Mike Opitz Song Writing and Theory Project

Featuring the Karma Refugees

About mikejopitz

Series of Dreams (Bob Dylan cover)

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Salvador Dali, The Dream

The Karma Refugees:
Featuring the vocals of                                 Mysterious Madame X.
Guitar, echo voice, production              Mike
Bass, production                                                Tom
Guitars, final mix and production       Brian

Like Bob Dylan, “I was thinking of a series of dreams.”   I had been reminiscing about the many classes I have taught and the many students I have known as a series of dreams.  It seemed like an appropriate metaphor to me.  However, it is always a slippery business to translate the images and sensations of dreams into words, syntax and story.  Each of these elements imposes a world-view and an interpretation on what Freud called “the royal road to the unconscious.”  In his classic essay, “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire,” Walter Benjamin argues that the same is true of “memories.”  The sensations of memory emerge into language, take form in syntax and become fossilized as a narrative.  The narrative is supported by a barrage of photographs everyone now takes with their phones to document—lest they be lost in the stream of time—the reified memories of a life. Thus, Benjamin argues, we rationalize our memories like we do our dreams. Continue Reading →

Courtly Love

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[The Karma Refugees, 2017, Walter Benjamin, William Blake, John Keats, James Ensor, Courtly Love, Intellectual and physical ruin]

When Tom Daddesio and I started our exploration of reggae music and cultural theory, we had no idea we would someday play the music.  We approached it as scholars and collectors of obscure Jamaican records.  Sometime around 1991, we attempted to approach the music in a less scholarly and more holistic way—by learning to play it.  Our first recordings were on cassette tape.  Digital recording eventually supplanted analog tape but developing a format to present our new digital recordings presented a problem.  With the help of CSBSJU media consultant, Adam Konczewski, I developed a webpage and that page has evolved over the last ten years.  Because our music grew out of the study of reggae which is also the study of slavery in the capitalist system, we always saw social theory as our main reason for making songs.  As we began making songs, recording and production technology changed again and we have now updated this website.  All along the way, we have discovered what we are doing while we are doing it.  Each step taught us something. Continue Reading →

Tower of Song (Cover of the Song by Leoard Cohen)

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Mike Opitz: lead vocal, guitar, digitally assisted production and final mix
Caitlin Brutger: keyboard, harmony vocals, production and mixing
Brian Heilman: guitar, harmony vocals, production, mixing and final mastering
Tom Daddesio: bass

***

The strange events of last fall’ s election season mixed with the falling leaves and seemed to conjure up nostalgic feelings in me.  In July of 2016, The Karma Refugees re-recorded one of my first reggae songs, “Karma Refugee.”  Thinking about that song and writing about it caused me to remember how I had been introduced to the concept of “karma.”  When I was in college, I heard Gary Snyder read his poetry and loved the metaphoric connections between Native American and Zen world views.  Consequently, I read Alan Watts because of his connection to the “beat generation.”  He had provided my first glimpse into Buddhist thought in “Beat Zen Square Zen,” and I had found it compelling.  Last fall while writing about “Karma Refugee,” I discovered a wealth of Alan Watts’ material on YouTube.  I spent hours listening to these lectures and heard his famous voice for the first time.  I had been busy escaping during the inflammatory and disheartening election campaign by listening to Alan Watts lectures while mixing the tracks of “Karma Refugee” for the website.  I started by listening to Watts’s lectures on “karma,” and then branched out to many other topics.    I was listening to a clever animated overview of Watts’ work last November when I learned of Leonard Cohen’s death.

 

The news of Cohen’s death sent me on a journey into the depth of his work.  I had been a fan of Leonard Cohen since I started playing guitar as a teenager. Songs like “Suzanne,” or “Bird on the Wire” were among the first songs I learned.  I remember the moody tone Cohen’s “The Stranger Song” set for Robert Altman’s film, McCabe and Mrs. Miller.  I admired the poetry of songs like “Famous Blue Raincoat,” and “Joan of Arc.”  All the phases of Cohen’s career also illustrate the integration of women’s voices into his work.  I knew many versions of “Halleluiah” as the song became integrated into movie soundtracks and my daughter told me that it was a Cohen song.  Of course!  But I had lost track of Cohen’s work by the end of the 1980s.  I did not know, for example, that he had spent seven years as a Zen monk.  I learned this from Mikal Gilmore’s article in Rolling Stone –one of the many thoughtful eulogies that came out after Cohen’s death.

Leonard Cohen: Life and Legacy of the Poet of Brokenness

My nostalgia peaked in the late fall along with my need to escape.  I dove into the music and career of Leonard Cohen.  I found the expected darkness, but I also found disciplined and sharp lines of poetry.  For example, measured eight line stanzas make up the dialog between Joan of Arc and Fire.

Leonard Cohen, “Joan of Arc.”

“Famous Blue Raincoat” is a wonderful song written in the form of a letter featuring spare, ironic imagery about a complex of relationships.

Leonard Cohen, “Famous Blue Raincoat.”

I discovered deep humor runs through Cohen’s work.  For example, the song “Closing Time” links closing time in a Country Western bar with the end of the world.

Leonard Cohen, “Closing Time.”

The singer clues us in with these lines: “We’re drinkin’ and we’re dancin’ but nothin’s really happenin’/ And the place is dead as heaven on a Saturday night.”

I’ve found occasion to quote that line a few times!

As I was studying Cohen’s work, I wanted to record one of his songs.  There are so many choices and I’m still drawn to many of his songs.  But I identified with the geriatric humor of “Tower of Song;” I’m only a few years younger than Leonard Cohen; it made me laugh the first time I heard it and I identified more deeply after learning to sing it,  I appreciate how the ironic lines can be applied to me.  It made me nostalgic for myself: “My friends are gone and my hair is grey/ I ache in the places where I used to play.”  I wanted to say. “My hair is gone and my friends are grey,” but the picture certainly looks a lot like me.

Karma Refugee

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1. Karma

“Liberation is getting out of the toils of Karma.  During your many past lives, you’ve done all kinds of deeds, good and bad and you are reaping the consequences of these deeds today.  And also today, you’re setting up future consequences.  Before you can be liberated, you’ve got to pay off your karmic debts.  All your karmic creditors will come to your door.”
Alan Watts, “The Joker,” YouTube lecture.

Sometime during the recording sessions of 2013, we started calling our virtual and loosely organized band, The Karma Refugees.  We had not played the song together; it was a One Drop song.  But the song title is catchy and curiously contemporary.  Somehow with no one planning it, the name stuck.  And that caused us to revisit the song and to record it again—in 2016.

Karma Refugees, 2016
Song Writing:              Mike J. Opitz
Guitar:                         Mike
Bass:                           Tom C. Daddesio
Keyboard:                   Caitlin M. Brutger
Production:                 Mike and Caitlin

Fragment of dialog from the past:

Mike said, “I feel bad but … last night I had to kill a mouse.”
Diane laughed, “That’s a karma debt … but it’s a small one.”

Since then, I’ve wondered what a karma debt—and later, a big karma debt might be.  I had a simple, pop-culture idea of the concept of karma in mind born of my cursory knowledge of the beat generation.   http://www.litkicks.com/BeatGen

“What goes around comes around,” I thought.   “You reap what you sow.” Perhaps you reap it in a different lifetime.  I came to think that personal bad behavior incurred a karma debt, and that cultural bad behavior counted as a big karma debt.

Without really planning to, it seems that I’ve embarked on a musical exploration of that idea.

The song, Karma Refugee is the first song I wrote for The One Drop Band. We recorded it in 1998 after playing it live for many years.  At the time, our collective mission was to bring the poetry and power of reggae music to our small college town in Minnesota.  My only goal in writing the song was to make a reggae song for the band to play.  Tom added the bass line that was to be a hallmark of live One Drop shows.   It was track 4 on the band’s only album (The One Drop, Uberaffe Records, 1998).  We called it “a song about cultural Karma debt” in the liner notes and added an epigraph.

For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song;
And they that wasted us required of us mirth
                                     (Psalm137)

Karma Refugee—One Drop Version

Karma Refugee

I’m a Karma Refugee;
I’m a Karma Refugee.
The sins of my fathers are visited on me.
I’m a Karma Refugee.

I grew up with a lot of things at my hand.
I didn’t have to struggle to be a man.
Little did I understand how that hindered me.
I’m a Karma Refugee.

(Break)

I feel the absence of a soul.
Seem to be missing my heart of gold.
If I can’t buy it at the mall, it means nothing to me.
I’m a Karma Refugee.

Yes, I’ve got a vacuum for a soul.
Don’t know which way I should go.
But I can feel the visions dawning on me.
A Karma Refugee.

(Break)

There’s a nation rising in this land.
A reggae reggae nation in this land.
Feel the rhythms of the ancient ones
Struggling to be free.
Karma Refugee.

There’s a nation rising in this land.
A reggae reggae nation in this land.
Feel the rhythms–feel free.
Karma Refugee.

Without Meaning to, I made a list:

Heal the Nation: Recorded by The Karma Refugees in 2015, this song explores the culture of slavery.  (blog entry)

Dancers of the Dawn: Recorded by The One Drop in 1998, this song explores the massacre at Wounded Knee, the genocide of “the Indian Wars,” and The Ghost Dance religion.

Boom: Recorded by The Karma Refugees in 2012, this song links my dad’s experience in WW II with the experience of my generation in the Vietnam War.

The Muse:  Recorded by The Karma Refugees in 2015, this song investigates patriarchal use of language to classify and control women. (blog entry)

I did not set out to write up a legalistic indictment of various cultural karma debts.  Each song just happened as a single song.  However, reflecting on the songs, and applying my limited knowledge of karma, I can see now that each one names and explores a “big” cultural debt. I learned that I expect “all the karmic creditors [to] be knocking.”

The experience of re-envisioning and re-recording a song reminds me of the Zen saying, “You can’t step into the same river twice.”  It will always be at a different time, with a different mind and situation.  My assumption is that some learning takes place in the space and time between recordings.  I learned to expand my idea of Karma.  In Alan Watts’ words:

“If I define myself as a whole field of events—let’s say the ‘organism-environment’ field which is the real me, then all the things that happen to me may be called “my doing.”  And that is the real sense of karma.  But when we speak about freedom from karma—freedom from being the puppet of the past—that involves getting rid of the habit of thought whereby you define yourself as the result of what has gone before.”
Alan Watts, “The Law of Karma,” YouTube lecture.

Sources:
Alan Watts, “The Law of Karma.”
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=skIb_gFoDiQ

Alan Watts, “The Joker.”
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7ZXlIsXUpa4

Alan Watts, “Masturbation, Religion, Love.”
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5xIZfs5xBBc

Alan Watts, “Sex, the Ultimate Sin.”
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u_u9mAynZcU

  1. Refugee

 When I wrote the song, “Karma Refugee,” my understanding of the word “refugee” was no greater than my understanding of karma.  The words and the melody just came to me while strumming my guitar on the basement steps.  But I had grown up in a household with an Italian grandmother, Marietta Marcolini.  Her experience of being a woman, and a single mother, alienated and lonely in a strange land—America—got passed on to me through her stories and her tears.  She had come here as a teenager for an arranged marriage.  My grandfather came for a better life.  He had been an opera singer in Italy.  He became a miner and died of granite pneumonia in America.  I have been surprised that I am so drawn to this family history and have explored it in music.

Without meaning to, I made a list:
BanditRecorded by The Karma Refugees in 2012, produced by Tom with Stephanie Franzen on violin, this song is based on my grandmother’s stories and experiences.   Grandmother and the Bandit blog post

Harbor : Recorded by The One Drop in 1998, produced by Gary Neyers with Norb Jost on saxophone, this song is also about my grandmother’s experiences.

Jonah: Recorded by The One Drop in 1998, words by David Hulm, produced by Gary Neyers, this song says, “Feel like Jonah in the belly of a whale” and then, “The name of the whale is Babylon.”

Activist: Recorded by The Karma Refugees in 2015, this song explores how a person can be a refugee from a culture while also being a part of it.

Suitcases: For Walter Benjamin: Recorded by The Karma Refugees in 2013, this song is based on the life and death of philosopher, Walter Benjamin—who died while fleeing the Nazi persecution of Jews.  In our time, the persecution takes many forms.

The time of the refugee:

 It might be obvious to note that this time seems to be the era of the refugee as capital– and its companion war– expands its grasp to all corners of the earth.  People flee both physically and psychologically.  My thinking about the term refugee has also taken a journey.  Today, it resides in the words of Leonard Cohen’s beautiful “Anthem”:

You can add up the parts but you won’t have the sum
You can strike up the march, there is no drum
Every heart, every heart to love will come
but like a refugee.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mDTph7mer3I

The Muse 2015

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I learned about Suzanne Valadon from my wife, Maureen. At first, I was taken by Valadon’s evolution from an artist’s model into an artist. Her story evokes thoughts about gender, class, sexuality, celebrity and the economics of art. It made me think of how our culture deploys and exploits images of women. I wrote “The Muse” about such imagery. When I wrote it, I had intended the voice in the song to be an unreconstructed male voice rife with macho and greed. The One Drop band used to play it as a raucous rocker. Over the last few years, Tom and I played it lots of ways—most recently as soca. Then Caitlin’s keyboard line led us to this new version. The song changed for me. Now I am not sure about the stuff I just wrote. Now for me, the song has taken on the quality of images without captions. Continue Reading →

Heal the Nation

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Heal The Nation, 2015

It seems like a long time ago when I was sitting in my living room, listening to Burnin’, and Bob Marley’s image on the cover of the album spoke to me.

Burnin’ Album Cover Picture.

TheWailers Burnin’
I wrote down what he said—in Patois—which I do not speak. I called what I had written down, “Heal the Nation.” Over the years, I made a song of some form of those words and played it with The One Drop as a drum chant. Later, I recorded it in other versions with Tom and Kathee. This summer, many things about the song came clear to me. I experienced my own personal need to heal and saw the same need in people all around me. The Karma Refugees recorded the song in July. While we were working on recording the tracks, we called the rewritten song, “Healing.” Here, in 2015, is what Bob Marley’s image told me so many years ago.

Heal the Nation

Sufferahs caused by slavery
An’ live in the system (shitstem) that’s slavery’s child
An, live in the depot of slavery’s trade (in Jamaica)
Live in the dread pit slavery made

The Sufferahs got nothin’ to lose
When the slavery system falls
When the ego system dies down slow
When the empire system rots.

Chorus
At the foot of Babel Tower
At the foot of the Bankers of Babylon
Where the language all fuck up
That’s how they make you do what they want

An the Sufferahs found the little herb
Grown on the grave of King Solomon
The wisdom that grows from the earth
They called the Healing of the Nation.

Chorus
Heal the nation girl and woman
Heal the nation boy and man
We’ve been down in the valley for a mighty long time
Heal the nation if we can

At the foot of Babel Tower
At the foot of the bankers of Babylon
Where the language all fuck up
That’s how they make you do what they want.

An’ then the Rastas called the little herb
“The Bread of the Lamb”
An’ the power that comes from the earth
They call the Healing of all Nations

Chorus
Heal the nation girl and woman
Heal the nation boy and man
We’ve been down in this valley for a mighty long time
Heal the nation if we can.
“Heal The Nation,” The Karma Refugees, 2015.

Song Writing, guitar – Mike Opitz
Vocals – Kathleen Downes
Bass – Tom Daddesio
Keyboards – Caitlin Brutger

1. Learning to Hear Reggae
The first reggae song I heard was “Concrete Jungle.”

I had purchased two new records—Catch a Fire (1972) and Natty Dread (1974) as presents for myself after surviving my first semester of teaching at CSBSJU. I remember being intrigued by the covers but had no idea what the music would sound like. I thought the records may have contained some kind of Caribbean sea chanteys or calypso music—which I had loved as a kid. But really, I was just in the mood to give myself a reward.

The present I gave myself grew to become the education of a lifetime. I drove home—in the mode of Jonathan Richman—“Going faster miles an hour/ with the radio on.” I was still a kid at heart and summer vacation was about to begin. Music has always been the heartbeat of summer for me. I fired up my turntable, heard the needle settle into “Concrete Jungle,” and my transformation began.

I have learned that Chris Blackwell polished up The Wailers’ music, added Wayne Perkins’ famous guitar overdub to “Concrete Jungle,” and marketed the band as a black rock band. Catch a Fire was crafted to reach white audiences. It worked on me. The guitar solo won my heart. Blackwell had set out to make a deep Jamaican roots music from the African Diaspora available to white audiences.* Rock had already made the journey from slave music through blues to reach white audiences as rock and roll. But something had been washed out of the music in the process. The something was an awareness of the history of a people. The economic and personal suffering of the blues refracted through the culture industry transformed into teenage angst. The real pain of life under the oppression of capitalism and racism vanished from the music. I have an image from my teenage years of a mob of baby-boom kids rocking out at a summer playground dance. We all wanted to “dance ‘til a quarter to three … with Daddy G.”

We had no idea where this music came from. If someone was called “Daddy G”—that was cool. We had no idea of African-American slang. We just wanted to talk like that. We thought the music was made by peppy teenagers like us living lives of high-school drama. Black music came to American teenagers as ahistorical, disembodied soundtracks for our teenage years.

The first two songs of Catch a Fire tell you exactly where the music comes from. This is how I learned it. From “Concrete Jungles” all over the world where descendants of colonized or enslaved people try to make their voices heard. When these voices grow more and more audible, Bob Marley asserts: “Slave Driver/ the tables are turn./ Catch a fire/ You’re gonna get burn.” When I heard The Wailers for the first time, I knew that the words were just a part of it. The harmonies (“started out cryin’”), the amazing punctuation of bass line and drum beat, and the whole groove all revealed meanings. The political and economic oppression of a racist system— in reggae labeled as “Babylon” and “Babylon System”—comes back into rock music in these two songs.

I stumbled upon my first two Wailers records by accident. I bought Catch a Fire—their first release for Chris Blackwell and Island Records–the album Blackwell designed to reach white, middle-class audiences. The second album I bought was –Natty Dread—the first album after Bunny and Peter, childhood friends and founding members, left the group–released under the name of Bob Marley and the Wailers. Here I heard mysterious Rasta philosophy embellished by the more conventional but lovely harmonies of the I-Threes. The mix was soulful—using horns and saxophone as well as drum and bass. Looking back, it seems that both albums were aimed at reaching people like me. Blackwell wanted to tap into the lucrative American and British markets; Marley wanted to express a worldview that had been repressed for centuries.

Both albums succeeded in reaching me. I had been able to hear reggae music because my ear had been trained by electric guitar solos, and clever back-up vocals of the rock and roll I had grown up with. Once I was drawn into the music, I was able to explore it and discover the depth and beauty at its core. But for some reason, I had missed the second Wailer’s Island record, Burnin‘(1973). In this record, the Wailers returned to their roots. Gone were the overdubbed guitar solos. The unique Wailers’ harmonies—developed on the streets of Trenchtown—came back in full bloom. The politics was evident and radical. I had discovered and loved The Wailers without knowing “Get Up Stand Up”—still one of the most radical songs ever recorded.

Here is “Get Up Stand Up” from the famous Santa Barbara concert. This is years after Burnin’ was released—but the music was reaching white kids.

I was one of those people and the feeling was exciting and exhilarating. Once I had heard and understood the songs of Catch a Fire and the odd Rastafarian words (like “Jah,”“Irie,” “I ‘n I” ff.), I was ready to hear Burnin’.

2. Discovering a Worldview

The excitement of discovery that I felt with each new Marley song is hard to describe. Each step takes you deeper into understanding the politics of racism and post-colonial empires and at the same time takes you deeper into a strange, marijuana-inflected spirituality, Rastafarianism. As Mikal Gilmore has noted: “Catch a Fire was a landmark: It was the first wholly formed, cohesive reggae album, and it immediately cast Marley into the artistic big leagues….” This attraction to the music is true for my first experience of reggae. Gilmore writes: “But Marley’s early-to-mid 1970’s Island recordings are something a good deal more than pioneering entertainment: They put forth an uncompromising and startling vision of a society kept in hell and ready to storm the gates. Songs like

“Burnin’ and Lootin,’

“Small Axe,”

“Concrete Jungle,” “Revolution,”

“Them Belly Full (But We Hungry),”

and “War” … brandish unsettling images and incendiary pronouncements that are among the most authentic in modern music” (Gilmore 16).*

In the previous clip, a live version of “Them Belly Full (But We Hungry),” the electric guitar weaves into the reggae groove, and the stark poetry of the lyric. The white audience “digs” this as the clip shows.

One day when I was in the midst of my study of reggae as post-colonial discourse and also when I picked up my long dormant guitar and started playing Marley songs, I finally purchased Burnin’—several years after it had been released. I fired up the turntable, heard the needle settle into “Get Up Stand Up” and my transformation grew deeper and more real. The album jacket leaned against a bookshelf, and the images on the cover seemed to stare out at me. This song, “Heal the Nation,” took root and grew out of that stare and what it said to me.

Notes

  • The original Jamaican tracks for Catch a Fire have been released in deluxe edition (2001)
  • Mikal Gilmore, “How Bob Marley Changed the World,” Rolling Stone: Special Collector’s Edition. June, 2014.
    The entire Live at the Rainbow (1979) concert is available here.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5V7d5B5ekKE

Activist

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Activist

A few years ago, one of my students–I think the class was Environmental Literature.–had been reading a labor newspaper before class and gave it to me. It had an article about how often women organized and supported labor movements but that the men took the credit and also took the labor of women for granted. I was a kid at the time, but I remember when my dad, a railroad worker, would be on strike. I remember being scared but was too little to know why. Men would meet on our porch and have dark, threatening conversations. My mom would cook for them and keep the kids away from the porch. So the Anna in the first verse is made-up from that. The irony of the labor movement exploiting the labor of women did not dawn on me for many years.

That was when I read the novel, Ragtime, by the Marxist novelist E.L. Doctorow.* One of the stories addresses early unions in the garment industry. The plot takes the reader to a union hall and a vivid scene of Emma Goldman–the anarchist feminist leader–giving a speech on free love to the male union workers. She asks her lovers who are in the crowd to stand up–and the male union workers don’t like to hear this. Doctorow juxtaposes this speech with the emergence of America’s first sex symbol, Evelyn Nesbit.

PBS.org Interview

Nesbit, like Goldman, a character in the novel as well as a real person, attends the lecture. This scene caused me to read Emma Goldman’s ongoing publication called The Traffic in Women–(early 20th century) — by which she mainly means marriage but other exploited labor as well. So Anna is fictional and a composite; Emma Goldman and Evelyn Nesbit were real people but also fictional characters in Doctorow’s novel. The irony that now seems obvious in these manipulations of mass imagery that can be called “the traffic in women” did not dawn on me for many years.

The third verse tells the story of that guy and those years.

Activist

Anna was an activist.  She organized for the men.
She stood with them on the picket lines
And helped them when they came home again.

She never wavered in her belief in the brotherhood of man.
She gave her love to those treacherous dreams–
Justice and Freedom.

But the factory closed thirty years ago.
The labor was shipped abroad.
The struggle of the workers happens somewhere else.
Solidarity is someone else’s cause.

Emma was an anarchist.  She pointed to a love that is free.
She spoke of how women are paralyzed
By matrimony.

She never wavered in her belief in the power of love.
She battled against the church and state
And their control of who we can love.

But the revolution was televised,
And turned into corporate TV.
People turned on their social media
“Guaranteed personality.”*

And me, I was an American boy raised by the powers that be.
I was told that I was living
In the land of the free.

I never wavered in my beliefs—unfortunately–
I gave my love to those contradictory dreams
That hopelessly confused me.

But I got lost in the supermarket*
And the bright lights dazzled me.
I thought all those forms and consumer goods
Were the way things were supposed to be.

I’m lost … ff.

*The lines “guaranteed personality” and “lost in the supermarket” come from The Clash, “Lost in the Supermarket,” London Calling, Epic Records, 1979.

Song writing, guitars, vocals           Mike Opitz
Bass, production of track                Tom Daddesio
Vocals, percussion                           Mysterious Madame X K
K
eyboard                                            Caitlin Brutger

Notes

* E. L. Doctorow, Ragtime. Random House, 1975.

*The Clash, “Lost in the Supermarket,” London Calling (1980).

*Ben E. King, “Stand by Me” was added by Kathee as a vocal improvisation.