Introduction To The Anjani Chronicles
Anjani is the exquisite, exotically featured singer and keyboardist best known for her Blue Alert CD, a collection of elegantly performed songs suffused with evocative lyrics, and her professional and romantic relationships with Leonard Cohen, an accomplished singer-songwriter in his own right. My own connection to Anjani began in July 2006 when I posted Music Recommendation That Will Make You Want To Kiss Me, a review of Blue Alert that reflected my captivation with the music. An online flirtation and email relationship between us ensued.
The Anjani Chronicles are a sequence of posts based on the content of my recent interviews with Anjani. All published Anjani Chronicles posts can be found by clicking on Anjani Chronicles in the links listed under “Categories.”
Today’s post, the first of this series, centers on Anjani’s childhood and adolescence, especially the development of her musical career during this period.
Anjani And The Fender Rhodes Stage 88
The Fender Rhodes Stage 88
Pictured above is the Fender Rhodes Electric Piano (circa 1970s), an innovative instrument that featured a new technology for the creation of musical tones, offered an alternative channel for the interpretation of music, and dramatically expanded the potential repertoire of live musical entertainment.
More pertinent to our purposes, one specific Fender Rhodes Stage 88, the virtual twin of the Rhodes Stage 73 shown in the graphic on the right (click on graphic to view larger image) but possessing a longer keyboard and proportionately larger size, illuminates some easily overlooked facets of Anjani’s life and connects those seemingly unassociated points.
And that Fender Rhodes Stage 88 may even offer a useful perspective on and insight into Anjani’s understated but resolute determination and resilience in the pursuit of her goals.
Finally, this machine is, if nothing else, a serviceable albeit unconventional Sancho Panza to Anjani’s Don Quixote in those portions of her adventure-filled quest presented in this and the next episode of The Anjani Chronicles.
To engage this point of view, one needs three points of information:
1. By the mid-1970s, the Fender Rhodes Stage 88 was not a keyboard instrument – it was the keyboard for serious jazz and rock musicians. The Fender Rhodes Stage 88 was heir to a stalwart heritage, evolving from a prototype that produced its 2.5 octaves from aluminum pipes salvaged from the hydraulic system in the wings of B-17 Bombers, cut to xylophone length, and installed in a suitcase size package. Employed as a therapeutic tool for wounded World War II soldiers, the piano was a success, thousands were produced, and the inventor, Harold Rhodes, was awarded the Medal of Honor. By the 1960s, manufacturing, musicological, and scientific progress culminated in the four instruments, the Fender Rhodes Stage 88, Suitcase 88, Stage 73, and Suitcase 88, that became the standard keyboard instrument for amateur and professional artists.
2. The Fender Rhodes Stage 88 of early- to mid-1970s vintage weighed 65 kilos (143 pounds) or more. The total heft varied by model and year of manufacture with earlier versions being markedly heavier. In addition, accouterments such as the tour rig could significantly increase the total poundage.
A sense of the size and popularity of the Fender Rhodes Electric Piano can be garnered from the graphic below.
Click on image to view larger graphic
The top left and center images are scenes from the 1980 film, The Blues Brothers, in which Ray Charles plays “Shake a Tail Feather” on a Rhodes piano to convinces Jake and Ellwood Blues (John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd) to buy it. In both scenes Ray Charles is seated behind the Rhodes Piano. In the top right image, Tori Amos is seated at the keyboard of her Rhodes 88. The image at the bottom is the layout, drawn to scale, of the keyboard instruments Tori Amos uses on her tours. Her Rhodes Suitcase 88 is on the far left of the diagram.
3. Anjani Thomas persuaded her ambivalent-leaning-toward-reluctant parents to front her the cash for that mass of wood, plastic, metal, and electronics known as the Fender Rhodes Stage 88 when she was 16 years old and weighed 107 pounds. She then repaid this debt by lugging that instrument to a year’s worth of weekend gigs, playing blue-eyed soul and dance numbers (think Earth, Wind, and Fire) for parties, proms, dances, special occasions, and anyone else willing to hire the band.
There is more about this Fender Rhodes 88, and we’ll come back to it, but first, some background on Anjani …
Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Girl In Hawaii
Born the youngest of 2 brothers and 2 sisters on July 10, 1959 in Honolulu, Anjani Thomas inherited a blend of German, French, Okinawan, Irish, Welsh, and Dutch bloodlines that manifest in her exotically handsome appearance and are integral to her alluring style and presentation.
Her father “oversaw logistics activities for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Hawaii, Japan, and Korea. Such activities included property management, air travel, and ground transportation.” Her mother “was a secretary for the Soil Conservation Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture.”
When Anjani mentions her parents, her affection for and appreciation of them is patently displayed. Likewise, she appears genuinely fond of her siblings and proud of their accomplishments.
Nonetheless, Anjani admits to wondering, beginning in childhood, if she were adopted.
How else to explain the differences between her and her brothers and sister. She was, for example, the only family member with Rock Fever, that claustrophobic, trapped feeling, usually ascribed only to mainlanders on extended stays in Hawaii, that one must leave the islands. Although other members of her family would spend time on the mainland (e.g., to attend college or law school), they inevitably returned to live in Hawaii. Anjani has reversed that pattern, frequently returning to the family home in the islands but basing her life elsewhere.
Heck, Anjani even confesses to a longing to live in Midwestern climes when she was an adolescent trapped in paradise.
There’s more. For example, while her brothers and sister excelled in school, she had a more difficult experience as a student:
After multiplication and division, I bluffed and stumbled through fractions, percentages and ratios, until algebra simply led me to copy the papers and tests of whatever smarter person I sat next to. And I was better at math than science. Laws and theorems and figures would shimmy off the page of memory where they were only stored long enough to pass a class. Aside from basic math, calculus and geometry had no bearing on my field of interest.
The critical distinction between Anjani and those around her, however, was her talent and, even more so, her profound and pervasive predilection for and preoccupation with music.
I started as a very tiny girl singing. [My first instrument was] probably ukulele; and then guitar; and then piano. I started hula dancing when I was about seven years old. … I’d wanted to make a record ever since I was a kid …
I grew up playing viola, guitar, ukulele, & piano before finally settling on the latter in Jr. high school. So I actually listened to as much Beethoven as I did rock, jazz, R&B, funk, Hawaiian and folk music. In high school, my voice teacher really thought I’d become a mezzo soprano–I LOVED singing arias by Mozart. But the road led elsewhere.
When I was young, I took classical piano lessons for a while. I studied with Clem Low, who worked with Sonya Mendez as her music director. I then studied pop piano when I was around 14, finding another teacher in Clyde Pound.
Probably because she has been asked the same question a few hundred times before, Anjani has a respectful, matter of fact response to the query, “When did you decide you wanted to be a professional musician?” She simply explains, “I don’t recall a time when I didn’t want to be a musician.”
One has the sense, however, that Anjani politely suppresses an “of course” from the end of that response. Music is so central and so encompassing in her life that her career decisions were limited to determining the instruments she would play, the style in which she would sing and play, and how she could earn her living in the field. Consequently, she seems to have difficulty in empathizing with the notion of someone struggling to make a conscientious decision about career paths.
Her penchant for matters musical was a primary aspect of her family life. Anjani describes her parents as supportive of her musical interests,
My parents were so cool. They supported me when I was young with whatever lessons and education were needed, whether it was guitar, hula, piano or viola. My mother chauffeured me, every weekend, to my lessons.
She also notes, however, that throughout her adolescence, her mother and dad clung to the tenuous premise that her obsession with becoming a musician was, in her words, “a phase I would grow out of.” That they were able to sustain this conviction in the face of her unswerving aspirations and congruent behavior, identifies their belief as another case, like second marriage in Samuel Johnson’s quip, of the triumph of hope over experience.
Anjani, in fact, attributes the purchase of that iconic Fender Rhodes Stage 88 to “my parents’, especially my mother’s, hope [that] playing the Fender Rhodes would get it [the goal of becoming a professional musician] out of my system.”
Like many parental fantasies, that hope was to be unrequited. The Fender Rhodes Piano not only enabled her as a performer but also, because of the need to repay its cost, provided Anjani further motivation and, perhaps more importantly, a rationalization for spending all her weekends with the band wherever there was someone willing to pay to hear them.
Transporting the Fender Rhodes Stage 88 to those jobs was no small matter. Nor is it without a certain entertainment value. Consider Anjani’s own description of loading the instrument (I suggest picturing it as an updated version of the famous Laurel and Hardy piano moving scene):
Often but not always, my brothers would help me load it. I would lift one end onto the back seat of my dad’s Pontiac LeMans and shove it in maybe 3 – 4 inches, then run around to the other side and pull it in, going back and forth pushing and pulling, inch by inch, till the monster was in there. It was a helluva lot easier to pull it out than load it in.
As it turned out, more extensive travels were ahead for both Anjani and her Fender Rhodes Stage 88.
First Calgary, Then Carnegie
At age 17, Anjani was within weeks of graduating from Roosevelt High School in Honolulu when she had the opportunity to sign onto a musical act working in Canada. In short order, she convinced her parents to grant her permission to take the job, closed down her sideline business giving piano lessons to 11 students (Anjani jokes that teaching piano made enough money that accepting the full time job meant taking a pay cut; she also volunteers, more somberly, that she learned that she “wasn’t a teacher.”), arranged to finish her high school course work in order to graduate on time although she would be on another continent when the graduation ceremony took place, and shipped out to entertain the citizens of western Canada.
The Fender Rhodes Stage 88, of course, came with.
It’s instructive to consider the Canadian episode from Anjani’s perspective:
It’s 1977. Jimmy Carter is the President of the United States. The big event on TV is Roots, Fleetwood Mac releases the Rumours album, and Star Wars opens in the cinemas. The electrical blackout leaves New York and much of the East Coast without power for 25 hours. The first oil is transported through the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System. Reggie Jackson hits 3 home runs to lead the New York Yankees to World Series victory. Elvis Presley dies. Flared pants are fashionable. Saturday Night Fever is a hit and so is disco.
One moment that spring, you’re a musically talented seventeen year old Hawaiian girl who, despite feeling out of place, is part of a caring family, preparing to graduate from high school, and playing in a band on weekends.
The next moment, you, accompanied only by your Fender Rhodes Stage 88 that outweighs you by at least 40 pounds, are appearing on stage in the western Canadian urban outposts of Edmonton and Calgary as a member of Kimo & The Sands, a full fledged professional musician.
Anjani’s own description of her North American debut, which set the standard for the six months she spent in Edmonton and Calgary, nicely evokes both the shows she, Kimo, and the other Sands put on and the venues in which they played:
The first hour of the show was a Polynesian music and dance revue – in Calgary – at a Chinese restaurant that specialized in greasy fried rice with mystery lumps covered in green goopy sauce. We played island songs and I did a Tahitian dance. After the first hour, we played contemporary dance music.
Ah, the glamor of show biz. And what about the riotous offstage shenanigans legendary among professional musicians?
We shared a car and there wasn’t much to see in those Midwest towns days. you could see the sights in a week. So we slept in, watched TV, did laundry, cooked, hung out.
Bummer. So, what was Anjani’s take in her Canadian sojourn?
I loved every minute. I was sure I was on my way
First Calgary, Then Carnegie
And Anjani was on her way – although she didn’t know at the time that “her way” would entail many flights across the the Pacific, a few missteps along the path to love (missteps that were not without certain benefits), a year spent in school in Boston, several years of playing in New York clubs, the singing of far too many jingles, a move to L.A., a departure from L.A., a return to L.A., visitations to Canada of a significantly different sort than her first trip, a few years of hiatus from music (and life as she knew it) in Austin, a mysterious figure clad entirely in black who isn’t Johnny Cash, and, as I am fond of noting, much, much, more.
Coming Attractions: Stay tuned for the next episode of The Anjani Chronicles, featuring the misadventures of our heroine, the lovely and talented Anjani, and her beefy electromechanical companion, Fender Rhodes, in the lounges of Waikiki and the concrete canyons of The City That Never Sleeps, The Town So Nice They Named It Twice, That Place Where, If One Can Make It, One Can Make It Anywhere, the Big Apple itself – New York, New York.
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Anjani Does Waikiki, Boston, and The Slough Of Despond
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