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Parkinson’s Slows Ken Dixon, But He’s Still Making Music

Musician Ken Dixon at his home recording studio in Norwich. He built it so he could concentrate on music when he retired. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

Musician Ken Dixon at his home recording studio in Norwich. He built it so he could concentrate on music when he retired. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

Ken Dixon’s studio is a musician’s man cave. A neon “Lonely Llama Studio” sign casts the room in a purplish hue, and a wall of shelves holds maracas, harmonicas, guitar pedals and strings. A portable keyboard and a flat-screen computer monitor sit on his carpeted desk. On the other side of the room is a small booth for recording vocals.

Dixon, 62, calls the 8-by-14-foot home studio “ergonomic.” Other possibilities? Cozy. Small. Tight.

It’s where Dixon, of Norwich, has spent large chunks of the past decade, squirrelled away for hours, missing meals while making music. It’s the place he planned to retire to.

It’s where he recorded demos and sent them, via email, 3,000 miles away, where studio and touring musicians expounded on his musical ideas. His album Motives, which came out in 2011, was truly a product of the Internet age.

More than just distance made that necessary. File swapping was a way for Dixon’s friends to record the instruments that he can no longer play. He can still get the germ of an idea across, but advancing Parkinson’s disease stops him from going further.

There is no cure for Parkinson’s, which is chronic and progressive. Medications can help curb the tremors in his hand. His wife Ruth said her husband tried some, but they exacerbated his physical problems, so he stopped.

“It affects everything you do,” Ken Dixon said of the disease. “Forever.”

Origins

Dixon has been making music for more than half a century. He played his first concert to about 600 people in his native California, as part of a showcase for a new Hammond organ. The manufacturer wanted to show that anyone could play the instrument. Dixon was 5. He felt like a rock star.

Then came a blur of instruments, bands and plaid suits. He started learning guitar at about 10, and his Beatles phase came a couple of years later. He began circling the young-musician circuit of southern California, starting and stopping groups, meeting like-minded pre-teens at battle of the bands events.

One was Craig Bartock, an up-and-coming guitarist who’s now the lead guitarist for Heart. The pair joined forces in the mid-1970s, after Dixon returned from a three-year stint in the Army. They formed The Ken Dixon Band’s writing core. A group of musicians in the duo’s network rounded it out.

“And we sounded like this,” Dixon said, sitting at his studio’s desk chair.

He pulled up a track on iTunes. It started with a chunky bass line, and finger snaps for percussion.

“And looked like that,” he said, pointing out a very of-the-time album cover. He listened to himself sing.

“Little sister, this is your hour/ Little sister, don’t make it sour.”

A water drop synthesizer joined, and then massive power chords continued the verse. It was around the time of Elvis Costello, Dixon offered as explanation.

The band played shows in San Diego and showcases in Los Angeles. A label contract was on the table, but fell through. After one show he met a girl named Ruth, who worked as a nurse with one of his roadies at San Diego’s La Jolla Scripps Clinic.

“Ken’s personality on stage was incredible,” Ruth Dixon said. “The things that he would say between songs were very attractive, and very funny, and showed a real and high intelligence.”

She drove up to Los Angeles for his next show. They went back to San Diego together. Thirty-two years ago, they got married.

Then, responsibility called. Dixon went back to school — he had dropped out of high school to live in a park in Chula Vista, Calif., in the late 1960s — and worked at a hospital part time. He received a nursing degree.

Then, domesticity called. The couple had, as Dixon puts it, “two-point-two kids, one and a half cars,” and he agreed to not go on the road and perform anymore. He and Ruth moved out of an increasingly gang-heavy part of California to Norwich, a town recommended by a colleague who had attended Dartmouth College. They both got nursing jobs at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, where they worked the rest of their careers.

That was 22 years ago. After arriving in the Upper Valley, they built a house at the end of a gravel road that snakes through trees, with a shed behind that, and Dixon and his son built a recording studio in the basement. His plan was to retire and spend his days ensconced in that studio, and sometimes his nights, whenever inspiration called. It was a way to allow creative output without having to travel and tour.

In 2005, Dixon was recording vocals. He reached for a note. His hand twitched.

A Dark Period

For now, the tremors are pronounced on his right side, specifically his hand. The disease is beginning to affect his leg and left side, his neck and his shoulder. He occasionally stutters while speaking or speaks too fast. His voice has changed.

The initial symptom eight years ago didn’t cause Dixon to stop recording, and that year he released Phanta Morgana, a loose concept album that delves more explicitly into his classic and progressive rock roots. It was also the last album on which he played the majority of the instruments.

Back then, any tremors would stop as soon as he started playing guitar. But soon he began to drop his pick while playing. The movement became consistent and uncontrollable.

“Finally it did get to the point where I couldn’t play,” he said. “It wasn’t something that was looming on the horizon. It was here. I couldn’t play.”

He stopped trying, unable to see a solution.

He said he fell into a depression, and began drinking to set aside the realization that he could no longer play music.

At one point, he said, he was drinking nearly a fifth of scotch a night.

Ruth told him he was killing himself.

So he stopped drinking.

And that, in a way, was the beginning of Motives, a musical kiss-off to that low point, an outpouring of the emotion that built while Dixon wasn’t recording. As his head cleared, he began to chart a way to get back into the studio.

“The guitar wasn’t going to be my door out of this,” Dixon said.

To record the demos for Motives in 2010, he programmed metronomic drums into his workstation. He tracked left-hand piano parts with his left hand, then recorded the right-hand part with the same hand.

He digitally placed one part atop the other, and sent the file across the country, drawing upon a network of musicians formed over nearly a half-century of experience. Bartock, still one of Dixon’s closest friends, added guitars, bass, string arrangements and more. Scot Coogan, who drums for former KISS lead guitarist Ace Frehley, laid down grooving percussion to liven Dixon’s bare-bones initial tracks. Charlie Gillingham, of Counting Crows, played piano, notably on the emotional Fade to Black. Grammy Award-winner Seth Atkins Horan produced the album.

Dixon met Alan Witmer, the sole Upper Valley-based contributor, in church. Witmer, a classically trained pianist, spent eight hours recording in Norwich. Dixon told him he has good days and bad days, as far as the Parkinson’s goes.

“Frankly, I didn’t notice it messing anything up,” said Witmer, one of five credited piano players on Motives. “Somehow he managed — it was not a factor.”

The use of contributors was part of Dixon’s method to leapfrog the disease, to lay down what parts of the song he could and send them out to musicians who could liven and expand them. Only several of Dixon’s parts actually made the final album, besides his consistent lyrical presence.

“Music is mostly in our heads and then flows out through our hands,” Bartock, who recorded much of the music in Los Angeles, wrote in an email. “Ken’s illness won’t affect his ability to write. I can definitely handle the rest.”

Motives, then, captures Dixon’s thoughts and feelings during that time. The music, while heavily indebted to 1960s and 1970s rock, tends toward ominous indie-pop. The album grooves while it unsettles. The songs feel more inwardly focused than the maximalist prog-rock of Phanta Morgana, the album recorded before the disease took hold.

“It’s been a real growth for him,” Ruth Dixon said. “It’s really exciting to see him on the other side.”

Next Project

But Parkinson’s affects everything you do, forever.

Dixon is in the beginning stages of his next project. Playing guitar is more or less out of the picture. His vocals are fine, as long as he spends time warming up. His ability to play keyboards continues to wane, as the tremors move to the left side of his body.

There’s a way past that, at least in terms of getting an idea across to Bartock: the programming of individual piano notes and chords into a computer, to go along with the programmed drums. Dixon said he knows that could be considered “cheating,” but hopes people would understand, given the circumstances.

With his physical abilities slowing, the music is set to change as well. Dixon is planning to scale back on contributors and production tricks for this next project, focusing on just a few instruments and dual harmonies. The Everly Brothers, of Wake Up Little Susie fame, are his musical inspiration.

They’ll also contribute to the spirit behind Dixon’s lyrics, which he plans as a callback to the innocence of days past instead of the darker, nastier stuff on the radio, in the public consciousness and, yes, on Motives.

“Would it be all that goofy if you talked about holding hands, or a first kiss, or a first date, or dreaming about somebody in a non-homicidal fashion?” Dixon said. “You know? Would it really be that jerky? Would it really be that retro that nobody would want to listen to it?”

He pulled up an iTunes playlist and clicked “play.” Syrupy strings took over the studio and led into The Everly Brothers’ Let it Be Me. The brothers began to harmonize over a lightly brushed snare drum.

“I bless the day I found you/ I want to stay around you/ Now and forever ...”

“You know?” Dixon said, speaking between the vocals. “Maybe it’s corny.”

“Don’t take this heaven from one,

If you must cling to someone,

Now and forever, let it be me.”

“Maybe it is corny,” he said. “But what’s the matter with corny?”

Call it a retro rebellion, a pushback against the violence- and sex-heavy climate of today’s popular music. If Motives was Dixon’s way of exorcising himself, of darkening his lyrics to deal with dark days, this new project swings back to the careless, innocent idealism of mid-century America.

He turned to the computer and hit “play” again, calling up Floyd Cramer’s 1960 instrumental Last Date, a musical time capsule, all delicate piano, vocal “ooh”s and saccharine strings.

Imagine, Dixon said, that you’re dancing on the porch with your significant other. You just had dinner, and the French doors stand open. There’s nothing ominous in the air, nothing to worry about. You’re dancing with your other half, and you’re not afraid who sees you, because you dig it.

Jon Wolper can be reached at jwolper@vnews.com or 603-727-3248.