In November a lovely drive to Harbor Springs, Michigan, to do some kibitzing at Lamb's Retreat, where I have often been, me and John Lamb careening 'round midnight down leaf-strewn roads, taking potshots at mailboxes (just wanted to see if you were paying attention).
A beautiful countryside at this time of year. What they do at Lamb's Retreat is focus on songwriting for four days, interpersed with some eating, drinking, walking and conversation. I love Lamb's and it is always a challenge, and I always come away with a little voice in my head saying time's a-wastin', you need to work harder. I think the voice belongs to the Granny character on Beverly Hillbillies, or else Marjorie Main.
But my favorite voice of all time is Julie London. Once I listened to Julie London I totally forgot about having to be Catholic. Speaking of songs...
"At five o'clock the streets are dark
Across the empty bandstand in the park
And then I miss you most
Miss you with the ache of long-lost things
Of sunburnt arms and garden swings...
November Twilight, must you stay?"
(I loved that lyric when I was fifteen, still do. Julie London sang it on her album "Calendar Girl".)
I'm very happy to say that Anne Hills has recorded one of my songs, "The Ballad Of Dan Moody (Roving Cowboy)", for her new "Tracks" recording of songs concerning trains. This tune has been done well by various folks but I have to say Anne gives it a reading that makes it really seem like it was written circa 1924. Close as this songwriter hazards he will ever get to the Carter Family. Anne certainly can summon a plain and down home style that works very well with that song, and it is lovely to hear the voice that sang "Johnson" and sings "Pinto Pony" get into "Dan Moody". I feel with this tune like I've done something that partakes a little of a Tom Paxton mood. Tom, as you may know well, can write songs that don't sound like they've ever been formally "written", but were always kinda just there.
The gentleman playing guitar on Anne's recording takes care of business, too. I'm still trying to figure out how he does what he does and am nervous to ask him to write it down. But now I have the recording until my computer conks out. Anne's talent and accomplishment, industry and positivity are legend and I am fortunate that she is willing to sing my songs. Especially "Dan Moody". For you aspiring songwriters, a professional clue: I have accomplished all this with blackmail. Heh Heh Heh.
Am traveling to Linden Tree in Mass and then with Anne Hills to Houston and points south in November; doing some gigs together. Houston is a lovely venue: Selia Qynn's Sanctuary. (Sanctuary Mulch! You're welcome!)
Meanwhile in Chicago this month I am doing a show about Death with Jamie O'Reilly. As pretty much all my songs have Death as a big feature, this was an easy, too damn easy, gig to furnish with tunes. I'll never forget some British reviewer who opined about my first recording, "This is not a guy you want to invite to your party..." I think it was "Demon Lover" that scared him. I hope it scared him. And he'd better still be scared, if he knows what's good for him.
Also doing some things with Blair Thomas, (yes, the Blair Thomas, super puppet guy, google him) and we're in Storrs, Conn. soon, and in Detroit, too, doing Oscar Wilde's "Selfish Giant" (my songs). I used to live in Detroit and I love the people there. Well, some of them. Well, actually this one person, and to quote a line Jim Post exuberantly extemporized years ago in my song "One Blessed Hour": "YOU know who YOU are!"
And now, as they say in Detroit when things have gotten really emotional: OK, bye.
PS: I have a new song about Joaquin Murietta, famed, prolly apochryphal Old California bandit guy. Song might turn out to be decent. Fun to sing and play, which is a good sign. We'll see.
(I stole the chord progression from Dave Rudolf. Should I tell him?)
Really now: OK bye.
OUT THE OLD WAZOO
I didn't start appreciating music in all the ways I do now. Now that I've spent a fair amount of time listening intently.
I think real listening started when I got a 45 of Billy Stewart doing "Billy's Blues". Chess record, so warped. Played that thing over and over, both sides, but later thought of listening to something over and over as juvenile.
Got out of that notion with Sergeant Pepper.
On first hearing some people who are really wonderful at what they do, I won't necessarily get it. I may see them and hear them, but not understand their joy or their logic and completeness. It takes time sometimes. I constantly find myself wondering why I previously didn't freak out over some perfectly good music. I've missed the point so often, realizing in retrospect, that now it seems for me this is probably an eternal process. I still have to try to make these estimations. Are they on top of things, can I learn from this? I think it's anxiety: I'm always getting my worldview shook up by unforeseen music and I kinda dread it (oh no, not again). I am now confident that if I don't relate to some music, I'm wrong and, oh damn it, I'm again to be enlightened. I make less of a fool of myself now, knowing out front that I am one.
When I was young I had similar reactions to Coltrane, Blind Blake, and Leadbelly: I thought they were tuning up and somehow that had gotten on the recording. I'd think: Well, I'm sure he's gonna start soon.
But usually when I like something right away, years later I'm still of the same opinion. It's the negatives that don't last.
People say to me, I like everything but this (punk, rap, folk, polkas, whatever). They want me to know where they're coming from, and this is a way to define themselves. "What I Don't Like", by me. Oh I do that too, but now try to keep it to myself, for I'm always wrong. Wrong out the old wazoo. This judging, I think, is a trait of an amateur, which I am: not born to be a musician, not McCartney or Mozart, but kinda captured by pretty guitars and doowop songs and hilariously youthful notions of a way of life. Man, I was so unprepared for this that I couldn't see that I was until way too late.
There are disadvantages to being an amateur but advantages too. The disadvantages: you might not be able to toss it off, like Fred Neil. Or frost it up with sweets, like McCartney, step out boldly, like Lennon. It'll be accidental if you get something good. Advantages: You'll always be odd, because it's such subtle work that you'll always be wondering, am I OK? Your songs will be primitive, and that's at least one trait you'll share with the spirit of music. Some songs will be embarrassingly bad. But your ignorant struggle will have its interesting and somewhat accidental byproducts now and again. And maybe if you fake swimming long enough, you find you can sorta swim. Your way.
When I was starting out playing my own songs I got a gig at The Flick, a thriving coffeehouse in Coral Gables, Florida. I played there six nights a week, for three years, from 1966 to 1968. The owner of The Flick, Max Launer, told me after I auditioned he didn't think I played or sang that well but I had some interesting funny songs, and if I was willing to do funny songs exclusively, everything would be cool. So I wrote a bunch more sort of funny songs (doing my best to imitate Lehrer) and Quit My Straight Gig, and worked there a long time with that understanding: serious songs for the third set only. And I got to hear a lot of talented people. One of the acts was Gabe Kaplan, who went on to write and star in Welcome Back Kotter. A funny guy, right from the beginning. And, of course, very successful.
Gabe financed a kind of class reunion of Flick acts, last March. So Barbara and I, who met there, went back to Coral Gables and got to play there again (it's a bar now, called Titanic Brewery) and to hear people play whom we hadn't heard in forty years, and I got to see how much my perceptions had changed and rearranged. This was a rare privilege, and I am still contemplating how fortunate we are. Everyone was wonderful, including us, I think. What a relief. Bob Ingram agreed with me that we'd both been praying: don't let it be Mighty Wind. Well, it wasn't. Far from it. I was reminded of the reasons I loved the music of all of those folks, and the reasons were still there. Thanks, Gabe. And bless you, Max and Annie Launer.
The other day I played "Billy's Blues" a bunch of times over and over. Great.
Facebook page for The Flick Coffeehouse.
Click either photo for larger image.
Here's my friend James Lee Stanley's review of "Old Man Dancing":
I don’t know how many recordings you have listened to in the past decade or four, but I suspect a lot. Now how often do you come across something that is not only really good, but also really unique?
That’s what I thought.
I have actually been accused of curmudgeonry because I am not one to celebrate mediocrity. Can You believe it?
In any event today, I want to bring your attention to a CD that I cannot seem to stop listening to, Michael Smith’s “Old Man Danciing”.
For those of you familiar with the acoustic world (somewhat underground by the media lights here in the USA, but alive and thriving none the less), you know the name Michael Smith—not to be confused with the Christian singer Michael W Smith—this is Michael Peter Smith late of Chicago, Illinois.
He was a frequent collaborator and contributor to the late Steve Goodman recordings and wrote such acoustic classics as The Dutchman, The Ballad of Dan Moody and Spoon River. Songs recorded by countless acoustic artists over the last forty years.
For his latest project, Michael enlisted the aid of exactly no one else. Playing all the instruments, doing all the singing and even doing the engineering at his home studio, he has created one of the most original recordings I have ever heard in this genre.
I know that many a vanity project is done this way, but trust me, this time it is simply amazing what he is giving us.
The stories, the vocals, the songs, the simple ambience of this recording have yet to wear off on me. I love all the choices he made with regard to instrumentation, sound effect, etc.
Granted, this recording was not done in a multi-million dollar studio. It was done in Michael’s home with no one but him. However, the music, the songs and performance far outweigh any sonic complaints the high end afficianado’s might attempt to levy.
While Michael does not sing in the bel canto of many, his delivery, sense of time, intelligence and irony is not to be denied.
I love to hear him sing, and if you get a chance to hear him perform, you must!
And the songs are not your typical songwriter fare. From the opening cut, Accokeek, you know you are in for a different kind of ride. I won’t spoil anything for you by telling you anything other than the titles, but you will be delighted once you put on the phones and sit back.
After Accokeek, comes Sure Have Grown, Ghost of Lash Larue, Ballad of Dorian Gray, Poor Maurice, Roger Maris, Ballad of Phil Spector, Edward G Robinson, and finally Pittston Stove.
Tell me, where have you ever seen such titles? This is brilliant stuff.
Really, this is an entire CD you can listen to at one sitting…it’s a sonic journey through the heart and mind of the amazingly gifted and remarkably imaginative Michael Smith. I cannot wait for you to hear it.
I give it six stars.
Go buy it, dammit.
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