In 1995, I went to look at an apartment on the far west side of Hoboken, which at that time was a sketchy area. I had just landed a job at NBA Entertainment as a transcriber of sports interviews, and I needed a place to live that was close to (but Lord, not in) Secaucus, NJ. My salary was meager, and I had to work with it.
I walked into the railroad apartment and waited for my roommate to show up. For the very imaginative, it was a 2 bedroom place – and cost $700/month. And though I did not expect this, it was absolutely beautiful. Exposed brick, rich, grainy, wide planked dark wood floors, clean, updated kitchen. A woman and man, both older than me by about 5 years, sat at a kitchen table. I said I wanted the apt., and they said okay. I don’t remember the guy at all, but the woman’s name was Pam. She was kind and easy, yet not ingratiating – the sort of person you’d feel good about about. I signed the lease that sat on her table and moved in a month later.
About two months into living there, a letter arrived in the mailbox, addressed to her. An oblong envelope with green stamped designs on the back, it bore the mark of a writer who had taken the time for herself to really craft something. Not an obligatory letter; this writer had made it an evening’s activity to write this letter to her friend Pam.
I put it aside and the next morning, went downstairs to ask the landlord, a kindly, older Egyptian man who owned the building and manned his convenience store on the first floor – if he had a forwarding address for Pam. He didn’t. I looked her up in the phone book, and she was unlisted. Short of hiring a private investigator, I didn’t know how to find her.
I held onto the letter, unopened for three months, wondering if she’d get in touch with me – maybe her friend would tell her about the letter, and she’d come back to claim it. She didn’t. Finally, one night, I sat in my room on the floor and opened the letter and read the sometimes uneven, and always enigmatic, hammered type.
Pam’s friend was hanging out in her room the night of the letter. I had a perfect image; she’d lit a candle and set up her typewriter. Among her news bits, she reported that she’d finally ended a relationship with “xxxx” – she didn’t know what she’d been thinking to be with him – and she was seeing someone new, for the “nooky”. It was nice. She had a way with words, Pam’s friend. And the letter was decorated with various stamps and drawings, some with dialogue bubbles. I really liked Pam’s friend, and of course, Pam – for effortlessly earning such a friend just by being her cool-ass self.
I loved this letter, and simultaneously harbored some sadness over it as well. It had really been a divine evening, as you could read, that had provided the opening to create it. Had I written that letter, I would’ve lamented its having been lost in the mail or otherwise not received by my friend. It was un-recreate-able. It was a mood, a vibe, a misty life between the cracks of work, family and social life, etc. I still have that letter to this day, and though it was never meant for me, it’s one of the best I’ve ever received.
I was witness to life being lived, and this completely voyeuristic approach to letter reading was new to me. Everyone who knows me knows I LOVE writing and receiving letters. In the age of email and immediate immediateness, it’s a lost art form that I’m desperate not to lose. I’ve written and received many letters in my lifetime, and none gave me the feeling that I got from reading Pam’s letter from her friend. And it got me thinking… what if I were to write some letters, to whomever I wanted, and from me, but sent to someone else? That reading-once-removed, that feeling, was so delicious that I want to pass it on.
If you’re reading this and interested, send your address (or someone else’s) to firstname.lastname@example.org, and I’ll send a letter – crafted by me and meant for someone else – to that person. Like the local radio station, I’ll take the first three callers. I’m only committing to three, because let’s face it – I have a baby now and and frankly, you’ve got to have a divine night for this kind of creation. I’m being optimistic to think there are three of those in my near future, but I’m giving myself to the end of this year to send out the three. So write me.
6th grade was more or less a top-of-the-world time for me, and 7th grade sucked. Everything was as it should be and felt under control one year, but then we moved from suburban Virginia to somewhat near Pittsburgh, PA the next. The elementary school hijinx that carried the day (and I, as a hinjinxster) carried squat in PA, and things really began to unravel. Little League was a good barometer. I was always a crummy baseball player, but it didn’t matter in VA because we were all goofy kids. By the time the spring of 7th grade rolled around, half the kids were in moustaches, more than half of them chewed tobacco, and fastballs were completely unhittable. Holeee crap. I remember feeling very very far away from my sixth grade baseball team, and I basically just started to dread the game. I would seriously beg the skies for game-cancelling rain, but the rainy Sundays rarely came, so I counted the days and limped my way through til June.
Moving ahead: this past weekend we stood up a good friend’s wedding a few hours’ drive away. Not a decision taken lightly, but we just had too much on our plates as the new week approached (a week that includes three days of Little Silver in the studio, recording music that is presently only partly writ). On Friday past, the weather report showed a very productive work-weekend ahead – rainy weather the whole time – but Saturday turned out okay and we spent a bunch of it in the park. I woke up Sunday praying for rain. Keep me inside, at the computer, on a guitar, making good on our failure to attend our buddy’s wedding, but no luck. Patchy clouds in Brooklyn, a couple of trips to go get coffee, one last look at the roses in the Botanic Garden, and here I am a complete loser on Monday morning, so completely unable to hit fastballs.
A song for the day:
Skies getting dark over Brooklyn, Irene. Goodnight (I’ll see you in my dreams).
I have struggled to write something about this town that won’t sound indulgent and precious. It’s hard.
We have a baby now, and she is brand-new. The littlest silver. And if I didn’t romanticize my hometown before – the nature and the nights, full with sea-air, mist, exploration and imagination – I do now.
I called a friend the other night that I’ve been out of touch with for four years. He and I spent hours as kids driving through the lush, still roads to the ocean, through farmland, to each others’ houses – listening to the same cassette tapes over and over again, drinking coffees we hadn’t yet developed the palate for, me singing, and him listening or playing guitar. And for all of this clichéd teenage-dom, we lived like the world wanted us, like we were part of it.
I asked him if he felt, as I have expressed now in my loony post-partum state, that where we grew up was extra-special. After a slightly terrifying-to-me pause, he said quietly, “Yes. I’ve found it difficult to explain to people.”
Here’s the thing: everything was innocent, as it is when you are young, forming an identity that you aren’t even aware you’re forming. Even the most debaucherous, most hurtful, or most shameful things you can do at that age are fueled by an innocence that is of a time, and by default, a place. I’ve wondered if anything sets my town apart from any other small town in America – and I’m not sure. I recall it for the ocean and the country roads, and though environment is huge and evocative, ultimately I suspect that this is just how one feels about where they grew up. It is that innocence that I romanticize, and that I associate with Little Silver.
Here is a pic that our friend Mauricio snapped from the train as he was passing through only last week.
Criminy, people… Do you really think I’m such a self-flattering bastard as to put photos of myself all over our CD? When all Erika gets is a couple of impressionistic nose-n-chin shots? What gives?? That’s me on cover. Edwin Forsythe Wildlife Refuge, NJ, taken with a crap cell phone a few years back. People been asking, and that’s Erika’s dad, Atkin Simonian, in the serial shots inside. Heliopolis, Egypt, sometime around 1948. That’s not me. Say what you will about the fact that Atkin and I are ostensibly mistakable for one another.
As long as we’re on the topic: other photos inside are of our fire escape and the F train on a sunny day, from Erika’s Lomo; from the Five Points House of Industry (see the very first blog post, below); and of a former tabla teacher of mine, a Benaresi gentleman who lived begrudgingly in Kathmandu, named Shambhu Prasad Misra.
And for the completist or the curious, here’s a link to the full photo from which this collage was cropped.
When I was 16, I occasionally cut school to take the train into the city with my friends. These jaunts entailed various adventures around the east village in carefully-selected outfits we considered cutting edge, though I’m sure they clearly illustrated to the city at large that we were from the suburbs. I recall knocking on the door of a Bleecker St. basement apartment, above which read the sign ‘Psychic Palm Reader’. A small, attractive woman opened the door. Facing us from the back of the dark room was a sea of neon-blue emanating from a wall-sized aquarium. In front of it was the only furniture in the room, a king-sized bed in which lay two sleeping sumo-wrestler sized men, and a small crumpled dent in the middle where she had been 20 seconds prior. She asked me to hold on a second, and when she shut the door, my two friends and I ran.
We ended up down the block at CBGB, and back then the front of the store was a record store. As I was flipping through some LPs, I happened upon a dead mouse. The dude working there walked over, picked it up by the tail, opened the door and threw it out on the sidewalk.
In the past 16 years that I’ve been living here, common complaints are that the city is no longer interesting, too safe, Disneyland, etc. So imagine my delight the other day, when, having to kill an hour in midtown-east of all boring places, I saw a large man walking two expensive, pure-bred looking dogs. In the middle of a Park Avenue traffic lane, one of the dogs was busy doing his business while its owner and the other dog waited patiently amidst hysterical, swerving, screaming, honking cars. When the squatting dog was finished, it politely took a seat next to the other one, while the owner/walker guy responsibly pulled out a bag, scooped up the mess and tossed it in a trash can.
While I was busy speculating on the ‘why in the middle of the lane?’ aspect of this scenario, a man walked past me pushing a hand truck with a single pork roast on it.
So you see, NYC can still be weird.
Like a whole lot of people, I just read Patti Smith’s memoir of her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe. (Erika did too, first, and I’m kind of stealing this blog from her. She gets to write about the next incredible book that makes both of us weep, whatever the hell that will be.) The book is a totally compelling portrait of a New York that is long past – one whose tribulations and explorations are almost invisible now, precisely because they’re at the root of so much of everything in this city – but the real weight of the book for me was in the deeply personal, and really pretty matter-of-fact, meditations on art and love that guide the entire narrative.
Art and love! What’s not to like? Seriously, she and Mapplethorpe met as kids (so the title says) in a bewildering city, and she writes to how their art and their love grew up entirely hand in hand, commanding and fulfilling the two of them, wearing them down and building them up, and quite literally making their home. The shifting epochs of Smith/Mapplethorpe love are all profoundly portrayed in their own right, and the losses that they were dealt are heartrending. But maybe because on some level un-easy love is familiar to everyone, the strongest revelations of the book, for me, were her discussions of un-easy art. The book is a steady recounting of working SO HARD, of loads of self-doubt, especially initially, and of losing so much in trying to create something meaningful, but it all manages to wholly inspire rather than terrify or turn-away.
Our curiosity about Harry Smith (who features wonderfully prominently in this book – and is now featuring more prominently in this blog section for whatever it’s worth) led us to Rosebud Pettet, who Harry called his “spiritual wife” for the last three decades of his life. I went to go visit Rose in her Manhattan apartment last week and our conversation moved to the Patti Smith book, because of the Chelsea Hotel connection, and because the book has been quite on-the-mind, as they say. “This book is the purest thing”, Rose said. It’s pure hard and yearning love, though: for Mapplethorpe and his restlessness, for the poets and artists whose work so moves Smith, for God whose measure of light she finds all around, and for the art by which she might pay this light some just homage, if she really, really works at it. Yearning “to achieve within the work a perfect balance of faith and execution.”
I could sure go on. Erika just came in to read this post and had a whole other angle on what made the book moving. Just read the thing, if you haven’t already…
It’s been a couple of weeks since we returned from the Harry Smith Festival – a weekend in Millheim, PA – (Amish-land) and this is the first chance we’ve had to write about it.
To be honest, I haven’t quite known HOW to write about it, so I’ll start with the history here.
For anyone unfamiliar (as I was, before we were invited to this two years ago, and then again this year-) Harry Smith was a kooky artist and ethnographer, credited with basically kickstarting the 60s folk-revival, when he released a bunch of old recordings from the 1920s and 30s on what was basically a big unauthorized mixtape called the Anthology of American Folk Music. These recordings are RAW – and full of gems. Kai Schafft, of the awesomely sweaty and enthusiastic old-time group The Chicken Tractor Deluxe – said “Why don’t we get a bunch of people here to drive out to the middle of PA and play some of this stuff?” Let me tell you, it was a grand idea.
There are so many bands I was introduced to this weekend that I absolutely loved. First of all, our Brooklynite buddies Chris Moore & Sons drove out and back in one day to perform six songs together with Curtis Eller. Watching Eller was kind of like watching a weirder Sid Vicious on the banjo – and they brought the house down. There were the KC Rounders, who were more of the straight ahead traditional style (stand up bass, banjo, guitar and mandolin) and then Marah. There were only two of them. Christine played about every instrument known to man – and well; guitarist Dave was such a compelling player – it was really refreshing to hear these old songs performed by a bona-fide rock and roll band. Catherine Irwin from Louisville, KY was one of the headliners, and she has that real traditional, haunting and somewhat matter-of-fact vocal style that is really how these songs were meant to be heard.
I could go on… and on… but instead, I’ll just say one more thing – the venue, the Elk Creek Cafe – in Millheim, brews all their own beers. And they’re GOOD. So from 2 – 11pm we were transfixed by band after band – and yes, we performed somewhere in there too (with special guest Ben Shapiro on drums! Ray was marooned in Louisville and couldn’t fit in the trunk of Ms. Irwin’s car) – while we drank microbrews and ate food sourced from the local farms (and when I say local, I mean 3 miles away-). And horses and buggies clopped by all the livelong day.
Every October Steve and I head up to our friend’s house on Lake Winnipesaukee. These extended weekends are full of canoeing, hiking, mad music-making, fires in the various fireplaces, saunas, walks, tons of cooking/eating – and general hanging out and talking about how awesome everything is.
This year, the weekend we picked was our friend Andy’s birthday. So naturally, we celebrated with a Nauga Cake.
Andy is to be credited with having introduced us to The Naugahyde Monster, the most positive of creatures. The Nauga is the mascot, so to speak, of UniRoyal – who manufactured Naugahyde couches in the 70s. I STRONGLY encourage you to visit this link to read The Nauga’s bio. It’s long and full of fascinating facts I’ll bet you didn’t know about this sweet, sweet monster. There are also many drawings depicting Nauga history, such as a prehistoric Nauga, as well as my favorite -Naugas coming to America through Ellis Island.
Here’s a small excerpt (albeit a little corporate-speak) to whet your whistle:
“The small chameleon-like animals known as Naugas™ have long been known as the source of beautiful and durable fabrics that look like fine, soft leather. And since Naugas shed their hydes without harm to themselves, the fabrics they help make came to be known as Naugahyde®, The Cruelty Free Fabric™.”
Side note: I was told that ‘the shedding of their skins’ was added when PETA initially reacted to the original idea that thousands of these darling little creatures had to die for the couches. Fair enough. It goes on to cite history’s many famous Naugas and their achievements, and what an inspiring bunch! From their altruistic nature to their innovative genius to their athletic prowess, there’s much to admire about The Nauga.
We forced our accomplice, Steve Bag, to take a walk in the pouring rain with Andy to get him out of the house while we decorated this cake. Thank you Bag, for risking pneumonia for the glory of The Nauga Cake!
On another note, here’s a shot of Winnipesaukee Steve bonin’ up on a bunch of old-time folk songs, to be performed by us at this weekend’s Harry Smith Festival in Millheim, PA.
When you go to see Willie Nelson, you get moved, touched, rocked. I guess that’s the overall meaning of ‘rock and roll’ right? Your whole way of seeing things changes. It’s like permission – to blow the roof off, or in this case, to just be moved by a beautiful human being.
The man is teeming with musicality – his voice, his guitar, his voice, his voice, his voice. He moved like an old man – walking stiffly across the stage – but played and sang with an inspired timelessness. Now I’ve seen some musical vessels in my day, but his brand is like none I’ve ever seen.
Every note was really so full of beauty. Who can, at all times, sound like that?
Willie Nelson, folks. Say it with me.
At the end of his show, while his band played around and again on Hank Williams’s “I Saw the Light”, he put down Trigger (uh, that’s his guitar) and moved to the front of the stage where he shook hands and signed people’s clothing, even signed people. He signed some of those Willie bandanas he’d thrown into the audience. Every now and again he’d toddle back to his amp and pick up another bandana, sign it and hand it to someone. He was so respectful to everyone. I watched him hold one man’s hand in a handshake, listening to him for about a full minute. All this from the stage. What a dude.
When the world loses Willie – and it will – it will see the end of a humane and lovely being. Later I watched that crazy-awesome biodiesel fueled van make a left turn out of a Morristown, NJ parking lot and I felt so mixed.
Willie, you gave me more in two hours than I remember having in years. You make a connection, and when you play, you’re just taken away. And we all follow.