Dec 31st 2014

Rock Docs

by Glen Roven

Glen Roven, Emmy Award winner, is a composer, lyricist, conductor, pianist, translator and CD Producer.

What do James Taylor and The Beatles have in common with the Head of the National Institute of Health? Quite a bit, I recently found out when I was hired by legendary financier and philanthropist Michael Milken as Musical Director for a concert during the Celebration of Science, a major event in Washington, D.C.

The Celebration was a three-day gathering of the world’s most brilliant and influential medical researchers and public officials, members of Congress and heads of universities. In panels and talks, they gathered to share ideas and deliver the message that America should recommit itself to bioscience.

On the Saturday night of the Celebration, there would be a Kennedy Center event featuring patient stories, talks by political leaders and performances by Kenny Edmonds, Stevie Nicks and Melissa Manchester. I would arrange, conduct and produce the music for the live event and the subsequent TV broadcast.

At an early meeting Mike told me his idea (every show Milken produces -- whether it be for the Prostate Cancer Foundation, the Milken Educator Awards or FasterCures -- is centered on one of Mike’s “ideas”): “So many of these amazing doctors are musicians,” he said, “I want you to put together a band of doctors.”

Just because a doctor can map the Human Genome, doesn’t mean he can play the guitar well enough to perform in front of 1,000 people, not to mention a televised audience of millions. (Conversely, I don’t think anyone would want me to take out an appendix.)

Instinctively I started to say to Mike, “But what if…”

Mike smiled his Cheshire Cat smile. I didn’t even bother to finish my sentence. I was going to put together a band of famous doctors and they were going to play live at the Kennedy Center.

As he disappeared to another meeting Mike called back over his shoulder, “Call Francis Collins. He plays guitar.”

I’m not a scientist or even particularly interested in science, but I did have cancer (in remission, thanks docs!) so I knew that not only is Collins the head of the NIH, but he was also the man who led the mapping of the aforementioned Human Genome. I simply couldn’t bring myself to pick up the phone and say, “Hey Francis baby, let’s jam.” I sent an email.

Within seconds, my phone rang. “Hello Glen, This is Francis.” We talked for a half hour about music and how much music means to him and how he couldn’t wait for this gig. All the time I was talking I tried not to imagine the day that President Obama must have called Francis to inform him of his nomination to be head of the NIH. He gave me a few of his colleagues to call, people like Dr. Steve Libutti who played drums. Libutti’s day job is Director of Montefiore Einstein Center for Cancer Care and he was one of the pioneers of regional and targeted cancer therapy as well as an internationally recognized surgical oncologist and endocrine surgeon. Jonathan Lewin, Francis continued, played a mean sax and his day job was as Radiologist-in-Chief at John Hopkins Hospital, with secondary appointments as Professor of Oncology, Neurosurgery and Biomedical Engineering. I loved talking to them but kept thinking, I hope these guys can swing.

I made more calls and everyone was thrilled to talk, probably because I was the only one calling that day, or that year perhaps, who was not fighting a terminal disease or asking about the side effects of a particular chemo. Or calling to cut their funding. I just wanted to know if they could read chord changes. I left a phone message for John Burklow, Director of Communications for NIH. “If I’m out of the office, and this is a reporter who needs me immediately for a comment, please call my cell phone.” He had to be glad it was me calling about his sight-reading abilities and not 60 Minutes calling about some new cancer drug that causes a third eye to suddenly appear.

Once everyone was in place, I discovered I had four keyboard players, five guitars, one singing bass player, one drummer, one flute player, one harmonica, two trumpets and a sax. Not exactly a standard band configuration. I now had to figure out what the hell they were going to play.

Mike was very clear the concert had to serve the greater purpose of research and FasterCures, so the doctors or Rock Docs as I was now calling them (Francis didn’t like Amino Acid) couldn’t just play the songs from Oklahoma! I concocted a medley of You’ve Got a Friend, Here Comes the Sun, and Help, songs I thought the doctors and audience could relate to. My partner Irwin Fisch and I started writing for four keyboard players, five guitars, one singing bass player, one drummer, one flute player, one harmonica, two trumpets and a sax. We didn’t have a clue as to the level of musicianship, let alone if they could sing. They said they could play, so I trusted them. If you can’t trust a doctor, whom can you trust?

I made demos of the music with me singing the parts and sent them to the Roc Docs. One of the guitar players dropped out immediately. He said he would be much happier (and I would be much happier) to sit in the audience.

Francis, who struck me as a winning combination of James Taylor and Jimmy Stewart, arranged for the local DC doctors to get together over Labor Day and run through some of the music as a pre-rehearsal rehearsal. I mentioned this to Larry Lesser, Mike’s producer, and before I could get out, “Should I…?” he said, “Go!”

On Labor Day, I met all these brilliant people in Francis’s living room and frankly, I hadn’t encountered such enthusiasm in my bands since I was a kid. No “when is the break?” “How much is this paying?” “Who’s got the weed?” They were dying to do this. Although they were all completely terrified. They tried to smile and joke, but I know terror when I see it. They were on the high diving board and they really could only dog paddle. They were getting into a Ferrari and didn’t quite know how to use a clutch.

They had diligently practiced the music I sent. A few surprises: the keyboard players asked me to write out the chord notes as opposed to the chord symbols, something no high school player would ask, but fair enough. High school players can’t cure cancer. Most of The Players were uncomfortable with just their own music parts and wanted the words written in. Again, fair enough. One musician asked if he should bring a music stand. I gently said, “Do you ask if you should bring a scalpel to the operating theater.” “We will supply music stands. And even lights.”

They started to play. Francis has a lovely, sweet, folk-type voice and we ran through You’ve Got A Friend. It wasn’t half bad. Some of the chords were misread, the rhythm was all over the place, the bass player forgot to bring the music, so he didn’t have a clue as to what I was talking about when I said let’s start at bar five, but all in all, I was thrilled.

They must have seen my facial muscles relax, because they relaxed as well. It was a complete role reversal. All of a sudden, I was the doctor. And they were the patients anxiously awaiting the results of their test. Would they live? (That is, play the concert or be fired? They would play.) Was it fatal? (No, it was not. We’d rehearse and make it great.) Would they need more treatment (Oh, yes. But it won’t be as scary as the first time.)

We moved on to Here Comes the Sun. John Tisdale, who is on the way to curing sickle cell disease, told me he could sing the lead. While playing his bass, his light, airy baritone wafted through Bethesda and Dr. John Tisdale became the Fifth Beatle.

I called Milken and said, “It’s gonna work.” Milken said, “Told you!”

We had a full rehearsal scheduled for the Thursday before the Saturday show in the cavernous Kennedy Center rehearsal room. No more living room. This is the big time. Finally, all the musicians would be there, the trumpets, the sax. I even brought down three background singers from who have sung for everyone from Bette Midler to Dolly Parton. I thought my Rock Docs were going to explode with joy when they heard my pros sing along with them. They were now the center of the Oreo surrounded by world class cookies.

Their playing improved immeasurably. They presence of the pros energized the amateurs, especially Leonard Zon, founder and director of the Stem Cell Program at Boston Children’s Hospital and the first incumbent of the newly established Grousbeck Professor of Pediatrics Chair at Children’s. And trumpet player. In fact, Len was so enthusiastic he insisted on playing the trumpet over everyone’s melody, over everyone’s solo and all the interludes. I gently told him the arrangement needed to build and if he simply played the assigned part, it might sound better.

Then I had to tell them the bad news. The Kennedy Center could only give the Rock Docs one hour to rehearse on stage. I could feel their panic suck the air out of the room. The usually very brave, very stoic, very brilliant doctors got very quiet. I, the new resident-in-chief, a bit too cheerfully said we didn’t need more rehearsal and I’d meet them in an hour. They started to pack up all their gear; I gently told them we had stagehands to do that, they didn’t have to carry anything, not even their guitars. I said stagehands were sort of like nurses. Just let them do their jobs or they get very testy.

Musically, the on-stage rehearsal went fine. But Larry Lessor came up to me and asked if they were in pain. Their faces were priceless. I’ve never seen terror so well expressed. They looked like they had been painted by Munch. Now, I thought, they know how we feel, lying in a flimsy robe on that gurney waiting to get knocked out and cut open in the operating theater. Larry ran up on the stage and started waving his hands and dancing, all 6’5, three hundred pounds of him. Even that didn’t work.

Saturday was show day. It started with an emergency. One of my musicians forgot her anti-depressants; believe me, you don’t want to go into show day if one of the musicians isn’t on her meds. Is there a doctor in the house? Fortunately, yes! I had no compunction in e-mailing the most brilliant doctors in the world for a prescription.

I got a response immediately from Wolfram Goessling, day job: Assistant Professor, Depart of Medicine, Harvard Medical School whose laboratory seeks to understand the signals that indicate organ injury and regulate growth and regeneration. Night job: Trumpet player. Wolfram asked for the vital information from my musician and the prescription was there within the hour and my musician was happy, happy, happy.

Next emergency: my bass player came down with a virulent rash on his arm. Another e-mail blast. This time Leonard Zon answered and asked for me to take a picture of his arm on my phone and forward it to him. Len then responded and said he’d look at it at rehearsal.

At 8:00 PM the show started and my patient/musicians had to fend for themselves. They waited in the green room for Whoopi Goldberg to make their introductions. I decided the Rock Docs should wear lab coats. Just in case the music wasn’t up to par, the visuals would help.

But Doc Rock needed no help.

The curtain opened, Francis made his Jimmy Stewart-esqe speech and he had the audience eating out of the palm of his hand. Obviously, someone who runs a 30 billion dollar agency knows how to make a speech.

You Got A Friend was perfect. Everyone was in tune, Francis rocked the vocal and after the Jon Lewin alto sax solo received spontaneous applause I knew audience was going on the journey with us.

I had structured the number with a false ending after Friend. I wanted the audience to think the number was over. So there was a huge ovation and then John O’Shea (Day job: Chief of Molecular Immunology and Inflammation Branch at NIAMS. Night Job: Mandolin player) counted off Here Comes the Sun, and although it was 8:30 PM at the Kennedy Center, the Sun did indeed come out. Tisdale on vocals, aided by the husky alto of Sally Rockey who is in charge of giving out the grants at the NIH, brought the medley to a new high. (I had to wonder if Sally could somehow convince Francis to give ME a grant so the NIH could see the correlation between an artist’s bank account and happiness.)

After Sun there was no break. Libutti changed the tempo all by himself (take a bow, Steve, brilliantly done) and the group rocked into a raucous version of Help! The audience was on its feet! And when Leonard Zon started blowing his trumpet solo, the roof of the Kennedy Center flew off. Doc Rock was a sensation and, using band talk (although probably not Doctor-speak) they killed! The operation was a success. The experimental drug got FDA approval. The patient will live to fight again.

And of course, Milken was right! It was a great idea.

Later that night, 10-time Grammy winner Kenny (Babyface) Edmonds took the stage and spoke before he sang. He said that he had no problem performing after Melissa Manchester or Stevie Nicks or any of the artists on stage, but no one told him he had to play after Doc Rock. He said that was completely unfair and no artist could ever hope to follow them. I heard cheers emanate from the green room when, with a sly smile, Edmonds said, “Maybe I should go to medical school.”

In the hotel bar, where all real musicians gather after a concert, Steve Libutti, Director of Montefiore Einstein Center for Cancer Care/Drummer and I were having a late night drink, going over the events of the night. This peerless doctor has a baby face that would put Kenny to shame, but when he talked about the experience he was positively angelic. He said, “I finally got to live my dream. I opened for Stevie Nicks!”

Glen Roven, Emmy Award winner, is a composer, lyricist, conductor, pianist, translator and CD Producer. He made his third Carnegie Hall appearance this March appearing with Bass-Baritone Daniel Okulitch who sang his concert music. The concert was also reprised in Santa Fe at the Opera. Roven made his Carnegie Hall debut conducting his Violin Concerto based on The Runaway Bunny, with Glenn Close and the American Symphony Orchestra and Catherine Zeta-Jones just recorded the Piano Trio Version which will be out for Christmas, 2012.  He also recorded the piece with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Brooke Shields for Sony/BMG. Baritone Mark Stone performed an entire evening of Roven’s concert music also at Carnegie Hall March 2010. This past Mother’s Day, Soprano Lauren Flanigan debuted his Goodnight Moon, A Lullaby for Soprano and Orchestra, at a free concert in Central Park for 10,000 and has subsequently performed the Aria at Alice Tully Hall, Kimmel Center, and all over the country. His Ten Song Cycles and Art Songs are routinely performed all around in the world. He has conducted the National Symphony, the Seattle Symphony, the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, The Munich Philharmonic, The Radio Luxembourg Orchestra, as well as many others, and made his Israeli conducting debut in 2001 conducting the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in two sold-out concerts honoring Leonard Bernstein. He has conducted for Renee Fleming, Placido Domingo, Jessye Norman and Kathleen Battle and was chosen to conduct four Presidential Inaugural Concerts, as well as America’s Millennium Celebration, produced by Steven Spielberg.

In addition to appearing hundreds of times on television, he has written songs for, conducted and produced for Julie Andrews, Aretha Franklin, Kenny G., Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Quincy Jones, Kermit the Frog, Patti LaBelle, Liza Minnelli, Diana Ross, and many others.  He conducted Frank Sinatra’s last concert on television and Sammy Davis’s final television appearance. In the corporate world, he routinely does all the music for Steve Wynn and Michael Milken projects.

He began his Broadway career as a rehearsal pianist for Pippin while still in high school, and at nineteen was the musical director of Sugar Babies on Broadway. He also wrote the scores for John Guare’s, Lydie Breeze and Gardenia, Christopher Isherwood’s A Meeting By the River and Larry Gelbart’s Mastergate, plus was a contributing composer to A…My Name is Alice. He is a contributing author to Games We Played, a collection of essays published by Simon and Schuster. He has two Broadway Musicals in “development”, Dr. Seuss’ The 5000 Fingers of Doctor T and Pandora’s Box, with Maria S. Schlatter.  His musical Norman’s Ark,played the Ford Theater in LA, directed by Peter Schneider with a cast of 200. His first musical, Heart’s Desire, written with Armistead Maupin, played the Cleveland Playhouse and the Shaftesbury Theater in London. A translator of note, he recently published his English version of all of Mahler’s song cycles, Schubert’s Winterreise,  Mozart’s Figaro, Cosi, and Don Giovanni and Wolf’s Italian Songbook.

For Glen Roven's web site, please click here.



To follow what's new on Facts & Arts, please click here.


 


This article is brought to you by the author who owns the copyright to the text.

Should you want to support the author’s creative work you can use the PayPal “Donate” button below.

Your donation is a transaction between you and the author. The proceeds go directly to the author’s PayPal account in full less PayPal’s commission.

Facts & Arts neither receives information about you, nor of your donation, nor does Facts & Arts receive a commission.

Facts & Arts does not pay the author, nor takes paid by the author, for the posting of the author's material on Facts & Arts. Facts & Arts finances its operations by selling advertising space.

 

 

 


This article is brought to you by the author who owns the copyright to the text.

Should you want to support the author’s creative work you can use the PayPal “Donate” button below.

Your donation is a transaction between you and the author. The proceeds go directly to the author’s PayPal account in full less PayPal’s commission.

Facts & Arts neither receives information about you, nor of your donation, nor does Facts & Arts receive a commission.

Facts & Arts does not pay the author, nor takes paid by the author, for the posting of the author's material on Facts & Arts. Facts & Arts finances its operations by selling advertising space.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Jan 18th 2023
EXTRACT: "In 2018, former US president Bill Clinton coauthored a novel with James Patterson, the world’s bestselling author. The President is Missing is a typical “Patterson”: a page-turner of a thriller, easy to read, with short chapters and large font. Patterson is accustomed to collaborative writing ..... He is as much a producer as he is a writer, using a string of junior collaborators to run his factory of novels. Patterson outlines the plot, the coauthors write the story, Patterson offers feedback. While he doesn’t seem to do much writing himself, it is a system that has made Patterson a rich man."
Jan 14th 2023
EXTRACT: "With hindsight, 2022 will be seen as the year when artificial intelligence gained street credibility. The release of ChatGPT by the San Francisco-based research laboratory OpenAI garnered great attention and raised even greater questions.  In just its first week, ChatGPT attracted more than a million users and was used to write computer programs, compose music, play games, and take the bar exam. Students discovered that it could write serviceable essays worthy of a B grade – as did teachers, albeit more slowly and to their considerable dismay."
Jan 14th 2023
EXTRACT: "The thought of her, as always, gave me a jolt of hope, and a burst of energy. And a stab of sorrow."
Jan 14th 2023
EXTRACT: ".....if academic discourse and campus debate are shut down every time a person feels offended, how can universities possibly examine controversial topics? Without intellectual freedom – one of the great achievements of American civilization – they can’t."
Jan 5th 2023
EXTRACTS: "London's Tate Britain and Paris' Petit Palais have collaborated to produce a wonderful retrospective exhibition of the art of Walter Sickert (1860-1942).  The show is both beautiful and fascinating. ----- Virginia Woolf loved Sickert's art, and it is not difficult to see why, because his painting, like her writing, was always about intimate views of incidents, or casual portraits in which individual sitters momentarily revealed their personalities.  ------ Sickert's art never gained the status of that of Whistler or Degas, perhaps because it was too derivative of those masters.  But he was an important link between those great experimental painters and the art of Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, Frank Auerbach, ...."
Dec 5th 2022
EXTRACT: "One of the great paradoxes of human endeavour is why so much time and effort is spent on creating things and indulging in behaviour with no obvious survival value – behaviour otherwise known as art. Attempting to shed light on this issue is problematic because first we must define precisely what art is. We can start by looking at how art, or the arts, were practised by early humans during the Upper Palaeolithic period, 40,000 to 12,000 years ago, and immediately thereafter."
Dec 3rd 2022
EXTRACTS: "As a portrait artist, I am an amateur at this compared to the technology gurus and psychologists who study facial recognition seriously. Their aplications range from law enforcement to immigration control to ethnic groupings to the search through a crowd to find someone we know. ---- In my amateur artistic way, I prefer to count on intuition to find facial clues to a subject’s personality before sitting down at the drawing board. I never use the latest software to grapple with this dizzying variety.
Dec 1st 2022
EXTRACT: "In the exhibition catalog Lisane Basquiat writes: 'What is important for everyone to understand… is that he was a son, and a brother, and a grandson, and a nephew, and a cousin, and a friend. He was all of that in addition to being a groundbreaking artist.' "
Nov 24th 2022
"The art of kintsugi is inextricably linked to the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi: a worldview centred on the acceptance of transience, imperfection and the beauty found in simplicity.....nothing stays the same forever." --- "The philosophy of kintsugi, as an approach to life, can help encourage us when we face failure. We can try to pick up the pieces, and if we manage to do that we can put them back together. The result might not seem beautiful straight away but as wabi-sabi teaches, as time passes, we may be able to appreciate the beauty of those imperfections."
Oct 25th 2022
EXTRACT: "The prime minister of India, Narendra Modi, was quick to congratulate Sunak, referring to him as “the ‘living bridge’ of UK Indians”. In the difficult waters of British and indeed international politics, all eyes will be watching to see how well the bridge stands."
Oct 5th 2022
EXTRACTS: "In the Guardian, Peter Bradshaw eulogized Jean-Luc Godard as 'a genius who tore up the rule book without troubling to read it.' This is a fundamental misunderstanding." ----- " As had been true for Picasso - and Eliot, Joyce, Dylan, and Lennon - it was Godard's mastery of the rules of his discipline that made his violation of those rules so exciting to young artists, and his work so influential.  But perhaps these innovators' mastery of the rules can only be seen by those who themselves understand the rules."
Sep 29th 2022
EXTRACTS: "For many of us, some personality traits stay the same throughout our lives while others change only gradually. However, evidence shows that significant events in our personal lives which induce severe stress or trauma can be associated with more rapid changes in our personalities." ----- "Over time, our personalities usually change in a way that helps us adapt to ageing and cope more effectively with life events." ----- " ....participants in this study recorded changes in the opposite direction to the usual trajectory of personality change." --- "....you might like to take the time to reflect on your experiences over the past few years, and how these personality changes may have affected you."
Sep 21st 2022
EXTRACTS: "It might seem like an obscure footnote among the history-making events of 2022, but the year of Queen Elizabeth II’s death coincides with the 300th anniversary of Adam Smith’s birth." ----- "As a committed Stoic, Smith had little patience for greed. The whole point of Roman Stoic philosophy was to use personal moral discipline to support the rule of law and constitutions, and to make society a better place." ----- "When we read Smith, we are better served to think of the example of Elizabeth II than of those driven by personal greed. It might sound archaic, but, as Britons’ response to her death suggests, these values still appeal to a great many people today."
Sep 14th 2022
EXTRACT: "On the day of Queen Elizabeth II’s death, the former Prince of Wales was proclaimed King Charles III. Although it’s been known for decades that Charles would succeed his mother, there were rumours that he might, once king, choose the name George due to the contentious legacies of Kings Charles I and Charles II."
Aug 25th 2022
EXTRACT: "An over-emphasis on looking for the chemical equation of depression may have distracted us from its social causes and solutions. We suggest that looking for depression in the brain may be similar to opening up the back of our computer when a piece of software crashes: we are making a category error and mistaking problems of the mind for problems in the brain. It would be wise to observe caution with drugs whose effectiveness is not certain, whose mode of action is unknown, and which have many side-effects, especially for use in the long term."
Jul 29th 2022
EXTRACTS: "China uses incarcerated prisoners of conscience as an organ donor pool to provide compatible transplants for patients. These prisoners or “donors” are executed and their organs harvested against their will, and used in a prolific and profitable transplant industry."
Jul 29th 2022
EXTRACT: "In the first episode of season three of The Kominsky Method (2021), there is a funeral service for Michael Douglas’ character’s lifelong friend Norman Newlander (played by Alan Arkin). By far the most inconsolable mourner to give a eulogy is Newlander’s personal assistant of 22 years who, amid a hyperbolical outpouring of grief, literally cannot bring herself to let go of the casket. It is a humorous scene, to be sure, but there is something else going on here that is characteristic of employer-employee relations in this era of neoliberal capitalism. “Making him happy made me happy,” she exclaims, “his welfare was my first thought in the morning, and my last thought before I went to sleep.” That isn’t sweet – it is pathological. ----- Employee happiness is becoming increasingly conditional on, or even equated with, the boss’ happiness. As Frédéric Lordon observes in his book, Willing Slaves of Capital (2014), “employees used to surrender to the master desire with a heavy heart…they had other things on their minds…ideally the present-day enterprise wants subjects who strive of their own accord according to its norms.” In a word, the employee is increasingly expected to internalize and identify with the desire of the master."
Jul 20th 2022
EXTRACT: "For three decades, people have been deluged with information suggesting that depression is caused by a “chemical imbalance” in the brain – namely an imbalance of a brain chemical called serotonin. However, our latest research review shows that the evidence does not support it."
Jul 13th 2022
"But is he “deluded”? " ---- "....we sometimes end up with deluded leaders because we ourselves can be somewhat delusional when we vote." ---- "David Collinson, a professor of leadership and organization at Lancaster University, associates this predicament with excessive positive thinking, or what he calls “Prozac leadership,” in reference to the famous antidepressant that promises to cheer people up without actually fixing what is wrong in their lives. “ ---- "In politics, Prozac leaders come to power by selling the electorate on wildly overoptimistic views of the future. When the public buys into a Prozac leader’s narrative, it is they who are already verging on the delusional." ----- "Another potential example is Vladimir Putin, who has conjured a kind of nostalgic dream world for his followers and the wider Russian public."
Jun 25th 2022
EXTRACT: "Many veterans, refugees and other people who have experienced trauma and have mental health issues spend little time thinking about the future. Instead, they are narrowly focused on the negative past. However, people who have experienced trauma and developed a healthy future perspective report being better at coping with life, having fewer negative thoughts about the past, and getting better sleep compared with those who have a negative future perspective. So, instead of dwelling on the past, people who have suffered trauma should be encouraged to think about the future and set goals that help them develop hope for a good life."