Hot August Night

For a second, I can imagine I¹m sitting next to Carole King, John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Which I guess makes me the dude from Herman’s Hermits. Or maybe Neil Diamond.

The best part about seeing the Pixies (and later Wilco) perform at Hollywood’s famed Greek Theater was finally having visuals to accompany the audio of Neil Diamond’s stellar live CD, “Hot August Night.” The Greek is a beautiful amphitheater nestled into a wooded hillside above Los Angeles, just below Griffith Observatory (where James Dean fought for Natalie Wood in the 1955 classic, “Rebel Without a Cause”) and the Hollywood sign (where, my colleague Angela argues, The Terrorists will strike next). On the recording he says, “This one’s for the tree people.” Neil was looking out for the freeloaders too.

Neil started his career in the ’60s as a $50/week staff songwriter for Sunbeam Music. He worked in the Brill Building, just a few blocks north of my office at The MTV, alongside songwriters Neil Sedaka, Leiber and Stoller, and Carole King.

There was a workhorse aesthetic to songwriting back then. It was a day job. Songwriter Barry Mann described the place thusly:

Cynthia and I worked in a tiny cubicle, with just a piano and a chair, no window. We’d go in every morning and write songs all day. In the next room Carole and Gerry were doing the same thing, with Neil in the room after that. Sometimes when we all get to banging pianos, you couldn’t tell who was playing what.

And it worked. The songwriter teams cranked out dozens of great songs, including “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do,” “I’m A Believer,” “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” “Take Good Care Of My Baby,” and “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin,'” among many other.

Which brings us back onstage at The Bitter End.

New York City can be a tough town in which to find your place. I always say that it’s that much more difficult to be the best, say, novelist in New York, when Tom Wolfe and Toni Morrison are reading at Shakespeare & Co. just down the street. Similarly, it’s tough to find a scene. I’m not talking disco balls and guys in makeup. I’m talking about comradery. I’m talking about support. I’ve performed in New York City for nearly ten years, and missed most scenes twice. I was a heartbeat away from The Strokes making the world safe for Interpol. And I was just around the corner from the singer/songwriter wave of the early 00’s (Norah Jones, Jesse Harris, Jesse Malin). On any given night, Ryan Adams might be playing an acoustic set down the street at Lakeside Lounge, and Michael Stipe might be dropping in on Dashboard Confessional at Arlene Grocery.

Which brings us back onstage at The Bitter End. Almost.

I’ve gone it alone for over ten years. I’ve built and re-built bands, dragged amplifiers up and down subway stairwells, and logged thousands of miles alone from Chicago to Chapel Hill to Rochester, in a rental car. I won’t mice words: it’s lonesome. You need teammates.

Now, I’m not taking credit for anything, ‘cuz Amy’s been building community for years, and Casey and Jeff found each other, and found Amy’s vast sphere of influence. I just glommed on. But I’ve done everything I can to contribute to this circle of friends, from hosting a monthly Sunday Songwriters Gathering (beer and guacamole on my roof), to nominating them for every open slot a booking agent offers me.

And so, there we were, sitting onstage in the musical neighborhood Bob Dylan built. And I’m nervous, so I’m chatty. And I’m a little bit silly. But then Amy asks me to sing with her and I’m reverential, ‘cuz I love the song, and I believe in her. We’re a songwriting team. The bunch of us are a scene. We are comrades.

There in the spotlight, Michelle has soul, and Amy has heart, and Casey has brains, and me? Well, I guess that makes me the Cowardly Lion. The good news is that sittin’ next to this crew, it was pretty easy to find a little extra courage.

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