The cat upstairs is friendly — aggressively so — and comes meowing around loudly from time to time. She’s got a long loud meow, more like a crow, her eyes are slightly crossed, her name is Irma. The cat first came around a couple of years ago, wandered down from the flat upstairs that has a constant flow of tenants coming and going. She wasn’t always meowing, however. If I opened a door on a warm day, I’d not be surprised to look up from my desk and see the cat sneaking around my apartment, sniffing extension cords, rubbing up against guitars and stacks of papers.
I would shoo her out. I don’t want a cat, nor the fur or anything else she might leave behind. She crept in many times, making it a game we’d play- cat sneaks in, I gently throw her out. One day as I was leaving, I found her perched on the back of a couch, looking out the window. I put her out and two minutes later she was right back in the same spot, napping. Game over. The door stayed closed.
This was my first 45 rpm release in Japan. John Wesley Harding and I were invited there to tour in 1999; three different labels released two CDs and this single that week. We were given the royal treatment, hosted dinners every night, fans lined up politely for autographs, and I had my own CD listening station in the Tower records. I loved the attention, but on the other hand, I didn’t know what to do with it. That is to say, going into it, I didn’t understand Japanese culture and the delicate matter of minding your manners. I knew to bring gifts there, but then I gave gifts of my own albums to our hosts.
The recording of “Unkind” was more involved than usual, as I was being ambitious after having recorded Wood + Wire with a full band and hired studios rather than recording at home mostly by myself. Dennis Diken happened to be in town with The Smithereens, so I got to thinking...why not recreate the Wood + Wire recording ensemble scenario that worked before? It’s not so easily done, actually. I begged Dennis to make time on his day off to record, and eventually he went for it, nice guy.
The cloud of grief was a long storm for me. My mother died in 2004. While I had been able to continue a recording session after getting the news on the phone, the months and years following were darkened by sadness, confusion, fear, and a slew of unresolved childhood issues. I didn’t know quite where to put all of this. It didn’t bother me acutely every day, but it was a state of mind that I couldn’t shake. I could only talk so much about it with friends, as it’s generally a downer, and the best anyone can offer is that it will get better. It does get better, but time alone doesn’t seem to heal things. One has to accept difficult things eventually in whatever way he can. Thankfully, the things you can’t control are easier to let go of; you get to skip the forgiveness step.
I was stunned at how quickly everything had happened with her illness. It was only a few months between the first news and her dying of cancer. Information was revealed in tiny bits, so between my blinding fear and her reticence in giving full disclosure, I didn’t grasp that she was dying until the last days. I sat beside her bed in the hospital, my mom a little bald bug with big brown eyes. After some time I said, “I’m sorry…” and she said, “I know.” That was really all that was said about any of it.
Gene Clark was the heavy presence of The Byrds, and on stage didn’t even strap on a guitar. He wrote or co-wrote many of their best singles, and left the group in 1966, although he poked his head in and out of the band until they hung it up in 1973. His solo records have the intensity of a Bob Neuwirth or Townes Van Zandt album, and don’t have catchy singles. Instead he takes you on a trip.
Not Lame records asked me to pick a Gene Clark song to cover for a tribute album being organized by Eric Sorensen. I did not want to pick a Byrds song. Local music writer Kurt Wolff suggested “From A Silver Phial” from No Other and I figured it was good advice since I barely knew the material from any of the handful of Gene Clark records out there.
I’d been recording at a new studio in the Tenderloin called “Story Road.” The quotation marks were part of the name, and completely superfluous. The guy who ran the studio slept in a room behind the tracking room, so he was around quite a bit whenever I worked there. He’d convinced the city to give him money to equip his place so that he could employ local homeless people. I can’t think of a less appealing vision. The studio was already in need of a lady’s touch- upon entering the place, you smelled a ham stewing in a crockpot, right next to a cloudy, putrid aquarium in which a few hardy fish survived.
There was a time when I was the youngest of everyone I hung out with. That lasted a few years while I got my start playing music.
The Insomniac was a weekend after-hours club in downtown Syracuse, and everyone from our rural area who was into “new music” went there. I’d barely started drinking beer, and people were doing drugs, having sex; I felt very much a guest in someone else’s home. I was 15, watching bands and man, were they weird! I had to have a band, everyone in this circle had a band, it was like new wave dancing, skinny ties or buying old suits at the thrift store: you just did it.