so here’s a little something I just realized…and I’m not sure why it took this long, honestly.
I am SUPREMELY QUALIFIED for this Shelter-In-Place dance.
I’m the least easily-bored person you have ever, or will ever meet. I have tons of outlets…I can be blissfully happy doing next to nothing. I can write, I can record in my home, I can watch the same documentaries over and over, I can listen to music, I can pick up the phone and call people – if I didn’t have to buy groceries on occasion, I could be perfectly content right here in this house for the rest of the year.
I have some musical projects that require varying degrees of collaboration, and it’s frustrating and disappointing that those are shelved for the time-being, but I’m also aware that a lot of people have it much worse than I do, and I try to keep that in perspective. Having outlets definitely helps.
But still, something about this has been wearing on me, and I think it just dawned on me.
Those of you who know me know that I don’t own a gun, I’ve never owned a gun, and I don’t understand the whole Viagra-like effect that owning guns has on some people.
I put guns in a box with a lot of other things – which is to say that my attitude towards them is that “if that’s your thing, that’s fine, as long as your thing doesn’t interfere with my thing“.
For me, that applies to motorcycles, smoking, XBOX and video games in general, that friggin’ British Baking Show (“you have thirty minutes to make a desert out of ramen noodles, this can of spackling compound, vanilla extract and some Odor Eaters, and it had better be delicious…” – yeah, miss me with that garbage.) – and I’ve always lumped guns into that box as well, although the degree to which guns seem to affect folks who don’t own them is HIGHLY debatable when the child you put on the school bus doesn’t come home again, ever.
I don’t own a gun for a very simple reason.
I refuse to live my life in fear.
I’m not gonna ever let myself become such a prisoner in society that I won’t go to the grocery store without packing heat. I just won’t do it. If I’m that scared of some imaginary threat that I can’t go buy food without worrying about The Enemy, then I’ve become paralyzed, and I just ain’t having that. If I happen to be standing in line at the checkout when some dude comes in and starts shooting, it’s gonna be chaos anyway, and if it’s my time to go, it’s my time to go.
I’ve managed to exist for half a century on this planet in a manner as to be free of that particular brand of paranoia, and my life has been immensely richer for it.
But NOW, though…
This goddamned virus has turned me into the very thing I’ve avoided becoming for my entire life.
Everyone is a suspect, everyone is a possible carrier, and every single person I encounter poses a potential threat. I look at people stumbling through the supermarket without a mask on and acting as if everything is hunkey-dorey and I occasionally indulge the fantasy of picking up a can of something and smacking them upside the head.
And while the assault fantasy is my own, this is the new normal now. We’re expected to think of everyone we encounter as a possible carrier, we’re expected to look at others with a blanket sense of mistrust, we’re expected to see every fellow human as infected until proven healthy.
And so I find myself succumbing to that same family of paranoia that I’ve found so distasteful all my life.
I’ve become the COVID-19 version of the dude who can’t go to Kroger without his 9MM on his belt.
And I hate it. I hate that this period of history has turned me into That Guy.
I talk to everybody – I’ve always tried to offer up some form of conversational anecdotes in lieu of a curt “hello” in social situations. I have a fond memory of going to Wegmans’ with an old girlfriend once and encountering a guy who was reading the back of a box containing gluten-free brownie mix and she gave him a glowing review of the brownies…at which time the guy said, “well…thanks so much for that unsolicited review“.
(Possibly the most suburban Philly thing anyone ever said in my presence, and it has lived on in countless retellings since.)
But now, I can’t be that guy anymore.
Whether I like it or not, I have to view the world through the same paranoid lens of the guy expecting to encounter some vague terrorist if he leaves the house to walk his dog, and that’s just not me.
But COVID demands that I become that guy as a means of survival.
And I think THAT’S the thing that’s been wearing on me the most amidst this mess.
I’m OK, friends.
I’m lucky, in some respects. I mean, we’ve gone from a three income household to a one income household, and we have the same struggles that other families do.
But I’m hoping this crippling fear subsides on the other side.
If you know me, even casually, you’re probably aware of my lifelong love affair with Poco.
If you know me better than that, then perhaps you’re painfully aware…but they’re part of my DNA, they’re responsible for numerous rings at the center of my tree.
I missed out on them during the early days of the band – I heard the Legend album as a 12 year old kid with a clock radio he’d just gotten for Christmas, and the back catalog drifted into my life as I became more and more obsessed with music…and as I made the transition from music fan to musician, they were hugely influential. The more I learned about music – how it worked, how songs were arranged, what got my attention and what didn’t – the more their music resonated with me. The stuff I’d first heard was just the tip of the iceberg…they’d done almost a dozen albums before then, and they had continued to make records since.
I made an album in 1990 and covered Poco’s Made of Stone on my very first release…later that year, I was in Pittsburgh and picked up a City Paper and saw an ad for a summer concert series in the city, and to my shock and surprise, one of the shows was Poco! I had no idea that there was still a touring version of the band at this point, and…goddamn right, I was gonna drive to Pittsburgh to see Poco.
I was curious, though – who was in the band at this point? There was no internet at the time, and the only way to find out was to get on the phone and start making calls…but I didn’t really get a clear answer from anyone I talked to. But I’d really already made up my mind – I was gonna make the five hour drive and see this show, because my curiosity wouldn’t allow me not to go.
I got there and saw a pedal steel on the stage, so I figured that, at the very least, there was a steel player in the band – whether it would be Rusty Young or not was still an unknown factor. But when the band emerged from the wings, I immediately recognized Rusty Young and Paul Cotton among the four guys who walked onto the stage. They opened with Days Gone By and went right into the title track from Legend, and I don’t think I moved a muscle during the entire show. It started raining lightly at one point, but I don’t think I even noticed…the only evidence of it exists on the album cover from the Legend record that I brought with me for them to sign.
I met Rusty and Paul for the first time after that show, almost thirty years ago, and it was the beginning of two of the longest friendships I’ve had. I gave Rusty a copy of the album I’d made and told him that “…if I had ever given a remote thought to the fact that you might end up hearing this, I’d probably still be in the studio working on it.” We crossed paths again about four years later when I opened for them at the Roxy Theater in Northampton, PA – the first of many times I’d share the stage with them over the years, as an opener or a special guest. (AND – Rusty remembered me from when we’d met at the show in Pittsburgh those years before.)
There’s a much longer love story here that’ll eventually be told in its full, fanboy glory and in all manners of excruciating detail…there’s a pretty healthy chunk of it over here, if you’re inclined to revisit it at some point.
In the wake of our trip to Wildwood Springs Lodge late last year, I got a call from Jack Sundrud right after the new year with a completely unexpected proposition – Lex, their guitarist, was taking some time off for a surgical procedure soon…would I be interested in filling in for him with Poco while he recuperated?
I chuckled and said, “Dude…I’m surprised you actually need to ask me that question.”
Jack took that as a “yes”.
We ironed out the particulars with regard to timing and such – when Lex would be able to schedule his surgery, which dates would be involved…I got a couple of calls from Rick Alter, the manager, as we worked everything out from a scheduling standpoint, and soon we had a plan: I’d join them for my first show at the Mayo Performing Arts Center in Morristown, NJ in late February. Prior to that, Jack and I (along with drummer Rick Lonow) would get together here in Nashville for a couple of run-throughs to make sure we were locked in, and then Rusty would come down to Nashville for a full run-through at SIR the weekend before my first show.
Needless to say, work on the memoir came to a screeching halt while I applied CPR to my atrophied guitar chops and got to work learning how to actually play these songs that had seeped into my DNA over the course of the majority of my life.
I had experienced this just a few years ago, when I spent almost two years on the road with Marshall Tucker Band – there were nights that I’d look down in vague disbelief at my hands when I’d play the intro of Fire On The Mountain on the pedal steel and marvel at the fact that it was actually ME playing this song that I’d known since I was a kid.
As I was re-familiarizing myself with some songs and learning others for the first time while I shook the rust off my guitar playing, it became apparent – in a way I hadn’t really considered before – exactly how much of an influence Paul Cotton had been on my guitar playing over the course of my life. I’d always thought of Opie, Stills, Lindley, Cooder and Buddy Miller as being the framework of what I aimed for when I picked up a musical instrument…over the years, I had come to think of Paul more as a singer and songwriter than as a guitar player, but digging into these songs was something of a slap in the face.
It took me exactly two passes to figure out the solo for Indian Summer – it was as if I knew it already.
Some of the other songs – Magnolia and Heart of the Night, among others in the set – felt as if I’d already been playing them all my life. There was quite a bit of mandolin on my docket as well, including the first three or four songs in the long version of the set, but that didn’t need quite as much CPR as my guitar playing.
(I feel like it’s important to point out that I very nearly never get calls for guitar these days. I’m a utility guy in the eyes of just about everybody, including myself, and I’m not only OK with that, I kinda love it. So playing a lot of guitar was gonna require a workout regimen.)
I was working through some of the set and actually made an impromptu video to announce that I’d be playing the shows, and I used the intro riff from Indian Summer in the clip – and when I heard it in the video after I’d recorded it…it kinda froze me. Yeah, clearly Paulie was a MUCH bigger string of my DNA than I’d acknowledged before.
Thanks, Paulie. Love ya, man.
One of the things I said in the video was that “I haven’t told fifteen year old Tom about this yet, because I don’t know if he can handle it.“
Tonight, I sat down to start writing this experience up, and I went through the photos I took during this run of dates to pick out which photos I’d use for the article…and I remembered a specific scene from Almost Famous when William goes back to his hotel room to finish his article, and he pulls out all the Polaroid photos he’d taken during his time on the bus with the band and rolls a blank piece of paper into the typewriter…and he takes a moment to flip through the Polaroids and relive what he’d only just put behind him.
I had a few moments on stage during this run when I’d close my eyes for a few moments and soak in the synchronicity of what was happening around me – but it didn’t feel as much like hero worship as an appreciation for my bandmates. Indian Summer and Heart of the Night, in particular, were just a joy to play for me. Of course, that might’ve had something to do with the fact that I got to stand next to my absolute, bar none, favorite pedal steel player in the world – living or dead – and I got to listen to him play those songs WITH ME. ON STAGE.
And then there was Magnolia.
We only played it twice during this run, and I stayed present both times. To be certain, I gave myself permission to stand in the moment and let it soak into my DNA and appreciate it, but I didn’t let myself access too much of my own emotional perspective while we were on stage.
When I bought my Tascam 244 in 1984 in Iceland, Magnolia was one of the first songs I recorded as a cover when I was figuring out how songs worked.
When Paul had his health scare during the European tour and returned to the band, I went to see them in Lancaster, PA with America – and they played Magnolia as I sat there in the dark with tears streaming down my face when Paul played that song, because it wasn’t lost on me that I came very close to never hearing him play it again.
So Magnolia is a little bit of a hot button for me…but goddamn, it felt good to play it.
I guess what I’m saying is that tonight, while I’m typing, 15 year old Tom is processing what just took place. It seems like a safe point in time to let him know what just happened.
Jack, Rick and I got together two consecutive days just before Valentines’ Day for our official run-throughs prior to rehearsing with Rusty that weekend, and the only real work was working out harmony parts – we ran the entire set, and it was pretty apparent by the end of the day that we could’ve probably pulled this off with just the one rehearsal. Not to brag, but we nailed it. Not only that, but…our vocal blend was pretty damned awesome. The next day was even better, but – still, it was just the three of us, and we were missing a big piece of the puzzle. I was really looking forward to the SIR rehearsal with Rusty, because there were some specific elements that I wanted to work through with him. In particular, there was a dual lead guitar line that I’d worked out from Call It Love that I was intent on nailing, but I couldn’t work on it without Rusty being there. So while I was certainly satisfied with how the rehearsals with the rhythm section had gone, I was still pretty stoked for the Rusty Rehearsal.
I was standing in the shower Saturday morning when I had a strange, oddly timed thought that I still don’t know how to process…
At that point in time, within a month, we’d lost HippieSteel icon Buddy Cage, songwriting great David Olney, and – perhaps most impactful to me, Neil Peart from Rush – maybe all that loss was still weighing on my psyche, I don’t know..I’m not sure, either way, why this occurred to me in the shower that morning, but I remember thinking…
…this band has been around for 50 years and I can’t think of anyone from the band, past or present, who isn’t still alive. Nobody from Poco has died yet! How crazy is that?
Within the half hour, I got a text from Jack that Rusty was on the way to the ER, that he’d strained something and that there wouldn’t be a rehearsal on Sunday…and that there was “no word on shows yet.”
To say it scared the shit outta me is something of an understatement.
I was far more worried about Rusty than the immediate fate of the shows, and feeling really unsettled about the fact that I’d had this stray thought in the shower one minute, and the next minute something terrible might have actually taken place.
Thankfully, Rusty turned out to be fine – he had a couple of things to address that he’s taking care of during the break, as we speak. And I have to assume, because I never bothered to ask, that Jack must’ve assured him – based on our rehearsals – that there was no reason we wouldn’t be able to pull off the first two shows without an actual full band rehearsal…because they decided to keep the shows on the books.
So yeah, I was bummed about missing out on the rehearsal, but – I was too busy rooting for Rusty to be OK to think about it a whole lot. I was ready, and I knew we’d be able to polish up the edges if we were actually keeping the shows on the schedule.
The first show at Mayo Performing Arts Center in Morristown was a triple bill with Pure Prairie League and Orleans, so our set for that show would be a shorter, 45 minute set…but the show the following night in Bay Shore, NY at the Boulton would be a full 90 minute set, with ALL the songs in it.
The plan was that we’d do a somewhat longer soundcheck for the first show and make sure we were dialed in for that set of songs, and get to Long Island early for the second show of the run and do a more detailed run-through of the songs that weren’t on the set the night before.
It was a huge vote of confidence in me, and I won’t ever forget it.
I had posted the video announcing that I’d be joining the band for a few shows a couple of weeks prior to the date of the first show, and got some immediate feedback from some of the Poconut family that I’d known for almost as long as I’ve known the band…a bunch of them had bought tickets to the show, so I knew ahead of time that I’d have some supportive friends in the room for my first ever show as a “member” (albeit a temporary one) of the band.
We left before sunrise the morning of the day before the first show, so we could take the scenic route up through Kentucky and West Virginia – and actually see the part that’s always in darkness when we return on that stretch of road. It was certainly well after sundown when we got to the hotel and got checked in…and Danny sprawled out on the sofa to play games on his laptop while we watched TV for a bit before calling it a night.
Wendy and Danny came along for the first show – Wendy wanted to be there because she knew what a big deal it was for me, personally…Danny (not unlike Jayda and Dylan before him) was completely uninterested in what was happening around him, and entertained himself with games on his iPhone for the duration of our time at the venue. He ended up dragging Wendy back to the hotel before the show even started, so neither of them were there for the actual show.
We’d gotten into town the night before and checked into the hotel, and I had gone shopping for supplies that afternoon before we went to soundcheck at the venue (I had just been in this town – Florham Park, NJ – less than a year ago, when I came for training for my day gig, and I’d stayed right up the road…and in a weird moment of coincidence, I heard Maggie Rogers’ song Leave the Light On in Walgreens’ when I was picking up groceries – a song I’d heard for the first time just a few months before, while staying in a hotel right up the road from where I was.)
I’d never met any of the guys from Orleans, so they were an unknown quantity to me, but I’ve known the PPL guys for ages – they had a new guy onboard that I hadn’t met yet, but the rest of the band were old friends – founders Mike Reilly and John David Call, along with Donnie Lee Clark on guitar and Scott Thompson on drums.
Pure Prairie League were another band that I’d caught on to quite some time after they rose to prominence. I’d heard the Vince Gill-era version of the band before I’d become aware of their catalog, and there was a lot to absorb there. I still remember finding a copy of their Bustin’ Out album in the TV lounge in the barracks in Iceland while I was in the Navy, and I must’ve listened to that album a thousand times. (I covered Early Morning Riser from that record on an album I did in 2006.)
The first show was a little unsettled – and it wasn’t just me. Everyone in the band felt it. We had a solid soundcheck, but it was one of those rooms where it felt like the sound from the amps and the wedges travelled roughly eight feet or so and just evaporated. It’s a hard thing to describe, really…sometimes you just have to play the songs and make it work, and that first show felt a bit like that.
Not unlike sex, we all want our first time to be memorable and special and – well, for the vast majority of us, it’s not. This show had turned out to be a little rough for reasons we didn’t really have control over, but…again, not unlike sex, when you’re with the right person, the first time isn’t likely to be the only time, so there’s the promise of the second, third, and fourth time to look forward to, and the notion that it’s going to get better and more comfortable.
I did have one thing that I’d planned for the first show that was important to me, and I made it happen.
When Opie died five years ago, he left a note on a piece of legal pad paper in the case of his Stratocaster, specifying that the guitar should find its way to me if anything ever happened to him. In the time since I brought it home after he died, it’s spent its days at my house, in the case and unplayed. I hadn’t used it for the entire time it’s been in my possession…I had taken it out and played it on occasion when I wanted to feel close to my mentor, but I’d never used it on a gig or a session.
But this felt like a good time to bring it out for the first time…so I did.
We got through the set without any scars or scratches – it wasn’t great, but we pulled it off.
We played early, but I stayed through the end of the night – Wendy and Danny had taken the car back to the hotel, but my friends Jon and Georgina Rosenbaum (who were running the merchandise table for Pure Prairie League) had offered to give me a ride back after the show earlier that night at dinner, and I took them up on it. I helped Rusty and Mary load their car after the show and went back inside to hear the last of the Orleans set – they were playing a song called Juliet that I thought for some time to be a cover of Dixie Chicken…but goddamn, they were good. GOOD.
I saw John David Call and Mike Reilly in the lobby after the show, and both of them were really happy to see me, and glad that I was out with the band for a bit…while the show wasn’t particularly noteworthy, the hang felt really, really good. I was surrounded by friends, and there was an element of homecoming to the night that had little to do with the show, other than the fact that we were all there, together.
The next day, we checked out and headed for Long Island – the drive was heavenly. The sun was shining, we saw some amazing cars on the road during the drive, including a blue Lamborghini Huracan that Danny identified within seconds of looking up from the backseat. I made a point to take Danny to Friendly’s right up the road from he venue (we don’t have Friendly’s down south, and I’ve heard rumblings that they’re going under, which is a goddamn shame).
We parked and unloaded – the band had played the venue before, and the soundman was truly great. I didn’t know it until after the show, but we had very similar tastes in mid-80’s UK pop music…he was playing Marillion’s Misplaced Childhood album over the PA during load out, and I hadn’t heard that record in decades. We started talking and I discovered that he was also a fan of Level 42 and some of the other bands I loved when I was stationed in Wales…it was a nice bonding moment.
We had gotten to the Boulton Center early, and because the crew was so on top of their game, we had a lot of time prior to doors to run through the set and tighten up the longer set that we were playing that night. He turned up the monitors and left us to our own devices, and we got in the rehearsal that we’d missed that weekend before the first show right there on the stage, in front of a group of our friends that had come from hours away for the show. I saw a few folks recording the soundcheck, but I haven’t seen any of that footage yet…but it felt good, to be sure.
It’s also important to mention that the day of the Boulton Center show was Rusty’s 74th birthday.
After our soundcheck, we all went upstairs for a short but spirited birthday hang with the assembled Poconuts – some folks who’d been at the show the night before, some folks that had been at WIldwood Springs that past October, and some folks that I’d known for over 20 years.
This was gonna be a good show. I just knew it.
We came back downstairs to the backstage area and I changed clothes for the show. As fate would have it, Rusty was pretty talkative…and somehow, we ended up talking about Cameron Crowe and the Almost Famous movie, and the fact that Poco was the first band Cameron went on the road with (I knew this, but Rusty didn’t), and how many experiences from that tour made it into the movie. Rusty remembered Cameron being on the bus, and how much he idolized Richie and a few other memories from that time…and I looked over at Wendy as we were walking away to head onstage, and we made eye contact for a minute as we were all walking away. I’m pretty sure she knew exactly what I was thinking.
“…how the hell is this my life, now?”
The show, that night, in front of the perfect handful of fans and Poconuts, was sublime.
The first four songs were all mandolin songs, leading up to Call It Love – at which point I switched over to Opie’s Stratocaster…I still had it with me, so I used it. We followed that with Indian Summer, which will likely remain my “is that really my hands playing this song?” memory from this run for eternity. We opened the second set with the first performance ever of Magnolia during my run – as well as a song Rusty wrote called Neil Young, which I used as an opportunity to do my best Neil impression on electric guitar when the time came – and there’s footage of Rusty saying out loud, “that’s hilarious!” after my solo…which was exactly what I was going for.
It was a truly great show, and while there were still a couple of things that needed a little smoothing, it was miles away from the performance we had turned in the night before, and it went a long way towards making all of us feel more comfortable. Rusty told the crowd, “…one of the reasons Poco has lasted for over 50 years is because we’ve always had great musicians in the band – and tonight is no different!”
I went out and sat with the band at the merch table to sign autographs, shook every hand, and loaded out to head back to the hotel with Wendy and Danny – the hotel was kind of amazing. I felt like I might’ve walked right past Dean Martin and Joey Bishop in the lounge on the way to the elevator.
We went upstairs, plugged in to recharge, and I poured adult beverages for Wendy and myself while I texted back and forth with Jon Rosenbaum for an hour or so…we were driving back to Nashville the next day, so I needed to shut off my brain sooner than later to get ready for the drive.
I’ve become somewhat notorious among my musical friends for my disdain for fly dates, but the next show was at the Gallo Center in Modesto, CA, and there really was no way NOT to fly for that one. So I figured out a somewhat ingenious manner of getting all my necessities onto the plane and off we went. Rick had flown ahead of us because he was making a stop along the way, so this flight was Jack and myself. Wendy and I picked Jack up on the way to the airport and he and I grabbed some breakfast at Noshville in the terminal after we checked our bags. Of course, I fell asleep not long after we boarded and dozed throughout most of the flight, and it was still daylight when we landed in Oakland – once we hit the ground and got checked into the hotel, Jack and I took a walk down the street from the hotel to the grab some In-N-Out Burger, and Rick ended up joining us soon after.
I took advantage of the early landing to reach out to Stephen Barncard, on the off chance that he was in the area and up for a hang…we talked for a good long while, but he has moved out to Sebastopol since we last saw each other and was geographically out of the loop. I got a phone call from Tom Fitzgerald just a few minutes later, who told me that I might be meeting some friends of his at the show tomorrow night…after we finished eating, we headed back to the hotel and slept off the time zone difference.
The next day, when I came back to the room after breakfast, I got out my iPad and began recording a cover of John Moreland’s song Gospel – with notions of posting it on my YouTube channel if it turned out ok. I’d played through it a couple of times and there was a knock on the door – and it was Rusty.
Turns out, he was in the room next door and heard me playing, so he came over with his 12 string acoustic to run through a few things – a new transition arrangement to get us from Rose of Cimarron into Good Feelin’ To Know, most specifically – and after we played for a while, he went back to his room, but he left behind some very kind words about the job I’d been doing, with emphasis on the vocals.
That was really kind of him, and it meant a lot.
The show that night was in a great venue – it was another triple bill with the guys from Pure Prairie League and Orleans, and everyone seemed to be in pretty high spirits. A jam erupted in one of the PPL dressing rooms after soundcheck that went on for a long time…Scott and Donnie from PPL, Chip, Brady, Fly and Lane from Orleans, and myself on mandolin representing the Poco guys. I stopped playing for a bit to catch a video clip of the chaos for a minute, and went right back to work until I had to leave to step on stage.
Because Poco was playing first, I didn’t bother getting too comfortable on stage – I only had the two instruments to deal with, so I took both of them onto the stage and left them in their cases right next to my amp – that way, all I had to do when we were done was to toss a handful of cables and pedals into my bag and carry the cases off the stage with my bag over my shoulder.
When we’d finished our set, I went over to carry my stuff off and the Orleans guys had left a dollar in my mandolin case, in the same fashion as one might leave for a street performer – and we all laughed our asses off.
Chip actually said to me after the set, “you’re starting to get comfortable, aren’t you?”
I had to admit that yeah, it was starting to feel really good.
We made our way back to the motel and I took a short walk over to one of the nearby gas stations to grab a snack and learned in that moment that gas stations in Oakland don’t sell beer after 10pm on Saturdays, apparently – NOT what I’d expected to hear, but that was OK. I was ready to sleep, anyway.
The next day, everybody seemed to be flying out of the same terminal, on the same flight back to Nashville. Even John David Call, who was connecting to Columbus, was on our flight. JD and I had a great conversation in the terminal waiting area, and I got to know Chip from Orleans a little better, as well.
Turns out, he and I were in the same boat – John Hall is returning to Orleans soon, and Chip will be out of a gig when he comes back. The difference between his situation and mine is that I knew when I came onboard that I’d only be here for a little while, and I think Chip’s situation was expected to be more of a long-term thing.
That’s the nature of this life, though. Any random gig that you play could well be your last, so it’s important to try to live in the moment and be grateful for whatever spot your shoes occupy on a given day.
I got home late Sunday night, and got up Monday morning and went to work, just like I typically do.
Needless to say, most of that week was spent largely distracted and preoccupied, and I didn’t take either of my instruments out of the case for the entire week. Not because I was comfortable or settled, but because I was just completely absorbed in what my neighborhood had just gone through.
The next gig would be the final one for me – closing out this set of shows in Weirsdale, FL at the Orange Blossom Opry.
I’d never heard of the OBO, but they’ve carved out something special there – it’s a great room with a spacious stage, risers in back, curtain that opens into the kitchen. They had a house band that played every show that was pretty great. They were almost all, to a man, Nashville veterans who’d “retired” to Florida to relax and wind down – including their leader, Bobby Randall. I used to see Bobby on TNN years ago when he hosted several shows for the network – he’d been an original member of Sawyer Brown and had played in Confederate Railroad as well, among others. His first gig was playing steel guitar for Charlie Rich in 1978…he asked me if I wanted to come sit in with them on a couple songs, and seemed surprised when I agreed. We’d eaten up most of their soundcheck time, and it seemed like the least I could do to offer an olive branch for eating up all the time before doors – so I played acoustic guitar on a pair of Eagles songs (I told Rusty before I went out that I felt like a traitor playing Eagles songs with another band while I was out with Poco, but he said “I won’t hear it from backstage, so we’ll just go with ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.”)
The Poco set that afternoon was a 70 minute affair, so there was no intermission, but we got a good long one in. I knew it was the last one of the run, so it was a little bittersweet, but I wasn’t going to let that keep me from soaking it in and burning it into my brain.
All my favorites were in there – I played the harmony lead part along with Rusty at the end of his solo in Call It Love, we did Magnolia, Indian Summer, Heart of the Night, Rose of Cimarron, Kind Woman, Crazy Love…it was a pretty epic performance, if I say so myself. The time we’d taken with the monitors during soundcheck paid off, I could hear everyone exactly the way I needed to. Rusty repeated his sentiment from a couple of weeks ago yet again, about how “today was no different” – so it dawned on me that his statement was probably a blanket statement about the band in 2020, and not as much of a compliment for me as I’d thought it was the first time he said it, but – there we all stood when he said it, so I’ll take my piece of the cake. I’m good with it.
We closed with “Good Feelin’ to Know” and it was over, just as we were really starting to get truly comfortable with one another…but that’s how things go in this life.
Another stint at the merch table, meeting some Poconuts that I’d known online but had never met in person, signing autographs on T-shirts and bumper stickers, and…it was load-out time.
I packed Rusty’s steel to bring back to Nashville with me, as it needed a little TLC and I had a guy now, thanks to David Pinkston.
Mary wanted to go out to dinner, and we found a place called Eaton’s Beach barely a mile or so from the venue. Rick was planning on going there anyway to meet up with a buddy, so he and his old bandmate Doc were there either way (Doc had been at the show, he played with Rick together in the Bellamy Brothers decades ago), and since it was my last night, I wasn’t about to sit it out.
It was the perfect time of day, the weather was perfect (a bit cold for some of us, but you no doubt know already where I fall on that scale) and we got there long enough before the sun went down to have eaten dinner before the sun started sinking into the trees on the other side of the lake. We drove back to Orlando (everyone was flying out of Orlando the next day, but I was driving…still, I had a room for the night) and Jack came down to my room to hang and watch TV for a bit (I plugged in the laptop and we watched the Tom Dowd documentary from some 20 years ago, which he seemed to enjoy) – Jack retired after that and I put something else on while I noodled for a bit in one of my notebooks before I went to sleep.
I made a point of going down for breakfast before I left, and ran into both Jack and Rusty – who again went out of his way to tell me what a great job I’d done. I assured him that I was always a phone call away if he ever needed me, but I’m sure they’re ready to return to some semblance of normalcy soon.
There’s a lot of uncertainty around our collective livelihood right now as we’re trying to exist in the midst of a historic health crisis, and maybe none of us knows what “normal” is for the short term. Just tonight, the NBA shuttered the remainder of the basketball season – schools and colleges are closing, the Viking Cruise line has cancelled all cruises for the next six weeks, and the NCAA tournament will apparently be played in empty arenas. Here in Nashville, my neighborhood is still in splinters in a lot of areas, and the world feels as if it’s in the midst of a slow-cooking apocalypse.
I got to spend a few weeks playing in a band that I’ve loved for most of my life, alongside friends, and feeling for a little while that the world was normal, even as the crazy was escalating around us all.
I’m rooting for “normal” to make a comeback, but if those shows were the last shows I ever play, I’d be ok with that.
I had just come home from a west coast Poco show in Modesto, CA late the night before, and got up to go to work on Monday – so I was tired, but I stayed up in front of my computer screen writing anyway. Danny had been asleep for a couple hours already by then, and I was uploading photos from my phone onto my laptop and replying to messages. It had been raining, and there’d been quite a bit of lightning as I was considering calling it a night.
But when the alerts went off simultaneously on the phones, I picked mine up to see a tornado warning on my screen.
As I was opening Twitter to scan the Nashville Severe Weather account, I heard the siren go off – the one that blares on the first Saturday of every month at noon, the one that we’re all so collectively accustomed to ignoring. But…the phone…the siren…and the ominous feed from Twitter were conspiring to relay a pretty sinister message.
Shit was about to get real.
I don’t know that we even debated going to the basement, I just said that I’d go get Danny out of bed…that might’ve been the comic highlight of the night: waking up a ten year old after midnight to tell him that we were going to the basement. He didn’t verbally ask if I’d been drinking, but the expression on his face as it sank in that I’d jolted him from a deep sleep to report to the basement in the middle of the night…that kinda said it in so many words.
When we went downstairs, Carley (Dylan’s girlfriend) was still awake as well – she actually had the window open in their basement apartment, and it was immediately creepy to me how still it was outside, considering what I’d observed for most of the night.
This was real. This was happening.
We were hiding in the basement underneath a tornado that was sweeping across our neighborhood, ripping houses open, depositing the splinters of houses it had already destroyed into other people’s yards, tearing open buildings, leaving dumpsters in the middle of the street, and ripping down electrical poles and tearing power lines loose and leaving them lying in the street.
My work phone began dinging with alerts of various network circuits around the city falling silent – most notably among them a job at ground zero of the tornados’ path in Germantown.
When the damage was done, some six hundred of those poles would fall to the ground (compared to less than 200 in the 1998 tornado), and a path of destruction from Bordeaux and Germantown, North Nashville across our East Nashville neighborhood and through FivePoints and literally right down Main Street – then east to Mount Juliet and off to Cookeville, where the death toll was highest.
Over two dozen people were dead, more physically injured…and even more left to pick up the pieces of what had been a relatively normal life on an average Monday night that was no different than most others – until it was. Not yet knowing any of this, we came back upstairs to bed – all three of us in the master bedroom where we slept somewhat fitfully, drifting off and then waking up at the slightest sound or flash of light that might indicate that it wasn’t over yet – when the sun came up, our house on Rosebank Avenue, near Cornelia Fort Airpark, looked exactly as it would have on the first Tuesday of a given month – our trash cans were still standing upright and unmolested on the curb, waiting for pickup.
But less than a mile away, a lot of our neighbors had it much worse than we did.
My daughter Jayda, who was my hero long before any of this happened, was on the other end of the phone via text when everything took place on Monday night. But while we tried to sleep to prepare for the next day, Jayda assembled a bunch of her co-workers from Margot Cafe (one of the pillars of the Five Points neighborhood) and marched down there within an hour of the storm to assess the damage – and they stayed there for several hours, cleaning up debris and commisserating with their co-workers – and, in Jayda’s words, “walking around the streets in shock, feeling like we were in a war zone.”
Social media reacted quickly, as did Nashville – word spread to stay off the streets, to make room for emergency vehicles…when I fell asleep a few hours before, I had no real idea of the extent of the damage.
Not long after we crawled out of bed, the picture became much clearer…and quickly.
I got out of bed shortly after 7am, and came straight into my office and booted up my work laptop and logged onto the VPN so I could start assessing our situation – Wendy was scrolling through photos from her Facebook and Twitter feed, and the bleakness of the aftermath was already pretty apparent. The most public beating fell onto Five Points, home to Jayda’s Margot, Five Points Pizza, the bike shop, Fanny’s House of Music, Burger Up, Woodland Wine, and – heartbreakingly, the historic Woodland Sound Studios…the historic room where the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band recorded their landmark “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” album, among others. Woodland had suffered some extensive damage during the 1998 tornado, and there was litigation in the aftermath of that storm, over 20 years ago, that almost resulted in erasing its existence. But it was eventually resurrected by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings and was open and operational when this tornado swept through last week.
Woodland lost most of its roof in this tornado, but the building and its walls remained intact – and, in Jayda’s words, “Woodland probably saved the building where Margot stands…if that building wasn’t there, Margot might be gone.”
Both my work and personal phones got a serious workout – folks from all over the country were checking on us to make sure we were ok, and as we were reporting to everyone else that we’d survived intact, with no damage or injury, the news was beginning to come in from the neighborhood as to the extent of how badly our neighbors had been hit.
Survivor Guilt – it’s a thing.
I worked mostly from my desk on Tuesday, taking phone calls and going through the motions in something of a daze as I started monitoring the extent of what was happening only a mile or so up Rosebank Avenue or up Porter Road from where I was sitting.
The rest of the week, I ended up in the car – both going to the office and checking on jobsites to survey the extent of the damage. As of this writing, almost a week later, one of our sites is still without internet service and has resorted to using hotspots on their individual mobile phones to work. Still, folks are waiting for electricity, waiting for water – when the sun goes down, entire neighborhoods fall dark.
No streetlights, no traffic signals, no light emanating from the houses that line the streets. Just an eerie, unsettling quiet.
But the folks in these neighborhoods have outpaced the municipal tradesmen and utility workers in their work to restore their town.
Volunteers who’ve shown up in town have been driving up and down the streets of affected neighborhoods with messages scrawled on their vehicles, offering tools, chainsaws, food and water – streets have been cleared by the townsfolk while the authorities waited for municipal workers to get to some of the streets in outlying areas.
Jayda and her co-workers at Margot hosted a neighborhood cookout roughly 48 hours after the tornado came through – she’d been working almost straight through to help folks dig out from under the damage, and she was there that afternoon to help with getting set up for the event. I brought her Danny’s bass amp to use to play music through for the party, and she was a sight to behold – her eyes were tired, but she was a whirlwind. There were HUNDREDS of people in the street, standing and talking to one another in the midst of random wires and shards of glass, downed transformers and the tops of poles lying in the parking lot of the convenience store at one corner of the Five Points intersection that gives that part of the neighborhood its name.
I stayed long enough to say hello to some of the folks that I hadn’t seen since Thanksgiving and to behold the miracle of humanity that is Jayda’s Margot community – and what they were able to give to their neighbors, their customers, and their friends in a dark moment of collective vulnerability.
And this was ONE moment that I saw with my own two eyes, and there’s no doubt in my mind that this was repeated time and time again in the aftermath of a random tear in the fabric of mother nature only days ago.
This city has, out of necessity, built an emotional exoskeleton that has survived floods and tornadoes out of its own stubborn southern willpower.
Nashville rebuilt in 1998.
It rebuilt again in 2011.
It is rebuilding – yet again – as we speak.
I don’t know that living through this week has made Nashville “home” to me…I’ve come to somewhat uneasy terms with the fact that my own personal notion of “home” will likely elude me for the rest of my life at this point. I don’t say this from a place of sadness…I’m a wanderer. I was born this way, and it’s who I am.
But witnessing this has given me cause to feel part of something that’s bigger than me.
Exchanging texts, offering refrigerator space to musician buddies who live a few streets away, picking up and dropping off stuff for folks – it’s what I’ve been able to do between showing up for work, navigating jobsites, and finding my way home to hide from the world when the sun goes down.
Here’s what I’ve learned about myself in the midst of all this.
Watching footage of things like this on the news is a temporary shock in a way that probably only exists for generations of the past half century or so. We see footage on the evening news of a flood like Joplin, Missouri or a hurricane on the scale of Andrew or Katrina or good old Superstorm Sandy (which we lived through in the Philadelphia suburbs – I stayed up all night while Wendy and Danny slept to keep watch, and didn’t even hear the giant tree in our back yard in Havertown splinter and fall to the ground…some sentinel I am) – we see these things as they happen, and they vanish as our attention span banishes them to make room for the next thing that demands our attention.
We consider the death toll, we peruse the images and mourn the dead, we consider the factors around the event (in the case of something like 9/11 or the Boston Marathon bombing), but they seldom impact us personally in the same way that something like what’s taken place here, this week, will if it ever happens to you.
Why, you might ask?
How would it come to pass that something like the 9/11 bombings might be less impactful, less consequential than a tornado in a random southern town?
Because we live here.
Because this city is where we live and die, laugh and cry, live out the days of our lives.
The houses where we spent random afternoons are now broken.
There are landmarks that we drove by every day on the way to work or school or church that have been erased.
And there’s no commercial break, no remote to reach for to change the channel.
The Music City Cleaners building just off Rosa Parks? Very nearly leveled.
And it’ll still be shattered tomorrow when you drive past it.
And the next day…and the day after that.
And they may rebuild it, but it’s not coming back – not the way it was.
That’s where the real shock to our systems sets in.
Looking around us at the things we’re confronted with in these situations only serves to drive home the realization that everything around us sits on shifting sands.
In normal times, that can be easy to ignore…but in times of crisis, it’s impossible to ignore.
So – here we all sit, among the ruins of what existed only a few days ago, taking stock of our blessings and considering the basic notion of how fortunate we are to still be here, to be among those who are rebuilding as opposed to those who’ve lost so much more than we have.
But there are warriors and fighters among us who refuse to let us slip away, and Nashville is once again availing itself of the opportunity to lift one another up – and it’s a miracle to behold.
I was born and raised in Tennessee, and turned my back on it as a young man.
I went out into the world and set down roots elsewhere – I started a family a thousand miles from where I was born.
I reinvented myself and left this chapter out of the identity I created within my adopted circumstances.
the extended Poco family lost one of our own recently – Claudia Upton. I made Claudia’s acquaintance online at first, as I did with most of this particular extended family, but then eventually met her at a show in the mid-nineties – although I don’t remember specifically when, or which show.
At my age, they all start to run together after a while.
Claudia was always dressed in black, usually with a camera around her neck, and has been responsible for some of my favorite photos from the time I’ve spent around the band over the years. She was, as was well known within “the family”, especially fond of Paul…as were a few other gals who turned up in the extended collection of folks who were often recurring characters in the extended “Poconut” gang. She adored my youngest, Danny, and was there at Danny’s very first Poco show when he was less than a month old (in King of Prussia, when Poco and Idlewheel appeared on an outdoor double-bill).
I got word that Claudia had passed via a Facebook message from a mutual friend as I was getting into my car in a parking lot outside the Mercy Lounge in Nashville…I think it came as a shock to a lot of us, even though those dark visits seem to become much more regular at this point in ones’ life. Her mother (who survives her) lives in an assisted living community and Claudia never missed a days’ visit – so when she hadn’t shown up for a few days in a row, folks became concerned and initiated an investigation and discovered that she’d passed, presumably peacefully, in her sleep at home.
When word finally got out, someone had posted online that there’d be a memorial for her at the bands’ annual weekend of shows at Wildwood Springs Lodge in Steelville, MO this year. I commented on the post and tagged Jack Sundrud (Idlewheel bandmate, Poco bassist, and Nashville neighbor) and jokingly said that “if you need a ride north, I’ll drive” (most folks aren’t crazy about riding with me for some reason…can’t quite wrap my head around that)…but to my surprise, Jack messaged me back and said that if I wanted to come along, they could use some stage help…would I be interested?
I had worked this gig before with the guys, when Poco split a few Loggins and Messina dates back in 2009 or so. I had to change a broken E string on Richie Furay’s hollowbody Gibson, and got it done in just under two minutes…which won’t qualify me for anybody’s Roadie Olympics, but I thought it was pretty good for a rookie. I know how long it took because I clocked the time from the moment I took Richie’s guitar until I brought it back out on a YouTube video of the show someone had posted.
So I had the necessary experience, I guess.
I replied and said sure, I was game for helping out any way I could – so he circled back with Rusty & company and we confirmed everything for the weekend and it was written in pen.
I had just lost my ex-mother in law, and had made a trip to Pennsylvania the weekend prior, and had done the best I could to help my kids through that – so once I was back from that excursion, I swapped out the clothes in my bag and met Jack and drummer Rick Lonow at the car rental counter and we saddled up to head north. I volunteered for the first (and what I figured would be the only) shift behind the wheel…I fully intended to drive the whole stretch, but after managing to catch a speeding ticket in Metropolis, Illinois, the guys voted me out of the drivers’ seat for a spell.
(Fun Fact: If you get a speeding ticket in Metropolis, IL – you cannot just plead guilty and pay your fine online. You have to either show up for a court date or hire a lawyer to appear on your behalf. It’s easy to dismiss the stuff we hear about how corrupt and ridiculous the state of Illinois is, but there’s plenty of evidence that they’ve earned their shitty reputation.)
We got to Steelville just as it was getting dark and went to the venue to unload gear, meeting up with Rusty and Mary Young when we got there…it’s been a few years since I’ve seen either of them, and I was thrilled to see the two of them and catch up for a minute. I’m not unconvinced that Rusty doesn’t have a Dorian Gray oil painting aging away in the attic of his house…he’s managed somehow to steer this band through the past forty years and a full 80 percent of their lifespan and somehow appear outwardly to be none the worse for wear. I’ve been through a fraction of a fraction of what he’s been subjected to by this business, and I’m one of the most cynical bastards you’ll ever meet…but he still manages to remain gracious and kind and I’m honored to call him a friend.
Jack, Rick and I went to a BBQ joint in Cuba, Missouri that was right up the road from the hotel we were staying at before turning in for the night – we had a noon load-in at the venue, so we decided to try to get there a little before then, to wrap up getting the stage together.
I met Lex Browning in the car on the way to the show – Lex is the new guitarist/multi-instrumentalist who replaced Michael Webb, the departed keyboard player. Once we got to the venue, we got down to the business of getting the stage in order.
Not long afterward, though, the special guests showed up.
I hadn’t seen George Grantham’s wife, Debbie, since driving to Nashville almost fifteen years prior when his daughter and I were helping to set up a fundraising effort to generate cash for George after his stroke…Jack and I had gone to lunch with George here in town not long after I moved to town, but it had been a few years since I’d seen him at that point.
Not only was George getting up to sing during the show, but he was going to play drums for one song as well (Child’s Claim to Fame) – so that was something to look forward to.
Then Paul and Caroline came in.
The last time I saw Paul was in New Jersey in 2010 when I backed him on pedal steel, mandolin and dobro for a set he did at the first (and, to my knowledge, only) NationalRockCon event there…I had tried to coordinate a tour with Paul when I released Friends and Heroes in 2013 where I’d assemble a band, we’d open for – and then play behind – Paul as the headliner, but we never managed to get it off the ground. I ended up moving to Nashville the following year and we fell out of touch.
After landing in Nashville, 800 miles and a time zone removed from my old Northeast Corridor Poco family, I fell out of touch with the band for a while as well. I still did the occasional shows with Idlewheel (and Jack), and living in the same town as Jack, I’d occasionally try to connect with him as well, but I ended up hunkering down and shunning society for the past three years or so…OK, so not entirely, perhaps, but…I don’t get out much anymore.
So, flash forward to the present day – here was the current band with all my favorite members of the band over the years in the same room, getting ready for soundcheck. I assured Paul that I was behind him and that I had his back for the weekend – I don’t think he was expecting to see me, and certainly wasn’t expecting me to be there in a working capacity, so I think he was (at the least) relieved on that level. I won’t make any assumptions about whether he was happy to see me or not, but he sure seemed to be.
Rusty and I went over the technical particulars for the weekend – instrument changes, tuning, signal flow and the like – and reviewed the setlist. There’d be an initial set with the current band, and then after a short intermission and stage plot change, then Paul would come up, joined later by George who’d be playing drums on one song…we got all our traffic control details worked out, and they started soundcheck.
George and Paul both hung in patiently while the core band worked out monitor levels and the like, and then Paul came up to work through some of the songs he was doing: Indian Summer, Magnolia, Heart of the Night, Legend, Under the Gun, Bad Weather – it was as if I’d made the damn setlist myself.
As they played through the set, I remembered sitting in the audience in Lancaster, PA at the American Music Theater – it was a show they’d done with America right after Paul had come back from his health crisis during their then-recent European run, when we were all legitimately worried that Paul might not be coming back at all. They played Magnolia as I sat there in the audience, in the dark, with tears streaming down my face – thinking about how very close I had come to never hearing that song again the way I’d always heard it. That moment was some fifteen years past now, and there sat Paul Cotton right in front of me…again, after all these years, reminding me of two very important things:
Never say never.
2. Don’t ever take things for granted that may not pass this way again.
Claudia’s ghost was hanging heavy in the air for me the entire weekend, alongside Naomi Elkins and several other folks who’ve fallen off this plane of existence in the time since I came into this eccentric group of music loving geeks over twenty years ago. As such, it was hard not to think on an almost constant basis – how many more of these do we have in us? Will this be the last time I ever hear these songs from these people again? Paul and George, specifically, who’ve had pretty public health issues over the years – how many more shows could they have in their tank?
After Friday nights’ show, we went back to the hotel to a dining room full of Poconuts, and I stayed up until the last of us left at around 2am – the Leavys, the Behlkes and myself. I got to my room and couldn’t sleep…I had my laptop and a couple of notebooks in my bag, so I started scribbling in one of my lyric books. I thought of the notion of mashing up as many Poco lyrics as I could into a brand new song, just for fun – TV in central Missouri at 2am doesn’t exactly capture the imagination, and I was completely distracted by everything I’d been thinking all day long. Russell Hammond’s words to William Miller in Almost Famous came back to me:
“…This is the circus. Everybody’s trying not to go home.”
The first four lines were pretty easy:
In every day that passes us by Indian summers, come and gone I can still hear that nightbird’s cry Singing straight on through until the dawn
The next four, though, came from somewhere else:
Now, none of us are young men anymore Can’t ignore the writing on the wall Maybe that’s what the stories and the songs are for A chance to take our eyes off of the ball
Now this had turned from a fun little exercise into an actual song…
So many years have passed, but I still wanna hear that sound I wanna make it last, another time around Sing a picture of the days gone by, with a gentle aging hand Because tonight, my friends, all of us are living in the band
This much of the song had taken maybe ten minutes. I didn’t have an instrument with me, I was writing words for a melody in my head at the moment…but the words started writing themselves – a healthy dose of outright theft of Poco lyrics, tied together with whatever I needed to add to clarify where I was going with this love letter to the band and to the friends I’d met along the road who shared this irrational love for these musicians, these records, these songs that bound all of us together.
In the beginning, not so long ago For a thirteen year old kid from Tennessee There was just a little magic in that music they were singing And I could hear them calling out to me
They left a trail of love and glory As they crossed the southern sky My life would be a sadly different story If that harmony had somehow passed me by…
I added a slightly amended repeat of the chorus and a tag line…a repeat of the last line of the last chorus –
“..because tonight, my friends, what’s left of us – are living in the band.”
It’s both deceptive and disingenuous to take credit for writing the song, as the majority of the lines of the song are either direct lifts from Poco songs, or heavily – HEAVILY – paraphrased versions of lines from Poco songs…my job was essentially to put them in order and add what I needed to add to tell my story.
I was absolutely certain that I’d forget how it went by the time I woke up the next day. We stopped for a bite to eat on the way to the venue the following afternoon and once I got the stage set, I grabbed Rusty’s acoustic guitar and hunkered down in the green room and recorded a demo of it so I’d have a record of the song (while Lex busily went about working on his pedalboard next to me).
They didn’t play Bad Weather the previous night, and I wasn’t sure whether they’d bother to add it the second night or not – the first night had been a little ragged in spots in the second set, and I wasn’t sure how that would end up informing the set on Saturday night.
I saw Paul briefly before we dropped the house lights and made sure he had everything he needed, checked off everything I needed him to know – your guitars are tuned, your pedals are powered up, your amp is all set, and I’m ten feet away if you need me. Caroline, his wife, handed me his glasses (which he hates) and I gave him a hug and told him I loved him and we took a photo together before the show started.
Rusty and I had gone over the set – there’d be a couple of changes from the night before, nothing major, just be alert and ready for whatever might end up happening. We double and triple-checked the signal from his acoustic guitar, which had dropped out during the Friday show…it was fine a mere 30 minutes before the show, but we ended up losing the signal again on Saturday night (happy ending: we figured out what the problem was).
The current lineup’s set at the beginning of the night was just plain badass. There’s definitely an alchemy with this group of guys, and it makes me happy to see it. We broke for the second half, I moved the pedal steel into place, struck the dobro and got everything ready…Paul came out and did Magnolia, Indian Summer and Under the Gun in a straight shot. I thought they were going to bring George up next for Child’s Claim to Fame, but Rusty called me over to ask where the clipboard was (I had put it on top of one of the speaker columns to keep fans from stealing the setlists) – he had made a chart for Bad Weather as a safety net (he hadn’t played it in well over a decade by this point, so that made sense)…
….they were gonna do Bad Weather. Just Rusty and Paul.
I checked in with Paul – he was originally going to play it on acoustic when we ran it at soundcheck, but he decided to stay with the Gretsch…I patted him on the back and got out of the way.
I walked over to the side of the stage and got my phone out and recorded it from my vantage point at the side of the stage and tried to hold the camera still without letting everything I was feeling wash completely over me. The first time I opened for the band (over twenty years ago), we all went back to the bed and breakfast that the band was staying in, and Paul played that song in the hotel bar while I sang harmony with him at God-knows-what-time in the morning. That song is in my DNA, and while Paul maintains ownership of it…it’s not complete without Rusty playing steel on it. For years, it was Paul’s solo moment in the set, and I understand that. But that song, in my mind, will always be the sum of those two parts. And again, I couldn’t get out from under the notion that had hung over my head the entire weekend…
…this could be the last time.
Could this be the last performance of Bad Weather with Rusty and Paul? Could this be the last time George sits in on the drums for Childs’ Claim to Fame?
I know how fatalistic all this sounds. And this is something of a new outlook for me that seems to have descended on me within the past year or so – perhaps as a result of the rash of tragedy that’s passed by my window in that time. I typically don’t dwell on these things. Certainly, fate could well dictate that this could be the last time I post anything on my journal…tonight could be the last time I watch my youngest son dress up for Halloween. The unfinished songs on the hard drive in my studio downstairs could be the last songs I record. None of us knows how long we’ll be here, and we don’t get to know the answer to those questions. Faced with all this, though – I choose gratitude over some morose preoccupation with the darker side of it all. I got to be in the room for all this, and I’ve lived over half my life in the company of this band, this music, and these people.
I can’t help but feel like Claudia was tapping me on the shoulder the entire weekend, reminding me to soak this in, because you just never know.
You just never know.
After the show that night, I said my goodbyes to Paul and Caroline and we packed up the stage and loaded everything to get ready for the drive back the following day and we went back to the hotel…
…to another dining room full of Poconuts.
And no, there was no way I was going straight up to my room. I was gonna stay there with George and Debbie, with Jack and Rick and Lex and the Poconut family who’d travelled from Seattle and New York and Eastern PA and any number of places in between and celebrate the weekend. Jack had brought his guitar inside, so I asked him if it was OK for me to play a song.
I got out my notebook and played “Wildwood” for the first time, for the absolute perfect audience…the best of all possible debut scenarios for what I’d co-written with my unwitting collaborators.
“…sing a picture of the days gone by these crazy lovers understand because tonight, my friends, all of us – are living in the band… yes tonight, my friends, what’s left of us…are living in the band…”
May we all someday arrive back here…at the beginning…not so long ago.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
“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.
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 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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
(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?
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?)
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.
(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.