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
For my 101st record, I present to you a crash course on what I do and what I think. A few songs are older ones that I've re-recorded and remixed to slot in with the the new tunes, so it will all seem of a piece, because being "of a piece" is, I guess, what I struggle to create, both in my writing and in my life.
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.
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. And now, I have finished my 100th album, "Meet Eliot Wider." This one, like all the others, is for my daughter Astrid. It documents who I am, how I think, and the way I look at the world. Just so she will know, when she grows up, who her daddy was.
In the past I have rerecorded several of my albums, bringing to them fresh ideas and the kind of knowledge that comes with experience. But all the albums I redid were ones that I thought worthy, ones I believed had good songs that were in need of a fresh coat of paint. A week ago I listened to "The Friendship Ring," which I originally recorded in 2009, and, because it's not what I would consider one of my better efforts, I haven't given it much thought since. But there are some tracks, such as "Flypaper" and "In the Scheme of Things," that I believe could have been decent, sturdy tunes, if only I had executed them better. Then I thought, what if I remake and remodel an entire record that I don't care all that much for and see how much better it could be? If I failed, I could just let it go. But if I succeeded ... So, I set to work, and now I believe have an album I can feel good about, one I no longer have to cringe over when I look back on it. In fact, I think it's among the best things I've done.
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, it was 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. Are they good or bad? That's not for me to judge. I'll leave it up to you.
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? An acquaintance of mine is a self-proclaimed minister for an evangelical church, and he has accumulated an ardent following of willing young believers, mostly college students. My sense is that he thinks he is doing God's work (i.e., good), but at the heart of it - at the heart of him - there lurks a dark fear and a feeble-minded ignorance. This album is for and about him - the lion inside the lamb.
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. They are Lucy holding the football, and you are Charlie Brown. Do you not think she won't pull it away at the last second?
During the making of this album, which was originally recorded in 2009, I was having difficulty sleeping; my dreams were filled with dark and disturbing images that felt so completely real that they bled into my days, to the point where my waking life was totally preoccupied with coping with my wretched nightmares. I could find no relief or respite, except in the songs I was writing. I recall that despite initial difficulties with my creative process, I began to gather strength as the album went along. And by the time I got to the title track, which I considered to be one of my best songs, I knew I was onto something. I was really proud of what I had done with that song, at least until I played it for an old acquaintance, who proceeded to tell me what she thought was wrong with it. I think, like most people, she had good intentions. But it did me no good. Her suggestions were purely academic and technical, when all I sought was her emotional reaction. Basically, I simply wanted to know how the tune made her feel. I suppose, for her, an emotional reaction was not something she would have considered. My thought was that she wanted to impress me in some way by "teaching" me the correct vocal technique or how the drummer should "not play so samey." Whatever, it took the shine off the track at the time. At any rate, I've since completely re-recorded and remixed this album, and I do feel it's among the best things I've done. All I can suggest is, listen to it with your heart.
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.
Just in time for Christmas and/or the end of the world, here is a third collection of songs from the past year. It makes a handy compendium for those who can't be bothered to listen to the albums themselves. Thirty-three tunes for only seven bucks ... such a deal!
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.
I worked at the Los Angeles Times for 18 years, first as a copy kid and later as a copy editor. My experience there began as exciting and somewhat fun, but as the years passed it turned dour and dark, and mostly I felt trapped. I kept trying to convince myself that what I was doing would lead me to better place somehow, and that I belonged there, even though, as I would later discover, it didn't matter to anyone if I were there or not. Along the way I did encounter many strange, difficult and downright painful situations, none of which had anything to do with the actual day to day production of the paper, which was, at the very least, extremely stressful. The strangeness, the difficulties and the pain had more to with the people, as is always the case at just about any job. Eventually, certain things happened that kind of broke me in a way. And even now, all these years after I finally did leave the place, I still feel very damaged by it. No doubt you've had something similar occur to you, where you feel stuck, either at work or in your town or in your school. And your brain accommodates your predicament, 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. Lesson: Don't wait too long. 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. Too bad - great show.
This, my 91st album, was arguably the most difficult experience I've had making a record. 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?
This album was made in 2009, and listening to it now, I think my ideas may have plateaued. It's not that it's a bad record, just a transitional one. The way I work is, I got to keep going: If things aren't working out, well, I don't give up. Because perhaps the next thing will be better somehow. At least that's the hope. "There Will Be Time" is just one more weird and wicked piece of the puzzle.
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 with the lines that I borrowed from an article in the New Yorker for one the key songs:
When it gets down to it, we really are animals, a thin patina of civility the only thing that separates us from dogs. We may think well of our accomplishments, our religions, our art, our science, but despite all that - all those things that make us "human" - we are strange and irrational creatures at best. As William Golding put it: "Fancy thinking the Beast was something you could hunt and kill! You knew, didn’t you? I’m part of you? Close, close, close! I’m the reason why it’s no go? Why things are what they are?" Or as Woody Allen once said: "Show business is dog-eat-dog. It’s worse than dog-eat-dog; it’s dog-doesn’t-return-other-dog’s-phone-calls." Out of these considerations comes "Dry Season," 12 songs about buzzsaws, black riders and dumb animals.
When I got to this, my 17th album, I was feeling pretty secure with what I could come up with, despite the fact that nobody was actually buying my stuff (although thousands of people were downloading it for free) and that I was getting virtually no support or feedback. Still, I felt undeterred. What choice did I have? But looking back on it now, "Curious Inventions" bespeaks the isolation I was feeling, and continue to feel. They say the act of creating is a solitary pursuit. What they don't say is just how lonely loneliness can be. This album is very special to me for a lot of reasons, but mostly because it's the first record, I believe, where all the songs seemed consistently strong from the beginning to end.
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, my 88th, 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 recently 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.
The album begins with the lines, "Who can we say we really know / Can we go on faith alone / I mean, what makes a human being," which defines what this record is about: the otherness of people. The characters here are all uncomfortable, in flux, full of fear and uncertainty; in other words, they are human. They are striving to be something, to define their personalities, to sort out in what direction they are going. They are trying to stake out new territory, and yet something is pulling them back. They go all the way to the wondrous land of Oz, and then they yearn for the sun-parched fields of home. They are a beautiful young woman who wastes her youth by ravaging her body - why and for what? They are haunted and hateful. The are like Kowalski in "Vanishing Point," one of the marginal men. They are, essentially, alone and adrift. They are you and they are me.
It was just after Christmas last year when I got a series of frantic texts from a certain sibling whom I hadn't heard from in more than several years. Turns out her husband's brother, sadly, had committed suicide and because, presumably, she knew I had gone through a similar experience with my ex-wife's mother, perhaps I could console him, reassure him, tell him not to feel guilty about not having been there enough for his brother. It was with no small amount of trepidation that I agreed to speak with him. We have never been close; he's practically a stranger. And when we did finally speak I got the tremendous sense that he didn't want to talk at all, that he had likely been pressured into it. Besides, what could I say? That he will feel better in time? He won't. That the pain will go away? Forget about it. It was an extremely awkward conversation, to say the least. I tried to be a comfort. I said something like, "Take what has happened and change your life, if you want." And, "When terrible things like this occur, it wakes you up. Stay awake." He did say that the event had made him reconsider how he had behaved toward people, and in the future he might act with greater kindness to those he had written off. I imagined he might have been referring to me. But because we have not spoken since, I suppose not. At any rate, I wrote two songs about it. The first, "One Time Thing," is the wary me - not wanting to be taken in by a desperate person in a desperate situation. And it's also the hurt me - willing to give, but not too much to man who has never once showed me a shred of care or interest. The second, "The Weepin' Song" - which you can listen to below - takes a different tack. It's the me that wants to love and care for someone no matter how lousy and unreactive that person has been. It is meant to be a true statement of compassion. But it is unlikely he will ever hear it, or any of my music for that matter. In a different world - a better world - it would start a dialogue, something I always intend my songs to do. But in this world, it just floats in the ether.
"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 - nothing 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.
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?