Many years ago, someone asked me, “What do you do?” and it was the first time I’d heard that. It’s a cliche that is apparently considered a bit rude to ask. I was dating into a (not quite) wealthy family, and someone’s wife started in with these questions.
“What do you do?” she asked, loud enough for anyone to hear. I thought about it, as I’d never heard such a question in my twenty years before having this poolside chat. Someone came to my aid, and said, “His father owns Mobile Oil.” I thought to myself, well, my Dad has a gas station franchise, that’s close enough. I don’t know what I said, if anything, but I did sing a song of my own for everyone out by the pool right after that.
There was a point within a year of that incident where I wondered if I should say “I’m a musician,” or, “I work at Bud’s Shell,” or, “I crash parties in Pacific Heights, steal Ray-Bans...and do not suffer fools gladly.” It seemed false to claim being a musician when I paid my bills working as a cashier, wearing a shirt printed with my name. Over time, I found if I could stay alive at the level of poverty on my musician income, only then had I earned the title of Musician, for what that was worth.
Preparing to record a cover song is like climbing the ladder up to the diving board. I ascend to the platform, I see the pool. At the point of execution, I command my moment of performance with total commitment to what follows, without distraction. Uncertainty be damned; to hell with the rules. Dance, fly, turn, whatever you can pull off, but just make a good landing.
In the spring of 1996, Gary Frenay asked me to build a track behind a guide of him singing and playing guitar. He planned a cover version of “Blue Moon” from the Big Star Third album, and it had a place reserved on his next CD. Gary is from Syracuse, and his band The Flashcubes are legendary power pop kings of the late 1970s and beyond. I remember at 14 years old having an ice cream with my Dad. Outside the Baskin-Robbins, I looked up to to see a Flashcubes flyer stapled to a pole, and though I’d never been to a club, I knew then that I wanted to see or play in bands. There was no way I was going to that particular show, but within a year or two I was using a fake ID and getting into clubs. This was when a NY driver’s license was just a piece of paper that didn’t have a picture on it. We could have printed counterfeit money back in those days.
My first two albums came out on Heyday Records, founded by Pat Thomas, who released his records with the promotional slogan, “The folk revival starts here.” The label’s name was inspired by a Fairport Convention album. The idea of a recording artist with his own label impressed me. A few years later, Ron Gompertz, a local SF entrepreneur, invested in Heyday and ended up owning it. The roster then changed a bit from Barbara Manning, ex-Green On Red members and musical friends of Pat to an eclectic mix of local artists, including Connie Champagne and Jerry Shelfer. I like to believe it was me that drove Ron to leave the music business.
Ron once told me that with Heyday, he wanted to bring to full circle the original line up of artists that performed at the Acoustic Music Project show at the Full Moon Saloon in 1989, featuring several Heyday artists plus Mark Eitzel, Chuck Prophet, and a reformed Translator. A CD of the show was released with some more tracks recorded by Oliver DiCicco at Mobius Music (now the home of Decibelle Recording). It was an AIDS benefit, an idea cooked up by Ron and Denise Sullivan. They both had shops in the Haight–Ashbury and were music fans with some connections to the local scene. I was not invited to perform, but then neither was Aldo Blissboy Perez. Barry Simons got involved, brought in Alex Chilton.
Everyone loves a re-do, a make over, another chance. They say lightning never strikes the same place twice, you can’t go home, nothing deader than a dead love, no ins and outs. I put this in the same boat as having reached the point of no return.
If only I could have gone back ten or twenty years and changed a few choices, made better use of time, avoided some people, learned a couple languages, maybe I’d be better off. I could go back a month in time and change something I’d done and I imagine that would set me up so much better for this week.
If we had time machines, or an “undo” function. All I can imagine is all the bad luck that could creep in. Playing back last week alone, redone– I’d fall in front of a BART train, I’d poke my eye with a guitar string, an old lady would back her car over my foot, or I’d eat the salmon mousse after it had gone bad. I’ll keep last week, along with the cold I caught.
In my dreams, I can never throw a punch. My arms move slowly and stop before connecting. Maybe everything in dreams is slowed down. Last night I dreamt I was shaving and cut open my chest, and inside the wound, I saw my heart beating. Either I need a new razor, or I’m trying to get something out.
My school bus ride as a kid was short in the morning, since they picked us up after doing a loop along the river, but nearly an hour going home. I could walk the three miles in less time, and certainly less hassle. My brother was already a marked target for mild abuse, and so they had it in for me on my first day of middle school. One day I was hit on the back of my head with a hammer. A steel hammer, to the head. If everyone on the bus was hit once with the hammer, I might not have taken it personally. I later took my revenge on the bus seats, slashing them open with a knife.
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.