“Keep away from those who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you believe that you too can become great.”
Mark Twain to
Gay Zenola MacLaren
I was originally going to title this piece My Relationship With Sara Niemietz, but the word relationship is too often misunderstood to imply a more intimate connection, and I didn’t wish to mislead anyone. I have no such relationship with her. I thought of changing With to To, but that sounds like the relationship I have To the keyboard on which I’m writing or To the chair on which I’m sitting, and that seems rather cold. I don’t wish to sound that way either.
I thought a bit about how I know her, and I find that instructive to me, and I suspect it might be interesting to you if you like Music, or poker, or stories of wildly unlikely circumstances that change one’s life. Those things I can deliver for you.
Who is Sara Niemietz?
She’s the most popular singer of whom you’ve never heard. She’s utterly independent, and her music is unique. It can be called many things. There are elements of jazz, pop, blues, and even a bit of dance to be heard in it. She’s the most well known artist in the group Postmodern Jukebox. Her videos have millions of views. She’s just a very quiet, unassuming genius.
Well, how DO you know Sara Niemietz?
To answer that, you have to go back to 1988, before she was even born. That was when I first saw The Wonder Years. If you’ve never seen it, the show is about a young boy growing up in the 1960s, and it is told in first person from the point of view of the protagonist, 25 or so years later. The Narrator is the Adult Kevin Arnold telling us about his childhood. Particularly in its first few seasons, it was a brilliant show. I watched it religiously. And it changed not just my writing style, but it moved me toward writing about my own childhood from the same era.
One of the most powerful aspects of the show was its music. The theme, by Joe Cocker, “A Little Help From My Friends,” was fine, and popular. Everyone loved it. And I didn’t care nearly as much about that as I did the way the music felt behind the dialogue. The music helped me to feel the words. It snuck inside of me, and it guided my heart in the direction the writers intended it to go.
A few years later, I’ll Fly Away, arguably the greatest series ever on network television, arrived. The music in that show was also properly applied. There are scenes I have never seen with clear eyes. The music sees to that.
And then in 1999, we had The West Wing. The show was incredibly popular, and the writing is beyond compare.
What does all this have to do with Sara Niemietz?
He was the genius behind the music that had moved me so deeply. His work was hard to find. He appeared now and then on a Christmas CD for Windham Hill or something, and he did finally release a CD of his own called Music By… but that was about it.
Snuffy Walden was my musical hero. He has been for over 3 decades.
Fast forward to 2015.
I begin playing Facebook Poker. I get to be good at it.
And one night I play a particularly rare and interesting hand. I’m told that technology exists that would have allowed me to record the hand, but if it did, I didn’t have it, and if I would have had it, I wouldn’t have known I was about to experience a life changing moment that I would love to have recorded.
I played against an opponent whose icon was an older man playing a guitar. He was an amazing player. He was, in fact, the first player I had seen in a long time who was better than I was, so I began to pay attention.
We started talking in the little Poker Chat. I told him how impressed I was with his performance, and he was equally impressed with my play.
After a few minutes I mentioned he shared a name (Snuffy) with one of my favorite composers, a guy named W.G. Snuffy Walden. And he told me that was him.
I had just met someone who had been my hero for nearly 30 years. It was unbelievable.
And we talked and played, and played and talked. And soon enough, we became friends on Facebook.
A few months into it, he mentioned he had a band called Babylon Social Club that would be playing in California over Thanksgiving. He suggested I come out from Arizona to see them. I not only got to know my hero over messages on Facebook; I was going to get to meet him. This was unbelievable.
I borrowed $500 from one of those neon sign loan places, at about 239% interest, which was a financially stupid thing to do, but I couldn’t possibly have cared less. I was going to California to meet my hero. And I did.
I got a room at the hotel at which they were playing, Westlake Village Inn. I got there the night before they were going to play because I wanted to be well rested so I could enjoy the moment as much as humanly possible. And I got to the venue, a place called Bogie’s, a good hour before the band was scheduled to start. I wanted to make sure I got the best seat in the house.
And in a little while, in walked a man whose music had brought me to tears and sent me into pure Joy more times than I could count. He recognized me from my Facebook pictures. And he came and gave me a hug. He bought me a beer. We talked a few minutes, and he had to go set up. I was floating in the air.
In our conversations on Facebook, he had mentioned that he had been mentoring a young singer. He had even sent me one of her videos. I looked at it, but I didn’t pay much attention. I was distracted by life. It was just a video.
And then, she took the stage. And when she sang, I was completely overwhelmed. Her voice owned the room. The venue was packed to the gills, but it was utterly silent when this band played, and when they finished, the bar erupted with deafening applause. Who the hell was this girl?? I had never heard anything like her.
Everyone in the band was a significant musician, recorded on albums with artists like Kenny Loggins, Tower of Power, and Bonnie Raitt. This wasn’t some cover band from Phoenix. This was a group of professional musicians playing at their prime in a small intimate venue, and I was right up front to hear and experience every blissful note. I felt like my father, listening to Miles Davis in a smoke filled bar before I was even a twinkle in Dad’s eye.
By the end of the evening, I was emotionally exhausted, and I was floating in catharsis. Snuffy introduced me to everyone in the band, including Sara Niemietz, and her mother, Cheryl. I wanted Sara’s CDs. She had two out, by then, and Cheryl had them both for sale. Fountain and Vine was the latest. Push Play had been released earlier. I bought them both, and Sara and Snuffy autographed them for me. I took pictures with them. And I was the luckiest man on the planet.
Because one believes in oneself, one doesn’t try to convince others. Because one is content with oneself, one doesn’t need others’ approval. Because one accepts oneself, the whole world accepts him or her. – Lao Tzu
When I met Sara Niemietz, she behaved precisely as though she were an ordinary person. There was no barrier of Greatness, as one might expect. I was talking to someone infinitely more talented, more successful, more famous, and quite possibly more intelligent than I will ever be. And that made no difference to her. She was just Sara. She was just a young woman, just the same as someone to whom you might say hello in the grocery store. It was almost as though both she and Snuffy were entirely unaware that they inhabited a part of the universe to which we mere mortals have no access.
I saw them again after I had quit teaching. After a time, Sara knew I was pursuing my hopes of writing a successful screenplay. I bought myself a little blank book somewhere in LA, and I used it as something to have Sara and Snuffy sign. And she quoted one of her songs in her autograph. “Find that dream!”
Snuffy and Sara create Art that reaches tens of millions and touches most of them. They do this without pretense. They do it without a sense of superiority.
I create Art that reaches hundreds and touches dozens. It’s just me sitting on my Front Porch.
The Beatles weren’t particularly great musicians. Their singing was average. Neal Peart is never going to be made nervous by Ringo Starr. But, the songs they wrote were unbelievably good. They are so much a part of the world that it’s now impossible to imagine a universe in which “Yesterday” doesn’t exist. It’s as basic to Music as “Over The Rainbow” or “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring.” It simply has to be.
Sara Niemietz is a demonstrably better singer than Paul McCartney or John Lennon. But, she could never write “Imagine.” And that was how I felt about her work when I first heard it.
It’s grown on me to the point that I can’t remember a time I didn’t have it inside me. It’s as though it was always there, right between The White Album and Aja. The songs which seemed like light pop became more profound when I listened more carefully to “On Your Way.”
When the clock strikes twelve
When they’ve gone away
When you’re all alone with nothing left to say
When you walk upstairs
And you comb your hair
And you get ready to go on your way
To go on your way
They’re all simple images. But, when you put them with Snuffy Walden’s delicate piano that is so adept at opening musical passages into the soul through which words can pass to touch places in us that we didn’t know we had, and Sara’s understated, heartfelt performance, they take on a cumulative effect. It felt as though a girl half my age had written a song about my life from a time before she was born. She touched something both personal and universal. It feels as though it must be about me. It feels as though this happened. That’s the value of Art.
Whether it’s music, or painting, or literature, or film, or dance, or television, it can answer questions we’ve never been brave enough to ask ourselves. It puts us through the experience we need. Through Art, we’ve all been in the court room with Tom Robinson and Atticus Finch. We’ve all made him an offer he can’t refuse. We’ve all figured out that we can’t always get what we want… but if we try sometime, we might find, we get what we need. Its unifying feature is that it feels as though it was just for each of us.
The music of a girl half my age asks, and sometimes, but not always, answers questions I have never allowed myself to consider. It does it with words joined with a melody that allows the soul to feel that universal connection. It is as spiritual as it is musical.//