Yacht Rock: A Love Letter

I come not to bury Yacht Rock, but to tell you why it’s fucking awesome.

And no, I’m not joking, this is not a parody post, and I ain’t takin’ no shit from any haters, here.

So get yourself a tall glass of something refreshing (preferably with an umbrella in it), make sure you know your iTunes password (’cause you’re gonna be buying some music) and get comfortable, because we’ve got a lot to talk about, and there’s no point in wasting time.

The term “Yacht Rock” first surfaced for many of us some twelve years ago, as the brainchild of a handful of SNL-wannabe millennials on a site called Channel101 (before YouTube swallowed up all the also-rans that swam in its wake in those days). They made a mockumentary series that chronicled the birth and eventual death of what they deemed “Yacht Rock” – their term for the highly polished soft-rock music popular from the end of the seventies and into the pre-“Thriller” early 1980’s.

The term eventually caught on in spite of (or maybe because of) the amateur fratboy-prank footage that comprised the series and before most of us realized what was happening, the term “Yacht Rock” had managed to elbow its way into the musical vernacular.

So, since it now actually means something, let’s first agree on the definition of the term, shall we?

Yacht Rock (n.): A subset of popular (largely American) music generally released between the years 1976 and 1983 whose practitioners generally valued highly sophisticated chord changes, lush arrangements to include a very dry drum sound with very little decay and no bottom heads on the toms, usually a prominent Wurlitzer or Fender Rhodes keyboard sound, generous use of strings, horns and layered vocal harmonies. Practitioners of Yacht Rock from a production standpoint included Ted Templeman, Mo Ostin, Lenny Waronker, Kyle Lehning, and others.

Yacht Rock actually has an extensive (but thin on actual content) Wikipedia page, which defines it as:

“… broad music style and aesthetic identified with soft rock. It was one of the commercially successful genres of its era, existing between the mid-1970s and early 1980s.  Drawing on sources such as smooth soul, smooth jazz, R&B, funk and disco, common stylistic traits include high-quality production, clean vocals, and a focus on light, catchy melodies…”

As time has passed and the term has become evergreen, misconceptions about the term have grown over time. Many folks have used it as an umbrella to cover everything from Cat Stevens to Kenny G to Coldplay and, frankly, folks, that shit needs to stop.

LET THE RE-EDUCATION BEGIN

The single biggest mistake people allow themselves to make is to lazily categorize bands as being “Yacht Rock Bands”.

While it is true that some bands spent far more time in the Yacht Rock Mines than others, there is one universal truth that we have to acknowledge here, or this whole missive is pointless.

SONGS are “Yacht Rock” before BANDS are. BANDS can have SONGS that fit the category without being a “Yacht Rock Band”.

THE SONG ALWAYS COMES FIRST.

Shall we take a look at some examples?

AMERICA – “Horse With No Name“? No. “You Can Do Magic“? YES.

STEELY DAN – “Reelin’ In The Years“? No. “Peg“? Absofuckinlutely.

EAGLES – “Already Gone“? Not even close. “I Can’t Tell You Why“? YES.

HALL AND OATES – “Sara Smile“? Nah. “You Make My Dreams“? YEP.

KENNY LOGGINS – “I’m Alright“? No. Damn never everything else? Well…

you get it by now, right?

What we’re establishing here is that even the most conspicuous practitioners of the form are capable of stepping outside the Marina – just call up Steve Perry, record “Don’t Fight It” and shake off that stigma!

WHAT CAME FIRST – THE YACHT OR THE ROCK?

You may ask yourself – how did we get here?

Well, when looking at the music of that period in time in context with what came before, it’s not terribly hard to see how we landed our craft on this particular dock. The decade or so that preceded the advent of Yacht Rock was one of the most creatively fruitful in the history of popular music, and you gotta know that shit ain’t gonna last forever. But some of the explosions in the fabric of popular music that occurred in the early Seventies laid the groundwork for the delicious evolution of the Smooth Monolith that was Yacht Rock. If you factor in the fusion chops of Return to Forever and Mahavishnu, throw in a healthy dose of Gamble and Huff and the Philly Soul/TSOP catalog, a little Motown arrangement sensibility, and the accessibility and harmony of the pop music of the time – the only thing that could come from that casserole would be Yacht Rock.

Sure, that period in pop music history could be described as a lull between Woodstock and Punk if you need to call it something…but man, there were some great songs, some great singers, and some great bands turning out records during Yacht Rock’s heyday.

So let’s jump into the water, shall we?

THE SONGS, THE SINGERS, THE STORIES

My single biggest gripe with most of the know-nothings who like to throw the term around, on social media and elsewhere, tend to fall into the same trap. They all name check the same handful of artists over and over again, and while some folks have earned the label, other acts who deserve it seem to endlessly dodge the label and are left out of the conversation.

We’re gonna fix that today.

OK, let’s review the typical name-drops first.

STEELY DAN

Listening to Steely Dan’s landmark AJA album, it’s hard to argue that they haven’t earned a place at The Marina with the rest of Yacht Rock’s finest, and I seldom bother to argue about their inclusion. But if we accept the premise that the Yacht Rock Badge is awarded to songs over artists, we have to look at their catalog and consider songs like “Dirty Work“, “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number“, “My Old School” and others and admit to ourselves that they don’t really carry the typical Yacht-like benchmarks. So sure, they dallied – perhaps much longer than they should have – at the docks and created some classics of the genre – “Hey Nineteen“, “Deacon Blues“, “Peg“, “FM“, and many, MANY more.

HALL AND OATES

Hell, they even made the original mockumentary, as did The Dan. And yeah, some of their material lives up to the descriptors of the genre, hands down. But dig a little further back into their catalog and take a look at songs like “How Does It Feel To Be Back” (an early single from their “Voices” album – one of their first to dip its toes into the waters of The Marina) or just about anything from “Abandoned Luncheonette” and it becomes clear that they had more depth and dimension than could be considered fair to be pigeonholed.

THE DOOBIE BROTHERS

This one makes me fucking crazy.

I have to assume that the same folks who consider the Doobies to be a Yacht Rock band probably would drop cash at the record store for a copy of Genesis’ “Wind and Wuthering” expecting to hear Phil Collins ballads on it.

Not unlike Genesis, we have to acknowledge that there are really two bands by the same name in both cases – just as there was Genesis before and after the Phil Collins Non-Hostile Takeover, we have to acknowledge that there are two separate bands – the Michael McDonald Version and the Other Band.

This might be an odd point in this diatribe to introduce this sidebar, but if you’ve bothered to read this far, it’s vitally important that you recognize, accept and acknowledge the Singular Universal Truth of Yacht Rock.

THERE IS NO YACHT ROCK WITHOUT MICHAEL MCDONALD. HE IS THE JESUS, ELVIS, MICHAEL JORDAN AND MUHAMMAD ALI OF YACHT ROCK.

The Doobies are often stigmatized in the genre due to the fact that the Messiah spent a few albums’ worth of his career as a member of the band – and also because the fucking National Anthem of Yacht Rock still carries their name on the sleeve:

Record of the Year at the Grammy awards in 1979, folks. Written by Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins (the Lennon and McCartney of Yacht Rock) and a classic, undeniable hit record if ever there was one, this song put the genre on the map and is still one of the most perfect examples of everything that makes Yacht Rock great.

So that’s definitely a thing that happened.

BUT….BUT – before this, there was “China Grove“. There was “Jesus is Just Alright“. There was “Long Train Runnin’” and “Listen To The Music” and “Rockin’ Down The Highway” and DAMMIT I SHOULDN’T HAVE TO POINT THIS SHIT OUT TO PEOPLE, FOR CRYIN’ OUT LOUD GO TO THE MALL AND STOP PRETENDING TO GIVE A SHIT ABOUT MUSIC….

OK, sorry. I had to get that outta my system. Now…let’s get to some of the folks who have EARNED the Yacht Rock distinction.

YACHT ROCK HALL OF FAMERS

Some folks have carried the Yacht Rock banner high and proudly over the years – maybe not necessarily embracing the title, but staying true to their musical stripes and proudly plying their trade…in some cases, playing the old songs alongside new material that they’ve continued to release in the time since the apex of their popularity.

One of those is Christopher Cross.

A short medley of what makes Christopher Cross a true badass.

Christopher Cross hit the ground just as the Yacht Rock Revolution was hitting its stride and carried the momentum into the 80’s with one of the classics of the genre, “Sailing” – which may be responsible for the label in the first place. His first two records (his self-titled debut and the stellar followup, “Another Page“) are absolute must-haves. His debut contains his first single, “Ride Like The Wind” as well as “Never Be The Same“, all radio staples. The follow-up had singles in “No Time For Talk“, “All Right” and “Think of Laura“, but every song on that record is amazing – the duet with Karla Bonoff, “What Am I Supposed To Believe” is achingly beautiful, as are “Nature Of The Game“, “Talking In My Sleep“, and the album closer, “Words of Wisdom“.

Unlike some of the other band who richly deserve to be filed under the Yacht Rock category but seldom come up in conversation, Christopher Cross seems to have earned the designation for his namesake song, but his early work is a rich vein of smooth goodness.

Now, let’s talk about some other bands who are richly deserving of the Yacht Rock moniker, but who seldom come up in conversation.

How about Ambrosia?

It could be argued that Ambrosia tripped and fell backwards into the Yacht Rock pantheon, as they had a long and storied history before the series of records bearing their best known songs were released in the late seventies.

A sampling of Ambrosia’s best known songs…

Lead singer David Pack had an expressive, distinct voice and their songs carried all the hallmarks of classic Yachtness – keyboard-centric arrangements that featured catchy melodies and densely layered harmonies over a tight, understated rhythm section. They created some incredibly memorable songs, but people seem to have complete amnesia when it comes to who recorded them.

So let’s move on to the two bands that are most deserving of Yacht Rock stature that NOBODY EVER SEEMS TO MENTION IN THESE FRIGGIN’ CONVERSATIONS BECAUSE THEY’RE TOO HUNG UP ON KENNY LOGGINS FOR SOME GODDAMN REASON:

The runners-up: England Dan and John Ford Coley!

Nobody…and i mean NOBODY – was smoother than these cats.

If you’ve ever ventured into a record store in modern times, one of the things you’ll invariably notice (whether it actually dawns on you or not) will be the sheer volume of albums that some artists have in their discography. I swear to Buddy Christ, I can’t think of a single reason for there to be so many damned Uriah Heep albums, but if you ever find yourself digging through the bargain bin at your local used record store, YOU WILL PONDER THIS QUESTION.

This can be said of a lot of acts for whom chart success or radio play was either fleeting or elusive altogether, but England Dan and John Ford Coley had one hell of a run. From their breakout hits like “I’d Really Love To See You Tonight”, “Nights Are Forever”, “Falling Stars”, “It’s Sad To Belong” and “Gone Too Far” through their latter chart hits like “Love Is The Answer” and “We’ll Never Have to Say Goodbye Again”, it seemed like there was always a song on the radio by these guys for a solid six or seven years.

So why don’t people mention them when the heavy hitters of Yacht Rock are being discussed? Is it the name? Is it too much to remember?

One of the mysteries of life, man.

But our grand prize winner – I’ll never understand why they’re not mentioned in the same breath with King Michael when the roll call happens.

Pablo Fucking Cruise.

Seriously, click this goddamn link, because you need to hear this.

If somebody went to Central Casting and said to the lady behind the desk, “Hey, listen…I need a prototypical Yacht Rock band…smooth grooves and lush, layered arrangements played by dudes in sandals and hawaiian shirts who sing great together…and they should look fuckin’ happy to be everywhere they go!” – she would’ve reached in her top desk drawer and pulled out an 8 x 10 glossy of Pablo Cruise and you’d be so happy you made that call that you’d jam a straw into the nearest pineapple.

Seriously – these guys created some of the most straight-up, unadulterated Yacht Fodder of the entire era, but people are too busy looking like idiots by trying to jam the Doobies down our throats to remember that these dudes deserve at least Thomas Jefferson status on the Yacht Rock Mount Rushmore, but for way too many people, they barely manage to earn Grover Cleveland status…which doesn’t get them on the mountain, but they damn well deserve to be.

Go back up there and listen to that clip if you haven’t – absolute Sailboat Gold, right there.

SAILING IN OBSCURITY – YACHT ROCK’S UNSUNG HEROES

Now that we’ve got you thinking – and hopefully, questioning everything you thought you knew about Yacht Rock – I’d like to take this opportunity to introduce you to a few folks who may have flown under your radar, some amazing songs that never got their due and should be considered classics in the genre, save for the fact that they just never managed to achieve critical mass.

(Amy Holland’s “How Do I Survive” from 1980)

You’ve likely never heard of Amy Holland – if you have, you may know her as Mrs. Michael McDonald, as they’ve been married since 1983 and have two children (who will inherit the Yacht Rock throne someday, whether they ever sing a note or not. It’s just how shit works.) This song barely made a ripple when it came out, but it’s textbook Yachtness is delicious.

(Chris Rea – Fool If You Think It’s Over from 1978)

I challenge you to try to get the chorus of this song out of your head after listening to it all the way through. Hypnosis might not even work. Rea enjoyed a long career as a recording artist in Europe, but this song was his lone American radio single…and it’s a great one.

(Terence Boylan – Did She Finally Get To You from 1980)

There are three versions of this video on YouTube, and combined, they have less than a thousand views – Terence Boylan isn’t exactly a household name, and only made a couple of records, including this single that came out on Elektra/Asylum in 1980. I found it in a box in the attic of a radio station I worked at in high school (along with Florence Warner’s brilliant Epic debut album from 1973 or so, but that’s a whole ‘nother diatribe for another time). Great chorus, very understated arrangement and maybe barely only qualifies for Yacht Rock status, but it’s my blog so I make the goddamn rules.

(Robbie Dupree, Steal Away – 1980)

1979 and 1980 were magical years for Yacht Rock – so many classics from the genre surfaced during those two years…it was like 1967, but with cocaine instead of LSD. Actually, it was nothing like 1967, so let’s abandon that premise and take a minute to appreciate a masterfully crafted recording with a cameo by Michael McDonald in the bridge. Swooning is both allowed and encouraged.

(Lauren Wood, Half as Much (1981)

Lauren recorded two albums for Warner Brothers, one in 1979 and the followup (which contained this near-perfect example of YachtRockery) in 1981 before vanishing for almost fifteen years, only to resurface with a song on the Pretty Woman soundtrack called “Fallen“. Her voice is an amazingly distinctive instrument and nearly every song on her two Warners records is a textbook example of the genre, but this one is something special.

(Jim Photoglo, “Fool In Love With You”, 1981)

Fool In Love With You” was the title track from Jim’s second record on the UA label in 1981, released after his first album managed to chart two songs, “We Were Meant To Be Lovers” and “When Love Is Gone” in 1980. As a label, UA had a short lifespan, but turned out to be the Motown of Yacht Rock, siring the careers of Photoglo, Robbie Dupree, and Christopher Cross.

(Franke and the Knockouts, “Sweetheart” (1981)

This song was literally everywhere the summer it came out. Maybe not where you lived, but between the rivers in West Tennessee, it seemed like it was on EVERY radio station multiple times a day. The band went on to make three records for their label (Millenium) before folding in the mid eighties. Drummer Tico Torres went on to play with a struggling hard rock outfit called Bon Jovi and lead singer Franke Previte wrote an obscure song called “I’ve Had The Time of my Life” for a movie that had some success called “Dirty Dancing“.

(Cliff Richard, “We Don’t Talk Anymore”, 1979)

Cliff Richard enjoyed Ricky Nelson-esque status as a pop star in the UK dating back to the early 60’s, but this song (along with his hits “Dreaming” and “Carrie“) were his Yacht Rock staples of the late seventies in the US.

(Greg Guidry, “Goin’ Down” from 1982)

By 1982, the smooth sounds of Yacht Rock had peaked, although you’d have a hard time arguing as much looking at the pop charts – but within the space of the next two years, the world would have to contend with Madonna, Michael Jackson’s Thriller, Prince’s Purple Rain, Bruce Springsteen’s Born In The USA, and the slowly turning tide of influence as MTV began to dictate what radio played instead of the other way around. This song, Greg’s only chart hit, reached the top 20 in 1982 as Yacht Rock’s reign began to fade.

YACHT ROCK’S TRAGICALLY OVERLOOKED SUPERGROUP

Rock and roll is cluttered with tragedies – artists who died at their creative peak without ever achieving any tangible success, records that were born of some magic combination of timing and talent that fell on deaf ears and never saw the light of day, musicians who couldn’t set aside their personal differences in spite of undeniable chemistry, and we’ve canonized some of the legendary stories of some of those artists over the past seventy years of popular music history.

Yacht Rock has its own tragic story of a blockbuster success that never was, a band whose recorded output culminated in a third album that has never been equaled in terms of sheer songcraft, musicianship and production qualities.

Nielsen Pearson was the Big Star of Yacht Rock.

They made three albums before disappearing into obscurity and oblivion, culminating in Blind Luck, their masterpiece that came out on Capitol in 1983. Unlike the Memphis power pop band who managed to achieve critical acclaim years after their dissolution, Nielsen Pearson never managed to harvest the success that the quality of their final album deserved. Their Wikipedia page is – quite literally – two sentences.

Seriously, TWO SENTENCES.

A long-abandoned MySpace page, linked at the bottom of their uncomfortably bare Wikipedia entry, rounds out the remaining information available about them online. Reed Nielsen passed away in 2014 after settling in Nashville and having some songwriting success here, and there’s no trace of Mark Pearson whatsoever (unless he and the Folksinger Mark Pearson are the same person, which seems preposterously unlikely).

Mystique abounds, however.

The masterful third album, Blind Luck, is somehow posted in its entirely on SoundCloud:

If you’re somehow still reading this voluminous love letter, then this record is my personal thank-you to you, dear reader. This record deserves to be mentioned in the same breath with Michael McDonald’s genre-defining solo debut, If That’s What It Takes or Christopher Cross’ masterful second album, Another Page.

This record captures two individually talented singers and songwriters operating in perfect harmony, both with easily identifiable voices but working together in sublimely complementary fashion. EVERY SONG is a textbook example of the genre – from the failed radio single “Hasty Heart” that opens up side one to “Carrie” that closes out side two of the record.

The only chart single the band would ever have was “If You Should Sail” from their Capitol debut, Nielsen Pearson…that song was a top 40 hit in 1980.

Obscurity claims so, so many talented folks – artists, writers, musicians, poets, actors – luckily for Reed and Mark, there was tape rolling while they were hitting their stride and these songs were preserved for those of us who know where to look.

So, fellow Yacht Rock lover, I leave you today to listen to this lost classic of the genre and ponder how we all missed out on a record that came so close to defining the entire genre, only to fall on deaf ears and almost disappear under the dust of years past.

Let us ponder the wonders of Yacht Rock for years to come…

…but seriously – don’t mention the Doobie Brothers if you want anyone to take you seriously.

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Dan May at Sellersville Theater, Friday July 5th, 2019

anybody who has a passionate pursuit in their lives has an ideal – a mental picture of what their passion looks like when it manifests itself in its purest, most perfect form. for a surfer, it’s catching the perfect wave and riding it to the sand. bowling a perfect 300. pitching a no-hitter. a hole-in-one.

for musicians, there really isn’t a consistent answer, though, is there? nailing a difficult instrumental passage or playing something that was once impossible, maybe…or getting a gig you’d worked hard for, or maybe playing a show with a personal hero – there are probably as many definitions of “perfect” as there are folks who’d be willing to answer the question.

but i think it’s safe to say that for us creative types, the pursuit of our own personal definition of “perfection” is the consistent thing that keeps us coming back – the thing that drives us – the reason we get out of bed.

and let’s face it…it’s the pursuit itself that drives us. the desire to be the best we can be at whatever we’ve chosen. because nobody wants to feel like Brian Wilson hearing from Paul McCartney that “God Only Knows” was the greatest song he’d ever heard – as the story goes, when Wilson heard that from one of his songwriting heroes, he hid in a closet and cried because he took that as a sign that he’d never be able to surpass what he’d already done.

so maybe the pursuit of perfection is a lofty goal, but catching it is another matter altogether.

but boy, let me tell ya…when you get as close as we collectively came at Sellersville with Dan May last week, it’s intoxicating.

and when you’ve been at this chase long enough to know how rare it is to dance that close, and you can realize the significance of that fleeting moment in real time, maybe you’ll be lucky enough to soak it in as it’s happening.

i sure did.

it had been almost exactly a year since the last time i played at Sellersville (a solo acoustic show i did opening for Paul Barrere and Fred Tackett from Little Feat, which you can actually see in its entirety here). as stages go, it’s the place i feel most comfortable, the most at-home…the easiest place to play in the world for me. i’ve played some amazing shows there over the years, and there have been a lot of capital-M “moments” – it would take another entire post to catalog them properly and do them justice.

one of those moments in particular came up during dinner this night, in fact – we were playing an opening set and our long lost, lamentedly disappeared fiddle player, Lainey Wilson, was on the show. during the final song, our bass player (Kurm the Shoeless One) leaned over to her and said “Go Off!” his intention was that she take a solo over the end of the song while Dan was walking offstage, but she took her cue from Dan when Kurm told her to “go off” and left the stage instead.

i brought my friend Chris with me to the show, which meant that she had to endure load-in AND soundcheck, as well as suffer our collective company for the night – but she epitomizes the notion of “easy people” and took it all in with a smile…i had prepared her somewhat for what to expect so she was armed with distractions, just in case.

Dan’s band has never had a consistent stage plot, as there have always been different folks on different shows – but the band has solidified somewhat of late, with regard to the core. Tommy and Dan Faga have become the default rhythm section, and they’ve developed as a unit instinctively over time. Dan was a friend long before he outed himself as a bass player, and having him at eye level has been a gift. His wife (and fellow ST94 alum) Aly came out with their two girls during load-in and they came bearing gifts (a cake plate full of cupcakes). I remembered the fact that they had met there in that very room years before, not yet a couple…then a couple in secret, then all these years later married with children and – in my mind – fully inseparable from that room itself.

Tommy is my champion – the other half of The Tommys, my bandmate in almost a dozen bands over the years, and often the air that holds up whatever craft we happen to be flying on a given night. his presence is buoyant and he makes damn near everything better just by being there to laugh at it…unless there are avocado wraps involved. don’t ask.

Anthony Newett became an instant soulmate the first time we played together. Ant and I are the musical equivalent of one of those old married couples you see at the diner who can sit together and have a meal and pass condiments and dishes across the table without exchanging a word and always seem to innately sense what the other is about to do.

One of the things that makes our relationship (musically, anyway) special is that there’s something of an unspoken understanding between us of what our personal strengths and weaknesses are, and Ant has a way of reacting to what I play in an almost telepathic sense. he’s a much better musician than I am, and he uses that ability to read my thoughts and play parts that complement what I’m doing in a way that – hell, maybe only I end up noticing, I don’t know. but when we play together, he totally takes advantage of this ability and will play something that commands my attention (often multiple times a night), and will – as soon as I react and look over at him – will look back up at me momentarily, raise one eyebrow (a la Belushi), give me a momentary smile and continue doing what he was doing.

I wish I could put into words what playing with Ant does for my spiritual well-being, but I don’t know that I can. Musically, he is inseparable from who I am – he’s my missing part.

But wait…there’s more. Get a load of what he’s done now.

I started hearing this name crop up relatively recently, and I wasn’t sure what the story was because I was on the outside looking in – her name appeared first in a couple random posts by Dan, and I found out a while back that this Claudia Terry would be joining us for this show.

I hadn’t met her, didn’t know anything about her, and wasn’t sure what to expect – I didn’t know if she’d be primarily a harmony vocalist like Heather had been, or if she had something else to contribute. Once I heard she was there on Ant’s recommendation, I immediately felt at ease, because Ant’s not about to bring someone into this orbit who couldn’t pull their weight.

Still, my acoustic guitar parts are pretty specific, and have a certain feel to them that other far superior musicians to myself haven’t really been able to cop in the past, so I was prepared to play my parts alongside the New Girl for the duration of the night, just to make sure that foundation was there.

Well, you ain’t gonna believe this shit, but lemme tell ya…

We had loaded in and were in the process of gravitating to our respective spots in the stage plot for this particular night, and we were discussing songs from the set during line check and she started playing the intro to “The Glory Years” – MY intro to “The Glory Years” – and SHE FUCKING NAILED IT. It was perfect!

Now she had my attention.

Claudia is 19 years old. That’s significant.

It’s significant because – even in this era of YouTube Geniuses – there’s a feel, a grasp of timing, a comfort level with an instrument that some douchebag with a British accent can’t teach you during the course of a video on the internet. And yet, here’s this girl with pretty limited experience in this setting just KILLING these parts that she’d only learned prior to this show.

And she SINGS! Holy shit, she sings – and her innate ear for harmonies blew my mind. It was as if she’d prepared for the fact that I’d be there to sing the middle third and she just automatically went to the high fifth on damn near everything – and that’s just not something that you can prepare for, really…you either hear it and sing the part reflexively or you don’t, and she reacted in real time to where she needed to go and landed there…

every. damn. time.

I fell in love with this kid on this night. I wanted to bring her home with me and get her a room and give her free reign over my record collection and the studio and stand back and watch her blossom and let her head explode all over the living room floor and stand back and see where she goes from here – and it only got better from this point through the end of the night.

When I was a teenager, I played drums with “the” band in my little hometown, the band that got all the good gigs in town, that everybody came to see…and this Friday night, I remembered something that Jerry “Opie” Opdycke said to me after a gig one night when I was 16.

“Tom, man…you’ve got the best chance of any of us to make something of yourself in this business because you’ve got your whole life in front of you. You’re damn good, and somebody, somewhere is gonna notice that sooner or later.”

Now, decades later, I found myself watching this girl barely old enough to vote and not yet able to drink or buy cigarettes at a convenience store standing across the stage from me and just slaying everything she played.

Maybe you’ve had a similar experience watching a kid play sports in high school or something to that effect and feeling like you were witnessing something out of the ordinary – the potential for greatness that maybe only you saw at the time?

Claudia is something special. I knew it the first time we played through an intro together on that stage, that night.

I was already elated when we wrapped up soundcheck and went next door to dinner – we ordered food and everyone fell into comfortable conversation..Ant sat on one side of me, Chris and Dan Faga on the other, Tommy, Dan and Claudia across from me – with occasional visits from Lisa and Adam (Dan May’s wife and son) and a few other folks who’d come to the show (Dennis Whelan and some of the May clan from Ohio, among others)…it was becoming clear to me that this was going to be a special night, whether it turned out that way musically or not.

I was struck there at the dinner table that this was once a pretty regular stop for me – that I’d sat at that table with a ton of musicians in the years past – and that being able to be here for this wasn’t something I could take for granted the way that I’d perhaps done in the past…I made an extra effort to look around the table at my bandmates, my friends, my fellow travellers and to appreciate the moment…Dan and Chris discussing parenting on my right while I interrogated Claudia about her musical background and introducing the concept that maybe she was adopted if her parents weren’t musicians, while Anthony told me their story and Tommy was busy being Tommy…then we broke out the cupcakes that Dan’s daughters and family had made for us and we FaceTime’d the girls and raised the cupcakes in a toast to them, back home at Faga Manor, before we settled up and prepared to head across the parking lot.

I think it’s fair to say that the seeds for what happened on the stage at Sellersville were sewn at the dinner table that night.

When we left to head next door to wait for showtime, there was already something in the air.

We parted ways with Chris, who went out to take her seat in the theater, and we all circled ’round the bench seating in the green room – there was a bottle of bourbon in there and someone opened it and I poured a little in the bottom of a plastic cup and filled the rest with diet soda while everyone else poured themselves a little and we raised a toast. We talked for a short while and after a few minutes, a folded piece of paper fell onto the floor just inside the stage door.

Dan Faga picked it up and saw that it had my name on the outside fold, and handed it to me. I opened it up and read what was written in pencil on the inside of the paper….

“…do you know Free Bird?”

So I explained to the rest of the band how some 22 years ago, Chris had come to the CD release party for an album I’d put out in 1997 and had asked the doorman to hand me her business card with the same thing – “do you know Free Bird?” – written on the back of it.

It wasn’t long before Lizanne Knott and her daugher Ciara came in, accompanied by Glenn Barratt (who played bass behind her for the show) – so Tommy and I accompanied both of them for their sets as well.

There wasn’t a ton of time between when Lizanne came off the stage and when Dan went on…or at least it didn’t feel like it. We were back on the stage within moments of having walked off – Tommy and me. Me and Tommy. The League of Extraordinary Sidemen. The Tommys.

“Ladies and Gentlemen…please welcome – singer, songwriter and freelance Supreme Court Justice – Dan May!”

OK, I’m going to be perhaps painfully frank with you here.

I don’t remember a lot about the set.

I don’t remember the order of the songs we played, I don’t remember who took solos on which songs, I don’t remember which stories Dan read from his books…it all ran together in a blissful cloud in my head.

That might sound ridiculous, but it’s true.

On nights when shit ain’t happening, I can tell you every mistake I made, and every mistake that everybody else in the band made in EXCRUCIATING detail.

this night, though…oh. my. God.

It was an orgy of amazing harmonies, of stoic raised-eyebrow glances from Ant, of sheer exuberance from Tommy, of flawless rock-solid bottom from Dan Faga, and…

Dan May.

I don’t even know if I’m able to talk about my relationship with Dan without getting emotional. I’ve been playing, singing, and riding shotgun with him for over a decade, and I’ve given him more than enough reason to abandon me for greener pastures and he’s stuck with me, and as such – he’s stuck with me. I love Dan in a way that I’m incapable of putting into words. He’s been a musical soulmate from the moment he sent me a copy of “Once Was Red” in the mail in response to a Craigslist ad that I answered a lifetime ago and I put the CD into the player in my old Isuzu Trooper and heard the strains of “Lights Out In Tupelo” blaring out of the speakers. He’s brought me on the road, he’s put me up with his family (who have, in turn, become my family), we’ve played shows all over the continental US and I consider him a brother – no, really, a Brother.

This show, on this night, was a blur.

It felt as though it was over before it started, and I was outside my body wondering what had just happened.

The house lights came up and shook me loose from whatever wave I was riding, so I walked down front and started talking to folks who’d come up to say hello.

What with hanging my hat in Nashville now, I didn’t get to see these folks as often as I once did, so tonight was A Thing.

Mike and Judy Morsch. Al and Carol Bien. Jack Leitmeyer. Dennis Whelan. John Woolley.

And those are just the folks who bothered to stick around…I know from aftershow reports that Frank Friestadt (the custodian of my old Fender Deluxe Reverb), Liz Miller, and several other folks who needed to leave without saying hello were in that room on that night as well.

So I stood down in front of the stage after the lights came up and Alex turned on the background music and had a receiving line of sorts for some time…all the while, listening to what was playing overhead…

“Well I’ve been looking for somewhere to go
You’ve been looking for a place to roam…”

There were a few folks still wandering about the floor, some of them ushers and some of them friends who were still chatting with the folks preparing to start tearing down the stage.

“But I’ll be steady in your hand
If you’ll take me as I am
I’ll be your rock, if you’ll roll me on home…”

I finally said goodnight to the last of the folks who’d come down to say hello and saw Chris, sitting at the corner of the first row of seats. I walked over to sit down for a minute – she was beaming. I remembered having looked out over the audience at shows some twenty years ago and seeing that same face, and I sat down next to her and looked back at the stage for a short moment – now fully lit, with folks tearing down equipment as if nothing had happened there that night…

“We’ll build a house outta broken dreams
And find our way back to reality…”

I looked around me for a long, long minute…and I looked over at Chris…

and I just nestled my face into her shoulder and cried like a baby. HARD.

I’m sure I probably made some folks uncomfortable. If I did, I’m sorry.

But it was just too much.

Now, this is the point at which we should probably recap, a la Rob Gordon from High Fidelity:

“So, how did Tom go from being the gregarious guy in the band to being a blubbering emotional minefield in the space of a few minutes? Well, it’s probably the result of at least two, or maybe all four, of the following points coming to the surface…”

ONE – mortality.

When you’ve been doing this for an expanse of time, for a large portion of your life, chasing that momentary perfection that we talked about a bit at the top of this endless trope, you learn a few things. You learn that it doesn’t happen often. You learn that when it does, it’s usually fleeting. And, if you’re lucky…RIDICULOUSLY lucky…you learn to recognize it as it’s happening and try to commit as much of what’s happening around you to memory. AND – you realize over time that these moments are precious and that every time you experience it might be the last time.

TWO – comeraderie.

On this night, I was surrounded by exactly the right people, on stage with exactly the right people, and felt every ounce of the love that was in that room – from the audience, from my fellow players, from my artist, from my people in the audience…that room was awash in love from the moment we stepped onto that stage, and it was palpable.

THREE – the show itself.

I can’t even, really…it was just amazing. I got to put down my acoustic guitar and play other instruments, thanks to Claudia and Ant, I got to hear this amazing band play its ass off in front of an audience that loved us on a musical AND personal level, and we gave them back every ounce of energy they sent towards the stage.

FOUR – nostalgia.

Sellersville is my Home Stage.

It’s always been my home stage. it’s the room where I had my CD release for “Friends and Heroes”, it’s where I played with Marshall Tucker for one of the first times, it’s the room where I recorded Craig Bickhardt’s live record, it’s the place where I watched Dan and Alyson Faga’s friendship grow into romance, then matrimony, then a beautiful family. I played there with Robert Hazard, with John Lilley, with JD Malone, with Craig Bickhardt, with Pure Prairie League, with Poco, with Blake Allen, with Skip Denenberg, with Tracy Grammer, and with Dan May…

It’s a sacred place for me.

And what better place for a transcendental experience like what happened this night?

So, yeah…I lost my shit. Sue me.

I gathered myself long enough to start asking questions about this music that was playing in the background, and found out it was a Canadian singer/songwriter named Ken Yates – his 2016 album, Huntsville, had been playing ever since the lights came up, and EVERY FUCKING SONG WAS AN ARROW THROUGH MY HEART.

Ken Yates – Roll Me On Home

After I’d managed to gather myself a bit, Tommy and Dan came down and hung with us for a bit – Tommy had miraculously found a bottle of white wine and a few cups, so Chris took my car keys and we drank wine and talked while they finished tearing down the stage….until ultimately they turned off the music and it was time to go home.

Chris drove us back to Phoenixville and stayed up with me until after 3am talking about what had just happened…I think that what had happened in that room hadn’t been lost on anyone that night – least of all either of us.

It’s a rare friend who’ll forego five-plus hours of sleep to experience something like this with you, and to those friends you should hold on, folks.

Reaction on social media was swift and intense…those who were there, they know. Those who weren’t…I’m sorry.

I will forever be grateful that I was one of the ones who stood on that stage that night, with that group of musicians on the stage and that group of folks in the audience.

what would you do…

I hope you’ve got a minute…this one might take a while.

(and I apologize for the potential vagueness to follow, but there’s a reason for it…I want you to think about this less as something that I’m speaking of in first person, and more in terms of how it might apply to your life…with the understanding that your mileage may, of course, vary.)

I want you to clear your mind for a moment and consider a question.

What would you do if someone offered you a “get out of jail free” card for one of your biggest regrets?

And I don’t mean in the sense that someone would “flashy-thing” you, a la Will Smith, or you’d be able to be “Eternal Sunshined” (both cleverly offered up by Wendy when we were talking about this last night), but you could actually go back and correct history without erasing it, could rebuild the ruins from scratch with everything intact from the moment the bombs fell…

That seems like a no-brainer, right?

As most of you know, I buried my brother this past spring.  Jim was a lot more complex than I think he ever thought himself to be, in a lot of ways…but at the root, he was a stubborn dude.  He had strained relationships with three of his four children that he took with him to the grave, and would have likely still been estranged from his brother Bob if Bob hadn’t seen him at the American Legion one night and went over to him to start a conversation.

I saw firsthand how much comfort he gathered from his connection to Bob in his final days, and I couldn’t help but wonder why he couldn’t take that lesson into other corners of his life.

I’d like to say that I’m different, more evolved somehow…but that stubborn streak runs through my DNA as well.  Just ask all the folks who can’t read this because they’re blocked, ostracized, otherwise disowned and cut out of my life in some form or fashion.  There are a few, to be certain.

And let’s be fair – there are some things that can’t be forgiven, nor should they be, and when people show you who they are, sometimes you have no choice but to believe them.  BUT – I digress.

Not long after Jim died, I got a message on Facebook from someone that I hadn’t spoken to in FIFTEEN YEARS.  In that message, they said that they sat with the question of whether to contact me for almost a week, because I’d slammed the door under duress and made it clear at the time that I wasn’t really interested in reconciliation on any level.  It took a lot of courage to reach out to me in spite of how we’d parted ways, and I’ve demonstrated time and time again just how lacking I am in that department.

Because while there had been maybe a dozen times over the course of that fifteen years that I’d seriously considered sending an email or checking to see if their phone number was still the same, I remained steadfast in my resolve not to break.  If I ever thought about it, my first reaction was to remind myself that nothing good would come of peeking over the fence, and that there was nothing to gain from having a look…so why bother?

So time passed.  For both of us.

Major life events…Danny, moving to Nashville, stuff…happened during that decade and a half of radio silence.  

But when that message showed up in my inbox, I was genuinely surprised at how I felt when I opened it and read it.  None of the resentment or baggage that I’d dragged kicking and screaming with me all those years ago, nor any of the raw nerve endings that I would have imagined would be present if I’d given myself permission to visualize something like this even a couple of years prior to when it actually DID happen – none of that was present.  I wrote a short note back, which was followed by a reply, which was eventually followed up with a phone call, which eventually led to an exchange of two specific emails…

these emails, man.  Lemme tell you something, here.

Sometimes, you’re lucky enough to be in the right place, in the right frame of mind, at the right juncture of your life…and with the right words…to actually be able to speak and hear things that should have been patently obvious before, but – for whatever reason, on that random afternoon, the clouds part and everything – EVERYTHING – makes sense.

Not everybody gets to do this.

Not everybody gets a chance to put a troubled past into perfectly clear perspective, acknowledge it, make peace with it, and then move on without carrying some incidental shrapnel that still hits a nerve from time to time, but that’s what this feels like right now.

A lot has happened on the other end of this connection over this past fifteen years, as well.  It’s not my place to inventory any of it here for perspective, but – there’s a lot to talk about.

And that’s where we find ourselves – with fifteen years’ worth of catching up to do, with fifteen years’ worth of “oh my God, I didn’t tell you about…“, fifteen years’ worth of photos and music and…

…and this place where we can talk about our past without feeling the weight of regret and enjoy where we are now without the burden of expectation – where we can just exist and enjoy this connection that had been dormant for all those years.

I don’t think this could have happened two years ago…or five years ago…or even ten years ago.  

For either of us.

We had to go out into the world individually and collect our experiences and our scars independently of one another in order to get the perspective we needed to get to this point.  In that respect, there isn’t even a sense of regret about the missed time…just gratitude that one of us (ONE of us…meaning the one of us without the Stubborn Hampton Gene…in other words, certainly not THIS one) came to a place in their life where they felt some random compulsion to check on the other and see if they were OK.

So let me ask you, person reading these words:

What would YOU do if you got a “get out of jail free” card for one of your biggest…perhaps maybe even your BIGGEST – regret?

And you could hit the reset button, acknowledge your history, and start from a place where it felt as if nothing had changed and not a day has passed, and yet – even BETTER than it was before you went off the rails?

Would you do it?

Would you try?

Open up your email or the contacts list on your phone and see what the future holds for you and those dead circuits in your past.

You may have the same epiphany that I’ve had – that you didn’t realize how much you missed it until you realized how much you missed it.

Go out into the world and fix something.

some idle tuesday

(if you don’t read this whole thing, you’re already forgiven. i already know it’s gonna be a loooooong one.)

it’s just after 11:30 – i just tucked him into bed with his two faithful dogs, and after the day he had, i’m pretty sure he’s already asleep.

i can’t tag him in this post, because he’ll definitely see it if i do…it’s already likely he’ll see it anyway, but for now – this will just be between us.

as some of you know, i should be in Philadelphia tonight…wrapping up the first of two day’s worth of sessions and looking forward to a weekends’ worth of shows, but i’m still in Nashville – sitting in a quiet house as midnight approaches and pondering the last two weeks – and considering the implications of the next two weeks and playing out multiple scenarios in my head, wondering which is most practical or most likely or most (or least) likely to extend the clock as much as possible.

for some vain reason, i feel compelled to tell you why.

you guys remember that fake email that made its rounds back during the halcyon days of the internet? the one that purported to be “Kurt Vonnegut’s commencement address to MIT”, but instead was a column written by a Chicago reporter…the “sunscreen” email?

the relevant passage:

“Don’t worry about the future. Or worry, but know that worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubble gum. The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind, the kind that blindside you at 4 p.m. on some idle Tuesday.”

Some Idle Tuesday has fallen on our formerly calm household.

let me fill in the blanks for you as best as i can…

those of you who know me beyond what instrument i played in what band at what time know a little about my attitudes towards family…i’ve likely bored most of you with my diatribe about how family is something you create, not something you’re born into – and how you can’t feel responsible for being saddled with a horde of people who just happen to share a few chromosomes with you, when you have literally nothing else in common, and all that jazz.

truth? i still believe that. even all these years later, after i’ve moved from being a weed in the garden to being something of a partriarch, all these years later, with my own children and with fewer and fewer folks who could lay claim to having known me when i was younger…i still feel as though family absolutely MUST have some foundation to stand on that isn’t simply built on shared DNA – there has to be a bond there that goes deeper than having shared the same vaginal path into the material world.

so yeah – i was never close to my family. they seemed like fucking aliens to me, and i’m pretty certain that i seemed like an alien to them, too.

but then, there was my brother Jim.

just to fill in the blanks…the first thing you have to know is that my dad was the epitome of a fucking Garbage Human. absolute trash, a racist alcoholic shitstain on humanity who should have spent his life in prison (although, paradoxically enough, i wouldn’t be here to type this if he had…so there’s that).

he had a number of wives, thus siring a number of children – two prior to my particular set of siblings…the eldest of us, my brother Jim – and his younger brother Bob…before moving on to other pursuits…namely, my mother – who gave him three more children. who the fuck knows how many other siblings might be scattered out there, but i gotta go with what i know.

Jim is the first…the oldest of the lot. I was the oldest of my particular strain.

i remember seeing a specific photo of him with his first wife, judy – he was living in the UK at the time, and he was always something of a Rock Star In Absentia to me. i grew up with cousins and aunts and grandparents who farmed and picked cotton and grew their own food, but i had this half-brother who lived in ENGLAND! he wasn’t like the rest of us! he had managed to find his way out into the world and actually have a life, to go to faraway places and live somewhere other than West Fucking Tennessee – and i can’t say, even all these years later, if i would have figured out whether or not it was possible to live outside the constraints of my birth circumstance if it hadn’t been for hearing about “my brother Jimmy” when i was a small kid, and wondering what it must’ve been like to live in England, to actually travel the world, to somehow have that ability to shake loose the circumstance of your birth and say, “nah, fuck that…i can do better.”

when i was older, my mother sent my brother and i to Memphis to spend a couple of weeks with my brother Jim and his Mysterious English Wife, Alex – a saint of a woman if ever there was one. i remember my well-meaning mother warning me before we left that they were Buddhists – because apparently that’s something you warn people about when you come from where we did.

that time was transformative, to say the least.

it was summertime, they stayed up with us to watch movies, we got to see Doctor Who for the first time (for-real Tom Baker Doctor Who, vintage shit), i remember watching “Alien” with them and falling off a chair when the alien sprang out of the escape pod with Ripley in it), and – at a very, very impressionable point in my life – figuring out for myself that life wasn’t just about where you were planted when you landed, but about where you were able to land once you figured out what the notion of home meant to you. you didn’t have to marry a girl from your hometown, you could go out into the world and find a soulmate. you didn’t have to get a job at the same plant that everyone else in your hometown ended up at, you could cast your net out into the world and find something that fits…and not SETTLE for whatever landed in your lap.

i’m pretty confident that my big brother had no idea that he taught me this stuff, but he sure as hell did, in an indirect but significant way.

lessons taught by example are ALWAYS more powerful than academic instruction or advice.

i grew up. i played music and weaseled my way into bands in high school and figured out who i was, what i was, and what i was supposed to do, and it became patently obvious that i needed to cast my net further than my hometown…so i joined the Navy (cheaper than college), ended up in the Philadelphia area, married (twice), had three amazing kids who’ve taught me far, far more than i bothered to teach them.

i’ve been far, far luckier than i deserve to be.

but i largely abandoned my biological family. time passed, shit happened, and i didn’t have any real emotional tie to most of them as it was, so i let nature take its course, and the distance took its toll. my mother would call and i’d talk to her, i’d visit home once in a blue moon, and i’d commiserate with them when life required it of me, but i still never felt close to most of them.

but Jimmy? Jimmy was different.

i can look up from my laptop this very minute and see a photo he took of me when i was no more than thirteen or fourteen, sitting behind the drums in my room at the house we lived in…yard sale clothes on my back, frizzy hair, holding drumsticks and pretending to play – i still have a vague memory of when that photo was taken.

at that point in my life, i did almost nothing but eat, sleep, go to the bathroom, and play drums…and while everybody else looked at me as if i was insane, Jimmy came to visit and actually asked me to pose for a picture behind my drums.

he acknowledged me.

he validated me.

it probably seems stupid, but any creative soul existing in a vacuum such as the one i grew up in is always one criticism away from throwing in the towel and getting a landscaping job or selling weed at the Quik-Mart when you grow up in a town like my hometown.

without burdening you with too many details of my adolescence, let’s leave it at this – Jimmy was a role model, a hero who demonstrated with his actions that it was possible to escape a future of baling hay and picking cotton just like the rest of my cousins who embraced their lot in life and never made an effort to do anything outside their assumed birthright.

so i pushed a little harder.

i made a little more effort.

i aspired to things that most people considered foolish.

i made plans.

i dared to dream of something other than burning out in my hometown.

and i have a number of people to thank for that, but maybe first among them would be my Big Brother.
now, all these years later, i have half a century of memories filed away – and i’ve travelled the world, i’ve played music in almost every state in the union, i’ve lived what i consider to be a pretty memorable life, and it’s still going…and i remain thankful for all that i have – both in terms of friends and experiences.

and while i’ve fallen out of touch with most of my family (especially in the years since my mother died almost 15 years ago), Jimmy has been a constant.

we haven’t been great at staying in touch, but whenever the phone would ring, it was as if barely a month had passed since we last spoke. he was always there, somehow, and while he was a patchwork quilt of The Old South, Buddhism, Europe, the Big City and the Country – he was never inaccessible, and i never stopped looking up to him…even as his own personal cracks began to show and he revealed himself to the Adult Version of me to be just as flawed as we all are.

when i moved the family to Nashville in 2014, we reached out to him, and it was at a crucial time. as fate would have it, he was about to go into the hospital for what turned out to be a quadruple bypass, and we welcomed him into our home during his recuperation period. he got back on his feet, went back to his home in Hohenwald with his dogs, and we saw each other when we saw each other…he came to my sporadic shows in Nashville, and visited on Christmas…and we went to his house for Thanksgiving…just every so often, ya know?

we’re all getting older. ALL of us. some of us faster than others.

i used to think that Jerry Garcia got it right…he packed several lifetimes’ worth of living into his 53 years, and he checked out without failing organs or dialysis or chemotherapy or invasive surgery or any of that shit – and to a degree, i still feel like Jerry got it right.

once your quality of life starts to desert you, things get dicey.

but if you’re lucky, you get to make that call. you get to look at your circumstances and decide, for you and your family, whether the quality of life questions outweigh everything else.

me? i’ll take a pile of Klonopins and check out on the spot…but that’s my choice. it’s not everybody’s choice, and i get it.

recently, Jim has been confronted with that choice.

he called me about a month ago with the news…he had checked into the VA emergency room with shortness of breath, chest pains and the like…and they had admitted him, done a scan, and – in the process – they found approximately 15 lesions on his brain during a CT scan taken during his stay.

his doctors didn’t pull any punches. after other cancer treatments, kidney issues and a quadruple bypass, this was going to be the final act.

best case scenario?

six months.

anyone in his situation has three options: surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation. in his case, two of those options were immediately off the table due to age and medical history, and the final one – radiation – has no hope of actually eradicating the cancer that’s consuming his brain on multiple fronts.
i spoke with his oncologist and arranged for him to come live with us here in East Nashville, because we’re less than a half hour from Vanderbilt and the VA hospital, and – perhaps selfishly – if he only gets a short time, i kinda want to have him close. i want to help out in whatever way i can, because the truth is – I OWE HIM.

so he’s been here for two-plus weeks’ worth of appointments, of surgery followups, of radiation consultations, of ER visits for pneumonia and fluid on his feet and ankles…it’s been a handful. it’s also been hard watching his memory fail him, watching his frailty robbing him of basic things like the ability to walk to the bathroom unescorted, and fatigue starting to become a 24 hour adversary.

so…for the time being…we have a diagnosis – stage 4 brain cancer.

but we also have a plan.

I’m going to do everyihing i can on a daily basis to help him continue to make new memories and to tell me ALL about the ones he wants to share.

so – for the foreseeable future, we’ll be watching TV, going to doctors’ appointments, trying to stand up to whole-head radiation, and the like.

we’ll also be going on road trips, driving past old houses, eating at the biscuit house, finding barbeque, looking at old pictures, and watching the sun go down through the front window of the house from “the dan may chair” (a recliner that Dan gave me years ago when he was remodeling his house).

we have a motto here, now…”eat the fucking bacon”.

derived in no small part from Warren Zevon’s “enjoy every sandwich”, it gets marched out whenever we get too precious about choices around here.

so for the time being, i’ll leave you with that…”eat the fucking bacon”.

hopefully, i’ll see all my PHL friends in due time…and for this aborted trip, i want to offer my sincere apologies to Michael Braunfeld, Skip Denenberg, Gordon Glantz, and Jon VanSpriell for my absence this week – know that I’ll get to you guys in due time. (also, Tony Rosario – we’ll get squared away ASAP. I promise, ok?)

a little random advice…

SO – recently, I was approached by a musical colleague with a proposition to produce his debut album.  I was (and continue to be) flattered – it’s not a scenario that comes up often, even though I’ve been involved in production for some years now.

We’ve been going back and forth for a week or so, exchanging thoughts and demos and such, and tonight he sent me an email with the question:

“…do you think I should even be thinking about making a record right now?”

I sat down to reply to his note, and several hundred words later, I finally got around to hitting “send” and thought – maybe these words might find a nerve with a larger audience, so – here you go.  Reprinted here in its entirety.

 


 

Boy….you’ve asked the $64,000 question, there.

And of course, I’m not gonna be able to go to bed without spitting out an answer of some sort.

There’s really only one person who can answer that question, and that’s ultimately you.  BUT – there are some points to consider when thinking about something like this.

You can’t really base the answer to “should I make a record?” on the number of Facebook followers you have, or how many people are showing up for gigs, or statistics, or algorithms – because none of that is gonna give you the right answer.

First of all, you should come to terms with a couple of universal truths:

1. Your first album will underperform your expectations.  Even if it sells a quarter million copies, it will fall short of some mark you’ve set for it in your mind.  It’s just the way our brains work.  There’s nothing you can do about it either before or afterward, it’s just the way it is.  Might as well prepare for it.

2.You will hate your first record for the rest of your life.  I won’t try to explain that to you in an email, it’s best saved for a conversation – but you should also make peace with that beforehand.  It’s yet another universal truth – you will likely end up hating your first album.  Jackson Browne hates his first record, and it’s universally considered one of the best debuts ever.  Counting Crows’ first record is brilliant, as is the debut by Crosby, Stills and Nash – they’re the exceptions to the rule, as those records represent something unique to their frames of reference….but if you surveyed a thousand bands or artists, 997 of them will hate their first record.  They will almost all have fond memories of making their first record, they’ll have stories about the making of their first record, they’ll tell you all about what they learned making their first record, but they’ll insist they hate it.

NOW – that last point is important.

Because – not unlike having children – making your first record is something that it’s easy to convince yourself to put off, to postpone, to talk yourself out of making that first record.

But days become weeks become months becomes years until it becomes “why bother” and you end up shelving it indefinitely.

So the answer to your question is yeah – you should make a record.

BUT – what’s a record?

Does it need to be a full length, 12 song effort?  Can it be an EP?  Does it need to be physical product?  Can I release it on iTunes/Spotify/etc. only, or do I need to actually have something you can hold in your hand?

This is all stuff you have to think about and come to the best conclusion for yourself, but I’ll tell you this:

Every single artist whos’ ever walked the earth has been in your shoes.  Everybody started somewhere, everybody had to figure this out for themselves, everybody had to make mistakes to learn valuable lessons from, everybody played to empty rooms, everybody slept in rest stops, everybody lost sleep and worried too much…frankly, if they didn’t, they’re not doing it right.

Making your first record is a rite of passage – no matter what the final product is (EP, CD, Vinyl album, iTunes only release)…it doesn’t matter.

You’re gonna learn the process, you’re gonna figure out what works for you and what doesn’t, you’re gonna develop preferences for certain rooms, certain microphones, certain instruments, certain players – and honestly, man…the only way to do it is to do it.

I feel like my job in this process is to make it as painless for you as possible, and the way to do that is to develop as clear a vision as we can for what you want the final product to sound like and come up with a way to get you there.  What form that product takes is up to you, and we don’t necessarily need to know that out of the gate…obviously, with limited budgets, that’s going to affect the process and we’ll have to make decisions around that once we start devising the game plan.  You have options.  A veritable SHITLOAD of options.  There’s no one right way to make a record, and our mission is to figure out YOUR right way to make a record.

I don’t need charts at the moment, but I appreciate the offer.

Since you’re not on a timetable, then right now my advice would be to keep writing.  Keep making demos.

Momentum generates momentum.

If you tell yourself you’re making a record, it grants validity to your efforts, it creates inspiration, and it makes you feel like you’re working towards something.

So write and record at home and think about this vague concept of a “record” and write with that in mind and write so many fucking songs that you’ll lie awake nights thinking about which songs belong on the record, and what the record will sound like based on your choices.

Some folks might call it anxiety, but I tend to think of it as feeling alive.

Let the work call the shots, and we’ll figure the rest of it out as we go – it’s far and away the best way to make a record.

That way, when you’re seventy years old and thinking back on this time of your life, you can look at the whole experience with a smile on your face.

Yeah, you’ll hate your first record, just like everybody else…but if you don’t make your first record, you’ll never make your second, or your third, or your fourth – so at some point, you gotta jump on into the water, brother.

Come on in and join the rest of us.

That’s me in the spotlight, losing my….

(this was from a Facebook post from a year ago today, and perhaps more true now than it was then.)

…religion – ALL religion, regardless of denomination – amplifies who you are as a person. it’s a channel through which your natural inclinations are shown to your fellow man. if you’re cut from kind, loving, charitable stock, then you’ll find inspiration from your faith to escalate your game in that direction.

conversely, the same is true if you’re someone who walks the earth with a chip on your shoulder, full of hostility and general disdain for your fellow man. If you’re a hateful person, you’ll use your faith or your religion as a crutch or a banner to propogate and spread your hatred and fear of anyone who doesn’t hate the same people you hate.
Whether it’s ISIS or the Westboro Baptist Church, the latter scenario is true across the board with all of them.
People who are inclined to hate will do it in the name of their chosen higher power, because they find absolution in it. It frees them from personal responsibility for their own character.  
It’s not Islam, specifically, that we need to be worried about. It’s the alarming rise in population of people who only know how to hate each other. And they exist EVERYWHERE, in every color and creed.  
And there are more in your own backyard, dressed like you, speaking the same language as you, going to the same church as you…than you may want to realize.
Blame religion, blame guns, blame politicians, whatever gets you through the night…but our downfall will be our failure to simply see our fellow man through a different lens – and choose kindness over hate and exclusion.

Tom Petty

So I’ve come to the conclusion, based on almost two weeks’ worth of introspection and careful consideration, and…I’ve decided that – during the course of my lifetime, anyway, that there have been three deaths within the realm of rock and roll that, within my world, could be considered seismic in nature.

Ronnie Van Zant, Jerry Garcia, and…Tom Petty.

Certainly, there have been deaths that affected me more deeply on an emotional level (Dan Fogelberg, T-Bone Wolk, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Gregg Allman, Michael Hedges), and there have been people who’ve passed that would be considered more influential (John Lennon, Bowie, George Harrison, Prince, Kurt Cobain), but – from the perspective offered from my own view of the world, these three mark significant, distinct turning points.

Ronnie Van Zant and the infamous Skynyrd Plane Crash happened when I was twelve years old and literally just discovering rock and roll from my perch in rural western Tennessee, and their importance within my peer group couldn’t possibly be overstated. Southern Rock was at its zenith at the time – I hadn’t been around for Duane and Berry…or Hendrix, Joplin and Morrison, even…and The Day The Music Died happened years before I was born – so the first death within this new world I was just discovering was the grim and grisly events of October 20th, 1977…now almost exactly forty years ago.

It was surreal for a 12 year old kid to hear music coming out of the radio played and sung by folks who’d shuffled off this mortal coil. I’d experienced Elvis’ passing, but – no disrespect – his music didn’t speak to me at all. Elvis’ music didn’t belong to me, it belonged to “old people”. I didn’t have the respect for history then that I have now, clearly. In retrospect, it’s odd to think that Elvis passed away barely more than 60 days before the Crash, but the two events affected me completely differently.

The Skynyrd Crash was a perpetual subject of discussion among all the kids I knew who were remotely into music…and even the ones who weren’t. And it’s interesting to realize now, all these years later, that my first memories of the music that I was discovering, the specific stuff that I related to was already inextricably married to tragedy. It’s a thread that’s run through almost everything that I’ve been musically attracted to ever since, somehow. If there’s a self-destructive tortured artist involved somewhere in the mix, I’m sold. Gram Parsons, Chris Bell, Ted Hawkins – I’m all in. But with Ronnie, his songs and voice were literally everywhere. And, as has been thoroughly chronicled in the time since in print and documentary alike (the BBC alone has done Song of the South and Sweet Home Alabama: The Southern Rock Saga to cover the subject), the Skynyrd Crash was the bellwether that foretold the end of the dominance of Southern Rock as a microcosm of rock and roll in general. Obviously, I had no way of knowing it at the time, but in retrospect, the turning of the tide is undeniable. The shift was bigger than just the music, through…times were changing all around us, and music was just a means by which to measure the direction. But by the time the wave had crested and broken on the shore, I had ventured well past the Point of No Return. I was coming home from school and plopping down behind the drums and playing until my mom told me that everyone else was going to bed and I had to cut it out. I was gone, and there was no coming back for me…and the footprint left on my impressionable palette by Ronnie Van Zant, Steve Gaines and the lost Skynyrd brothers was permanent.

Time went by, my focus drifted from the drums to the desire to write songs…I saw Dan Fogelberg at the Mid-South Coliseum in Memphis in 1983 shortly before leaving my hometown to join the military, and – it wasn’t that I lost interest in playing drums as much as I felt like there was an entire world that had opened up to me, and I intended to learn to play guitar and learn to write songs. The future, as it’s said, was wide open.

Rock and Roll was my identity. In a lot of ways, it still is. I learned to play guitar. I became a pretty decent singer. I learned how to record myself. I made demos of my amateur songs and taught myself how to sing harmony by singing along to those homemade Portastudio recordings. Music was all I thought about. Sure, I had a job, I had shit that I had to take care of, bills to pay, groceries to buy – but any sense of purpose I had at all was related to my identity as a musician.

My first wife was a self-professed “deadhead” – and I’d heard the Grateful Dead in fits and starts prior to meeting her, but it was one of thousands of blips on a huge radar screen, and my attention was focused on what I thought were bigger, more important dots around the radius. But she hipped me to the fact that the Grateful Dead Experience wasn’t just about buying the records and listening to the music, it was much, much bigger than that – and that, in fact, “The Dead” didn’t really give a shit about making records. Making records was, to them, an afterthought…and their tours and live performances were not only their bread and butter, but the lifeblood to an entire counterculture that found its way into their orbit as the Sixties became the Seventies and the tectonic plates shifted beneath our collective feet.

Still, my path went in another direction and it didn’t really intersect – at the time – with what the Grateful Dead were about. It took some years of absorbing their music and a gradual understanding of their work ethic for it to sink in. To this day, I’m still more a fan of their songs than I am the extended, improvisational jams that were their trademark…I’ll listen to American Beauty and Workingmans’ Dead all day long before I’ll put on a tape of a show from 1971 with an extended “drums and space” segment. I’m a song guy. That’s just where my head’s at.

In August of 1995, I was playing a lunchtime show on an outdoor stage in Hershey, PA – and a buddy of mine tended bar during the day at a club in town that I played at on a regular basis, so I went over to pop in and visit before I turned around to head home. When I walked in, everybody in the room was morose and Brokedown Palace was playing on the jukebox. I sat down and ordered a Rolling Rock and opened a volley of small talk. “Yeah, kind of a bummer of a day,” he volunteered.

“Garcia died today.”

I sat there, silent, for a minute…he filled in the details, but I don’t know that I really heard him. I don’t think I stayed for more than another five or ten minutes before I got in the truck to drive home…I was as much stunned as I was saddened by his passing – it very much felt like the final nail in the coffin of an era that – without Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead, couldn’t possibly forestall its demise any longer. Sure, the sixties, hippie culture – it had been over for fifteen years by then, but you could still go to a Dead show and forget, even for a few hours, about Ronald Reagan and the collective sellout of the Hippie Ideal. Jerry was a musical and visual representation of something that, I came to learn later, he quietly resented – he never set out to carry the burden of being the Shepherd of the Anti-Flock…and all he ever wanted to do, from the beginning, was to Play In The Band.
I’m not sure which demons eventually consumed him, but he was gone.

I drove home and grabbed a blank VHS tape and popped it into the VCR and spent the rest of the night watching and recording news reports of Jerry’s passing. I called off sick at work for the next two days…I was both saddened beyond belief and – honestly, very much surprised by how affected I was by his passing. For years afterward, I would mark the anniversary of his passing by watching that tape with a six pack of Rolling Rock.

I’ve come to learn a lot more about the clouds that surrounded the band in the final days, and I’ve also come to appreciate the improvisational nature of the band to an extent, as well – but I still feel a deep sadness that I didn’t appreciate Jerry and his contributions while he was here as much as I do now. And I’ve had opportunities to dip my toes into the DeadHead waters as a musician and a bystander to what still exists of Deadhead Nation, and I’ll be eternally grateful for his spirit for the rest of my days.

In the years since, there have been legions of talented musicians, writers, and “rock stars” who’ve left us…and again, this isn’t to catalog our fallen brethren by net worth or cultural relevance or any other means of measurement other than their significance as signposts in my life. Your mileage, of course, may vary.

Time passed.

I matured as a musician, I wrote songs, I recorded my own songs, I played my own songs for other people, and…I eventually found a path I was comfortable travelling that was much more centered on being a sideman and contributing to other peoples’ visions than trying to force my own works on people. I put tens of thousands of miles behind me, played hundreds of hours’ worth of shows….changed a LOT of strings, played a lot of sessions, made a LOT of friends, had a lot of experiences I’ll never forget, and I’ll be thankful for the road I’ve taken until the day I draw my last breath.

It really has been a Wonderful Life.

So I suppose it’s fitting in a sense that, at this point in my life – as I’m reaching the twilight of my own musical career and looking down the road to a point that I can begin to identify as The End Of The Road that we would lose someone like Tom Petty.

Goddamnit.

For me, there was literally never a point in my musical life that Tom Petty wasn’t a part of.

My mother got me a clock radio for Christmas in 1977, and that bullshit little $15 radio became my tether to the world that existed outside my ridiculously limited view. The following summer, the movie FM came out, with Breakdown on the soundtrack and an actual appearance by the band in the movie, so – as far as I was concerned, they were part of the echelon. They weren’t one of those bands that I stumbled upon later that I got the privilege of going back and rediscovering their back catalog after they’d already done a handful of records….they were there from the outset, and they just NEVER. FUCKING. WENT. AWAY.

I need to admit a couple of things, though.

They were never my favorite band. I never put them at the top of my personal musical food chain, and – truth be told, there were periods of his career that I wasn’t particularly fond of.

But then again, I’d be willing to bet there are fans of Neil Young and Bob Dylan who would admit the same thing if they were willing to be completely honest.

I didn’t care much for the Jeff Lynne method of making records where it applied to Tom’s music…I had become too much of a fan of the records they made in a largely live setting, and the Jeff Lynne process just didn’t resonate with me. Obviously, I’m in the minority there, as they were some of his most successful recordings, but – as I’ve said multiple times, your mileage may vary.

For me, the Holy Trinity of Tom Petty albums are:

Damn the Torpedoes
Hard Promises
Long After Dark

As with Bob Seger, he had the good fortune of having a three album run that – for me – really perfectly represented his artistic identity. For Seger, it was Night Moves, Stranger in Town, and Against the Wind…for Petty (again, in my opinion), it was those three records.

I know Tom wasn’t fond of Long After Dark – I think it was made with waning interest from Jimmy Iovine, and there were a lot of distractions that didn’t fuel the creative process, but – man, it’s a fucking great record. The singles were phenomenal, and the album tracks that most folks aren’t familiar with could easily be cornerstone material for a lesser band – Deliver Me, I’m Finding Out, Straight Into Darkness…seriously, those songs are just plain unbelievable, and I wish the record had been successful enough that more people heard those songs.

As I fell deeper and deeper under the spell of the electric guitar, Mike Campbell became one of the faces on my personal Mount Olympus, and those records were textbooks.

And as I started to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up, they were a huge dot on the map for me…and, thankfully, towards the end, they rediscovered the mojo (pardon the pun) that they seemed to have lost for a moment there, when they were making records instrument by instrument for those years between Long After Dark and Highway Companion.

Too often, when we’ve lost important, influential artists, we look at their work in a typical creative curve with low points at the front and back and an apex in the middle…but I feel like they were really doing some of their best work on Highway Companion and Mojo…and their live shows over the past decade have been Springsteenesque tours through not only their own discography, but through the history of rock and roll in general.

To me, that’s one of the biggest tragedies of Tom’s passing.

I feel as though we’ve lost a thread that connected us all to the very seeds of rock and roll. Tom still had the fire, right up until the very end. Tom came from The South, just as Ronnie Van Zant had – he had that particular soulfulness that seems to emanate from this particular plot of land down here in the Southeastern quadrant of the US…and he carried that spark with him, in varying degrees, right to the bitter fucking end. It’s to his credit that he went out with all his sensibilities intact. Maybe he couldn’t hit the high notes of Refugee or Here Comes My Girl anymore, but he still played like he fucking meant it, and he still brought it, ALL of it, every night, right up through the last show of their 40th Anniversary Tour at the Hollywood Bowl, just a week before he died.

Now, that tether that tied us to the genesis of rock and roll is gone.

And maybe to much of the world – the world that’s enamored with Real Housewives, Bullshit YouTube channels, and InstaCelebrities like Nicki Minaj and the like – maybe they won’t notice so much. They’ll hear some fuckskillet like Jason Aldean when he turns up on SNL and do one of Tom’s chestnuts and that’ll be the extent of what they know about any of this. They didn’t live through it, it didn’t comprise any of the rings inside the tree for them…they know his name, they know the video with the top hat or the video with Johnny Depp or the video with Kim Basinger and that’s about the extent of what they know or can relate to.

I find myself often thinking about Johnny Carson in the days since Tom died, and how he was just Always There. No matter what else might be going on in the world at large, you could turn on the TV after the evening news and Johnny and Ed would put a smile on your face. Likewise, where TP was concerned…it could be said that some albums were better than others, he had peaks and valleys…but you always knew that he had another great record in him. Or that if you went to a show, you were going to leave with a smile on your face and a memory that no one could take from you.

We’re riding out the waning moments of 2017, and there are quite a few folks still walking among us that, frankly, I’d have expected to have preceded Tom Petty. And there are still others who I can’t really allow myself to consider the thought of losing at the moment.

Springsteen. McCartney. Dylan. Any of the CSN principles. James Taylor.

And God help me when either Jackson or David Lindley passes. It ain’t gonna be fuckin’ pretty in my neighborhood, folks.

I remember an Idlewheel show from 2010 or so in New Jersey….we were sitting at dinner between soundcheck and showtime, and Craig said something about the notion that, at some point in the not too distant future, we were gonna hit a slick in the road and all our heroes and musical icons were gonna start dropping like flies. I still think about that conversation all the time…as if I’d know when we’d arrived at that point. But I think I’ve come to realize that it’s not an impending landslide, it’s a constant, undulating erosion of the landscape. And it’s getting harder and harder to maintain a foothold.

But I’ll try to remain grateful for the fact that I got to walk the earth before so much of the musical topsoil washed away.