A Conversation with Chick Corea
Mike Ragogna: How are you, Chick?
Chick Corea: I'm doing good.
MR: Hey, your new album, Forever, is a two-disc set, with the first disc being acoustic, and the second disc with a full band and guests. For the first disc, was this a return to Return To Forever?
CC: I don't know. The word "return" doesn't really apply to the music itself--it's just sort of a poetic title. I know what you mean, though, it's a return to my relationship with Stanley and Lenny, that's for sure. When we toured a lot in the '70s, and even when we did a couple of reunions, Stanley, Lenny and I would play some acoustic trio music. We always enjoyed that because that's the kind of heritage that we come from, musically. After we did the '08 tour, we decided that it would be a really cool idea to explore that a bit, and we did a bunch of concerts with the trio.
MR: That was your '09 tour, right?
CC: That's right, yeah.
MR: And from that, you culled the first disc, revisiting a lot of wonderful classics from Return To Forever. You do a version of "On Green Dolphin Street," "Señor Mouse," and "No Mystery." You have a reverence for that period that is more than just nostalgia.
CC: Oh, absolutely. The music of Miles and Coltrane, Horace Silver, Joe Henderson, Ornette Coleman, and Sonny Rollins--this is the music that Stanley and I both cut our teeth on. Stanley was also into the funk and blues side of things more than I was back then. Point in fact, when Stanley and I met, we met in Philadelphia on a Joe Henderson sextet gig in this little club. We played together for a week, and that's how we got to know each other.
MR: I was going ask that--what were the early days like?
CC: After Stanley and I met on Joe's gig, we took a real liking to one another, and the way we played together was fun. So, we began to put trios together and do some gigs, and the ideas just bounced around real quick. That led into the idea that I had come to New York to explore, which was to put a band together. So, I asked him to join me, and we finally ended up with Flora Purim, Airto Moreira and Joe Farrell, and that was the first version of Return To Forever.
MR: And that's the album Return To Forever, right?
CC: Yeah, that was the first recording on ECM--the one with the blue cover and the bird flying around.
MR: And then there was Light As A Feather and the progression of albums that came after that, but you had a couple of line-up changes along the way.
CC: Well, many actually--it was an evolving thing. Stanley was my partner through the whole thing, and he still is, but he was the one collaborator that remained. Without Stanley, I don't really consider Return To Forever to be--to be able to use the name, you know what I mean? That's why, for this new band that's coming out this summer, I'm giving it a number, so that it differentiates versions. That first version was version one, version two was the electric version with Billy Connors, Al Di Meola--actually in the second version, Steve Gadd was the first drummer, and then Lenny came on and took the chair over, and has been a great contributor to the band since then. The third version was short lived, but it was a lot of fun. During the third version, we released the album, Music Magic.
MR: When you moved from the Polydor to Columbia with Romantic Warrior, you had already established yourself as a great experimental jazz group, but it seems like when you got over to the new label, there was an elegance--you guys took on yet another persona.
CC: That was a good final recording to that quartet because all of the things that we had been working toward during the years we were touring and the several recordings that we did culminated in that one. A lot of work went into that one, and that recording was very well planned out, as far as the contribution of compositions. I think it was just a secondary thing--what record label it was on--it had more to do with it being our final effort.
MR: Now, on the second disc of Forever, that's the prep for Hollywood Bowl concert, right?
CC: Yeah, that's right. It's actually the rehearsal because the concert wasn't recorded. We rehearsed at Mad Hatter Studios, and had the luxury of having microphones and a recording studio as we were rehearsing, so we turned on the tape recorders.
MR: Mad Hatter is your favorite recording studio?
CC: My friends own and run it, and it's my favorite studio in the world.
MR: Yeah, it's a beautiful sounding studio. Now, on this rehearsal recording, you're running through "Captain Marvel," "Space Circus," and an amazing version of "500 Miles High," but you also have "Armando's Rhumba," which is from my favorite album by you, My Spanish Heart. Since you're seventeen Grammys into your career at this point--maybe even more by now--and you've got a catalog that is incredibly vast, it's got to be challenging to come up with a set list at this point, right?
CC: Well, I guess when you look at a website or list of recordings, tours and stuff, it might make your head swirl a little bit, but in fact, it's just one thing at a time. When I immerse myself in a project, I'm in it. Right now, I'm actually immersed in two projects--I'm recording my six movement piano concerto in New York in a couple of weeks, and then right on the heels of that, I'm going to dive into the seven concert Return To Forever tour. We'll have a week of rehearsals, but I'm preparing for that too. Each project that I do, that's the project I'm doing--it's great, and I'm in it totally. So, it's not like I'm doing all of these things at once.
MR: Getting back together with Bill Connors and having Chaka Khan and Jean-Luc Ponty prepping for the concert, what was the studio experience like?
CC: It was a lot of fun. Getting together with Billy Connors, for instance, who is beloved by all of us--Stanley, Lenny and all of us in the band--as the original guitarist in the band, and set a really wonderful sound for the band. So, he came back on after not having played with us for many years, and that was really exciting. Jean-Luc, whose family has played a lot through the years, but I've not done a project with Jean-Luc aside from him sitting in on the My Spanish Heart album, years ago. I love his performance, his violin sound, and his playing. Plus, he came from that growing era in the '70s, when all those bands were out on the road--he was playing with the Mahavishnu Orchestra--so we have a track together there, you know? Having him in the mix just added a lot of beautiful energy. Then, Chaka--we all love Chaka--she's just my favorite jazz singer living today. She's a little younger, so she's a Return To Forever fan too. She loved the idea of coming to join us to do some stuff.
MR: Chick, what advice do you have for new artists?
CC: You know, I occasionally get asked to give talks and do clinics or workshops, and I always answer that question that you just asked me with one very basic simplicity, which is what I try to encourage everybody in life to do. As it applies to music, my little piece of advice is for a person to be true to his own goals, and for him to think for himself--be his own judge. Also, be strong about what he loves, what he likes and what his own tastes are. That's not an easy thing to do in life, but it's very rewarding, and all of my heroes that I've ever been inspired by have done that. That's the one amazing thing that shines through--their strength of conviction, and courage to use their imagination and make it become real to others.
MR: Nice. You know, I always ask everyone I interview who has ever worked with Miles Davis this question--do you miss Miles?
CC: I do. We have photos of him around, and it was such a rich period of my life--not only the time I performed with him, which was a quick three years, but the run up to that. I was listening to his recordings since he was a young man playing with Charlie Parker, and I followed everything that he and his bands did through the years. So, Miles is a part of my life.
MR: Chick, I so appreciate you talking to me today. I want to wish you a lot of luck with the new album, Forever, and in all your other ventures.
CC: Well, thanks man. Come on by one of the shows we're doing.
Transcribed by Ryan Gaffney
A Conversation with Stanley Clarke
Mike Ragogna: Stanley how are you?
Stanley Clarke: I'm doing good. I'm out here in the hills of Topanga in California. It's a good day today.
MR: Nice. Stanley, gee, why is the album called Forever?
SC: Well, you know, obviously people know that we had a band called Return To Forever, but in a lot of ways, it's a metaphor for the relationship between me, Chick, and Lenny, and actually, it should go back even further than that. I met Chick back in 1969 or 1970, and we've been playing music on and off since then, but it's been a consistent connection, you know? Even the years that went by where we didn't actually appear on the stage or on a record together, there was surely a spiritual connection. Chick is, in a lot of ways, a musical brother to me. We've done a lot of things, a lot of records, and made a lot of music together, and I'm sure we'll do a lot more in the future.
MR: Well, it sounds as if no time was lost when you listen to this new album. How would you say it's different recording with these guys now as opposed to back when you first started together?
SC: The only difference, to be quite honest, is that our bodies are a little older. But I really know how to play with Chick and Lenny, you know? We have a kind of sixth sense where we always kind of know what the other one's going to do. I really know Chick very well as a musician and he knows me just as well, and Chick is the kind of musician that loves to keep the portals open. He's not the type who is introspective with his music, not that there's anything wrong with that, but he loves to communicate and I love that too. When I met Chick, we both recognized that about each other. I'm just very interested in the other musicians when I play with them. I'm very interested in what they're playing, as well as what I'm playing, but I'm really interested in the other guy because for some reason, the music is just better when there's a high interest on stage for the other players. When everybody does that, there's just this synergetic effect that's tremendous. There's just a lot of great energy onstage when we're together. That's what I like about it.
MR: How did you guys get together as a group?
SC: Well, it's a really interesting story. I was playing with a great saxophonist, Joe Henderson, in my hometown of Philadelphia, and our keyboardist couldn't make it. He told me he was bringing a guy down from New York to play keys for that week. I remember we were going to be playing at a club called The Blue Horizon. (laughs) Now, I had heard of Chick Corea--I think he had an album out at the time, and I knew that he played with Miles Davis after Herbie Hancock, but I didn't know much more about him. He came down, and to be quite honest, we kind of took over the stage that night. It was one of those things, you know? We really connected harmonically, emotionally, and spiritually. Then, later that night, we hung out and talked about music--we talked about music on a social level, we talked about life, so many things. We realized that we had a lot of things in common, and what's funny is that the backdrop of this whole conversation was this Coltrane record called Crescent. In a lot of ways, those were the seeds that were planted and became Return To Forever and the stuff that Chick and I did together. We had that conversation and then didn't get together until maybe a little over a year later. But that was a very powerful week in my life.
MR: The original sound was a little bit more acoustic and then it gets a little more electric, right?
SC: That's true. I mean, the first album was called Return To Forever and that was released on a German label called ECM. That was acoustic for the most part, but Chick always played electric piano, so there was always some sort of electronics going. And that configuration included the Brazilian musicians--Airto Moreira on percussion, and Flora Purim singing. That band went through two records--Return to Forever and Light As A Feather. Light As A Feather had "Spain" and some of those other really nice tunes on it. Then, we did one called Hymn Of The Seventh Galaxy and that was a complete shift for us. That record was heavily electric.
MR: Return To Forever's jazz-fusion.
SC: Yeah. We also had a personnel change and decided to get a guitar player. That's also when Lenny White joined the band because prior to that, Airto was playing drums, and that was a great time for us, because I grew listening to Coltrane followed immediately by a Jimi Hendrix record. I think many of the musicians that spearheaded fusion music had a lot of the same tastes as mine. It used to crack me up when I would see reviewers write that we weren't being honest with out music, when in actuality, we were being a little too honest, I think. We were playing music the way we grew up listening to it. It was a combination, you know? I listened to Jimi Hendrix, then Coltrane. Just the combination of those two together create something kind of strange and loud, but interesting. So, we actually started experimenting with electrical music and really, really enjoyed it. We loved the feeling of playing and being able to fill big spaces with our music. But at the same time, our music was very compositionally oriented, we spent a lot of time composing our songs. We also had something that separates jazz from most other forms of music--improvisation. So, we had the framework in our compositions, but we had the spirit of improvisation as well. Actually, we did a couple of records where we brought the acoustic element back in. That was a great time for us because it felt like we had come full circle. I think that was around the album No Mystery.
MR: I also feel like that same sound carried over to Romantic Warrior, do you agree?
SC: Yeah, absolutely. Because for me, there was some sort of culmination when we arrived at the Romantic Warrior album. That was our biggest selling record at the time. We weren't really looking for that, but it happened. A lot of people liked it. That was our best sounding record as well, very interesting music, and our acoustic music was just as significant as our electric music on that album. I think in the early days when we did Hymn Of The Seventh Galaxy, people didn't quite understand why we were playing electric music because they knew that I had played with Stan Getz, and Chick had played with Blue Mitchell and Miles Davis and Lenny had played with Jackie McLean. So, it was fair for reviewers to question why we played so much electric music. I understood that. Sometimes, I questioned that too, you know? But when you look at the whole history of most groups, they have an arc in their careers. Most serious musicians aren't just focusing on one of their records, they're modular, and moving forward. The beautiful thing that happened with this group is that we arrived at a point where if we played an acoustic tune like "Romantic Warrior," it was received with just as much enthusiasm as "Medieval Overture," which was completely an electric basher. That was really a great discovery and it still holds true today. I am really grateful for the group that we were able to start and help bring together all of the music that we loved to play. It was a real honest effort because we really put everything we had out there. It was really great. That was a tremendous ride.
MR: Now, before you guys came back as Corea, Cooke & White, you had another reunion project back in 2008, is that right?
SC: That's right.
MR: What was it like jumping back into the Return To Forever vibe?
SC: It was really exhilarating. It's funny because sometimes, you go through your career, and I don't want to say it gets dull, but you keep going and then it kind of stops. It's rare to be in a band where when you have a reunion, people get really excited about it. That was the case with our reunion tour in 2008. It was really, really well received. I'll never forget our first show in Austin. There was a guy who was about 65, because all of our fans are older, and I thought for sure he was going to get carried out in a gurney. He was just jumping around and going wild, and I'm sure he was at one of our concerts 30 years ago acting the same way. It was really a beautiful thing. When we got back together, it was much like any band that's broken up and then eventually gets back together, each guy kind of inching his way to the door, hesitant about the whole thing. Finally, you get in the door and realize that it's safe and you start playing. It was a lot like that. It was beautiful, though. It was nice to see Chick, Lenny, and Al again and be together on stage again.
MR: The first disc of this newest album Forever is a representation of that reunion.
SC: Yes, it is.
MR: Then comes disc two where you are back with Bill Connors, but you've also got guests like Chaka Khan, and Jean-Luc Ponty.
SC: Yeah, that was an interesting thing. Much of that record happened, kind of, by accident. We went in and rehearsed at a studio that we worked at for many years and they are just always set up to record, so we were rehearsing a lot of stuff and getting ready to play at the Hollywood Bowl when Chick thought it would be a good idea to get our original guitar player, Bill Connors, to come back and pick up his axe again and rehearse with us. So, as we are rehearsing, one of us has the idea to have Jean-Luc come in from Paris, and Chaka is an old friend of mine, so she said she would come in and sing. So, we have all of these great people together in the studio and we were just recording it to listen to it later when Lenny, who is also a great producer, decided that we should listen to a bit of the recording to see what we had. As we listened to it, we realized that it sounded great and really polished. At that time, we were right at the end of our acoustic tour and we were planning to come out with just the trio record and that was it. Then, Lenny and Chick thought it would be a great idea to expand the album and include some of the stuff we recorded in rehearsal because it sounded really good. We even had tunes on there that were only partial tunes that were cut short because it was time for a break or the food arrived or something, and we almost included those because they sounded so good. (laughs) It was a nice thing, Lenny did a great job of putting it together.
MR: It's hard to believe after listening to the prep recordings that they weren't intended to be part of the album.
SC: Yeah, it's pretty great. Let's put it this way--everyone was plugged in and all of the information was going to some sort of recording source with the intention of just having it. But Lenny is very smart with recordings, and has a very interesting way of looking at music so he was elected to go out to California to put it all together, and he periodically sent things to Chick and I to listen to and we think it turned out great.
MR: Now, you also have that Stanley Clarke original on Forever entitled "La Cancion De Sofia."
SC: That's actually an old song that I wrote a long time ago, but I don't think I ever recorded it. It's a song to Sofia, my wife, who if from Chile. That's why the title is in Spanish.
MR: That's beautiful. Now, I'm such a fan of your solo albums School Days, Journey To Love, and Stanley Clarke. When you look back at that body of work, what thoughts come to mind?
SC: You know, we were so lucky. We were, again, musicians who loved playing a lot of different things, you know? We weren't just bee-bop musicians or rock musicians or funk musicians, we were a composite of a bunch of things. Those first few albums, for me, were at a time when we were spearheading this new kind of music. I think now, they've labeled it fusion, but actually, back then they called it jazz-rock, which is pretty much what it was--jazz with rock influences. It was really a great time. The record companies really embraced what we did. I think the best thing for me is to look back and know that I was a part of a really successful movement in the world of music. At the time, I think the big bands out there were the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Weather Report, and of course others. It was a great time in music that emerged from yet another great time in music. I mean, Miles Davis was kind of the grandfather of all of this stuff. Out of him came a lot of people who went on to make groups. The early '70s was a really powerful time in music. That's the thing I liked about it...you could feel it, it was something new. I also liked the fact that some people liked it and some people didn't. It forced people to decide something about it, which is important. There's a lot of music that you can hear and you just hear it, and that's not because the music is bad or insignificant, it's just the way it is. Then, there's some music that you hear that makes you decide whether you like it or not, whether it was our music or The Clash. (laughs) There was so much music emerging that was controversial and right outside the box, and that made me so happy to be one of those guys. I used to like it when jazz critics weren't sure about my music because it made me think I was doing something right. (laughs)
MR: Then, years later, there was Pee Wee's Playhouse.
SC: Yeah! That was another thing that came about by accident. I was actually playing on a TV special that Barry Manilow had put together, which was some sort of jazz special. Then the director, Steve Binder, told me that he directed a Saturday morning kid's show and that they did special episodes on all sorts of things and wanted to introduce a little more sophisticated music, so he asked me if I would do it and I agreed though I had never really thought much about doing music for TV and Film because the only music that I really noticed in that genre was the James Bond music. (laughs) I got the new computer software for music at the time and went to work. The thing that was funny about that experience was that I got a Daytime Emmy nomination, and I wasn't really sure what an Emmy was at the time. I didn't really watch much television, so I had no clue. Then, all of a sudden, I started getting calls from agents asking if I would score movies, so I became a film composer, and 50 films and a couple hundred television shows later, here I am. (laughs) It's just something that I do on the side that I really love doing. I love the directors and the writers...very interesting people.
MR: Which of those movies became your favorites to work on?
SC: I saw one movie the other day that I scored, The Transporter, and I really like that one. I also like What's Love Got To Do With It: The Tina Turner Story, and I love every film that I did for John Singleton. I like those because they were all groundbreaking films, especially Boyz In The Hood. That movie was finally something to give America a glimpse into an urban neighborhood and the plight of an African-American male growing up there. It was a really good film for that reason, and I was really happy to be a part of it. I do love going to the movies and hearing the scores, but it's hard because I've done so many and sometimes, all I can hear is mistakes or things I would change. The films that I can get into and really just let myself focus on just the movie are the mindless action flicks, you know, where there's nine-million guys fighting and stuff is blowing up. (laughs) My wife hates it, but I love it. I did do a film, not to say that this one is mindless, but it's called Romeo Must Die with Jet Li, and I really liked that one. I got a great compliment from Jet, too. He said, "The Chinese music was good. Very good." (laughs) I dug that.
MR: Nice. What advice do you have for new artists?
SC: You know, the main advice that I have for young people is not to let their instruments define them - you really have to think in terms of being a full musician. You play the guitar? Great. But you also have to learn how to compose and how to read music and to produce. Right now is the greatest time to be a musician because of all of the technology. I mean, I know a lot of people are skeptical about a lot of what technology can do in music, but the great ones will still rise to the top. It just takes time. It's just a great time to make things out there and a great musician should embrace all of the new opportunities and tools given to them. You shouldn't be afraid. Just organize your music and try to put a lot of things together because at the end of your study, you prove yourself with an abundance of abilities. It's just such a great time to be a musician, I think.
MR: That's very wise. Stanley, thanks for taking time out of your schedule for this interview.
SC: Thanks, Mike. We'll be around throughout this year, so I want to encourage all the readers and listeners to keep an eye on us and come check us out if we're in your city.
Transcribed by Evan Tyrone Martin
1. On Green Dolphin Street
2. Waltz For Debby
3. Bud Powell
4. La Canción De Sophia
7. No Mystery
8. Señor Mouse
1. Captain Marvel
2. Señor Mouse
4. Armando's Rhumba
6. High Wire - The Aerialist
7. I Loves You Porgy
8. After The Cosmic Rain
9. Space Circus
10. 500 Miles High
A Conversation with John Common
Mike Ragogna: John, you just released your new album, Beautiful Empty. What was the creative process like?
John Common: I started thinking about what eventually became Beautiful Empty on a flight to Prague in late November of 2007. I ended up hotel-hopping and walking around that very old town by myself in the snow for about a month and then came back to Denver and started the process that ended up turning into the record. I wanted to start exploring a different direction for me, away from electric guitar-driven, indie/alt/whatever rock and more toward...toward something that breathed more, something that used orchestral sounds and arrangements instead of blunt force guitar trauma. And something with a lot more vocal harmonies. Less head, more heart.
So, when I came back from Prague, I collected about 35 songs that seemed to enjoy one another's company and started looking for a new band. Miles Davis used to compliment a great player by saying, "He's a motherf**ker," so I recruited a bunch of motherf**kers for my new band from Colorado's indie music scene. Everyone is ridiculously talented. I was standing outside a venue waiting to play one of our first shows and came up with the name "Blinding Flashes of Light" as a more polite way to say "John Common and His Motherf**kers."
MR: Who are these Motherf**kers?
JC: Here's the current lineup:
Jess DeNicola - backing vocals
Daren Hahn - drums Wes Michaels - cello, saxophone
Adam Revel - piano, Rhodes, organ, samples
Casey Sidwell - bass
John Common - vocals, guitars, piano, songs
Various other friends - various other things
MR: What was your goal with the new album?
JC: I wanted it to sound like musical conversation, I wanted it to sound like it was recorded in wooden rooms. I wanted it to be the kind of record you could listen to on a snowy Sunday morning or on a late night drive between two towns, or while you cut vegetables in the kitchen...the kind of record that immediately affects you, but unfolds the more you listen. It makes me irrationally happy when I hear a new fan write us and say how the record just keeps sticking with them. We hear it all the time. Life is good.
MR: How do you come up with the arrangements?
JC: We toss the song into the deep end of the pool and make it splash around and save itself. Our rehearsals are brutal. Poor little songs. It's very Darwinian.
MR: Are there any songs on this project whose genesis were unusual or particularly special to you?
JC: Everyone one of them are emotionally true but biographically ambiguous. Most were written while holding a guitar, sitting in front of a piano, scribbling on the back of an envelope or gas receipt, and singing into a sh**ty tape recorder.
MR: What's going on with Denver's music scene these days?
JC: Colorado's music scene is completely blowing up. I'm going to avoid doing the name-dropping thing, but if you want to get a sense of some of the amazing art/music being made in these parts, check out TheFlatResponse.com, goDonnybrook.com, Westword.com, avclub.com/denver and DenverPost.com/Reverb.
MR: How entrenched are you in it and do you find yourself trying to further its success.
JC: I think a music scene is a result of a bunch of unplanned intersections of people and ideas, I'm not sure you can engineer it. It works best as a self-reinforcing, happy accident. So, the best way to make a scene happen, grow, and evolve is to just make great music/art and connect with fans. Art inspires more art.
One thing that's really important to me is connecting with artists of all different levels from other mediums and genres. It's been a big theme running through the past couple of years, and it's very tied in to our new record, Beautiful Empty. Here's a short list of some of the creative collaborations we've done: http://www.avclub.com/denver/articles/john-common-gets-collaborative-again-at-tedxdu,55938/
MR: Who were your musical influences?
JC: Hmmm... I come from a really creative family. My mother is a musician. My father is a singer. My oldest brother Scott is a musician, songwriter, and a fantastic storyteller and writer. My older brother Bruce is a visual artist. None of them are "professional" artists or musicians, so if they were here right now, they'd be saying very humble things. But the truth is, I grew up in a very expressive, creative family.
Music and writing both came to me early. I started playing music when my mother insisted that I take piano lessons at an early age. I was good at it, even though I didn't particularly enjoy playing other people's music--fitting into that box. I came to songwriting because I've just always loved language and writing. Even as a little kid, I used to peck out stories and ideas on my mother's old manual typewriter--the same one on the cover of Beautiful Empty, actually. One of my favorite books to read growing up, and still, to this day, was the dictionary. Kind of embarrassing but true. But I've always idolized authors and poets.
Then I saw my brother Scott playing acoustic guitar and singing songs that he loved, mostly Neil Young songs. When he joined the Navy and went off to boot camp and his tour of duty, I essentially broke into his room and stole his Neil Young guitar tab/lyric books--Decade, if I recall--and his Epiphone acoustic guitar. I taught myself to play by learning the songs my older brothers loved on his guitar.
Both of my brothers' record collections, and to some extent, my father's too, left a pretty big imprint on me--Neil Young, The Beatles, The Cars, Lynyrd Skynyrd, KISS, James Taylor, Dylan, Frank Sinatra...Dad's favorite, Genesis, Jackson Browne, The Doors.
Then, when I started listening to my own music, I listened to a lot of Velvet Underground, more Dylan, more Beatles, really early R.E.M., Jason and the Scorchers, The Replacements, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Daniel Lanois, Steve Earle...
And then, I got into '50s and '60s jazz--Miles, Mingus, Blakey, Evans, Monk, Coltrane, Coleman, Chet, Vaughan, Fitzgerald, Holiday--that really changed how I think about song structure and melody and phrasing.
The thread running through all of it was the song. I'm still endlessly fascinated by songs. It didn't take long before it dawned on me that I could write, perform, and sing my own songs, so I did.
MR: You've been honored with quite a few awards between 2006 and 2011. Are there any that surprised you when you were told you won them, and which do you consider your favorite of the batch?
JC: I think they're all pretty cool. I mean, it's nice to be noticed.
MR: What are you working on and what's happening in your musical world lately?
JC: We're about to go tour the U.S. this Summer and Fall. It's our first time to a lot of these towns, so we're really excited to get out there and play our music for everyone who will listen. It's going to be a blast. I mean, a really uncomfortable, cramped, low-paying blast filled with a lot of time in the van. I'm already preparing myself mentally for months and months of urban camping. It's all about lowering your expectations for creature comforts. I mean, if you expect to basically be homeless, penniless and friendless, then touring looks like a huge step up.
I'm always writing, of course. It scares me a little to think about it sometimes, actually, because I think there is a responsibility that comes with this stuff. Songs happen, and they start working their way into your head and your heart and your rehearsals and maybe even your live set. Then, they clump together and start acting like a gang, and then the gang starts walking around like a record. And the gangs is kind of cool and it makes you wonder, "What if that gang ran the world for a little while?" and then, the next thing you know, you're trying to find the money to make the record. And then you realize the record was right. It has a special thing, a personality and a voice, and it wants to go meet people. So, you have to go introduce it to your friends, take it out on a date, buy it drinks and dinner.
It's a slippery slope, man. It's happened to me a bunch of times, and it always starts out as this innocent little baby of an idea for a song. So, I get nervous around babies...and blank sheets of paper.
MR: Any advice for new artists?
JC: Do things that make you feel uncomfortable. Learn to sing with your real voice. Be kind to everyone around you--remember what you make them endure. And write a lot.
1. Can You Hear Me
2. Same Scar
3. Wide Open World
4. Go To Hell (With Me)
5. In My Neighborhood
7. Walter Whitman
8. Love is a Shark
9. Build Me A Crown
10. The Man Who Could
Dr. Anthony Youn's recently published memoir, In Stitches, is a sometimes funny, sometimes painful, sometimes heart-warming recount of his experiences on the road to becoming a doctor. Youn is a world-renowned plastic surgeon who makes regular appearances on shows like Rachael Ray and The CBS Early Show, and Publisher's Weekly says this about the book: "Youn's description of his journey from high school outcast to rock star plastic surgeon is full of fascinating stories and laced with self-deprecating humor in the midst of dark desperation, providing a refreshing insight into medicine."
The book has a coming-of-age element to it as we discover early on that one of the experiences that serves as a pre-cursor to Youn heading in the direction of plastic surgery is his ever-growing jaw that needs to be broken and reset the summer after he graduates from high school. A Scrubs-meets-David Sedaris type of storyline ensues, and we follow the doctor to college where he's pre-med, but cannot get a date to save his life. We get glimpses into his relationship with his family, specifically his father, who is a stern Korean dad, deciding when Youn is two days old that he will grow up to be a doctor. With Father's Day approaching, I talked with Dr. Youn about the book, heath care, and his father.
A Conversation with Author Dr. Tony Youn
Mike Ragogna: Tony, what drove you to write In Stitches?
Dr. Tony Youn: First time out, I decided to shoot for the stars. I set out to write the definitive book about growing up Asian-American, going through four years of medical school--all true, unadulterated, unfiltered, behind the scenes, warts and all--and becoming a doctor. I think, ultimately, In Stitches represents real life. Real life can be laugh-out-loud funny, shocking, heart-breaking, and heart-warming, that's what I wanted In Stitches to be. I'm gratified by what readers and reviewers have said so far, they've called it "disarming," "fast-paced," "hilarious," and "touching." I'm very pleased and humbled by these descriptions because that's what I was going for.
MR: Congratulations. How much did your childhood challenges with your jaw influence you to choose plastic surgery as your profession?
TY: I grew up one of two Asian-American kids in a small town of near wall-to-wall whiteness. But while I looked different from the kids around me, inside, I felt I was just like them, an American. Other Asians would call me "Twinkie" or "Banana"--yellow on the outside, white on the inside. Once I reached high school, I became too tall, too thin, I wore thick Coke-bottle glasses, braces and a stereotypical Asian bowl-cut hairdo. Then, to my horror, I watched helplessly as my jaw began to grow, expanding Pinocchio-like, protruding to an unthinkable, monstrous size. Surprisingly, I couldn't get a girl to show any interest in me until the end of my senior year in high school.
Now that I'm a plastic surgeon, I have tremendous empathy for my patients, especially those with any sort of deformity, because of what I went through with my jaw. I know how self-conscious they feel. I've been surprised how many of my patients have read my book and told me how they related to my horrible "Summer of the Jaw."
MR: How do you think having such a stern father played into your approaching life's challenges with humor?
TY: Like many Asian-Americans, I had a Tiger Father. My dad grew up on a small rice farm in rural Korea, my grandparents put away every nickel they could to send my father to medical school. The hopes of his entire family--all six of his siblings--rested on him becoming a successful doctor and sending most of his earnings back to Korea. Incredibly, like many first generation immigrants, he was able to live the American dream. Unfortunately, all he knew were two extremes, being dirt poor in Korea and being a wealthy doctor in America--nothing in between. That's why the day I was born, he decided I would be a doctor, too--probably before I was born. He feared that if I became anything else, I would end up living in the kind of poverty he'd worked so hard to escape.
Because my father was so strict, so tyrannical, and so controlling, if I didn't try to see his humorous side, I would have ended up bitter and depressed. Besides, how could anyone not see humor in a father who says, "You want to be a pediatrician? Little people, little dollah! Spend all day giving suckers to little babies!" If I didn't laugh, I would have cried.
MR: Your father is definitely a huge part of the story and, obviously your life. Can you share, perhaps, another story about him, one that wasn't in the book?
TY: For twenty years, my dad was the only Ob Gyn in my hometown of Greenville, a tiny Michigan town. During his career, he delivered virtually an entire generation of children. He always took pride in the fact that he was never sued. He would often tell me, with a gleam in his eye, "Daddy's patients all trust and appreciate Daddy. If you work hard and are always available for your patients and do the best you can, your patients will not sue you. Daddy has worked 20 years in the most litigious field of medicine and has never been sued. Not once. Daddy is so proud of that."
Less than a year before his retirement, the hospital began to post congratulatory messages and notices that my dad was going to retire after a long and distinguished career. Suddenly, boom, boom, boom. Three lawsuits came out of nowhere. I don't know the specifics of those cases, but I do know that none of them ever went to court. I suspect they had to do with opportunists figuring out that my dad had saved up a nest egg for his retirement and that he was fair game.
These lawsuits devastated my father. The once proud first generation Korean immigrant who toiled in the field and in the operating room, who saved countless patients' lives and the lives of their babies, for the first time, questioned his legacy and career. Even worse, he questioned himself. During the time of those lawsuits, I remember seeing the pain in his eyes as he walked down the hallway in our house in the evening before he went off to bed. The gleam in his eye was gone.
MR: What has your father's reaction been to the book?
TY: Ever since writing In Stitches, I've dreaded showing it to my parents--especially my father--because I knew I had been honest and pulled no punches. I showed the way he really was. I was afraid that he would be angry with me over stories that were funny. For example, his real name is Suck Youn Youn. While this is awkward, at least he wasn't stuck with my uncle's unfortunate handle--Suck Bum Youn. I was also concerned about stories that showed his sensitive side such as the one in which I describe him weeping in front of me while my mother underwent a dangerous medical procedure.
So, I waited. And waited. One week before the book's release date, I mailed two copies to my parents. My mom read it immediately. After she finished it, she cried for two days. She told me that she was sad that their strict style of Asian parenting created so many difficulties for her children. She also told me that she was afraid of my dad reading it.
My dad did finally read it. I didn't hear from him for days. I was a wreck. I bit my nails and cuticles down to bleeding stumps. Finally, he called me. He told me he loved it and was proud of me.
MR: What's your relationship with your brother like now?
TY: My brother Mike and I are very, very close. Unlike me, he had the inner strength and determination to stand up to my parents and choose his own path in life. Although he, too, was anointed "Doctor" at birth, he figured out early on that medicine was not right for him. After many arguments and turmoil, he broke free of my parents' expectations and discovered his true calling. He is now an extremely successful executive in Hollywood. I admire my brother very much. As a kid, I looked up to him. I still do.
MR: How wild did dorm life/campus life get, and how adversely did your alcohol intake affect your life and studies during med school?
TY: Med students have a reputation--we party like rap stars and drink like Irish poets. Uh, no. False. We like to think we party hard. We attempt to portray ourselves as debauched, out-of-control frat boys with stethoscopes. We're not. No matter how we appear or act, even if we're great-looking and smooth, we are, at our core, nerds and lightweights. Sure, I can think of a few exceptions. They all become orthopedic surgeons.
In medical school, I drank only the night after a big exam. That's it, and usually three Bud Lights would do the trick. I'd combine these with a tasty McRib sandwich, and then hope I didn't yack into the Red Cedar River on the way home. The next day, it was back to classes and regretting the night before.
MR: (laughs) How close are you to your fellow students, especially those that you lived with during school?
TY: I'm still really close to my gang of friends, especially my roommates from the house on Flower Street. We're all practicing physicians now. We recently got together with our wives to see Rock of Ages, except for Ricky. He lives on the East Coast with his partner and enjoys a much more exciting life than the rest of us. He's probably the only one of the four of us who still hangs out at the bar until closing time. The rest of us pass out by eleven and get awakened by our children five hours later.
MR: Would you have them perform any procedures on you knowing them as well as you do?
TY: Heck, no! We practiced giving each other shots in medical school, but that's where it ended. Tim is now a psychiatrist. He wouldn't know which end of the needle to use. In med school, his manual dexterity was so poor he couldn't tie his shoes properly. If he had to perform an actual procedure on me today, I'd be afraid my stitches would come undone and my guts would fall out all over the sidewalk. James is a successful primary care physician who also happens to be my doctor. While I think he's a fantastic doctor, I still won't let him do a hernia check (turn and cough) on me. It would be too weird. I guess I'd let Ricky--he's a pediatrician--look in my ears, as long as he didn't have something sharp in his hands.
MR: (laughs) Same kind of question, did you have any teachers/doctors who you are grateful never performed any procedures on you?
TY: In the summer between my high school and college years, I had major plastic surgery to break my jaw and reset it. It hurt beyond all imagination. We're talking Guantanamo-type pain. I would've given away state secrets, ratted out friends, and handed over my dad's checking account numbers. After having this surgery performed, I've sworn off having anything else. Seeing as the majority of my teachers were plastic surgeons, plus the fact that I'm only 38 years old, I don't think there are a lot of procedures that would apply to me anyway. I don't think I'd look good with Lindsay Lohan-style fish lips or a pair of breast implants.
MR: What about the health industry? Do you feel it needs a little surgery or something even more invasive?
TY: The entire health industry is a mess. Not enough people have access to care, the care they receive is too expensive, insurance companies find loopholes to avoid paying, and malpractice liability is astronomical. Doctors and nurses are becoming more and more disenchanted with the whole system. There really isn't an easy solution. Should we ration care to those who need it most? Should we refuse expensive tests and treatments on those with little chance of survival? The real solution probably includes a combination of electronic medical records, health insurance policy changes, malpractice liability reform, and some form of rationing. I wish I had the answer.
MR: Of your three phases--shy, nerdy kid, overly-expressive med student, and successful plastic surgeon--which is the one you secretly identify with the most to this day?
TY: Believe it or not, I still see myself as a skinny, nerdy kid with big glasses, bad hair, and a cartoon jaw. Although I'm more confident today, there will always be a part of me that identifies with the kid who had low self-esteem, couldn't find a date, and spent a lot of time alone, especially during college. Yep, I couldn't find a date in college. Not one. I went zero for four years, a record that will last longer than Joe DiMaggio's consecutive game hitting streak.
I think a large percentage of the population has felt like an outsider at one point in their lives. For me, this was mainly caused by the color of my skin and my off-the-wall interests. For others, their outsider status may be due to gender, sexual preference, body shape, or religion. My hope is that anyone who has ever felt like an outsider can identify with In Stitches.
MR: What's your advice for students about to enter the medical field?
TY: When you are done with work, do things you enjoy. Find moments of happiness each day. I think the turtle in Kung Fu Panda said it best. "Today is the present, and that's why it's a gift."
MR: Tony, this has been fun, thanks for your time and all the best with the book.
TY: Thanks so much.