November 2013:

HAPPY THANKSGIVING, 2013!  And speaking of turkeys (rimshot):

My new recording is called "Old Man Dancing". Well, it's "new" in the sense that it's my latest, but it's been in the world about a year. I have recorded with others picking up the tab, and generally that wasn't thrilling: once they'd agreed to pay for it they (or someone looking out for them) would want to get involved artistically. God knows that with my first recordings it'd almost be fair to say the record companies controlled the whole thing. And I would vacillate between "Anything you want, folks" to "I'm the artist, screw you". For me, as soon as a work has someone else involved there is conflict, especially since I think of my relationship with music as private. Then the time came when I no longer could even begin to please a recording company: my songs had become odder and I'd become older with less and less hair, and I and my songs no longer interested them. This, children, like one's youth, did not take that long. Slowly it dawned on me that I was free.

I'd always been free, but I am a slow learner.

So what I did was, about twenty years ago (!) I got some equipment and started making recordings by myself, sketching the arrangements, playing all the parts I wanted, and gradually moving from four track cassettes to 18-plus track digital, and buying synthesizers, drum machines, etc., and technical stuff to help me get what I wanted soundwise...or at least close. My thought was that when I had my purest relationship to music was before I played anything but the radio and the record player; and that during that time I so wasn't concerned with technical matters. I was interested in the song. If a recording was too pristine it would turn me off. I liked those 45's that were all warped, the way they came out of Chess and Checker, etc. I loved Elvis when he was on Sun but not on RCA Victor. Besides, even now when things get too technical my eyes glaze over. And now I was also free to embrace my natural attitude toward sales, which is basically, who gives a shit?

What I did have to get past was my primitive artistic methods with this new equipment...I'd make the drum machine too loud or blatant on the recording because it was new and I was so thrilled to have it, so relieved to, say, not have to convince the drummer to play the way I wanted. And I would lay effects on my voice with like, a trowel. I was fingerpainting in kindergarten. And I'd brought along my precious artistic misconceptions, that had been with me from the start. I made various tries at assembling a decent recording, mostly for myself but now and again for release ("There", which had its moments).

Old Man Dancing cover

"Old Man Dancing" was the first group of songs that I got right. The songs are consistent with one another, that is, I didn't think, thirteen months down the road: Why did I put that song in with those others? This had been a common occurrence before. And I didn't get crazy sonically, and the parts I played were reasonable and appropriate. And once I got rid of all my removable faults, I found that what I'd made was just what I wanted. I didn't feel like I had to apologize for it a year later. I think it's the best thing I've done. It is just what I had in mind.

The first song, "Accokeek", is about a murder, which I read about in the Newark Star-Ledger when I was visiting my good friend Dave Jeffreys in Ortley Beach. Old Man Dancing back cover And this murderess was so dopey and primitive that the only way to react to her songwise was to make the song kind of gleeful, like "Mack The Knife", or Edward Gorey. "Sure Has Grown" is about Pittston, Pennsylvania, where my grandparents lived, a town I love in memory. "Ghost of Lash LaRue" continues my obsession with old western movie stars. The fourth is a hipster retelling of "The Picture Of Dorian Gray", by Oscar Wilde. "Poor Maurice" was me romanticizing myself (maybe on acid) when I was thirty. "Roger Maris" and "Ballad of Phil Spector" were written in (rare) moments of empathy. "Edward G. Robinson" was inspired by reading a Dear Abby column where folks wrote in, detailing good turns that had been done for them by Edward G., and me thinking: what if he had done all those things for me? "Pittston Stove" is about a Pittston Stove.

I certainly am proud of this recording. I still listen to it often. Like Brecht-Weill, or Flanders & Swann, or Leona Bass and the Lost Guitars, you get it or you don't. I have come to see that it's a bit much for some people, as I have definitely lost at least three good and old friends (not Dave), who reacted so negatively ("Accokeek" or "Phil Spector", probably) that they cut off all connections with me. My response (besides ok bye): I am finally a decent fucking recording artist. You get it or you don't.

July 2013:

"It Ain't Necessarily Bird Avenue" was the first song I ever had recorded, and was sung and played by Spanky and Our Gang  in 1966 or '67.

(Hear the recording on YouTube.)

Spanky and Our Gang LP

I'd sent them demos of a whole bunch of tunes on a reel-to-reel and it was about number ten on the tape. Spanky and Nigel and Oz were friends of mine from Coconut Grove, Florida, which was a kind of Greenwich Village South. They started the group in Miami and went on the road and they were working steadily at Mother Blue's in Chicago and they asked me if I wanted to leave Miami and play guitar for them.

I thought it would be a lot of fun, but passed, because I thought they smoked too much dope to get anywhere. As it turned out I really coulda used some of that dope myself but that was the way I thought about things then; being so straight certainly caused me to make some dumb career moves (being high also did).

Of course very soon they got awfully successful with a 45 called "Sunday Will Never be The Same". You heard that song everywhere and it certainly got to number one or in that lovely neighborhood. Their group was charming and hip, kind of jug-bandish, being ex-folkies, and they played all the major TV variety shows of the time and did "Bird Avenue" a lot.

They put it out on the other side of their next hit, which was called "Lazy Day" (other sides were wonderful, the writer got paid the same as if he'd had the hit side). I wrote it for a girl from South Africa named Serena on whom I had a big crush going. I didn't know her very well and that made it somewhat easier to get crazy about her. I think the whole thing made her a little nervous, it was an odd tune with odder words (see lyrics here), copping from Jobim and Bob Dorough and cats like that. Possibly Dorough produced that recording, come to think of it. Later the Four Freshmen (!?!) recorded it because it had kind of jazzwah harmonies and was breezy like some of the things they did.

I arranged "Bird Avenue" for Spanky and Our Gang vocally, I'm very proud of that, met them at the Gaslight in the Grove and we spent a day working out the harmonies. I was very into Mickey Baker's Jazz Guitar Book Number One and used a bunch of chords from that great book. The title was a play on Dylan's "Positively Fourth Street".  SPOG put in the Northwest Orient jingle quote, which I thought was corny but it gave them the chance to show off their vocalese. The last guitar chord on the recording (thank you, Stu Scharf) is so out of tune it drives me crazy. Those were days when you had a hard time replacing stuff easily. Here it is, Steve Allen and I hope you enjoy it.

Steve Allen asked the Freshmen after they did it on his show: "Who wrote that? It's very interesting." Steve Allen, man. "Hip enough for Steve Allen", that'll be on my tombstone, don't forget.

May 2013:

This month I'm working with Blair Thomas, who is an interesting man and who has a very calm way of approaching his life and art. I'd love some of that to rub off on me and that's one of the many reasons I'll enjoy working with him again in "The Selfish Giant". Plus it's happening at his farm, though I always feel like Leo Gorcey when I'm out in the country.

It's a good month: I get to play at Chief O'Neills' again and have some of that Shepherd's Pie, which I trust they are featuring in any Heaven I'd care to wind up in. Speaking of Heaven, I wonder if the Catholic Childhood show is getting me any indulgences?

READ a review of "Songs of a Catholic Childhood", featured in The Record-Eagle, Traverse City, MI.

January 2013:

A note from West Early:

I am doing various things this week: renovations to Snow Queen, a musical adaptation which has been for about a gazillion years a work in progress, and which a bright young man from Brown intends to direct there next year; also a musical setting of a long and intriguing poem by someone from Chicago who'll remain nameless until he gives his permission to let me do it (I'm kinda trying it on, on spec); Sean Lennon reading Burmese Days by George Orwell; getting involved in repeated listenings to "Dead Meat", a weird, beautiful and so Rufus Wainwright Lennonish Youtube performance by Sean Lennon,whose musical notions I admire much as I do Rufus W, who is perfect.. (I'm surprised to even like a song called "Dead Meat"...still truckin'). Also digging Rufus and Sean and some other guy doing "This Boy", absolutely an eternal song.

Meanwhile my cool friend Leo Segedin's website features a performance of my "Hey Kid" from the There CD Leo Segedin painting as aural background to a presentation of some of Mr. Segedin's poignant and extraordinary paintings of Chicago and I am so proud in every way to be associated with this singular painter. You can see he's so bold, you don't need to be told: his work has always been great, and If you like what I do this is one of my Best Things so please dig it. It's right here. Meanwhile Mr. Obama is still President, thank you Jesus, and Mr. Franco is still dead. Be well and grateful, as I am, for these gifts.

* See a Jan 7, 2013 WTTW-TV Chicago Tonght interview with Leo Segedin (whose paintings were used on Michael Smith's There and Old Man Dancing).

* See a slideshow of Leo Segedin's paintings, accompanied by Michael's song Hey Kid.

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