Haunted House and forced the door.
There in the litter of his pungent pans, the murky mess of his mixing place,
Deep, sticky spiders and empty cans with the same old frown on his sour old face.

"Vinegar—Vinegar—Vinegar Man!

Pepper for a tongue! Pickle for a nose! 

Stick a pin in him and vinegar flows! 

Ketchup—and—chow-chow—and—Vinegar Man!"

Nothing but recipes and worthless junk; greasy old records of paid and due;
But down in the depths of a battered trunk, a queer, quaint valentine torn in two.
Red hearts and arrows and silver lace, and a prim, dim, ladylike script that said,
(Oh, Vinegar Man, with the sour old face!) 
"With dearest love, from Ellen to Ned!"

He pickles his heart in” a valentine! 

“Vinegar for blood! Pepper for his tongue!
Stick a pin in him and” once he was young! 

"With dearest love" to the Vinegar Man!

Dingy little books of profit and loss (died about Saturday, so they say),
And a queer, quaint valentine torn across…torn, but it never was thrown away! 

"With dearest love from Ellen to Ned" "Old Pepper Tongue! Pickles his heart in brine!" 

The Vinegar Man is a long time dead: he died when he tore his valentine. 

Ruth Comfort Mitchell

Yes, it verges on sentimentality, that little catch in the throat, but the wonderful juxtaposition of the older narrator recalling his own childhood voice and then merging the two into an adult recognition of a tragic life suddenly revealed (a little like Kane's "Rosebud"), stays well on the right side of the line. The complex interplay of internal and end rhyme is also masterful as are the alliteration and the parenthetical caesura (the matter of fact, "died about Saturday”) that pulls it back to the harsh reality.

When I heard Danny O'Keefe's "Valentine Pieces," from his second album, O'Keefe, It evoked a very similar feeling, except that it was written in the first person, and the hurt was more immediate:

"The valentine pieces litter the floor of my room...
I should go get the broom..."

I’d say, keep your art ever to the fore, and the sentiment will take care of itself!

PS: I got so carried away (as usual), I forgot about the ants. I think you have inspired me to make my first posting of one of my short stories on my blog. It is a cautionary tale about a man with feelings about killing ants that are very similar to yours (and whose feelings, of course, mirror my own). I'll let you know when it's posted; you might get a kick out of the "similar minds" experience.