14 July 2019

Meet My Guitars, Won’t You?

My first guitar I bought used from a classified ad, a Harmony acoustic for $100 with action so high it was for all purposes unplayable. Spending most of my early life woefully misinformed, and having no experience or guidance, I attributed the fault in the instrument to an inability in myself to learn. But I was nagged by a deep visceral desire for a guitar, and imagined one day I could play. 

My second guitar, a fetching Fender Telecaster, blond finish, rosewood neck, requires this back story:

While I was growing up, my mother had a Finnish friend Mrs. Forsell. One afternoon we were visiting and Mrs. F praised her son Jan aloud for opening a savings account and faithfully depositing his work money, having socked away a sweet $25 already. The usual boring fare of Finn catch up ensued until about an hour later, when Jan walks in the door triumphant with a racing car set. Cost: $25. Where did he get the money? I filed this lesson away for later reference.

When I went to college, over the summer I worked at the National Civil War Wax Museum. My mother insists 50% of my salary go to tuition. Inspired by Jan Forsell, I had long awaited the opportunity to raid my savings account, which I could now do since I was 18. Every other cent I earned that summer purchased the guitar of my dreams, played by my heroes Bruce Springsteen and Chrissie Hynde.  

The device was ordered surreptitious by mail from Mandolin Brothers in Staten Island. I went to the bank and got a cashiers check, all done on the sly. My mom was livid, but there was nothing she could do.

I named her Angelique after the witch on Dark Shadows. I always knew that’s what I would name her, and all my subsequent guitars were named after witches on television, then any fictional witches when I ran out of acceptable TV names. They are: Samantha, Esmerelda, Sabrinas 1 and 2, Willow, Lorelei, Hermione and Angelique 2. My go to bass is named Desdemona. I named my mandolin Mindy in honor of Mindy Jostyn, who could play many instruments well. People who can do that have always fascinated me. Mindy’s picture sits on my recording workspace to inspire and encourage.

Angelique is embellished with her name spelled out in NYC Subway letter stickers, and a length of lace presented by my creative school friend Angela. Over time she became difficult for me to play, as she has a thick neck, and my hands cheerfully developed carpal tunnel syndrome. I decided I needed a Fender Stratocaster with a slim neck, like the one Buddy Holly played. At this point, for the uninitiated, I should clarify guitarists typically prefer Fender guitars, twangy and trebly due to single coil pickups, or Gibson, which sport a fatter sound from humbucking double coil pickups. I fall solidly in the Fender camp.  
Samantha, named for Elizabeth Montgomery’s character in Bewitched, is a Strat Plus, purchased with a winter’s slavish overtime from my first job in Boston. The Strat Plus is equipped with noiseless lace sensor pickups, which basically means you don’t get any extraneous sounds from the single coil pickups, the downside of them compared to  humbuckers, and what you sacrifice to get the twangy trebly notes you might desire. Think surf music here. She’s a dandy instrument that I gussied up with a fancy decal of a flemish painting. After a period of time playing noiseless lace sensor pickups, I realized: I miss the noise. Hence Esmerelda, a green Strat that came from Mexico, who makes lots of noise.

Like any decent guitar, Angelique began appreciating in value. The more value she racked up, the more reluctant I became to play her. While dating a true and serious classical violist, I found myself one icy January night standing with her and the members of a posh quartet outside a concert hall at Harvard. She turned to me and asked, “Which million dollar instrument would you like to be responsible for carrying back to the car?” Before I assumed that responsibly, successfully I may add, I thought: I can probably just play that guitar.

I have grown less prissy about them, rationalized that since I paid for them with my own hard earned dollars, I can jolly well do what I like to them: modify the electronics, decorating them in appropriate manner reflecting their personality and, what was the biggest stretch for me based on my frugal Finnish upbringing, sand off the finish on the necks. I don’t mind much if they get beat up from use. I see valuable or famous instruments in museums in cases, and I think: that’s no fun. Instruments are meant to be played.

04 July 2019

And Yet I’m Not Married, In Song

My Pretty Wife was begun around a time a bunch of my friends were getting married. The fiction of it was a response to a song by Juliana Hatfield, My Sister, which I assumed was fictional. The sister in that song is kind of moody but also super cool, and I thought that would be the kind of woman I’d probably want to marry. Ancillary fact: Juliana H is an artist I’ve probably seen perform more than any other.

I lifted some images in the song from life, others I made up. My friend Sharon actually did walk herself down the aisle, which I considered very hip, and I was insistent with myself about including that. One image was lifted from a Lou Grant rant on the Mary Tyler Moore Show, and the dotted line lyric came right out of Nancy comics. Melissa used to work at the video store in my neighborhood when I first moved to Boston, and she wore a chain around her waist, although if it was silver is pure speculation.

Musically I was particularly pleased with the droning chord against the changes when the speaker meets his wife emerging from a crowd: a sonic effect I find fascinating. I’m also very keen on the inclusion of bell chimes, something I’ve always wanted to do since I heard it to great effect on a Blondie record. The snapping bass line towards the end I didn’t think I could pull off with my lame right hand, but I did so yay me playing the bass. I struggled with the vocals - any effects sounded gimmicky. 

Overall I find this rendering trippy and psychedelic. That suits me.

Download and listen to this hit single here:


20 June 2019

Did You Get Out?

I was just thinking about this pretty girl I met once, with shoulder length brunette hair and sporting a baseball jersey from the Central Park Concert series from 1976, sponsored by Dr Pepper. I had been there to see Melanie that year, and mentioned that to her.

We met in the locked ward at Morristown General Hospital, 5th floor I think, June 1981. She was just coming in and I was just getting out. I was there because about 10 days before I had, while very drunk, tried to hack my wrists open with a dull razor blade. The school I attended at the time frowned upon such pursuits, and I was given the choice to vacate the premises mid-summer semester, I was taking an Intro French course, or be incarcerated. I made the choice, while still fairly loopy, to go to the hospital, which in retrospect was probably the wiser of the two, so yay me.

If you have never sobered up in the locked ward of a mental institution, I do not recommend it. My distinct recollection is of the metal door with wire mesh reinforced windows slamming shut behind me, and a very large fellow in paper slippers shuffling towards me with love in his eyes. There was a pay phone. This was frightening.

Despite there being stringent rules, nobody bothered to confiscated my shaving razor, an egregious oversight considering, and I often stayed up late watching TV, because I was intrigued by a serialization of The Scarlet Letter on PBS, and I can on occasion be capable of a really credible passive aggressive flaunting of the rules. One night I was joined by some fellow inmates, also emboldened I guess by my ignoring the rules.

After a while, one elderly gent ventured, “What are we watching?”

It was an Alfred Hitchcock flick. “I think it’s Psycho,” I said. We laughed and laughed.

I had an older male roommate who snored. That made the nights long.

There was a cheap stereo and 10 records in the common room. 9 I forget, but the 10th was Born To Run, a record I can say, without exaggeration, at that moment saved my life.  

I have often commented subsequently that to either my credit or the detriment of the mental health authorities, I convinced them I was well and was released in 10 days. To them my behavior was an isolated incident.

Which is how I found myself on this particular Thursday afternoon packing my sack and prepping to bicycle (!) back to the dorm. My psych roommate commended my hard work in achieving release, although we had never exchanged more than a few cordial sentences, and he had no real working knowledge of what I had or hadn’t done.

Enter the girl, looking pretty much as terrified as I think I must have upon arrival. I asked to talk to her, and we stepped into a room.

“You need to get out of here. As soon as you can.”

“It’s encouraging to see that people actually leave.”

I wished her luck, and let her go. I never learned her name, why she was there, but I still see her in my head, and I have never forgotten her. I was hoping again today she got out and is ok.

19 June 2019

In which I ask the Musical Question: Does The End Justify The Means?

The title of the song Machiavelli In Love was suggested by me: an inspired line in the song Hands Go Crazy, which I believe I copped sideways from a Kate Bush lyric. I was intrigued by the reaction of my friend Julie who went all knee-knocky at the over-the-top lyric, and I recognized the expressive possibilities therein. 

As is my wont, before writing I embarked on a scholarly investigation of my man Nicolo, as his writings were, among many other seminal texts, cheerfully excluded from my public school education, and I wanted to lift some historically accurate lyrics. Along with some lines from Sun Tsu’s The Art of War, and a memorable contribution from my work chum Rachel providing a troublesome line that completed the tune, this is probably the most literarily accurate pop tune about Machiavelli getting all swoony over a girl you are likely to encounter. My reference to the Book of Isaiah is perhaps my single most favorite lyric I ever dreamed up. Go me.

I get giddy for most any romance as war metaphor. As my speaker I think correctly points out, Machiavelli did not say the end justifies the means. I hope that the source inspiration and subsequent centuries of nefarious misunderstanding of that misquote do not cloud the intent of this little bit of aural theatre.

I decided to name my little music project after this song, as I liked the crazy dichotomy it sets up for me to play with. Songs that follow will reflect this.

The song has gone through a few permutations, but I like the hell for wheels version I came up with here. The pace was inspired by a recent listen to the band Cherry Glazerr, and the lyrical pacing tries to emulate Elvis Costello. The distorted vocal was inspired by Miley Cyrus. This is the Winston Churchill mix of the prop. I’m not sure if that will cause problems for me or not later, so enjoy the “Whatever the cost may be…” speech while you can. 

These are demos, so I am working to improve the quality with each project, and learning along the way how. If you are listening to these ditties, do let me know what you think.

Download the song here:


28 May 2019

In Which I Present Another Song.

The song Hands Go Crazy was inspired by the following work by the Spanish Poet Gloria Fuertes:


Mis manos son dos aves,
a lo mejor palomas.
Que buscan por el aire
una luz en la sombra.
Mis manos al mirarte,
quedaron pensativas,
yo temo que enloquezcan
si es que en ti no se posan.

I recited the working lyrics one night to a friend Julie. She was suddenly silent, then uttered a low “Wow.” I had not realized it had any potential until that moment, and the particular phrase she admired will figure prominently in my next song.

I don’t know that I can provide any clarity on my songwriting process. First chaos, then I beat the words and music until they sound right, trying to figure out how to play what I hear in my head and what the song demands. I think I got close. For me a song is working when it grabs ahold of you and pulls you along on its little narrative adventure, perhaps a little unwillingly.

I’ve always imagined this song like a dark take on the Ronettes Be My Baby, more longing than realization. Sometimes I hear the Jump Shout Boogie, perhaps an equally dark notion. I was particularly pleased to include a pair of toy castanets on a stick, which seemed to be integral to the sound. I suppose I could have invested in some legitimate castanets, but I liked the idea of using toys.

Those who know me understand that I have rarely hesitated to make a complete fool of myself. However, performing music, even for a recording, is a challenge for me. Singing, in my head I sometimes sound tuneful and a little like Cher. In recording I sound either passably tolerable or the worse sound imaginable. There is no map to belting out some tune you conjured up out of the ether. I read an interesting book about the Beatles: Revolution in the Head. One story revolved around George’s reluctance to sing out of his, to him, acceptable vocal range. John and Paul’s response was basically: step up and sing the song. I have tried to do my best.

The solo guitar at the end was copped from St. Vincent, who called the tuning Glam: where all the strings are tuned to the same note. It struck the right tone of armageddon. I also stole some technique from Dawn Baxter, a guitarist I admire fro the band Twin Heart. I like to think I learned, also from Twin Heart, exercising some restraint resulted in more power.

Find the song to download here:

04 May 2019

When You’re Afraid

I never really wanted to write this, and still hesitate. I’ve always felt that it was a waste of time and ink to remember someone best, and so deserving, to be forgotten.

I was sitting in an emergency exercise a few weeks ago, I’ve been through dozens of them, when I realized we were practicing for something that could put someone I care about in enormous danger. This could happen to her at any time, and there was nothing I could do. I experienced a fear I hadn’t in decades, running the length of my spine, blood running cold, heart stopping.

I can’t remember the exact time I was first truly afraid, but I am be certain that it was in the comfort of my own home, and of my father. We had fire and nuclear attack drills at school. These didn’t bother me.

There is a certain narrative to childhood that persists, and when it gets violated, nobody wants to hear it. I think back on the troubled kids I knew growing up, and wonder how many of them were having their rosy picture of innocence screwed with. I remember  divulging details of my story, and it being scoffed. I learned not to. We were constantly struggling for food, but when I mentioned this to one of my tormentors, he laughed and said I lived in a posh neighborhood. When I looked around, I saw it was true, and began to appreciate how complicated the narrative could get. 

I can count on one hand, with fingers left over, the number of times I had school friends over to my house. My alcoholic father’s behavior was so wildly unpredictable that any kid that came to our house could be in danger. Neighborhood kids shunned me, and it took me many years later to realize it was because they were warned away. I was fortunate to have a few savvy school friends that seemed to comprehend. My siblings were older, brave and protective. They could have easily been abusers, since they experienced the same life, sometimes worse than mine. I am grateful they were not.

There was lots of crazy. Surrender now that any of what I describe will make sense. It was all just part of the big growing crazy that was accepted every time it happened. There was no single event that carried me from comfort to the fear, pervasive and constant. We simply folded crazy events into our story, just like they happened everywhere. 

Initially I assumed they did. Then one day at school the teacher asked, “what did your family talk about at the dinner table last night?” I thought this was a joke, and was stunned when each child rattled off an answer. I knew enough to parrot normalcy, and I borrowed Eric Lewis’ answer. The teacher, as always, drifted over me. Anonymity was a skill I’d learned. 

That night at dinner, I piped up with an open question. Perhaps my family didn’t know they were supposed to engage in discourse over dinner. My brothers both paused mid bite and looked at me like I had two heads. Jay, the eldest, pondered for a moment, then delivered a curt answer that satisfied my question, but delivered a clear message that we should be done with conversation. 

Dinner typically played this way: Wayne ate the fastest, I came in second. Jay was quick behind us, then my sister Linda. My mother ate slowest. Our goal: get away from the table before a fight broke out.

The old man could do anything at dinner. He could pitch a fit about the food being burnt, too boiled, start a fight or storm off. One night he pushed the dishes aside and engaged in an elaborate ritual, kissing the placemat and his fingertips repeatedly like he was at crazy worship. He took issue with my eating habits, memorably chasing me screaming around the house one night with a boiled potato on a fork. Sometimes he ate.

Or he could simply not show up. He was out getting drunk. Even though this meal would be quiet, this was prelude to worse happenings later, day or night, soon or later, always inevitable. 

My mother viewed every detox or rehab stint as a new beginning when he’d finally be well. I found this puzzling after, say, the first three takes I witnessed, and could never fathom why anyone would think that. It was always a matter of waiting until it happened, and the signal was his absence at dinner.

I should characterize my father as I knew him: dark complected, dark hair slicked back. Late 40s to 56 when he dies, maybe 5’ 8”, a distended stomach from drinking, but a powerfully strong carpenter, until he eventually stopped working altogether. Built like an ape, and covered with coarse hair.

Some of his behavior seems comic now, like the night he decided to mix it up with a city bus. The bus won and he was brought to a hospital. The hospital calls in the late night. I’m not sure who my mother spoke to, but they were either asking permission or informing her they are sending him home, despite his injuries, because he is drunk, angry and combative. The phrase I remember is this: “The doctors and nurses said he could snap their necks in an instant.” 

We retreated to my sister’s bedroom upstairs to wait out the night, ridiculous in retrospect since the door was paper thin, and he could have torn right through it. A cab brought him home sometime in the night. We watched him stumble out and make his way to the dank basement, where he slept on an old couch under the stairs. He stayed there for a few days before he emerged, everyone acting like nothing had happened. 

Police were often summoned to deal with his behavior, day and night. I remember one young office, strong with light hair, dealing with my mother after the old man fled into the deep woods across the street from our house. He said they recognized my father was a danger but they could do nothing unless she pressed charges. With a crazy indignity I heard many times in many forms over the years, she replied, “I can’t press charges - he’s my husband!” I can see the cop looking at me now, standing in the dilapidated driveway, with a mixture of pity and exasperation.

I was left alone at home during the summers. He was never a caretaker, and would never be around consistently, but my mother had to work in order for us to survive. On bad days, there were subtle clues, I would sometimes hide in a closet under the eaves of the roof. Although he supposedly built the house, he never figured out I was there. Salt spots formed on the boards where I sat and sweated in the heat. The heat never bothered me, and doesn’t bother me much to this day. Cold does. My father would turn off the heat and drain the radiators in winter.

This is a story I’ve told: I’m 10 or 11. I found a book for 56¢ at Kresgees, a small store that sold lots of stuff, about how to make electronic things. I sometimes imagined I would make things, though I really never got around to it. Imagining things, extravagant wild things, helped me cope. I was intrigued by an electromagnet that would supposedly lift many metals.

Another project in the book was how to make a telephone microphone from a soup can. I left this book lying about and the old man perused it, no doubt to reinforce one of his punctuate attacks on what I ought to be doing (on the arbitrary list: watching Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, hating black people). I had also inherited from my brothers a small reel to reel tape recorder, a gift from our Uncle Axel. From this, and perhaps from news about Watergate, pop managed to extrapolate the following: I was tapping the phones and recording his conversations. What 10 year old doesn't?

When the son of a bitch ever used the phone and who he had to call I can’t imagine. I saw him make two actual phone calls ever, both of them concerning Carpenters’ Union dues. There was some brief conversations and accusations surrounding my wiretapping, which fell into the general category of low grade crazy, so I was on alert, but not too concerned. I also made the serious error of thinking that since this was a completely unrealistic accusation that there was going to be no real follow up. 

Around 3 AM one morning he burst into my room, shone a flashlight in my face and shouted, “Give me the tapes or I’ll kill you.” After that, I slept with a baseball bat. I fully expected that I was going to be killed by him one day, and no one was going to be able to do anything about it. That colors your world a bit.

I could go on, but perhaps you’ll take my word at this point he was bat shit crazy. I understand today he was a very sick man, suffering from Wernicke’s Syndrome. I learned that long after his death, and it explained the crazy, but doesn’t make up for it. I never met the person in him that wasn’t a sick bastard who relished in the suffering of others, and can’t find it in myself to imagine otherwise.

I try to be fair to my mother, who endured many indignities that I was made to witness, but she also seemed devoted to the pain he caused, I think sometimes because it was the only thing he offered. I came to understand that the hard way. But I was subjected to serious danger because of the decisions she made. I recognize these were complex and hard processes, made crazier by the passage of time and the pushing of the boundaries by small increments over time. 

Things I do because of this: I guess at normal behavior - trying my best to figure out how I’m supposed to act based on the way others do. When I meet someone equally contending with life, it can be confusing for both of us, since we are likely looking to each other for clues.

I have an deeply ingrained distrust of parents. Some of my best friends are parents, but when the casual remark comes up “I asked my parent for advice,” my reflex is always: why the hell would anyone do that?

But if crazy hits, I’m golden, completely at ease dealing with crisis or violence. I get a little short about that sometimes, but I have come to recognize it is a valuable skill.

24 April 2019

In which I write a song.

Cynthia R, a guitar instrumental, was inspired in part by a Julianna Hatfield song I really like called Spin the Bottle. It’s a neat tune and I discovered, reading an interview with the Juliana, that its nifty roll along quality is by virtue of it being in 5/4 time. I decided upon learning this, I too wanted to write a pop song in 5/4. 

So I did, resulting the hardest earned minute and a half you’ll ever hear from me. My technical difficulties resulted from writing a 5/4 rhythm on a 4/4 rhythm device with an, at the best of times, 4/4 brain, requiring the use of paper and maths. 

My epic little ditty is a musical tribute to the excellent kung fu action star Cynthia Rothrock, the imaginative subject of our narrative. So, please enjoy my first kung fu inspired guitar instrumental here:

I have been so genuinely inspired and excited by bands I’ve heard and met recently: Brooklyn based Charly Bliss, my friend Lisa's band No Small Children, British Anna Calvi, whose concert I was stunned by in Budapest (in the hold of a cargo ship bitchez yes I’m boasting) and the especially remarkable Twin Heart from Scotland, that I hauled out all my recording gear and am sharpening up my tunes. This process has always tied in with my artwork, but usually kept to myself. Lately I have been thinking: who cares? Patti Smith suggests its important that you put it out there, regardless of crowd size. 

More to come in the near future. If you like them, please let me know.