My music speaks for itself. But I'm going to yammer awhile anyway.
. . .
Note: This site is either a pathetic self-promotion play, or an honest attempt to explore the creative process. It is for you, not me, to decide which one it is, for I am blinded by my own vanity.
I love music. I love listening to it, I love dancing to it, I love creating it, and and I love replaying it in my mind.
In my most lucid moments, know I have created an interesting body of work. However, troubled by the subjectivity of music and by the human propensity to adore one's own creations, self-doubt creeps in at the seams of my mind.
So I want to reflect on my experiences as a musician and on the nature and value of creativity, what recognition means, and how the ethereal moment of creation is fleeting and inevitably replaced by disappointment: Being an artist means moments of endorphin- and adrenalin-fueled ecstasy and applause followed by periods of depression and self-doubt.
You would think that the moments of artistic triumph would suffice to bolster a musician's self-confidence, but they are just a tease, and barely seem real amid the usual terrors of audience rejection, indifference, and polite lukewarm toleration.
Because no matter how much a musician is "true to one's self" and "believes in ones's art" and even has close friends and familiy who do likewise, there are a million other musicians out there who believe just as fervently that their music is special and should be heard.
So how can a musician know when his or her music is truly unique and worthy of standing the test of time?
Lack of "success" does not mean lack of talent or value. In terms of originality, clarity of vision, creative wordplay, and distinctive melody, my music is good - to my ears. Yet evey time I strap on my guitar I am fulfilling a cliche with a million other singer-songwriters simultaneously - and most of them are younger and have finer voices than mine; some voices are stunningly beautiful.
So why would a middle-aged guy bother to keep putting his music out there amid a sea of younger, better sounding competitors to be judged by an indifferent world?
In a sense, my illogical pathway makes me a comical figure. There is something very ridiculous about what I do, and I poke fun at myself in some of my songs, perhaps to preemptively disarm others from doing the same.
This writing is my attempt to explain why I still believe in what I do, despite my lack of success and the moments of despair this musical endeavor generates.
Ultimately, though, this is about understanding the ephemeral, subjective nature of artistic expression. The only way I can begin to describe this vast, multi-faceted concept is to explain my artistic growth in the context of my life and how my artistic sense evolved.
No songwriter or musician fully understands the creative process. Often we speak of songs "appearing" of their own volition, as if we are agents of some larger source of creative energy. That is certainly part of the truth, but it is not the entire thing. I will discuss many of my songs and the creative process that led to their development. Some "appeared" in moments; others were shaped over many weeks.
I will only tangentially discuss my family and jobs. Though these loom incalculably huge in every aspect of my adult life, my purpose here is to trace artistic development; I will produce a narrative that brings all aspects of existence to a focused point: what everything means in terms of the creation of art.
Likewise, names are omitted for the most part, as I am not bold enough at this juncture to name names; perhaps I will add them in later.
Above: Music video for "It's a Cruel, Cruel World," with a green man suit functioning as a video green screen.
Lyrics to It's a Cruel, Cruel, World
Although I did not begin writing songs until the late 1980s, my musical/artistic journey began in the 1960s, the decade in which I was born.
I was born in Buffalo, New York, the middle of three brothers; all of us were born within two years of one another. Although my parents were from Buffalo's working class, they were the first generation to achieve middle class status in terms of income and outlook on life. This was made possibly by my very able father's success in a vocational curriculum at high school in electronics that helped him land a job, after a stint in the U.S. Army, with a major telecommunications company.
He moved our young family to the suburbs of Albany, New York when I was three years old. There, I remember both parents listening to music - my father bought a new copy of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band when it came out in 1967. And my mother listened to everything from Brasil '66 to Frank Sinatra. I have distinct memories of listening to Simon & Garfunkel's Feelin' Groovy because at that time I puzzled over exactly what were those "cobble stones" they spoke of? A lot of listening occurred in the basement where a turntable would give me electrical shocks when I stood barefoot on the concrete floor and touched the metal tone arm.
In 1971, when I was in third grade, we moved about 35 miles south to a rural hamlet in Columbia County. We lived on a ten-acre, secluded property in an 1820s farmhouse that needed tremendous amounts of work. My parents paid $27,000 for it in 1971. Today it probably goes for more than $1 million. It was located in a picturesque valley amid hills, with a beautiful, unspoiled creek wending its way over rocks and minor falls.
Living in the country probably made all the difference in terms of molding my world view, and it has influenced my deeply ever since. I worked on a dairy farm as a teenager, something gave me a real appreciation for hard physical work in fresh air, but also for the magic of the living things that are the center of agriculture, which underlies the labor and machinery.
In the 1970s, Columbia County was just starting to be "discovered" by people from New York City who wanted to buy weekend or retirement homes in the country, and by people, like my parents, who worked in Albany but wanted to live in the country and commute. Today the transformation of Columbia County is astounding, for those of us who remember it in the 1970s, and I am sure it is even more so for those who were there in the 1960s, 50s, 40s etc.
The influence of New York City weekenders has been the more pronounced than that of commuters because they bring large amounts of money (increasing land and housing prices) and their own view of what the country should be like (not old Chevy Camaros up on blocks out front of houses). The transformation has been both positive and negative, and I will not delve into the complex economic and cultural interplays between the "citiots" and the "locals." Suffice it to say that many locals derive their livelihoods from offering services to the New York City second home-owners (lawn care, construction, etc.).
My first formal music education occurred in elementary school - I mean aside from regular "music class." I took up the violin and played in the school orchestra. I was an average player, but gained elemental musical knowledge, appreciation for orchestral music that has only grown in subsequent years, and music-reading skills.
We played Vivaldi, Britten, Bach, etc. School orchestras always a bit out of tune and lacking in precision, but that is beside the point: the beauty, the solidity, the breathing loveliness of music played on wooden, acoustic instruments creates a gorgeous spell.
I continued playing violin through middle school and high school, when I grew my hair long and discovered the Beatles and began using the money I earned mowing lawns etc. to buy their albums on vinyl. Revolver was the first record I bought.
I took up guitar on the side: a round-hole Fender acoustic and a no-name F-hole archtop (collapsed but playable) that I bought for $50. In high school I got into jazz, worshiping the likes of John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy. So I basically missed out on late '70s rock music and the whole "new wave" thing. The new wave really did not penetrate much into Columbia County in the late '70s - it was always a few years behind the times in terms of adopting changes in popular culture (in the days before the Internet).
Above: Me, circa 1978.
I played guitar in the "stage band" at school, mostly comping chords through written band arrangements. A subset of those musicians, including me, formed a wedding band for a single nuptial gig - it was my first professional performance - I got paid for playing music! We did tunes such as Harlem Nocturne and Stevie Wonder's Sir Duke. Not sure what the wedding party thought of the whole thing but there was plenty of dancing so I think it was alright. The trumpet player was a good friend who died tragically in an auto accident in the mid-1990s.
I also bought a cheap Japanese electric guitar, but never had an amplifier to really feel the power of electric music. I used to plug it into the family stereo for amplification, which produced an anemic sound at best. I went to parties where rock bands played but never tried to sit in.
Above: "Permission" with cheesy lego stop-motion
Lyrics to Permission
College Changes Everything
Upon graduation from high school, music was not a big part of my life, but I did bring my F-hole guitar with me when I went for my freshman year at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Purchase in September 1981. I used the practice rooms in the music conservatory there and I did end up playing with a few people, most notably a guy, I want to say "Paul" but my memory fails, who wrote a great song called A Wrong Place for Love which we played. Turned out he was a heroin addict, something I never found out until I bumped into his girlfriend "Poet"a few years later in the mid-80s in upstate New York at a friend's house.
Above: My student ID at SUNY Purchase - note the ponytail hair and ambiguous attitude.
The bottom of the photo was mauled by a card swiper machine.
I dropped out of college after a year, however, due to general aimlessness, mediocre grades, and the gravity of my girlfriend, who would later become my wife in 1985. But before getting married I worked at construction for several years and had my own place. I learned great skills that have served me well over the years, and it felt very real and solid after the intense, unhinged party scene I had been immersed in at Purchase in 1981-82. During these post-Purchase years I tinkered with the guitar a bit but never got to the point of writing anything original. A few high school friends still in the upstate area had a band and I even played once with the bass player, who was at the time dating my girlfriend's sister, but I was embarrassed by my lack of guitar skills. I knew I would have to return to college, and did so in 1986 when my wife and I moved to Albany.
I enrolled at SUNY Albany without any particular idea of what I wanted to study, except that I was serious about excelling, unlike my year at Purchase, which seemed like a blurry dream to me. I found I was good with words. I suppose I knew that already since I read books and poetry since my teens, but some of the professors at SUNY Albany took notice of my ability to write and to see into others' writing in a unique way.
So I majored in English and did quite well, and was accepted in the honors English program, which included an undergraduate thesis. I did mine on the prophetic voice in the poetry of William Blake and Allen Ginsberg. This was a major turning point for me, as I really threw myself into the thesis and ended up earning an award for it upon graduation in 1987. But the thing about the thesis is how the work changed me, in terms of how I looked at art in the world. Through the poetry of Blake and Ginsberg I came to a deeper understanding of how art organically arises and not only reflects the universe but also helps shape it. I was astounded by the ways in which their work pointed out the indisputable centrality of creativity and art - and the mystery of it. But more than that, I traced the common thread of prophetic tradition through their art and found that their voices overlapped in uncanny ways - that some of the archetypal characters in Blake's cosmology spoke in a very real way in Ginsberg's poetry as well. The "chance" parallels in Blake's work, for example, with the arts and sciences as we know them today, could not be "chance" at all - his poetry was describing existence at a more fundamental level - beyond our understanding, yet solid and a code ready to be solved. There is a continuity and an elevated level of knowledge or wisdom flowing through all poetry, and having discovered that through Blake and Ginsberg I felt a had glimpsed something higher, perhaps divine in art.
And that elevated wisdom, and not a New Agey hippie amorphous wisdom at all, is something I have striven to rekindle in my understanding and in my art ever since. Years later I actually met Allen Ginsberg, which was a tremendously important thing for me. It was a brief encounter, but full of possible portent...
Above: This is how Allen Ginsberg signed my copy of "Reality Sandwiches."
In the early 1990s I had an opportunity to see Allen Ginsberg do a poetry
reading at Columbia-Greene Community College. He seemed weak (he would die
a few years later) but his spirit was strong and I was of course delighted
that much of his reading and performance focused on William Blake. I shook
his hand and exchanged a few words, and conveyed my devotion to the work of Blake.
At times I wondered if the singing "Tyger" in his drawing was some kind of omen..?
. . .
Immediately after college reality intruded and I had to make a living to support a growing family, so the ethereal took a back seat to the necessity of work (Adam's Curse).
But as I worked I also kept reading poetry, especially Blake, and I tried my hand at writing poems. Some came out sounding more like lyrics. And I was gaining in confidence in playing guitar too because I would play acoustic at night at bedtime and sing to my children. Often I would make up songs describing activities we had done that day.
So I was singing and playing. So it seemed natural to move from writing kiddie songs to adult songs.
. . .
Above: Video for "Suburbs of Paradise" - the first song I ever wrote.
Lyrics to Suburbs of Paradise
My First Song
In 1988, I was living in Albany with my wife and first child in a second-floor apartment on North Allen Street in a residential/business area. Down the street were various businesses including a small three-store strip mall anchored by a fried chicken barbecue restaurant. On Sunday morning we could hear the choirs singing at the nearby African-American church. In good weather we sat on the screened-in porch often and watched the traffic go by. I would play my guitar there, and that's where I wrote Suburbs of Paradise.
The melody came quite naturally and I was amazed at how pre-ordained it seemed - as if I had heard it before. It seemed to spring forth fully-formed and not to be changed. Amazing. It was my first time feeling creativity burst forth into a form and structure that is appealing, grounded in a folkie/Americana kind of tradition, yet utterly unique. I felt blessed and thrilled, and I sang it softly to myself often there on the porch.
The words reflect a lot of where my "head was at" at that time, but also some consistent themes that have continued throughout my creative life.
The road not taken always beckons that's for sure
- Obviously a reference to the Robert Frost poem, but also a recognition that the singer regrets his choice of a path.
And the road you're on just leads you where you've been before
- Simple rhyme, and reinforces the wrong choice made.
Ultimately the lyrics culminate in the idea of being prevented from reaching paradise: the singer is stuck in the suburbs of paradise. Suburbs of course conjures up myriad negative connotations of sprawl and conformity, but it also simply means outside of the center - kept on the periphery of the action, of the energy, of the center of things.
When I sing Down the road they sing in holy harmony it's a reference to the church down the street where I lived at that time. But the cars blast obscene radio and a mind thinks them as they go which draws a line between the sacred and profane right there on the street, but also in the universal sense. Suburbs of paradise means wrestling with that duality because you are at the outskirts of paradise, not in paradise where the profane is not allowed.
Not terribly deep, or clever, but the concepts are rolled into one package of melody and continuous development and the whole thing, when delivered, is a solid, memorable song that has some layered levels of meaning, yet stands clear and accessible.
So I considered it a songwriting success, and I still do. It was the first effort in a string that has stretched across several decades now.
. . .
Above: Video for "Vegetarian Blues" - my novelty song
Lyrics to Vegetarian Blues
Suburbs of Paradise was quickly followed by a slew of other songs, some good, some not-so-good. I quickly learned that not everything I write is golden. About one out of every four or five of the songs I wrote in the late 1980s was worth keeping. In some instances it's obvious it's a stinker. In others, it took months or even years for me to realize a song is sub-par.
Throughout this writing and winnowing process I was developing songwriting "chops." These chops include many elements, the most important for me being the ability to just let it come out, and the judgement to edit quickly and effectively. By edit I mean change, repurpose, rework, or delete. I found I could write many types of songs. Some dwelled on ponderous Blake/Ginsberg inspired meditations on reality and humanity, while others were light and even funny. The most successful weaved in undercurrents of poetic wisdom with readily recognizable things of this world.
I refused (and I continue to refuse) to emulate other songwriters or use cliche building blocks (like the Americana old-timey/folkie references to locomotives mines, cabins, etc.). Also best to avoid run-on Dylanesque stream-of-consciousness - it was done well once, no need to do that again, especially when it usually involved minimal melody and maximum pretense. If I was going to stand there with an acoustic guitar and sing songs, I was not going to take myself too seriously, because let's face it, the singer-songwriter is a cliche.
So I wrote a novelty song: something completely light, farcical, and humorous. Vegetarian Blues was born. I had been a vegetarian for several years and thought the silliness of the trials and tribulations of vegetarians in a meat-eating society would be great fodder for humor. I would like to think I succeeded, and in point of fact I believe I have, because audiences nearly always laugh out loud when I sing Vegetarian Blues. I often sing this song first at a gig simply because it is an ice-breaker - it gets people engaged, smiling, and conveys that the singer is not a super-serious folk mope.
Above: "Deadly Nightshade" - a song I wrote shortly after "Vegetarian Blues."
Somewhat serious, this song deals with divorce, addiction, bankruptcy, and other issues of class in America.
Lyrics to Deadly Nightshade
Lyrics to Deadly Nightshade
I should point out that the whole "audience" thing came later. I wrote about 20 songs before I ever performed any of them in front of an audience. I am a somewhat shy and reserved human being and I suffer from stagefright, even today. It took me several years to get enough courage to start performing at open mics. I think it was in 1993 that I first went to the Eighth Step Coffeehouse open mic in Albany (it has since moved). I had moved out of Albany by then, but worked there and would sometimes pack my guitar in the morning and go to the open mic after work.
Other Albany area open mics followed and of course I tried the historic Caffe Lena open mic in Saratoga Springs too.
As the cliche goes, I gained confidence. Unfortunately, boosting my confidence did not, and does not, necessarily mean I became a great performer. I do not have a great voice, and no amount of confidence and practice will ever change that. I have made peace with my mediocre voice and I make the best of it. However, in a performance setting, those with sterling or even just unusual/memorable voices gain the most attention and accolades. Sure, folks appreciated my fiery songwriting, but let's face it, my delivery poured water on the flame.
Just an aside on open mics: They are incredibly useful in terms of enabling a musician to overcome stage jitters and feel comfortable presenting his or her music to others. They are also great for trying out new material to gauge the audience reaction and thereby fine-tune or discard the material accordingly (or not). Open mics take place in many different types of locations, some of which are quiet and conducive to acoustic music - such as coffeehouses and cafes. Others are held in noisy bars. Going into the open mic, a musician should prepare accordingly. A soft, heart-felt gem of a song that depends on nuance and subtle shifts in dynamics will not be possible in a noisy bar, even with PA amplification. Most open mics have participants from a variety of skill levels and styles, which is great, but I have found that I can never be the "king" of the evening because, as I mentioned, my singing/performance is never outstanding, and there is always someone at the open mic with a fantastic voice. So it is inevitably a humbling experience because although it is not intentional, and open mic hosts are universally a welcoming bunch who lead the applause for even the most rudimentary beginner, the audience cannot help but compare you to the other performers. I do not fare well under such comparisons.
One thing to be aware of: most open mics are completely democratic. You sign up on a sheet before it starts, and that sheet becomes the set list. When it's your turn you sing your two or three songs, whatever the limit is. But some open mics - I was at one in Albany like this - are clique-ish. You may sign up and think you're going to go on in order, but suddenly the host's friends show up and get preferential treatment, without ever having showed up early to sign up like you did, and you end up waiting through a series of performances by their friends.
Above: "If I Don't Get the Blues," another of my early compositions that I performed at open mics and cafe gigs.
This song's lyrics point to the strangeness of emotion: how you can be happy when the world is crumbling.
Lyrics to If I Don't Get the Blues
Lyrics to If I Don't Get the Blues
After a few years if intermittent open mic participation I landed a gig at Mother Earth's Cafe on Quail Street in Albany. This was a case of sending the owner, Richard Genest, a cassette tape, which he liked and offered me a spot. There was no pay, just an opportunity to play in front of people, and some tips. I was beside myself with happiness. It's incredible how landing a first gig can completely change your life. I really felt like I was on my way! Of course, a gig is just a gig, even a very good one like that one, in an intimate setting with poeple who are there to listen to music and are very appreciative. It went well, but again, I am not an outstanding performer, so it was not a "breakout performance" of any sort. To this day I am grateful for it though, because it was a much-needed validation and first step for me.
I should note that around this time my brother gave me an instrument that has, over the years, expanded my musical experience and I think my creativity. He gave me a beat-up vibraphone he found in New York City. I strapped it to the roof of my air-cooled VW Beetle and drove it up the Taconic State Parkway to Columbia County. It's great not only because of its gorgeous, shimmering glassy sound, but also because it is layed out like a piano, so it enables me to think about music in a non-guitar manner. I have learned how to do some sight-reading and improvisation, and you will see it featured in several of my songs and music videos.
Above: Me playing vibes.
Another aside, if I may. It is not strictly musical, but I believe it is linked with my musical journey and manifests in an impressive way my way of going about art and life.
You see, I build large things in my yard - large things made out of stone and soil. It began with a circular dry stone (that means no mortar) platform in the woods, then a circular garden made of rocks, and then a huge monument/throne. This Web site started off as a way to showcase my dry stone projects, hence the URL name. My most recent project is a vineyard. I am growing wine in my yard in a moat-protected vineyard. Yes, i dug a moat all around the perimeter to keep deer out.
See my moat-protected vineyard and other dry stone projects.
So how does this peculiar activity relate to my music? Well, it is very physical work and when I am devoting scarce hours to these projects in the yard, I am not making music. You might think that runs counter to my aim of keeping my art central in my life, but I think hard physical work and the resulting, very permanent structures I have created, actually help loosen me up inside and rid me of unnecessary things, winnowing my thinking down to the essentials. This, of course, is part of songwriting. But more than that, even, I think these giant structures show that I am a person who slowly, gradually creates something unique, and of value, from the materials at hand. I make something from nothing, and that something lasts. It is an immovable manifestation of my will and my approach to creativity.
Above: "Drinking Wine Straight from the Bottle" - a video with footage in, appropriately enough, my backyard vineyard.
The song itself is about falling down a few notches in the world, to the point where you are doing what the title says.
But really, we have all been there, no matter how uncouth it is to drink wine straight from the bottle.
Lyrics to Drinking Wine Straight from the Bottle
Lyrics to Drinking Wine Straight from the Bottle
Perhaps I felt that with my limited vocal abilities, I would never be a "successful" singer-songwriter, and that to be heard, I needed the loud, fast blunt force of rock music. I had some experience playing electric and many of my acoustic songs translated well to the electric side of things. In fact, I had written several songs specifically as rock songs. So it was 2002 I believe when I got on that newfangled Internet thang and connected with some people who wanted to play rock music, including originals, loud, in bars, and get paid. And for the next seven years we did that. While I grew quite weary of playing some classic rock songs, like ZZ Top's Sharp Dressed Man, I also understand its value in the currency of late-night bar life, and put my heart into it as well as I could. The band played some of my original music, which was an additional bonus: I was playing my songs out and getting paid, and also having fun at bars. But after several years I was unable to face late nights past 2 a.m., packing up equipment and driving home, so I gave my notice. Through the 2000s I was also involved in other projects and bands, more in the alt. country/Americana vein.
See my past bands.
When I left all of those bands behind in 2010, I was back to square one in some ways: just me and my acoustic guitar and my songs. Of course the difference was that I was now pushing age 50. Age shouldn't matter, and in terms of creativity it really does not. But music is a performing art with a lot of baggage in this culture, and age is usually a negative to be overcome, not a positive sign of "seasoning" and "maturity" in most musical genres. Jazz and blues are some exceptions. But generally, people are looking to the younger generation for musical innovation and stimulation.
So what is a middle-aged failed (in terms of monetary and acclaim) songwriter to do? Most of the 40- or 50-something guys with guitars are either playing in bar bands, doing Neil Young/James Taylor songs at cafes, or putting on overalls and a 1930s style cap and pretending to be bluegrass or old-timey musicians of one flavor or another. There are plenty of people who can do those things well and derive enjoyment from it, while sharing music with an appreciative audience. I am not one of those people. I play original music almost as an act of rebellion against all of that. No, I seem to be saying, I will not go gently into that good night of being what I am supposed to be at my age.
For me, middle age as a musician means putting myself out there in unique situations and shaking myself up, not filing into a pre-determined pasture to play the predictable repertoire like other gray-hairs. As I entered the 2010s, or whatever this decade is called, it meant doing strange gigs that I would not have done as a younger man. In a sense, the freedom older people say they feel extends to music as well, at least for me. I have nothing to lose, and no hope of ever making a living doing music, so I can do whatever the hell I want, and if people dig it, fine. And if they don't, well I am past worrying about ever gaining a following or achieving "success."
It meant performing solo in New York City. In a tiger costume. It meant going over the top in silly online promotion of my performances. Desperate? I suppose I'm still too close to it to tell now. But allow me to describe this unusual phase of my musical journey and you judge for yourself.
Above: "She Lives," a song I recorded with electric guitar, bass and drums. Some songs just need that electric kick.
This video uses somewhat random footage of New York City to tell some kind of wordless, disjointed tale of randomness.
With some biblical references that provide a charged undercurrent.
Lyrics to She Lives
Lyrics to She Lives
The music videos you see here on this site are a major part of the past two years' phase of my musical journey. They are the result of a convergence of technology and price that put a digital camera in my hand and a Mac iMovie editing program on my computer, enabling me to take footage in a variety of settings and bring it back home and sync it up with my songs.
Actually, my film-making days began in the 1970s when I made 8mm home movies and manually spliced them together. I still have several cameras and projectors that work. The old Kodachrome 8mm film still looks great. But I have to say the ease of digital and the price "free" is unbeatable, even if it does lack that special "look" of real film. Of course I have transferred some of my old film to digital in recent years. The point is that I have been working with "film" since the 1970s, so making my own do-it-yourself music videos is an obvious step for me. And I've gotten somewhat creative and have had some fun with it. I used a green screen, and a "green man suit" as a green screen to obtain some eye-popping effects in my videos.
So I've flooded the Internet with DIY music videos that cost virtually nothing to produce, and which people actually seem to watch and enjoy. It's actually pretty amazing and satisfying to know this failed musician (me) is being watched and heard 24 hours a day, because someone, somewhere is clicking on one of my videos to check it out.
And of course in the late 2000s I created a MySpace music page, and then more recently a FaceBook and Reverbnation page. All of those sites remind me of how I am a tiny drop in the musical bucket, though which is one of the reasons I am creating this page now: it's more on my terms, in my own space, not fitting my sprawling story into prescribed columns and HTML boxes.
Story to be continued....
Above: "Anything at All" music video, filmed at Misquamicut Beach in Rhode Island, August 2011.
Anything at All Lyrics.
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