Monthly Archives: January 2022

In Honor of the 80th Birthday of a Great Songwriter, Poet & Friend, Stephen Kalinich

Featuring Stevie’s own remembrances of writing the beloved Beach Boys’ song “Little Bird” with Dennis Wilson

Photos by Paul Zollo/Tremolo Ghost

Happy Stevie Day! Today, remarkably, is the 80th birthday of the great songwriter-poet-painter-pacifist-visionary-mensch Stephen Kalinich. AKA “Stevie” to his friends, of which there are multitudes. I am proud to be a lifetime member of the FOS (Friends of Stevie), which is an expansive coalition of artists, musicians, poets, actors, writers and also civilians: those who love artists, musicians, poets, actors, writers and all they bring to our world

Happy Stevie Day! Today, remarkably, is the 80th birthday of the great songwriter-poet-painter-pacifist-visionary-mensch Stephen Kalinich. AKA “Stevie” to his friends, of which there are multitudes. I am proud to be a lifetime member of the FOS (Friends of Stevie), which is an expansive coalition of artists, musicians, poets, actors, writers and also civilians: those who love artists, musicians, poets, actors, writers and all they bring to our world

He was the closest and most trusted friend of the late great songwriter P.F. Sloan, known as Phil to his friends, of which I was one. It was Phil who first introduced me to Stevie, and let me know – without words – that Stevie could be trusted. That he was one of the good ones. Real good.

But it was at Phil’s funeral at the South Pasadena library that Stevie and I bonded. I gave the eulogy and Stevie read his beautiful poem, “If You Knew.” And I knew. This is a man of real-time heart and soul. A man of peace, as was Phil, in a world of war. A man of poetry and song in a world of dissonance and fury. A man of love in this sorrowful war-torn world. A man of hope and light always, even through these long seasons of darkness and despair.

He’s the rare poet who has always reflected the joy of life and art. He loves words, and he knows all the traditional structures and frames. He also knows truth. But what matters most, as we learn from his art, is the human connection. His message is to feel the joy. Don’t worry about life. Love the journey. And remind others just how finite and fleeting it is, so don’t get too distracted by the shiny things, or the darkness. Better to light your own light, and with it to illuminate the pathways for others hoping to make it through.

He is, as one friend said, someone “who will always show up.” Whether physically or with spirit, Stevie is well-known for letting others feel his love, and know they are not alone.

Happy Stevie Kalinich Day! - American Songwriter
Stevie Kalinich at Book Soup, 2020.
Photo by Zollo.

Often he does beautiful, magical things for his friends. He does these usually in semi-secret, so as to deliver the joy without any hint of self-glory. No doubt most of these remain unknown, but one recent one surfaced, and stands as a great symbol of Stevie’s tender heart and gentle benevolence:

When our friend Zak Nilsson, the son of Harry, was fighting a long and devastating battle with the cancer that took his life in March, 2021, Stevie reached out to a famous friend to let him know what Zak was going through, and maybe inspire a few words from him. That friend was Paul McCartney. (Paul sang on the beautiful “A Friend Like You,” which Stevie wrote with Brian Wilson.)

McCartney immediately sent off a letter of love to Zak. Zak, in turn, moved by McCartney’s expression and also his identification of the man who triggered it, posted a message about it online:

“I got this letter from Paul McCartney the other day,” wrote Zak. “He heard I had cancer and sent me this note. I was very touched that Harry’s friendship meant this much to Paul.”

In the letter, Paul wrote this:

“Paul McCartney here. Steven Kalinich wrote to me to let me know that you are about to have chemo, so I am sending you this note to encourage you to be strong and positive.I was privileged to know your Dad whom I knew as a lovely guy and a great talent. I wish you the very best of luck with the treatment. My wife, Nancy, went through it years ago and stuck with it even though she hated it. She is now better and well, except for the fact she is married to me!!

Sending the very best vibrations to you. Be well. Love Paul.”

Paul McCartney’s letter to Zak Nilsson, requested by Stevie, February 4, 2019.

Stevie has long embodied the beautiful symbol in his most beloved song, “Little Bird,” which he co-wrote with Dennis Wilson. It’s on the Beach Boys’ 1968 album Friends,  and was produced by Brian Wilson. Brian also wrote the music for the bridge section, though chose to be uncredited for it, perhaps to shine more light on his brother Dennis, and also Stevie.

“`Little Bird’ blew my mind,” said Brian Wilson, “because it was so full of spiritualness.

It is a magical, wonderful song. It’s not as famous as the big hits, which seems right, as the subject is delicate and small, yet makes a timeless impact, because it is genuine. Stevie always wrote from his heart, informed by his unbound love of language and poetry and song, and sweetened by love itself: for life, for Dennis , for art, music and beauty.

“It’s something people don’t talk about much, or even ask about,” Stevie said, “but I was in love when I wrote that song. Love shaped “Little Bird” more than anything.,

In honor of Stevie’s 80th birthday – and the fact that Stevie at 80 remains one of the youngest, most exultant, sweet , brilliant and funny people there is – we are happy to celebrate him here with this journey into the origins of “Little Bird.”  I

t began, as he told us, with a poem he wrote inspired by seeing a little robin outside of Dennis Wilson’s home. 

Stephen Kalinich, “Dennis”
A Poem for Dennis Wilson
Video by Paul Zollo

STEPHEN KALINICH: There was a little bird who gave me the poem, these words. The bird gave me the poem. It was a little bird, a robin with kind of a rough breast. And that bird, for me, was God’s messenger. His messenger of life for me. That is what I believe.

“Little Bird”was a miracle song for me. I felt so good about it. And my truth is I never thought of it becoming a hit. I never thought of money. I wanted to pour this kind of feeling into the world. 

Remember Jay Ward who did “Bullwinkle”? In 1966 I met a guy that worked with him at the Hollywood YMCA and he loved my poems.

Stevie with his Art
Photo by Paul Zollo

He said, “I’m good friends with Jay Ward and I’m friends with Brian Wilson.” So I would go down to Jay’s studio on Sunset there and I would sing him my folk chants that are now on the World of Peace album. I got to be friends with them and he set up meetings to go and see Brian Wilson. 

Brian was playing at the Smothers Brothers Theater on Sunset in Hollywood. The first time I met him., The Beach Boys were rehearsing there. 

Brian and I hit it off. He loved me and we just hit it off. Then the next thing I know, I had a contract with the Beach Boys as a writer and as a performer. The name of my group was Zarasthustra & Thelebeus.  It was with Mark Lindsey Buckingham, who is  not the one from Fleetwood Mac.  He was a singer/songwriter and 12-string guitar player. He and I got signed, both of us, to Brother Records as publishers and performers.

Stephen John Kalinich | Light In The Attic Records
Brian Wilson & Stevie Kalinich

Brian drew up the contracts. Nick Grillo was the one who actually had us sign the contract. I had no attorneys so it was not the fairest deal.

So then they introduced me to Dennis, and we got together to write a song. The first song we wrote was “Little Bird.” I went to his house at 14400 Sunset Boulevard. He was renting Will Rodgers’ old house.

“Little Bird” was done in that house. Dennis had a tree hut in the front of his property; a little house about 30 feet up. He and I would go up there. And that was the “Little Bird” time.

I was sitting at his piano, looking out the window, and I saw a bird up in the tree. And it’s almost like God or grace: The sun was shining. It was mid-afternoon. It was still light in the day and there was a little sunshine.

I wrote the words to “Little Bird.” I left it on his piano. He was upstairs doing something. He called me that night at midnight and had the melody done. He didn’t like one word: “stripe.” So he went right off my lyric. In fact, all my early songs with him, I did the words first. Like “Be Still.” I did the words first and then he did the music. I never wrote off a track with him.

Brian did have a hand in this but never claimed credit. He wrote the bridge part of the music: “Where’s my pretty bird? He must have flown away.”

I wrote the poem, the lyric, when I was sitting at the piano. Brian was not there, only me and Dennis. I wrote the lyric first and then in less than an hour, Dennis found it and was inspired with music. It was as if the words and melody were in him. Brian added his part in the studio.

The Beach Boys, “Little Bird”
By Stephen Kalinich & Dennis Wilson. Produced by Brian Wilson. From the Beach Boys’ album Friends, 1968.

That was our first song and six weeks later it was out all over the world.

 When I said, “the little bird up in a tree looked down and sang a song to me of how it began,” I wanted to repeat the words “how it began.” It was a lesson that the bird was giving me of life.

The little bird’s phrase was about all the secrets of all the universe, and of every song that’s ever been written, and every possible creative act. Because it all comes from the sea of divine love, or energy, if you want to call it that, if you’re a physicist. Or you can call it God, the universal music. The Sufi’s call it the one vibration where all music emanates in the stillness.

It’s also in the Bible, “Be still and know that I am God.”

All this was in “Little Bird.” Later, “Be Still” became a song of its own, but it was already in “Little Bird.” That’s why you can see out of that, the first one, how it began. And then he says, “How it began.” Which meant how all matter began.

Donovan and Stevie.
Photo by Zollo.

It’s about what Einstein wrote about: the all-encompassing universe. “Little Bird” was a microcosm of matter and energy; the creation of the solar system. And I thought all that then when I wrote it. That’s why on the next refrain, the trout in the shiny brook gave a warm and loving look. To say that you don’t need to worry about us. That’s what he said.

So I’m saying by that reflection to you out there listening: “Don’t worry about your life. Here’s all the answers. It’s in the trout. It’s in the little bird. It’s in the flowers in the meadow. ” That theme is running through a lot of my work then. Little bird might drop me a seed for a tree to grow…

It’s so magical, like a Zen moment.

A lot of people misheard the lyric, and got it wrong – and it is even printed wrong often. The real lyric is “the trout in a shiny brook gave a warm and loving look.” But often people think the trout “gave the worm another hook.”

If people sing it that way, fine. But the original thing is that instead of the hook, he gave a warm and loving look and said, “Don’t worry about your life.”

Stevie with Quincy Jones
Photo by Paul Zollo

Other writers borrowed words from other people. I tried to do it from the pure Zen of the experience with simple words that everyone could understand. It was the fashion then to be abstract. But instead of being abstract, I tried to put it in plain words. I wanted to be an effective communicator, and I hope I have become that in some areas.

`Little Bird’ was one of the greatest experiences in my life. The grace of the universe was involved and it has blessed me my whole life.”

“Little Bird”

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

Na na na na na na
Na na na na na na
Na na na na na na

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

Na na na na na na
Na na na na na na
Na na na na na na

Tree in my own backyard
Stands all alone
Bears fruit for me
And it tastes so good

Where’s my pretty bird?
He must have flown away
If I keep singing
He’ll come back someday

Dawn, bird’s still gone
Guess I’ll go mow the lawn

What a day, what a day
Oooo, what a beautiful day this is

Little bird up in a tree
Looked down a sang a song to me
The trout in a shiny brook
Gave a warm and loving look
And told me not to worry about my life

Little bird looked down
And sang a song to me
Little bird looked down
And sang a song to me
Little bird looked down
And sang a song to me

Reason to Rejoice: Laura Nyro, Trees of the Ages

Recorded live in Japan, 1994

This new set also features beautifully
poetic liner notes by our friend and fellow-author-songwriter, John Kruth

It is the ideal moment for this album to arrive. It’s a new year again, the newest one yet. There is the joy of  liberation in America and beyond as the long season of lockdown gloom and doom is slowly fading out. Again we can rejoice at being in the sunshine again, no longer on house arrest but free to take in nature again. Trees, flowers, birds, squirrels and other assorted wildlife on the outside of our windows are all in the happy sway of June, and this album – Trees of the Ages – arrives like a celebration for our endurance. 

As devout Laura Nyro fans around the world (a club to which this writer proudly belongs) already knows, every record she made in her 49 years contains a miracle of beauty, inspiration, wisdom of the streets and of the ages, beautiful artistry, melodic splendor and dimensional love for a life spent inside songs. When she died in 1997, she’d already created enough truly great music for a lifetime. Unlike other great songwriting careers cut short, her’s did not seem incomplete. It seems likely that with a spirit so luminously enlightened, realizing her entire opus during her earthly life span was never an issue.

Her live shows, as those who were there know well, were unlike most other concerts in that she wasn’t performing the songs. This was entertainment, but much more. She inhabited each song fully, and gave it voice. Onstage she beamed with a beautifully zen state of calm, as the music – replete with her warm, jazz-fed chords, streetwise lyricism and her soul singing – shone like moonglow.   

Laura Nyro got older, but she never got old. Her songs never have aged at all. They are truly timeless. That writers often wax poetic when she is the subject to that enduring magic in the songs, and in her performances of them. Prose alone for Laura Nyro just doesn’t suffice. John Kruth’s great liner notes, which he kindly allowed us to reprint here, serve as an appropriately exultant and inspired epic adjunct to this journey. His words resonate with the luminous joy that radiate in her songs and spirit. Kruth, a songwriter, musician and music scholar, reached with real-time reverence to that realm from which her songs came, and brought back this poem.

Mr. Kruth is the author of many great books about our greatest songwriters and musicians. His newest, Hold On World: The Lasting Impact of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Plastic Ono Band, Fifty Years On, was released June 1st of this year.

Trees of The Ages
Laura Nyro Live in Japan


Black hair shrouds her pale face like the night sky swallowing the moon.

Her lips are stained with bittersweet grapevine poems that beckon and seduce, as her moonbeam fingers, long and silvery, do a slow float over ivory piano keys, finding, fondling warm chords that resonate in heart chambers from Osaka to the Bronx.

A melancholy architect who, since the age of five, built a world of music that she laid stone by stone, a yellow brick sidewalk that zigzagged to her own private Oz, where Judy Garland and Claude Debussy shared a picnic in the eternal poppy fields, below a “Broken Rainbow.” Laura, the Earth Mother, tossed her sonic summer salad of gospel and jazz, with croutons of doo wop, and a zesty dressing of giddy Broadway musical motifs.

Brown earth tones that gently cradled words that can’t be expressed, no matter how playful and graceful, without the embrace of melody. Eyes distant gazing, lost in thought, listening to something nobody else can hear, like having a conversation with the divine.

A woman of the “Wild World,” Laura was never one to color between the lines. Known to drive her sidemen to the brink with tempos that shifted with her every mood. Each song, a prayer. Brief and fleeting meditations, as time hangs suspended in the moments between the last fading notes and the applause that falls like snowflakes on a hot cast iron stove. The Japanese audience so careful and polite, hoping not to break the gossamer spell she wove with the sharp clapping of hands.

Harmonies pour from the three Dianes (only Laura Nyro could have a choir of Dianas) echo her every word and emotion. “Diana,” a name traditionally associated with the Roman goddess of fertility, hunting and childbirth, that translates to “luminous,” “divine,” “fertile,” and “perfect.” As her piano pulses, she namechecks the lyre strumming poetess, Sappho, the “Tenth Muse,” who lived and died on the island of Lesbos. Louise’s Church” is dedicated to the chic Russian sculptor Louise Nevelson, the tragic jazz diva Billie Holiday, and Frida Kahlo, who painted her autobiography in brilliant hues. 

You can learn a lot from just one of Nyro’s songs. Which led me to do a bit more research beyond the usual stuff like her baby boomer birthdate: the 18th of October, 1947 (just barely two years after the war finally ended) and what her papa Louis Nigro (yes, she changed her name) did for a living: blowing jazz trumpet and tuning pianos. According to my Wicca sister Conleth, from St. Paul, Minnesota, “the moon, on February 22, 1994, (the date of this recording) was in Cancer, at 17°, in the phase known as Waxing Gibbous – a time for manifesting deep emotion, and a sense of belonging in the world. But being in Cancer, the stomach, lymph system and sexual/reproductive organs were particularly more sensitive and needed extra care.”

We human beings are constantly faced with forces both unknown and beyond our control, often feeling like the star of a movie we didn’t write, and are clearly not directing, yet always wondering when and how it will end. Laura’s gentle reading of “And When I Die” takes on a deeper significance here, knowing, as we do now, that she would soon be gone and “one child [will be] born and the world will carry on…” Like her mother, Gilda, the bookkeeper, Laura too was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. With the spring of 1997, she was gone at forty-nine, the same age at which her mom died. Her ashes were then scattered beneath “The Tree of Ages,” at her home in Danbury, Connecticut.

Everything about Laura Nyro spelled drama, from the way she tossed her head back as she belt out her lonely moon siren songs that poured from her throat, sculpting the air in Van Gogh curves that swirled and continue to undulate like waves of wind, as beads of sweat sparkled on her forehead, and ran down her neck like tears of moonlight, bursting and flowing down the cheeks of those who need her (still), think they know her, bought a piece of her soul for $6.95 at Sam Goody’s, and listen repeatedly to her voice igniting joy and beckoning them through the dark night of the soul.

And although unpredictable, she was never acting! The dark-eyed gypsy Madonna lights another cigarette in her candle-lit womb. The rituals she regularly performed to keep herself from drowning in an undertow of emotion became a lifesaver tossed to thousands of others around the world in quiet distress. Although they might not show it waiting in line to get in to see her, below the surface of their anticipating faces, down in the flat fish territory of their souls, lies a suitcase of sorrow, that freight of destiny we all lug around until it finally, effortlessly, slips off our back,
one hallelujah morning. 

In these (and those) sad/mad times, there remains the eternal hope that a song might still rescue us. “Save the Country!” “It’s Gonna Take A Miracle” … yes, indeed. Concerned about the fate of our planet, our environment, humanity, and animals, Laura Nyro became a vegetarian and animal rights activist, joined the peace movement, the women’s movement, and the movement of the soul, stirred by rock’n’roll, and R&B. She knew music was the healing force of the universe, generously offering “an invitation across the nation” and a chance to dance in the street. She smiled in the face of adversity, while flagging down “The Poverty Train,” tackling problems of racism and sexism that we already confronted (and foolishly thought we solved) with the struggles and protests of the 50s, 60s and 70s.

It’s late now. The windows are opaque with night. The moon is distant and high in the sky, its pale face shrouded by another storm of raven-black hair, as Laura sings her “Luna Rosé” songs that reverberate through the walls of time, back to when she sat alive at the piano in Osaka, clad in a silky kimono and tabi (split-toed) boots, punctuating the end of each offering with a gentle “arigato” (thank you). Time keeps spinning and flashing by like the carnival rides she once took, while laughing boys back in her broody teenage Bronx days, stood like awkward flowers, watching, joking, smoking, flicking cigarette butts onto oily, rain-puddled streets, as she sang, “It can never be the way we want it to be…”

No, I guess not. But we still have the music.

–John Kruth,
April 13, 2021

Hold On World, the new book by John Kruth

The Truelove

A Poem


There is a faith in loving fiercely
the one who is rightfully yours,
especially if you have
waited years and especially
if part of you never believed
you could deserve this
loved and beckoning hand
held out to you this way.

I am thinking of faith now
and the testaments of loneliness
and what we feel we are
worthy of in this world.

Years ago in the Hebrides
I remember an old man
who walked every morning
on the grey stones
to the shore of the baying seals,
who would press his hat
to his chest in the blustering
salt wind and say his prayer
to the turbulent Jesus
hidden in the water,
and I think of the story
of the storm and everyone
waking and seeing
the distant
yet familiar figure
far across the water
calling to them,
and how we are all
preparing for that
abrupt waking,
and that calling,
and that moment
we have to say yes,
except it will
not come so grandly,
so Biblically,
but more subtly
and intimately in the face
of the one you know
you have to love,
so that when we finally step out of the boat
toward them, we find
everything holds
us, and confirms
our courage, and if you wanted
to drown you could,
but you don’t
because finally
after all the struggle
and all the years,
you don’t want to any more,
you’ve simply had enough
of drowning
and you want to live and you
want to love and you will
walk across any territory
and any darkness,
however fluid and however
dangerous, to take the
one hand you know
belongs in yours.
Aussie Photographer at Day of the Dead,
Hollywood Forever, 2017.
Photo by Paul Zollo/Tremolo Ghost
Noho Barbershop, 2017.
Photo by Paul Zollo/Tremolo Ghost