Now this is a guy who knows how to write a damn song.
Thursday, January 28, 2010
(click to enlarge)
So this is my lyric book. I filled four pages of it today with scratchings like this. These are my first attempts at putting words to the song below, but at this point I am not at all sure I am going to use the ones you see. In fact, I probably won't. A good way to avoid lame lyrics is to not go with whatever you come up with first. Which doesn't guarantee good lyrics, but it certainly cain't hurt.
I worked with Dave McKittrick tonight on the song and we made excellent progress. Perhaps by the end of the weekend I'll have a small demo with actual sung lyrics to share.
I have decided to post this picture (of my 1998 Takamine G-Series six-string) any time I have new music uploaded. This will make the blog easier to navigate as the project progresses.
Attached below is a song sketch I recorded in haste and with a crappy mike on Monday night. I set it aside along with two other tracks until this morning, when I listened to them afresh while walking to work. The two other tracks are okay, nothing to get too excited about, so I'm not posting them. I'm definitely hearing something I like in this one, though. The sort of halting delivery I gave it is interesting, not sure what I'm gonna sing about just yet. Keep in mind that the slurring, mumbly words are at this point nothing but placeholder.
I am headed over to Dave McKitttrick's this evening with all 3 tracks, and I'll post the results if something fruitful comes of my visit. In the meantime, let me know what you think.
Wednesday, January 27, 2010
As this blog progresses, assuming anyone sticks with me, we'll be talking about all sorts of musical influences, some of whom may not be obvious choices. I know what some of you are thinking -- "oh, when's he gonna post the inevitable Bruce and Lennon songs?" -- but in fact, as far as discussing influences goes, those two won't really get much mention. In Lennon's case, saying he's an influence on my pop sensibilities is like saying "hey, you know what I like? Cake." Even I with my outsized ego am not going to bore you guys any more than I already have by pointing out the obvious -- that his work is a huge influence on pop sensibilities, period. As far as Springsteen is concerned, this is rather interesting: he's more of an inspiration and an impact on my thinking as an artist, as well as a person, than he is on my admittedly sparse song catalog. I'm not especially interested in writing bombastic anthems or in recasting Steinbeck novels.
I will talk about not-so-obvious influences such as certain of my friends, the type of people who handed you a cassette (or sent you an MP3) or brought you to a concert and changed the course of your life. Some of the friends I'll mention here are ones I know personally, while others are in fact strangers but are almost as dear for the positive impact they've had on me. One such 'friend' is the guy who wrote the book pictured above: Mikal Gilmore, a rock critic who's written for Rolling Stone since the mid-70s and has interviewed or written about pretty much everyone over the years. Mikal is not the type of critic people think they hate -- thumbs up, thumbs down, five stars, and so forth -- he comes from a school of writers who care and argue and feel passionate about what they're writing about. He is not so different from that great friend you had who'd stay up late with you, arguing and learning, sharing records and reveling in the joy of loving that which you love. Mikal and writers like him -- Dave Marsh, Greil Marcus, Lester Bangs, Robert Christgau and Nick Tosches -- refined and helped form my taste and aesthetics and taught me why I loved certain things. In other words, you can partially blame them for encouraging my irritating know-it-all persona over the years.
The reason Gilmore stands out among these writers for me is that his work is suffused not only with passion and love for music, but also compassion and a deep caring for people. Mikal's writing is steeped in love for humanity; he worries about us, he seeks solace and beauty and understanding through art and music, and it lends his work heart and a deeply moral authority. He is also an outstanding writer, plain and simple, so deft and elegant that his phrases become a form of music themselves. Here's a sample of what I mean:
Popular music, all said and done, was among the best friends -- and one of the few real confidants -- I'd ever known in my life. Whereas you could talk to and confide and hope and trust in a lover, that lover might still leave or betray you. A great song, by contrast, would talk to you -- and its truths would never betray you. At 3 A.M., outside of the greatest and most sinful sex, there was nothing that could mean as much as a pop song that told you secrets about your own fucked-up and yearning heart.I mean, if that don't say it all.
You can read more here, it's from an online preview of the intro to the book pictured above. If his surname rings a bell for you, read the part of the piece concerning his family and you'll find a bit of astounding and tragic history in the man's life.
I found Mikal on Facebook this past Fall and added him to my friends list, and if you do the same he will accept your invite promptly and graciously. He's funny and tender and sardonic, and his new wife Elaine, who is an L.A. publicist, is a hoot. It's been fun getting to sort of know the person behind all those late nights of argument and inspiration.
Monday, January 25, 2010
"TV John" Langworthy is hard to explain. And come to think of it, he's hard to describe. Like Disney World, TV John must be fully experienced in order to be fully appreciated. Click on his link and watch the YouTube video below or at his website and you'll get an idea what he's all about. That doesn't mean he'll be any easier to explain.
Right across the river from Washington, D.C. is a section of Arlington called Rosslyn, and on the corner of 19th and N. Lynn Street was once a restaurant and bar known as the Tex Mex Grille. It was here that I played my first non-Jersey open mike, which led to my first non-Jersey regular gigs, all thanks to TV John Langworthy, who ran the open mikes and booked the performers.
Ask TV John what "TV" stood for and he'd smile broadly and say something like "Total Victory!" You'd get a different answer every time, so you'd stop asking. You could never really tell when -- or if -- the guy was putting you on. When he hosted my old band ('Thirty Thieves') he'd make ostensibly clever remarks all night about Ali Baba, even though that wasn't the source of our name. He liked to introduce each act (usually two a night) with ludicrously lengthy monologues that failed to have anything to do with the performer in question. And when the bar didn't draw a decent crowd (or any crowd at all, not unusual for Rosslyn) he'd sit down with you at 2 a.m. and try to make a deal that consisted of you foregoing any sort of payment whatsoever for the grueling four hours you just put in.
The Tex-Mex Grille is long gone, the very building it was in demolished and replaced. It was home base for a lot of us, a way to make a few bucks and play a low-pressure gig and blow off some steam. In the summer we'd perform on the outdoor patio, the only drawback being that occasionally you'd have aircraft coming in for a landing at nearby National Airport and the screaming engines would sorta drown you out. But you could also play as loud as you wanted right back (at least outdoors) since Rosslyn basically shut down on weekends, and for a time it was the closest thing I ever had to a Stone Pony-type club of my own. And we all had TV John, who threatened to drive us all nuts.
He was a legendary character, and every musical history worth a damn is peopled with legendary characters, so that's at least one I am proud to lay claim to. And for all his madhouse kookiness, TV John did me several solids, such as taping our gigs (which I still have and will share with you in the future) and lending me PA equipment because I didn't own my own. And really, how can you not love a guy who gets up in public on a regular basis and so joyfully does stuff like this:
Godspeed, TV John. Godspeed.
...is the title of a CD by a singer named Meghan Hayes (sound warning), who hails from Arlington VA and these days lives and performs in Nashville. I met her during the mid-90s when she was one half of a folk-rock duo I shared both venues and friends with. She was this barely bantam weight-sized young woman with the voice of someone twice her size and the sensibility of someone twice her age, with terrific songwriting skills to boot. Her arranger/producer/mentor/main musician is the below-mentioned David McKittrick, who painstakingly and lovingly fussed and sweated over every detail of her two CDs, and it shows. Give Meghan and Dave's work a listen and you'll understand what I mean when I say it's an honor that Dave has offered to work with me on my own set of songs. It means there's hope for some actual quality, for one thing.
Speaking of Dave and this blog: I respect his opinion greatly, and Dave pulls no punches when he gives his opinion. So when I mentioned the blog the other night, he shook his head and said "I couldn't get into it." I replied something like "Oh." "It just didn't work for me," he continued. I must have looked as crestfallen as I felt, because suddenly Dave said "No, no, I mean I was physically unable to get into the site." Turned out he was having technical difficulties, not aesthetic ones. Pretty damned funny.
Wednesday, January 20, 2010
A few years before we met, Rob spent a day sick as a dog with the flu, so of course instead of resting he decided to write songs all day. One of the rough demos was the seed for the song attached below, in which Rob sang of clock faces and lateness, and god only knows what he was trying to get at. I took the song home and re-conceived it as a song about love and fear and confusion, which were the three main staples of my life for years (and still are, sometimes). Something in Rob's voice denoted a lost soul, and the way he sang it sounded as if he was about to break down any moment, so I wrote the new verses with that in mind. The result was a pretty damn good song (if I say so myself) one that Rob carried on to his next band, The Plunge, who blew away our version of the song. Not to mention our band, period, ha ha. Ha.
I am still rather proud of one phrase I wrote for this track -- which we nicknamed "The Flu Song" until we came up with something better, which we never did -- if only because for me it summed up how much my life had changed for the better since leaving New Jersey for good.
I have lost myself, I've lost myself
And I don't know why
I have overslept, I've overstepped
The me I left behind
The Flu Song
This is a photo I took in the mid 90s of the main stage at a long-gone club in Fairfax, VA called Planet Nova, and this entry is about a guy I often shared that stage with.
The phrase titling this entry is one that follows the name of this blog, in a song I co-wrote called "Blown Away". The cat who co-wrote, produced, and played guitar on the song is a guy named Rob Flowers.
I met Rob in 1995, shortly after moving to Northern Virginia, when I was lonely for a band and answered an ad in a local music rag looking for a lead singer. For the next three years I sang lead and Rob played lead for what became known as Thirty Thieves, a really terrible name for what was in fact a pretty terrific band -- at least, in most respects. Rob and I were in our early 30s, whereas the remaining members were at least ten years older, and this caused some unavoidable creative differences, such as my reluctance to mix Gin Blossoms and Paul Westerberg songs with fairly incongruous ones like "The Wind Cries Mary" and "You Really Got Me" (or was it "All Day and All of the Night"?). But musically, we rocked our asses off, and I was really proud to be upfront in what was the loudest and tightest group I'd ever played with.
Like most bands, this one was destined to break up after a few years, but before we did Rob and I decided to write a batch of songs and record them with the band, a spontaneous idea not unlike the one that originated this blog. And so we did, and while I think there are severe weaknesses to the songs -- for which I blame myself -- the performances are sheer powerhouse and give a pretty good idea what we were like live, which was tight and loud and businesslike. All of this is due mostly to Mr. Flowers, who kept his head when no one else did and whose intense meticulousness (which I loved to ridicule in every other area of his life) made for good songs and great performances and an efficiently-run organization. So when Rob found another band and another lead singer, I cannot lie and say it didn't hurt. It was not unlike watching your significant other go off with another. And just like that sort of relationship, Rob and I saw less and less of each other, though we stayed close and checked in often and were even groomsmen in each other's wedding. Still, something got lost there that could have and maybe should have continued, but life is like that, as we all well know.
Rob has kept busy musically over the years; you can find him these days playing with and producing a band called Overdrive Superthruster, and a few years back he recorded a nifty solo album entitled Memory Random (available on ITunes), and if time and work permit he may very well contribute to this crazy project. Even if he doesn't, he deserves very special mention, especially if I'm gonna dredge up all this stuff from my musical past. I learned a lot from this gentle, funny, talented fellow, and I am glad he came along when he did.
Tuesday, January 19, 2010
One of my personal goals on this project is to break some bad old musical habits. I am truly a marvel at slipping into a creative groove (read: rut) and staying with what's safe, rather than taking risks and expanding my creativity. One of my weaknesses in this vein is my tendency to mimic too closely the lead vocals on cover songs, and to remind myself not to do that so much I am going to re-examine some of my big influences. What works, what doesn't, how can I borrow some aspects of a performer and ignore others? It's a bit like cleaning out an old closet and deciding what to throw away.
Monday, January 18, 2010
The flier down below there describes an annual thing we used to do with Whatever Band Ken Cadmus Was in Charge of That Year (WBKCWICOTY), the "concert in the park" in my hometown of New Providence, NJ. The pic up top is from a park gig in 1987, a few years after the one described, and we had a different name and lineup -- John Cook on bass and Julio Coto on drums. Good ol' Frankie Fachenei (help me with the spelling please, someone from that era) played sax with every version of WBKCWICOTY.
This was July. By the fall I was gone, the other guys moved on, and it was years before Ken and I could stand to be social again. But it was a good band, and it was fun while it lasted.
Sunday, January 17, 2010
My last music project before leaving New Jersey for our Nation's Capital in 1994 was a duo act with Tom "Spodee-O-Dee" Barry (a trio, if you count the drum machine). It was a lot of fun and kept me sustained during a difficult period of my life, and you couldn't ask for a funnier and kinder partner than Tom. Here's a song from that period, courtesy of Spo-dee, a Sam Cooke classic I wanted to do immediately after seeing Graham Parker cover it live in NYC one night.
By the way, I'm posting odd things like this because I have vowed to post something on this blog every single day, and until the project gets fully underway I'm gonna pass the time thusly. Hope you all don't mind too much.
Another Saturday Night
Saturday, January 16, 2010
One of the best people I've met during my Virginia life is the exemplary David McKittrick, a massively talented singer, guitarist and music producer who I've had the privilege of sharing stage space with in the past. Dave has graciously carved out some time for me this week to sit down and work out some song ideas and riffs, and I plan to post in some form whatever comes out of that meetup. I couldn't be in better hands!
Friday, January 15, 2010
Thursday, January 14, 2010
These are song bits I recorded a few months back. They're rough and fragmented, and the lyrics are just mumbly melody placeholders, but I think there's a germ of a song in each one. I actually recorded 12 tracks, and these are the only 2 to have survived the listening session I had tonight. That's actually a pretty good cull if you ask me.
The performances aren't that hot, but they aren't meant to be. The point is to discover whether a song or two can be sculpted from the lumps.
You are free to grab the tracks and do something with them yourself if you are so inclined. Just let me know so I can knock them off my list.
Oh, and I capo'd at least one of these tracks, so watch out for that. No idea which fret.
EDIT: On second listening, I decided Track 2 was just godawful. And then there was one.
Wednesday, January 13, 2010
Coming soon to this spot: my attempt to assemble an album of original songs, suffused with community and collaboration, with every creative step recorded here for posterity and/or amusement. We're gonna discuss and argue and experiment, and we'll have a shot at creating something good and fun and maybe even meaningful.
Please post your comments, thoughts, ideas, suggestions, dreams, influences, and anything else you'd like to contribute. My role will be to write and produce and plan and perform, and to be the guy who visibly fails should the project implode. Your role is to pick some way you'd like to contribute, such as to write and produce and plan and perform, and then follow through.
To get an idea of my own style and level of talent (or lack thereof), I am posting the only original song I can stand to perform any more without embarrassment. It is not necessarily an indication of the style or direction the album may go, and it really may not be all that good a song. But it is a starting place.
Written in 1985, music by Ken Cadmus and John E. Williams, words by John E. This is a solo version from awhile back when I resurrected the song after 10 or so years, though a full band "ska" version does exist. I'll post that one at a later date.
"Into the Night"