Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Boy at the GateThe Boy at the Gate by Danny Ellis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Boy at the Gate is a deeply personal memoir. It speaks to the lost child in every soul by channeling a boy's confused, innocent, desperate voice to convey the story, then weaving an adult's wisdom and perspective into the book to fill in the gaps and contemplate the life lessons that can be drawn from such a harrowing childhood.

This review is not without bias: I consider its author, Danny Ellis, a friend--mostly because we share a common experience of having our personal journeys palpably affected by the music and life of David Wilcox. We have only met on two occasions--once at a vocal workshop a couple of years ago and more recently at a house concert where I bought this book. But Danny's open and gentle spirit makes it easy to feel he is your friend even after single meeting. He has also been in my house (virtually) on a number of occasions as he gave vocal lessons to my wife via Skype. The reading of this book helps me understand and appreciate more fully the depth of his insights into vocal technique through his decades-long study of the breath.

I have given very few books five stars on Goodreads and I give this five-star review not because Danny is someone I know, but because The Boy at the Gate is an amazing example of memoir done right. Were I to have done a similar review of the CD 800 Voices on which this book was based, I would probably have given it a three- or four-star rating. Despite my affection for singer-songwriters and story songs, I never quite got into Danny's CD, though I loved the openness he displayed in sharing his songs about his experience of being abandoned by his "Ma" and left in the oppressive and abusive environs of the Artane Industrial School in Dublin, Ireland. Now, having read his remarkable account, I look forward to revisiting that CD and taking those songs in with new appreciation.

The Boy at the Gate is Danny's gentle and forgiving telling of what can only be described as a heart-wrenching, soul-crushing and physically abusive childhood. Danny grew up in a home of neglect in Dublin and then, in 1955, was thrown into a Lord of the Flies world with more than 800 other boys from ages six to sixteen. The Artane Industrial School was even worse than being lost on an island with a bunch of boys because there was adult supervision - supervision in the form of severe physical abuse and emotional neglect handed down by a staff of just forty members of the Christian Brotherhood. The abuses of Artane have been well documented by the Ryan Report.

It is also the story of the redemptive power of music and how Danny was able to survive the trauma of the Artane prison by pouring himself into the Artane Boy's Band. Music keeps him grounded and gives him hope. Music gives him a constructive place to push his energy, his anger, his cries of anguish. Music gives him a future--something that many of the sixteen-year-old graduates of Artane were unable to find as the perverse social skills (really, survival skills) they developed on the desolate playground of Artane prove utterly ineffective outside the schoolyard walls.

I found many aspects of this book remarkable: Danny elegantly captures the voice of his little boy self. We see the streets of Dublin through his child eyes and hear it described through his voice of innocence in the truest sense of the word innocent. Even as he recounts his childhood criminal escapades of stealing food for himself and his two younger sisters and twin baby brothers, you understand how limited is his comprehension of the events he witnesses and the emotions he feels.

Danny effectively moves back and forth between his child voice and his own adult voice as he tells the story of how these experiences ultimately unleash a torrent of emotions and memories that quickly take the form of a collection of songs--his 800 Voices CD and, still later, this memoir. The echoes of that young voice resonate with the voice of his adult self and the co-mingling of these distinct voices is a tribute to Danny's gifts as a musician and arranger. That he is able to accomplish this same richness in prose--his second language--as in music is a thing to behold.

I broke my habit of night-time reading to finish the last 25 pages this morning. The closing revelations were truly surprising and moving. His Epilogue, Author's Notes and Acknowledgements appending this memoir were not afterthoughts; they complete the story by adding important context and perspective to the emotional portraits and landscapes he lovingly crafted in the prior pages. Those final pages also demonstrate the remarkable writing abilities of the adult-voiced Danny. The contrast of the early pages with the latter reminded me of experiencing a Monet retrospective; I was dutifully appreciative of Monet's impressionistic works, but came to see them on an entirely new level once I saw his earlier works that included lushly detailed paintings. I was able to see that his Impressionism works, like Danny's childhood recollections, were not lazily slapped together, but were deeply artistic and telling communications of the essence of the captured moment.

Perhaps what was most remarkable to me was the redemption he creates in the telling of it all. He leaves me wanting to be that same spirit--one who understands the human condition and stands ready to forgive and receive forgiveness from others and from myself.

View all my reviews

Monday, April 08, 2013

Reflection - A New ACMImimi Video Project

I am cross-posting this from my ACMImimi blog. Thank you for helping make a great video that can inspire others...

I've written a new song, "Reflection," that speaks about the cancer journey as seen through the eyes of a caregiver and lover of one experiencing cancer. You can listen to an acoustic demo of the song at ReverbNation or through the widget below. The lyrics are at the end of this post.

The Reflection Video Project 

I'm now working with some musician friends -- Bill "Bumblebee" Davis and Travis Erwin -- to create a more polished version of the song, which will be soundtrack for a new video featuring, well, I hope, you. If you have a loved one -- be they a spouse, uncle, mother, friend -- whose chronic illness, cancer journey or other healthcare challenge you'd like to celebrate, please send an email to
  • Attach a picture (higher resolution is better - JPEG preferred) 
  • Include a brief quote, message of hope or just an "atta-boy" note that's about twitter length (140-ish characters) and suitable for sharing 
  • Let us know the names of the folks in the picture (first names only if you want) and where you are from (state/country is sufficient if that's all you want to share). 
  • Tell us your story too if you're willing to share it. 
You can also post your picture/message/story as a comment on this blog post. By sending the picture, names and message, you are giving me permission to use them in the video montage, post them here on, and otherwise use them to promote the song and video.

Contributors to the video will, of course, automatically be eligible to become Fellows of The College (but you still have to fill out an application form). Unlike many honorifics, the FACMImimi designation comes at no cost to the recipient (at least until such time as The College can figure out a way to charge real money for it) and is based purely on one's contributions to the art and science of Medical Informatimusicology.

Okay, that last paragraph wandered back into the highfalutin voice of ACMImimi. But please know that we at The College are grateful for all that you do for making healthcare work better and loving people with medical needs. We hope this project will inspire us all to be better caregivers and to see the beauty in our loved ones even as they face difficult health challenges. Thank you.


Autumn rustles out my window
Winter's time is near
Shorter days cast longer shadows
On the path we walk from here
It's a detour undesired
Still it's ours to share
With a passion so inspired
I'll go with you anywhere

Just let me be your mirror
So you can see
Even as you're changing
You are beautiful to me
Let me be your mirror
Let me be the one
Let my eyes reflect your beauty
As the moon reflects the sun

It's easy to be frightened
When the weather rolls in
The senses are heightened
And faith wears thin
All the slings and arrows
Start to take their toll
If we focus on the narrow
We miss out on the whole

So let me be your mirror
So you can see
Even as you're changing
You are beautiful to me
Let me be your mirror
Let me be the one
Let my eyes reflect your beauty
As the moon reflects the sun

I can't promise you a miracle
Still I'll pray one comes our way
I'll be right here through it all
And I'll love you every day
In every way
So hear me say

Please let me be your mirror
So you can see
Even as you're changing
You are beautiful to me
Let me be your mirror
Let me be the one
Let my eyes reflect your beauty
As the moon reflects the sun

(c)2013 Ross D. Martin