Today I wore my favorite striped dress shirt, spring sport coat and Kenneth Cole lace-ups for two reasons.
First, I was participating in a demo of MTV’s new broadband project for a bunch or label execs and I wanted to look the part. And secondly, because I was having dinner with two old friends from high school and I wanted to look the part.
The ridiculousness of the latter is not lost upon me. These two women have known me since I was twelve-years-old. They’ve seen me in every incarnation: Izod-clad preppy, tie-dyed hippie, and now, urban yuppy.
Heather and I ran for student council together freshman year. What we wore, who we purported to be, was part of our campaign. I was committed to a family vacation the day we were supposed to give our big speech, and so, with MTV in its infancy and Power Point presentations nary a twinkle in Bill Gates eye, we crafted a multi-media slide show. In the presentation, accompanied by a tape-recorded speech and backed by The Beach Boys’ “Be True To Your School,” we smiled from behind the slide projector’s light in our soccer uniforms, our Sunday Best, our sunglasses, and our Top Siders. (We won.)
As humiliating as that photographic record might be, there is worse.
“I have a photo of you and Jon naked in a canoe,” Jennifer said. “And remember when you were dancing naked to ‘Shiny Happy People’? I have those too.”
So much for public office.
“Remember when you broke the banister at Senior Week?” Heather asked. I flashed back to me with a pony tail, OPs and Chuck Taylor’s.
“Listen, I did a lot of drugs back then, but how could I forget?”
“You went and hid down by under the pier with your guitar!”
“I remember it well.”
They asked me about this ex and that, about my mom and my brother and Ethan, about The MTV (“How long have you been there now? Wow!”). They asked me how I’m doing with very little context to why I might answer one way or another.
“I’m ok,” I answered. “I’m good.”
I slid them into a cab, and sent them back to the East Side. Walking towards home, I looked down at my dress shoes, and remembered why I’d worn them in the first (and second) place. Then it occurred to me that they’d probably love me no matter what shoes I wear. It’s all me. And they’ve seen it all before.
Bono sings that “Freedom has a scent / Like the top of a newborn baby’s head.”
I always found that lyric just a little bit hoakie. I still do. But I checked out the top of Ethan’s head this afternoon and, sure enough, it smells pretty good. I dunno’ about freedom, though. Maybe opportunity. Limtless, blank-slate opportunity.
My family makes fun of me because I’m always taking photos of the kids, especially Ethan. I realized why today. They’re guileless. Their expressions are real, not manufactured or immitated. They can only know what they know in that very moment. They can only be who they are right then. I envy that lack of perspective, context and artiface. I envy the clarity with which they look neither forward nor back, but exactly where they are.
It being Easter and all, and my family being somewhat Catholic, we gathered for brunch and dinner. I got to hang out with Ethan, Hanna, and Mary Kathrine. Toddler watching is better than television, better than film, better than books. Their energy and curiosity is boundless. They really leave me awed. So does the responsibility. Ethan was sick, and had been throwing up all night. So, then, were Chris and Jen. Still, he was still happy to stack blocks as high as possible, knock ‘em over, and start again.
It obviously wore off on me. In between familial engagements, I sat ensconced in my bedroom studio recording. At first I called the new song, “Crushing.” But by the time I’d mixed down the twenty-eight (28!) tracks, it had become something different, something new. I gave Heather a first listen. I prepped her with the suggestion that I thought it sounded like sunshine. I told her it’s called “A Simple Life.” She said, unprompted, that it sounded like babies: fresh, beautiful and innocent.
Fresh, beautiful and innocent. We should all be so lucky.
It occurs to me just now, sitting here at 9:58 p.m. listening to my new song, that this is the sound of sunshine streaming through my windows on a Sunday afternoon.
I started recording this fresh from Easter brunch with my mom, Chris, Jen and Ethan. I wasn’t inspired by anything specific, I just had a simple progression in my head gnawing its way out. The real breakthrough occurred when I started strumming an open D over everything. All of a sudden it sounded wide open.
The lyrics came last, and frankly, I’m not thrilled with ‘em. If you have anything better, send it in. I swear I’ll give you co-songwriter credit.
Anyway, it’s really pretty. I can’t believe it’s mine. It makes me feel happy. 28 tracks — 10 guitars, 12 percussion, 6 vocals — of pure sunshine.
I know, you’re like, “What kind of ass-hat wears sunglasses alone in his apartment?”
That’s last night in a nutshell. It rocked. Ivan Sandomire rocked, Dough rocked, and hell yeah, I’ll say it, I rocked. And I’ll be honest with ya’, I’m as surprised as anyone.
Rockwood Music Hall is a cozy venue. My apartment’s bigger (though they have a better bar). But that just made it easier to fill the place up, and it made it that much easier for the enthusiasm to spread. Judging by the applause, I thought folks particularly dug “Shiver” (first time ever with a band) and the new one, “Do It Again.” But it was our cover of Avril Lavigne’s “My Happy Ending” that really tore the roof off. Really. It was a trip. We were having a ball playing it. And I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: it’s a great pop song. Honestly, the instrumentation of her version notwithstanding, the song itself isn’t that different from something I’d write. So, to me, it fits right in. And it rocks. And the room’s enthusiasm for it was such that I got an honest to God encore out of the deal. I brought ‘em down smoothly. I played “New York” all by my lonesome.
Yunno’, the fact is, you’ve probably got more confidence in my musicianship than I do. I mean, I like the songs that I write. I think I’m pretty good at that. But performing’s a different beast. There’s a lot to consider. I have to get to the venue on time, I have to get the other bands there on time, I have to remember the chords, I have to remember the lyrics, I have to lead the band, I have to engage the audience, and I have to at least look like I’m having fun.
Even when I’m on tour performing every night for a week or so, I get pretty wound up. I’ve taken to hiring a car for the trip downtown just to kinda’ Zen out for a few minutes. I listen to my iPod and try and get in the right head, but the fact is, I can’t get out of my stomach. It’s always tied up in knots. When I finally get to where I’m going, I find myself in these brief, distracted conversations. I ramble. I pace. It’s not cool. And then I hit the stage.
My first thought during a performance is, ‘Wow, I’m doing it.’ Then I think, ‘Look at all those people. Don’t mess up.’ But then a funny thing happens and you kinda’ gain some footing and some voice and realize that maybe you know what you’re doing and that it’s gonna’ be ok. And it usually is. Knock on wood, in twenty years of public performance, I’ve never train wrecked or broken down or messed up unforgiveably. So maybe I should stop worrying about it.
Of course, not worrying is why I do it in the first place. When I’m in the moment, on stage or in the studio, all of the useless, destructive, negative voices in my head go silent. All that’s left is the process. And on a day like today, when I spent the balance of the afternoon recording a new song, well, that makes for a pretty good day. When it’s turning out well, and you can’t believe you had anything to do with it, you put on your sunglasses and rock out a solo like you’re Slash or someone … someone who looks a little like you.
If there’s one thing I loathe more than practicing guitar, it’s stringing it.
It’s the night before a big show, though, so it had to be done. I picked up a few Asahis, ordered some Planet Sushi, sat down on my shag rug in front of Nova, and got down to business. Which is when I noticed that I’d purchased a box of twelve Martin extra-lights.
I play a six string.
And so, as the race heated up between the French and the Americans to see who could fly first, I made due.
I’ve never been much for stringing my guitar. Heck, I’m not even much for playing it. I basically taught myself, strumming along to “The One I Love” and “Pop Song 89.” Guys have tried to teach me theory, but it never makes much sense. The only thing that’s really stuck is the sage advice some dude in a Syracuse music shop once taught me. “You look like the kind of guy this might help,” he said. I had a pony tail. And three earrings. “Think of it like this: Every Acid Dealer Gets Busted Eventually. Those are the strings.”
Obviously, it stuck.
Everything else I know about my guitar is intuitive. The minor fall and major lift, the ebb and flow of verse and chorus, chord progressions, it’s all just in the ether around me. It just comes to me. I don’t try and innovate, and just try and make it sound nice. It’s not rocket science; it’s in the air around you if you listen closely enough. I was never into math rock anyway. i like simplicity, elegance.
And the truth is I’ve gotten a little cavalier about rehearsals. Nowadays, my confidence in Dough is such that, heck, I know we’ll be fine. We may sound more like The Replacements than Rush, but that’s probably a good thing.
Still, tonight I got down to business. Here, all alone in my apartment, I ran the set. And what a set it is. See, one has a choice: write a set that that builds and falls and finishes big, or write a set that tells a story. I vote for both. Here’s how tonight’s Rockwood Music Hall performance shapes up:
St. Anne (Of The Silence)
Intent on St. Paul
Do It Again
Harder To Believe
I’ll Be Waiting
My Happy Ending
What story does it tell? Well, I guess I’m not quite sure. Or if I was, I guess I’d spare you the melancholy narative arc anyway. But it’s real, and it’s mine. And it rocks. And you can hear it for yourself, and render your own judgements. So join us, won’t you?
The day was running low on minutes. The guys were running low on energy. The El Presidente had just plain run out. And then she showed up.
The odds were stacked against us from the outset. By the time I showed up to Dough’s rehearsal space on Delancey Street, I’d put in an eleven hour day at The MTV (including a 45 minute, 35 block commute), an after-hours meeting on East 96th, and a three-subway sprint to the LES. In dress shoes. By the time I showed up to Dough’s rehearsal space on Delancey Street, they’d already rehearsed for three hours.
I plugged in the Marshall, cracked an El Presidente, and began. We had twelve songs to cover, six of which we’d never played, one of which has never been played, and one of which has been played six million times on the radio. But never by us.
By about the fourth tune — “Intent on St. Paul,” I think — I said to the guys, “Listen, it’s ok with me if we sound a little like a bar band on Friday night. The Replacements made a career out of it.”
We didn’t sound bad, we just sounded a little unsteady, a little shredded, like we were all four finding our way through a dark room and bumping into each other and knocking our heads on shit hanging from the ceiling. We struggled through “Shiver” (Friday will be the first time I’ve performed it with a band), “Radio” (pausing ten minutes to work out harmonies we’re likely to forget anyway), “Do It Again” (“This is the same progression for three minutes guys”), and “Harder To Believe.”
And then she showed up.
Walker sat up straighter in his seat. Chris started grinning, delicately arpegiating over the intro. Tony threw twin devil horns into the air. If I had a spare hand (you know how it goes, one was holding a pick the other was forming chords), I would have held a lighter aloft.
God bless her. God bless that dark November night six years ago when, out of the corner of my eye I saw a janitor sweeping a classroom in the high school across the street and said to myself, ‘I wonder what he’s thinking?’
He was thinking about the one that got away. He was thinking he had a lot left to say to her, if he could only find some useful words. He was thinking about regret, and remorse, and the burden of words unspoken. And then he got back to work.
When “Elizabeth” entered the room last night, we all felt it. We all knew Friday’s show was gonna’ go just fine. And then we got back to work.
I woke just before my alarm this morning. The sky outside my windows was great and bright. And when Satirius Johnson told me that the high today was going to be fifty-two degrees, I smiled right there in my half-sleep. Then I hit the snooze bar, rolled over, and snagged a few more minutes.
And I needed the extra sleep. See, I got a little too much party (and ice cream) on last night. I joined the newly wed Sheas at Jeff Jacobson’s solo performance at Kavehaz on 26th Street. It’s cool little jazz space right next to Funkadelic Studios, where I recorded “Crash Site” back in the late 90s. Back then, it was a quiet little vacant street. Now it’s dotted with cool little clubs and coffee shops and high rise apartments. Progress.
Anyway, I turned to Casey three notes into Jeff’s set and was like, “I quit.” ‘Cuz my man is so talented. He’s no hack strummer like me. Jeff’s a really accomplished classical guitarist. But he plays with a pop edge. His tunes are hooky. And his voice is warm and deep and dying to be harmonized with. I couldn’t help myself. I was singing along under my breath. And playing drums on the table. And imagining how he’d sound with a full band.
Of course, not every singer/songwriter wants to play with a full band. But me, coming from playing in rock bands with bad names like Neoteric Youth, Underground, and Smokey Junglefrog, I crave the volume, the energy, and force of all that moving air. One guy and a guitar can’t move that much air. Which is one of the reasons I don’t perform solo that often. It’s a different thing. It makes you wanna’ sit and drink tea and talk quietly. I want people to want to dance and to drink beer and yell, “Isn’t this great?” to their friends.
I have my chance at Rockwood Music Hall Friday night. I’m rehearsing with Dough tonight. Dough moves air, for sure. Have you seen ‘em? They really know how to use empty space to punctuate their full-on guitar attack. Which makes them sound like a metal band, which their obviously so not. They’re a great pop band. And lucky me! They’re my backing band! And they’re playing a set after me!
I was listening to Friday’s set on my iPod last night (yes, I listen to myself on my iPod) and I was like, ‘Dude, how are you gonna’ learn all that in time?’ See, we’re tackling not one, but two new songs (“Harder To Believe,” “Do It Again”) plus a new cover. And the fact is, I don’t really know “Love & Other Indoor Games” songs all that well. ‘Cuz I’d much rather write new songs than practice old ones. And lately, I’ve been writing new songs so quickly that if you don’t catch one of my New York shows this year, you’re likely to miss about 90% of the “Love” song cycle. ‘Cuz I’m ready to move on. I’m ready to record a new CD. Despite the fact that “Love” has only been out for four months. Wack.
In fact, I was thinking about a new album as I walked to lunch yesterday (my daily five minutes of fresh air). I’ve been kicking around recording it this fall in Chicago with my cousin (unbenounced to him), but lately, given how much I’m diggin’ my home studio, I’m thinking about recording the basic tracks with Dough at their Tribeca rehearsal/recording studio, then tracking the rest here, and mixing it back there. I figure I could have a new one out by summertime, in time to tour with The Nadas a little bit more. Oooh! And I had a great idea in the shower for a contest to promote the new album, whatever it is, whener it comes. But more about that then.
I mentioned this in The Morning Mix this weekend (download “Milk & Honey” if you haven’t). I happened onto this guy named Dr. Wayne Dyer on PBS on Saturday afternoon. He’s something of a self help guru type, but I was pretty into him, kinda’ nodding my head and writing things down. He said a lot of cool stuff that made some good sense to me, but the thing I really liked, that really resonated, was “Don’t die with the music left in you.” Which is pretty unlikely with me, or Casey, or Jeff, or Dough or The Nadas. It’s some pretty fine company to keep.
Ask any of my guy friends, if they wanna’ get together, any place, any time, from Des Moines to Las Vegas, I say, “Count me in.”
See, I’ve felt comfortable in women’s company as long as I can remember. I’ve always liked girls. There’s a photo of me from pre-school with the most adorable freckle-faced, red-headed girl ever. I never went through that “girls are yucky” phase. I remember them all: Melissa Yates, Jennifer Clarke, Chrissy Ferarro, and on and on and on. I could always talk with women, presumably because I could always talk with my mom. Which is not to knock my dad. Some of my best memories are of Chris, he and I picking through a pile of steamed shrimp on a rainy Sunday afternoon.
But I never really fit in with the guys. I mean, I have some terrific male friends, but if you ask any of ‘em, they probably wanted to kick my ass when they first met me. I’m not sure why, but dudes don’t really get me. Which is probably ok. I’m not much of a “dude.” I don’t know shit about sports (I only run marathons and triathlons, beeyatch!). I don’t know shit about cars. Heck, I don’t really know what else guys talk about. Gambling? Prostitutes? I dunno’.
Which brings us to this rainy Sunday afternoon. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: this is The Year of the Guys. Listen, I have gotten in more than enough trouble of late with the ladies. By the close of 2004, as I’d wreacked about as much havoc as is possible in the realm of the feminine, it became apparent to me that I could use some dudes in my life.
So tonight, I gathered my bruthas. I sent a note mid-week convening the “Beer, Wing & Pool Appreciation Society.” It read, simply: “Dead Poet. Sunday. 5 p.m.” (See, I know these married types: 5 p.m. is doable.)
And so it is. And so it was. Chris, John, Jay, Jonathan and I gathered at the Dead Poet (my favorite neighborhood bar because it is completely without schtick) for beer, wings, and pool. Some notes:
Chris ran the table. He kept talking about “Ohio rules,” as if he’d lived there in the last decade. But he played like he was a Marietta freshman all over again. Allbeit one with a two-year-old at home.
John was recovering from last night’s SNL party. He’s recently engaged. He’s getting married in September. I’m presuming it will rub off.
Jay is off to Mexico in the morning to shoot for The Tonight Show. He just purchased a three bedroom on the Upper West. And is expecting a baby girl. I’m presuming it will rub off.
Then there’s me, the consumate dater, always in love. But not now. Nope, I’m steering clear. Still, the guys always have advice for me, and often enough, it sounds fairly sage. But it’s supurfluous. ‘Cuz for now, it’s The Year of the Guys.
I was reading Guster’s studio diary the other day and thought, ‘Damn! They’ve got a bunch of great titles for their new album. Wish I’d thought of ‘em first.’
See, sometimes a song starts with just a good title, or turn of phrase. My job, as a songwriter, is to be tuned into those good turns of phrases and to think, ‘Snap! Write that one down!’ Well, such a moment occurred this afternoon.
Now, I didn’t really know anything about the phrase “milk and honey,” so I did an iota of research. Ends up that, according to the Old Testament, God told the Jews that there was promise land of milk and honey. Which is pretty poetic. And pretty universal. I mean, who of us hasn’t imagined some sort of promised land? So, I’m not sure I did anything good with it, but at least I did something.
I was watching PBS this afternoon and this dude, his name way Dr. Wayne Dyer, said, “Don’t die with the music still in you.” Which I think may be my new motto. And may be the reason why I keep writing these songs and uploading ‘em here. Anyway, dig it. And don’t die with the music still in you.
I never open my mouth when I smile. Twenty-three years of painful and largely fruitless orthedontia, periodontistry, and destristry have left me (and my parents) thousands of dollars poorer, and without a smile worth showing.
This bums me out. And not just because everyone’s whitening and getting all cosmetic. It bums me out because it’s just one more example of the fact that the older one gets, and the more money one makes, the more difficult and costly it becomes to maintain one’s health and appearence. That and, ok, I’d like to have a Hollywood smile.
It’s a long story, one you’ve probably heard at least portions of before. But I have to retell it every time I go to in for a cleaning, or some new procedure.
Long story short, I have weird genes. I’m missing a bunch of adult teeth. So when I was ten, a bunch of baby teeth were pulled so they could scrunch the rest of ‘em together with orthedontia. For a while in there I had a retainer with prosthetic teeth on it. I broke it so many times, though, that I had to use Fixodent to keep it in. That was embarassing. Then I had braces which were rediculously painful and looked terrible. When I was seventeen, just a few days before my junior prom, the braces were removed, Maryland bridges were installed, and I had a perfect smile. Three weeks later my jaw was broken and wired shut for the summer. Back to square one.
After eight weeks wired shut, followed by three years and a fistfull of oral surgeries later, I — not surprisingly — had acquired a drug addiction and a major aversion to orthodontists, periodontists, and dentists. I stayed away for over ten years.
Within the last three years, I’ve spent approximately $15,000 on my teeth. Not that you’d ever notice. It’s all foundational stuff: molars, implants. It’s all in the background. Meanwhile, I still have a retainer that was supposed to last three years. And I still have those Maryland bridges that were supposed to last five. And my teeth look like I’ve been drinking coffee for twenty years because, well, I have been.
So, this morning I’m sitting in the chair and the new dental assistant guy is cleaning my teeth and he’s all like, “What’s up with your mouth?” Of course, I’ve got suction going on, and he’s poking my gums and such, so I slur through all the apparatus, “Genes.”
After poking, prodding, scrubbing, scratching and generally torturing me every way possible, the assistant was done with me. I flipped through Esquire Magazine as I was waiting for my dentist (good guy, really) to check me out. Now, I generally get little more than snarky quips and fashion tips, but there was was a little bit of synchronicity going on today. I paused on an article called, “A Clean Mind.”
It turns out you can’t be in the zone if your jaw is hooked. Think of [Michael] Jordan’s tongue wagging or A-Rod yawning at the plate. “Ali lost his mouthguard constantly [performance coach Jim Fanning] says, “because his jaw was loose and unhinged during the most heated moments of a fight.
My jaw, in contrast, has been locked since I was seventeen. I’ve broken teeth from gnashing them together in my sleep. I wake up sore. It cracks when it’s cold. It’s constantly hinged. Which may be, come to think of it, yet another reason why I like singing. And running. ‘Cuz I gotta’ open my mouth. I gotta’ open up.
He gets me to stand up, close my eyes, think a negative thought, and drop my chin to my chest. He makes me hold it there, then raise my head until I’m facing the ceiling. I repeat this three times. Strangely, I can no longer remember what I had been thinking about. “You reboot your brain,” he says. “When you look up, your chin goes past parallel to the ground, the negative thought is released.
It’s as simple as that. Just keep your chin up.