There’s just something about sibling harmony.
There are artists whose music I love, but whose output I find too prolific to follow — guys like Bill Mallonee, who I think is a genius songwriter but blasts records out at a bewildering pace, or Charlie Hunter, who seems to eat, sleep, and breathe with his trademark seven- and eight-string guitars strapped around his neck.
This often makes me sad, because I feel like a bad fan, but it can also lead to moments like the one I had earlier this week, when I happened to catch a Facebook post from Hunter featuring a shot of the (apparently still not for sale) vinyl version of his fabulously titled Gentlemen, I Neglected to Inform You You Will Not Be Getting Paid. Hoping to buy it, I headed to Hunter’s site, where I discovered that in addition to his current PledgeMusic project with Dionne Farris, he’d gone and released a pair of new records lately.
First, there’s Omaha Diner, which finds Hunter working with drummer Bobby Previte, trumpeter Steve Bernstein, and Skerik on sax. Their manifesto: “The Diner only plays #1 hits. If it didn’t make it to #1, they don’t play it.”
Their self-titled LP contains Diner-ized versions of “Locked Out of Heaven,” “Thrift Shop,” “Single Ladies,” “The Reflex,” “Wishing Well,” “Lose Yourself, “Another One Bites the Dust,” “War,” and “Big Girls Don’t Cry” — and although this isn’t a Charlie Hunter record per se, each cut is full of that fat, shambolic sound that comes from being a big enough badass that you can roll the two-inch tape and rock, and stay loose enough to keep things funky. It’s good stuff.
Also good stuff: Pucker, the new 11-song set from drummer Scott Amendola. Again, not technically a Hunter record; Amendola wrote the songs, after all. But this is more than Hunter returning the favor for Amendola keeping the beat on 2012′s Not Getting Behind Is the New Getting Ahead — Hunter said he wanted to take a break from writing and just play, and his work here bubbles and buzzes with an infectious playfulness. I’ve spent the last couple of days with both of these albums on constant repeat, and I thought you might like them too. Hit the links anywhere in this post to buy ‘em.
The old man reached under his bed and pulled out an ancient cardboard guitar case. Opening it slowly, he removed the oldest Gibson guitar I had ever seen and strummed it once with his giant brown thumb. “I gots it tuned like a banjo — the fourth string down. You tune it to suit yourself.”
I ran the string the way it was — making my E chord into a minor. I pulled up the G string to standard (like the Bo Diddley open D tuning, yet another secret code of their magical black music). I ham fisted some slow blues. Gus Cannon, onetime leader of the Jug Stompers, slowly swayed in the dusty light streaks from the now setting sun, his eyes about closed. After a few minutes he asked, “You like that music, white boy?”
“Don’ mess with it if you don’ like it. Dats ol’ music and it sot in its ways.”
That’s an excerpt from The Search for Blind Lemon, a sprawling musical memoir written by famed producer and recording artist Jim Dickinson. Although Dickinson died in 2009, Search only surfaced in the Oxford American‘s 2013 Southern Music Issue — a case of odd timing, perhaps, but one that makes perfect sense given the subject. Jim Dickinson was responsible for helping to create some truly timeless music, but he was always out of step with the times, a modern white Southerner with the ossified soul of a barrelhouse bluesman.
Search details Dickinson’s musical upbringing, specifically the way he fell in love with the blues and spent many fruitless (albeit ultimately incredibly useful) years trying to decipher its magic. Taken from a certain point of view, it’s possible to see Dickinson’s story as a sort of blues authenticity primer, a guide through all the hoedowns, graveyards, and sharecropper’s shacks a person needs to track down before he can even begin to understand the music. But although Dickinson clearly valued his journey (and wrote it out so vibrantly that you can practically see and hear it), I think that’s a faulty reading.
I think this article really serves as a sort of amateur’s credo — a colorfully illustrated guide to understanding and embracing what you love without destroying it, which is trickier than it probably sounds. Bitten by the blues bug, Dickinson set off on one musical expedition after another, grasping at the chords, totems, and relationships that would give him the key to what he refers to at one point as “the black man’s magic powerful technique.” But the deeper he delved into the culture behind the music, the more he understood that it wasn’t his to understand — that no matter how desperately he wanted to break through racial barriers, he was always going to be an outsider on some level.
Dickinson’s painful realization is more or less the crux of the gnat-like “authenticity” debate that tends to buzz around modern music that openly mimics traditional forms. You can’t wade into blues or Americana waters without stumbling into this bog hole. It isn’t enough to learn the chord progressions; you’ve got to earn the blues, preferably by drinking out of mason jars and working a mule plow through a rocky holler.
This was territory Dickinson traveled and understood well. But he also understood that it ultimately didn’t get him any closer to that essential thing he was looking for when he went hunting for Blind Lemon Jefferson’s grave or studied at Gus Cannon’s knee. “We were invading a private culture where we had no place,” he writes at one point. “As badly as I wanted to learn the secrets of Blind Lemon, I did not want to trespass on this private history, this society that had produced the music that I loved.”
It sounds like Dickinson is reinforcing that tired old “authenticity” argument here, but the more you read The Search for Blind Lemon, the clearer it becomes that he’s doing the opposite. Make an art form the exclusive property of those who’ve earned it in the name of preservation, and you’re really just embalming it under glass for observation — an object to be reverently worshiped from a distance, Ken Burns style, or fetishized and pantomimed by practitioners content to echo.
The hell with reverence. Jim Dickinson was as interested as anyone in blues archaeology — listen to his field recordings for proof — but preserving something isn’t the same thing as keeping it alive, and if his travels never took him to the mythical place he was originally looking for, they ultimately equipped him with something more valuable than signposts and gateways to the past. I think they helped him understand that in order to carry the music forward, he had to make it his own — and that ultimately, the only “authenticity” you really need is the authentic love it takes to submerge yourself so far inside that you rub out the line between choices and instincts. As Teddy Roosevelt’s often quoted as saying: “Comparison is the thief of joy.”
I’ve been thinking about all this as I listen to World Boogie Is Coming, the latest (and, to these ears, greatest) effort from Jim Dickinson’s boys Luther and Cody, a.k.a. the North Mississippi Allstars. Seventeen tracks and just under an hour long, Boogie is nothing if not a well-greased gateway to the blues — a gleeful celebration of the music that shaped the younger Dickinsons’ childhoods, featuring the songs of R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, Otha Turner, Willie Dixon, Bukka White, and Sleepy John Estes & Furry Lewis, as well as a few originals and traditional numbers for good measure.
It’s the kind of record that tends to provoke florid critical prose involving juke joints and mason jars, as well as fresh rounds of that damn “authenticity” debate. I’ve passed the album around to a few friends, and it’s triggered more than a few Black Keys comparisons, with most people agreeing that this is what the Keys would sound like if they could muster anything more muscular than what one friend scornfully referred to as “Ohio pop music.”
That’s not entirely inaccurate, in my opinion, and kind of funny, too. But it’s also kind of mean, and I’m not here to slag the Black Keys, or compare them to the North Mississippi Allstars. I think it’s enough to point out the superficial similarities in their efforts, and use them as an example of how many different routes people can take in their separate quests to reach the same spot on the map.
The younger Dickinsons had the major advantage of basically being junior bluesmen while they were still in the womb, and although it was surely a conscious decision to fill World Boogie Is Coming with the songs of their forebears, I think at this point, the Allstars’ essential sound is something that mostly just happens, like breathing. They do what they do because it is what they do. They’re on the right side of that divide between choice and instinct; they’re submerged, and their music is alive in a way that other artists are still searching for, the same way their dad once tried to decode the Rosetta Stone of the open D tuning.
But it isn’t about birthright or proximity. It’s about loving what you do enough to do the work to do it better. It’s about respecting those who came before you enough to learn from them — and after that, respecting them enough to recognize the difference between living tribute and slavish imitation. Find your way, then be well and truly sot in it.
The ukulele might be the official instrument for YouTube cover artists and Zooey Deschanel wannabes, but I’ll tell you something else it’s good for: Aging writers who have always loved music but have never had enough patience to develop any actual musical skill.
If you know me, you know I was a recording artist in a former life — I ran a label and released albums of my own, as well as a couple of records for other artists. And it’s true that I co-wrote a fair number of songs, but they were all composed the same way: first in my head, then with me singing lyrics and a melody to someone with enough instrumental chops to make it real. It’s a rewarding method, in its own way — if nothing else, it teaches you to appreciate how much something can change during the journey from your head to someone else’s fingers while still feeling demonstrably your own. The songs always felt fresh the first time I heard them, and it was always exciting to record them, but in a large and fairly painful sense, I always felt like a bystander in my own music.
I walked away from it in late 2000, after a horrible gig that came at just the right time to underscore every bit of doubt I’d been feeling in the weeks and months prior. I hadn’t really been writing, and every time I started a song, it felt like I was just treading tired old ground — I still felt like there was something out there for me to say, but more and more, I understood that I didn’t have the vocabulary, and I wasn’t going to build it until I tore down everything else in my repertoire. I needed to learn the language I’d been relying on others to speak for me — to pick up an instrument and start over from the beginning.
Needless to say, it didn’t happen right away. Words are my medium, and never mind the music — as a lyricist, I felt like a dried-up hack by the time I walked away from the microphone. I wasn’t in any hurry to pick that up again, and I’m still not; I haven’t written a song in nearly 15 years, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.
That isn’t what this post is about.
I bought my uke (a nice little tenor Ohana) after years of awkwardly fooling around with my daughter’s ukulele in stops and starts. Last fall, a uke-playing friend of ours spent the weekend with us, and by the time he left, he’d written a couple of songs with her. The sheer fun of the whole experience motivated me to take a more disciplined approach, and once I delved in, I was hooked; it’s hard to say no to an instrument with one-finger chords. My daughter, of course, didn’t take kindly to all my mucking around with her axe, so after a little hemming and hawing over the price, I decided to invest in one of my own.
Going in, the driving force behind my purchase was mainly the idea that it would add one more weapon to my Unstuck Arsenal. When I hit a rough patch with a piece I’m working on, I tend to cope by doing something else for a bit — sweeping, washing dishes, driving, that kind of thing. Preferably something physical but somewhat mindless, so I can stay occupied while opening up the creative part of my brain to whatever solutions it refuses to see while I’m sitting at the keyboard. Purging a block and getting a clean house out of the bargain is a pretty good deal, but if I can learn a few chords while I’m at it, so much the better, right?
So I’ve been banging on this thing a lot lately, not just learning the chords but practicing the changes, and it’s a joy. I mean, look — I’m 39 years old. I’m never going to be great with any musical instrument, and I may never even figure out how to play a song with this, let alone write one on my own. But it’s a terrific unstuck tool, and even more importantly, I’ve found it’s also a crucial component in my ongoing quest to reconnect myself to music in general.
As I’ve been walking around the house strumming, I’ve been thinking a lot about how tactile music used to be. From the upright piano in the parlor to the records and tapes I grew up with, music wasn’t just something you listened to, it was something you held and managed. It didn’t give you total control, though — that needle and those magnetic heads were powerful tools, but they were kind of blunt, and for some of us, there was a really intoxicating push and pull to the way you consumed music while it was consuming you. If you put on a record, you were basically in for the long haul; unless you were trying to avoid a really horrible song, it wasn’t worth skipping around with vinyl or cassettes, and because nobody owned 10,000 albums in those days, you eventually ended up absorbing even the least favorite songs in your library in a meaningful way.
Listening is a choice, and when recorded music was tied to physical objects, that choice required more of a conscious effort. It was a two-way transaction — the artist came to the table, the listener sat down and listened. It didn’t always work the way it was supposed to, but there was an elegance about it.
This isn’t really the lament it might sound like. I’m an avid streamer and I’m not giving up my Spotify subscription anytime soon. But on the other hand, I have noticed that I’ve started to, for lack of a better word, stratify my listening over the last six months or so — around the time I hooked up my new turntable for the first time. At first, I wasn’t sure what I’d really do in terms of building a vinyl collection; I hadn’t owned a record player in at least 20 years, and I’d long since lost my old LPs in one move or another. With very limited exceptions, anything I’d buy was something I either already owned on MP3 or could stream with the click of a mouse, so why bother?
Vinyl enthusiasts will tell you that the irreplaceable warmth of analog sound is the answer, to which I shrug in half-hearted agreement. There are things I really do love about the sound of a real record, like the way you can blast the ever-loving crap out of the volume without having to deal with that brittle high-end wash that rapidly encroaches the louder you get with MP3s (and a lot of CDs). It’s rounder and there’s more give. These old ears appreciate that.
But what I ultimately discovered is that, for me, playing albums is chiefly pleasurable because it’s a more active form of listening. You choose the record, you take it out, you put it on the turntable — and you don’t let your mind wander too far, either, because before long, you’re going to have to get up and flip it over.
It sounds like a small thing, and maybe it is. But I think there’s a crucial key in there that’s missing from our endless queues and vast cloud lockers. Streaming is wonderful for discovery, but I’m not sure any amount of button-pushing can compensate for the act of physically choosing a piece of music. It’s an object you’re holding, and what it contains is utterly finite — it isn’t going to keep burrowing into algorithms while you absent-mindedly surf the web. It’s here for about as long as you keep paying attention to it, really, and I feel like that means more.
Your mileage may vary. But for me, vinyl has been a solid bridge back to the type of active listening I did as a kid, back when I was dying to wrap my ears around every recorded chord in the known universe — not realizing that having the ability to swim in limitless music 24 hours a day would necessarily devalue the experience I cherished. It’s helped me slow down, to quit tugging at the chain. On some level, I think I viewed all those MP3s and “Suggested Just for You!” albums as a listening obligation, the same way I eyed my RSS or social media feeds. There’s so much out there! Don’t waste time. Consume.
But listening isn’t an obligation, it’s a privilege, albeit one we aren’t able to fully enjoy unless we really, truly embrace giving up on experiencing all of it. That’s what’s clicked for me, with what feels like thudding finality, as I’ve been strumming and hashing out chord changes over these last couple of weeks. Vast chunks of culture are now available on demand, making consumption easier than ever while rendering real absorption something of a dying art. We have more choices, and they’re easier to make — and unmake, as soon as some other film/album/ebook comes to mind.
I’m older, of course, and these feelings come as part of the general tearing away from pop culture that I’ve been experiencing for the last couple of years. A lot of what I’m saying here is basically an old dog talking about going back to his old tricks. But I also strongly believe that culture is increasingly viewed as a limitless commodity — and limitless commodities are disposable, no matter how high the demand. As our access expands, I think we need to narrow our focus at least enough to stop multi-tasking and consciously strive to maintain an active relationship with the stuff that goes into our eyes and ears. Less consuming, more choosing: to truly see, to honestly hear, to deeply feel. Those are the strings that bind us to the things that move us, and keep on pulling us back for more.
“Man, you suck.”
These are supposedly the words spoken by Miles Davis to Chet Baker when Baker, after straining through a gig with Davis in attendance, walked up to introduce himself. In his book Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker, author James Gavin traces the tale back to Baker himself, who supposedly shared it with singer Ruth Young during their 10-year affair. In one version, Davis chuckles in scornful disbelief as he says it; in another, he virtually spits out the words, willing Baker away with the sheer force of his spite. Either way, it’s a memorable tale, one that brings to life a horrible nightmare for any artist — approaching a hero in friendship and fealty, only to be publicly rebuffed with words that echo back from the smallest, darkest corners of our hearts.
Baker and Davis were both cool, but on opposite ends of the spectrum; Baker’s cachet derived from a series of records in which he seemed to effortlessly wipe away all of jazz’s extraneous noodling and pull the listener forward by laying back, while Davis was simply one step ahead at all times, called along by inscrutable signals that only he could hear. But by the early ’60s, Baker had already settled in, while Davis was just getting started — so even though it’s easy to dismiss his scathing insult as another example of Miles being Miles, I think it’s also possible that he was really trying to wake Baker up, to shame him into taking a look in the mirror and admitting he’d failed to live up to his artistic obligation.
Taken in this spirit, Davis could have been trying to do Baker a favor, Nick Lowe style, and he wouldn’t have been wrong. In Bruce Weber’s fascinating documentary Let’s Get Lost, there’s a lot of discussion about Baker’s appallingly lazy custodianship of his own talent. Aside from the fact that he had one of the most stomach-turningly epic drug habits in all of jazz (which is definitely saying something), he always seemed to be willing to settle for the easy way out with his music — he wasn’t great about practicing, he didn’t seem to care about expanding or strengthening his grasp of concepts or theory. He had a limited set of tools, but he knew exactly how to use them, and people were willing to pay to hear him do it. That seemed to be enough.
It’s telling that in Let’s Get Lost, Baker doesn’t talk a lot about music. He shares a few anecdotes, but when talk turns to what’s really important, it’s always something else. The happiest day of his life? The day he bought his Alfa Romeo. His favorite kind of high? A speedball. His art, especially toward the end of his life, seems likely to have been more of a means to an end than a true expression. It sounds borderline absurd to say it about a guy who led such a brutally sad life, but he coasted for a very long time — right until the dismal end.
I am not a Chet Baker scholar, and none of the above is intended as a condemnation of the man or his music; in fact, as often as not, I’d rather listen to Baker’s dulcet tones than Davis’ explorations. These are just musings triggered by a recent viewing of Let’s Get Lost, which happened to take place shortly after a day spent cowering in the company of my own inner “you suck” chorus. We all have these days (Right? Tell me we do) — cold hours in which it seems as if our every expression is swallowed into a void, as if the universe has conspired against us, as if we once had something to offer but now we have none. Why is that person enjoying success while I’m over here wallowing? I’ve done what they’re doing; no one noticed. Have I lost it? Maybe I never had it. I should quit. But what else would I do?
Thinking about that Baker-Davis meeting, I couldn’t help thinking that Chet was either too well acquainted with his inner “you suck,” or not well enough at all. It’s a miserable experience, one that I find myself plummeting into with something akin to the awful certainty I imagine bipolar people feel when a low period is coming on, but it’s also a crucible — a fight-or-flight moment that either calls us forward into unknown vistas or sends us scurrying for safety. In a way, I think it’s our sign that something is missing — that we’ve been failing to tend our creative gardens for too long, and it’s time to start digging deeper.
That word, “digging,” signifies labor, and it is — even when we’re talking about art in a vacuum, where the artist doesn’t have to satisfy anyone but himself, it can be painful. But when there’s an audience to consider, it’s even more difficult — once you’ve experienced the thrill of feeling your work connect with other humans, it’s hard to forget it. You’re engaged in a feedback loop, and it knocks your process into a sort of artistic Heisenberg principle; just the knowledge that you’re creating something for an audience alters the way it’s created. Even if you don’t have to worry about sales, how do you avoid thinking about what that audience wants? How do you avoid trying to identify the qualities in your work that resonate with people — and trying to amplify them? It’s tricky, and it can get you stuck.
So as sad as it is to imagine Chet Baker shrugging off opportunities to explore the outermost reaches of his talent, it’s also easy to understand. He knew what people wanted, and it didn’t take much to give it to them — even if, in the end, it ended up taking everything. If and when Miles Davis told him he sucked, did it ring with the awful truth of words he already knew by heart? I can’t pretend to know. I can only admit that I’m familiar with the sickening feeling of being knocked off my emotional axis by slights real or imagined, and grappling with the sinking certainty that I’ve left some corner of my creative acreage untilled for too long.
Those moments leave me feeling weak and defeated, but I know they’re signals that it’s time to work. To dig deeper, and deeper still.
“Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the nature of my art,” wrote my friend Arend Anton in a recent Facebook post. “I used to ride the waves of creativity, and this convinced me that art was spontaneous and uncontrollable. Now that I’m a bit older, the waves seem to have receded and I’ve been forced to learn that I have to be disciplined and actually sail out towards the waves rather than let them come to me.”
It’s a crucial lesson for anyone engaged in long-term creative pursuits, and one that I think a lot of us (myself included) continue to struggle with even after we figure it out. I started writing because it came easily to me, and for a long time, those waves were fairly easy to ride; outside of the occasional period of writer’s block, I wasn’t well acquainted with the uniquely painful thrill of the truly blank page. I wrote when I had ideas, and ideas always seemed to be in abundant supply.
But eventually, no matter how captivating an artist’s voice might be, I think everyone comes to the same painful realization that the work isn’t as unique as we once believed, and that the stuff that seemed so intoxicating when it flowed out of us might actually have been a little flat, or at least have borne the very specific flavors of other artists’ vintages. And that’s when it actually becomes work — when whatever thrill first drew you to the creative flame starts to wear off, and the rusty teeth of failure and self-doubt start to reveal themselves behind that diaphanous high.
Art can be a calling, in other words, but in order to survive, the impulse to create has to be accompanied by a choice. It’s been echoed many times, by artists from every discipline: Just show up. Keep showing up. Let the muse know you aren’t going away until she answers, and in the meantime, linger in the trenches; dig your fingers into their walls until the mud’s so far under your fingernails that it seeps back into your bloodstream. Learn their contours by heart, because they will change, and you need to feel it when it happens. Walk them daily. That’s your process.
Keep showing up.
I’m reminded of these principles while listening (loud) to Sabougla Voices, the debut LP from Mississippi gospel artist Leo “Bud” Welch. It’s a tight 10-song set delivered with equal parts economy and authority, which makes perfect sense, given that Welch is 81 years old.
“It seems incredible that Leo Welch has until now remained unknown to the wider musical world,” read WFMU DJ Kevin Nutt‘s liner notes for Sabougla Voices, and while that statement certainly bears the unmistakable ring of understated truth, it’s also true that — as Nutt points out elsewhere in his essay — we don’t always know where to look for music like this. Welch’s brand of tart, unadorned gospel was long ago allowed to drift to the margins of a genre that has itself been all but ignored for most of the last 50 years.
Which is a damn shame, if for no other reason than the enormous debt almost every other strand of American music owes to this bedrock stuff, but the gospel perseveres anyway — as has Welch, who has kept showing up all these years. Nutt’s notes allude to various times when the brass ring of fame seemed to linger within Welch’s grasp just long enough to be seen before flitting away, and I have no idea if those missed opportunities bothered Welch enough to give him pause. I don’t know how many times he struggled with whether or not to keep singing, keep playing. But as a cousin, however distant, in these brutally unpredictable disciplines, I have to imagine he’s had his doubts.
That tenacity would make Sabougla Voices an inspiring record even if it sucked, but let me tell you, it does no such thing; this is one of those albums that asks its producer to provide the illusion that the music simply erupted in a single beautiful, sweaty burst, and Voices helmer Bruce Watson nailed it, supervising a sonic brew with just enough smoky overtones to add a little spice to a series of marvelously muscular performances from Welch and his crew.
“Make no mistake; this is a gospel record,” writes Nutt, and he isn’t kidding — song titles include “Praise His Name,” “You Can’t Hurry God,” “Me and My Lord,” and “Take Care of Me Lord” (and those are just the first four tracks). But Welch’s is a gospel that requires neither robes nor pipe organ nor vestibule to get its point across; it’s a wonderfully rowdy expression of love, an outpouring of spiritual faith so ardent it’s almost corporeal. It’s the type of record that dares you to turn it up louder and then asks your speakers if that’s all they’ve got. There are no extraneous parts — partly because one senses Welch has little time or patience for anything as ephemeral as showy production or flashy licks, and partly because the songs are delivered in such a spirit of joyous inclusion that they feel more like exhortations than performances.
Turn that volume knob. Turn it again, and then maybe once more for good measure. Sing along, clap along, dance along. You may drop out of time, you may stumble, but there are no unnecessary steps. Just keep showing up.
Hey, you’re a shy dog, but I can see
You feel the very same as me
You don’t think like people do
Anyone can see I’m the same way too
When it comes to relationships, I’ve never been much of a stand-up-and-fight kind of guy. When it’s over, it’s over, and it’s time to move on. A few times, though, moving on has been easier said than done — and with one relationship in particular, I took that difficulty as a sign that I should do something different. Instead of letting things fade away silently, I hung around; I dedicated myself to being as open as I could with this woman, and tried to find some way around or through whatever obstacles lay between us.
And that’s okay
Sometimes things just work that way
It wasn’t easy. In fact, it drove me a little crazy, a little at a time, over a period of years. I was lonely, and upset, and always putting myself through unnecessary misery in the name of what I thought was love. I thought I was being brave by refusing to give up on this person, but I was really just ignoring the obvious. In the process, I let a lot of things slip through my fingers — time and opportunities that would never return. I was unfair to myself, and unfair to her. I allowed myself to be used. In fact, I just about insisted on it.
And spinning ’round these memories go
And making sense, well, I just don’t know
Yeah, you could say I’m missing you
Lost and alone, I’m just making do
I didn’t really expect it to work. I just wanted to try instead of accepting the only real choice. Sometimes it really is noble to fight for the ones you love — but you have to know how to choose your battles, and you have to understand the difference between love and sick symbiosis, and I was in way over my head on both counts. I cost myself so much senseless anger and resentment, and when it started to spin out of control, I only leaned into it, grinding myself down until the only thing I could see through the smoke was the worst of both of us.
Standing here, I should understand
Why you left me alone
And this small world just ain’t big enough
And the purest souls, they always go too soon
On one level, I was proud of my self-destructive behavior — it seemed manly, somehow. But the deeper part of me, thankfully, started to get tired after awhile, and once I relaxed my senseless grip on this impossible, toxic fantasy I’d been holding onto, I started to realize what I’d been missing. And I felt something I didn’t expect: a warm sort of relief. I surveyed the wreckage and ruin I’d created and I knew I couldn’t undo any of it — I finally understood I’d been at a crossroads when I decided to fight for that relationship, and I knew I’d made choices that had led my life down a path I couldn’t retreat from.
But I didn’t feel regret. Maybe it was because I’d already devoted so many unproductive emotions to the situation, or maybe it was because I understood, on some level, that the lessons I took from all that destruction were as valuable, in their way, as what I’d lost. All I know is that I wasn’t angry anymore. For the first time in a long time, I felt at peace.
So you go on, ’cause now I know
You belong with the beautiful
And I’ll stay here until golden fades
I’ll see you again on another day
It seems a little strange to me, but on beautiful, unseasonably warm fall days like this one, that’s the feeling that often comes back to me — one of acceptance, of absolution. One of loss, sure, and a little sadness — but a sadness that feels earned, somehow, and more than a little bittersweet. Our stories don’t always have the happy endings we want them to, but we still have to find the strength to let them end. Sometimes that’s harder than it should be.
And that’s okay
Sometimes things just work that way
And that’s okay
Sometimes things just hurt that way
I got a lot of mileage out of Kurt Neumann’s Shy Dog that summer and fall, particularly the title track:
For Kurt, who was stepping out from the BoDeans as a solo artist for the first time, the song was really about a dog — his longtime companion, who (if I’m remembering correctly) was killed by a snake while exploring. I thought it was an incredibly brave choice to be so open about the sadness that a pet’s death can bring, and although I knew he wasn’t talking about romantic loss, I still took comfort from the graceful acceptance in his words, and the dignified resignation in his vocals. When he sighed, “Sometimes things just hurt that way,” it killed me — still does. Because sometimes they do. And that’s okay.
I love a good rock ‘n’ roll loser.
There’s nothing quite like the ragged glory of a rock song that’s almost there — the time’s a little off, the vocals are straining to hit the melody without quite getting there, maybe there are a few bum notes from the band in the mix. Rock is uniquely suited for this kind of stuff, particularly when it comes to conveying a refusal to give up in the face of failure. I think a yearning for redemption has always been a key component of music’s appeal to humanity, but rock made it more visceral — and also struck a burning spark in the tension between the beauty of that redemptive promise and the guttural howl of the far more unpleasant truth.
There’s something painfully noble about this to me — about beauty that persists in the face of hopeless odds. I recently got a rise out of Matthew Ryan when I compared his music to Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke, and man, I just love that spirit, that struggle, that vulnerability. It’s one of the things I think our Pro Tools addiction is costing us as listeners, but that’s a conversation for another day. I’m here to talk about Harry Nilsson.
1974′s Pussy Cats is my favorite Nilsson record, because it so gorgeously sums up everything I wrote about in those first two paragraphs. Of course, Nilsson was born a flawless technical singer, and he had more than enough craft to write songs of stunning beauty, but he was also a self-destructive madman, and as time wore on, that dichotomy drove his music away from songs like “One” and “Don’t Leave Me” and into darker, stranger, and — for my money — far more interesting places.
Nilsson wasn’t content to be beautiful. He had the urge to fail — partly, I think, because it was fun, and partly because he knew he could count on his prodigious gifts to carry him through when he wasn’t otherwise up to the task. And that’s Pussy Cats in a nutshell: an album that captures an amazing talent struggling between finding his muse and pissing it away.
Harry was coming off A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night, an ill-advised (although quite lovely) collection of standards that derailed all the commercial momentum he’d built up with his best-selling Schmilsson and Son of Schmilsson LPs. Again, he was a study in contrasts; he knew he needed a hit, and he was convinced he’d help his case by drafting his famous pal John Lennon to produce it — but he didn’t want one badly enough to safeguard against the boozy disaster the sessions eventually became. But then, on the other other hand, Nilsson valued the mercurial Lennon’s involvement so greatly that he kept going even after he ruptured a vocal cord, hiding his deteriorating condition as long as he could (but not terribly well — listening to the Pussy Cats sessions in chronological order is a study in raspy decline).
Recorded during Lennon’s infamous lost weekend, Pussy Cats came at a low artistic ebb for Nilsson the songwriter — but as singular as he was as a composer, he was also a terrifically gifted interpreter, and that bailed him out on a few of the album’s tracks, including his take on Jimmy Cliff’s “Many Rivers to Cross.” In technical terms, it’s really a boozy wreck of a recording — the drums sound like they were tracked in taffy, the lead guitar smells like a Brandy Alexander, and Nilsson’s heartwrenching vocals are almost painful to hear. But put them all together, and oh, what a song:
Harry Nilsson, “Many Rivers to Cross”
Plenty of artists have covered this track, and Cliff was certainly no slouch himself, but this is the definitive version of the song for me. I found it at the best possible moment, reeling from the messy end of an unreasonably intense relationship in my early 20s, and just as RCA was remastering and reissuing a batch of his albums. I devoured them all, as well as the two-disc Personal Best anthology, but it was Pussy Cats that really called to me. “Many Rivers to Cross” just said it all, and when Harry buckles down and wails, willing his bleeding throat to scale notes he knew he wouldn’t hit, it takes me right back to the fall of ’95 — more than 20 years after it was recorded, and over a year after his untimely death, but still packed with that timeless blend of longing, regret, and — yes — hope for redemption.
Pussy Cats killed Nilsson’s career and damaged his voice for years, but he went on to create music of unparalleled beauty, too — and I don’t know if later works like Knnillssonn would have had as much depth if he hadn’t been willing to stumble into the boozy darkness on records like this. He knew if he followed the rules and connected all the dots, he could make a perfect pop song, but there was something in Nilsson that drew him away from the straight and narrow — and for me, anyway, that’s always made all the difference. Nothing is hopeless when you listen to an album like Pussy Cats – it’s heartbreaking proof that we all possess the potential for acts of staggering beauty, even in spite of our deepest flaws.
I made Minnesota my home tonight
It’s not like the picture in my mind
‘Cause I was so alone it killed tonight
I’d tell any soul…if I could find one
–the Push Stars, “Minnesota”
For someone who has often been ruinously, stupidly impulsive, I’m actually a pretty deliberate guy. I think about doing a lot of things — calling friends, emailing contacts, writing heartfelt posts — and then before I know what’s happening, the moment has passed, and I’ve talked myself out of following through. I am a fool, I am a fool, I am a fool.
But in the spring of 1999, I followed through on one of the best impulses I’ve ever had: to round up three of my closest friends, put them on a plane to New Jersey, stuff them in a rental car, and spend a week driving across the country. I was nursing a broken heart, of course, and that’s why this song called to me at the time — like the best of Chris Trapper‘s songs, it conveys the wounded grin of a freshly bruised romantic.
‘Cause I want to believe her
I want to believe
I want to believe her
I want to believe
I want to believe her
I want to believe
I did want to believe — in her, much to my detriment, but also in my friends, and in the reliable comfort of pure childishness. I wanted to surround myself with easy laughter. I didn’t want to think too hard, and those guys made it easy. We were young, stupid dudes, and that was exactly what I needed. We got soaking wet on the freezing upper deck of the Maid of the Mist; we ordered horrible hotel porn in Chicago; we covered the rental car in dirt and filled it with junk food. We left fake poop on top of a hotel toilet seat in Montana.
It was a boondoggle, in the very best sense of the word, and although I know there were moments of tension, frustration and annoyance, I can’t remember any of those feelings when I look back on the trip now. It just feels like one long golden moment — a time when we knew we had an opportunity to do something special, and we didn’t let it slip away.
I feel all right, it’s a Minnesota night
You’ve got nothing left to show me but your smile
Stars so bright on this Minnesota night
Can we cut the conversation for a little while?
I don’t know what it meant to the other guys, but that week saved me from going a little crazy at the time, and although my days of dropping everything and rounding up a posse for high adventure on the open road are over for the foreseeable future, I think there’s still a lesson in it for me now — if I can only remember it — as a writer and as a person.
I feel like writing used to be a lot easier for me — a lot more instinctive, and a lot less deliberate — and I know I did a better job of maintaining my friendships back then. Of course, I’m writing a lot more now, and doing it in different places; I understand that the creative muscle tends to get numb and/or fatigued when it’s used this way. And I know marriages, kids, and migration have a naturally atrophying effect on friendships that thrived on free time and youthful angst.
But I don’t think it’s impossible to get around all that. I don’t think it’s too late to try and get better at deciding when to make those impulsive leaps — in fact, if I had it all to do over again, I think I’d probably make a lot more of them. I’m still trying. I still believe.
Here’s one from the archives — one of my first major interviews, conducted with erstwhile Chicago frontman Peter Cetera while he was out promoting his fourth solo album, World Falling Down. This is kind of like looking at a dorky old photograph for me, but it was a thrill at the time, and I think Cetera said some interesting things…
Having been there “in the beginning,” do you think that rock has become more style than substance?
I think if you were to look only at videos, you would definitely
think so. But I think it’s probably always been that way. I think
there are things that are tremendous hits where you go, “What’s
that?” and then there are things that aren’t hits where you
say, “Well now, I wonder why that wasn’t a hit. It’s a lovely song.”
I think it’s all the same. I just think it’s probably more of all the
Tracing your career, your emergence as a star was pretty gradual.
You slowly assumed more and more of the vocal responsibilities in
Chicago, and became the voice of their first two Number One hits, and
yet your first solo album was not a commercial success. Did that
discourage you at all from attempting a solo career?
No, it didn’t discourage me because I knew the politics behind it. The record company didn’t want it to become a hit, because they didn’t want me to leave Chicago, so they made sure that it wasn’t a hit. Even though I had a Top Ten — which was bizarre for Chicago at the time — AOR hit called “Livin’ In The Limelight” off that album, they just let it die, because they didn’t want me to have a hit.
The personal problems that went into the making of World Falling Down have been getting a lot of press. After so many years of
relative anonymity, does this bother you?
No, I don’t think so. I think it’s kind of refreshing, after all of the years with Chicago, not being able to voice my opinion about anything. You couldn’t talk about the group–you couldn’t really talk about anything that was happening with the group, because you’d get “Hey, what’d you say that about me for?” [Laughs] So, now that I’m solo, I can talk about whatever I want to talk about, and this happened to be the album where I wasn’t happy talking about anything else, so I decided to get it out of my system.
Did having your daughter around help you through that period?
Oh, yeah. Without her…[Laughs] It wouldn’t have been a nice thing at all. She’s just the greatest.
Now, how do you balance taking care of your career and taking care of your daughter? And given the nature of much of today’s music, do you find that you have to set guidelines as to what’s musically acceptable?
Yeah. I mean, she’s nine years old, I want her to be nine years old. I don’t condone watching any kind of video TV, I don’t allow that–I don’t allow her to watch a lot of TV. I don’t think it’s really cute for a nine-year-old to be dressing up like Madonna. They get old when they get old. So yeah, in a way I censor it, but she’s a wise enough person that she’s into the normal things
that nine-year-olds should be into.
Did having a child make you more aware of what you yourself write?
Uh…no, no. I was never the kind of person who would ever write anything particularly…devilish [laughs]. It made me probably look inside myself a lot more.
For a long time, your group got nothing but bad press or ignored by the press. How has this affected you career-wise now that you’re solo?
Well, I think that people — especially the press — tend to not change. Chicago got ignored…first of all, we got great press, and then we started making it, and we got bad press for selling out, and then we got ignored, and rightly so. Some of the things we did weren’t to the top of our capabilities, but a lot of people have that problem.
I don’t think we were controversial, and that’s sort of what happens when you have a group full of guys who all think they have an opinion. Everybody kind of counteracts everyone else, and nothing ever gets out. Being a solo artist, I just have to leave it up to the people. I’m definitely not going to get reviewed in Rolling Stone and People Magazine.
So it doesn’t frustrate you to run into the same problem as a solo artist?
Well, it frustrates me, but I also realize that I can’t do anything about it. So I stop thinking about it.
Do you feel any pressure to cater to MTV?
I would love to, but they’re just not gonna play it. They just have a set thing in they’re head of what they’re gonna play, and they’re definitely not going to play Peter Cetera. So I stay on VH1, and that’s fine with me, because our best critics have always been the fans, and as far as myself, I love what I’m doing, so that makes me happy.
What was the initial impetus behind your decision to go solo? I think you were recording for something like 13 years before your first solo LP.
I had always wanted to the solo thing, and then after the first album, Chicago kinda promised me that I could do the solo thing, and then they sort of reneged on it, and never gave me the opportunity to do it. They wanted to go one way, and I wanted to go another way, so we decided on a mutual parting. I did not, in fact, quit the group. If anything, I was fired for not going along with what they wanted to do.
I’ve heard many accounts of the band being jealous of all the attention you were getting.
Yeah, they were getting jealous, and I said, “Well, come on, if you’re jealous, then start doing something about it,” but they weren’t in the frame of mind to write songs, and I was the one that was in the studio most of the time,
and…I don’t listen to the new stuff. I’ve heard it a couple of times, but it’s certainly not what I want to listen to.
Let’s talk about each of your four solo albums, beginning with the first one. How did Peter Cetera end up getting released before Chicago 16?
Actually, we were out of a record contract at that point, and we were going along with the new record company, Warner Bros., and they sort of threw it out there while waiting for Chicago 16 to be released. It was nothing more than cannon fodder as far as they were concerned.
Did the fact that Solitude/Solitaire was released so close to Chicago 18 cause you to feel any pressure at all?
I didn’t really feel the pressure. I was so sure that “Glory Of Love” was going to be a hit, and “The Next Time I Fall” was going to be a hit. Really, the only pressure I felt then, and that I always felt, is to have hits with things other than ballads. I fight the record company every time they want to release another ballad off the album. That was really my only concern at the time. It was like, “Okay, do I take the hit or do I go with something fast?” [laughs]
Yeah, I noticed that earlier in your career, you were more apt to record songs like “Skin Tight” and “You Get It Up”…in your solo career, you haven’t done a whole lot of that.
[Deep breath] Well…you happened to mention two songs…
…That you didn’t write.
…That I didn’t write, and that I didn’t think were very good songs. [Laughter] Especially “Skin Tight,” I didn’t think that was a good song. Kind of a D-rated song. I just…thought it was a piece of garbage, but as the lead singer, I had to sing a lot of stuff I didn’t like to sing.
Also on Solitude/Solitaire, you did a duet with Amy Grant that predated her pop crossover success by about five years. Who set that up?
Actually, it was the record company. I was looking for a duet partner, and they called me up and said, “Amy Grant.” I had thought she only did religious music, but they told me that she really wanted to cross over, and she thought it was perfect, so I said “Sure.” The record company gets credit for that one.
On One More Story, you took a much more organic approach than you did on the previous album, and many of the songs are depressing – “Heaven Help This Lonely Man,” “You Never Listen To Me.” Is that when
you started writing about the problems in your marriage?
Yeah, I would say. Definitely. Some of it was reflected in the album, it was just starting to creep out.
The thing about One More Story that would have helped the album considerably was that I had been hired to write the theme song for the movie Big, and so I wrote “One Good Woman.” That was going to be the title song for Big, so if you listen to that song you’ll hear things about the fortune teller and all that. Right towards the end, when it was supposed to be in the movie, we got into some contractual difficulties, and I just kind of pulled the song. Had that song been in the movie, which was a smash hit, it would have helped the album considerably.
There were some really great songs on that album that were never released as singles, like “Peace Of Mind”…
Yeah. I agree, too.
…Which they passed over in favor of “Best Of Times,” which I never really understood…
I don’t have any idea what the record company…you know, you get kind of frustrated.
And that brings us to World Falling Down, which is almost a song cycle. In the beginning, the singer is saying “Don’t leave me,” and then she’s left, and there is depression, and then towards the end of the album it lifts back up again, and the singer is in love.
Well, “Have You Ever Been In Love”…that doesn’t mean I’m in love. It’s a universal thing, and I think it kind of wraps up the whole album. But yeah, I did plan that, yeah.
Your creative output was greatly reduced on this album. After years of writing seven or eight songs on an album, on this one you only wrote four.
Well, I just wasn’t capable of writing more than four or five songs on this album. It wasn’t a time in my life when I felt comfortable writing.
Did you find that what you were writing came out the same each time?
Yeah, that basically had a lot to do with it. After four or five songs, I said, “Okay, enough’s enough.” But I had found a lot of other good songs, so I thought it was time to do it. Just about the only thing I didn’t do was put in an old hit or an old standard.
You started out as a singer, not a songwriter; and in fact, I remember you saying at one point that the world was divided into singers and songwriters, and that you were a singer. How do you feel now?
Well, that was at the beginning. I don’t think you ever realize that you can write a song until you do, and then you’re constantly worried about ever writing another one. I really enjoy the songwriting thing, and I enjoy the singing thing. I’ll keep ‘em both.
What made you decide on Andy Hill as a producer, and what made you decide to record in England?
Well, first of all, Andy and I co-produced, which makes a big difference. I just didn’t feel that anyone could produce me, and I was always giving away credit to people where I was doing as much decision-making as they were, so from now on it’s going to be co-productions. I had known Andy through songwriting, and discovered that we got along melodically and over the phone and stuff, and so I decided to go there and write with him, and when I got there and saw a studio in his house, I decided that maybe it would be nice if we could co-produce some things.
On Solitude/Solitaire, there was no bass at all; just sequencing and synthesizers. On One More Story, you had other people play the bass. But on this album, you picked it up again for a few songs.
Yeah, this was a kind of…I had Pino Palladino play, and Jimmy Johnson, and I got in on a couple of songs. I figured it was time to get a bass back on there, and I personally hadn’t played in such a long time that I just kind of wet my beak, so to speak, on a couple of these songs.
You’ve been unhappy with the way that some of your earlier work was recorded, especially “Song For You.”
Yeah, and actually, that’s one song that I’d love to re-record. I’d like to get with somebody and kind of rework that.
Most people wouldn’t even know it was a reworking. It was a pretty minor hit.
Yeah, I don’t think it was even hardly out. That was a turning point for me. I figured I either had to get out or bring the group back to the top. We were just not functioning. It was one or two cylinders or something.
Are you proud of your older work? Do you still listen to any of it?
No, I don’t listen to any of it. It’s so painful to me to listen to anything before Chicago 16, when David Foster came into the picture and he and I kind of put that album together. Anything before that, I just never felt all that secure about, because there were always too many opinions. Too many people didn’t butt out. Some of the stuff is great. I think some of the earlier stuff is probably better, because…you know, “Saturday In The Park,” and “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?,” and “Beginnings”… stuff that Bobby did when he was doing most of the writing and most of the decision-making. Once everybody started feeling that it was equal opportunity, things started heading downhill. I’m proud of the old stuff, but I certainly don’t sit around listening to it.
Do you miss the interplay of being part of a band?
Yeah, I do. I’ll probably put together a band to go on the road here shortly. That’s kind of the one thing I miss about Chicago, is we had loads of yuks.
So you do plan to tour to support the album?
Well, yeah, we’ll see what happens. If the record company supports me, I’ll help support the album.
What do you hope to accomplish as an artist in the next few years?
You always hope you have some kind of effect on people. When somebody comes up to me and says, “We’re getting married to your song,” or “God, that’s a great song”…that’s what makes it all worthwile. If I can keep doing that, then that’s what it’s all about.
Do you plan to keep taking more time off between albums?
It’s hard to tell. This one happened because of the circumstances. I just couldn’t do it. But, no, I’m starting to get ready to plan the next one.
I’ve been trying to find this out for about a year now. I was wondering if you could tell me why Danny Seraphine left Chicago.
Danny Seraphine got fired. The group decided that he no longer fit in the stage presentation, so they fired him.
[Incredulously] In the stage presentation?
Well, they have been spending more time on stage than in the studio during the past couple of years. Do you plan on working with him at all?
No. Not really. When it’s over, it’s over.
I just wrapped up a profile on the group, and it’s my feeling that they’ve been heading downhill. Buying songs from outside writers, and using more Scheff and Champlin material than anything from the original members…
I would agree with you on that, but the only thing I could say in defense of that is that if the original members aren’t writing stuff that’s worth putting on an album, then you gotta go with other things. Believe me, I haven’t heard anything that the original members have been writing, but if it’s not on the album, then it leads me to believe that it’s either not happening or there’s some personality conflict.
I really don’t know what’s going on, but I think your observation is correct.
Does that sadden you at all?
Well, that’s what’s been happening all along. There was a stage in Bobby Lamm’s life where he was one of the greatest songwriters in America. I don’t know what happened. James Pankow, even though I never really enjoyed his type of music, certainly a lot of people did, I mean, he had “Color My World” and “Make Me Smile,” and things that I didn’t personally like, but they were big hits for us and people loved them, but I don’t think he’s come close to writing anything like that in years.
So, yeah, I think it’s been going downhill. I don’t know if it’s complacency or what, but…
That about wraps up my questions for you.
Well, listen man, it’s been great talking to you. You did a great
job. I’d like to do a longer one someday.