Here is yet another album - originally recorded in 2011 - that I have completely remixed and rethought. I moved around the song order, took out an instrumental, rerecorded many of the vocals and, in one case, remade the basic track. I've always liked this album because of songs such as "Spooky Girl," "Lovesick Blues Boy," the title tune, and what is perhaps my most personal song, "Right Here." And now, hopefully, it is that much stronger. Thanks again to Helen, the gal on the cover. My Mona Lisa. Read a nice review of the album.
Do we ever see ourselves as we really are? Do we ever see what it is we really do? Or are we so adept at self-deception that we can't know the primitive man that lurks beneath the surface? We may laugh at or be disgusted by a man/child despot like Kim Jong Un, but aren't we all like him in some small way? This album is for the lion inside the lamb.
"Westphalia" was my fourth album, and even though several songs were done at least in part at Woolly Mammoth Studios in Boston, most of it was recorded on my own. In fact, the very first track I made for it, "Dime in My Pocket," was the first one I ever did solely at home. In the beginning I thought it would merely be a demo, but the more I worked on it and the more it started to come together, the more I thought, "Hey, I can do this." The song itself is a bit strange - very few rhymes and I'm not sure exactly what it is about - but what it taught me was how to create a certain feel, and that was as important as just about anything else. As for the themes on this record, I was, like Candide, re-examining my personal philosophy of life in face of evil. Here are 12 songs about locusts, good intentions and the best (and worst) of all possible worlds. In the end, this has to be my most purely strange album.
Time for a brand new album. It's a name-your-price type deal, which means you can download it for free (or fork over your cash to help the cause, if you prefer). So grab it while you can because once I exceed 200 downloads, as I did last month, Bandcamp automatically flips it into you-gotta-pay mode.
One day you are on top of the world. You are young, you are strong, you are beautiful. But then, slowly and almost imperceptively, your youth fades, your strength slackens and the person you see in the mirror no longer glows the way it once did. "Where did your long hair go / Where is the girl I used to know," Brian Wilson sang, mournfully. Eventually, life plays a cruel trick on us: just when we think we've got the world by the tail, it all gets taken away. No one is exempted, no one is immune.
A star fell down on Indiana
Just like it did in the beginning of time
We all turned out to see what happened
Some of us laughed
Some of us cried
And together we held onto each other's hands
Until the last of us had died
Back in 1968, the band I was in, Larry and the Love Muffins, recorded an album at Gold Star Studios in Hollywood for Capitol Records' Tower subsidiary. It was produced by Norman Ratner (of the Leaves' "Hey Joe" fame) and many of the tracks were arranged by Jack Nitzsche. Because we were pretty green and had never been in a studio before, it was decided that the Wrecking Crew (Hal Blaine, Carol Kaye, Billy Strange and Larry Knetchel) would perform on many of the backing tracks. Fourteen songs were laid down and the album was set for release, but at the last minute, for reasons still unclear to me, the label pulled the plug. Now, after years of legal wrangling, I have come into possession of the original masters and I am proud and happy to present to you "The Beyond Within."
A big beige building seated in the shade of the Fenway in Boston, Big Beige bore this music and these songs along its way, It's the first witness of this album that's been thought and composed right there inside its walls.
It wearies me; you say it wearies you
But how I caught it, found it, or came by it
What stuff 'tis made of, whereof it is born
I am to learn
And such a want-wit sadness makes of me
That I have much ado to know myself
More than a decade ago I left my job as a copy editor at the Los Angeles Times, where I had been working for over 18 years. Then, in a fit of mid-life crisis, I moved to Boston to attend an MFA program in creative writing at BU, which, despite high hopes, turned out to be a very negative experience. One of my instructors began the first day of class by saying, "I plan to cure you all of taking a creative writing course again." She did. In the years that followed, bit by bit, my life began to unravel; I lost both of my parents (my mom to Alzheimer's and my Dad to cancer), I became estranged from my two sisters and I could not seem to find steady work. Along the way, my daughter was born and I became a Mr. Mom. I also began, almost every day, to write songs, something I had once done when I was much younger but had long since abandoned. But I felt now I had something to say about myself and the world around me, and say it in a way I could not have said when I was in my early 20s. It started off slowly, but as I grew in confidence my work and inspiration rate increased, and I got to the point where I was going at it for about eight hours a day, coming up with ideas and material - toiling away for just about the same amount of time one might spend at a job. So these songs of mine, well, I guess you could say they are my life's "work."
When I started writing songs for this album I began to see a connection with the songs from my past three records, "Little Bastards," "Scoundrels" and "Primitive Man." All contained stories about people doing what they do without apology. So, in an aha! moment, I decided that these albums formed a quartet. If you listen closely, and no doubt you will, you may detect a dialogue of sorts, where a character from one song is speaking or responding to a character in another. Some of these people are questionable in nature. Some are on their way up and some are on their way down. All of them are just living their lives and doing what they do.
Most of the characters in these songs are people I know, have once known or, perhaps, imagined I knew. They are all rather slippery people, the kind you are not quite sure of, the kind that leave you guessing. When they tell you something personal, as they often do, you wonder how much of it is true and how much fabrication. The thing is, they don't know themselves - so how can you? And yet, because they are often good at sounding like they know what they are saying, and because they look and act completely convincing, you want to buy in.
This one came pretty quickly, once I sorted out how I wanted it sound: a bit of flamenco, gypsy jazz, folk, rhythm and blues, and New Orleans funk. Overall, the album flows with a lightness of touch; a rare warm sunny day in the middle of winter. Just don't listen to the words too closely, I suppose.
It's a new year, and it's time to look forward to the promise that a new year brings. But it's difficult not to look back on the past one with all its tragedies - some natural, most of man's own doing - and not feel a sense of sadness, loss and grief. This album picks through a few of the events the year 2012; it is, in a way, a photo album of what happened by chance and what we chose to do to each other.
Many of these tracks are what I have come to term "lesson" songs for my daughter Astrid; they are parables - little stories that illustrate instructive principles that she might find useful as she travels along her life's bumpy path. So you have tunes like "Up Shits Creek Without a Paddle," which retells the saga of the grasshopper and the ant, and "Down the Rabbit Hole," which recounts Alice's journey through a mad world. There is also "The Inspired Fake," about charlatans who are intent on convincing you of their worth but instead only peddle bad faith, and "This Might Sting a Bit," about sellers of false hope. By writing these, it has forced me to reconsider my own understanding of what is moral and true in a universe that is increasingly difficult to comprehend. We listen, we learn.
No doubt there have been times when you've found yourself in a predicament where you feel stuck, either at your work or in your town or in your school. And your brain accommodates, and you think, "You know, it could be worse. This isn't so bad. I can always leave." But then you don't leave. Or when you do leave, it's almost as if it's too late. As the poet Rilke says, "You must change your life."
This was an attempt to make an album in singular style (in this case, a mostly acoustic record), rather than hopscotching all over the map stylistically, as I tend to do. I wouldn't exactly say that this is a mellow record; rather, like the title, it's more dream-like. A couple of the songs - "How Can Anybody Get Anything Done 'Round Here," "Set Yourself Free" and the title track - are among my all-time personal favorites. I also like "Turtles All the Way Down," which came about after watching an episode of the series "Awake," which was unfortunately cancelled.
The making of this record was a difficult experience. Many songs were reworked or outright rejected. Many ideas smacked into a dead end. Many tracks lacked that certain special something that would make me want to ever listen to them again. But I kept at it, and eventually this is what I came up with. Twelve songs about being low down. More than any other collection of tunes, this one cuts closest to the bone. Maybe it had a lot to do with the weather (I kept recording while Hurricane Sandy wailed away outside my window), but this is the best expression I could come up with for my particular form of depression. If you have ever suffered through dark nights (and days) of the soul, perhaps "Low Down" will resonate in some small way with you.
For people who live unexamined lives, the world just happens, happening as it does beyond their will or ability to act upon it. Because, to them, there are always external forces - perhaps God, perhaps chance, perhaps circumstance - that they believe are outside their ability to understand and control. In most cases, they get away with so much because they think so little. But if they began a process of self-evaluation and -examination, they may come to discover that there is much they can do. Or, at the very least, they can stop deflecting blame for the pain they inflict. Coming to this place of discovery requires much work - more work than most people want to invest in. But the ultimate reward can be great, not only for the people who awaken to their lives, but also to the people in their orbit. They just need to start. But the question remains: How to begin?
A few weeks ago saw my 40th high school reunion, and although I did not attend, the event did cause me to reflect on the passage of time. A friend sent a link to a site with photos of my old classmates, and seeing those pictures really threw me. Who were all these old people? Who were these men in Hawaiian shirts with big bellies and bald heads? Who were these women with bleached-out hair, saggy skin and too much make-up? Who were these strangers? The one thing I've come to realize is, life is a great leveler. No matter how much you think you've got it going on, sooner or later life bites you on the ass. With that in mind, I began writing songs for what has become "Beautiful People," which I think can be summed up in the lines:
This album, originally recorded in 2010, has several of my favorite tracks on it, including "Crossing the Line," "Midnight Town" and "The Devil Ain't Got No Music," which was inspired by a line that Mavis Staples uttered on "The Colbert Report" when asked how she felt about singing the devil's music. (Subsequently, in the past year, the blues singer Lurrie Bell has recorded a tune using the same title, but I got there first!). At any rate, after listening to this record recently, I thought it could be better - not only the mix, but the vocals as well. So I've given it a fresh coat of paint. The sound is brighter now, it pops more and the singing is (hopefully) a little more on the money.
This album is about movement from not just one place to another, but mental movement - how a mind can flit from one idea to the next like a moth in a lightbulb factory. It is also about the times we live in, in which people lack focus and depth of attention, finding it difficult to be consistent with choices and behaviors. Because, you know, there is always something else. You may be talking with someone and suddenly that person's eyes glaze over because a text has just come in and what you are saying is suddenly not as significant as the possibilities that have popped up on that device. A small thing, perhaps. But it says a lot about who we are, what we do and how far we have or have not come. You see, nowadays there are all forms of escape - some, I believe, quite insidious - but where have they taken us to?
We went to Niagara Falls a few summers ago and stayed with some friends who live in upper New York State, which is actually very rural, all fields and farms for as far as you can see. These friends live in a small college town called Seneca Falls, which is the very place that was fictionalized as Bedford Falls in the movie "It's a Wonderful Life." Only now the town is pretty depressed - lots of these small towns were once factory towns, and now all the factories are gone. So you see a lot of people who look tired and careworn and blown apart. It was a sad place, and I couldn't help but feel that sadness. So when we came back I started writing songs that reflected that, songs about the displaced and the dispossessed. Songs about the separateness we all can feel.
There comes a time when a certain relationship reaches an end, but one of the parties seems to be unaware that this has happened. Or maybe that person lives in a state of denial. Or is oblivious. Or just wants to pretend that what's has gone on for the last decade or two or three is hunky dory, even though no effort or energy whatsoever has been put into keeping the relationship alive. It's just this thing, this entity - but it is not true; it does not breathe, it does not move, it is not about anything at all. And what do you say to this person? How do you tell him or her that you are at the end of the road?
This was my second album, and it all came about because of Dave Westner, engineer and multitasking musician extraordinaire at Woolly Mammoth Studios. At this stage I was extremely unsure of what I could do both musically and lyrically, but slowly (the recording stretched on between 2007 and 2008) I began to find my legs, mostly because Dave was so proficient at translating my vague ideas into musical realities. Once we'd finished a track, he'd say, "Go write another one." And I would. And bit by bit, "The Bread of Dreams" came together. I like this record a lot, and I really love Dave's playing on it. He's an incredible "feel" musician, and most of what he did he laid down in the very first take.
What you can you say about love that hasn't been said a million times before? The problem presents itself. So, as has happened in the past when a seemingly overwhelming task is before me, I focus, and then scale down my perspective, which allows me to just do the work in my own little way. I think of what I know and what I have witnessed, and I try to tell those stories as best I can. It didn't hurt (actually, it did) that in the middle of making this record I had a falling out with someone who was once one of my best friends. That terrible event became a large part of the narrative, informing songs such as "What About Me?" and "A Vicarious Life." Here is "From Eliot With Love" - 13 little love songs.
"The Very Soul of Me" was originally recorded in 2010, but recently I remixed and reconsidered it, in the process deleting a song and adding a new track, as well as redoing some vocals and adding additional instrumentation. This album came out of my obvious love of soul music - all those Saturday afternoons as a kid spent watching "Soul Train" did make a big impression on me - and it is quite possibly the one recording I've done that is closest to my heart.
Several years ago I was extremely shaken to discover that a person I thought was a close friend was, as it turned out, a sociopath, a liar and a fraud. His deceits, which involved him not so cleverly trying to bilk me out of money, rocked me to the core, and it forced me to reexamine just how much I could truly know someone. Are people really who they say they or are they in fact something other, something cold, remote and unknowable? If that's the case, how can we ever feel a true connection?
The title was taken from a line in "The Little Prince": "One sees clearly only with the heart. What is essential is invisible to the eye." So this album, more or less, is about perception; what we take in, what becomes a part of us, and what we don't get. During the making of this record, we visited MASS MoCA in the Berkshires (where the cover shot was taken of my daughter Astrid), and what I encountered there - especially the work of Sol LeWitt - deeply informed the songs I was writing.
There's a dream that I have
And I'm with you again
There's a dream that I have
And we're laughing
And in this dream that I have
You are writing your name in the sky
In this dream that I have you are dancing