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.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

"The Grandmas Of Nashville" (live with The Roadside Leaves)

The lead-off track on 'Count The Colors (For Marcella)' is a musical letter that I wrote to my nephew, then eleven months old, while wandering Nashville, Tennessee with my dad Scott. Walking had become a problem for Dad by then. so when I'd wait for him to catch up with me on street corners, I would write the next verse. By that afternoon, I'd made it to the record booth at Third Man Records where I recorded a very haphazard version of this tune. I remember looking around at all the lyric sheets taped around the booth and thinking, in reference to the record booth's length limitations, "I don't think I can squeeze this into 120 seconds!" Later, in the stairwell at the hotel, my guitar and I found the song - my first after a three-and-a-half-year break.

"The Grandmas Of Nashville" as performed with The Roadside Leaves at the Count The Colors Debut Performance

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.