So I had that last night, too much joy. Steve and I went with our friends Sean and Eric to see Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band at the Meadowlands (if that’s still what it’s called) last night. It was an emotional roller coaster of a show, and we rode it. Along with 60,000 others, I suppose.
A few things, quick-like. Yes, I’m from New Jersey. It wasn’t cool when I was growing up to like this man’s music. Or at least, boys I found very difficult to relate to in high school,who grunted out one-word sentences, etc., liked Bruce Springsteen’s music. Girls thought he was cute. It was all lost on me. Then I heard Nebraska as an early 20 something. I think this story is many people’s story. So it goes, I loved the man,the songwriting, the depth, all of it. I met him a few times, which solidified my love. Plus he’s gotten even better looking with age, which has solidified that further. We’re solid, me and Bruce.
Do I think it’s cheesy? Sure. Do I love it for it’s pure abandon? Indeed I do. Do I dance and scream? Guess. As he’s getting older, he’s diving deeper into the spiritual side of things, as if the man’s spirit throughout his career hasn’t been bigger than life, bigger than the man himself, all along. But it’s almost like feeling that much joy, for me… well, it hurts. I think it’s in the same family of love I feel for our daughter. Just so much love, it makes me ache. It’s not just pure joy, it’s knowing that pure joy is transient, I guess. I found myself wishing I knew them personally, the Springsteens, so I could have this feeling again and again (read = totally unreaslistic, not to mention ridiculous to imagine that their everyday is like that show). Mostly my ache came from the fact that at some point, Bruce Springsteen will die and there will not be this opportunity to be part of his congregation anymore. Because there is nothing like it.
Today was grey and cloudy. I’m overtired from getting home at 2am and spending my day on a toddler’s schedule. I mean, overtired is a joke. I’m long-term sleep deprived and all I want is more, more … and more music.
I’m going to posit here that there have to be at least two kinds of summertime music. There’s the kind that smells like Hawaiian Tropic and alcohol and feels like hot wind in a car window. It sounds loud and beautiful like youth, and is the perfect doppelganger to holiday music, that other music hanging around that other solstice six months prior. I bet it’s the first pop music many of us ever loved.
This little blog is about a different kind of summertime music. It feels like a fever and sounds like a hallucination, and it’s the perfect compliment to the way this overheated apartment feels right now. We’re on the top floor of our building, face south, can’t fire-escape-fire-code-blah-blah put AC in half our apartment, and we’re pretty much melting. (And not just us: we, like idiots, went to do some baking for a friend the other week, and this is what we saw when we opened a bag of chocolate chips.) So, like I said, it’s hot.
Bill Laswell’s Imaginary Cuba is most definitely not the sound of surfer girls and Tastee Freez. It’s maybe more like a malarial episode, except that it’s absolutely awesome, and I understand that malaria is not. The record is a mashup of all sorts of music and sound, flowing oddly and effortlessly from Cuban son and Santeria, to recordings of street noise or café clamor, to heavy dub drum and bass, back to some folk song, and all the while tripping along ambient beds of sound, echo, heat…. It’s a true feverdream, a record that drips down the walls and pools on the floor, and it’s one of the most evocative, transporting things I’ve ever heard.
If you’re lying down as I was earlier, semi-conscious and watching the ceiling fan turn, find this album (a couple sample tracks appear below) — stream it, buy it, put it on. You may wake on soaked sheets, with the sound of the ocean, or the street below, or the neighbor’s music, floating in past the curtain in the window. You might then just pour yourself a glass of cold water, turn on the radio, and cross your fingers for some Beach Boys or Rihanna.
Doc Watson passed away last month, and this piece is now pretty embarrassingly late in coming. We were traveling for a couple of weeks, playing shows up the west coast, and busy with all the full-day activities that that entails – the long walks with old friends, the gas station mealtime deliberations – and we’ve been trying to make sense of re-entry in the few days we’ve been back in Brooklyn. But the fact is that the musician who I really think has meant more to me than any other is now done making music for us, and I hope that’s as good reason as one needs to crank back up a long-silent blogophone.
I was probably 15 when my aunt and uncle gave me a dubbed cassette of Doc Watson’s Home Again. It came with the disclaimer that it “may take some getting used to”, but having heard similar warnings before for such curiosities as lobsters and Bob Dylan, I only took that as an invitation – or dare – to really dig in. And I did. I’m not sure how to break down what I heard, or if that would even be interesting or relevant to a eulogy of sorts, but the music absolutely took hold of me. The gothic ballads, the old American hymns, the straight nonsense children’s songs were all sung in clear strains that, after many repeated listenings, felt nearly familial to my ears. And the quick, strong flatpicking guitar for which he was famous (hell, which he’s been credited for basically founding in country and folk music) even fit comfortably, though oddly, next to the likes of Jimmy Page, or Randy Rhoads, or any number of other guitarists whose speedy playing was the object of my early teen idolatry.
But the main thing I found in this music was something that is much harder to identify or break down – it became “mine” in that way that any semi-conscious teenager is looking for things to hold on to, things by which to mark themselves. I was certainly not fresh on Doc’s trail, with twenty five years of Americana superstardom separating Doc’s first recordings and my discovery of them, but no-one in my high school had ever heard of him that I could tell, and this was worth a lot. Doc’s delivery was earnest, but it was unflinchingly matter-of-fact, a heaven-sent antidote to the 60’s and 70’s folk-revival sweetness that formed the bulk of most campfire guitarists’ diet. This directness was what made the music important to me, what held me to him, and made him someone worth fighting that “no, you really should check this out” fight with my metal, punk, or folky comrades.
So a kid, like piles of kids before him, found this music groundbreaking or original or curious enough to bring to show-and-tell. That’s a real mark of distinction, knowing how seriously kids take these things. More important to me now, though, is the groove that has been worn in my adult self by the number of times this music has played over the years. It feels like home, however trite that sounds. Doc Watson’s North Carolina via Greenwich Village America became the America that I hear in song, and his singing and guitar playing absolutely set the foundation for my approach to the same. He’s really just a lot of what I know.
Here’s a song, from Home Again, that I used to sing to Hazel every single night before bed, until she got old and squirmy enough that she’d protest its length. Now we sneak in a stanza or two of “Down in the valley to pray”, off the same album, before we shut the door on our way out.
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…