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Stephen Kalinich and Jon Tiven Break New Musical Ground

This is the story of a great rock and roll-based musical collaboration. It features a soulful blend of bluesy, earth-shaking rock and roll, skillfully built by musical journeyman Jon Tiven, and a lyrical call to meaning, self-discovery, and inner peace, drawn from lyrics by veteran Southern California poet/spoken word artist Stephen Kalinich. The lyrics in this pair's music call out to humanity to wake up from the dream of self-inflicted pain and ego indulgence. Their music grounds us to the Earth with rhythms that take blues-based rock a step beyond its modern expression. Together, Jon Tiven and Stephen Kalinich invite us to dance and celebrate the common humanity we share through words and music.

Tiven and Kalinich's story plays like an epic movie that crosses the American geographical and musical landscape. They’ve been steadily rumbling off the radar, individually and collectively, for several decades. Those who know them -- and whose creative lives they have influenced -- include a Who’s Who of popular music: Wilson Picket, B.B. King, Paul McCartney, Brian & Dennis Wilson, Alex Chilton, and P.F. Sloan, to name a few.

With the release of two albums, Each Soul Has a Voice and Yo Ma Ma, the duo has produced music that is as urgent as it is timeless. They push forward the mainstream rock form that many refer to as "classic rock," into something entirely new. Their music lays new ground for an approach to lyrics and music that's been moving folks since 1965. It is as tough and raw as early punk, as perceptive as the best of the Beats' poetry in the 1950s.

Listening, it feels as though the fallen ideals of the psychedelic 1960s have woken up from a long-slumber, induced by years of conformity and profit-based business models. In reality, Tiven and Kalinich's work is authentic rock and roll with an honest, straight-forward, sharp edge and an uncompromising message of peace and love through personal struggles and trials. But, to this pair, peace and love are not cliché’d, meaningless ideals. Rather they are hard-fought realities expressed through their lives and the art that guides them.

What follows is their story of creative discovery and bonds formed by blood brothers and poet warriors. Like our weathered world, they are fallen saints repossessed with new-born life, found through the magic of music. Their songs are mesmerizing, with a spiritual tide that pulls us under and lifts us back up with spiritual answers. Rather than depending on nostalgic musings from artists whose past glories remain in the past, Tiven and Kalinich's albums are present to the now in a way that is both energizing and engaging, on all levels. 

Surf’s Up for Stephen Kalinich

When poet, lyricist, singer-songwriter, and world peace advocate Stephen Kalinich was a very young man, in the mid-60s, he traveled to Hollywood, California, from his home in Binghamton, New York. California was, after all, the land where dreams come true. It didn’t take long, with his love and talent for the written and spoken word, for him to meet and strike up a deal with the Beach Boys, who were riding the crest of popularity with songs like “Good Vibrations.” It was a time of transition for the band, which was evolving out of the surf and hot rod song days of “Surfing USA” and “Fun, Fun, Fun.” The band needed lyrics that transcended expectations and reached beyond their original visions of the American coast.

Kalinich's timing was just right -- it was a gateway periond, leading into the era of psychedelia that would soon lift up artists like Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, Pink Floyd, and the Beatles’ landmark, trendsetting album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

For Kalinich, this way of approaching muisc and art was not new. He had been walking in the world of psychedelic imagery through his poetry for years. He took flight on the wings of his lyrics for “Little Bird,” which he co-wrote with Beach Boy Dennis Wilson, who sang the song for the group's classic 1968 album, Friends. The album was laced with harmonic and musical layers patterned after Brian Wilson’s then-lost Smile project.

"Little Bird" is a wistful, melodic song with lyrics that perfectly match the soul of Wilson's melody.

Little bird up in a tree
Looked down and sang a song to me
Of how it began

The trout in the shiny brook
Gave a warm and loving look
And told me not to worry
About my life

With the simplest of imagery and melody, with rich harmonies, the song brought the work of Stephen Kalinich to the light of day.     

According to Kalinich, “I wrote those words first. It was a meditation, before Transcendental Meditation came along. I saw a little bird on a tree and the philosophy came to me. Before things become real they are first in your mind. A thought of love. If you cling to every thought that’s real, your life will be ‘free from toil, free from strife, free from chains that hold you down.’”

As luck would have it, this was a time of career identity crisis for the Beach Boys, and soon Kalinich found himself without a contract or income.

A few years later, he was living in a Motor Hotel room in Century City, making his living working at a gas station and sweeping a nearby office building. “Al Jardine came in one night," Kalinich says, "and was shocked to see that I had fallen from the Beach Boys and 'Little Bird' to pumping gas and washing windows for $1.75 an hour.”

So, on a whim of inspiration, Kalinich wrote a letter to Paul McCartney. 

“Dear Paul McCartney," he wrote, "enclosed are a few poems of mine. Please read them through and if you like them please drop me a line. I write them in the morning when the world is still asleep. I write them in the evening in the cellars that I sweep.”  

He never sent the words to McCartney, but just the thought of doing so accelerated a creative muse within him. Thirty years later, through the dips and turns of a life that put out peace as more than just an empty-headed ideal -- but a real living reality -- Kalinich heard the ex-Beatle sing his lyrics with Beach Boy Brian Wilson on the song, “A Friend Like You.” It is a sweet song of friendship, sung with the deepest sense of gratitude and authenticity, without a trace of saccharine.

Kalinich has continued to work, finding relevance every decade while remaining faithful to the power and imagination of his original vision. His 1969 unreleased album of spoken word performances and music by Brian Wilson, A World of Peace Must Come, saw the light of day in 2008. 

For Stephen Kalinich the road has been a long one. He has walked sometimes alone, sometimes with the support and love of celebrities at the highest level of show business. It’s not unusual to see him arm to arm in photos with movie stars and directors like Johnny Depp and Kevin Smith. And it's equally common to see him appearing at tiny local venues, sharing his poems with appreciative fans.

As Kalinich has reached show business heights, he remains intent on staying grounded in his own moments of peace. Since his time with the Beach Boys, he has kept pure his message of peace through words and music, and delivered it with a passion that makes his message hard to avoid. His is a message of love. He encourages us to face the light that's buried deep inside each one of us.

Jon Tiven: Born to the Blues

Jon Tiven may be the best kept secret in Americana music today. With the streams of rock, blues, and soul music running through his work, he has been a creative, inspirational, and productive source of roots music for four decades. A wunderkind during his early teens, today Tiven is a Nashville-based multi-talented journeyman journalist, musician, songwriter, producer, and quasi-agent.

When he came of age in the late 1960s, the blues-driven second wave of the British Invasion was in full force. Electric-powered blues rock was making its way across Europe and the United States. As Tiven turned the ripe-old age of 12, he was already hip to the blues and soul music that inspired bands like the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds. He started his own home-based music journal called The New Haven Rock Press, from his home in Connecticut. The year was 1967. The first artists he covered were the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and John Hammond -- heavy stuff for a 12-year-old from New England. By age 17, he was writing articles for Rolling Stone, Fusion, and Melody Maker.

It was only a matter of time before Tiven made his way into the business of creating the music he admired, with artists who were his heroes. It began when he struck up a friendship with Memphis-based group Alex Chilton and Big Star.

Tiven’s connection with Chilton and Big Star led eventually to studio work in production and the use of his own considerable musical skills on alto sax, guitar, and keyboards. Over the years, he produced such legendary artists as Delbert McClinton, Nick Lowe, Frank Black, Graham Parker, and Wilson Pickett. Tiven's songs have been recorded by the Jeff Healey Band, Huey Lewis, Buddy Guy, Don Covey, and Robert Cray. And recently, he has been working with a young soul artist named Ellis Hooks and has helped singer-songwriter Dylan Leblanc fire up his career in Americana music.

The force that brought Stephen Kalinich and Jon Tiven together was singer-songwriter P.F. Sloan. According to Tiven, he first discovered Sloan on a late-night poker reality show. After hearing Sloan sing “Sins of the Family” and “Eve of Destruction,” Tiven went out and bought all of the albums he could find. When his friend, a producer for Geraldo Rivera was looking for a protest singer to feature on the show, Tiven suggested P.F. Sloan.

In Sloan’s world, during the early '90s, there had been little interest in him as more than a songwriter of the '60s who followed in Bob Dylan’s footsteps. But in reality, Sloan was a one-man Brill Building, penning not only the number-one 1965 hit “Eve of Destruction” for Barry McGuire, but also scoring hits like “Where Were You When I Needed You” for the Grass Roots, “Secret Agent Man” for Johnny Rivers, and “Let Me Be” and “You Babe” for The Turtles. He was also a seeker who, through his life, found peace in Eastern Religion.

When Tiven first met Sloan, he found they shared the same guru in India -- the kind of synchronicity that’s hard to imagine.

Kalinich & Tiven: A Match Made in Rock and Roll

When Sloan introduced Stephen Kalinich to Jon Tiven, it seemed an unlikely paring. Kalinich’s lyrics and poetry were known to be about the big questions and answers of life, especially world peace. He practically coined the phrase. Tiven was producing rock, blues, and soul music 30 years before the Americana genre was born. Where Kalinich's poetry has hung out in the universe, Tiven's music has been rooted in the Earth.

Sloan warned Tiven that Kalinich sometimes "overwrites," but Tiven was still surprised when he received Kalinich’s first lyrics through email -- they amounted to ten pages. Needless to say, Tiven used his editing skills to create a one-page song from the words. Other songs have followed. The result has been a stunningly conceived pair of albums with another one on the way.

The first two -- Each Soul Has A Voice and Yo Ma Ma -- are packed with anything but the ethereal and spiritual lyricism that characterizes much of Kalinich’s early work. The chemistry between Tiven and Kalinich has given the former a solid, consistent lyricist for his considerable musical skills. His music has framed Kalinich’s lyrics with a hard-edged grittiness. 

Songs like “Let’s Get Stoned,” “Don’t Fuck with Me,” and “Fight for Peace,” present an attitude that frequently comes across in Kalinich’s spoken word performances. It's reminiscent of the vocal quality of Tom Petty, but with a stronger urgency, supported by poetic-lyrical themes that play from within characters who struggle with turmoil, anger, and stress. All of this contrasts with the answers Kalinich provides on the song, “Each Soul Has a Voice.” The music there is quite simply joyous, blues-based rock and roll at its finest, with Tiven’s trademark, straight-ahead, dirty-raw sound. The production is roadhouse loose, like a live Stones album. It all comes together with a rare kind of musical chemistry that can only be described as passionately blissful.

The Tiven-Kalinich collaboration comes to a head in the form of an animated video of the potential hit song, "Harmony, Inner Peace, and Tenderness." The video, produced by animator David Masnato, gives a nutshell version of spiritual life in a three-minute song. Masnato's animation style is similar to Mike Judge’s early Beavis and Butthead creation, however these two character who walk, sing, and dance, are far more enlightened than the '80s cartoon heroes. Mansato’s visual work here brings an added texture characters we’d love to see more of.

As Tiven and Kalinich continue their work together -- mostly accomplished via the internet, with occasional trips to Nashville -- it’s certain this is just the eginning of a musical and poetic collaboration that will not only contribute to world peace, but will make the days much easier and joyous for all who listen.

Wow...heck of a story/article Terry...I'll be picking up some more music it looks like...

Great story. Great read. Thanks Terry!

Excellent feature Terry, thanks for turning me on to these artists!