Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The Golden-Hearted People

Tonight Only! Watch A Man Try Not To Cry! Just $20!

Tuesday morning in Yardley. I have not yet listened to any recordings of the Count The Colors Debut Performance. It was too special to do the typical post-gig technical dissection. Plus, I already know that I missed a lot of notes. Yet my band, The Roadside Leaves, kept me floating along, anyway.

Floating. At no point during this gig did I feel grounded. I was halfway between the ground and wherever it is that the golden-hearted people go when they leave us. The emotion was correspondingly overwhelming, yet I’ve got enough experience singing these songs that move me that I avoided a total breakdown.

But, ya know, just barely.

“could you see him coming/as you said goodbye/or when January came/and a little girl arrived?”

The sadder the songs, the funnier the quips!

The stage design, with its wall of acoustic guitars (mine, two of my dad’s, my grandpas’s, and Marcella’s), Marcella’s coat, and tables full of photos and paintings, made it feel like I was performing in a dream. I felt protected by the beautiful visuals and instruments, strengthened by the great musicians on-stage with me.

I added a new verse to “Here In The Future,” an homage to the special bond that Marcella had with her cousin Alexandra.

“here in the future/I'm still on this ride/and I feel you reach out to me/from the other side/out on the bridge/where she'd walk with you/and breathe in the evening/sunset view/here in the future/you're still in the air”

It was a wonderful thing to walk on-stage and see a room jam-packed with golden-hearted people. I told the folks how I’d met the violin player, Frank Burk, just three hours earlier. I didn’t realize they’d think I was kidding. Some of these guys and gals can jump into the music and just start swimming. A band full of people who listen to the room more than their own instrument. At the special gigs, musician becomes magician.

Never has a gig felt like that. I felt nervous, naked. Felt like I was receiving a love electrocution. Every performance I've done for the past ten years was leading to that moment. Speaking both technically and emotionally, it was my first concert.

I’d been joking about how rude it would be if her spirit did not visit us at this gig.

My mom said she could see her essence there on-stage.

My heart is open and so is my notebook, guitar case, and, on a good night, my voice. I’ve stubbornly remained on this journey. The show was so overwhelming that I barely noticed it was the best musical payday of my life so far.

A great crowd of friends, family, and even a few strangers. A friend I met in kindergarten in 1988. His wonderful mom Rose, one of my life’s bonus aunties. A good friend I met on Instagram in 2015. Much of Marcella’s family. Much of Nicky’s family. More members of Philly’s incredible Levee Drivers band. The first guy I ever sang with, John Hankins. The first guy who suggested I should write a song, Nick Harris.

We followed the album with a set of songs that influenced the writing of the album or otherwise impacted me emotionally. “Bye Bye Love,” Willie Nelson’s “Everywhere I Go,” R.E.M.’s “We All Go Back To Where We Belong,” Neil Young’s “Glimmer,” “Wichita Lineman,” and three songs we performed for her at the hospice on the last day she was with us - “(All I Have To Do Is) Dream,” “You Are The Everything,” and “Find The River.” We ended with The Beatles’ “Across The Universe,” the song with which I saluted her at the funeral. Another thing this gig represents is the value in staying on-course. Couldn’t tell ya what my course is, per se, but…

No, no, that’s bullshit. I can tell ya. I want to walk into the Berlin Cathedral on a trip that music paid for. Ya see, the door was locked last time I went.

And I want to meet my music-lover friends (and new ones) in Ireland, Scotland, England, elsewhere in Germany, France, Spain, Australia, etc. That’s what I want to do. It’s a long way away, but not as far away as it would’ve been if I stopped five years ago.

It is a sweet thing to say, but I say it only because it is true - this music and the boost it’s given me as a performer have only happened because of Marcella. Her belief in me, her love of my music, and my burning desire to be one of the people who bring her story into the future.

Meanwhile, I’m at Pretty Bird Coffee with my Old Man Pants and my matching black-with-color-specks Jeff cap and sweater, planning this week’s gigs. Some of my older songs, a few songs I’d like to borrow from the masters and try out for the first time.

Now that I’ve got recordings of my nephew introducing the song titles in his adorable, three-year-old voice, I should probably finish recording this album.

The process continues and it is a joyful one.

Here on the ground, I shared some thoughts about sexual abuse on the Internet. My hope that, if I am ever in a position of influence, I can help young guys understand that we’re better off being solid people who move through the world with a conscience than by trying to use brute force to get a woman’s attention.

Next morning, I was accused of just that. She’d messaged me on a dating site, we talked for a while, then met up the next day. Cues verbal and otherwise told me we were on the same page, and consent was explicitly asked for and granted for all moves big and small. Yet I left feeling like we must have miscommunicated and that she was upset. I stayed outside with her while she smoked a cigarette, trying to get her to open up about the mood shift, hoping I hadn’t somehow hurt her. Six years later, she leaves a comment in a public forum with allegations of abuse.

I call up a close friend, someone with an especially wide-angle view of life, a good sense of who I am, and an awareness that the growth that can come from honesty is more important than the maintenance of an impenetrable facade.

She left it up to me: ignore it or engage. But be real with myself first. Looking back, I still felt comfortable with how I handled the date, but, in the end, I decided to try to relay a message to her that I’m sorry she felt hurt. Because I don’t think she’s kidding. I think she felt hurt.

Looking back, this was a time after a break-up during which I was moving too fast. I met some great women in this period, but I was scared to open up, so I was accruing experiences instead of deep connections.

I met Marcella just weeks later and I had some of these same emotional walls up. She did get my undivided attention, but it would take a few months. Then I was hers for two-and-a-half years. There were ups-and-downs. We both thought about leaving a few times. There was a period where I was enjoying outside flirtation too much. But ultimately, we stayed with each other, I didn’t wake up next to anyone else, and I walked into the future feeling that I made a strong attempt to give my love to just one person.

I hate that there’s someone out there who thinks that I’m horrible. It might stay that way, too. Whether you’re a public figure or not, there’s always gonna be a Fan Club and a Foe Club. Both will grow over time... but hopefully the former more than the latter.

I don’t know if I am one of the golden-hearted people, but I am trying. More good than harm, I hope.

As Michelle McNamara said, “it’s chaos; be kind.”

photos by Kim Goodwin

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Count The Colors (For Marcella): The Debut Performance

I am happy to announce the Debut Performance of 'Count The Colors (For Marcella),' the album I've written about my late, lovely girlfriend Marcella, on Saturday, October 14 at Morrisville's The Space at Big Treble Music, a new listening room in Bucks County. To help me present the songs, I am putting together an ensemble called The Roadside Leaves to accompany me on-stage.

During the time of Marcella's illness (terminal cancer brought on by a genetic disorder called Fanconi anemia), I expressed myself through prose writing, telling the story of our changing relationship in real-time. The moments of darkness, but also moments of humor and love that transcended the sad scenes we were living through. This writing helped me to maintain my sanity and even a sense of purpose while I watched my beautiful girlfriend slip away.

One day, she let me know that she was worried about what would happen to me after she passed on. I told her, "I always find a way to maintain." Artistic expression, like in so many other times of my life, proved to be one of the ways that I did this.

As it turned out, these prose pieces I posted to the Internet ended up being cathartic to many people, friends and strangers alike, as they dealt with their own personal crises. The hundreds of messages of support I received during this time showed me that I was on the right track to filter these events through my creative prism.

The day before she passed away, my friends Righteous Jolly and Nick Crocker came to her hospice room in Philadelphia and they each performed a bedside concert with me. When I spoke to her sister the next day, I learned that she was playing recordings of these performances at the time that Marcella left us.

The following week, I was asked by her family to perform music at her funeral. All of these moments of performance were very healing for me, not just because I love making music but because Marcella herself was a deeply impassioned advocate of my music-making.

As her first posthumous birthday approached, I decided I wanted to create an art show around the most evocative photographs I took of her.  "A Few Moments With Marcella" opened in August 2015, accompanied by lengthy articles in local newspapers. It was an experience that I found beautiful and cathartic. It was my first chance to look back at our time and tell some of our stories while the details were still fresh in my mind.

The next month, I took a trip to Nashville with my dad and I found myself writing a new song. I'd focused on photography and prose writing over the previous three years, but it seemed that it was finally time to start telling some of my stories in song.

It'd seemed almost like too tall an order. Where would I even start? How could I do justice to this beautiful woman who loved me so much and is still loved by so many? Having heard a few of my songs on our first date, she continually asked me to write a song about her. And I continually left her hanging! What a jerk!

Now that Nashville had gotten my creative juices flowing, I pledged to write a whole album for her and to place a copy of it in her old bedroom.

"The Grandmas Of Nashville" is dedicated to my nephew Nolan, born just a week after Marcella's passage. A  whimsical travelogue, it features references to both Marcella and my dad.  The day I wrote it, I ran over to Third Man Records and recorded an extremely rough version of it in the record booth.

In the song "Hey Marcella," I tell stories from our early days while the scents of her mother's delicious Italian cooking waft by.

"hey, Marcella / you're hard to find these days / but Marcella / you're coming with me, anyway"

"Yer Shoes" recalls the dream vacation Marcella arranged for us just weeks before her diagnosis of terminal cancer. A dual-citizen of Italy and U.S.A., she was a born traveler and loved the freedom of being on the road with people that she loved.

"I think I'll take a walk / and breathe some southern air / in between the moments / will you meet me there?"

"No Grays And Blues" is a ballad that I wrote using only messages that she left behind in letters, text messages, and graffiti.

"I'm broken-down but I'm happy here / I feel lucky to have you near / you know I could hear you sing / and I wouldn't trade you for anything"

“Specks Of Paint On Your Fingernails” is a piano instrumental that I wrote in the music room of her father’s Bucks County home.

"Layers Of Winter Clothes" recalls a series of emotionally impactful dreams - one from Marcella's cousin Tommy, and two of my own.

"I sang about the lineman / as we began to grieve / we grieved for what was coming / and didn't hide our tears / I woke and I was crying / like I never had before / still I felt so grateful / that she visited once more"

"Count The Colors" begins at the sad scene of her hospice room but ends with my pledge to remember the beauty of her free, artistic, loving spirit more than her dark final days.

"when the roadside leaves / tumble down / and gracefully / touch the ground / I'll count the colors for you / I'll count the colors for me"

In "Something So Beautiful," I take words she spoke to me and turn them back on her: "how could you make something so beautiful in a place like this?" I celebrate our shared love of travel and pledge to take her memory with me as I continue on my own journeys.

"Centralia was a ways away / where the fire burned underground / you and me made ourselves at home / in other people's towns / we didn't wait 'til the sun came out / we'd just turn the key and drive / you never knew where the time would go / so it was time to be alive"

"Knit Hat Girl," her favorite song of mine, will appear for the first time on this release. She heard it on our first date and instantly loved it. These days, she's in the song, too.

“I’ve sung by your side / and I’ve sung without you / you can have my melody / if I can have you”

About two years after writing “The Grandmas Of Nashville,” I wrote the album’s closer, “Here In The Future,” a piece that gave me opportunity to imagine catching up with Marcella, three years later. I reflect on advice she gave me, the highs and lows of my contemporary life, and tell her about some of the little kids she just missed her chance to meet.

“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”

Interspersed around the album are clips of Marcella - laughing, singing, and even a recording of her explaining the meaning of her name.

“It could also mean ‘young warrior.’”

Friday, October 13, 2017

A Story To Tell

As still as the crane in front of me, both of us staring at the lake under a just-a-little-bit-hot autumn sky. This lovely afternoon, I’ve stomped out the long-lingering embers burning in my mind. Stomped ‘em out by stomping through the forest trail that winds up and down, twists all around, and finally rewards you with a stretch of the creek where no one but the turtles can find you.

I haven’t felt this calm in days. I’d lately been shaken by scenes of chaos. Parents at battle; the last ‘80s throwback I'm interested in. It’s like he's trying to break free from a cage that no one can unlock.

I could tell fate that, “no, I’ve had enough profound moments lately. How about we wait until five years for the next one?” Fate is sitting there with its mirrored sunglasses and oversized headphones not listening to what I - basically an animal in a cool shirt - have to say. We can choose our own adventure sometimes, but often the adventures are chosen for us.

Still, I saw a moment to exercise my machine and take a big whiff of a sunkissed forest. I took it. As always, its power amazes me. We can’t control the timeline of catastrophes, but we can control what we do in our moments of stillness. And we can identify and celebrate the moments that hit us like some sort of blessing. Be they chance or be they spiritual gifts.

I’m walking out of the guitar shop, elated to be reconnected with my electric guitar, but uneasy about putting yet another charge on the credit card. I’m thinking about this and recent unpleasant business dealings, and instantly my phone lights up - Marcella’s family’s restaurant wants me to be the Saturday night musician. Might be chance. Might be a gift from my closest ally on the other side. Either way, I celebrate this moment of asking and promptly receiving.

I made up the three-hour set as I went along, silently sending my songs about Marcella to my Italian friends seated nearby, and sending more than a few R.E.M. and Robyn Hitchcock tunes to my friends at the bar. Though it started out as a day of deep frustration, I drove home with a big, stupid smile on my face, gifts of pizza and Mr. Di Sandro’s homegrown fruit on my passenger seat.

photo by Chris Sikich

I told my [unpaid] adviser that I've been thinking that, unlike past tragedies, I'm not sure I'm even learning anything. I think it's just aging me faster and making me want to avoid going to parties and being asked ‘what's new?’”

She comes back at me with, “you are gonna come out of this with an unbelievably strong constitution… I'm so lucky you are one of my friends.”

I believe her. I feel the same way about her. Not enough to pay her for being my adviser or anything… but… (hashtag ‘cheap.’) We agreed, once you do something like pre-pay for a parent’s funeral, it’s harder to be rattled by the small things in life.

Music’s been like my escape hatch for, uh, well, thirty-four years. But particularly these past few weeks. Dad’s recent Emergency Room visit stayed with me for a week or so in the form of deep pain in my lower back. More embers burning. After a lengthy and emotional phone call with my sister, I focused my thoughts on my wish for an improvement, of any kind. Nicky, as always, lent me an ear, and then scratched my head and back while I zoned-out on TV. Then I got back to work planning the Count The Colors concert.

I’m at a golf course in the country today, preparing music for a wedding with Dottie, my newest musical collaborator. She’s getting her violin bow in position, ready to launch into the next song, and I get a text about my dad’s finances. Technically, that’s my department, and the issue wasn’t a big one, but I tapped into some kind of exhaustion in that moment and had to quickly shake it off and find my rhythm. 

It’s a week later and, for a moment, the whole world is just me, this little blue table, my books, and this beautiful new-old wool sweater with its little specks of color like autumn leaf-colored stars scattered across a linty night-sky black.

And POOF - technology interrupts another gloriously tech-free moment. Our robot overlords get jealous when we look away for too long. My online music store is suddenly gone, hacked by somebody with a very long, clearly fake, autogenerated email address.

The computers grew up faster than we did and we are trying to catch up. Meanwhile, my store’s been hijacked, my unused Yahoo! email accounts are seemingly as free to wander around as the nearest antique store, and we’ve even got a glitch presidency.

It’s like Micah Nelson says - everything is bullshit. Of course, the Internet is the reason that I know he said that. Thanks, robot overlords.

We strive to find the gold nuggets in each day’s handful of digital debris.

I've spent my days prepping for tomorrow's concert. Easels for two of Marcella’s paintings. Frames for photos I printed at the camera shop. Lighting ideas. A rehearsal with my talented new band, The Roadside Leaves.

Nick Crocker suggested I make a concert program, so I spent yesterday afternoon doing that. I tell the Cliff Notes version of the project over four pages. I aspire to turn the long-form story into a book soon.

Having secured my box of little green books, I went back to my hometown to hang out with my family. I told my dad how happy I am to have this music, my first batch of songs that really has a story to tell. I showed him the concert program and pointed to the story about him.

My niece, casually sitting on a plastic horse that made galloping sound effects, was wearing a baby poncho and outshining everybody in a fifty mile radius. I found myself playing CopyCat with my nephew. Even when I’d laugh at his surprisingly strong mimicry, he’d copy my laugh. I also got him to read the titles of the songs on Count The Colors in that cute, Elmo-like voice of his for use as intros on the album. I want these songs to take me around the world, but for now, I’m very thankful to have a chance to hang at home, getting to know my family’s new generation.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

She Opens The Door To You

Last night, I dreamt of an empty bedroom. It was peaceful and I didn’t understand why. It was an empty room with the kind of hastily-cut carpet to which I became accustomed as a kid. Revisiting the dream, I see myself dreaming about the kind of simplicity that was once available before bills, before my dad’s health took a dive and then another and then another. Before the wildly optimistic goal of my parents reconnecting thirty years later in the roles of caregiver and careseeker. 

I didn’t get this at the time, but it was a room in the geographical location of the room in which I learned to play guitar, began making experimental recordings, dreamt of beautiful and unavailable girls and wrote songs about them. In this room with sad, gray carpet, I could live inside my own head and spend huge stretches of time exploring my imagination. In this room, I was free. 

On this bench in front of Corporate Cafe, near the record store, it’s raining and my words are falling into little inky word puddles. I started writing a song for Dad in the back of this notebook. I sometimes hide new projects so I don’t have to see them until I’ve got the next idea. Get the timing wrong and it’s just another messy pile of words in the the stack of dirty, unfinished songs. 

In ‘Count The Colors (For Marcella),’ I refer often to the idea of taking her spirit with me as I experience beautiful things that we might have experienced together. It strikes me lately that I’m feeling the same thing about my Dad. An amateur guitar player who loved The Beatles more than anything in his life other than family, I felt like I was somehow tapping into his consciousness as I drove to Snipes Farm and played an hour of Beatles songs with my friends.

Sometimes when I travel, hold my girlfriend’s hand, write, take a good picture, I feel like I’m enjoying some of the great things in life on his behalf. 

“I used to take limos into the city to go to the theater. I lived a glamorous life! I did! And it all changed.” Just eavesdropping on the two elder beach bunnies sitting next to me at this boardwalk pizza truck. 

Asbury Park Roasters, down the boardwalk a few miles, provided me with the best latte I’ve ever had, a mid-day mood boost on this complicated family beach day. Pushing a fella in his wheelchair four or five miles, I feel that I’m earning each euphoric moment. Strange work with odd returns, but it’s still a day at the beach. Plus, we don’t look haggard and argumentative in the photos. We just look fuckin’ COOL, Daddy-O. 

A lady who lives on the beach in New England made me two heart pins. Hate is having a moment, but I’m keeping my heart. It is tattered, but it works great. Sick Day at home, Sick Night in The Jane Austen Room at the Alexander House Book Lovers B&B in Princess Anne, Maryland. A stop, host Elizabeth says, for many yankees traveling to the Outer Banks. Right off Lucky Route 13, it’s a charming, METICULOUSLY decorated house from 1885. There’s a comforter on our bed but only the nineteenth century ghosts are allowed to use it; there’s a different one for us. She’s retained the house’s original, nineteenth-century wi-fi password: 1885188500. Quaint. As. Fuck. 

The Jane Austen Room celebrates Jane and the Regency English lifestyle. It all felt a little too fancy for me, so I promptly got naked in an attempt to de-class the place. It didn’t work. I was just a class-less naked guy in a classy place.

Nicky is reading the guestbook. Almost everyone has written in cursive. Some have praised the room’s “sexy color scheme.” Others have made pronouncements about how their night at the B&B rekindled the romance in their marriage. “We haven’t felt this young in years. Probably has something to do with how much we slept. Or DIDN’T sleep. WINK.”

Well, which is it?? Did you fuck all night or did you get a good night of sleep, you walking paradoxes?!

Since I last wrote, I’ve been to Lancaster, Hershey, Outer Banks, Chincoteague, Bethlehem, Princess Anne, Cape Charles, Wallops Island, Newport News. Some for money, some for family, some for shrimp. For my camera, it’s all the same - opportunities to take a shot that I can only take once. I’m sure I’ll have an expensive camera one day, but for now, I love having a camera that’s not too precious to take to the sand dunes at Jockey’s Ridge in Nags Head or a rain storm in Bethlehem. The busted LED screen shows my images with crazy glitches like inverted lightning bolts digitally striking my photos of flowers on serene, sunshiny days or the solar eclipse over Bucks County. It is tattered, but it works great. 

At Brig O’Doon Coffee House in Ottsville, Pennsylvania, two little kids are repeating, with ever-increasing intensity, the words “BUCKING BRONCO!” I am scheduled to sing six songs in the recording studio across the street in ten minutes. My body, mind, and checking account each have exactly enough energy to do this session. If only I could switch energy levels with these kids! Good news for me, good news for These Kids’ Mom! These Kids’ Mom and I will do the best we can. These Kids’ Mom, I accidentally learn, “could have settled with Ben.” One of the kids just said, “go to bed, marshmallow” and I'll never know why.

I try to focus, but the person behind behind me inquires, “are everybody’s wrinkles the same?” and now that’s all I can think about.

One day earlier in the summer, we went to a funeral home to pre-pay for his funeral. Lawyer’s advice. The more I try to convince myself I’m unflappable, the weirder life seems to get. 

Gone now for longer than I knew her, Marcella unknowingly (but, really, knowingly) left me with a huge, wonderful workload that I am still sorting through. It’s sort of funny how it’s become an escape from the current problems. The family situation is very complicated; a small-scale version of what’s happening to my government and my planet. The realization that there just isn’t anybody in charge.

I’m at somebody else’s bank and, via my aging iPhone’s speakerphone, a family member is yelling at the branch manager, accusing her - completely unjustifiably - of ineptitude. We want to imagine there’s somebody in charge. We’ve got a lawyer, but nobody’s really in charge. There is no project manager. This project is family. The project is complicated. 

I drive back to the old hometown. “I’m gonna be honest with you because I’m an honest person, OK?” This new occupational therapist is a sweetheart. In his mind, he was driving a car just the other day, walking, bathing, And he’s very convincing. If you didn’t know, you wouldn’t know. Every time I go to his apartment - the geographical space of my dreamworld’s empty room - I re-teach him how to use his Blu-ray player. He tries his best to stay engaged in conversation. Before long, the topic returns to annoyances like the belt that straps him into his wheelchair. The OT mentions the incredible health risk that its removal would pose. But he promises he has no balance issues. 

“The truth is that, this long after a stroke, only very small improvements are possible.” She told him it is unlikely he will walk again, or drive a car. He’s been told this before, but it’s not information that he retains. Shit, who wants to retain information like that?? She asks who helps care for him and he swears he’s left alone for weeks at a time. As Kina leaves, I walk her out and make sure she understands she was getting, for some reason, a fictitious account of his life. She did. She knew exactly what she was dealing with. I said, “I texted my sister and told her, ‘she’s very good!’” Her eyes welled-up and she said, “well, I love my job.” 

During these eighteen months, we’ve dealt with a handful of golden-hearted people. For these people we are grateful. 

My dad lights up when he sees me, Pam, or his grandkids. There is plenty of awareness and even more love. I know that he wants to be off on his own, a burden to no one. I share these stories because there’s something about seeing it in black-and-white that makes it easier to take. Easier to place in the context of my life’s story. And perhaps my perspective will influence someone else over time. 

After Marcella’s terminal cancer diagnosis, I think it’s been hard for me to accept that any situation that doesn’t involve someone dying could rise to that level of importance. But the truth is that this is one of my life’s big challenges. 

There is no quick fix. There is no fix at all. But there is a team. Nobody’s in charge, but I’ve got my sister and she’s got me. And just when shit gets too heavy to deal with, her little boy runs into the room speaking highly-cute half-gibberish about dinosaurs and my broken heart is healed yet again. 

Meanwhile, I think I’m gonna take a cue from, well, myself, and express myself during times of strife in an attempt to not go insane. 

I dedicate an Everly Brothers song to my dad at most of my gigs, including tonight’s. I thank him for bringing me to their concerts during my youth. Each time I do so, I feel like the luckiest guy in the world. I recall how they’d walk out on-stage with those black guitars and I’d feel like I had electricity shooting through my veins. I got to see the best of the best and that’s because of him. We didn’t always understood each other, but, when the music was just right, we were one. 

Knit Hat Greg is on the patio with chips (you may know them as “crisps”) and a beer (you may know it a “beer”). I was missing the fall/winter-oriented items in my wardrobe to the point that I was wearing them prematurely. Today, just as I busted out the blue sport jacket with brown elbow patches, it was actually needed. I was astonished to see myself leave it on for the entirety of my 90-minute solo acoustic performance at Langhorne Coffee House.

A last-minute, low-key booking that ended up being just what I needed, spiritually, musically - even financially. I came up with an interesting set list that weaved the songs of ‘Count The Colors’ in between cover songs that inspired me during the writing. A conversation with a painter whose Irish landscapes adorned the cafe’s wall inspired renditions of a few Irish folk tunes, but otherwise I stuck to the program, the tunes I’m planning for the big album debut concert in October. 

It’ll be my first ticketed concert, in a true listening room. I’m planning the design of the room, putting together a small band called The Roadside Leaves, printing out images of Marcella to hang behind me while I play. I will put her coat on a chair on-stage. I’ll tell stories. It will be fucking beautiful. 

At the low-key coffee shop gig tonight, I could see that it will be a success. I could tell that the people - mostly strangers - could feel the emotional weight of the songs even before I explained the story behind the project. 

My friend Matt, a sweet guy who’s an employee of the coffee shop and a gifted musician in his own right, told me that he could easily imagine this music on the radio. Said he found the stories I told in the songs compelling. Said he was shocked that I haven’t been doing ticketed, singer-songwriter gigs for years already. He was very sweet. I left feeling like I achieved what I wanted - a new plateau.

Nicky, her face almost distractingly pretty under the moonlight, surprised me with her impassioned response to the performance. 

There have been bumps in the road, but to give up on this suite of songs (not to mention all the other songs waiting in the wings) would be to give up on a part of myself that would be hard to live without. It was only two weekends ago that I played one of the really lame bar gigs from which I leave feeling lonelier than I might’ve if I’d sung the same songs while floating around in space. 

Don’t get me wrong; these gigs are important. I was in a series of really good rock bands in my mid-twenties, but to entirely carry the show yourself is a whole different proposition. I’m happy for every lame bar gig - especially the four-hour ones - because that’s what’s making me good. 

The trick is to maintain my vision both on nights like tonight, when I feel like I’m floating on a cloud for hours after I play (cable box sez: 3:19 AM), and also during the frustrating times. Band members who don’t do their homework. Venues unwilling to take a chance on somebody new. All you can do is keep going, swap out the dispassionate for the passionate, keep pushing your own quality control standards higher. I don’t know when or how, but I believe that Marcella and I are gonna make a splash. She’s not gonna let her songs go unheard. I don’t know about you, but I ain’t gonna argue with an Italian ghost. 

After I played, a guy commented on the different voices I use. From the rockclamations of my early days to the folkwhisper that some of dreamier new songs require, I’ve learned to drive my voice in different gears. 

I thanked Nicky for coming to my gig and told her it was especially moving to sing “No Grays And Blues,” the song that I wrote using words Marcella left behind in letters and other notes, with her in the room. “Why?” “Because it’s in that song that she opens the door to you.” 

no matter where this life brings you
know that I’m always loving you
and if someone new ever comes along
sometime after I am gone
don’t be afraid, give your heart a chance
to love and be loved
love and be loved

Thursday, July 6, 2017

A Moose That I Identify With

Reaching for my empty plate, the busfella asked, “hey, man, do you mind if I ask why you have a notebook?”

Internal monologue: “The honest answer will take too long!”

“I’m just working on my budget.”

“Oh, I thought maybe you were a writer or something, trying to find your muse.”

He told me he’s trying to be a writer, and wished he was writing something today, but he’s opted to just enjoy the free beer that he’s permitted at the end of his shift.

Friday morning at Enchanted Forest Water Safari in Old Forge, New York. We wandered the forest in the driving rain yesterday, taking a peek into the Crooked Man’s Crooked House, saying hello to Mary Mary Quite Contrary, peering into Hansel and Gretel’s gingerbread house.

We were treated to a performance by Rocky & The Ramblin’ Rascals. The sign said they were presented by Klondike Kate. Turns out even animatronic, all-animal bands have sycophants trying to attach themselves to the talent.

Rocky & The Ramblin’ Rascals are not bad for a bunch of guys who, presumably, were kicked out of Chuck-E-Cheese’s band for making anti-semitic comments on-mic.

Drinking tequila by the fire and in the rustic living room last night, I should feel worse than I do. Still, at the risk of being branded PARTY POOPER, I am taking advantage of the family cabana and the rain-free solitude it offers.

I join Nicky and seven-year-old Jack for a ride on the Scrambler. “I liked this one.” As soon as it starts to pick up speed, I realize that those memories of enjoying the Scrambler are from twenty years ago. I found some enjoyment in being jolted around in the pouring rain, screaming to avoid having a panic attack, and the fact that I did not vomit. But I also don’t need to ride the Scrambler again.

When the ride ended, I asked Jack if he was OK. Jack was fine.

Back at the house, there’s a portrait of a bear in the kitchen is one of the sultriest looking bear portraits I’ve ever seen. Grrrr-rowl.

I am blessed with a strong antenna and a great battery. During my stay at Fourth Lake, I strive to rely more on my own machine. I am finding that my guitar sounds better, the S’mores taste better, and my imagination is a little easier to tap into. A cable van pulled up this morning and I was half-inclined to tell him to leave. My mental wi-fi is strong and fast up here in the woods.

Womanfriend and fam are, to their credit, unfazed by the rain. As for me, I am, like so many dunk tank clowns before me, high and dry. Listening to music in my concrete hut, in full view of the life-size moose that is periodically doused with chlorinated water from a large, unrealistic-looking log after an alarm sounds. This moose doesn’t even fuckin’ flinch. Here’s a moose that I identify with.

Young Jack was haunted by the wolf in the Little Red Riding Hood house. He said it was terrifying; that’s objectively true. He was also afraid of Prince Charming with his over-the-top feather hat. I don’t blame him.

There’s a 1920’s-era movie theater downtown and I’m hoping to see Kate McKinnon speak in an Australian accent there tonight. There’s a fantastic old dog who seems to be the theater’s mascot. A big, fluffy, seen-it-all dog who probably has trace amounts of skin oils from 7/8th’s of the town’s human population on him.

Downtown yesterday, Grammy treated us to generously-cheesed pizza from Tony Harper’s Pizza/Clam Shack while I read the liner notes to a Ray Charles LP I bought across the street. I wondered if I’d bought a pterodactyl Beanie Baby for my nephew or for myself.

This guy has mini golf in his yard. And it’s fantastic. I was a little too tired to play properly, but in the end, I got a golf ball in a clown’s nose hole and won a free game. Sure, I am bragging.

We traveled through a torrential downpour from Old Forge to Manlius, galfriend’s hometown. Creek in the backyard, a water wall, a septic tank, a roadside drainage ditch instead of a sidewalk. The term Q.A.F. is thrown around a lot these days, but this place really is quaint as fuck. I am dating a legitimate country girl. A well-traveled one, but a country girl nevertheless.

On our way to Sno Top Ice Cream (chocolate/vanilla twist with chocolate dip top), I learned the story of the swan bar fight.

“The bartender was like, ‘you’ve had too much to drink.’ They got in a big fight and the guy left and went to the swan pond and stole a bunch of the swan eggs and roughed up the swan. And then went back to the bar - Buffoon’s - and threw the swan eggs. It caused a huge uproar. After that, the town organized a Swan Patrol to make sure none of the other eggs were disturbed.”

I photographed Nicky’s childhood bedroom and then accompanied her four-year-old niece on some sort of free jazz piano piece.

Spending so much of my life in Philadelphia, cities like Syracuse always look like movie sets to me. There’s the guy playing the beggar! Maybe I’ll see him at craft services later.

Cruising around downtown Syracuse on our way back to our very comfortable hotel room in Armory Square, she says, “this is where we fed the pigeons and the homeless man chased us… OH MY GOD, Shavers’ World is gone!!”

There are several lengthy stories relating to Shavers’ World. My gal is in her element and it is a joy to see.

“There’s Onondaga Lake, one of the most polluted lakes in the country. It’s got, like, a foot of mercury.” For the Onondaga people, this lake is a sacred site.

“Oh, no; I didn’t show you Pompey Mall! It’s a gas station.”

Green Lake, Round Lake, and the old growth forests surrounding them were beautiful. With Nicky’s niece and nephew having gone back home, we can indulge on a long walk. Not long enough to burn off the calories we consumed at Dinosaur BBQ, but fairly long.

“I was swimming in Green Lake and a 12-year-old girl asked me if I was a ghost.”

We visited Nicky’s old hangout, Shoppingtown Mall, now largely abandoned. Sort of a zombie mall. The web site suggests you visit JCPenney (it’s been closed for some time). I imagine the U.S. has lots of these, but I’ve never seen one so creepily vacant. I stopped into the Rite Aid for some socks and a soda and found an old woman sitting in the middle of the store in a lawn chair, reading a book, and drinking out of a reusable bottle. “I’ve got a little somethin’ in here,” she told us.

The remaining stores are a strange mishmash of a few gigantic chains like Sears and Victoria’s Secret, out-of-place stuff like a skate park and an improv comedy theater, and - most amusingly - a record shop full of vintage, medium-to-high-end stereo equipment. Here in this indoor mall, a dying relic of our childhoods, one of the remaining shops was catering to the generations before ours. It was like a mirage. I bought Joan Baez’s Diamond And Rust on my way out as my way of saying, “thanks for existing.”

We walked past a comic book store that had a t-shirt in the window that read “SYRACUSE VS. EVERYBODY.” The degree to which this delighted Nicky taught me something about her and where she is from. We went into the store to check the price and the people in the store seemed to scatter, as if the idea of having a customer was an uncomfortable, threatening experience. It brought to mind the myth about Native Americans not being able to see Columbus’s ships until the shaman could show them how to see them.

There was no comic book shaman on this day.

Syracuse seems to not really give a fuck in a really wonderful way.

We spend a few hours with Nicky’s kind and very relaxed dad. A very dadly dad. The dad that would be item number D001 in The Dad Catalog. Lives in a simple, Civil War-era house right next to Syracuse University. Not fancy, not dirty - just a goddamn house, ya know? Nicky often says, “who am I trying to impress?” and I’d wager that her pops has uttered this phrase before.

He’s got an amazing old Gibson bass from the ‘70s and I improvise bass lines while they catch up. At Alto Cinco in the Westcott neighborhood, I eat a catfish tostada with Nicky and the two Tonys, knock back a well-boozed margarita, and then stumble around SU for a little while with my camera.

GPS advises, “slight right onto Old Seneca Turnpike.” On our way to what my brain keeps calling Skinny Atlas, New York. The Clintons used to have a summer home in Skaneateles, my tour guide shares.

We walk out onto a dock on Skaneateles Lake, one of the Finger Lakes. We mill around some antique shops for a while and then I notice a beautiful sign - St. James Thrift Store. “A rich-people-town thrift store!! This is what we’ve been training for!” Predictably, I leave with a pile of cheap dress shirts and she leaves with a $7 loom.

In the second half of our four-hour drive home, she’s driving and Marc Maron’s talking. I checked my email for the first time in five days at a Flying J gas station. No crises were waiting for me there. Then I dipped my toes back into Facebook and found a roughly 50/50 blend of reasons to leave the party and reasons to stay.

Fatigued, we essentially skip The Fourth Of July. Next day, I get back to work. I go to the café where Marcella and I met with the intention of finishing my rewrites of two songs that were good but not great. Several hours and many aviator shade-masked tears later, I drove home satisfied.

With this project, if I don’t read the lyric and think, “how on Earth could I sing this song in front of people and not break down?” then the lyric isn’t finished yet. I want to tell the truth with this music and the truth is sometimes heartbreaking.

To finish “Hey Marcella,” I had to get into the heart and mind of 25-year-old Marcella as she fell for this emotionally unavailable guy and hoped that he would love and support her even if cancer came back into the picture. Someone who wouldn’t be intimidated by the physical and emotional scars she carried with her from bouts with skin cancer and colon cancer. I’ll never forget the way she talked to me and told me of her complex life, like a gentle warning. It was intimidating, but I think she knew I might be able to handle the ride.

I tapped into the fear that she felt, the love that she felt. In this café that I associate with her, I felt it all so strongly. She might as well have been by my side, helping to craft the perfect lines.

I’m grateful to have gotten to know myself and my journey better through Marcella. I’m grateful to still know her family. I am grateful to be getting to know Nicky’s family, as well. I like being this age and feeling like I’m beginning to have a lot of stories with a lot of great people.

Which, to answer the busboy’s question, is one reason that I always carry a notebook!