Friday, June 2, 2017

Complicated Is Better Than Gone

Last spring, a ninety-two-year-old woman came up to us on the bench outside Newtown Book & Record Exchange and gave us a twelve-minute info session about her life and times, largely prompted by the photographs she carried in her large purse. Everything she said is so quotable that I might co-write a song with her. Not that I know her name....

"That's my oldest daughter. She's seventy. She's crazy." "Instead of saying 'I don't,' I say 'I do'." "God bless you!" "He already did!" "The heart can repair itself." "Do you live the dash of your life?" "Who’s singing in there?" "August." "But it's not August!" "That's my baby, Gary. He's only... '39.'" "There goes my nose! It rhymes!" "I had her when I was forty-one. I don't know if I was sexy... or I made a mistake."

photo by Greg McGarvey (Newtown, PA, USA, 2016)

Speaking of great-grandmas, I just remembered that I've got a thirty-plus-minute recording of my Grandma Helen talking about her own life. When I was twenty-six, I suggested we take a trip to her old homestead in Brooklyn. To my great relief, the trip happened. She showed us the church where she got married, went into one of the public schools she attended, walked to the front of her childhood home (but did not go in), took us for cheesecake at Junior’s. I shot video the whole time, including the half-hour drive back to Piscataway. The old-time stories just kept coming, non-stop. I felt grateful to be able to document so much of her life story. I got her in a good day.

photo by Friendly Waiter (Brooklyn, 2009)

photo by Greg McGarvey (Piscataway, NJ, USA, 2009)

Some of the relationships in this side of my family bring to mind planets going in and out of alignment. This dysfunction was so pronounced, the inconsistencies so consistent, that I suspect I’d need two lifetimes of analysis to fully uncoil the wires in my mind.

We tried to visit her two Easters ago. She’d been out-of-touch for two years, even missing the chance to meet her new great-grandchild (and now her second). I walked up to her front door with Nicky and my mom behind me and tried to offer her an Easter basket. Everything about the ambiance of her and her home was just like it used to be, with the exception of the now-undyed grey hair. In an unnervingly calm tone that was incongruous with her words, she told me we were rude to visit unannounced and, before closing the door in my face, said, “I like my life the way it is.”

I drove my mom to the little park near the train tracks and I held her hand. What we didn’t know - and still don’t know - is the state of Grandma’s health, physically and mentally. In her heart, I said, she wants to love. Ain’t no one of sound mind that doesn’t want to meet their first great-grandchild. I wish that my mom could get all of the love she deserves. These days, she gets a lot of love from her grandkids.

photo by Greg McGarvey (Newtown, PA, USA, 2017)

I will love Grandma for the many good times either way. I could justifiably hate her for the way she’s hurt my closest family members, but I just don’t. I love her good side. There’s nobody more vivacious and I-grew-up-in-Brooklyn-in-the-rough-and-tumble-days than this old lady in her tiny house in the middle of New Jersey. I hope that she can reunite with some of us before it’s too late. Either way, I will celebrate her in my words and music so my younger relatives - and strangers - can learn something about her.

What I remember most fondly is waking up in the mornings to soft sunlight on the old hardwood floors, the freight train noises echoing through the sleepy neighborhood with its sturdy old trees, its strip mall full of now-long-gone mom-and-pops, the model train shop down the road (still in operation), the lovely old church with its talented musicians, the tiny Krauser’s convenience store.

Grandma’s house was sort of like a dollhouse blown up to ¾ size, with its very specific yet hard-to-define design aesthetic. Lots of dark wood, brass, dark fabrics, knickknacks aplenty, hundreds of whimsical refrigerator magnets - as tightly controlled as my mom’s house was not. Same coin, two sides. Just as I see the hard edges of both of my parents’ seemingly unblendable, mismatched personalities in my own.

photo by Greg McGarvey (Piscataway, NJ, USA, 2010)

I photographed her front steps once, right before she had them repainted. I liked it better before she fixed it. You could see all the time that’d passed in the house, like rings in a tree.

photo by Greg McGarvey (Piscataway, NJ, USA, 2009)

This part of my history is just out-of-reach which means that it will be be ancient history before long. I hope that we get enough of a handle on our climate crisis that I can be somebody’s weird old relative from one-hundred years ago. This life has been hard at times, but I’m grateful for the ride. I hope the human race can get its act together for future riders. 

I remember my mom walking me along the train tracks that cut through town, telling me how free she felt as a teenager wandering here alone. Stepping away from the madness that family sometimes can be. My mom is a complicated lady, but in this moment, I understood something about her. It is through her, perhaps, that I learned to escape the pressures of my life in human society through nature’s beauty. Come to think of it, Dad was into that, too.

She used to talk about riding her bike down the Watchung Mountain in Green Brook. It was a long, dangerous, winding road with little to no shoulder, but she felt so alive when she’d do it. My Dad used to take my sister and I up to the top of that mountain, too. We’d load up on White Castle burgers and drive up to the overlook, gazing at miles and miles of New Jersey landscape. Sometimes we’d put a quarter into the viewfinder and look at New York City in the distance. The Empire State Building looked cool but the World Trade Center looked doubly cool.

I drove up the mountain in the months after Marcella died. I was listening to R.E.M.’s song “We All Go Back To Where We Belong” on repeat. It made me cry very hard each time. Like so many R.E.M. songs, I can’t pinpoint what it is that gets directly to my heart and makes me lose control.

I dreamed that we were elephants
the water, sun and clouds of dust
I woke up thinking we were free
I can taste the ocean on your skin
that is where it all begins
we all go back to where we belong
we all go back to where we belong
is this really what you want?

photo by Aunt Laura or Aunt Enza (Topsail Island, NC, USA, 2014)

When I find myself in that part of New Jersey, I always try to find a moment to go to the top of the Watchung Mountain. Although it is inherently beautiful with its panoramic views, natural scenery, and Native American history, I don’t understand why it pulls me in so much. I suppose it’s because it’s my original home. My sister and I were born there in that region, we lived there for a few years, and always came back on weekends even when we moved to Pennsylvania. Perhaps I recall simpler times when I’m there. And a yearning for whatever New York represented to me at the time.

photo by Greg McGarvey (Green Brook, NJ, USA, 2014)

photo by Greg McGarvey (Green Brook, NJ, USA, 2014)

Somehow, we never actually went into New York until I was fourteen. Grandma took us there and we took the very fast elevator up to Windows On The World. Regrettably, I didn’t have a camera yet, but I haven’t forgotten the the feeling of excitement. We finally made it to the city we used to just dream of. The city where, when I was a little kid, Cousin Brucie honored my request to hear “Wake Up Little Susie” on WCBS. The city that, when I was twenty-five, I drove to and played songs that my friends and I wrote ourselves. Our crowds were not gigantic, but we did get what we wanted from New York. I’ve since been back for more.

photo by Matthew Park (NYC, 2009)

Nicky is finally far away enough from me that I can write a song about her. The writing of Count The Colors seems to be complete which means that I can finally dive back into the present. The songwriter can’t really predict which songs will make it out of the gate, but I do know that I’ve lately started songs about my beloved cat Jamal, Nicky, and Jerry Plavins, the namesake of an old appliance store in my old town that’s been replaced with some strange inactive-looking store that features a mysterious, scowling man on its sign. My old town seems more interesting now that I’m up the road. Just as my girlfriend’s importance is revealed a little bit more now that she’s a time zone away instead of a couch cushion away.

photo by Greg McGarvey (Newtown, PA, USA, 2017)

Back in my hometown, he's totally convinced that he can walk. Wants me to help him out of the wheelchair so he can walk around the house. This is hard.

“He ate the whole bag of marshmallows because I forgot to hide them.”

I’m in Quakertown to do a job. This area fills me with a strange comfort that I can’t articulate. A place you visit just infrequently enough to never get a handle on. It’s where I had to empty my recently-paralyzed father’s trash-filled apartment last summer, but it’s also where my dad’s last long-term relationship was based. A vivacious woman from a big and truly wonderful family; a lover of travel, conversation, parties. For years, she seemed like his life’s missing puzzle piece. Seemingly irreconcilably different from one another, yet a ten-year concern. They saw much of the U.S.A. together. We had wonderful times at their home in Dublin, Pennsylvania.

photo by Greg McGarvey (Dublin, PA, USA, 2009)

It started to turn after the first stroke. Signs that he was going to take doctor’s orders with more than a few grains of salt. By the second stroke, she seemed to approach a breaking point when he continued to not exercise or follow the dietary guidelines. I, too, was watching him fail to save his own life and it did break my heart.

After this second stroke, he required intense physical rehabilitation. After commuting to the hospital most days he was there, I stayed with him at his Dublin home for two weeks to help him transition back to home life. I assumed healthy eating and regular walks would be part of our daily routine, but he wouldn’t take even a single walk. This wore me down after a while. I kept working on trying to inspire him to take control of his health, but it just wasn’t happening. I entertained myself with Dogfish Head, country walks, conversations with women from OkCupid, and guitar playing. Whatever would help me keep my head above water.

photo by Greg McGarvey (Bucks County, PA, USA, 2012)

My family’s house fire happened immediately after I returned home from this upsetting two-week stint. Marcella met me a week later. Between my dad’s issues and my mom’s justifiably poor reaction to the house fire, my heart was broken. She spent much of her last healthy years mending it. Thank you for that wonderful gift, Marcella. She counseled me often about the fact that I can’t fix other people. Thank you for that, too, Marceller. Shit, you were right.

photo by Marcella Di Sandro (Tullytown, PA, USA, 2012)

After things ended with Claire, Dad ended up in an apartment in the woods near Nockamixon Park, practically at random. This apartment, while in a breathtakingly gorgeous neighborhood, was even further north. A two-hour round-trip trek for us. But we did take that trek often, spending much time at a cozy little restaurant and bar with unpretentious pricing and an unpretentious name - Country Place. We spent lots of time in this rustic little spot, most memorably the time that Pam announced to Dad and I that she was pregnant. Dad also celebrated his sixtieth birthday with us here.

photo by Marcella Di Sandro (Perkasie, PA, USA, 2013)

His landlord was a kind, older man named Bill. He and his wife later told me that, although my dad kept to himself, they felt a bond with him and were heartbroken about his failing health.

photo by Greg McGarvey (Quakertown, PA, USA, 2016)

In the Claire period, Pam and I said over and over again: “what on EARTH would he do without Claire?”

Here we are. She saw it coming. I don’t blame her. There was a night when, having seen Marcella get wheeled in for brain surgery in the morning and having moved into a trailer in a muddy field in the afternoon (thanks to a crooked contractor who failed to finish our house in time), I managed to have a falling out with about ten people at once via social media. Music friends that I decided had wronged me, Claire and her family. I was not well that night and I lost a few friendships as a result. In my heart, though, I only have good feelings for Claire. Thank you for the good years you gave my Dad, Claire.

The apartment is a little lonely without Nicky, but I am happy to have a friend tonight on-stage. I met Skaggs (whose real name is reportedly Marc) in my New Hope period. We’ve never spent a whole weekend stargazing and talking about life together, but we understand each other. My man Skaggs has recently lost both parents and I’ve come to learn that that’s the only way I can contextualize the more complicated family relationships - complicated is better than gone.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Cult People Have Comfy-Looking Clothes

I had on my record of vintage TV theme songs and started dancing, for Baby Penny’s sake, to the theme from Green Acres. Pam walked into the living room and joined me. Penny’s expression fell into bemusement and she seemed to attempt to mimic my arm motions. Meanwhile, little Bonkers The Dog roamed around Uncle Greg and Aunt Nicky’s apartment for the first time, making sure we hadn’t left any kettle corn under the couch or the love seat.

photo by Uncle Greg (Newtown, PA, USA, 2017)

As soon as they left, I had a realization I realized I’d previously realized: the joy in my life is ABSOLUTELY equal to the pain in my life. It’s so perfectly in balance. The heartbreak of a hard day with my dad is always evened-out by time spent playing with my nephew, time spent singing a song for my niece, goofing off with my sister, a nice evening of conversation, food, and movies with my girlfriend, or deep immersion into some sort of creative excursion.

In my life, the right people show up at the right time.

Shit, the joy might actually exceed the misery.

But the misery shouldn’t be glossed over. I feel like I’m in another period of crisis, albeit a lower speed crisis, and as such, I need to understand how my father’s health - and all the corresponding issues - are affecting me. I’ve gotta slow down and look the pain in the eye instead of just moving on to the next distraction.

After grabbing some drinks at The Coffee Room, Pam and I took a nice walk around sunny, Norman Rockwell-esque Newtown and got caught up on family matters. Ya know, it’s a rare condition, this day and age, to read any good news on the newspaper page. Sorry - got distracted. Where was I?

Diabetes is in the picture now and he’s got signs of something known as Sundowners Syndrome. This is in addition to gout, high blood pressure, dementia itself, nerve pain. Even with everything being treated by professionals, it is a large-scale bummer. I can’t imagine how I could keep my head above water if I didn’t live in another town with my beautiful and supportive girlfriend. Still, I strive to be strong enough to weather my life’s storms with or without outside help.

(...An impossibility.)

Here at Centipede Manor, lemongrass is misting out of our diffuser, illuminated by the intense summer-preview sun. I’ve just caught up, via text message, with Jenni; she’s recently flown north to Brooklyn from Asheville. I am editing music with Nicky and a Sierra Nevada by my side and I’ve got plans to make music with my friends in Bristol tonight.

After a dry period, I’m booking work left and right. On one hand, I will enjoy every second of earning and spending that money. On the other hand, I’ve arrived in a time of my life where non-music work is sort of a crutch. The dream of showing up to places with a guitar and being paid handfuls of cash has being realized and it’s only my terrible self-management skills that keep me from going full-time.

So that’s the goal. In the short-term, that means playing bars, restaurants, birthday funerals, funeral weddings, and the like; in the long-term, it means singing my own weird songs for weird people around this weird old world.

Vagabond did some good work tonight. Vagabond is a group of friends I might have met in high school if I’d talked to people in high school. We were all in rock bands in our twenties and, after visualizing such a project while watching Dave Rawlings Machine in Philadelphia, we put together this stylistically eclectic, mostly acoustic group. It’s a great sound and I feel high when I'm inside it. Acoustic guitars, conga, native flute, harmonicas, melodica, multi-part harmonies. We make up our own songs and borrow a few from others, mostly songs we’ve never heard other people do like "Among His Tribe" by Ween.

I just did business with guy called Gino in New Jersey. I am in a gazebo on the Lincoln Highway, dogless in a dog park. I appear to be in hiding. Just hiding from the sun. I saved $1,000 on the job because I know a gal who knows a gal who knows a guy. Word-of-mouth, ya know?

I followed up last night’s inspiring rehearsal with the completion of a new song - “Here In The Future." I think Chris Marston's new song, tentatively entitled “Home,” was the spark that lit that fuse. It’s really beautiful to watch a song come to life. Mavish The Dog seemed to approve. I also feel newly inspired after seeing my album recording fundraiser come to completion after just three weeks.

here in the future
I still waste lots and lots of my time
I spin my wheels
and get stuck in the mud of my mind
so much to do with each day that's passed
and sometimes the clock seems to run a bit fast
here in the future
there ain't time for very much but love

photo by Greg McGarvey (Newtown, PA, USA, 2017)

I know this new tune is a keeper because I’ve been listening to the demo non-stop since I recorded it. I live the song for a day or two if it’s a keeper. It’s a cathartic piece for me. I used it as an opportunity to talk to Marcella in the present day.

I decided I’ll put my brother-in-law Scott’s late brother Jeff in the album dedications, too; some of these songs reminded me of his early departure (not long after Marcella’s). I hope his family can find a connection to some of these tunes.

here in the future
my buddy's going down the slide
sister's in her carriage
watching everyone go by
I dance for her
and sing a little song
she stares back at me
like she's been here all along
here in the future
I give them extra love for you

It made Pam misty-eyed, so I must have succeeded.

Cycling back and forth between music jobs at night and photography jobs in the daytime, I feel like I’m sleepwalking, like I’m on a five-minute delay with the world around me.

photo by Greg McGarvey (Newtown, PA, USA, 2017)

I snapped a photo of a painting of Edward Hicks on my walk to the coffee shop. I live about half a mile from his old house. Working in Philadelphia these past few days filled me with urban wanderlust, but my fatigued body is requesting that I pursue a path of minimal resistance today. I’m down the road from Edward’s ghost, sipping slowly. I’ve lost touch with my projects and therefore myself, but luckily I’ve got a road map.

This stack of papers contains my latest songs - one or two of which still need the final perfect line - and plans for the two albums I’m planning to get out this year. I’ve got an album about, err, myself; songs written in my twenties and featuring various women who no longer speak to me on vibes. I’ve got an album about the love, death, and continuing influence of Marcella. I’ve got half an album of new-new stuff no one’s heard. I’ve got twenty-two fallen-through-the-cracks songs that I want to put out as a series of free, Internet-only EPs. Songs that I want to rescue before they fall into the sewer. Oh, and I’m helping Tullytown Slim with his album of songs about Tullytown.

(Incidentally, people keep accusing me of BEING Tullytown Slim. Do you really think I would write a song called “Have You Ever Seen The Sunrise [From The Landfill]”??)

Point being, Greg The Songwriter is back - after a lull in my early ‘30s - and I credit Marcella with this. If I didn't finish the album about her, I suspect she would haunt the SHIT out of me. I don't mess with Italian women.

Marcella wanted to be involved with getting my songs to the outside world. Whether the world cares or not, she will be part of them making their way out my front door.

The uptick in my productivity also coincides with my move to my girlfriend’s apartment. This lady, currently asleep on the other couch, is exactly who I hoped to meet in this part of my life.

Here’s a direct quote from her: “Cult people have comfy-looking clothes.”

I've been working hard for a long time. I'm at a point where Johnny Banana's Booze Shack won't necessarily reply to an email about music booking, yet I regularly make strangers cry with my songs. There’s a feeling, at times, of hiding in plain sight, but I remind myself that my music has mostly existed on-stage. Gone as soon as I hit the final note.

In my gut, I know I’m on the right track. Five nights later, the feeling of playing three hours of music with Righteous Jolly at Tir Na nOg in Trenton is still with me. Irish folk music, some of my new songs, Righteous’s beautiful “Last Fall” and a song he improvised, Bob Dylan’s “Tweeter And The Monkey Man” (“in Jersey, everything’s legal as long as ya don’t get caught”)... we just played whatever was on the top of our heads and the crowd seemed to eat it up. Or maybe the Guinness and Tullamore Dew just made it seem that way.

photo by Darren McKessy (Trenton, NJ, USA, 2017)

It’s hard to put this joy into words other than to say that it’s where I find my sense of purpose. I did a few non-music jobs after it and, while I enjoyed hanging out with my co-workers, it felt like I was at the ‘wrong’ job. Like I’m ready to cross over into something else.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Mall Security Guards

We meet again, mall fountain. Oh, the times spent here as a spotty youth with my friends! I return here as a spotty adult. Would we be walking home or would Michelle pick us up in her fancy car? Would her car seem as fancy in 2017? Good speakers. It wasn't such a bad walk back to Greg's house. Maybe that blonde girl from a different-but-overlapping clique would come around and I'd get too tongue-tied to even say hello? Now THAT sounds fun!

Somehow it was.

In this spot, I might've said something to Rich Schumacher that seemed interesting at the time but would now seem inane. But there's no way to know! Back then, instead of social media we had to get our attention from mall security guards. And they don't seem to have documented our evenings.

In my memory, the fountain had water instead of black plastic trash bags. In that funny way that we rewrite the past in our recollections.

No, wait - I'm pretty sure there really was water in there.


Thursday, May 11, 2017

Here In The Future

He doesn’t know where he slept last night, but we know. “Our” home, as opposed to “a” home. The interesting thing was that mere seconds after this upsetting revelation, he cracked a seriously funny joke. The deal, it seems, is that he’s not as ‘here’ as he could be, but he’s also not as gone as he could be. And that means a lot.

That means he got to meet BOTH of his grandkids and is watching the eldest one grow through toddlerdom and ever-closer to kiddom. He's seen his daughter start her own family and he’s seeing his son grow into a happy and strong man with a lot of love and a life largely of his own design (aside from his debts to Capital One and Discover).

On my birthday, we drove to Cinnaminson, New Jersey (which smelled OK, but not as good as it sounds) and picked up a hospital bed from the Hot Marine Widower (as we later called him). Mom tried to make my girlfriend and I cancel my birthday dinner and install the bed instead. We… struck a balance and then made our way to Cafe Michelangelo. I got drunk and Jules gave me a complimentary slice of birthday cake that was so good that it made up for at least 50% of the day’s stress.

We tried to salvage my birthday further by taking a late-night walk through the park next to our apartment. That was interrupted by the sudden appearance of a police car with its search lights a-circlin'. We hid under a tree while I prepared a script - something about looking for lost jewelry - but soon realized we, indeed, were not going to be arrested for unauthorized nature enjoyment. Phew. In the funny way that things happen sometimes, my birthday spiritually resumed nine days later at Nomad Pizza in Princeton with Nicky and her family.

The lady at the counter already knows what I want and she fills my cup. I’m eating a muffin, drinking my probably-too-large latte while a parade of business-casual older white men walk by across the street. Many of them are photographing a building near me, perhaps The Temperance House. Their leader looks like a cross between Mo Rocca and Joe Scarborough.

Underneath my notebook is the list of songs for the two albums I have planned for release this year. These songs are good friends of mine and I am interested in sending them out into the world to find out how sociable they are. It’s easy for ME to be their friend, after all, as they are reflections of my own dreams and experiences.

I’ve been reading this same book for an embarrassingly long time. Every time I read a few pages of it, I am inspired to launch into some sort of creative exercise of my own. A good problem to have, unless you ask the stack of unread books next to my bed. They could use a little attention. Elvis Costello, Waylon Jennings, Tina Fey… I’m sorry. I’m… sorry.

Groggy-minded today, my thoughts escape me faster than I’d like. As they leave, they reveal the looping chords of my friend Matt McDevitt’s song “Intoxicated Kisses.” As I let my mind drift, I can feel myself jumping into the song, eager to find a new melody to play in the instrumental section. My 1959 Fender Deluxe-style tube amplifier in full bloom (at about volume “2”), I open my mind and let my fingers find the pattern of notes that seems to be my spirit’s music of the moment, the only notes that I could possibly play that aren’t a lie. That’s why it's different every time.

Each note, as it’s struck, crashes into the springs of my reverb machine and leaves behind the essence of itself like a wave breaking and slowly receding. These waves only get bigger as you crank the amp (to, like, “4”). This is where I like to be. This is the part of my life as a human in which I can express myself the most directly, honestly, eloquently. I do this at home all the time, but I want to do it with a band again. The songs that I will put out after 'Count The Colors' need guitars that scream.

The first person that I performed live with is also the last person (as of this writing) - Matthew McDevitt. Saturday night, I played a set of cover songs, mostly songs I’d added to my songbook that week, with my friend Marc "Skaggs" Magnani on congas. New songs, new lineup. Keepin’ it fresh! Later, I switched to electric guitar as Matt joined me. His first time on a stage in about three years. It was a joy to see his songs work in a new place and time. I accompanied him on lead guitar and harmony vocals, just as I did when I first followed him onto a stage ten years ago.

In these ten years, I have not become a name, but I have become an artist. I would’ve been embarrassed to say that when I was dating the lady I wrote “The Dirt & The Moonlight” about. Despite all the, well, art. It’s an everyday concern. I don’t wait for permission. Improvising on guitar (most recently via the vaguely theremin-like sound achieved by playing slide guitar with an E-bow), adding things to my constantly expanding Sound Collage 1998-2017 project, taking photographs, working on songs, the occasional upchucking of prose… it’s just part of my routine. I’m so happy that I have these outlets. Some work is celebrated and some is ignored, but it all feels true.

Generally speaking, these are not things I was led to by other people but rather by my own intuition. Creativity is the reason I can bear the pain of, for example, an upsetting moment with my paralyzed and dementia-suffering dad, or the stress of dealing with his ever-changing business (or my own).

(Well, my friends, family, and girlfriend are the other reasons I can deal. Thank you.)

Speaking of gratitude, I started a fundraiser to help me take the next steps in recording “Count The Colors (For Marcella)” and I raised about $1,500 in a week! A marquee name I am not, but it seems that the people who do know what I’m up to have faith in me. It’s a great feeling. I’d asked my girlfriend to get me a recording session for Christmas and it is because of her that we got the first five songs of the project recorded.

I put together a mish-mash band of folks from different parts of my musical life. Joseph Falcey, a masterful drummer based in New Jersey, had played with me in various makeshift, rehearsal-free bar bands - most amusingly at a small racetrack in South Jersey - and followed through on his promise to help me record. We even used his amazing basement to rehearse for these sessions. Nick Crocker contributed great guitar playing and also served as sort of a human good luck charm as he’d shared many an evening with Marcella and I in New Hope and elsewhere.

Speaking of good luck charms, Marcella’s sister was sweet enough to lend me Marcella’s favorite coat to bring to my recording sessions.

Having been involved with one of my favorite drunken nights of music in New Hope, Levee Drivers’ Kyle Perella contributed his pedal steel-like lap steel guitar. Mike Kiker, a genius of many things stringed and struck, wrote piano parts for the five songs in record time, which was especially helpful as I’d forgotten to email him the demos in advance.

While I was my typically disorganized self, perhaps overly reliant upon the improvisational skills of those around me, we did, in fact, nail the songs. Driving home down the darkened country roads of Bucks County, I listened to rough mixes of our tunes and realized, “damn, here they are!” I even liked most of my lead vocals - a rare occurrence and something to which I credit the four-hour bar gigs I do most weekends. I do them largely for money, but it’s also like going to the music gym. Singing fifty or sixty songs in one shot is a great music workout.

While it takes everything out of me to not plug two microphones into the dual-cassette recorder that props up my living room TV, record all my unrecorded songs, and quickly upload them to Bandcamp, I want to do the songs justice. That will require the help of other talented people which means money and - worse - time. Still, my friends and family are helping me to realize the goal of bringing an orchestra to some of the gentler tunes from ‘Count The Colors’ and that is such a beautiful gift. I want to rise to the occasion and do work worthy of these people.

And, of course, Marcella. I’ve almost finished writing the album. I want to tweak about two lyrics and finish another song nobody’s heard yet that might be called “Specks Of Paint On Your Fingernails.” I’ve also found myself writing one today. If I finish it, it might be called “Here In The Future.” It also might be called “You And Your Red Coat.” If I finish it, I will use it to tell Marcella about the beautiful baby I hang out with and sing songs to, the quickly growing toddler that I was hanging out with at the playground the other day, Whitney’s fast-approaching wedding, the twenty pounds and the many gray hairs I’ve gained, and whatever else comes to mind.

Here in the future, I should probably hit Post and eat some food before I pass out.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

CALIFORNIA MUSINGS FINALLY

She just keeps giving to me. Gone almost two-and-a-half years, she manifested in my latest musical move and the highlight of the day so far - a phone call from the leader of an amazing orchestral ensemble. When I thought about how to best approach the songs of mine that require strings, I thought of them first. But initially I felt sheepish. Could I really work with musicians of that caliber? The idea that I was able to gather interest from the people I really wanted is a Marcella-inspired idea. Like my 2015 photography show ‘A Few Moments With Marcella,’ doing this work in someone else’s honor has given me the incentive to have big ideas and not compromise them.

I am taking the same approach to the record about my time with Marcella, my first album after ten years of songwriting, and its accompanying record of older songs. I looked at the song list and tried to be honest with myself about how I want to approach each piece of music. It was gonna involve getting some outside help from people that I didn’t yet know, as well as people I do know who I know to be busy people. It’s been the greatest thrill to have all of these people tell me yes.

We did our first session the other day at Sweet Creek Studios in Upper Bucks County. I will tell you about it soon, but I am currently distracted by the clouds underneath me. Mountains in the distance, unidentified. Go west, youngish man!

I got Mini Rainbow Frogs all over the plane. The woman next to me told me, "let them go."

Flying over the upper tip of Texas, my right pinky finger scans two nearly imperceptible hairs on my nose. Nicky is asleep and I am the meat of a Sleeping Lady Sandwich. Passing over Oklahoma City now. Most of these mid-USA places are all about as foreign to me as Wrocław, Poland was. I want to see them all. Newtown, Pennsylvania to Los Angeles, California feels like a long journey to me, but perhaps not to the woman next to me who is traveling from Quebec to Hawaii.

The first place we take the rental car is In-N-Out Burger. I hope this will be my first “WOW!” moment in California. It is not.

Parking the car in our new temporary neighborhood, the first thing that strikes me is the delicious aroma. Nearly every inhalation fills my head with honeysuckle and jasmine and perhaps trace amounts of ocean breeze. Like we're in the middle of a garden no matter where we go. NOW I am in love with California.

Here in Los Feliz, we stay with Shannon, a friend of Nicky’s who works in the film industry. We discuss celebrities a little bit, but we discuss Marty The Dog a lot. He is a small white dog who is a known man-hater. I work hard to present him with my calmest energy, soft-voiced, limp-wristed. It works. Before long, I am serenading him. I made up a song called “If I Wrote A Song For Marty (How Would It Go)?”

if I wrote a song for Marty
would he look me in the eye?
would he say that I am OK
even though I am a guy?

We take a short walk to H Coffee on Shannon’s recommendation. The Australian man in front of me in line thinks it's freezing. (It is sixty degrees.)

I pass women on the street and wonder, “have you known Anthony Kiedis?”

What is John Frusciante doing right now? It's none of my business.

What does Flea’s house look like? Do I think about the Chili Peppers this much on the east coast?

“It’s a ‘Crenshaw’ sign! Like in the Snoop Dogg videos!!”

Driving around this huge, oft-romanticized, historic city for the first time is a thrill. We stop at the Walk Of Fame just ‘cause we can. I give a guitar pick to the recently departed Chuck Berry, photograph some teenage girls flipping their respective birds on the Donald Trump star. In front of Grauman’s Chinese Theater, a hip hop guy accuses me of being afraid of black people when I fail to take his free hip hop CD. “I don’t have a CD player!” I lie emphatically. Every few feet, someone asks us to take a tour of the stars’ homes. I judge their invasive industry, and resume my thoughts about the whereabouts of John Frusciante. It is evident that the Walk Of Fame is something to do once, and probably just once.

Does the impeccably dressed, cheerily chipper CVS manager aim to be discovered by a casting agent? I like his pep. I also like how merchants in California aren’t confused about my desire to take my items without a bag like they often are back home.

We take in the amazing views at the top of Griffith Park, sun beating down on our pasty skin. It strikes me that I haven't made enough plans for my first journey to California but that it doesn't matter. These mountains are the event I want to attend. I scan them for hikers and fantasize about days spent investigating the trails that surround us. I imagine hiking as close as I can to the Hollywood sign. It quickly dawns on me that this region will require many return visits to see everything I think I want to see, let alone the things I want to see that I don’t yet know that I want to see. It's like visiting five or six east coast states at once.

The Target men’s department looks the same no matter how far you roam, like some sort of portal back to  - for me - Langhorne, Pennsylvania. It’s as disconcerting as it is comforting. Corporate America - It’s As Disconcerting As It Is Comforting!™

“I always knew I'd kiss you in the West Hollywood Target.”

I buy new pants for the wedding and am disturbed by my changing waist size. But not so disturbed that I don’t grab a Toblerone for the elevator ride down to the underground parking garage.

Shannon calls a Lyft and takes us to dinner at the delicious Wurstküche. It’s the kind of place that is probably proud of their long line, something we typically don’t bother with in our suburban lifestyle. They even have a Wandering Bro to help you decide what sort of meat and beer you might want to put into your face when you eventually order. I ask Nicky if she thinks he saw an ad in the paper that stated, “WANDERING BRO WANTED.”

I’d been talking with my dad for years about getting a rental car in Los Angeles and driving up the coast. That has sadly turned out to not be in the cards. Instead, I am doing it with a woman I met through my cell phone in 2015 and two of her friends. And it’s great! It’s like that song says, “life is what happens when you’re busy trying to find the In-N-Out near Camarillo… not the one in the outlet mall, but the other one.”

I failed to grab my AGPTEK MP3 player from my car in Pennsylvania, so the car radio is playing whichever staticky college radio station I happen to land on. We stay left-of-the-dial when traveling, and occasionally far-right. As we make our way toward the lower end of Northern California, my original primary California reference point - Neil Young - comes on the radio with his recent piece “Peace Trail.”

We’re playing jazz by the time we get into the Santa Barbara region, jaw-dropping mountains out the right window, Pacific Ocean and some massive tankers in the distance out the left. Someone speaks of the hiking trails in these mountains and I get another craving to extend our trip for another two months so I can see EVERYTHING.

A moment alone under palm trees on the main drag in Santa Barbara. Nicky and her Bryn Mawr pals are shopping. I’ve been warned all my life that I’ll never come back from California. It’s indeed a risk. I also had trouble fleeing Nashville and Berlin, but I always come back to the area of the world where Jamal The Cat lives.

Fueled by unbelievable fish tacos from Corazon Cocina SB, I wander Santa Barbara in search of a cheap haircut. I enter a place that promises a $45 cut after a ninety minute wait. I’m not in Tullytown anymore! I will be a shaggy Greg at Ari and Drew’s wedding. People are used to a shaggy Greg.

Nicky does a reading from the altar at this beautiful Unitarian church. I’ve never seen HER on-stage! She does her friends justice and everyone is happy-crying by the time the bride makes her way out. These people are cool and these people love each other! As The Minus 5 said, life doesn’t really half-suck most of the time.

Surrounded by a bunch of celebratory gals, I barely have to speak. Perfect! Sam and I are unified in our near-silence under palm trees and beautiful California skies. Marty The Dog waits in the hotel room. Sam loads a Pez dispenser for the first time in his life and feels appropriately euphoric. I try to catch up to his level of euphoria by drinking lots of booze. It works! A Manhattan and a margarita; east coast and west coast together in my bloodstream!

Or a guy getting drunk on free booze. Either way.

I drink enough to do my version of dancing. Nicky is beautiful, as usual. No matter how many new contexts I see her in, she keeps being beautiful. I am so lucky to be traveling with her.

Just as the bride is doing, I dance a little, then reach into the bowl of Haribo Peaches for a sugar fix, then dance a little more. My addictions are delicious.

I spot a piano in the corner of the room and play along to “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine),” hoping that Nicky won’t notice. She does and tells me that she does not approve of my unauthorized use of the Unitarian Society Of Santa Barbara's piano. Drunk Greg decides that she’s full of shit and fumes for a few seconds before grabbing another Haribo Peach. I find on this instrument-less trip that I gets squirmy FAST. I miss playing guitar by Day Two. My addictions are delicious.

Marty accompanies us to breakfast at both the hotel and, on New Friend Lauren’s advice, Savoy Cafe & Deli. We say goodbye to everyone and get back on the road, going north up the Central Coast.

Our room at Monterey’s adults-only Hotel 1110 has a large portrait of Tina Turner above the headboard. The rooftop bar has an excessive amount of succulents and a great view of Monterey Bay, presumably (it’s very dark right now). The barman invites us for a complimentary drink. We promise to return the following evening but instead we - more than likely - never see him again in this lifetime.

Inspired in part by my quest to get a great cup of coffee somewhere new each morning, we find ourselves in Carmel-By-The-Sea. I fantasize about having a three-day writing bender at Carmel Valley Coffee Roasting Co., but I get my latte and we stay on the move. Elsewhere in town, I'm knocked out by the beautiful garden outside the Church of the Wayfarer. I like seeing a church that doesn't discard natural beauty but celebrates it.

On our friend Lauren’s advice, we travel to Point Lobos. We park right on the side of the Pacific Coast Highway and enjoy a brisk walk through a sweet-smelling forest. As we approach the shoreline, Nicky wisely advises me to not get my hopes up about seeing sea lions. What she doesn't know is that I've decided that I MUST.

I gingerly wander the cliffs and the pterodactyl-era sandstone rock formations known as the Carmelo Formation. To my great relief, the relatively cautious Nicky joins me. Walking these strange fossilized rocks with my partner, I'm reminded that, whatever I may think of myself, I am merely one of the animals on one of the planets. I steal a shell for my nephew Nolan who is busy being an animal on the other side of this continent.

Someone nearby smokes a joint. “I get it,” I think. “A redundant high in a place so beautiful. But I get it.”

(I did look for them, though.)

We find the sea lions. My camera battery hangs in there just long enough for me to take their family portrait. Just a buncha bewhiskered sea schlubs trying to get a nap, unknowingly representing an achieved goal for this human traveler.

A day and night in Big Sur was cancelled after we learned of the recent mudslides, but we did drive to the point where the PCH was closed and wander around the forest a bit. Passing a homeless and/or hiking man who blended into the scenery almost to the point of invisibility, I touched my first redwood tree and walked up to a sunlit creek, kneeling down to steal a cookies-’n’-cream-style stone.

Back in the rental car, I scarf down my fish and chips leftovers while Nicky cruises through the awe-inspiring scenery around the Carmel Highlands. We marvel at the seemingly inaccessible luxury mountain top homes with their treacherous private roads, alternately scoffing at the rich assholes who must own them and hoping to be those rich assholes one day. I wave to more hill-dwelling cows and horses than I’d like to admit.

Home is a long way away. We drive from Monterey to Los Angeles listening to My Favorite Murder Podcast and You Must Remember This. Third try at In-N-Out, somewhere on the 101. Better, but still not as good as I'd expect for being mentioned in a Neil Young song. Aside from a stop at the Carmel Mission Basilica, this day is essentially one of two travel-home days. It is exhausting, yet I feel that the time spent along the Pacific Coast Highway would have been worth MUCH more effort than that.

We stumble onto Venice Beach ‘cause we can and then collapse in an inexplicably handicapped-accessible Super 8 room in Culver City, resting before traveling to Houston and then Philadelphia the following day. The Super 8’s free orange is too bland and the Super 8’s free orange juice is too sweet. In my weary delirium, the lifesize standee of a man who looks a little like Sam Phillips in his prime seems to say, “IT ALL BALANCES OUT IN THE END, JACK.”

Waiting for my suitcase to be hurled onto the carousel in Philadelphia, Nicky spots the caged bird that rode on our flight. I hit Record on my cell phone and record one final animal sound on this trip.

"SQUAWK!"

My sister kindly drives us home from the airport, catching me up on moments of east coast life that I missed. I wheel my suitcase down the sidewalk in front of my beige home, Nicky by my side, and I realize things ain't so bad here. There is some stressful business to deal with, but so many joyful things, too.

It all balances out in the end, Jack.

"SQUAWK!"