Summer Solstice & Birthday Celebrations

June 20, 2015, Santa Monica, California

“Maybe one of the birthday boys would like to join me for my final song,” Joseph Eid said in feigned surprised as he gestured me to join him on stage.   Moments before his set, we had quickly rehearsed a song together in the parking garage of Studio Maesto in Santa Monica.

I had reached out to him the day before as I was very impressed by his acoustic rendition of Pink’s song, “Try” and suggested we try “Try” at the joint birthday celebration I was hosting with good friends Christian and Javon which also supported an arts program for at-risk kids.

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“It’s been years since I’ve sang in public, so bare with us…” I told the full audience of friends, family and brand partners gathered in the courtyard of the studio.

It was three summers ago at the start of the Summer Solstice on my 40th birthday when I last appeared on stage with a group of artists friends to release an album I co-wrote with my musical collaborator from Colombia, Juan Andres Lizarazo. That was for “The Universe in Me” from our band When Planets Align which we started in 2009, and was the reason for the launch of Planet LA Records, our self-made label.

In June 2012, we released our last album just as we were closing the office of Planet LA as my former business partner Ben and I struggled to find a sustainable business model to support emerging and global artists.  Since then, Planet LA has evolved into a marketing entity focused on brand relationships with Gibson Guitar, Whole Foods Market and its charitable arm Whole Planet Foundation, among a diverse mix of partners from City National Bank, Teas’ Tea, Original Penguin and Uber.

“When there is desire, there is gonna be a flame

Where there is a flame, someone’s bound to get burned…

I joined Joseph in the chorus of “Try” as most of the audience had never seen me perform live. Though, there were several steadfast friends including co-birthday boys Christian Rodrigo a talented actor from Spain and Javon Frazier a marketing guru previously at Marvel/Disney – who were there on that pivotal evening three years ago, when I wasn’t sure what I was “trying” to accomplish in the creative space or going to do from there.

Birthday2015-1Back then, artist friends Rebecca Sullivan and Nadine Ellman had also performed as they did three years later – and continued to stay engaged as Planet LA survived and evolved with a different focus after closing its label operations.

“But just because it burns, doesn’t mean you’re gonna die

You’ve gotta get up, and try try try…”

I sang the chorus several times with Joseph and percussionist Lucas, as the beat drove on, amplifying the professional and personal implications of the song.

Later that evening, as a surprise to our guests – several artists and our long-time producer Cartier Cutsinger and I announced a new project called “Lovers and Angels” a rock opera about L.A. Our composer Juan had returned to L.A. earlier in the year after a three-year absence to work on the project, just as I was getting settled again in a new place after years of being transient and “trying” to regain my sense of direction and balance.

The first song called “Summer Came Too Soon” is sung by Connie Lim, a talented solo artist. Juan wrote the catchy melody while I wrote the nostalgic lyrics, which is the trademark of our musical chemistry. I actually finished the song on February 14 upon writing to Juan’s melody, so decided it would be about love, of course.

We arranged for two dancers to interpret the song as part of the sneak-peek premiere. They swayed, and swept around the dance floor rhythmically in step with the opening verses:

“When Mercury is in retrograde, it’s time to appreciate and contemplate

As Venus glows, the moon slowly fades, the stars can guide the will of fate

When plump green jade begins to bloom, my luck accelerates maybe too soon

As seasons turn, perceptions can undo, as spring gushed forth, I met you…

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Then parted with the closing stanza:

Summer Solstice left me high and dry, like the receding Lunar tides

You came and went like constellations foretold

I learned from loss, you touched my soul…”

Here’s a preview:

 

I’ve always appreciated having a birthday at the start of the Summer Solstice, partly because of my fondness for the warm season and more so, for the bountiful possibilities of the longest day into night.

For me, life has always been about being able to savor every moment and realizing the potential of what actions may bring. Whether through professional ambition, creative drive or personal passion, I have been rewarded and humbled in my pursuits as “trying” in life or love can be wonderful, challenging and usually unpredictable.

But, “trying” and getting burned or learning from loss is often better than the “not trying” and missing out on the wonder of life’s upstarts, fits and flukes… whether on a long summer night celebrating birthdays and surprises, or throughout our impermanent and mercurial time on earth.

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Olympic Glory and Transformation: Beijing to London and L.A.

20 March 2001, Beijing, China

“… 2008 and the Olympic rings.  China is intent upon this sky high ambition.

A successful Olympic bid would crown the country’s integration into the world.

Of course, in the immediate term China has plans to join the WTO — which is one of the reasons for my first trip to Beijing.

With the dawn of Spring — the Temple of Heaven is a beacon in a sea of tranquility in the city which is no longer forbidden.

Though, I missed the opportunity to see the Forbidden City confines. 

Some things take time… MDN”

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The Olympics like the upcoming tournaments in London starting July 27, 2012, provide prominent cities like Beijing — the host of the previous games in 2008, and elite athletes the opportunity to make huge strides and sacrifices in pursuit of glory.

For a brief two weeks, these places, people and experiences can leave lasting records, impressions and legacies.

My visit to Beijing in Spring 2001 was on the eve of the ancient imperial capital being awarded the 2008 Games on July 14, 2001, and also its imminent membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO).  There was great anticipation in the air as many observers felt that momentum was in the city’s favor with the Olympics as well as China’s WTO membership (concluded on December 11, 2001) — would coincide with and were critical to China’s greater openness to the world.

Seven years later, Beijing and China rose to the occasion and staged a spectacular and memorable series of Olympic events.  Moreover, China has continued down the path towards greater economic liberalization as an active WTO Member.  Despite the persistent challenges, China has no doubt become a more prosperous, open and innovative country in the past decade.  London also won its Olympic bid on the premise that the Games would help transform and reinvigorate the fortunes of the city’s impoverished Eastern territory.

There is something about the feeling of “change in the air” — as will and vision are critical to realizing results and progress — whether as individual athletes and performers, collaborative teams and communities, or dynamic and forward-thinking cities and nations from Beijing to London.

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June 23, 2012, Los Angeles, California

“Today is a celebration of our common pursuit of a dream,” I said to the artists, family, friends and strangers gathered at Planet Dailies restaurant as I turned 40.

“Thank you for allowing me to share a part of the American dream over the past 37 years.  I came here with just this picture, my clothes and the hope that comes with new roots.”

I held up a signed poster — a reprint of a black and white picture of me which was one of the only items that my mother brought with us from Vietnam as we fled upon the fall of Saigon in  April 1975.

My mother was at the party along with my brother and sister-in-law, and it was actually her first time seeing me perform with my band.  My father couldn’t make it as he had to work on Saturday evenings, the same long and labor-intensive schedule six days a week.

“And thank you Mark for creating opportunities for artists,” Brent Michelle said as she introduced me and the ad hoc When Planets Align band (since my original band members Juan Lizarazo and David Lopez couldn’t make it from Bogota and New York City for the festivities).

The evening featured a lot of talented artists including Brent Michelle, who I met when she was Michelle Brent and was the most impressive performer among about two dozen at the first open mic evening where I played — at the Un-Urban Cafe in Santa Monica in December 2008, just as I was about to leave my corporate job and dive headlong in pursuit of a passion.

An array of other performers took the stage in the shadow of Hollywood as the California summer sun set on one of the longest days of the year.  Singer-songwriters Rebecca Sullivan, Julia Lucafo, Bryan Titus and Gianna Nguyen shared stories from their soulful hearts; duo performances came from global artists including Nadine Ellman and Jeremy Ferrick, and Maria Aceves and Martial Chaput; and leading songs from frontman Gabe Watson of Planet LA Records band Native June and frontwoman Julia Dettwiler of rock band Lunar Rogue, Elyse Haren of the self-titled group Elyse + The Aftermath, among others.

My “band” (being me and others who I’ve never performed with publicly before) was the last to go on as the evening also marked the release of our latest and possibly final album “The Universe in Me.”

Julia Dettwiler filled in for my original bandmate Jacqueline Van Bierk (who was in Nashville that weekend) and performed “Life’s Too Short” — one of the first songs I ever wrote, and probably the most inspirational of them all.

I played guitar and sang back-up vocals, including the rideout lyrics of “Life’s Too Short””

“The Universe is guiding me… Just let me be what I want to be… Yeah yeah yeah yeah!”

Then, took the microphone to sing two of our newly-released songs starting with “L.A. (I’ll Be Back Someday)”:

“City of Angels do I have a chance, for fame or fortune?

Shine my way, for just a passing glance, for a minute a moment…

Please remember me!”

And ending with a dedication to the late author Ray Bradbury — a champion of space exploration and pursuit of the grandest dreams — with the final song “Crush The Stars”:

“I had drifted across the globe, a grain of sand lifted by the sea

Escaping history in pursuit of hope, no roots bind or limit me…

Life sometimes moves in reverse, when we see beyond this earth

Across the ocean blue, futures can come true!”

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July 9, 2012, Los Angeles, California

“I’m glad I can help you complete this project,” my former UCLA Extension music production instructor Jeff Lewis said, “And great to hear you finished the program!”

“For you, the student rate is $90.  Maybe someday I’ll be able to afford health insurance… but we do what we love!” he said with a laugh.

Jeff had spent nearly three hours mastering the final songs on the album “The Universe in Me” as it wasn’t finished in time for the release party two weeks ago.  One of our producers Joshua “Cartier” Cutsinger who has received a Grammy nomination for his prior work, finalized the mixes on the remaining three songs in early July, which I then took with me to Moonlight Studios that sunny afternoon.

As Jeff finished what had involved nearly three years of production and producers, more than a dozen musicians, tens of thousands of dollars in costs and over three decades of life experiences — his words struck me.

“No health insurance.” — ditto.  “We do what we love.”  — check.

For most my life, going from an immigrant with just rags to a successful career as a globetrotter with near riches… I’ve created safety nets, pursued stable careers and built nest eggs.  Now, most of those securities are gone including health insurance, retirement funds and a steady job.

But, as an entrepreneur, creator and dreamer for over the past three years… I have done what I love, and held in my hand a simple, shiny disk of ten audio files that could well be my swan song to this pursuit of a musical legacy.

“Thanks Jeff!  It’s nice to be done… now we’ll see where this, or I go from here,” I said as I wrote him a check for $100 — which was a very reasonable amount for his effort, though felt much more precious in 2012 than it did when I started throwing money around in 2008.  I then ran off to meet a CD manufacturer to place a rush order in time for an important industry event this week.

As I left the studio, I checked my email and noticed a comment on my blog Mark39.com (which was now a misnomer given I was no longer thirty-something) — the first since my last posting and 40th chapter over two weeks ago on June 23.  Someone was still reading in cyberspace and from a far-flung place.

From “StephGlaser” (July 9, 2012):

“Mark, I love the concept of your blog and it is so inspirational to read. (I’m sad it’s ending…I hope there’s a sequel or new incarnation.) We dreamers need to support each other and I thank you for being the first person to like one of my posts (“Drinking Poop Coffee in Bali”).”

*  *  *

“You aren’t that young anymore… and have worked so hard and very late these days,” my mother said, as I returned to writing this blog after a two-week absence.

“Don’t let your future slip away,” she cautioned as she went to bed.

My mother worries a lot, like most loving and mildly doting mothers.  She has been very concerned about my financial health and well being (though is not aware of the lack of health insurance otherwise would really fret), and seems to lament the fact that I may or may not be around much longer, at least in the same household.

In the past two weeks, momentum has been building for one of those “critical juncture” moments… which I can feel in the air, and is getting closer each day.

On the one hand, Planet LA Records has closed its office as of June 30, but our business relationships are stronger than ever after three intense years of activity.  In fact, I recently initiated several meetings with senior and executive vice presidents at a major TV network and leading brands — to launch an innovative media platform to support artists.  It took three years of toil to build this kind of network and credibility, and these discussions are leading up to a make-or-break private event on July 12 at the Gibson Guitar showroom in Beverly Hills.  Many among our industry network plan to attend and will learn more about our future plans, and whether we have a future.

On the other hand, I have begun to reach out to my global affairs and corporate circles about possible new roles — whether they involve going back to my roots in Vietnam and Asia, familiar professional worlds in Washington D.C. or Geneva, or other places in or beyond L.A.  It would be ideal to utilize skill sets gained in both diplomacy and branded entertainment, but if I must return to the nuances and regulations of international trade law, then I am ready and willing.

Whatever the outcome, I have been inspired to write again… as this story and life as I know it didn’t end on June 23, 2012 with the expiration of Mark39.com.

Stay tuned and let the (Olympic) games begin!

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