Here We Go Again

Nine years ago, I walked out of Kaleidoscope Sound in Union City, NJ, where my bandmates and I had just finished recording the fifth Late Model Humans album, Ain’t No Good. I didn’t know at the time how long it would be before I walked into a recording studio again.

Late Model Humans at Kaleidoscope Sound

Yesterday, I walked into Vinegar Hill Sound in Brooklyn to start recording my new album with the working title Compulsions. I have a feeling it is going to be a really good piece of work, and there are at least four reasons why:

The first one is named Reed Black. Reed is the owner of the studio and he is producing this work. I have worked with a lot of producers over the years (including myself) but have rarely come across someone who combines intense focus with a laid-back manner that inspires the best performance out of the musicians he tracks.

Reed twiddling the knobs

The second is named Chris DeRosa. Chris is the drummer, and his enthusiasm and professionalism made it easier and more enjoyable to lay down the skeleton of this project. We will be adding flesh to those bones over the rest of this process but if the foundation is not solid everything else will crumble. These songs will not crumble.

Chris fending off a vampire

The third is named Julie Rozansky. Julie has the rare ability to combine the structure of practice with the spontaneity of inspiration. In addition to bass lines that support and drive the material, she added vocals to two songs that I think will make them the best two songs on the album. One of them, we had not even rehearsed and she came up with harmonies on the spot that elevated the material.

Julie making it look easy

The fourth is me. I prefer humility to pride but I am really happy with this batch of songs. They are different from the songs I have written in the past. These last two years have challenged all of us in ways that we have yet to process and I know I am not the only songwriter who feels compelled to attempt the inevitable alchemy of turning the insanity of this world into something beautiful in the ears of the beholder.

The view from inside the control room

Now that the ball has started rolling it will be fun to see where the bounces take us.

I went out for a walk

I went out for a walk and thought
about a lot of
things including you
and how my crooked 
steps criss-crossed with yours

I also thought about the cruel
tricks that time can play
and how our expectations can get
drowned in monotony

I thought about the way that death
outsmarts medicine
and the way that love
in kind
outsmarts even death

I walked across a field where I
used to throw a ball and felt
underneath my feet
a larger ball that circled around
one larger still

I walked past a library where
I once found a book that had
a map that showed the path between
childhood and old age

I walked across a bridge and saw
the cars pass underneath
and inside each one
one heart at least

I listened to the birds until
I almost understood
what they were trying to tell me about
you, and death, and love

Klara and the Sun

Motherfucker made me cry on a train. That’s not a nice thing to do but I don’t let stuff like that get to me anymore. Boys can cry, too. Don’t let the gender Nazis tell you different. Besides, Kazuo Ishiguro can’t hide his tear-jerking beauty any better than the rest of us can.

I don’t like to give away any part of the plot when I write about a book because I think each story should be approached with an unsuspecting mind. I feel that even stronger for this story. So, I will include one passage that has nothing to do with the plot, to give a taste of the book’s style and feel and heart:

…it was in the rush that followed that I spotted the small man in the raincoat. He was on the RPO Building side, and I estimated seventy-one years old. He was waving and calling, coming so near the edge of the sidewalk I was worried he’d step out in front of the moving taxis. He had on a brown raincoat and its belt was dangling down one side, almost touching his ankle, but he didn’t seem to notice, and kept waving and calling over to our side. A crowd of passers-by had formed right outside our store, not to look at us, but because, for a moment, the sidewalk had become so busy no one had been able to move. Then something changed, the crowd grew thinner, and I saw standing before us a small woman, her back to us, looking across the four lanes of moving taxis to the waving man. I couldn’t see her face, but I estimated sixty-seven years from her shape and posture. I named her in my mind the Coffee Cup Lady because from the back, and in her thick wool coat, she seemed small and wide and round-shouldered like the ceramic coffee cups resting upside down on the Red Shelves. Although the man kept waving and calling, and she’d clearly seen him, she didn’t wave or call back. She kept completely still, even when a pair of runners came towards her, parted on either side, then joined up again, their sports shoes making small splashes down the sidewalk.

Then at last she moved. She went towards the crossing – as the man had been signaling for her to do – taking slow steps at first, then hurrying. She had to stop again, to wait like everyone else at the lights, and the man stopped waving, but he was watching her so anxiously, I again thought he might step out in front of the taxis. But he calmed himself and walked towards his end of the crossing to wait for her. And as the taxis stopped, and the Coffee Cup Lady began to cross with the rest, I saw the man raise a fist to one of his eyes, in the way I’d seen some children do in the store when they got upset. Then the Coffee Cup Lady reached the RPO Building side, and she and the man were holding each other so tightly they were like one large person, and the Sun, noticing, was pouring his nourishment on them.

Kazuo Ishiguro, Klara and the Sun

My copy of Klara and The Sun had a defect. Pages 233 through 240 were bound together like conjoined twins. I cut them apart, carefully but not cleanly, with my pocket knife. It took just enough time to slice the pages free from each other for me to consider the possibility that this was part of the story. Maybe every copy of this book requires a little bit of extra work on the part of the reader to get inside the story, as all great stories do.

E Pluribus Unum

Someone, or some force, is doing a very good job of making us not like each other very much these days. We are divided by gender, age, culture, nationality, religion, sexuality, color, and by our economic and geographical place in this world.

Think of the members of entire professions that we are asked, by someone or other, to distrust: Teachers, Cops, Doctors, Scientists, Clergy, Lawyers, and, of course, Politicians.

People go into these fields out of a desire to make the world a better place. Some of them fail – spectacularly – and because of their positions of authority they can cause tremendous damage and even ruin other people’s lives. But most of them don’t. Most of them succeed in helping, and even saving, other people’s lives. I can easily think of at least one person in each of those jobs who has made my life better.

E Pluribus Unum is on of my country’s mottos. It comes from the Latin, meaning “out of many, one.” I would roughly translate it as “we are all in this together” but there are some people don’t like to think of themselves as part of a communal or global effort. They prefer to think of each of us as individuals, with our own choices and responsibilities. That is a very Western philosophy. Maybe it’s just that I’m a Westerner, but I think it’s a great philosophy, and one that has borne tremendous fruit, in fields as varied as art and politics. Eastern philosophy often emphasizes the needs of the society over the individual, which is also a great philosophy, no better or worse than its Western counterpart. What I have learned from Eastern philosophy has also made my life better.

Today, a totalitarian regime in Europe invaded a sovereign democratic nation for the first time since World War II. Let this invasion of Ukraine be the last gasp of the era of the strongman. Let Putin fall at the hands of the Russian people, and take with him Bolsonaro, Orbán, Xi, Duterte, Erdoğan, Kim, and all autocrats and kleptocrats. Let us use this opportunity to stand up for freedom and democracy against actual tyrants, not just politicians with whom we disagree. Let today be the day we tell our brothers and sisters in Ukraine, and Russia, and all over the world, that we recognize our common cause against any who would divide us or subjugate us, and make, out of our many, one.  

To The Lighthouse

“Here sitting on the world, she thought, for she could not shake herself from the sense that everything this morning was happening for the first time, perhaps for the last time, as a traveller, even though he is half asleep, knows, looking out the train window, that he must look now, for he will never see that town, or that mule-cart, or that woman at work in the fields, again.”

Virgina Woolf, To The Lightouse

One hundred years ago this week James Joyce unleashed his Ulysses on an unsuspecting world. Five years later, Virginia Woolf said “hold my cocktail” and dropped her masterpiece To The Lighthouse.

To The Lighthouse is not a story. It is two stories stitched together with a half-a-story between them that serves as a temporal bridge. Each part could stand alone but the thin strand that holds them together gives them a power they do not have without the other.

Picasso and Hopper and Kahlo and Munch and Dali were taking penknives and chainsaws to the representational art that had defined their artform for centuries. The world of words was going through a similar breakdown. Heroes and villains that had carried the narrative thread since the days of mythology were evaporating with the gods and demons that had inspired them.

Virginia Woolf by George Charles Beresford

The first lesson of great art is timelessness. Like beauty, and love, it does not get old. But every work of art, like every moment of beauty and love, is confined by mortality. It is a paradox that finds expression in this passage:

“The urgency of the moment always missed its mark. Words fluttered sideways and struck the object inches too low. Then one gave it up; then the idea sunk back again; then one became like most middle-aged people, cautious, furtive, with wrinkles between the eyes and a look of perpetual apprehension.”

Unlike most artists, Love is not a subject of wallowing for Virginia Woolf. She is more likely to get into the practical aspects of partnership but understands the more ethereal aspects and shares those insights in these two passages:

“For what could be more serious than the love of man for woman, what more commanding, more impressive, bearing in its bosom the seeds of death; at the same time these lovers, these people entering into illusion glittering eyed, must be danced round with mockery, decorated with garlands.”

“Love had a thousand shapes. There might be lovers whose gift it was to choose out the elements of things and place them together and so, giving them a wholeness not theirs in life, make of some scene, or meeting of people (all now gone and separate), one of those globed complicated things over which thought lingers, and love plays.”

One of the interesting currents that runs through To The Lighthouse is the determination of the character Lily Briscoe to paint the scene where the book’s events take place. Woolf’s sister Vanessa was a painter and most likely an inspiration for Lily. The blank canvas to a painter, like the blank page to a writer, can be intimidating or inspiring, and in this passage Woolf beautifully captures the moment it turns from the former to the latter:

“Her mood was coming back to her. One must keep on looking without for a second relaxing the intensity of emotion, the determination not to be put off, not to be bamboozled. One most hold the scene – so – in a vice and let nothing come and spoil it. One wanted, she thought, dipping her brush deliberately, to be on a level with ordinary experience, to feel simply that’s a chair, that’s a table, and yet at the same time, It’s a miracle, it’s an ecstasy.”

The miraculous ecstasy of a chair and a table through the eyes and brush of Vincent Van Gogh