Visions Magazine's
On Stage 2000

Winner - Award of Excellence - Musician

Karl Werne
"One Version of Normal"

"Timing is everything. If you make the right sound at the right time, people will give you money. If you make the very same sound at the wrong time, they’ll make you go to bed." Thus did I impart to my child the most important of The Laws of Music. It’s not what sound you make - it’s when you make it, and who hears it.

One of the "Who knows?" of the Musician as Artist life-path is how long it can take for a master of the craft to be noticed by more than their friends. I mean, it’s not like he or she wakes up one day noticeably different than the day before.

It’s just that, one day you’re singing to a crowd barely big enough to keep a local club owner happy – the next day you’re playing the same songs, virtually the same way (since you’ve already been working on them for years), before suddenly appreciative masses. As Neil Young once sang so eloquently: "Comes a time."

That time is upon us for a genuine local Artist. People who should "know", on both coasts, are finally being exposed to his creativity. They are "discovering" something many of us have been aware of for almost twenty years.

This guy has it all. Depth, sincerity, musicianship (great lyrics, outrageous playing) and he is often surrounded by world class players who just like to be onstage co-creating with him. A dead give-away when the best players in town want to sit in with you.

When does a mere "musician" become an "artist"? When nothing else is as important as the music. That is usually a specific point in the life process, but in the case of my old friend Karl, he has been like that since we met when he was still in high school.

In the early days of Karl and I as the other two thirds of the Lewis McGehee Group, we shared a home. I had already been playing professionally for longer than he’d been alive, but living in the same house with this teenage prodigy I was struck by what I thought was his dedication. It took a while before I realized that playing was simply all he cared about.

A typical day would often look like this: Karl Werne finds himself in a bed somewhere on Earth. It is well after noon. He rubs his eyes . . . puts his feet on the floor . . . and picks up his guitar. It may or may not be plugged into anything. He will play it until someone else remembers he hasn’t eaten since he woke up. After a meal of whatever, he will go back to his guitar and take up where he left off. Some he will record, some is just jamming, but he is always playing.

Eventually it will be time to shower and get ready for that night’s gig. From 9:30 PM until 1:30 AM he will play from his heart, and with great soul – Karl originals, McGehee originals, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Paige, classical, jazz - all night long mesmerizing large and small crowds (to say nothing of Lewis and I) with his spontaneous creations and technique.

At 2 AM they make us stop and we’ll hit a Hardee’s or something on the way home. When we arrive home Karl will wash his hands, take his guitar back out of it’s case and play until he falls asleep, usually long after sunrise. Later, he will again find himself back on Earth – and he will begin again. .

It's as if his whole life was a gig, like some enourmous 24 hr a day, 7 days a week Jazz/Rock/Jam/Opera. Different songs & audiences, same show. Sometimes a stage, sometimes a couch. It was never about the money. Nor the applause, or the recognition. He found something new every day, and he gave it away every night.

For almost eight years together with Lewis we played virtually seven nights a week, often twice a day. (Thanx Lew and Marsha, for havin' those 4 beautiful daughters to feed.) If we had a rare day off I would sometimes go to an afternoon movie. Karl would stay home and jam. If I could find Eddie Williams or the Rhythm Kings, Snuff or the Snards, I would go and enjoy my favorite players, outside of our own band. Karl would stay home and just play. This was NOT a "discipline" - it is all he wanted to do. Too bad Nike doesn't make guitars, they would LOVE this guy. Talk about "Just Do It!" But that is precisely how music becomes "art".

He’s (sort of) a grown-up now. His wife Chris, owner of Chrysm Day Spa at Kemp’s River and their three children, Brandon 18 in March, Myriah 9 and Anatash 7, combine to give him a mature Dad-like perspective, while still maintaining his wise and talented inner-child.

Karl has found like-minded souls in fellow singer/songwriter Elaine Dempsey and angelic vocalist Lawrence Lambert. More accurately, they found each other. "Every thoughtful thing I ever tried to sing to people, things that you could never ‘say’ because they wouldn’t listen, or couldn’t understand . . . well, we’re doin’ that, as a group, all night long."

He also plays locally as a duo with premier saxophonist Eddie Williams, whom he describes as a "…master virtuoso and a five year old little boy all rolled into one." I second that emotion!

He uses the word integrity throughout our conversation as he seeks the perfect words to describe these people whom he loves. Friends, whose work he is often in awe of even as they contribute to his own.

His own lyrics are the stuff of spiritual dreamers - the real ones, who know that the dream doesn’t end just because you wake up. The rest of us agree to pretend that it does, so we can think about the bills and feel normal. Real artists (and all children) are not cursed with that ability.

Karl always seemed to be looking for what was behind the visible.

Especially in people. I know that place, and I believe it‘s because his father died when Karl was only eleven: "We had just moved all the way across the country, and Dad died when we got here. (Long pause) I don’t look back on myself as being a serious, grew up fast, somber eleven-year-old. But now that I think about it, I guess I was. What I remember being was just . . . my version of normal. My Dad had reached ‘Super-Hero’ status to me by the time he died, and he has stayed there. He taught us things without saying them, about leaving the world a better place, and if you’re going to do something – do it well. So sometimes, when no one’s listening, I always feel my Dad lookin’ over my shoulder whispering ‘Leave this a better place. Do what your doing, and do it well’."

It will definitely make you different when you’re looking for the answers to the "BIG" questions before you ever even get to puberty. The spiritual stuff is supposed to be much later, when you’re looking back, not while you’re still trying to figure out where you are and how to act. "It’ll make you crazy long before your time". (CSN&Y)

Like being introduced to the "real" world when you're still young enough to be just an observer:"My Dad was an immigration officer, and ... well, you don't realize the things that you're learning when you're younger, you know, the things that are shaping you. They're just that particular version of 'normal'.

"We moved all across the country, bounced around a lot. So, I didn’t realize what a great handle I was getting on life, especially prejudice. We kept moving to different areas - where they hated different people. Every time we moved to a different area, it was stylish to hate somebody new. So, by eleven years old I had a pretty good take on hate, and where it belongs. (Bursts into laughter.) And by the time we moved to this here Navy town, where they hated long-haired barefoot guys, I had a real good handle on it." (Lots more laughter, from both of us.) Karl has laughed at hatred - and has been a "long-haired barefoot guy" - for the entire twenty years I have know him.

And he has literally been barefoot all that time, unless he had to go out into winter weather. Summer rain won't do it.

As we are speaking, the January wind is howling outside of Abbey Road - 30 MPH with gusts of 50! The horizontal rain blowing by the window will soon be sleet, and that will become "The Monster Snowstorm", the lights even flicker off twice even while we talk. Karl arrived in sandals. They were immediately discarded once his stuff was in. I mention this because, in dream symbology our shoes represent our "Understanding". And Karl's is: Free, bare for all the world to see, "Soul" in touch with the world he's on, and big.

Wednesday, E.L.K. played a place in New York called "The Turning Point". It features the likes of Tom Chapin, Commander Cody, Tom Rush, and on St. Patrick’s day this year will be Richie "O’"Havens. Yes, that one. He’s been playing there for 22 years. E.L.K. "…blew the house down." They are wanted back, quick.

Saturday night they played a place called "The Point" in Philadelphia, where young Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt and Bruce Springsteen have preceeded them. There was: [Local entrepeneurs – take note! I will assist in the creation of such a place locally in any way I can.] a circle of speakers above the stage, only microphones on the stage, a lot of love seats and couches along with tables and chairs. Alcohol is not served. You may bring your own wine for a small "corking" fee, no talking or milling around during performances – a "Listening Room".

At "Abbey Road", one of the best places in the Virginia Beach area for this kind of experience, Karl and Eddie recently recorded a live night that is very special. Karl's family had appeared from various spots around the country. His Mom was in the front row. Said Karl, "I wasn't that scared when we opened for Hornsby at Chrysler Hall.

But, we had a really inspired night. Some between song banter that’s just hilarious, and some of the best music we’ve ever made. We were trying out Eddie’s new digital recorder and actually forgot it was on, and we recorded something that couldn’t be improved on by any amount of studio seriousness or doctoring. It’s a blessing. We’re selling the two-CD set for $20, and it’s an honest example of what we do live."

If you’re tired of music as just background for whatever else is happening; if you want to be truly moved, transported, dazzled by gifted musicians and lyrics that actually speak to you, get yourself in front of these artists while you can. While I can highly recommend the album, there is nothing I can say that can describe being a part of the creation – and that’s what you become when you share a night with this gifted young man and his very talented friends.


~ Michael McCarthy

*(This printing of the article includes Mr. McCarthy's last minute minor corrections that did not make it to the magazine) >