You Are The Star Tonight

April 30th, 2008

Mulholland DriveMulholland Drive follows the ridgeline of the Santa Monica Mountains from Hollywood westward all the way to the Pacific Coast Highway.

The two-lane, meandering road was built in 1924 by a consortium of Hollywood Hills landowners hoping to turn a buck by bringing development to the Hollywood Hills.

There’s David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive,” and Lee Tamahori’s “Mulholland Falls.” “Point Break,” “Lost Highway,” and “True Romance” all feature scenes here. And Michael Knight’s first ride behind the wheel of the Knight 2000 took place here in 1982’s “Knight Rider” pilot.

It’s named for William Mulholland, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s now-legendary chief engineer whose aqueducts and dams made this desert town viable in the early Twentieth Century.

I learned about the fabled road (like so many other things) courtesy of REM. The band’s “Electrolyte” (from 1996’s “New Adventures In Hi-Fi”) name checks the place.

If you ever want to fly
Mulholland Drive, up in the sky
Stand on a cliff and look down there
Don’t be scared, you are alive

Front man Michael Stipe described the song thusly:

Mulholland represents to me the iconic ‘from on high’ vantage point looking down at L.A. and the valley at night when the lights are all sparkling and the city looks, like it does from a plane, like a blanket of fine lights all shimmering and solid.

It’s is the place in films where you get a distance, and the awe, of the city built on dreams and fantasy. Far away enough to not smell it but to marvel at its intensity and sheer audacity.

The first time I visted Los Angeles in 1999, my first order of business was to point my rental car towards Mulholland, REM cranked on my tape deck.

Everything seemed possible then. My eyes were wide. My hopes were high. I thought I was going to be a star.

Nine years later, I retraced my steps.

I came to LA this week to attend EconSM, a web 2.0 conference featuring big wigs from Yahoo, AOL, Disney, YouTube, and Facebook. The ten-hour marathon of panels and networking took place at The Skirball Cultural Center, a mountain-side event space just west of the 405, and just a few feet off Mulholland.

Afterwards, as the sun was dropping behind the hills, I pointed my white Nissan Sentra west along the ridge line and watched the LA Basin and San Fernando Valley spread before me in equal turn.

I’ve been to Los Angeles fifty times since that first visit. If our love affair hasn’t ended outright, it’s cooled significantly. I used to fantasize about moving here (see also: “Almost Home,” also known as “JFK/LAX”). Now I fantasize about going home.

I still love the smell of the place: sweet and spicy and cool. And I still love the scenery, the ocean, and the light.

But it occurred to me as I was winding along Mulholland this afternoon that I’m not made for this place. Los Angeles is too beautiful, too coiffed, too confident. I’m too anxious for L.A. I’m more Woody Allen than Woody Harrelson, more Alan Light than Alan Thick.

Which is fine.

I parked my Sentra, tossed my blazer in the back seat, stepped towards the edge, and looked down. The roar of The 405 slipped away, replaced by the sound of a briney, Pacific breeze. The city was cast in the gauzy veil of dusk. Everything looked still from above as ten million Angelinos and I settled into a cool, spring night.

Rio Grande Vista

April 29th, 2008

Rio GrandeThe Rio Grande River descends some 13,000 feet over the course of its 1885 miles journey from Southern Colorado to the Gulf of Mexico.

I’ve crossed this, the third largest river in America, at Interstate 25 in Albuquerque, New Mexico, twice — on the return leg of my first cross-country road trip in 1990, and on my way home from my post-collegiate vision quest in 1993 — but never paused on her shores.

And while it wasn’t the wide, reed-lined banks that drew me here this some fifteen years later, somehow her patient, lumbering journey to the sea said it all.

Sebhat Alexander Browne and I were not fast friends. His family had moved to Devon, Pennsylvania, in 1980, one year prior to mom, Chris and me. He was pals with my next door neighbor, a spoiled, named RP. Initially, RP, his pal, Will, and Sibby taunted mes (though, even then, Sibby seemed to do so reluctantly and with little enthusiasm).

I wasn’t catching much slack as the new kid more interested in Top 40 radio than Little League baseball, more likely to sport a lavendar Izod than a Philly’s jersey, and more likely to watch MTV than ESPN.

I don’t remember why it all turned, but I remember it was in the back of the schoolbus on the way home from school. RP crossed some sort of boundry, and Sibby and I aligned. We’ve been best friends ever since.

So when Sib hauled ass to both my bachelor party in Breckenridge and my wedding on Bray’s Island, I pledged to make good on my longstanding promise to see him in his native environment.

Southwest #2956 touched down right on time at 4:35. Ten minutes later, I was tossing my garment bag in the backseat of Sib’s Subaru Legacy alongside soccer balls, orange cones, and collapsable goals. Sibby was tanned, his laugh lines pronounced from 36-years on the pitch. Otherwise, he was just as I’d’ left him in South Carolina.

Sibby, his younger brother and sister, Marcel and Kathryn, live in a neighborhood near downtown called Barelas. Their cozy adobe duplex is across the street from the zoo, and just a a few blocks from the river. Sibby coaches soccer for the Rio Vista Football Club. Marcel works in environmental planning. And Kathryn is studying to be an RN.

The three of us spent the weekend lazily catching up. We shared some great pizza (Il Vicino Pizzeria), hoisted a few pints at a pal’s new brewpub (Marble Brewery), sampled local cuisine (El Patio). I caught a few minutes of Sibby coaching. And Marcel and I logged a few miles along the river.

Sibby & MeThe four of us slipped easily into conversation. In fact, it turned pretty deep, pretty quickly, which happens when you have a twenty-five year history. In most ways, we might as well have been fifteen-years-old again (except that Marcel would have knocked out five miles far more easily then).

I felt a little like a fish out of water, sure. Everything I saw and everyone I met was living what I guess people call an “alternative” lifestyle: homeopathic medicines, composting, meditation. I guess they’re alternatives to Big City Capitalism, which, I guess, New York City epitomizes. Kathryn teased me for taking over a countertop to create a charging station for my laptop, iPod, Blackberry, cell phone, and GPS watch. And for good reason.

But those values aren’t so lost on me that I felt completely out of place. As I told her, “Hey, remember who fasted for four days and had conversations with wild animals and dead ancestors when he was nineteen.”

I may be an over-caffeinated, hypomanic, New York media executive, but I appreciate wide open spaces. I lived in the San Juans. I’ve climbed Mount Ajax. I’ve seen the edge of the earth from above.

Those values, though, don’t manifest sufficiently in my daily life, and there’s some loss in that. Not just the mountains or the meditation or the medicine, but the tight-knit community; Sib, Marce, and Kate knew people everywhere they went. They’re connected to their community in a way I envy, and appreciate.

This morning, Sib made me pancakes, then — on account of my twitchy, pre-flight anticipatory anxiety — drove me to the airport far earlier than necessary. You can see planes landing from his front porch, so the commute took seven minutes. Security took ten.

And so I typed him a quick note from the gate.

As predicted, I’m at gate with :20 to spare before boarding. Which, frankly, gives my nerves time to settle prior to the flight, and my courage time to build prior to slipping back into VP mode.

Thanks for opening your home to me, my brutha’, for playing host and showing mes ABQ’s best. I leave rested, relaxed, and grateful that I can connect places and names and smells with your world. You’ve built a great one here. I’m psyched for you. And I’m psyched for your heart, which seems happy, healthy and hopeful.

Love and thanks to Kate, and Marcel. And love and thanks to you.

His reply concluded simply:

“Keep dreaming big. And keep making that push towards that Great PBS Frontline in the Sky.”

I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead

April 27th, 2008

Hill CountryI’m not sure it’s the Xanax, the exhaustion, the altitude, the soundtrack, or the odd, suspended-animation of transcontinental air travel, but something’s going on here.
Suddenly, I feel immensly blessed.

Sitting here in my exit row seat next to the galley soaring some 33,000 feet above the sun-bleached desert southwest, I feel like I’m in a deleted scene from “Donnie Darko.” There’s a convergence of some sort unfolding in slow, glowing motion. I don’t know how, exactly, but all of the disperate threads are coming together. I’m finally cracking up to what — to who — I’m meant to be.

I’m sure it’s fleeting.

The last fews days have been for the record books.

Wedesday: Work, Rehearse, Edit.
Thursday: Work, Record.
Friday: Work, Gig.
Saturday: JFK, LAX, ABQ.

Friday was challenging, on accord of working so late on the new record (and, ok, drinking a few beers). I was dragging pretty badly when my office phone rang. My friend, documentary filmmaker Katia Maguire, was at security; we’d planned to have lunch. Seconds later, my cell phone rang. Nada front man Jason Walsmith was two blocks away; we’d planned to have lunch.


So the three of us had lunch. Which was kind of perfect. Katia’s struggling with her burgeoning filmmaking career (not to mention New York City’s apparent lack of authenticity and integrity). Jason’s struggling with breaking his band through to the next level. And I’m struggling with, well, yunno, some of the same things. We sat in Bryant Park a while commiserating (or empathising) and taking in some sunshine.

After work, Jason, his producer/A&R pal, Jimmy Landry and I sat met at The Mean Fiddler (where The Nadas had originally been booked to play) talking about the collapsed state of the music business (more theft, less sales). We sat a while commiserating (or empathising) and taking in some beers, then walked through golden hour light to my apartment where I packed (assuming I wouldn’t have much time to do so after the gig and before my car service), and sprinted out the door.

Jason, Jimmy, Abbi and I walked into Hill Country — a Texas-style BBQ joint that has music mostly as an afterthought (or, as corporate types might say, as “added value”) — around nine o’clock. The place was packed upstairs and down. Front man Mike Butterworth, bassis Jon Locker, guitarist Ross VanderWerf and drummer Ian Shephard were already setting up amidst dense rows of picnic tables populated almost entirely, it seemed, by graduates of the collegiate Greek system.

I recognized the soundman, Ian, immediately; he ran sound at Arlene Grocery for years. I cut my teeth there in the ’90s. Like most New York venues, it’s churn and burn. Any given night features eight completely-disperate bands ushered on and off stage in rapid succession. Hill Country, in contrast, hosts one band for three sets. Should be easier to manage then, right? This night, anyway, found Ian as frazzled — or maybe drug addled, it was tough to tell — as ever. Whatever it was, he seemed confused, and not terribly interested in figuring out who was playing what when.

Which only compounded the general sense of chaos around the gig.

Not surprisingly, our souncheck — linecheck, really (in other words, plug in and go) — was harried, slapdash, and confused. Drummer Ian has a strict no-sharing policy (which, much as I love him, I gotta’ say stuck all of us as kinda’ uncool) that left Ryan incredulous. Worse, his kit took up 2/3 of the stage, leaving Ry Ry little room to set up his cajone. And so, as Chris and Tony got levels, Ry and I smoothed that out.

And then, suddenly, we were on.

From where we stood, the show was something of a train wreck. The sound was beyond muddy. It was just a mess. I could hear my guitar — bright, brittle, aweful — only when I stood immediately in front of the monitor. I couldn’t hear Chris, who couldn’t hear anything. I could hear Ryan, though, who was kicking ass on the cajone, rockin’ out like he had something to prove (like, say, that he don’t need no stinkin’ drum kit). Above all, all we heard was frat boys and sorority girls laughing and yelling over us. And all we saw was people shoveling meat into their mouths.

And the Chris broke a string, and I forgot a chord, and Tony hit a bum note and…

The NadasSo our brief set ebbed and flowed. I smiled when I spotted Rachel taking photos. I smiled when saw Abbi dance and cheer. I smiled when I caught Jon video taping. Then I frowned when songs ended to a smattering of applause. At certain points, though, I relinquished all thoughts except one: “Fuck it.” Which is when I decided to play “Wonderwall.” For ten minutes.

Funny thing happened when we stepped off stage, though. Jimmy Landry — real, live, actual A&R (artist and repertoire) guy for a real, live major record label (Capitol) said, “I don’t know how you do it all, man. That was a great set!” Which prompted the question, ‘What the hell do I know?’

The last thing I remember is walking west on 26th Street with my guitar over my shoulder, my wife on my arm, and my brother and The Nadas loading the bus in my rear view…

* * *

There was a box on the table when I got home from work Friday, a copy of the Warren Zevon biography, “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead,” I’d ordered from Amazon. When the singer/songwriter was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer in August of 2002, he issued a press release, granted some interviews, and began writing one last record, “The Wind.”

I’ve been reading it between bouts of nausea and deep, dreamless naps.

“Warren was keenly aware,” his friend, author Carl Hiaasen writes, “that, in rock and roll, death is often a career boosting event.”

“This could be a real Steve McQueen fuck story,” Zevon told Hiaasen after his diagnosis. “I’ve been writing this part for thirty years, and I guess I need to play it out.”

I’m not dying (though I think about it when I fly). But then, we all are, all the time.

And I don’t know what any of it means, really. I just know it all feels connected, and it all feels like it’s building up to something bigger than me or Abbigail, bigger than Jason or Katia, bigger than Jimmy and Sherri and Christofer and Meg.

I guess we’re all playing it out together.

Hill Country (New York, New York)

April 25th, 2008 - 10:00 pm

Giving Up The Ghost
Harder To Believe
The Last Time
(I Won’t Let You) Get Away From Me
Dear Elizabeth
Boys Of Summer

With The Nadas

Inventing Everything Else

April 25th, 2008

The Band @ Serious Business StudiosNine songs in eight hours. Not bad.

Whether it was nerves, or a lack of sleep (probably both), I was sick to my stomach all day. I dashed out of the office around five o’clock, and hopped the NR.

Stepping out of the subway at Prince & Broadway is a little like stepping into a Middle Eastern bazaar. The streets are narrow, the sidewalks are crowded with tourists and vendors. It’s not a good place to be when you’re in a hurry. I took a deep breath, and endeavored to take my own advise.

Serious Business Studios is on Spring & Lafayette, right across the street from trendy downtown eatery, Balthazar. Soho used to be pretty rock ‘n roll — imagine Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson tripping into a Jean-Michel Basquiat opening in some dingy, brick-walled gallery — but not so much anymore. It’s a mall now: tourists tossing Euros around at boutiques and cafes. Which doesn’t bother me too much; it was never my ‘hood. I’m a Hell’s Kitchen man.

All of which was running through my head as I strode towards the front door of my seventh studio release, “The Invention of Everything Else.” A month ago, it was a loose collection of demos I was circulating amongst my musician friends. Then it was gonna’ be a five-song EP. Then it dawned on me that maybe we could just record Chris, Ryan, Tony and I live, and release it as is…

Or not.

We knew we had a bit of exploring to do. A few of my solo demos hadn’t found their legs as band songs. “Giving Up The Ghost” and “Promise” and even “Breathe In” were in good shape; we’ve performed ’em a few times. So you’d have thought we kick off our recording session with those. Nope. We started with the toughest, least-realized one: “The Last Time.”

I love this song. I can’t believe it came out of me. It reminds me of a Fifties rock song (“I believe I’m going down for the last time”), but it’s somehow current (“Write our names in black and white on the freeway”). The melody’s pretty catchy. But the demo just wasn’t translating. It felt unsettled, like the four of us were engaged in some rhythmic tug of war. So we tossed around ideas — each sensitive to one another’s input, each deferring (lots of “Whatever you think” and “Or something like that”) — and hacked through it over and over and over.

Deference and sensitivities were compounded by our lack of eye contact; Chris and I were in iso-boothes. Still, producer Travis Harrison dutifully rolled tape on each take, cracking us up with creative new ways to inform us that we were rolling (“Star of Academy Award winner, ‘No Country For Old Men,’ Josh Brolin!”). And eventually, the song found itself.

Once we had one keeper, we started tickin’ ’em off the list.

“Giving Up The Ghost” went down on the fourth take. “Promise” on the third. “Trying To Tell You” on the second. “(I Won’t Let You) Get Away From Me” a little less rapidly…

By nine o’clock, we could see the finish line. The Miller High Life’s had taken hold. You Tube videos were making their rounds. And we were spending as much time bantering as we were tracking.

In the end, we got six originals and three covers.

But by the end, it was clear to me that I was going to be spending a lot of time with ProTooling in my closet. I just don’t think I can live with the vocals. They were pretty good, but not forever good. You might not notice, but I would. So…

So midnight passed, Tony, Chris, Ryan, Travis and I drank our beers, and we listened to our record. And then — after full rounds of hip-hop hugs and congratulations — we began disbanding, one by one, into the warm spring night.

In the cab back uptown, Chris said, “We did well. I think you have a lot to work with.”

Walking down 56th Street, I thought about this invention. It’s a different thing than anything I’ve done before. The songs (most of ’em, anyway) are about relationships working, not failing. And the songs are the band’s songs, not just mine. They’re informed by conversation and collaboration. They’re not the result of a singer/songwriter creating in a vacuum. They’re the result of four friends sitting together and working it out.

Heck, maybe I’m learning something here.

Breathe In (Live) – Video

April 24th, 2008

Breathe In (Rehearsal)Like I said to Tony before the everyone showed up for rehearsal, “If you’re gonna’ be ambitious in a big way, you gotta’ be prepared to fail in a big way.”

I’ll be honest. It wasn’t our best rehearsal ever. Which is only slightly alarming given that we’re recording a new album tomorrow.

I don’t relish sneaking out of the office to get to rehearsal any more than I relish lugging my guitar to the office in the first place. But there it is. Or, rather, there I was walking briskly down the shoulder of Seventh Avenue. The other pedestrians around me were scurrying for the 6 p.m. LIRR. I was racing to Ultrasound Studios 30th and Eighth, though, for a quick dose of frenzied, $32/hour rehearsal.

I guess it went well enough. I mean, the deck was stacked. We were getting together early (six o’clock) on account of our collectively ridiculous schedules. And while we’ve performed most of the songs we’re recording (“Giving Up The Ghost,” “Promise,” “Breathe In”), we had some arrangement to do in our brief two-hour window, especially for some of the newer songs, like “(I Won’t Let You) Get Away From Me” and “The Last Time.”

Four guys rallying around the same thing — anything, let alone an esoteric, creative endeavor like music — isn’t an easy thing. It’s tough to say, “Can you play something greener?” or “Try something a little more open.” It’s tough to manage one another’s feelings (what one plays is, after all, a reflection of their capabilities, experience and taste, all rolled into one). And it’s tough to remain patient when you know then next time you’re together is to capture something, um, forever.

But, there we were: Chris, Ryan, Tony and me. We got rolling late; we weren’t all on hand until 6:45. And we never really hit our stride before the dude burst in and said, “Time’s up.” (Though, always the multimedia producer, I did manage to shoot the quick bit of video below).

All said, the stakes aren’t impossibly high. For starters, no one’s clamoring for a new LP. If it’s no good, I’ll scrap it. If it’s an EP, I release an EP. Of course, we’re recording live. But the miracle of studio separation means that, well, everything’s separated. So we can toss out all the guitars. I can re-do vocals.

What we really need to nail is bass and drums. And we have eight hours to do so.

So I just sent a text message.

We’re making a record tomorrow, my seventh studio LP. Please, sleep well. Listen to the songs en route. And when we play, settle into ’em. Enjoy ’em. They aren’t rocket science. No need for overthinking, complex polyrhythms, or reinvention of the wheel. All we need is heart and soul. The rest will follow. :) See you around 5:00. XO

It’ll be fine. These guys are pros. Moreover, they’re my friends. We’ll make good music together. You’ll see, er, or, hear.

All it takes, really, is a coupla’ deep breathes.

Do I sound like I’m talking you into this? Or, do I sound like I’m talking myself into this? Could be. It’s nearly midnight. The guys and I split up after a “One & Done” beer at Twins on Eighth Avenue. Then I raced back uptown through the transients, tourists, and transvestites that gather in and around Port Authority. Now I’m now sitting in an edit suite with Chris working on “Mister Rogers & Me.”

If you’re gonna’ be ambitious…

Though You Failed, At Least You Tried

April 23rd, 2008

Smokey JunglefrogI love this story.

Colossally famous rock star (Tom Petty) reforms his middlingly-successful first band (Mudcrutch), rescuing at least one former band mate from the drudgery of teaching high school.

“I just had this random thought,” Petty said. “‘I really liked that band, I wonder what it would be like to get them together?'”

And so he did.

“I was driving home from getting groceries at Kroger’s, and my cellphone rang,” said [guitarist] Tom Leadon. “He said, ‘Hey, it’s your old pal Tom Petty.'”

A few days of enterprising songwriting and recording later, the band — defunct since 1972, when Petty struck out on his own and began one of rock’s most productive hit making runs — is releasing an album on Reprise Records, and playing a week-long stint and LA’s esteemed Troubadour.

It smacks of some sort of universal fantasy, the dream that, someday, a random call is going to pluck you from obscurity.

Inevitably, the story reminded me of my old Smokey Junglefrog bandmates. Sadly, the likelihood of one plucking me from obscurity is low, though we do speak periodically.

Smokey Junglefrog is, of course, my middlingly-successful college band. The rock ‘n roll fantasy took hold then, really, opening for other, less-middling bands like The Mighty Mighty Bosstones (whose front man is currently music director for The Jimmy Kimmel Show) and The Samples (who are still wearily slogging it out on the road).

We wrote songs by consensus (the last time I’ll ever do that). I was encouraged to “write about nothing.” So we ended up with songs “Friction,” which sounds good but doesn’t say much.

You might know the face she wears
But you won’t find her anywhere
You’ll feel friction, you’ll feel pain
You’ll be bored out of your brain

Still, we released three records of the stuff in just over two years: “Crumble,” “Au Gratin,” and “She’s My Niece.”

We were nominated for the laughably-named SAMMY (Syracuse Area Music Awards) in 1993, attended the ceremony the day before I graduated, and lost.

Bassist Paul Perreault called me out of the blue just a few weeks ago. I called him back to find him pretty much where I’d left him last: tending bar and making music in Flagstaff, Arizona. He sounds just as happy as ever.

Drummer Tod Salmonson and I speak pretty regularly. He attended Abbi and my wedding in October, and jammed with the rest of us into the wee hours of morning. He’s married with two adorable twins, living in Westford, Massachusetts, and working in real estate.

Last I heard, guitarist Jamie Dunphy (who, incidently, married Paul’s cousin, Kara), is playing jazz brunches in/around Nashua, New Hampshire.

And me, well, you know me.

The closest any of us came to making that “I wonder what it would be like” phone call was when when I asked the guys to share a solo date I’d booked at Boston’s Kendall Cafe (don’t look for it; it’s not there) back in 2001. It was the closest we ever came to reuniting, and wasn’t entirely terrible.

In fact, I just woke just moments ago from an odd dream, and everyone was there.

Nada front man Jason Walsmith and I dropped by Paul’s Boston house (though it looked suspiciously like my band’s college haunt, “The Smokehouse”) to clean up before heading to the next town (Cleveland, as it ends up). No one was supposed to be home. When we got there, though, a colleague of mine was out front rummaging through the trash. The front porch (carpeted with fierce-green Astroturf, as I recall) was set like a stage, and littered with the remnants of last night’s party: mic stands, amplifiers, and empty plastic cups. Inside, singer/songwriter John Luddington (who lived with Paul after college) was banging out one of his Mad Lib-style songs at an old typewriter. Paul was prowling the halls, smiling as always. And in the bathroom, in a tub beneath a towel, I woke Jamie and his college girlfriend, Jill, from some sort of hangover remedy. In the dream, I was trying to reckon my work schedule with The Nadas tour schedule. Later, as we sat around the living room trying to synch my schedule to The Nadas, I noticed that Jason had gained an inordinate amount of weight, due, according to a review I was reading in the dream itself, to life on the road and the nature of the band’s midtempo sets.

And then I woke up.

In precisely eleven hours, Chris Abad, Tony Maceli, Ryan Vaughn and I are meeting to rehearse a new set of songs. In thirty-five hours, we begin recording my seventh solo LP. And Friday night, The Nadas roll through town.

Maybe that’s why it’s all jumbled up inside my head. Or maybe it always will be.
Maybe I’ll be waiting for that call until the day I die.

Or maybe, someday, I’ll make that call myself.

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The Prince Of Tides

April 21st, 2008

Pocotaligo River from Bray’s Island, SCIn my experience, most vacations yield a similar dividend.

Whether one steps out of one’s experience for three days or three weeks, time off from one’s daily routine inevitably motivates an assessment of said routine. And rarely does that routine benefit by comparison.

Not surprisingly, then, the first thing I noticed upon landing in Charleston, South Carolina, was the thousand hues of green. The second was the bright blue sky, more than I’d seen in six months.

Shortly thereafter, I commented, “Wow, a there’s a lot of action in middle of the day. Who knew?”

Why would we? Most of us spend the bulk of daylight in a hermetically-sealed, recycled-air fueled cube. Fancy as my office might seem, it is, after all, just a 10×15 rectangle. Sure, the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings are just outside my window, but for 99.9% of my day, I’m staring into a computer screen, not out the window. Most of the time, I don’t know the weather conditions, let alone the temperature.

It took nearly two days to shake the unsettled feeling in the pit of my stomach that something bad was happening back at the office (a paranoia aided by the fact that I carry a small inbox in my left pocket, even where reception is spotty). In fact, it wasn’t until the weekend — when email traffic slows some 95% (not entirely, mind you) anyway — did I begin to relax. Of course, it could have been the influence of the environment.

The Low Country of South Carolina, though the fastest growing region in the South, is a tranquil place. A few miles out of Charleston, the forest grows dense with live oak, Spanish moss, balsam fir, and yellow birch. It’s not difficult to imagine the region as the Yamasee and Cherokee knew it before European conquest. Nor is it difficult to imagine why the Spanish and French found the area so desirable; from white-tailed deer to red fox, turkey vultures and the Carolina wren, it’s teeming with wildlife. Moreover, the seventy-five miles of coastline between Charleston and Savannah, Georgia, is riddled with rivers: the Edisto, Coosawatchee, and Pocataligo.

Which is where the last few days found me.

Abbi’s family just completed construction of a lovely four-bedroom colonial on Brays Island, an modest little island on the Pocotaligo roughly equidistant between Charleston and Savannah. It was a house warming of sorts, complete with Abbi’s folks, sisters (Pembry and Meredith) and significant others (Pedro and Ned).

It was action-packed few days, really: boating, skeet shooting, fishing, running and swimming. And games. The Kellers don’t mess around with their games. Dictionary was innocuous enough. Cranium was fun. Battle of the Sexes grew downright contentious.

But it was the downtime that provided insight, and prompted the questions, “What am I doing killing myself in New York City?”

Why do I spend all day inside when there’s so much sunshine outside? Why do I live in a city choked with pollution when there’s fresh air left to be breathed? Why do I stare at a computer when my eyes can slowly meander the horizon for golden tailed eagles?

Why do we spend our entire lives enduring a hostile, soul-crushing existence in exchange for a few years of quality rest?

Modern life flattens experience. Accelerated culture obscures scenery. Routine creates stasis.

What does it take, then, to break free? To choose an alternative? If life is what happens while we’re making other plans, how do we plan on embracing the ebb and flow, taking in the great vistas, and shattering routine?

Spring was breaking all around us. Fields were brushed blue and red. A cormorant held station over a nearby pond, posing with his wings akimbo to attract a potential mate. A young foal was finding its legs in the pasture by the paddock.

Late one night, when the tide was low, I tip-toed out into the marsh and knelt in the grass. Birds were chirping in the trees. The wind was whistling through the reeds. I could feel my chest rise and fall with each breath. I could hear my heartbeat. And below it all, just barely, I heard a low, nearly inaudible gurgle — like a thousand tiny bubbles bursting.

‘Ah,’ I thought. ‘That’s the sound of a rising tide.’

Bray’s Island, South Carolina (Spring 2008)

April 20th, 2008

Giving Up The Ghost (Live) – Video

April 15th, 2008

Chris Abad, Ryan Vaughn & Benjamin WagnerThere’s a lot of hope in the Music Building.

The place is semi-legendary, at least to those of us who grew up watching Behind The Music.

The 42,000-square-foot building located on Eighth Avenue between 38th and 39th — catty-corner from The Port Authority Bus Terminal — is eleven stories of rehearsal space: 70, 350 square foot studios in all.

Imagine, then, just how many bands have trolled the graffiti-strewn halls since its inception in 1979. Like Madonna Louisa Ciccone, for one. And Chris Abad, for another. Chris rents a room there for ten hours a week and, twice now, has availed it to me for rehearsal.

The neighborhood is sketchy. Very rock ‘n roll. On Saturday, I told Chris, “This might be one of the last neighborhoods in Manhattan that still feels a little off, a little dangerous — like anything could happen at any moment.”

As if on cue, an overweight, squinty-eyed man stumbled by with a brown bag in one hand, an unlit cigarette butt in the other, and vomit all over his chest stumbled by with an insane smile on his face.

“Like so,” I said.

It’s a shabby, durable squat, though. The elevators don’t work. Doors don’t lock. Light fixtures dangle and hiss. But it’s a New York institution, invested with nearly thirty years of aspiration, inspiration, and perspiration.

Where better, then, to pull together our new record. It’s a reckoning of all those forces. It’s a Behind The Music sans the gold records, hookers, or blow. It’s a record about what happens when real life ends up different than you imagined, but better.

“The Invention of Everything Else” isn’t just about ghosts, though. It’s about the morningafter Halloween, when the sun comes up, and all of the saints are celebrated.

Or not. Who knows. It’s not even recorded yet. I could lose my voice and blow the whole thing.

Anyway, here’s Chris, Ryan and I rehearsing what’s likely to be the lead track on the LP, “Giving Up The Ghost.” I’ve written about
the state of mind, if not the song itself. Heck, one could argue it’s the central narrative arc to the last seven years of this blog.

So, do check it out.