Your Own Back Yard – Michael Gillan Maxwell

Visual Art – Creative Writing – Social Commentary


November 2011

A Well Respected Man

This is my first crack at writing a review for a new category on my site called: “Arts and Culture”

 A Well Respected Man     Ray Davies     Live at the State Theater -Ithaca, New York       Saturday November 26, 2011

 I had the privilege and the thrill to see Ray Davies at the State Theater in Ithaca on November 26.  I am at a point in my life when it sometimes feels like I may never pass this way again. So when rare opportunities present themselves, I am inclined to jump. This event was one of those opportunities. If you’ve ever even remotely liked anything he’s done with The Kinks, you would have loved this concert.  If you never liked his work, perhaps you should avert your eyes, but it’s never too late to start. Some of my favorite descriptive adjectives have fallen into the category of cliché’ buzzwords by virtue of their over use in the lexicon of pop slang. Words like “epic”, “awesome”, and “legendary” have become shallow parodies of their former selves. However, in this case, I feel I can legitimately use those words with the full power of their intended meanings to describe what was truly a magical performance.  This was not a golden oldies show by an over the hill former pop star trying to squeeze the last juice out of a couple of hits from back in the 60’s. What unfolded that evening was a tour de force by a master artist at the height of his powers, in the full bloom of maturity. This was the real deal.

Davies has produced a body of work spanning five decades and he is well on his way to adding a sixth. Although he may be best known to many as lead singer and songwriter for The Kinks, he has also written two books, acted, directed and produced shows for theater and television. He has never been afraid of experimentation and his most recent projects include an album of musical collaborations with other artists, (See My Friends) and recording and touring with full sized, professional choirs. (The Kinks Choral Collection)

Ray Davies’ writing has always been edgy and genre bending, yet pertinent and relevant. He is one of the great literate observers of life, modern culture, the human predicament, politics and history; and he expresses it all through songs that are full of irony, humor, humility, and humanity. While many of his songs are acerbic statements about affectation, hypocrisy, greed, social issues and human foibles, they are also about the great themes of the British romantic poets – love, beauty, nature and the miraculous beauty of being alive. His songs are self-contained short fictions, universes unto themselves, filled with the stories of people’s lives.  His musical compositions are a mixed bag of different styles and genres ranging from folk to blues, theatrical vaudeville to Dixieland jazz, and “in your face” rock and roll, with all its permutations.

He opened with an acoustic set accompanied by his supremely talented lead guitarist, Bill Shanley, and then proceeded to burn the house down with a smoking, white hot band. With a stroke of theatrical genius, he concluded this segment of the show with a reading from his 1994 autobiography X-Ray that led into the epic 20th Century Man from the Muswell Hillbillies album. It’s a powerful song about alienation and life in a postmodern dystopia that could easily be about life in America today. He started it with only his acoustic guitar, as the band filtered quietly onto the stage and turned it into a raging rocker that probably had George Orwell dancing in his grave.

Davies’ performance drew from his entire catalogue of work. Songs that are almost 50 years old sounded fresh and new, and are as relevant as ever in light of everything that is currently going on. The play list ran the gamut from the elegiac to the anthemic, and heart breaking beautiful ballads to full on rockers.

Davies’ stage presence was engaging and endearing. It was clearly evident how much he appreciates the support of his fans as he interacted with the crowd, spontaneously cracking jokes, shaking hands and signing autographs. His over all message was ebullient and positive: “It’s going to be OK – it’s all going to work out fine- don’t worry…” People need to hear that in these times.

Ray Davies’ work is an inspiration to keep going, to keep getting better with age and most importantly to maintain a sense of humor and a positive attitude in the face of everything that life can throw in your face. We’re all going to get our asses kicked by life from time to time. There’s an underlying theme running through his songs that reminds us that what’s important is that you get back up, dust yourself off and smile while saying: “Is that the best ya got?” His show was a big, brash, bold affirmation of life and a reminder that you’re never too old to rock and roll!

Store Window

That’d Kill Ol’ Bob

I step over a big black dog that’s sprawled, fast asleep, across the doorway. “Best to let sleeping dogs lie,” I think, but the snoring dog doesn’t budge. Clouds of tobacco smoke hang in the air and mix with the glow from neon bar signs, illuminating the room in blue, fluorescent haze. There’s a pool table at the other end and a player is taking aim with his cue. There’s the familiar crack of pool balls and I head for an empty seat at the bar next to an old man. Sitting directly in front of two enormous glass jars full of pickled eggs and sausages, it’s hard not to notice the surreal and disturbing resemblance to body parts floating in formaldehyde. “I’ll take whatever you got on tap.” The beer is ice cold and foam slithers down the side of the glass, which is slick with moisture. I gulp half of it down and lick foam off my lips.

The old guy next to me tosses back a shot, and follows it down with a beer chaser. He’s smoking a chewed up stogie that smells something like old buffalo chips. He gets up, puts a stack of quarters in the jukebox and comes back to the bar. The first song up is a familiar old country tune with a weeping, mournful steel guitar. “ That’s Ralph Mooney you hear playin’ right there. He played steel with Buck Owens, Merle Haggard and the rest of that Bakersfield crew. Used to play some pedal steel myself back in the day. Cut a couple records with the Woodhull Boys back in ’52. You was probably still poopin’ green in your diapers back then.” “Yeah, I guess so.” I say. “What do you do now?” “Been a dairy farmer here for 50 years,” the old man says, “but times ain’t now like they used to be.”

Extending my hand, I introduce myself. “My name’s Max. Can I buy you a beer?” The old man shakes my hand and replies: “Never turn down a free beer. I’m Roy and that’s my dog over there. Name’s Ol’ Bob. He likes to sleep in the doorway. Looks plenty scary, but he wouldn’t harm a fly,” he says. “Reminds me of that old joke though. Guy walks into a bar – has to step over a huge German shepherd blocking the doorway. Dog’s grooming himself to beat the band. Guy sits down next to another man at the bar. “That your dog?” he asks. “Yup” the man replies. Guy says: “ Jeez- look at him lick his balls! I’d love to do that.” Man replies: “Uh – I don’t think that’s such a great idea. That dog is downright mean and he don’t like surprises. At least you better give him some warning to let him know before you start!”

We both laugh, clink our glasses together and down our beers. “C’mon I’ll buy you another one. You gotta try one of these sausages.” Roy orders another beer and a pickled sausage for each of us. The smell almost knocks me off my barstool. I wonder how this guy can be so spry at his age on a diet of booze, cigars and pickled sausage.  That kind of regimen would be enough to kill most normal people. But then again it may just be the secret to his longevity.

A chunk of sausage slips off my toothpick and I juggle it around, trying to catch it, but it plops onto the floor. Ol’ Bob’s eyes pop open and fix on the sausage. The big dog suddenly springs to life and starts creeping across the floor like an alligator in the weeds. Roy is off his stool in a flash, and deftly skewers the hunk of meat before the dog can get there. “Jesus Jimbles that was close!” Roy says, “He’s got a delicate system. Food like that – why – it just ain’t healthy. That’d kill Ol’ Bob!” The big dog heads back to his spot in the doorway and heaves a sigh, as Roy pops the rest of the sausage in his mouth and I order us both another round.

Night Bar


Remembering the Kennedy Assassination and Reflections on the 60’s, the End of Innocence and the Dawn of a New Age

Blog Entry-November 22, 2011

Remembering the Kennedy Assassination and Reflections on the 60’s, The End of Innocence and the Dawn of a New Age

Today is November 22, 2011. It is Thanksgiving week in America. On this day in history in 1963, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, 35th president of the United States of America, was assassinated as he rode in an uncovered car in a motorcade through downtown Dallas, Texas. He was 46. I was 13.

There are moments that are frozen in time, when you remember where you were and what you were doing when you learned about some cataclysmic, life-changing event. During my lifetime, some of those events have included the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., the Challenger and Columbia Space Shuttle explosions and the horrific events of 9/11.  As with those, I remember this moment also with some clarity.

I was in my 8th grade classroom at St. Monica School. It was just after lunch and the Franciscan nun who was our school principal came into our classroom to inform our teacher that President Kennedy had been assassinated. Both women were in tears and although we had not yet been informed, we all knew something horrible had happened.

It was Friday, and I went on a scheduled camping trip with my Boy Scout troop that weekend. We went to someone’s cabin on a horse farm. My sleeping bag was old and worn and I absolutely froze my ass off that first night as I tried to sleep on the hard floor of the cabin. I slept the next night in a horse stall. There was hay to make it a bit softer and a horse blanket to make it a bit warmer, but not much. We rode horses. Although I had been on horses before, I didn’t really technically know how to ride. I just kind of made it up as I went. I remember the mixed feelings of exhilaration and fear as my horse sprinted balls to the walls at a full gallop as it ran for the barn. I don’t know how I managed to hang on, but I did. That afternoon we played in a muddy ravine and had an epic mud fight. The weather was cold, raw, damp and gloomy and I remember the adults speaking together in hushed tones and the overall pall cast by the news of the assassination. It left the nation reeling in shock and it felt like time stood still for days on end.

There was continuous television coverage on the only three networks we had at the time. I got home from the trip on Sunday and watched Lee Harvey Oswald get shot and killed by Jack Ruby on live television. School was cancelled that Monday and my family and the nation watched the requiem mass and the state funeral on TV. It was the end of innocence, the end of my childhood and the early days of the turbulent 60’s.

Much had happened already in the first three years of the decade: the birth of the Civil Rights Movement, Berlin Wall, Bay of Pigs invasion, Cuban Missile Crisis, Cold War, Peace Corps, Space Race, the deepening of the Vietnam conflict, and the seeds of what would grow to become Sadaam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, and construction of the Kinzua Dam which flooded 10,000 acres (4,047 ha) of Seneca nation land that they occupied under the Treaty of 1794.

The assassination of John F. Kennedy was like a gate swinging open for everything else that was soon to follow: the Civil Rights Movement, race riots, the horrific carnage of the Vietnam War, the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., the Anti-War Movement, the Weather Underground, Abbie Hoffman, Timothy Leary, Rock and Roll, LSD, cultural upheaval, Haight Ashbury and the Hippies, High School, College, Protests, Woodstock, Easy Rider, men on the moon, Richard Nixon,  “dis-illusionment” in the true Buddhist sense of the word, and my own awakening and shift in consciousness as I left the Catholic Church, embraced a new awareness, left home, tuned in, turned on and dropped out and eventually left the country altogether at the end of the decade. As a Nation, we were never the same as we had been. As a person, I was never the same either. Everything and everybody was, once and for all, irrevocably different. We weren’t in Kansas anymore.

Today is Tuesday November 22, 2011. It is Thanksgiving week in America. I feel as though we stand ready for a great shift in consciousness that will by far surpass that which began in the 60’s and continued in the decades that followed. I am grateful for all that I have: family, friends, health, home, food, warmth, shelter, freedom, this beautiful area, the earth and my mental and creative faculties. It is a momentous time to be alive and physically incarnated on planet Earth, Third Stone From the Sun; in a galaxy we call the Milky Way.

I wish you all

Love, Light and Blessings!


November 22, 2011

Happiness and Compassion

Chicken on a Wire

Brady’s mouth is dry and his heart is in his throat. The fear is palpable and he feels like he’s jumping right out of his own skin. Then he remembers to breathe. Breathing is the only way he’s found to handle the fear before it becomes an insurmountable force. Brady has learned to center himself and breathe the fear into his belly. It works.

There’s a short delay as the rodeo clowns shoo Torquemada out of the arena and through the exit chute. He is a chute fighter and his rider bailed after just three seconds. Torquemada started to chase him down and the downed rider was lucky to make the corner exit before the bull freight trained him. Torquemada has a reputation as a headhunter and it’s takin’ some doing for the rodeo clowns to get him to move out of the arena.

This is Brady’s first go round since he was stomped in Medicine Hat last season. He rode for near the full round on a honker named Rolling Thunder before he got tossed. Rolling Thunder was a double kicker and he gave Brady the ride of his life. Brady was jerked forward violently and almost kissed the bull before Rolling Thunder reversed and bucked backwards. Brady held on as long as he could before he got thrown out the back door. He landed on his back and almost rolled away before that bad boy stepped on him and busted him up pretty good. Even with his protective vest, he came away with broken ribs, a lacerated liver and bruised kidneys and spleen.

Brady drew tonight’s ride on a big blue roan named Chicken on a Wire. He’s a magnificent animal, weighing in at almost 1500 pounds, with an 80% buck off average. Brady feels almost mystically connected to the bull, as if they share a sacred pact. The arena is clear now. He hears someone say: “It’s go time.” Brady tightens his gloved hand around the bull rope, takes a deep breath and exhales slowly. He settles into his center and feels nothing but dead calm. Brady watches the seconds count down on the digital clock, the horn sounds and the chute slides open. Chicken on a Wire explodes out of the gate.

Chicken on a Wire



I set fire to my first building on my 28th birthday. It wasn’t something I got out of bed in the morning and spontaneously decided to do for the fun of it. It just kind of happened. I’ll never forget the acrid stench of creosote covered roof beams going up in smoke.

I should say right here and now, that it’s not what you’re thinking. I was actually a hippie potter living on an old farm in upstate New York. I had started a pottery studio with a buddy of mine from Colorado. I’ve heard that the best business partnerships are struck between adversaries. I really didn’t know what that meant until I went into business with a friend. We started the studio together as best of friends. We parted ways under quite different circumstances. But that’s another story for another time. Let’s get back to the burning building.

We were firing the large stoneware kiln on a blazing hot day in late July, July 27th, to be exact. I remember because it was my birthday. That kiln was fired by propane up to temperatures reaching nearly 2300 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s a lot of heat, fire, smoke and flame, in case you’re wondering. There are a couple of times during the process where the air supply is choked off in order to create certain types of effects with the clay and glazes. This is called putting the kiln “into reduction.” When this is done, it creates a rather dramatic outpouring of flame and black smoke. The fire seeks oxygen, and as a result, flames were licking our through every crevice and crack in the bricked up door and out of the burner ports. To the uninitiated it looks literally like a house on fire. However this looks a lot more dramatic and dangerous than it really is. Except if there happens to be anything flammable near the kiln. In this case, there was, and it happened to be the roof of our kiln shed. The shed was constructed from old building materials that had been salvaged from a warehouse demolition. The roof beams were precariously close to the kiln and that was the day they caught on fire. The only thing that prevented the whole structure and studio from going up in flames was that the aged and weathered beams had been treated in creosote. At one time it was a common practice to treat telephone poles, railroad ties and building timbers with creosote as an actual fire retardant.

Our fellow potters congratulated us as having officially “arrived.” There is a bit of folklore that all potters are closet pyromaniacs and that you aren’t really a legitimate potter until you set fire to your first building. As time went by I repeated my flirtation with fire by accidentally setting fire to my gloves, bandanas, and my hair. I even started a wildfire when I plunged a red hot pot into the dry grass. My wife was nine months pregnant at the time and I’ll never forget the sight of her in that delicate condition beating back the flames with a blanket.

It was not until years later that I performed my crowning achievement in this arena. I was teaching Ceramics at a local college. It was towards the end of a long firing and I put the kiln into reduction, which produced the expected conflagration complete with dramatic amounts of flame and thick black smoke. This process could take as long as half an hour. I was expecting guests for dinner that evening, so I thought I’d have enough time to run across the street to my house and get a couple of things done. As I worked in my kitchen, I heard the sound of sirens approaching, but it really didn’t consciously register. A few minutes later as I left my house to return to the studio, I saw that fire trucks and emergency vehicles had cordoned off the entire block. Much to my dismay I saw a crew of burly firefighters in full turnout gear advancing towards the kiln yard with a fire hose.

I sprinted balls to the walls, across the soccer field between my house and the kiln yard, screaming at the top of my lungs for them to stop. I don’t know how I did it, but I managed to cover the distance and barge through the crew of firefighters and emergency personnel to reach them just before they hit the kiln with a torrent of cold water. It would have created an unimaginable cataclysm of steam, exploding bricks, burst gas pipes, shattering pottery and kiln shelves and God knows what else.

“Stop! Stop! What are you doing?” “Stand back! We got a report of a structure fire! That brick shed’s on fire! We gotta put it out!” “No! That’s a kiln – it’s a pottery kiln – that’s what’s supposed to happen – everything’s under control!” “ Where’s the main shut off? Turn it off!”

I complied by turning off the main gas supply. The flames and smoke receded and the interior of kiln glowed red hot through the cracks in the bricked up door. “Twenty three years on the force and I ain’t never seen nothing like it – you’re lucky the security guard spotted the fire and called it in. You coulda burnt down the whole college!” I offered apologies and assurances, insisted that there never had been any real danger and that I’d see to it that everything was safely turned off and locked up. They looked at me like I was from Mars. I looked over in disbelief at the security guard who seemed full of himself with the heroic act he thought he had just performed.

I waited for every one to leave and I also pretended to leave. I locked the gate and went into the Art Building. After I was sure that everyone had left and the coast was really clear, I did the only thing any self-respecting potter and firebug would do. I finished the job. You can’t do that properly without plenty of heat, fire, smoke and flame. I started the kiln back up and finished the firing.


Old School

I think bullying was INVENTED at the Catholic school I attended.  Let’s just call it “Our Lady of Eternal Guilt and Suffering”. The priests bullied the nuns, who bullied the kids, who bullied each other. Monsignor Barry bullied everyone. God forbid, you should draw the short straw and get THAT guy for confession. “Bless me Father for I have sinned. It has been one week since my last confession. I argued with my brother twice and, uh… I thought impure thoughts once.” Actually, I thought impure thoughts CONSTANTLY – 24/7/365 days a year – mainly about Mary Olson – and I don’t think there was a 13-year-old boy in my school who didn’t. “Impure thoughts??? I KNEW it. You’ll grow hair on your palms, go blind and burn for eternity in Hell for this! For your penance, my son, you must prostrate yourself at the foot of the altar, say 100 Our Fathers, 50 Hail Marys, 1000 Rosaries, and have yourself flogged on the way out the door.” Our Lady of Eternal Guilt and Suffering felt about as close as you could get to reform school without actually being shipped out to juvie or military academy. Desperate parents sent their problem children there to straighten up. Consequentially, there was a motley assortment of every badass greaser and hood for miles around; and they bullied everything that moved. I had so many alternate routes home through backyards and over fences that it was like escape to freedom through the Underground Railroad. Of course, sometimes, the only response to a bully was a bigger bully. Enter Mr. Gundersen, the 8th grade lay teacher at Our Lady of Eternal Guilt and Suffering. He was hulking man of Swedish descent and the butt of more than a few unkind “big, dumb Swede” remarks. A middle-aged bachelor who still lived with his mother, his daily uniform was an ill-fitting navy blue suit, white shirt, tie, what must have been size 15 shoes and a perennial 5 o’clock shadow. Mr. Gundersen coached football, basketball and track. Acting as ad hoc Dean of Students whose mission it was to scare the absolute bejesus out of everyone, he was more like a hit man who could be called in at a moment’s notice to administer a hallway tune-up against the lockers to any of the 8th grade boys who were singled out as being disruptive or defiant. However, he was the only teacher who was physically intimidating enough to act as judge, jury and executioner, as well as Defender of the Faith and Protector of the Meek and Mild, and the rest of our sorry lot against the greasers and hoods. Even then, his tactics were dubious, but in THIS day and age, he’d be doing a stretch of hard time for child abuse. However, in the fashion of all petty tyrants, he did manage to maintain some kind of despotic law and order.

Lavatory Door



The Golden Hour

Saturday night

sun still above the western horizon

you drive north along the lake

windows down

dogs in the back seat

black lab grinning

her head hanging out the window

with her ears flying

music blasts from the speakers

you sing “The Ties That Bind”

at the top of your lungs and out of your range

big wooden schooner

out there on the water with two other boats

white sails luffing on light autumn air

as all three come about

sun dipping down behind the trees now

photographers call this the Golden Hour

this ephemeral span of moments

when everything glows

in magic light

you drive past vineyards,

a horse farm, and spent fields of corn

singing the chorus as loud as you can

your voice cracks, breaking out of your comfort zone

jangly guitars and jubilant saxophone

push your ears to the limit

evening air swirls through the open window

you brake and turn hard right

heading for home

Chasing Rainbows

Your Own Backyard

Bobby and Jackie got married last fall

Lookin’ for a brand new start

Headed out west and started a band

But the whole thing fell apart

Now Jackie’s on the road

Lookin’ for a life

Bobby’s on the coast

Lookin’ for a wife

They both want something

They already have

Can’t see the forest for the trees

In their own backyard.


Tina is a girl

Who wants to be different

Stand out from the rest of the crowd

Pierced her nose

Dyed her hair green

Laughs just a little too loud

Mirror, mirror on the wall

who is the fairest of them all?

When she wonders

why her life is so hard

She’s missin’ it all

In her own backyard.


Johnny quit school

and joined the Army

Thought it would make him a man

Wasn’t very long, got into trouble

It didn’t work out like he planned

Now he’s over the hill

and on the run

Runnin’ down the highway

Johnny’s got a gun

Lookin’ for something he already had

Can’t see the forest for the trees

In his own backyard

I Used to Be a King

Lay Me Down

Lay me down

in a field of green

Feel the wind

upon my face

Like a friend

who can’t be seen

She is not bound

by time or space


Feel the earth

beneath my feet

Smell the air

after the rain

Like a song

that can’t be heard

She is not bound

by love or pain


In sleepless dreams

she plays for me

On strings of steel

and fire and stone

Like the wind

that must blow free

She is not bound

by flesh or bone

Morning Fog - End of March

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