The Milton Chronicles, Volume 1

In The Beginning…



Marc Rosenthal, Freshman class of 1991.

“Hello, my flowers…”

I’m pretty sure that Peter Green from the original Fleetwood Mac had a column at one time in a London paper that began with that greeting each time.  I remember sitting on a bench in Saratoga Springs, NY on the first weekend of college, voraciously reading Mick Fleetwood’s autobiography.  That’s where I learned about Peter Green.

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That day the leaves were still green, the flower boxes still full of color in the windows of the old red brick buildings downtown.  I can still feel that incredibly fresh Adirondack air in my lungs.  I was aching with homesickness and shyness, madly in love with music and crushed out on a junior in one of my theater classes.  Her dad was a well known Broadway, film and TV actor.  He saw me act in a couple of Harold Pinter one act plays that fall.   He said I had talent and that he’d love to direct me.  I was beyond flattered.  That didn’t get me far with his daughter.  I got a little drunk at someone’s party and then called her from my dorm room.  I got her answering machine (anybody remember those?) and left her a message.  I said “You’re really beautiful”.  That really beautiful young woman shared that answering machine with a bunch of her upperclassmen housemates.   They all had a good laugh at my expense about that message.  I tried to console myself with my cheap Yamaha guitar, writing my first few corny confessional compositions.


That semester I would take the bus into town to play some of those early heartfelt warblers at the open mic night of a storied folk venue on Phila Street called Caffe Lena.  I remember struggling to control the violent trembling of my hands as I got on stage that first time.   There was a local guy who played folk songs on the banjo regularly at those open mics.  He told banjo player jokes in his act.  I remember one of them:

Q:  What’s the difference between a banjo player dead on the side of the road and a snake dead on the side of the road?

A: The snake was on his way to a gig.

There were a lot of gigs going down all around me in Saratoga, right from the day I arrived.  I saw a Saratoga band called the Figgs play on the quad on the first day of school.  I became a big fan.  A few years later, when I started playing around Greenwich Village, the Figgs were a big act on the scene.  They could fill the rooms I could only half fill with my band.  I bought all of their records and probably saw them live 20 times.  I was on the bill with them at least once a few years back in New Haven, CT and their bass player Pete Donnelly has produced the best among my friend Carsie Blanton’s wonderful albums.


Also on the first day of school, the college gave a barbecue for new students with a bluegrass band playing.  Only two of us showed up.  The other kid was named Garrett.  We started talking about how good the bluegrass act was.  It turned out that he was a blues guitar player and singer from Philadelphia.  He lived in the same dorm building as I did, in a room with a keyboard player named Jeremy.  I hung out there all the time, learning guitar chords, jamming and talking about music, trying to pick up girls.  Garrett left school at the end of that year and soon became G Love.  His trio Special Sauce fused blues with rap, got signed to Epic records and formed a huge following all over the world.

Somewhere on that first day of school, between that Figgs set and the under-attended bluegrass barbecue I ran into my friend Ruth Levy.  I knew Ruth from home.  She had dated one of my best friends.  She was a smart kid and a classical music prodigy.  I had seen her play a Brahms sonata that had gotten me all choked up.  Ruth had a nobody’s fool vibe about her.  I was a little intimidated by her.  She told me she had been a little intimidated by me in High School.  I couldn’t believe it.  She was kind to me that day and a familiar face far from home.  As I remember it, we wandered into the field house or one of the conservatory buildings into a big empty room where there was a piano.  I was just learning to play guitar at the time.  Maybe I knew 5 chords.  I had played drums in a rock band in high school but I’d never studied any formal music at all.  I asked Ruth to explain to me how the piano worked.  She showed me the middle C and the major scale.  She showed me the sharp and flat notes.  She showed me the major chords and then how to make a major chord minor.  She thought it was kind of funny how amazed I was by that stuff.  I remember her smiling.  It was one of the biggest watershed moments of music learning in my life.   Thanks Ruth!  It’s probably been 20 years since I’ve seen Ruth. For a while I used to catch her playing her own original music around upper Manhattan.  I think she’s a rather successful vocal coach and music teacher now.  Not a surprise, as she was such patient, non-judgmental teacher to me so many years ago.


By that summer I was playing guitar behind a soul singer, picking up lunch for the composer Jule Styne as his gofer on a broadway show in development, working nights as a bellboy in an old hotel and learning everything I could about Spanish language, world literature and music theory, taking library books back to my apartment in a 19th Century building with a glass elevator.  I left Saratoga and the theater for good a few months later but not without seeing the New York City Ballet perform the Stravinsky / Balanchine ballets, following G Love to his early gigs, acting Mamet and Pirandello and getting my mind blown by a music and dance troupe from Ghana called Odata. I headed for the big city, ready to take over the world, thinking I had been wasting my time up there in that little town.

…Oh to be young and stupid…


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The Revolutionary


Among the many, many things I admired most about the late great Prince was how well chosen his few spoken words always were.   I’m going to try to keep this short.

Whenever someone can speak on an instrument as fluently, passionately and adventurously as Charlie Parker or Art Tatum did, we should pay attention.  Whenever a musician can create a musical universe as expansive as Stevie Wonder’s or Duke Ellington’s, we should pay attention.  On the rare occasion that a bandleader and performer can knock our socks off with a show the way James Brown or Bruce Springsteen or Tina Turner have, we should pay attention.  Whenever a prodigious talent turns out an incredible body of work consistently for decades like Picasso or Mozart, we should pay attention. Whenever a musician is able to bring us a fresh, new pop sound whose roots run deep in our country’s musical traditions like Jimi Hendrix or Sly Stone or Aretha Franklin did, we should pay attention.  Prince did all of those things and made it look easy.


When Prince took the pop world by storm in the early 80’s, he lead a band called the Revolution.  That was the right name for them.  Revolutions don’t run for office or vie for influence within the existing ruling class; rather they declare their independence.  In Prince’s revolution black and white worked together as one.  Women instrumentalists were always the recognized equals of their brothers.  Intergenerational shows were common.  Sexuality was one of life’s beautiful, sacred joys.  No apologies or shame were necessary.  Prince was a believer.  His beliefs were his business, not yours.  He never tried to tell you what you were supposed to believe.  In his first TV interview with the Revolution in 1985, Prince said that he prayed every night but never asked for anything.  He just said “Thank you”.

I wish I could be a fraction of the musician, composer, arranger, bandleader, record producer, performer and brave artist that Prince was.

Prince is a God of music and art.  I won’t ask him for anything.  I’ll just say “Thank You”.



P.S. In a recent obit, Prince’s junior high school music teacher said that Prince was always at the band room door at 8am every day, waiting to be let in.  I think it’s a good idea to pay attention to the kid who’s waiting outside the band room at 8am every day.  I also think it’s important that kids have a band room they can go to in their schools.










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Deep Pockets and Pretty Sounds


“When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school it’s a wonder I can think at all.”

-Paul Simon

When I was in High School, there were all kinds of rules about what you were supposed to like and not like.  Dudes talked all kinds of smack.  Very little of it had anything to do with music.  …”Ten thousand whispering and nobody listening” as Bob Dylan wrote and I always quote.  Guys argued over who was the fastest guitarist ever, who was better than whoever else, who took what drugs, etc.   Camps were formed around what style of music you were into.  There was usually a uniform of clothing that went with the music you listened to.  People dismissed entire genres of music.  “I hate Metal.  I hate Disco.  I hate Country, etc…”  I found the whole thing silly.

Just listening to music had always been perfectly gratifying to me without all of the classifications and quantifications people around me tried to apply to it all the time.  Genre didn’t exist when I just closed my eyes and listened.  If something sounded good to my ears, if something felt good, it spoke for itself.  I’ll never forget lying awake in bed in the middle of the night in a hotel room in Lake Placid, NY, listening to old big band swing records on a public radio program I had stumbled across when I was about 13.  I didn’t know what the hell I was listening to, but it sure sounded good to me.  Thank god it was so late and so far from home that no classmates could find me and start trying to explain away my joy.  I can just hear some dude’s older brother…

“No man.  This is old fogey stuff.  This stuff sucks.  Al Dimeola is the fastest, most accurate guitar player ever.”

I had been burned before, heeding that kind of advice.  I had gone and gotten some super-fast shredding electric guitar guy’s record and sat with it for a while.  … “So this is the best music ever, huh?” I had thought to myself, “I guess it’s even better than it sounds”.

So much of  what I loved about the music that I loved was not flashy or measurable by any grading or number.  My favorite drumming might not have been the fastest or most complicated drumming.   I just loved the way a drummer played with the other musicians on a song.  I loved a horn arrangement, tucked smoothly under a vocalist, lending excitement and swing.  I loved the sound of the reeds in a singer’s voice or a rhythm guitar accentuating the hit of snare drum.  I loved the way the words to a song danced along the notes of the melody in rhythm.   I loved a hi hat cymbal opening and closing.  I loved a bass and a kick drum landing together like they were part of the same instrument.

Over the past decade and change, millions of people have tuned into shows like “American Idol” and “The Voice”.  On those shows, winners are likely to bring down the house with some crazy feat of vocal acrobatics.  When it’s all over, one person -always a lone front person- wins the great prize and is then the “Idol” of the masses.  I guess it’s not sexy to have a game show about who can listen the best.   …Too bad, that.  Most people are not busting down the dressing room doors to meet the guy who played a simple bass part really well and I doubt “America’s Most Cooperative Section” would be a highly rated TV show.  …Our loss.


Enough talk.  Let’s just listen to some records and let them do the talking.

(If the links won’t play on this website, just go to youtube and take a listen).

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Star Man


Outside Bowie’s former home in Berlin

Last week I wrote a long post, trying to name my greatest songwriting influences.  I didn’t write about David Bowie.  Bowie’s name appeared in my post, but only on a very long list, among many of the other pop, rock and soul artists I listened to and watched on TV in my youth.  I had always loved David Bowie’s work and listened to his records “for hours and hours and hours” as I said in my blog, but I didn’t really feel that it was realistic to list him as an “influence” of my own.

…Then he died.

Like so many others, this week I am forced to face just how big a loss to the world of music, art and popular culture the loss of David Bowie will be.  And when I examine my own relationship to Bowie’s music, his films and his other many public works of art, I realize just how huge a presence he was in my own life and creative development.

Young American

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I wasn’t alive yet when Bowie emerged on the London music scene in the 1960’s.  I was born a year after his first major wave of pop stardom hit the States.  I missed out on the Ziggy Stardust years as they were happening.  My earliest memories  of David Bowie begin when I was about 10 years old.  “Modern Love” and “Let’s Dance” were mega hits of the early 80’s.  Bowie was a regular presence on the ever-exciting new MTV.


My older brother had an lp copy of the Changes One compilation.  That’s where I first heard Bowie’s classic 70’s anthems.   We wore that record out at our house.  Those songs were immediately enjoyable, and the drama of the stories they told was striking and totally engaging.  The lyrics were always both poetic and theatrical.  I loved getting lost in the fantastic voyage of that record.  There’s nothing quite like the first time you go to space with Major Tom or bob your head to the righteously over-driven electric guitar of “Suffragette City”.  That’s where it really started for me with Bowie,  as it did with millions of people.

Space Oddity

John, I’m Only Dancing


Ziggy Stardust

Suffragette City

Jean Genie

Diamond Dogs

Rebel Rebel

Young Americans


Golden Years

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Throughout my childhood the 80’s, Bowie was seemingly everywhere in pop culture.  You didn’t have to wait long and he’d pop up again. He never looked the same but he always looked striking and he was always appearing at the center of another piece of very edgy yet very popular art.  Bowie always seemed to choose his words exquisitely in interviews while being totally candid and genuine.  I stayed up late to watch the unedited version of the “China Girl” video and Bowie’s short film “Jazzin’ for Blue Jean” on cable.  I walked around with Bowie choruses and hooks and images from his mini-movies in my head .  In every video, live clip and TV appearance, he always seemed to be practically cracking up with the great time he was having, though the subject matter of his songs was never the “God awful small affair”* you’d find in much of the top 40 pop of the time.  When I was a 5th grader, I bought the single “Do They Know it’s Christmas?”  released by Band-Aid, a collective of all the biggest UK pop stars.  On the b-side of the single, there was a re-mix of the song, with greetings from all of the stars involved in the project.   Bowie’s was the last and weightiest greeting.  After everyone else had said “Hello” or “Happy Christmas” his voice came on.  I remember his words by heart.


It’s Christmas 1984

and there are more starving folk on our planet than ever before

please give a thought for them this season and do whatever you can

however small, to help them live.

Have a peaceful New Year

Lady Stardust

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The girls I liked best in high school talked about David Bowie and had his picture on their walls or in their notebooks.  To them, Bowie meant fashion, confidence, intelligence, originality, sexiness, romance, modern art and drama.  For suburban high school boys in the Reagan 80’s, liking Bowie meant something a little different.  The androgyny projected in a good deal of Bowie’s public personae was still seen as pretty scary stuff by the much of the straight, meat-headed mainstream culture of my New York suburb.  Thank God we had the big, bad city close by. We couldn’t help but get a smattering of open-mindedness here and there.

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David Bowie’s music was far too compelling for my friends and I turn away from once we heard it, however strange and challenging his image might have been to the norms of our little world.  The local record store had all of Bowie’s 70’s and 80’s records. My friend Tom Pardo bought a bunch of the Ziggy Albums.  We’d sit in his room and listen to Aladdin Sane, Diamond Dogs and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars and talk about how crazy Bowie looked in the pictures.  Was he …gay …!?!?  Was he from outer space…?   We found VHS copies of The Man Who Fell to Earth and Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence and watched them at sleepovers.  Who the hell was this guy?  …He was cooler than the whole planet.

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Velvet Goldmine


By the time I got to college, I was a full-on rock music fanatic and an incurable music history nerd.  The soundtrack to many of my dorm rooms and road trips included Hunky Dory and The Man Who Sold the World in heavy rotation.  Junior year, I studied abroad in South America and I found that Bowie was every bit as familiar and important to the people I met and played with down there.  As I got more into the history of rock, I learned about the Velvet Underground, Lou Reed, The Stooges, Iggy Pop.  I fell in love with their music.  These were artists who had initially been too edgy and raw to make the pop charts with their music, yet their influence on generations of other musicians and artists was enormous. There again in the history books was David Bowie, championing the cause of these guys.  He covered their material.  He produced some of their most monumental records (Reed’s album Transformer, featuring the signle “Take a Walk on the Wild Side” is perhaps the most famous example).  He integrated their raw power and outsider’s perspective into his own blistering pop music.


All The Young Dudes

Back home in the States, Bowie was and is forever remembered in rock and punk history as the one of the central figures in 70’s ‘Glam’ music.  Perhaps his most famous early 70’s records were made in what fans and writers call the ‘Glam’ period.  T. Rex’s Marc Bolan was a pioneer of the sound and a close ally and influence upon Bowie.  Producer Tony Visconti, guitarist Mick Ronson and several of the same musicians worked with both artists during that extremely fruitful period.  Platform shoes, feather boas, glitter and make-up were also heavily associated with the ‘Glam’ rockers by fans and followers.  But the ‘Glam’ look was only the outer layer for an incredibly prolific set of wonderfully conceived and produced songs and albums that endure long beyond their release in the early 70’s.

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Oh No You’re Not Alone

For Bowie, what’s now remembered as Glam was just another stop along the way in a journey of music, art and theater that started long before and continued on and on.  He was always ready to move in a new direction or to team up with another artist, bringing to the table a very different set of cards.  His only common requirement for collaborators seemed to be that they were inspirationally talented and had an edge all their own.


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As my own personal interests branched out beyond pop music and TV, Bowie seemed to still be always right there, around every corner.  I just kept running into the guy, and everywhere I ran into his work, it was marked with excellence, eloquence and desire to tell the story of one striking outsider or another.  I  was a young theater student and there was Bowie, starring in The Elephant Man on the London stage.   I got deeper into theater and learned about expressionism and Bertolt Brecht and there again was Bowie and his powerful production of Brecht’s Baal.  …And that was just the tip of the iceberg.  Bowie worked in theater and film for 40+ years.

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As the writer Cameron Crowe noted so aptly in a recent Obit, “he is proof that the answer to success in music [or art] is creativity, not branding.”

Crowe writes…

“He curated his life from beginning to end with no commitment to changing trends, but rather just to being authentic. If authenticity is the god you serve, it doesn’t matter if somebody crapped on your last record or not. You’re always on a journey that’s a journey for truth.”


…Is There Life on …Earth?


“The Martians were there–in the canal–reflected in the water. Timothy and Michael and Robert and Mom and Dad.
The Martians stared back up at them for a long, long silent time from the rippling water….”

-Ray Bradbury

As I write this post today, I’ve been listening to Bowie at the Beeb, a collection pulled from a few decades of Bowie’s radio performances.  Once again, what always strikes me most of all, beyond just the exquisite quality of the songwriting  itself, is the urgency, the dedication and the poetry of the musical narrator in every line, the theatricality of it all.  In a more recent NPR interview, Bowie himself stated that when he began making music, he always had it in the back of his mind that he would write music for theater one day.  In the end, Bowie’s whole body of work is a giant, musical, theatrical epic.  Bowie’s output was total theater.  Every costume change was another expression, another creative statement.  Every weird, extreme character was another extension of the human personality.  Bowie’s glittering fiction from outer space is at it’s core an unflinching eye on all of us Earthlings and our forever alien ways.

…As I ask you to focus on 

Sailors fighting in the dance hall

Oh man look at those cavemen go

It’s the freakiest show

Take a look at the lawman

Beating up the wrong guy

Oh man wonder if he’ll ever know

He’s in the best selling show
-From “Life on Mars”


I can’t summarize the enormity of David Bowie’s cultural contribution to us all.  Forced to try, I would say it was something along the lines of “he made the world a safer place to live by constantly challenging it”.  Throughout my life and the lives of so many others, Bowie was always there, being as weird and artsy and intellectual and extreme as he wanted to be and doing it with joy, mastery, grace, bravery and benevolence.  If a few thousand people around us in our every day lives constantly said “don’t rock the boat”,  reliably one very loud, eloquent voice was always saying “the boat must forever rock”.  Let’s live David Bowie’s legacy by freeing our minds as best we can, by exploring and creating freely and with full dedication.  The star man has come to meet us and blown our minds with his “hazy, cosmic jive”.  He may have left this world, but before he left “he told us not to blow it” over and over again “cause he knows it’s all worth while”**.



*lyric from Bowie’s “Life on Mars”

**lyrics from Bowie’s “Star Man”










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Songwriting Influences

MV5BMTMzNTY0MDk2MV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMDU2MDU5NQ@@-1._V1_SX640_SY720_Who are your biggest influences?

If you make any kind of art, chances are someone has asked you this question.  People ask me who my biggest influences are all the time.  I always have a hard time answering them, particularly in short form.   The truth is, I don’t think I can choose who influenced me the most.  There’s certainly a lot of stuff I love and admire.  There are artists whose work I hope to emulate in some way in my own work.   But who’s writing has actually had the strongest influence on my own style or my own sound?  …I have no idea.  I don’t think any of us get to choose that.  We just have to try to make the best stuff we can and someone else can decide who’s influence is the strongest on our work.

Still, I’m tired of shying away from the question.  So today I’m going to attempt to answer it.  And since I’m not standing at a merchandise table, hoping to get a drink of water with 5 minutes to go until my next set, I’ll take my time answering.  Once again: I don’t know if the influence of any of the greats I’m about to name has rubbed off on me or not.  I can only say that I hope it has or I guess it has.

P.S. The song title that appears in quotes after every influence is not necessarily my favorite song by that songwriter.  It’s just one song that I think is a good example of what I love about the songwriter’s work.  In the case of the Beatles, I list one Paul song, one John song and one George Song.

So here goes…

Part I: The Chosen Few

The Big 3

bdylan tumblr_n02qxvC5YQ1rdn31oo1_500 randyBob Dylan, Paul Simon and Randy Newman are roughly my parents’ age.  I started listening to their records as a child and I’ve spent most of my life admiring their songwriting.  I’ve listened to their records over and over and over again and gone to see them all in concert on numerous occasions.  The level of their craft is a standard up in the sky that I don’t think I’ll ever get near, but I’ll die trying.  I think Bob Dylan might just be the greatest lyric poet of the popular song form and I’m not exactly original in thinking so.  He also wrote some of the most enduring tunes ever and delivered them in a really original, personal voice.  Paul Simon combines so much lyrical intelligence and craft with so much catchy melodic brilliance and originality that it makes me dizzy.  His songs were exquisitely recorded (the other two guys made great records too) and he’s definitely the grooviest of the three.  Randy Newman’s composition and harmonic sophistication are way out of my league.  I fell in love with his dark wit and his use of different 1st person narrators for his songs in my teens.  Newman’s New Orleans R&B heritage is alive and well in his music too.  That was a big deal to me.  The strength of the American roots in all three of these three giants was and is something very close to my heart and to my own aesthetic.

“Mr. Tambourine Man”

“Something So Right”

“Naked Man”

Joan of Art

joni_mitchell_by_woodley_barbara_1880-scaled1000Joni Mitchell is so damn musical and artistic and poetic and individual that it overwhelms me.  I’d love to be even a little bit like her but I don’t think it’s possible.  The originality of her melodies and her sounds, her deeply groovy rhythmic sense and the intelligence and elegance of her lyric poetry kicks my ass every time.  Her stylistic journey over the decades has been remarkable.  She really followed the muse where it took her and her craft and natural musicality are just astounding.  I started listening to cheap copies of Joni’s 70’s albums as a kid in the 80’s.  I first learned about her through her association with huge light rock acts like James Taylor, Jackson Browne and Crosby, Stills & Nash.  None of them come anywhere near Joni Mitchell’s artistry in my book.

“Turbulent Indigo”

Another Big Bob

812d2a55a3d825c9d3e9974a9cc7deaeBob Marley wrote a few lifetimes worth of hits and enduring anthems in his own short lifetime.  His songs are light and heavy, fun and serious, full of deep grooves and catchy lines.  You can hear them once and sing them to yourself for the rest of your life.  I’ve never been anywhere in my life that Bob Marley’s image and music weren’t all around me.  He managed to make music that was 100% Jamaican and yet music that people in every part of the world could relate to.  He managed to make songs about weighty and important topics that set the world dancing.

“Trench Town Rock”

The Heights of Lowe


I started listening to Nick Lowe in my early teen years.  I heard one of his songs in the background in the film Rock n Roll High School and I wanted to find out who that guy was.  I’ve been listening to Nick Lowe and going to see him play ever since.  I have all of his albums and I love most of the songs on all of  them.  There are thousands of Nick Lowe fans around the world today, but I still feel that he is greatly under -appreciated.  Poetic intelligence, grace, swing, human kindness and subtlety aren’t exactly championed broadly in our contemporary world, particularly not in my neck of the woods.  Nick Lowe’s work has all of those qualities in spades, much like the great pop song composers of the Great American songbook.  …His songs are playful in that classic songbook way and often very funny too.  What can I say?  I love his songs.  I love his records.  I love his shows.  I love his career.

“What’s So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding”

Old Man Young


The first time I remember hearing Neil Young was in about 7th Grade.  I thought “Gee, this guy sounds weird.”  By the end of that afternoon, I was hooked on the weird guy’s sound.  I have listened Neil Young for most of my life.  His songs are deceivingly simple.  There’s alway some great little Neil Young twist, some chord change nobody else would have made.  The reckless abandon with which he follows his own creative muse has always been an inspiration, however difficult I may have found it to live up to.  I’ve seen him in concert a few times.  Every time he blew me away.  I like his loud electric stuff as much as his sweet acoustic stuff.  I don’t always love his songs but I admire how willing he is to try things and fail.  His powerful yet laid back pocket as a rhythm guitar player is as exciting to me as his screeching wild solos.  I was inspired to play a Martin D-28 guitar largely because his just sounded so damn good.

“Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere”

Taj Mahal and the Ancient Temple of the Blues


Before I knew much about the blues, I knew Taj Mahal.  My best friend had a cassette copy of The Best of Taj Mahal that practically became the soundtrack to our high school friendship.  I fell in love with Taj’s melodies, with the rasp in his voice, with the groovy feeling in all of his stuff and the folk sounds of dobro, blues harp and fretless banjo.  It was rootsy and catchy and full of emotion.  I still perform his songs often to this day.

“Farther On Down The Road”

The gates of the blues just opened up to my curiosity from there and I never get tired of the blues.  I spend a lot of time listening to very old blues.  Perhaps the mightiest of all blues songwriters is Willie Dixon.  Most blues artists cover at least one if not several of his songs.


Willie Dixon with Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy

“The Seventh Son”

Tin Pan Alley Cats and Brill Builders


Johnny Mercer

If you’re trying to write songs with lyrics in English, you’ll do well to get to know the writers whose songs are now referred to as the American songbook.  I’m constantly amazed at just how much content craft and poetry these people could pack into a three minute song (or a few hundred three minute songs!).  The songs of the “songbook” are incredibly hard to write and incredibly easy to listen to and they were written wide open for a myriad of interpretations.  Once I started to listening to standards I was hooked on…

Irving Berlin  “The Song is Ended”

Johnny Mercer  “Accentuate the Positive”

Hoagy Carmichael  “Stardust”

Cole Porter   “Anything Goes”

George & Ira Gershwin  “They all Laughed”

Harold Arlen “Stormy Weather”

Yip Harburg “Over the Rainbow”

Dorothy Fields “The Way You Look Tonight”

Billy Strayhorn “Lush Life”

Jerome Kern  “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”

Richard Rodgers “Blue Moon”

Lorenz Hart  “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered”

Oscar Hammerstein  “It Might as Well be Spring”

and the list goes on…

In American pop music of the 50’s & 60’s, some of the very greatest songwriting was coming out of two buildings full of song publishing companies in midtown manhattan, the first of which was known as the Brill Building.  If I could be a fraction of a fraction as good or as prolific as a few of the great pros from those times, I’d die a happy man.  My favorites among the Brill Building’s legendary songwriting teams…


Burt Bacharach and Hal David

“The Look of Love”


Carole King and Gerry Goffin

“Natural Woman”


Mort Shuman and Doc Pomus

“Save the Last Dance for Me”

The Corporation


Berry Gordy

If you lived during the second half of the 20th Century in the US, then Motown was a part of your life.  Like the Brill Building, Motown was a factory of pop production.  Unbelievably catchy song after unbelievably catchy song was turned out by a team of super sharp writers, only to be preformed by the finest, most soulful young singers backed by the hottest, funkiest studio section around.  Motown songs have been a part of my musical conscious and unconscious for my whole life.  The songs written by Motown’s greatest songwriters, beginning with label-founder Berry Gordy himself, have a lot to do with what I think of as a song.  I could only hope to write one half as good as one of the thousands turned out by Motown.


Smokey Robinson

“My Girl”


Holland, Dozier, Holland

“You Can’t Hurry Love”


Whitfield & Strong

“I Heard it Through The Grapevine”


Ashford & Simpson

“Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing”

The Poet at the Center of the World


What do you know about Chuck Berry?  I think you should know more.  It’s been a long time since his famous records came out on the Chess label in the 1950’s.  If people think of Chuck Berry today, they mostly think of a guy with a red electric guitar, singing “Johnny B. Goode”.  How many of his songs do you know?  Probably many more than you think.  To me, Chuck Berry IS the story of Rock n Roll in America.  He came from the place where North meets South and East meets West.  Onto the pop scene he emerged at the height of America’s post-war prominence in the dead center of the 20th century.  His songwriting style was as informed by T-Bone Walker and Louis Jordan as it was by Hank Williams and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  He was a poet, an outlaw, an outcast, a household name and a middle American businessman all at the same time.  There would be no Beatles or Stones or so many others without Chuck Berry.  Few rappers have equalled his word-slinging prowess and in every one of his songs he made his lyric craft sound effortless.

“Brown Eyed Handsome Man”

The Gentle Master


I don’t think I could admire anyone any more than I admire Allen Toussaint.  His songwriting, his playing, his arranging, his production and his demeanor were all just as good as it gets in American music for me.  Steeped in the musical heritage of his beloved New Orleans, Allen Toussaint wrote, played on, produced, arranged and otherwise championed the cause of so many great pieces of music, it’s hard to fathom.  There is a sober, gentle wisdom and and a deep kindness that shines through the narratives of all of his songs, intertwined with a forever playful, funky spirit. I went to go see Allen Toussaint play a few of his great solo shows at Joe’s Pub in Manhattan.  One time I was even able to go backstage and talk with him.  It was one of the great thrills of my life.  If you want to enjoy the songs of Allen Toussaint, you’ll have to listen to any one of the hundreds of artists that recorded songs from his enormous catalog.

“Freedom For The Stallion”

The Son of No one


My freshman college roommate listened to Paul Westerberg right about the same time that my brother started listening to him.  By winter break that year I was getting Westerberg in both ears.  However many years later, I never gotten over the guy’s stuff.  I don’t know what to tell you about Paul Westerberg.  You should listen to the Replacements and all of his solo albums.   There’s a melodic sense, a sense of tone and emotional immediacy that Paul Westerberg has, that very few people are able to achieve.  His diamond in the rough is a million times better and less full of it than countless dudes who have been written up over and over again as diamonds in the rough.  Lyrically, he doesn’t get me every time, but when he does he has some mighty powers.  I listen to all of the solo albums and selections from 4 or 5 of the  Replacements records all the time to this day.

“Black Eyed Susan”

The Breeze


Simple, little, laid back, bluesy, funky, country, rock n roll songs that no one else could come up with in a million years.  This rather obscure and totally groovy songwriter and guitarist from Oklahoma had and continues to have scads of wannabes, most notably Eric Clapton and Mark Knopfler (I’m a huge Knopfler fan).  Every time a JJ Cale song comes on it’s a miracle to me.  I play several of his songs in my own shows regularly.

“Crazy Mama”

The Funky Kingstonian


I’ve been a reggae fanatic since I was a 10 or 12 years old.  I got started with all of the singers on The Harder They Come soundtrack album.  Toots & The Maytals had two songs on that record and Toots remains a favorite of mine.  In his 50+ year career, Toots has kept his gospel roots integral to his soulful reggae songs.  I’m a lifetime admirer and I’ve tried very consciously over the years to make some of my simple compositions sound like Toots.  I’ve covered lots of Toots’ songs over the years and gone to see him in concert 4 or 5 times.  The guy wouldn’t know how to do a bad show if he tried.

“Pressure Drop”

The River Man


My friend Derek Lee gave me a dubbed cassette of Nick Drake’s Pink Moon to take on a road trip when I was 20.  At first, I just thought I was hearing some obscure acoustic variation on early Pink Floyd, but I liked it, so I listened on and found a whole lot more.  Nick Drake’s writing and playing optimize ‘deceptively simple’.  The three albums that this sad-hearted guitar master made in his short lifetime are gems.  Nick’s voice and his mind-bogglingly beautiful playing get under my skin every time.  There’s a swinging, jazzy sensibility to his stuff that set him apart from all the other acoustic singer/songwriters of his time.  There’s also a joy and a groove that mingles with the melancholy in his voice which has been sadly missing in the work of his imitators.  The minimalism of his chord changes, and the elegant simplicity of his poetry is something I’ve always aspired to.

“Northern Sky”

Grand Ol’ Country

I don’t remember when I was mature enough to admit that I liked country music as much as I do.  I was probably in my early 20’s.  Among the songwriters I’ve listened to most from what most would call the country world…


Hank Williams

“Crazy Heart”


Dolly Parton

“Love is Like a Butterfly”


Willie Nelson

“On The Road Again”


Loretta Lynn

“You Ain’t Woman Enough To Take My Man”


Lucinda Williams

“Lonely Girls”

Allison Wonderland


My parents had a Jazz compilation with one Mose Allison song called “Ask Me Nice”.  The song had everything I loved; groove, blues, swing, word play, intelligence, humor, individuality and understatement.  I don’t pretend to be any kind of jazz player.  But I always wanted to make groovy, funny, soulful, smart tunes like Mose.  He’s a rare cat.

“Your Mind is on Vacation”

Part II:  Contemporaries

If I’ve played with you or heard your songs, I’ve probably tried to glean any good ideas I could from you and your way of doing things.

When I was just starting to write my own songs, I made friends with a kid in my freshman dorm called Garrett.  Garrett would later be known as G. Love.  Garrett was way into the blues and he was already an experienced gigging singer/songwriter when we were just kids.  He was focused and disciplined and practiced a lot.  I sat in his dorm room and learned how to play a lot of chords from him.  He was very encouraging.  We listened to a bunch of cool records and talked a whole lotta music.   I tagged along to a bunch of his early gigs tried to learn what I could.  I feel forever indebted to him.


“This Ain’t Living”

Over the past 5 or 10 years, I’ve played on a great many shared bills .  The majority of those shared bills have been with just a handful of singer/songwriters, now all good friends.  I’ve had a good chance to listen to their songs over the years and I’ve definitely spent a good amount of time wanting to write something as cool as something they wrote.


Julia Joseph

“Keep The Light On”


Carsie Blanton

“Smoke Alarm”


Chris Smither

“Origin of the Species”


Kat Edmonson

“The Long Way Home”

Part III: The Inner Core

The water I grew up drinking

Unknown Unknown-1As I’ve mentioned many times in this blog, I first heard the Beatles when I was 4 or 5.  I loved their music instantly and I wanted to do what they did.  I’ve listened to the Beatles’ music most days of my life since then and it’s only gotten better to listen to.  They were surely an influence on me as they were on 45 Godzillion other people.

1.Hey Jude

2.All I’ve Got to Do


My Soft Beginnings 


“Only The Good Die Young”

My 5th and 6th grade music palate was dominated by Billy Joel.  I had every album from Cold Spring Harbor up to An Innocent Man.  A lot of my earliest impressions of what a song was and what a record was came from Billy Joel.  My mother was a big Billy Joel fan and an even bigger fan of James Taylor.  JT’s music played all the time in our home and in our car.  He was also a very early model of what a singer/songwriter was to me.

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“Fire & Rain”

“Jamaica Say You Will”

When I was about 13 or 14, I found a Jackson Browne record at some flea market somewhere.  I got way into his first few albums and one of the first concerts I ever saw was a Jackson Browne concert.  In my earliest notions of being a singer/songwriter myself, he was the image I had of what a being singer/songwriter would be like/sound like.

Once I heard Van Morrison’s Moondance album in Junior year of High School, I became obsessed with his records.  I really wanted to be Van Morrison for a good while there.  I wanted to write soulful songs that were as folkie and country as they were bluesy and jazzy and I wanted a horn section and a gospel choir to back me up too.


“Sweet Thing”

Punk Rock In The Home

My older brothers had a punk rock band.  They listened to punk rock records around the house and they took me to many punk rock shows.  I was never as deeply intrenched in punk rock as my brothers were but I came away from their influence a huge fan of the Clash and the Ramones, and later I discovered the Velvet Underground and fell hard for them.  I’ve written a lot about the Velvets in past posts on this blog.  I really hope that you’ll listen to the Clash and the Ramones too.  The Clash were so much more than just a punk rock band.  A million cool influences collide in their sound.  You can hear pop, rock, reggae, English folk, R&B, funk and country in their songs.  Their studio musicianship was sharp and exciting.  Joe Strummer’s hoarse, super-energetic, often satyrical singing was always inspiring.  Mick Jones’ pop craft took the whole thing to  a higher level of musical sophistication.  The Ramones had a far more narrow range, but their records always sounded great and featured a screwball, outsider intelligence that I really love.  I love the sound of Joey Ramone’s singing voice.  His sense of pop and satire really were really something special.


The Clash

“Lover’s Rock”


“Not My Place in the 9 to 5 World”


“Here She Comes Now”

The Posters on my Suburban Walls

1980’s New York area Classic Rock, Classic Soul, Lite Rock and Oldies radio had a lot do with my musical formation as did MTV.  I listened to hours and hours and hours of:


Pink Floyd

The Who

Fleetwood Mac

Grateful Dead

Led Zeppelin

Black Sabbath / Ozzy

Huey Lewis & The News


Tom Petty

Bruce Springsteen

Creedence Clearwater Revival

The Band


Rod Stewart

Dire Straits


The Kinks

David Bowie

Bonnie Raitt

Steve Miller

The Eagles

The Bee Gees

KC & The Sunshine Band

The Rolling Stones

Cat Stevens

Lynyrd Skynyrd

Jimi Hendrix

Jefferson Airplane/ Starship

Kenny Rogers

John Denver

Aretha Franklin

Otis Redding

Wilson Pickett

Sam & Dave


Lionel Richie

The Police

The Pretenders

Talking Heads


Gamble & Huff

Curtis Mayfield / The Impressions


Roberta Flack

Steely Dan


Stevie Wonder

The Cars

Hall & Oates

Johnny Nash

Michael Jackson

Sly & The Family Stone

Parliament / Funkadelic

Bob Seger

The Doors

Phil Collins / Genesis

Bill Withers

Al Green

Ray Charles

Tina Turner

Little Richard

Fatso Domino


Elvis Presley

Charlie Rich

Roy Orbison

Al Green

Steve Winwood / Traffic / Spencer Davis

…and the list goes on and on and on and on and on…


…But What About Leonard Cohen?


I love a whole bunch of Leonard Cohen’s stuff, from all periods in his catalog.  I can’t pretend that I’ve spent as much time listening to him as I have spent listening to most of the other people I mentioned, but I really like him.  I’ve listened to a few of his albums on repeat over the years.  I’ve gone to see him in concert and read some of his writings.  He’s one of the best lyric writers I’ve ever heard/read.

“The Future”

…And What about Tom Waits?


I think the guy writes very well, but I have yet to really have my own personal Tom Waits freak out.  A lot of my friends have been totally crazy about the guy over the years.  Once again, I can’t pretend that I’ve spent as much time listening to him as so many other people.  I have listened to him some and there are for sure a bunch of his songs that I just love from all different points in his career.

“Old ’55”

If I’m being honest, I know I’ve spent many more hours in my life listening to Joe Walsh or Jimmy Cliff.  But I don’t remember anyone ever coming up to me after a gig and asking me if I was influenced by either one of them.



“Sitting in Limbo”

….How about you?

Who are your biggest influences?

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B.B. King: An Appreciation


Some years ago, I was playing a road game in the van that I often like to play.  Everyone takes turns coming up with fill-in-the-blank statements and everyone else has to finish the statement as quickly as they can without thinking about their answer.  I began one round by saying “The greatest live performer of all time is…” and my brother Ben immediately shot back… “B.B. King”.  Nobody could really argue with that statement, especially not anyone who had ever seen  B.B. King in concert.


All kinds of people have something to say about B.B. King.  Why shouldn’t they?  He played for people in every corner of the Earth.  He averaged way over 200 concerts a year for decades.  So many people have heard him, seen him and felt his presence in this world.   You don’t need me to tell you his biography.  That information is everywhere on the internet and in the library.  I will however, recommend that you read his autobiography.  It came out about 15 years ago.  It’s a great read.  You really get the personality of the man.  There are tons of great stories and he’ll hip you to some of the wonderful music that he was into when he was coming up.  From BB, I learned about T-Bone Walker, Lonnie Johnson and Louis Jordan, just to name a few.

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I became aware of B.B. King at a very young age.  I saw him playing on TV and his picture was in a book called The Guitar Handbook, that my mom had given my older brother for a gift.  A couple of years after that I saw a British documentary about B.B. on PBS.  I loved the way his music sounded and felt.  I loved his singing and the sound of his guitar.  I loved the fact that he toured all over the world all the time, practiced every day and just wanted to play more and more.  I felt the same way.  I still do.  I got my first B.B. King album in tenth grade and ever since then, I’ve picked up just about every B.B. King lp or 45 that I’ve come across in yard sales or used record stores wherever I happen to be wandering.  B.B. was the headliner of the Newport Jazz Festival Tour that came to the Jones Beach Theater in New York two years in a row during my junior and senior years of high school.  I went both times with a bunch of music head friends.  We’re still talking about the year it poured rain during his set.   The amphitheater was half empty and the old master improvised on his cranked up electric guitar for an hour plus, pulling out some of the most inspired, searing, experimental stuff any of us ever associated with B.B. King or blues guitar.

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When it all comes down

Look for me and I’ll still be around

My feelings about B.B. King are probably shared by a few million people:  There’s a lonely, longing and yet somehow joyful place that I’ve always been able to feel, deep down in my chest.  I ignore it a lot, when I’m just trying to get through the day and get things done.  BB King’s singing and playing always remind me that that place is still there, deep down inside.  His music lives there.  For my entire life, there has always been this giant shining presence, joyfully, soulfully, confidently wailing.  Whatever the rest of us were up to, he was on some stage somewhere in the world, crying, kicking ass and cracking up with laughter all at the same time.  Like so many others, I’ve taken so much comfort in knowing that he was out there.


Let’s listen to the Music of B.B. King…


Do yourself a favor and resist the greatest hits packages when it comes to digging into the music of  B.B. King.  Please don’t rely on Spotify to educate you either.  You’ll want to dig deep.  When I got into B.B.’s music, I had to track down old vinyl records in used record stores and then hope that they were great all the way home to my record player.  Luckily for you and me, we can now get a taste for just how wonderful some of these records are on any one of a zillion Youtube clips.  I’ll give you a few examples.

B.B. King started recording circa 1950.  Some of his greatest singing was done when he still sang with the high range of a young man.

“Bad Luck” 1956:

Some of his coolest, most adventurous guitar playing was done before he had ever “crossed over” to the larger, whiter market.

“Early in the Morning” 1957:

He made a whole album’s worth of guitar instrumentals in the early 60’s.

“38th Street Blues”  1960:

He made several beautiful straight-up soul records in the 70’s.

“Hold On (I Feel Our Love is Changing)”  1975:

Though he’s most known for recordings backed by big bands with horn sections, his personal favorite of his own albums was “My Kind of Blues”, recorded at Chess Records in Chicago with a small group.

“Driving Wheel” 1961:

He made funky, dance records that most people probably don’t remember.

“The B.B. Jones” 1968 (dig the writing credits):

…I could send you links until the wee hours of the morning:

“Three O’Clock Blues” 1950:

…and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

My home is in the delta

B.B. King (19)

Over the course of his long, hugely successful career, B.B. King became known as the “Ambassador of the Blues”  because he traveled to so many places, bringing with him what was at it’s core a very African American and deep Southern art form.  Some “purists” might tell you that B.B. King’s blues were urban, polished and therefore not as directly from the source as the music of some more rural delta bluesmen.  I love the rural, pre-war blues.  I listen to early blues all the time.  I’ve even written about a few of the older blues artists in previous posts.  So let’s get something straight right here:  B.B. King didn’t invent the blues.  He didn’t invent the blues on electric guitar either.  Many of his most famous songs were recorded by other people first.  No one could or should survive on a blues diet of BB King alone.  There are countless wonderful blues artists that came before, during and after B.B. King.   I urge you to go out and learn about and listen to as much of the blues as you can.  But guess what… Once you do, B.B. King will still be wonderful.  He was a marvelous singer, guitar player and band leader with a voice, tone and style all his own.  His songs were built upon a deep, heavy groove that only knew how to swing.  And regardless of the urbanity and jazz that made it’s way into his music, his roots in the Mississippi delta (where he was born and raised) are never lost.

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Most of all, I just want to say thank you to B.B. King for singing his heart out with his voice and his guitar, for crying those blues and making all of those hearts joyfully ache and all of those butts joyfully shake across the world for so long.

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I Hear A Symphony


Joseph Haydn

I’ve been listening to a lot of classical music lately. …Ok.  I’ve probably lost what few readers I have right there.  Classical music isn’t exactly lighting up the charts these days (not that I have any idea what is lighting up the charts these days).  People around me seem to care less about classical music every day.  I’ve been informally polling the people I know and most of them don’t listen to classical music ever.  Classical music isn’t funky.  It doesn’t swing.  It doesn’t rock.  It doesn’t usually have a heavy, steady backbeat.  It’s not great for 3 minute MP3’s on a playlist.  The pieces are often kinda long.  If you go see a classical concert, you’re supposed to stay quiet while they play the music.  That’s a particularly tough one for a lot of people these days.  Tickets to classical concerts are expensive (though most people in New York wouldn’t think twice about dropping that kind of money on dinner).  Most of all, classical music is just an old art form.  Orchestral music came from a long time ago and it seems a little remote to most of us these days.


Yo Yo Man and Hip Hop Dancer Lil’ Buck

I have to admit that I find the task of really getting to know classical music a little daunting.  What am I going to know about classical music anyway?  I’m not a trained musician.  I’m an acoustic guitar and words guy.  My songs are very simple.  And there’s just so much classical music.  Where do I start?  When could I possibly even listen to much of it?  I’m not familiar with half of the Stones’ records.  When might I get to know Schubert’s 600+ songs?  …600 songs?!?  That’s just one guy!  Maybe I should just start with his 9 symphonies.  Getting to know 9 symphonies at least seems possible, particularly next to Haydn’s 100+ symphonies, or next to the catalog of a guy like Mozart.  If you’re looking to get daunted by what you don’t know, just look on Wikipedia at a list of the works written by Mozart.  The dude wrote over 60 symphonies alone and he wasn’t even really famous for his symphonies.  I guess Mozart had a little extra time for symphony writing though.  He didn’t die at 32 like Schubert.  He lived to a ripe old 35.  ..Yikes!  Let’s look on the bright side:  I’m pretty sure we’re not going to run out of classical music to listen to any time soon. A lot of people probably don’t even really know what classical music is, beyond it being the stuff with violins and cellos and orchestras led by conductors wearing tuxedos and waving batons.  They might know that it started in Europe with those wig, ruffle and buckle shoe guys that made the music you hear in costume dramas.  But there’s also that peculiar, noisy,  more recent abstract stuff that people call classical music too.  So we’re talking about a couple/three hundred years of music and roughly 1.3 zillion pieces we’ve never heard of.   Ok.  …Where do we start?  …How ’bout by just listening? Mozart_in_Naples_whole Russian Composer Igor Stravinsky, 1958

Remember the feeling as a child 

when you woke up and morning smiled

it’s time you felt like you did then


I had the very good fortune of getting to listen to a lot of different music in the first few years of my life, before I knew what any of it was.  My parents would put records on in the living room or put tapes on in the car and I would just sit and listen to whatever they put on, letting my imagination go wherever it did.  Later on I learned which records were the classical records and which were the pop ones, etc…  At first, it was all just music and I was way into it.  Some of the albums I loved from those early days: 1380 61P-s7OY3CL._SY355_ 410SmcwysEL 61HDHDK1CEL 51CaSduyezL._SY300_ R-3755884-1343101970-9893.jpeg

There were all kinds of dramatic moments in each of those records that I loved. I could make up my own story lines to go along with them. There were many beautiful and striking sounds. I loved the proud, strong, powerful brass.   I loved the sneaky, spooky sound of plucked violins and cellos. I loved the soothing gentle reeds.  I loved the  wandering piano that could turn heavy and rumbling at any moment.  Listening to an orchestra felt like swimming in an ocean of sound. Deep within the vast, expansive sea there were so many different things moving around near and far, all part of the same giant living organism. I can put those records on today and once again I’m swimming in that ocean of sound.


If you don’t know where to start with classical music, I recommend giving some child-like listening a shot. Try any piece of classical music. You can develop your own taste over time. For now, let yourself be liberated by what you don’t know. Dig the sounds. Learn about them later.

I’m painting my room in a colorful way

and when my mind is wandering 

there I will go


My folks’ classical records weren’t the only records that put me in touch with that expansive feeling. My good friends the Beatles had many wonderful soundscapes that were perfectly fascinating to my little boy ears in a similar way.  As it turns out, classical music had a lot to do with those marvelous Beatles records too. The Beatles records were produced and often arranged by a man named George Martin, himself a classically trained musician. Martin had started his professional recording career as an engineer of classical records. He went on to produce stacks of top selling British comedy records before signing the Beatles and busting into the pop and rock music field for a few decades. To everything he produced, Martin brought a classical sensibility.  He wrote an excellent memoir that I highly recommend:


I’m not so sure George Martin “created ” the Beatles, but he sure was good.  In his book, he writes all about his education in music, the development of his recording techniques, the history of the music industry in England and the development of the stereo recording process.  He also writes a whole bunch of anecdotes about working with the Beatles on some of the most enduring pop records ever.  George Martin is great in interviews too. I love the way he talks. He as a very polite, gentle, old fashioned posh British accent.   I recommend Youtubing an interview with him sometime.


George Martin in the studio with the Beatles

So what was this “classical sensibility” that George Martin and others like him brought to pop music? Well it doesn’t just mean that they added violins and horns and harpsichords to pop records. “Classical” music was a school of composing, arranging and presenting music.  It was a movement of music theory and style that flourished in European cities in the 18th and early 19th century.  Like any other “classical” art or architecture,  classical music derives it’s aesthetic philosophy from the teachings of the ancient Greeks and Romans. The style was perhaps best exemplified in the works of Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Mozart.  I heard a rather clear definition of classical music yesterday in a lecture by Professor Robert Greenberg on the works of Hadyn. Said Greenberg… Classicism means balance: the perfect balance of melody, harmony, form and expression. The Classical ideal was music possessing memorable clear melodies; clear phrase structure and musical form (proportion); and emotional restraint (aesthetic purity).


Rembrandt’s ‘Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer’

The style we think of as “classical music” was worked up by these cats over a couple hundred years.  Like the ancient Greeks and Romans they admired, they sought to create a a fine science of their aesthetics.  They created teachable written theories of harmony, of counterpoint, of compositional structure, of instrument playing technique.  Generations of musicians (first in Europe and then elsewhere) came up through the study and performance of this kind of music. Whenever they had to deal with the creation of a melodic line or the arrangement of a bunch of voices or a bunch of instruments, they were able to consult those couple hundred years of recorded theory.  Later on, many composers of the 19th and 20th century would come to define their style by breaking the rules that classicism had established (Beethoven, Wagner, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Ives, Cage, as big examples).  But it was only as students of the classical school that they were able to rebel against it.

TrioSonata jcage 30fd10005ea4285ad0a004f695e19bc2 George-Martin-conducting-Beatles-554-46

In the 20th century, there were still many people working in professional music and music recording who had learned classical technique and theory first. There are still some today, though a whole lot fewer than there used to be.  The classical sensibility was very helpful in the arrangement of all kinds of popular music. Classically trained cats were able to write very cool and original arrangements for big jazz bands and movie scores for example. Once multi-track recording and the stereo concept became a part of the record making process, the mixing of the tracks and the placement of the tracks within the stereo spectrum became a modern symphony of it’s own. The producers and engineers became modern conductors of the orchestra of recorded sounds.  So when George Martin was given the task of arranging the various sounds in a Beatles recording, he approached it the way a classically trained musician might approach any piece of music.   He sought to achieve that “balance of melody, harmony, form and expression” in the Beatles’ records. …I think that balance was achieved pretty darn well in those records!


Big time pop producer Nile Rodgers at the mixing console.

Roll Over Beethoven

Let’s forget about classical music or any category for a minute.  Whatever music we’re listening to, what do we like about it? 1.Hopefully there’s a really good tune or at a least a cool hook. 2.Hopefully there’s some really good playing. 3.Hopefully there are some very dynamic and enjoyable sounds. Now go back a few hundred years. If you came up with a good tune and you wanted to record it you had two choices: You could write it down in musical notation or you could pass it down orally in folk tradition. The latter was pretty much a game of telephone. So let’s say you had the desire and you had the wherewithal to learn notation and write down your ideas. If you wanted to make the equivalent of a multi-track recording, you would have write a piece for multiple voices or multiple instruments or both. When exactly all of those different voices made or didn’t make noise and how would be up to your composition and the way it was conducted.  …A symphony or an orchestral piece was the high budget, major production record of it’s time. Concierto-Beethoven 015_Die_Brüder_Steinegger_nach_einem_Lichtbild_in_den_1880er-Jahren_-_Änderung_der_Tracht

Classically Approaching a Hip Hop Garageband Solo Demo tumblr_inline_mizsclVAhu1qz4rgp

Let’s return to our home in the 21st Century.  So now we’ve been many times sold the legend of the unschooled savant, the rugged individual and the power of all-mighty technology.   So you’re way into that too.  You’ve decided you’re going to be the guy doing everything now. You’ve got sound recording and editing software for your computer. You’re going to write music and lyrics, sing all of the voices and play all of the instruments yourself on different tracks. Ok. good for you. This is your symphony. You’re Beethoven and his librettist and his conductor and his orchestra. How will all the sounds that you make interact? What kind of dynamics can you achieve in the course of your creation? How full can you make your musical environment? How interestingly can you make the performance of each voice that sings on your recording? How well can you balance your melodies with your harmonies, your form with your expression?   These are still really good questions to ask yourself, even if you’ve never studied music at all. Paul-John-Composing-the-beatles-12731570-400-330

I Hear a Symphony

You don’t need classical training to make beautiful, meaningful, evocative music.  There are plenty of examples of brilliant composers of song that never read a note (Irving Berlin and the Beatles come to mind).  While those untrained guys have always given an ignoramus like me hope, I think it would be really dopey to dismiss the brilliant accomplishments of a few hundred years of intensive study.  It would be equally as dopey to think that you need to be untrained to be original.  Get to know the works of some of the most famous classically trained composers.    I don’t think you’ll find them to be lacking in brilliance.  And even if you never learn to play classical music, thinking classically even for an afternoon might just revolutionize your listening pleasure.  Let your ears take in the symphony of all different arrangements of sound.  It could be Berry Gordy and the greats of Motown in their giant explosion of hit pop records in the 60’s.  It could be a bluegrass ensemble really getting a breakdown going, or a hip hop recording full of ingeniously layered tracks.  Listen to Bach wander all over the organ in a toccata or to one of Mozart’s divas play her vocal register like a perfectly tuned horn.  Open the doors of possibility.  Take a swim in the ocean of music.

22daf17df107d1316b92fd5d6c487c8e star_gazing23-2 “What countless impressions of a brighter, better life hast thou stamped upon our souls!” -Franz Schubert, to Mozart

Some of the pieces I was spinning while I wrote this:

J.S. Bach; The Goldberg Variations played by Daniel Barenboim

J.S. Bach; The Six Trio Sonatas for Organ played by Peter Hurford

J.S. Bach; Violin Concerto in A minor played by David Oistrach

Beethoven;  The complete piano Sonatas, played by Artur Rubinstein

Beethoven; Septet, played by the Vienna Chamber Orchestra

Beethoven; the Nine Symphonies, conducted by Toscanini

Brahms; Clarinet Quintet played by members of the Cleveland Orchestra

Chausson; Concerto for Violin, Piano and String Quartet, played by Itzhak Perlman, Jorge Bolet and the Juliard String Quartet

Debussy; La Mer, played by George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra

Haydn; The Farewell Symphony, played by the Vienna Philharmonic

Haydn; String Quartets op. 33, played by the Vienna String Quartet

Alan Hovhaness; Symphony Number 2

Mozart; Piano Concerto number 18 in B Flat, Rudolph Serkin and the London Symphony Orchestra

Ravel; Concerto in G major for piano and orchestra

Schubert; Lieder, sung by Dietrich Fischer Dachau

Stravinsky; Ebony Concerto and Symphony in Three Movements, played by the London Symphony Orchestra

Villa Lobos; works for Spanish Guitar played by Laurindo Almeida

…How ’bout you?  Any favorite pieces of classical music? Little-Baby-Girl-Playing-with-Piaono

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Miscellaneous Musings and Holiday Cheer


Hello my friends!  December is here in New York City.  Lots of people are frantically getting into the season, partaking in the hallowed old American tradition / religion of buying lots of stuff. I spent a good part of the week wandering around Manhattan watching them. I bought a few used books on St. Mark’s place, some music stand lights for my band mates and some warm socks for my relatives. That’s about as much American consumer team spirit as I’ve got in me. It was freezing cold and clear tonight. I had the very distinct pleasure of driving across the Williamsburg Bridge and up along the FDR drive. The skyline was extra glorious. My whole life I’ve been a huge fan of the giant Pepsi-Cola sign in Long Island City, seen clearly from the East side of Manhattan.   That sign shone with particular glory tonight. I guess my love for that giant neon commercial is similar to what a secular art collector feels for a piece old religious art from his/her country. I’m critical of the religion, but awed by the beauty of the relic.


Normally on this blog I essay on one particular topic that’s on my mind. Often I write about one artist’s work or one particular record that I’m digging. This time I think I’ll just write short little pieces about various musings that have come up in my recent wanderings.

In the blues there’s a punch line


“Some people say the green river blues ain’t bad

Some people say the green river blues ain’t bad

Then it must not be the green river blues I had”

-Charley Patton, “Green River Blues”

Did you ever notice how much humor there is in the blues? Too many people think of the blues as music about sadness. I know. Colloquially speaking, we’re sad when we “have the blues”. But to think of the blues as just sad music is really a very silly oversimplification. Like any other really good meaningful form of music or narrative, blues songs are just songs about the predicament of being a human being. “Songs about the predicament of being a human being” however, would be a truly awful name for a genre of music. “The blues” is way cooler. Listen to some classic blues songs by Muddy Waters or Howlin Wolf or Robert Johnson and pay attention to the lyrics. They’re singing about all kinds of moments, happy, sad, sexy, angry, lonesome. Very often there’s a lot of joking going on. Even when the subject matter is something sad or serious, the lyrics often lead up to wise-ass rhyme.


I’ve got “I Sit Up All Night” by a guy called St. Louis Jimmy spinning right now. Jimmy sings about a lady friend with a drinking problem…

Pint of whiskey was one shot, chaser was a fifth of wine

Doctors tapped her for water, alcohol was all they could find

If you get to know the blues, you will learn that there are all kinds of variations and intricacies and different sub-styles within what we think of as the blues. But there is one particular blues structure that’s most familiar to most listeners. It’s often referred to as the I-IV-V blues structure, because of chords of the scale that you use to play it. So much of the most fundamental blues music from all periods and early rock and roll music is based around those three chords. So here’s how the most basic I-IV-V blues structure works:

1.You sing a line while playing the dominant I chord of any key of the major scale.

2.You repeat the same line while playing the dominant IV chord of the same scale.

3.You sing a different line that somehow answers the first line while playing the dominant V chord, followed by the dominat IV chord and you resolve on the I chord where you started .


“The Back Door Man” by Willie Dixon



I am the back door man


I am the back door man

D                                           C                          G

The men don’t know but the little girls understand.

…Can you see how the third line is the punch line?


Willie Dixon was a master at these kind of dark jokes.

Another Willie Dixon favorite of mine, also from “Back Door Man”:

“I was accused of murder in the first degree

The Judge’s wife cried ‘Let the man go free!’”

Way before Dixon’s time, the very first of the pre-war bluesmen were cracking their hard luck  jokes.  In “Matchbox Blues” Blind Lemon Jefferson wrote…


“I’m sitting here wondering, would a matchbox hold my clothes

I ain’t got no matches but I sure got a long way to go.”

There’s humor in there. Times are tough, tough, tough and yet the lyric is playful. The guy is joking around. Just like Furry Lewis’s “I Will Turn Your Money Green” in which Lewis sings “I been down so long that it looks like up to me” or Albert King’s famous “Born Under a Bad Sign” (Written by Williams Bell & Booker T Jones)…

Born under a bad sign

Been Down since I could crawl

If it wasn’t for bad luck

I wouldn’t have no luck at all


Dark humor has helped so many people get through this life and it’s many ups and downs and downs and downs. Tragicomedy as an intellectual concept was strange and abstract to people when Samuel Beckett called his “Waiting For Godot” a tragicomedy in 1953. Bluesmen were hip to the concept a long time before then even if they didn’t know they were. I could go on quoting blues lyrics but I invite you to just listen to some blues record you like and dig the comedy.

You can trust Randy Newman because his first album is weird

I was opening a bunch of shows for Chris Smither last month. In addition to being a great songwriter and a formidable blues guitarist, Chris is also a great guy to talk music with. Somehow Randy Newman’s first album came up. When I was a kid (pre-internet) that album was long out of print and I had to look all over for it. I eventually tracked down a copy of the lp in a classical music record store in a Midtown Manhattan that I had read about in the paper. It sure was a weird record. It wasn’t like any of the other light rock of Newman’s 70’s contemporaries.


Randy’s debut includes some wonderfully weird compositions. The only really well known one is a song called “I Think it’s Going to Rain Today” that went on to became a hit for a bunch of different artists. The album features the composer’s own lush orchestrations, idiosyncratic vocals and intentionally odd harmonies. The subject matter of the lyrics is often intentionally circus-freakish and oddball as well.   So many of Newman’s songs come off like show tunes from a bizarre show that never actually existed. I’m very impressed with that kid for how he chose to introduce himself to the world musically. I love how ambitious and unsteady his first record is. He doesn’t pull everything off exactly, but at least you know you can trust the guy. He goes for difficult-to-achieve things artistically and he’s obviously not afraid of the non-commerciality of his endeavors. It’s not that he wouldn’t be happy with a hit. He’d love one. But he can’t help but be weird and smart and have his own personality and sense of humor. The young Newman would follow his debut a year or two later with 12 Songs, a much more earthy, rootsy kind of affair (with plenty of screwy characters of it’s own). I recommend listening to all of Randy Newman’s albums. They haven’t let me down. The very early stuff is definitely worth it.

Folk singer is a cool job

 A lot of the gigs I’ve played over the past 10 years have been in venues (theaters, clubs, concert series veneus and coffee houses) that make up part of the fading American “folk circuit”. The folk circuit was a big deal in the 50’s and 60’s. Many huge pop stars and perennial rock favorites came out of the folk scene (Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Bonnie Raitt, Joni Mitchell, to name a few). Even back in the 60’s, the actual connection between the “folk” circuit and the passage of folklore was starting to come apart.


There aren’t many people that spend their lives learning old stories and songs and relaying them to the people for a living.   It’s never been a particularly dependable way to make a buck, but I think being a folk singer would be a very nice way to spend one’s life. Folklore is a force of nature, of human history. People tell little stories to each other and pass them on. We always have. Folk tales are getting told all around us every day. They’re not necessarily being told by dudes with acoustic guitars and turtlenecks in coffee houses. But they’re out there if you want to hear them and learn them. We pass on our little stories around the campfire, in the pub, or in hit songs, blockbuster movies or youtube clips. It’s just something we do. We can’t help it.


I’d love to be a folk singer some day or a folk tale re-teller. Rather than trying to write something about my own daily experience or some hot topic of the moment, as a folk singer I’d learn stories that have existed for a while, stories about fictional characters. And each time I told someone else’s stories, I’d leave this week’s details behind. I’d find my way into moments outside of time, happenings that never really occurred and never really will and yet they’re somehow more real than any attempt we could make to capture the moment we’re living in. And if I was a folk singer, every time I’d deliver some story about a riverboat gambler or a Scottish lass or an Indian chief, I’d do something even more personal than telling my own story. I’d tell the human story. It’s a big deal, folk singing.   Many of us laugh it and call it names…That’s because we’re silly.

Some more thoughts on performance, fame and rejection


Fame is but a fruit tree

So very unsound

Nick Drake


I perform songs in public for a living. In many ways it’s a very strange way to go about interacting with the world. Rejection is a huge part of your life when you put your act out there. It’s an odd thing to sign up for, but I still like it better than any other job I could have. This morning I was listening to an old Terry Gross interview from the late 90’s with the aforementioned Randy Newman. At one point, Randy began to sing Terry one of his songs and he had to stop. He laughed at how embarrassed he felt to sing his song to someone who could see his eyes while he sang. He admitted that he was used to being blinded by the lights of a theater. I’m definitely thankful every time I get a chance to sing my songs blinded by theater lights. More often I’m able to see everyone around me in the room, reacting to my songs or not, eating their dinner, talking to each other or doing whatever they’re doing. In order to perform regularly in that circumstance, you have to learn to not take personally people’s reactions, their inattention or even their occasional disdain for what you do. But here’s the catch: In order to sing meaningful songs the best you can, you have to actually put your heart and your emotions into your performance every time you sing. So the balancing act of caring and yet not caring can be kinda tricky. I spend a fair amount of my time imagining that if I was famous and had millions of fans, this problem would vanish into thin air. I can’t really tell you how much truth there is in that as I’ve never been famous. I’m pretty sure that my fantasies are just the same old “grass is greener” bs we all engage in. I’ll have to get back to you on that.


…That’s another thing I try to not take personally. If I compare my own life to many of my heroes (which I do a lot more frequently than I’d like to), so many songwriters I admire were and are a million times more famous than I’ve ever been. When I got started writing songs and performing them, I don’t know if I expected to become famous, but I sure hoped I would. Now many years, songs, records and concerts later, I’m still largely unknown. There may be a few thousand people who have heard my songs. There maybe a few hundred that really like them. I don’t even know. I’m very grateful to all of the people that have listened to my songs, bought my recordings and come to my shows. When you’re trying to be an entertainer, it feels great to know that you’ve entertained. I wish millions of people knew my stuff and bought my records. But whether they have or not isn’t as meaningful as everyone (myself included) always tries to make it. When it’s time to make a good song, your reputation, your public stature and your life story won’t make it happen. Songs are wonderfully indifferent in that way.


A friend of mine recently sent me a book that offers some good perspective on the whole scenario. It’s called Finite and Infinite Games. The author, James P. Carse, divides up all of human endeavor into the two categories in the title. The pursuit of fame and fortune would be a perfect example of a finite game. It’s a game we either win or lose. We may be famous for a year or for a thousand years but fame and fortune have boundaries and limitations. The pursuit of art is rather an infinite game. We neither win nor lose and the goal is the game itself. I figure it like this: Win or lose we’re headed to the same place. What games we decide to engage ourselves in during this lifetime (when we don’t have to focus on mere survival) will be up to us.


Go if you’re able

and come if you can

Life’s very unstable

It’s built upon sand


The Song IS the Act: Irving Berlin


If you’ve read this blog, you’ve probably noticed that I write largely about records from 50-60 years ago, way before I was born. I’m completely out of step with what’s cool or what’s been cool for decades. Hopefully, I will remedy all of that now when I write about a songwriter born in 1888.

I’m always hoping to hear a great song. My whole world lights up when I hear a great song. I love a great act, whatever it is. A great singer, a great dancer, a comedian that makes me crack up. I love ‘em all. When a songwriter is truly great, the compositions themselves can be the act that entertains the audience. A good tune and some well-crafted lyrics are among the most wonderful things I know in this life. I’m not talking about heavy abstraction either. Just as comedy is often way harder to achieve than deep, dark drama, a good little tune with catchy, memorable lyrics is often the hardest kind of music to make. A great little ditty takes brains and heart and soul and taste and rhythm. I’m hoping I’ll hear a new song like that today.  And I don’t care who wrote it or when they were born.

Irving Berlin was born in Russia in 1888 and grew up on New York’s Lower East Side, pretty close to penniless. He had very limited formal education. He didn’t read music and first entered show business as a singing waiter in a downtown saloon. He eventually wrote and published over 1,000 songs, words and music, just banging out tunes that he made up in his head on a few keys of a piano. Sit and listen to any versions of any of his songs sometime.   There are thousands of readily available recordings of Irving Berlin songs by scads of super famous singers. You will hear simple songs, brilliant songs, funny and heartbreaking songs with catchy little melodies and immediately understandable yet never predictable rhyming lyrics. I don’t know where to start with the guy.   He was a poet with the gift of song and a way with words like just about no one else. He was the granddaddy of them all in 20th Century popular song.   Nearly all of those that followed in his footsteps did so as part of a collaborative team with a music or lyrics partner.  Irving Berlin was a one man song machine.  I don’t have to tell you why his songs are good. Just listen to them. A few of my favorites by the master:


All Alone


Blue Skies

Change Partners

Cheek to Cheek

Easter Parade

He Ain’t Got Rhythm

How Deep is the Ocean

Lady of the Evening

Let’s Face the Music and Dance

Let Yourself Go

A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody

Say It Isn’t So

There’s No Business Like Showbusiness

They Say It’s Wonderful

This Year’s Kisses

Top Hat, White Tie and Tails

What’ll I do

White Christmas

RIP The great Ian McLagan


Just before Thanksgiving I got a call about opening up for Ian McLagan, famed British keyboardist at a club that I love in New Haven, CT. I believe my answer was “Hell Yes”. Ian McLagan was most famously a member of the band the Small Faces, which later morphed into the Faces with Rod Stewart and Ron Wood. The Small or otherwise Faces were 60’s and 70’s rock and roll animals that made many wonderful pop records and kicked a lot of butt. McLagan himself was a super groovy, ass kicking player. I love those Faces records and his playing on them. I spin them all the time. McLagan ended up playing with all kinds of people, the Rolling Stones among others. That night in New Haven I was glad to shake his hand and see him cheerily playing to a full house. He was a rock star, getting on towards 70 years old, a veteran of stadiums and theaters, playing in a small pub for 40 or 50 people. Still, he gave everyone in that room all he had. I was impressed. McLagan was all set to go on tour with my hero Nick Lowe’s holiday review this month. Unfortunately, he had a stroke and died on the first day of the Nick Lowe tour. I didn’t really know the guy, but I was glad to have met him. I loved his playing and his “show must go on” spirit. They don’t make many like him these days.


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I am a Rock …who happens to be like a Rolling Stone

Do me a favor and play Bob Dylan’s original recording of “Like a Rolling Stone” from Highway 61 Revisited when you can. Immediately after you’re done listening to that, put on Simon & Garfunkel’s “I am a Rock”. The Simon & Garfunkel record came out a year after the Dylan record and has remarkably similar instrumentation (organ, electric guitar, drum sound).  It was produced by Bob Johnston, the same guy who produced the Highway 61 Album (though not the “Like a Rolling Stone” single). Paul Simon first released “I Am a Rock” on a solo record that came out in England a month after the Dylan single came out. Even if he wasn’t consciously trying to, I think it’s very possible that the young songwriter was caught up in the ‘rolling stone’ vibe when he came up with “I Am a Rock”.  The songs aren’t melodically similar.   But just the angry lyrical use of someone being a rock or a stone sounds connected. Maybe it wasn’t. Maybe Bob Johnston just heard the potential similarity himself or someone involved in the session just thought it would be hip to get a band track like Dylan’s going for that song. I don’t know. I just love when stuff like that happens.   In the early 70’s, an American group called King Harvest had a hit with a Van Morrison-esque song called “Dancing in the Moonlight”. Morrison’s “Moondance” had of course been a big FM hit a couple of years earlier. “King Harvest” was itself the title of a song by the Band, who were at their peak of popularity at that time.

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…This is the kind of stuff I think about a lot.


Happy Holidays, my friends!

Hang around with people you love.

Be nice to people.

…And when January comes around…

…keep doing the same.

Milty’s Holiday Listening Picks:

John Fahey’s Christmas Album – always a super classic, shown to me first by the great Julia Joseph circa 2010.  Thanks Julia!


Mozart Bassoon Concerto in Bb

Jean Francaix Concerto for Bassoon and 11 strings



I don’t know why, but a good bassoon goes a long way at Holiday time.

The Faces First Step


A lesser known but no less wonderful Faces record in honor of the late great Ian McLagan

Bobby Womack The Facts of Life


Purchased while hanging with my man Dan Nachimson and having one of our semi-annual Brooklyn record spins.  Muscle Schoals cats backing Bobby.  Sweet 70’s Soul grooves.

Nick Lowe’s Quality Street


A nice, cheeky listen with masterful singing and playing.  The cover looks like a movie poster for a Wes Anderson film.

George Harrison All Things Must Pass (preferably on lp on a cheap stereo)


One of the best cozy winter’s day spins of them all.

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A convenient time to talk about inconvenient things.

All of these people are much brighter than I

In any fair system they would flourish and thrive

But they barely survive

They eek out a living

They barely survive

Randy Newman


Memphis Garbage Workers’ Strike of 1968

I’ve got old records spinning and I’m sitting at my beloved writing desk on an early autumn evening. The crickets are making plenty of great noise outside.

I’ve spent most of the year (and the past several years) making my living leading a band called the Loyales that plays covers at weddings, parties, bars and restaurants.  I’ve also played my own material in a whole bunch of shows in listening rooms, concert series venues, small theaters and festivals in different cities around the U.S., mostly as an opening act.  In order to make sure that the rent and bills are always paid, I’ve maintained a view of my gig playing duty like that of a fireman. If the phone rings, I slide down the pole and play the gig. It doesn’t matter what time it is, what the weather is like or if it’s a holiday.  If I’m lucky enough to make my living playing music, the answer to the question of “are you available to play…?” is almost always “yes”.  I spend a lot of hours at the wheel of my van.  I’ll be back on the road in just a few days.

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On nights like tonight with no gigs and no rehearsals, I often work on my band homework, learning new material, practicing parts, making set lists, planning travel logistics, ordering replacement gear for stuff that broke, changing guitar strings.  I spend hours upon hours corresponding with venue managers, booking agents and wedding and party clients.  I also spend a good deal of my free time reproaching myself for not being more productive (I don’t recommend this as a worthwhile expenditure of anyone’s time). It’s been a long time since I wrote a piece for my blog and I’ve really been missing it.  As far as I know, only a few people have ever read this blog.  I am supremely thankful to you all.  A handful of people have gotten in touch with me over the last couple of years to respond to blog posts.  They’ve all warmed my heart in doing so.  I really enjoy writing this blog and deep down I know that it doesn’t really matter if a million people read what I have to say or if ten do.  If I really feel I’ve got something to say, I’d better say it.


I just finished reading a book about the last year of Martin Luther King Jr’s life called “Death of a King” by Tavis Smiley, with David Ritz, author of many of my favorite music biographies. I couldn’t recommend the book highly enough.  It’s a proud, though often painful look at a world leader, a firm believer and a practitioner of a faith in his darkest hour. People all over the planet are familiar with the name and image of Mr. Luther King Jr. History has left most of us with the picture of an African American minister leading well-dressed protestors in non-violent marches for civil rights. We see and hear King in black and white film, making his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial before a huge crowd in 1963. We think of him as a man of peace, a hero to the black community and to the American people. We know that he was murdered a few years later, shot by a bad man, but loved by us all.

 The truth is rarely pure and never simple.

Oscar Wilde

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Tavis Smiley’s book shows us a portrait of a leader of a movement that is running out of money and has divided into factions vying for power, a citizen of a country whose government considers him one of it’s most dangerous public enemies, a once widely beloved public figure whose popularity has dropped dramatically in a very short period of time, and a practitioner of a philosophy that has been largely declared passé and ineffective by the majority of the people that once supported him. This is not the part of the MLK story that we Americans like. It’s not the part of the story that we choose to teach our children. The part where the humble, respectable minister sticks to his ideals, turns the other cheek to hateful aggression, gets a whole country marching in the streets and overturns old legislation in the name of freedom is fine by us.  But we’re not very keen on the part where the same minister wakes up each day after the legislation is passed to face a country whose race problems haven’t gone away.  We don’t sing songs about the public figure returning to Memphis to continue working on a very unpopular garbage workers’ strike after violence has erupted at his last attempted peaceful protest there.  We’re not proud of the American activist who wants us to face the fact that the American dream of freedom to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is being actively denied to millions of people by the policies of the country that introduced the very dream.  We don’t celebrate a Christian pacifist who reminds us all that our country leads the world in acts of violent aggression. We’re not comfortable with the humanitarian who reminds us that a nation in which money buys human dignity is not a just nation.

…you’ll find out when you reach the top

you’re on the bottom

Bob Dylan


By the time he died, MLK had “seen the mountain top” as he said in his last public speech in Memphis.  He had seen the mountain top of triumph for his struggle when civil rights legislation was passed in 1963.  He had seen the mountain top of popularity when he addressed enthusiastic throngs in Washington DC, when he was celebrated by the president of his country and when he was awarded the Nobel peace prize in Sweden.  But King was not a man who chose his causes by their popularity.  He dedicated his life to his faith in the power and value of human kindness and compassion, based firmly in the scripture of his religion. By the time King was shot in 1968, pacifism was no longer the most popular form of protest among black activists in the US. King’s style of non-violent protest was seen by many as out of date, out of touch and weak. But faith is not a style or a trend.  Martin Luther King didn’t believe that non-violence was the expedient way to achieve a specific political goal.  He believed it was the right way for humans to interact with other humans at all times.  He saw no reason to change his belief in something that had never proven harmful to anyone.

A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.

Martin Luther King Jr.


A few nights ago I was riding across the State of Ohio with my bass player and pal Joe Plowman.   We were listening to Sean Penn reading Bob Dylan’s Chronicles on an audio book. It was such a pleasure to see the Bohemian Greenwich Village that existed before my time come alive before my eyes, with the help of Dylan’s formidable prose writing and Penn’s apt audio acting.  What a story!  The precocious young kid from Minnesota comes to the big city and navigates his way around the folk music scene, the Village counterculture and the major label record business, staking out a territory all his own and rising to legendary status.  The rough outline of Dylan’s life story, along with that of the Beatles and their career in music has served most of my life as one of the central mythologies in whatever you might call my own religion.  Dylan is just about the same age as my parents.  He sprang into notoriety rapidly within the American folk music scene at exactly the same time that MLK was making his “I Have A Dream Speech”.  He was even there that day at the Lincoln memorial, singing his songs with Joan Baez. Like King, Dylan would see a large number of his original supporters turn on him just a few years later when they became unhappy with the music he was making. Unlike King, Dylan was not killed, nor made the target of FBI harassment (to my knowledge). And though he may have lost some of his original fan-base and received plenty of hatred from those opposed to him, his world-wide popularity and commercial success grew over the many years that followed, with some dips and disturbances along the way.  Still, there is similarity to be seen between the artist and the activist in the artist’s choice to make works not based on their potential popularity but rather based on the genuine nature of the expression that lies at their core.  When Dylan made a series of songs praising Jesus in the early 1980’s, many people were not interested in hearing them.  I wasn’t crazy about those records myself. Many people voiced their bewilderment and annoyance with Dylan’s choices loudly.  He still made the records.   I’m glad he did.  Dylan’s kind of bravery was not the kind that makes a public speech with death threats coming in by phone.  But an artist’s ability to follow his own artistic vision regardless of it’s affect on his reputation and financial success is still genuine bravery.


The adherence to a greater calling than the maximization of personal gain seems more and more rare in American society and talking about that fact is less popular than ever. For Americans, a success story is almost always the story of someone becoming rich.   Think if you can of a very famous American, who’s broke or even one who’s moderately well-to-do.  Name a very successful American in any field, who isn’t the ally or the employee of a large, for-profit corporation. …Come up with anyone?

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Don’t get me wrong.  Wanting to be rich makes perfect sense to me. From a very young age it looked really great to me to be rich and famous and I wanted to be rich and famous too.  My heroes were the Beatles and Dylan and boy weren’t they rich and famous?  They flew all over the world all the time in jet planes. They rode in limousines and lived in mansions with swimming pools. Their outfits were always unique and fabulous.  They could have whatever they wanted for dinner and own all of the records and guitars they wanted.  Interviewers were fascinated by their opinion on everything, their writings and sayings were quoted all the time and big crowds of people showed their approval wildly any time they so much as walked into a room.  That all looked wonderful to me.  But the gift that the Beatles and Bob Dylan gave me was infinitely greater than the luxuries the world has thrown upon them.  I started listening to their records on loan from the library for free when I was about 6 years old.  Anytime I wanted to for my whole life, I could listen to their beautiful, joyous, masterful and inspiring music.  I still can and it only gets better each time I listen to it.  What was and is great about their music and all of the famous songs that I love so much by anyone is not that how famous they are but how good they are.  And there are plenty of artists whose work I’m crazy about who lived and died without owning much more than the clothes they were wearing.


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Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind.

Henry James

Reading Tavis Smiley’s book about Martin Luther King reminded of some truths that are often lost in the day to day struggle to get by and the day to day struggle to find peace with oneself.  Whatever you’re trying to achieve, there may be big loud powerful voices all around you, telling you that you’re wrong, that you’re irrelevant, that you’re goals are useless.  You don’t owe it to the world to agree with them.  The agreement you’d do best to find is within yourself.  Martin Luther King knew that creating an industry of war machines for profit was evil.  He knew that using military might on civilians to achieve a political aim was also evil.  He knew that the poorest people in the world were at their core the same as the wealthiest people in the world and deserved as much human kindness, respect and dignity as anyone else.  He knew that people still organized themselves in unequal casts based on racial and ethnic identities.  He knew that a society that oppressed its poor masses would eventually self-destruct.  He wasn’t willing to pretend that he didn’t know any of those things.   …And none of the truths he lived, worked and died for seem irrelevant at all today.

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Rather than irrelevant, MLK’s truths were and are “inconvenient”, to borrow the title of Al Gore’s book on climate change from a few years back.   It’s painful to face the hypocrisy of your own country.  It’s unpleasant to face the un-improving condition of the down-trodden.  It may be unpopular to sing songs about decidedly unpopular subjects.  However inconvenient, however unpleasant, however strange and unpopular these truths were, MLK was brave enough to speak those truths until the very end.   I hope that I can find that kind of bravery within myself and that we all can.  It doesn’t matter if the truth we must speak is that our country is perpetrating acts of violence on innocent people or whether that truth is simply that “looking out on the morning rain, I used to feel so uninspired”*.  If we’ve really got something to say, we’d better say it.

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Old records Listened to while writing:
Stephen Stills – Mansassas


Les Paul Now


Josh Graves w/Bobby Smith & the Boys from Shiloh

Creaciones Inolvidables de Ariel Ramirez

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Sly & The Family Stone – Small Talk


The John Lewis Piano

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Bob Dylan (self-titled)


The Best Of Etta James

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Heifitz, Primrose and Piatigorsky – Beethoven Trios

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Kenny Rogers & The First Edition – Tell It All Brother


Harry Belafonte, Mark Twain and other folk favorites

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Most of these records were purchased at

Clockwork Records in Hastings on Hudson, NY

Everybody’s Records in Cincinnati, OH

Mystic Disc in Mystic, CT

* from “Natural Woman”  lyrics by Gerry Goffin.

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Love Letters Straight from the Heart

Ketty Lester  Unknown

I’m listening to a song on repeat called “Love Letters” by a singer named Ketty Lester.  Have you ever listened to it?  Please do.  I heard it for the first time the other night.  It was playing over the closing credits of a documentary I was watching.  I was taken with the recording, the playing, the singer’s performance and the song.  “Love Letters” came out in 1962 and it’s the kind of song often referred to as a “torch song”.

According to my dictionary a torch song is: a sad or sentimental song, typically about unrequited love.


The name “torch songs” probably comes from the expression “to carry a torch for someone” i.e. to have strong feelings for someone.  Historically, women more than men have been placed in the category of “torch” singers.  The classic torch singers sang their siren songs over elegant band arrangements, dressed in elegant clothing and fine jewels.  The heyday of the great torch singers and their recordings came between the early 50’s and the early 60’s.

A few of the more famous ones:

Sarah Vaughan
Rosemary Clooney
Julie London
Dinah Washington
Judy Garland
Nina Simone
Peggy Lee
Dinah Shore
Nancy Wilson

rosemary-clooney-1-d12-c12 images Julie-London

I’m a huge fan of a good torch song and a good torch singer.  Nothing gets me through my darkest hours quite like a good torch song.

I’m not alone in the night

when I can have all the love

you write[1]

 Many of the recordings that I would consider my favorite torch songs feature male vocalists and come from other periods in time.  And though I love the visual elegance of the famous chanteuses, I don’t really care so much about their get-up when I’m listening.  What’s more important to me is the way the song is written and the way the song is played and sung.  Torch singing is not to be confused with the vocal acrobatics that we celebrate on all of our favorite reality/game shows today.  It’s not about how a voice gets contorted or the size of a singer’s range; it’s about what you can feel when you listen to the track.


We should also not confuse torch songs with the “confessional” material of many singer/songwriters.  A great torch song is extremely personal and yet not personal at all.   The song might hit you in a very personal place, but one of the great things about the torch song is the fact that it’s bound to no one person.  A torch song works because it’s not about what some schmo like me did today.  It’s not a song about how I was going to go to see the new Wes Anderson movie with you at the movie theater on Route 119 but we were late at the Italian restaurant and we got in a fight about our plans next weekend.[2]  Rather it’s a song about people feeling things that people have felt and will feel as long as there are people.

Most often, the torch singer is not the person who wrote the song.  You may never have heard of the person who wrote the song.  But whoever the writer is, somebody has written a song that’s good enough for the singer (and many singers) and the listener (and many listeners) to relate to.  Hoagy Carmichael might have been thinking about the summer he spent at the lake with a girl named Mildred when he wrote “Stardust”[3], but that’s not what a singer would need to know to feel the song.  And when that singer goes to sing that song, he or she reaches deep down into that inner chamber where the torch is burning.  That torch is burning in all of us.  The torch singer and the torch song take us to where the embers glow.


All good songs are really torch songs at their core.  Song is really just the voice of the human soul.  Whoever or whatever we carry a torch for in the depths of our soul will live and move in a good song.  Those who have really mastered the craft of singing and writing songs did so by working and working at it, and putting the song first in their choices.  All great writers and singers must be honest, and their honesty must include the ability to leave what doesn’t work on the cutting room floor.  They must be good listeners, especially good at listening to their own hearts.  Deep down they are carrying a torch and they have very good access to it.  They strengthen that inner connection through the pursuit of their craft.  The craft in turn becomes seamless to the listener.  Someone we don’t know who doesn’t know us has worked very hard honing phrasing, dynamics, rhythm, breath and tone to give us what we will perceive as a “love letter straight from the heart”.

copland572    peggy-lee-singing1   loveletter

If you think a torch song is corny, trite or easy, sit down and try to write one some time.  After you’ve tried, go back and listen to “Love Letters” again.  Let me know what you think.

Here are a  few torch songs I love.  I’m pretty sure all of them are up on youtube if you’d like to listen to them:

“Love Letters”  by Ketty Lester
written by Victor Young and Edward Heyman

“Our Day Will Come” by Ruby & The Romantics
written by Bob Halliard and Mort Garson

“If I Had You” by Nat King Cole
written by Jimmy Campbell, Reg Connelly and Ted Shapiro

“Nothing Takes the Place of You” by Toussaint McCall
written by Alan Robinson & Toussaint McCall

“Again” by Dinah Washington
written by Dorcas Cochran and Lionel Newman

“Stardust” by Frank Sinatra with Tommy Dorsey
written by Hoagy Carmichael & Mitchel Parish

“Do What You Gotta Do” by Roberta Flack
written by Jimmy Webb

“I Cry Alone” by Ruby and The Romantics
written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David

“Standing In The Doorway” by Bob Dylan
written by Bob Dylan

“A Cottage For Sale” by Les Paul & Mary Ford
written by Willard Robison and Larry Conley

“Forever” by Marvin Gaye
written by Brian Holland, Freddie Gorman & Lamont Dozier

“That’s All” by Sam Cooke
written by Alan Brandt and Bob Haymes

“All I Could Do Is Cry” by Etta James
written by Billy Davis, Bill, G Fuqua, and Berry Gordy Jr

“What’ll I Do” by Nat King Cole
written by Irving Berlin

“Who’s Lovin’ You” by the Jackson 5
written by Smokey Robinson

…Do you have any favorites?  I’d love to know.


[1] From “Love Letters”

[2] That’s not what I did today, but I guess you’d know that because that’s not what you did today either.

[3] I have absolutely no reason to believe that’s what inspired him to write that song.

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