One Indian summer afternoon a few weeks ago, singer/songwriters Casey Shea, Paula Valstein, Emily Easterly, Andy Mac, Martin Rivas, Ruby Rivers, Amber Rubarth, Chris Abad, plus bassist Tony Maceli, drummer Jamie Alegre and I converged on Chris Cubeta’s Galuminum Foil Studios in Brooklyn to conjure up a little bit of Christmas in October.
Our cover of Billy Squier’s classic “Christmas Is The Time To Say I Love You” kicks off the annual “A Holiday Benefit” with equal parts harmony and hilarity; you can practically hear us smiling our way through the recording. Press play to listen or download below to hear for yourself.
“A Holiday Benefit, Vol. 3” is the third-annual compilation of New York City singer/songwriters benefiting 826NYC, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting students ages 6-18 with their creative and expository writing skills.
Two weeks ago, Brooklyn artist Emily Rawlings delivered an inspired illustration that serves as the visual anchor for the album. Last week, all twelve artists delivered their contributions to the release, including three originals, and covers of Christmas classics from artists as diverse as The Beach Boys (Bess Rogers’ “Little Saint Nick”) and The Sonics (Bryann Dunn’s “Don’t Believe IN Christmas”). This week, Oasis Disc Manufacturing will begin pressing the limited-edition run of the twelve-track CD. Here is the complete “A Holiday Benefit, Vol. 3” track list:
1. Holiday Benefit Singers – Christmas Is The To Say I Love You
2. Emily Easterly & Chris Cubeta – Wonderful Christmas Time
3. Martin Rivas – Christmas Already?
4. Chris Abad – Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want To Fight)
5. Bess Rogers – Little Saint Nick
6. Amber Rubarth – Christmas Carol
7. Paula Valstein & Casey Shea – Fairytale Of New York
8. Bryan Dunn – Don’t Believe In Christmas
9. Benjamin Wagner & Emily Zuzik – Merry Christmas, Baby
10. Casey Shea – The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late)
11. Ruby Rivers – Little Elf
12. Andy Mac – Merry Christmas Darling
Next week, we’ll premiere Director/Editor Daniela Capistrano’s music video. “A Holiday Benefit, Vol. 3” will be released on Wednesday, December 16th at Pianos (158 Ludlow Street). The charity concert will feature performances from Bess Rogers, Casey Shea, Paula Valstein, Chris Cubeta, Emily Easterly, Martin Rivas, Ruby Rivers, Chris Abad, Bryan Dunn, Misty Boyce, Emily Zuzik and myself, plus a silent auction. All proceeds will benefit 826NYC.
Visit www.aholidaybenefit.org to pre-order you copy today!
For months now, Abbi’s been asking me to join her Saturday morning yoga practice. And for months, I’d put it off… until yesterday.
It only stands to reason that stretching, strengthening and meditating will go a long way to remedy a frenetic life punctuated by frequent, joint-pounding runs. As my marathon finishes have increased (eleven and counting), my back, hips and knees have grown more fragile. Sitting is often difficult on account of my piriformis syndrome. My doctor prescribed physical therapy and the gym. My physical therapist was surprised at how inflexible I’d become. “You’ve been moving forward for years,” she said. “You need to turn and look around.” (I’m sure there’s a metaphor in there somewhere.)
Still, I made excuses. “I have a long run today,” I’d tell Abbi. “After the marathon.”
Three weeks after, then, I’d run out of excuses. “C’mon,” she said. “It’ll be good for you. You’ll love it. You can do your long run tomorrow… And it would make me so happy.”
Truth is, my reticence had nothing to do with laziness, or stubbornness, or a better expenditure of my time. I was scared.
Ever since tackling Telluride’s Mount Ajax one summer after two semesters of staring at its photograph in a magazine, I’ve endeavored to set difficult goals: self-financed documentaries, sub-four marathons, rock shows and triathlons on the same day. I’ve tried to walk headlong into my fears (jumping out of a plane, for example), speak truth to power, and bite off more than I can chew (see also: my day job). It tends to work out. I tend to learn something. And I usually even have a good time.
Nothing makes me more anxious, though, than playing the fool amidst a room of experts. Nothing stokes the coals of my insecurity like strangers rendering judgment. Put me on stage, and I’m fine. Put me in the audience, though, and I’m speechless.
And so I sat struggling on the couch as Abbi prepared to leave. Finally, I stood up and asked, “So what do I need to wear?” I prattled on nervously the entire walk over, finally explaining to her the source of my anxiety, and the reason I’d chosen to push through it. “I don’t want to be that husband and father who doesn’t do things, doesn’t try things, doesn’t go places. I don’t want to be equal parts Steve Martin and Rock Moranis in ‘Parenthood,’ Type A and Type B, thoughtful but headstrong, sensitive but assertive, patient but…”
The session had already begun as Abbi and I tiptoed into the great, dimly-lit room. Abbi introduced me to her yogi, Kirtan, who immediately put me at ease. We found a spot on the floor near the front, then settled in. Words like “bhujangasana and “matsyendrasana” notwithstanding, I think I followed pretty well. I snuck glances at Abbi for guidance, and periodically, Kirtan would come make a microadjustment of my arms or hips. Like message, the practice had a rhythm and balance so that, soon enough, I could anticipate the next move.
“Did Abbi warn you what you were getting yourself this morning?” Kirtan whispered.
And just as I’d broke a sweat and grew distracted, the lights dimmed further still until I felt almost as if I were invisible. We reflected a while at the end, a block under my often-sore L4. When Kirtan called for three “ohms,” I was surprised to feels tears gather in my throat.
Outside, the sky looked brighter, the city crisper, the leaves more colorful — like the first time I emerged from that sweat lodge back in college and the sky was littered with twinkling stars. I felt more alive than just a few hours before.
“Can we go next Saturday?” I asked Abbi.
There’s a chance I may be getting overly confident in our collective abilities, but we always seem to pull it off.
I’ve only been in the studio twice this year, in both cases recording cover songs for compilations albums. In May, the guys and I covered The Nadas’ “Feel Like Home” for the band’s fifteenth anniversary “Crystalline” album.
Yesterday, Chris, Tony, Ryan and I repaired to Serious Business Studios once again, this time to track our “A Holiday Benefit, Vol. 3” contributions: Chris was tracking The Ramones’ “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want To Fight Tonight),” and I was tackling Charles Brown’s (by way of Bruce Sprinsteen) “Merry Christmas, Baby” with an assist from singer/songwriter Emily Zuzik.
Now, I’ve performed “Merry Christmas, Baby” at our annual “A Holiday Benefit” release party for two years running. Still — like last time — I walked into Travis Harrison’s Spring Street studio with nary an inkling of how the tune would work out differently from the original, only a bold confidence in our collective ability to find a new way through it. I had two guiding principles: 1) Drop the frilly Springsteen intro and 2) Don’t sound like a bad John Mayer/Bonnie Raitt duet.
See, the blues has never been my thing. Not that I don’t get them from time to time (in fact, this whole operation was launched in an effort to counter my annual bout with shorter, darker, busier days), but — as a form — it’s never done much for me. I mean, I appreciate its role in the birth of rock ‘n roll, and I’m all for simplicity (see also: my entire iTunes catalogue) the apparent simplicity of the form anchoring a wide swath of innovation and emotion, but, well, save for “I Just Wanna Make Love To You,” the blues as a genre doesn’t make much time on my playlists.
My love for the “A Very Special Christmas” albums and my brother and my egg nog and pot-fueled slow rides through luminaria-stewn neighborhoods of my youth, though, play heavily in my inspiration for “A Holiday Benefit.” I launched the series with U2’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” so it seemed only fitting to take a stab at “Merry Christmas, Baby.” They’re the twin pillars of my rock n’ roll Christmas past, present and future. Still, I didn’t want another pedestrian ride down a familiar, FM-friendly suburban street.
Cue The Big Muff. Some two hours of level testing and sound checking our a rather vanilla version, Tony ran his bass through this classic pedal, “the distortion that Hendrix and Santana, up to the top contemporary guitarists and rock legends, rely on for its rich, creamy, violin-like sustain.” The affect was transformative, like a shot of much-needed adrenaline.
“I like it,” Travis said. “It’s like Wire or The White Stripes.”
Tony dug into his part, inspiring Ryan to hit harder, while Chris went further afield explored his electric guitar sounds. We ran the song over and over, each time getting further and further away from anything bluesy, or Christmasy. Chris, drowned out by the fuzz of Tony’s bass, had taken to the piano, then removed himself from the big room altogether to strum and acoustic. Suddenly — maddened, perhaps by three hours of the same three chords — Ryan warned, “Let’s not try and make it something it isn’t.”
The clock was ticking. Afternoon was calling, Emily was due to pitch in vocals, and we were hungry. We’d explored a full range of ideas, and with all of them spread out before us like so many Choose Your Own Adventure options, were at an impasse.
I stood there in the door frame of the iso booth looking out at the guys. Much as I count on the guys’ collective expertise, no one was going to make the call; it was my song. So I called a compromise: Full-Muff in the intro and bridge framing more-traditional, angular verses. We kept the second take.
The heavy lifting was over. Chris tracked a two-finger piano part and Ryan laid down sleigh bells while I ran out for Lombardi’s Pizza and beer. We kicked back to talk rock, trash, and Twilight (Travis just played two dates on the film’s much-hyped mall tour. I banged out my vocal (my best James Brown, really) in one pass. Zuzik showed up and nailed hers in three (remarkable given how far I’d pushed the song’s lyrics and phrasing).
It’s tough to top The Big Muff. It sounds like a dozen, melodic jet engines. Still, there was a solo to be had. “Plug that shit in,” Travis instructed Chris of his Stratocaster. “Let’s make some ‘Revolution’ sounds.” What emerged from the monitors was a glorious, gut-busting, guttural buzz. We were roaring with excitement. Chris bagged his ragged, solo so authoritatively that we slapped him on the intro as well.
A light drizzle fell on Soho as our raucous, rock ‘n roll Christmas train steamed on into the night, and Chris and the guys tackled their luminous, shimmering version “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want To Fight Tonight).” For all the cheer and spirit, though, we might as well have been packed into that old wood-paneled Cutlass Cruiser driving through Devon, Pennsylvania, and singing at the top of our lungs.
“A Holiday Benefit, Vol. 3” is the third-annual compilation of New York City singer/songwriters benefiting 826NYC, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting students ages 6-18 with their creative and expository writing skills. This year release features Bess Rogers, Casey Shea, Paula Valstein, Chris Cubeta, Emily Easterly, Andy Mac, Martin Rivas, Ruby Rivers, Amber Rubarth, Chris Abad, Bryan Dunn and Benjamin Wagner. The album will be officially released on Wednesday, December 16th at Pianos (158 Ludlow Street). Visit www.aholidaybenefit.org for more information.
Last Monday afternoon, some 24 hours after my record-setting (well, my record, anyway) New York City Marathon finish, I settled into the massage table for my annual deep-tissue rub down.
My masseuse, Elana, was strong, driving her elbows deep into my hamstrings and calves. Somewhere between my shoulder blades, just before gingerly flipping me over, she hit a soft spot that set my nose running like a faucet. By Tuesday morning, my throat was sore. By Wednesday morning, I had a full-on head cold.
I slid sluggishly into the weekend (despite Chris Brown’s best efforts), then spent the whole thing on the couch watching TV (“Mad Men”) and movies (“Rushmore”), reading Chuck Klosterman’s “Eating The Dinosaur,” and mainlining vitamin c and Good Sense Daytime Non-Drowsy MultiSymptom Cold & Fly Syrup.
Adding insult to injury, my annual bout of post-marathon blues has been a potent one. I’d been training for this year’s run — my eleventh in ten years — for months, banking on the sub-four, then a break to recover and build new muscle. I exceeded even my most ambitious goals (well, they were ambitious until a few hours after the finish line when I started talking about new goals), and had a blast doing it. More important that the finish (or the outcome), though, was all those long runs in between. The process.
Despite the remnants of that stubborn head cold, I went for my first run since The Marathon this morning. For the fist few blocks, my legs felt like brittle twigs. After a few minutes, though (somewhere around Bethesda Fountain, I think), I moved through the pain in my right knee (that darned Ethan-inspired slide injury!), settled into my cadence, and thought (again), ‘I wish I could just keep running.’
When I got home, my Blackberry’s red light was flashing. It was an email from my Dad.
“You ok?,” he asked. “Was wondering about you! Hadn’t heard from you and noted that the blog was not updated.”
So, thanks Dad.
And I’m thinking about Miami…
A friend of mine emailed me a page from The New Yorker yesterday. The black-and-white cartoon showed two PacMan-like faces staring at one another. The face on the left’s speech bubble said “Marathon, Marathon, Marathon, Marathon, Marathon.” On the right, it simply said, “Zzzzzzz.”
That pretty much sums up the days following any marathon, let alone a PR. It was my best marathon ever. I ran the first 13.1 miles in 1:57:02, the second in 1:54:04 to finish in 3:51:05 (an average speed of 8:50 per mile). I was the 9239th male finisher, and 11,285th of 43,475 overall finishers (or, roughly, the top 26%).
It’s such an epic undertaking that it’s tough to talk about anything else. So I appreciate when people ask me questions about it (“Are you sore? What is the hardest part? Are you going to do another one?”), and tend to go on longer than they might prefer. It’s difficult to resist.
Before I fully return to our regularly-scheduled programming, then, I thought I’d share the actual playlist I assembled for the tune. In the event you’re running a sub-four marathon in the near future, here are 56 songs that might come in handy helping you across the finish.
“Life In Technicolor” Coldplay
“Mike Mills” Air
“Wyoming Sky” Raining Jane
“Love Is Here To Stay” Casey Shea
“I Can See Clearly Now” Hothouse Flowers
“I Don’t Know What It Is” Rufus Wainwright
“Angels In The Atmosphere” Benjamin Wagner
“Live In A Dream” Andy Wagner
“Music Is My Boyfriend” The Hidden Cameras
“Sunday Shining” Finley Quaye
“Meet Me On the Equinox” Death Cab for Cutie
“Begin the Begin” R.E.M.
“Get On Your Boots” U2
“Portions for Foxes” Rilo Kiley
“With or Without You” U2
“Hiding Out Pete” Townshend
“Chocolate Snow” Patrol Final
“Have You Seen Me Lately?” Counting Crows
“Pretty Good Shape (For The Shape I’m In)” Casey Shea
“Dodged a Bullet” The Nadas
“I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight” U2
“Livin’ In the Future” Bruce Springsteen
“Feel Like Home” Benjamin Wagner
“Speed of Sound” Coldplay
“Hangin’ Around” Counting Crows
“55 Pictures” The Damnwells
“Move Along” The All-American Rejects
“Best Of You” Foo Fighters
“Stuck Between Stations” The Hold Steady
“I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” U2
“Over My Head (Cable Car)” The Fray
“If Today Was Your Last Day” Nickelback
“Give Blood Pete” Townshend
“Come Back Home” Pete Yorn
“Fugitive” David Gray
“Chasing Cars” Snow Patrol
“I Am a Leaver” The Damnwells
“The Fixer” Pearl Jam
“Walk On” U2
“Rhinemaidens” The Envy Corps
“This’ll Be My Year” Semisonic
“World to Me” David Gray
“New York” Ryan Adams
“New York” U2
“Beautiful Day” U2
“Empire State of Mind” Jay-Z
“Boulevard of Broken Dreams” Green Day
“Sometime Around Midnight” The Airborne Toxic Event
“Know Your Enemy” Green Day
“Man-Sized Wreath” R.E.M.
“Where the Streets Have No Name” U2
“Magnificent (Redanka’s 360 Version)” U2
This year marked my tenth New York City Marathon in as many years. I’m not likely to return to that Staten Island start next November. But I will be back. Oh yes, I will be back.
* Official New York City Marathon finish times are pending until November 16th. I have seen numerous different readings on mine: 3:51:08 on my watch (due to the few seconds it took to press stop after finishing), 3:51:06 on the New York Road Runners website, and 3:51:05 on my unofficial New York Road Runners finishers email. Not surprisingly, I’m going with the latter.
With over 40,000 runners making individual Odysseys across 26.1 rust and wind-swept miles, the New York City Marathon is nothing if not cinematic. Add some stakes (like shattering an eight-year-old personal best) and a throbbing soundtrack, and the race is truly epic.
I’ve run to the music of this city for years. The rush of West Side traffic, lapping of Hudson and waves and rustle of Central Park trees was welcome refuge from headphones and headaches alike, a place where my thoughts could stretch out and get lost. This year, though, as I began training alone for the first time since Abbi and I met, I started making playlists.
I spent the weekend preparing a new one: fueled with the appropriate emotional tenor, geo targeted with musical cues, designed to help me maintain and increase — but not blow — my pace. Crossing the start of the my tenth New York City Marathon Sunday morning, I started my Garmin GPS watch, pressed play on my iPod, and set off to shatter my 2001 3:56:24 PR.
As a result, my memory of this year’s marathon is an epic, cinematic montage; all massive, broad-stroke imagery set to sweeping, inspirational music. The crowd was dense and rabid and loud as always, but — even when their shouts of “Go Benjamin!” broke through my wall of sound — it was about me, myself and the music. Make no mistake from the notes that follow: this year’s run was my most ambitious, aggressive, and painful ever. What follows, then, are highlights from those 105mm CinemaScope reels:
In the first mile of the race, high atop the Verrazano Bridge, Coldplay’s “Life In Technicolor” and I hit full stride together. The wind was biting cold, and the sky was streaked with gray. Still, I looked out over Brooklyn from Coney Island to Williamsburg, Queens from Long Island City to Rockaway Beach, and all of Manhattan, and — for the first the first time in ten years — was able to track the dozens of runs that led to that moment. All of which began with “Life In Technicolor.” I felt the pressure of the undertaking rise up in my throat, crested the span, then settled into the descent towards Brooklyn.
I ran steadily all along Fourth Avenue, trending just a few seconds on either side of nine-minute-miles. In every previous marathon I’ve run, I played the first half conservatively. Not so this time. I worried about pace all the way to my first major goal, the Williamsburg Savings Bank Tower. Just past mile eight, as the route narrowed through Clinton Hill, I shed my windbreaker, and checked the mileage chart scribbled on my forearm in Sharpy. Spot on. “Fuck it,” I thought. “I’ll push the whole way.” Just then, Snow Patrol’s “Chocolate” hit my headphones (“This could be the very minute / I’m aware I’m alive / All these places feel like home”), and moved me clear through Queens.
The 59th Street Bridge is a killer. It’s dark, cold, and demoralizingly steep. Worse, with such a crowded field, it was packed to the edges with exhausted runners. I struggled to cautiously pass slower runners even as I watched my pace slip into the ten-minute-mile zone. “You’ve got this bridge,” I thought, remembering all the times I’d crossed it while training. Still, its rusted, sloped hulk sucked energy through my feet as I plodded forward. And then a familiar sound: a heartbeat, ripples of distorted thunder, then the distinct crescendo of Pete Townsend “Give Blood.” I laughed at the song’s timing, and dug deeper. “It’s all building up to something,” a distant voice opined through the middle eight. “Something that can only be beginning with fire!”
“Come back home for another year, and find yourself in the thick of it,” Pete Yorn sang as I soared off the bridge into Manhattan. First Avenue was an undulating ribbon of runners bracketed by screaming twentysomethings clear to Willis Avenue. Many were fading around me, but I was gaining strength. “You know you’re hard enough,” Yorn sang over the roar of the crowds. “And you find you’re strong enough.” I pushed onward towards Mile 18 running a few minutes under my projection, confident that — after a quick crossing into The Bronx — I would be in the homestretch towards Central Park.
I couldn’t have timed it better myself (because, well, I did time it myself). Harlem is dotted with big-box, odd-lot stores and urban housing alike. It’s a bleak, cemented landscape. Still, the neighborhood comes out in no less force than Park Slope or Central Park East. As I turned into the autumn half-light of Marcus Garvey Park, Jay-Z’s “Empire State Of Mind” hit my headphones like a ton of Manhattan concrete. “Let’s here it for New York, New York, New York!”
I counted the blocks to my pre-appointed meeting point with Abbi, who I spotted at 115th and Fifth long before saw me. I nearly collapsed into her arms, speechless save for the only phrase I could find in my exhaustion “I love you so much.” After a brief exchange (more kisses, a photo, some gummy bears and water) I managed a few more words(“I’m going to crush this one”), then tucked my earphones back in place. As I sped off, Billy Joe struck the shuddering, tremolo-choked opening note of “Boulevard Of Broken Dreams.” I rode the dirge — bobbing and weaving through suffering runners — all the way up a crowded, shady Fifth Avenue and into a golden orange Central Park.
On the Marathon Shuttle Bus from the New York Public Library to Fort Wadsworth on Staten Island, I listened to a “Speaking Of Faith” podcast featuring author Eckhart Tolle. Tolle’s philosophical writings echo the Buddhist analysis of the mind as a primary source of human suffering, suggesting that we confuse reality with the racing thoughts in our heads. Between the ambitious task at hand (shaving over twenty minutes from my average marathon time), my breakneck, single-minded pace, and the soundtrack in my head, the race had flown painfully by.
As I closed in on the final two miles, there in a park I’d run thousands of times before that had suddenly turned almost completely foreign in my exhaustion, the plaintive, church organ opening strains of U2’s “Where The Streets Have No Name” built in my ears. I knew my playlist. I knew this was it: the final push, the last chance to dig deeper still, to transcend every impulse to quit and push harder instead. “I want to tear down the walls that hold me inside,” Bono sang as I raced towards Central Park West.
And I did. I crossed the finish at 3:51:06, stabbing the sky victoriously as Bono’s “Magnificent” refrain faded into Redanka’s massive, metronome beats. Which is a good thing; there wasn’t another song on the playlist. And anyway, it was exactly where the credits were supposed to roll.