Monday, December 10, 2018

There Are No More Solo Appearances



Some thoughts over coffee.

Hello. You’re looking fantastic today.

I bootlegged breakfast with my Grandpa. I am listening to September 10th’s breakfast while I eat December 10th’s. Grandpa’s wife has just entered the kitchen to tell us that she sees no storm clouds, despite the approach of Hurricane Florence.

Grandpa is pushing ninety, but he’s got a young wife. She walks several miles a day without breaking a sweat. She is 2 SLY 4 U.

Grandpa’s friend comes in and tells us about the gold coins he found down in Corolla after the previous hurricane. Sly looks at him with suspicious eyes.

While I play my forty-ninth melodic blues groove of the morning on my smooth-as-butter Martin guitar, Grandpa says, “the locals drive the beach road.”

Route 12

I had a spiritual experience on Route 12 when I was twenty-seven. I wrote about it in a song that wasn’t very good. 

Grandpa tells about an old man who stored hundred dollar bills of unknown origin in liquor barrels. It feels like a song, so I write it down. It’s the 1940s and Young Grandpa (as he was not known) takes the money, which has been knocked over in the flood, and he irons it out. The old man is so grateful that his money has been preserved that Young Grandpa is taken from his Rhode Island home to New York City for an extravagant dinner. There’s more to the story, but I still have to write it.

Mom excitedly watches a boat pass through the canal in Grandpa’s backyard.

I play a jazz chord that I learned from an outtake of The Everly Brothers’ “Maybe Tomorrow.” The Internet calls it E6(9). I call it The Fancy Chord.

After I play The Fancy Chord, I go to Outer Bean for both coffee and a sink shower (there was a plumbing issue back home in Southern Shores). Mom and I walk over to the water. I photograph the ocean through my purple sunglasses to ensure that the magic is transferred to the viewer.

OBX Pre-Florence


This is over a month before the news about the remission. I don’t recall it darkly. I recall motion. A lot of doing that which needed to be done, including walking on the beach with hot coffee under temporarily pleasant skies. 

Someone I am close to recently posited that life sucks. I suggested that perhaps we have to roll through the suck to get to the perfect.

There are perfect moments. We were in Bryant Park a week ago. I’d told Mom earlier in the year, on the day of one of her treatments, that “one day we’ll come to New York just for fun.” Uncle John, who is normally far away in Charlotte, is drinking hot cider with my nephew on his shoulders. Underneath the glow of evening skyscrapers, my nephew is beaming a smile while he takes in the sights of New York at night. My heart is full.

It took a lot of strain to get to that moment. And while we were straining, we were exploring. There were tears, but they were cried while we were en route to places like The Ramble in Central Park or Strand Books or The High Line.

Gustily exhilarating walks across the Brooklyn Bridge (with mangoes purchased from someone’s cart on the Manhattan side) and the George Washington Bridge. Freedom Tower. Brooklyn’s Salt Marsh. The Botanical Garden in The Bronx. Brooklyn art galleries, Palisades Park, the indie film-ready atmosphere of Coney Island on a cold day.


Central Park



Broadway through Dad's camera

the edge of Palisades Park

Palisades Park

Grand Central Station

arriving at Coney Island in April

Coney Island subway

eating mangoes on the Brooklyn Bridge


a snowy park as viewed from the Freedom Tower


anticipating spring in Central Park, March 2018

The Ramble, Central Park


you promised me Broadway was waiting for me

Many cabs and Lyfts, many subway rides, with all sorts of scenarios happening back home. Several of the worst events of my life were happening all at once. What can you do? Maybe shut down a little bit. Keep walking. Create an arbitrary, low-hanging goal, like the next cup of coffee.

(Sorry, coffee - I don’t mean to suggest you’re not always, justifiably, the top priority. I love you. I love… hey, where are you going?! Get back here!)

Last week, I undertook the project of separating my 12,000 photos into folders like “Family,” “Travel,” “Portfolio,” and “Music.” There is a sharp uptick in family photos this year, the year of Mom’s illness and Dad’s passage. I felt I’d been close enough to illness and death already, and learned enough lessons. Fate had other ideas. My appreciation for the moments of perfection with loved ones is at a high peak this year. And I have the numbers to prove it.

There was a perfect moment yesterday, too. Margaritas were involved, yes, but they hadn’t really been consumed much at that point. Our table was full of Mexican food, but it had only just arrived. My love was in front of me, the ocean to my left. We’d walked a few miles, seen dogs meeting Santa in Convention Hall and running on the beach, and - via my camera and her sketch book - we’d both made art out of a cold, December day.


Convention Hall Christmas bird


Convention Hall bokeh


Asbury Park jetty




Pops Garage Reflections 1-4

Asbury hearts at night


I’m glad I met her.

Marcella’s family feels that it’s no fluke that I met her so easily, on my very first date in three years.

People bring different kinds of baggage to their relationships. For me, a book, album, and photography exhibit about my previous girlfriend. For her, a coat that is not my ideal color for a coat.

And I’m even starting to like that.



ocean/sky sketching


We talked about the future. I showed her which purple and olive green Victorian house I want to buy as our winter house if “The Dirt & The Moonlight” is a hit. You haven’t heard that song yet? I guess that’s why I don’t live in that purple and olive green Victorian house. One album at a time.

Simpler goals, too. The basement studio. The regularly tuned piano. A financial landscape in which I can go to every gig I want to, buy every gift I want to. Easy to type, harder to achieve. But she reminded me that it can be done.

She believes in my work and I believe in hers. She has resources that make my work easier. I’ve got a tenacity and sense of urgency that perhaps is of use to her. “Let’s do our work while we can.” “The world might not demand that you do the next project. Do it, anyway, because it does matter.”

While I’m living in a new town and preparing my album out in no-cell-signal Carversville, Pennsylvania, I am relieved that people haven’t forgotten me. I’m being asked to be part of Righteous Jolly’s Christmas show. To play a bar I’ve never been to. And another one. To take a train to Brooklyn to help a French man propose to his also-French girlfriend. “Can you bring a rose?”

One of my favorite songwriters recently posted about not knowing quite where she fits in, but loving the adventure of it all. I understand. It’s coming into focus lately, thanks in large part to the song “Something So Beautiful.”

I recorded “Something So Beautiful”’s harmony vocals the other day with my friend Pier. I drove the winding, country roads back home to Mercer County with a rough mix of this song that sums up my relationship with Marcella - from the initial dates, to the joyful days of traveling the South and elsewhere, to the last day she was able to speak, to the loss, and then circling back to the simple joys of being together. Danceable melancholy.

The lyric started in 2016 with a page in my notebook that said “in the beginning,” “in the middle,” and “in the end.” Over the next couple of months, I would fill in words for each section when the ideas came to me.

It’s the album in miniature, four minutes and twenty-two seconds of uptempo country-rawk with an all-pro/mostly-bearded band that includes Mike Kiker, Nick Crocker, Joe Falcey, Kyle Perella, and Andy Keenan, and is led by Marcella herself speaking the opening line - “who are you?”

you smiled and said

if it was up to you

you’d go to Chapel Hill with me

we’d probably hit the coffee shop

and grab a stack of old LPs

we’d take a trip to somewhere beautiful

on a day like this

you’re still with us

and you’re still beautiful

I sing for Dad, now, too. I’m never anything less than a three-piece band even when I step on-stage. There are no more solo appearances. Even when I take all the money.

Stepping onto the altar at 1867 Sanctuary for Songs For Dad. It’s that moment when you’re about to find out if a bunch of scattered ideas in your notebook will coagulate into a cohesive - and maybe even moving - experience for real live human beings. 

My blood sugar was low, but I knew my songs well - even as I was debuting four or five of them. The band certainly didn’t hurt. These pros helped me paint with many more colors than I would’ve on my own. Jenny Cat, Crocker, Frank Burk, Righteous Jolly, James Feichthaler, my sister Pam, and - via karaoke machine - my late grandfather JJ. 

I’ve learned that I can see it in people’s eyes, when we make that connection. People look at me differently afterward.

By playing that show, I found a little bit more of my purpose. The songs I selected, the stories they brought up - this stuff is part of me now, just as last year’s Count The Colors (For Marcella) show never really ended; it integrated itself into my show, my life. 

I am thinking of Dad all the time, on-stage and off. I’m so often playing the music he showed me that a full show in his honor felt almost redundant. Still, it was a time to challenge myself to, at least, take the first baby steps toward facing the magnitude of this loss and figuring out how to convert some of it into art. 

We shone the images on the church wall while we played, one per song. It seems that what I’m doing with my life is telling stories. Sometimes in song, sometimes the written word, sometimes visual art. To present all three at once was very satisfying. 

I debuted some songs for Dad - “Red Wine Sky,” “I Invite You,” “Daddy’s On His Way” - and reprised the song from his funeral - “Nightingale.”

I wrote a guitar melody the day that my nephew was born and, a few days before the show, I wrote the lyric for the song that is now called “Happy To Meet You.” I performed “Crayola Blue Skies,” written for my niece. Having noticed that my cousin Helen was in the crowd, I added “How Did You Do That, Mr. Joe?” to the set, a song I’d written for my late, great uncle earlier that week.

Near the end, I debuted a new song for Pam. “I’m Glad They Made Two.” She liked it.



photo by Aunt Laura


photo by Brian Dillon


In much of this work, there are meditations on perfect moments that occurred before, during, or after periods of strife. Righteous tells me that that my surname means, roughly, “rough peace.” So, it fits. I have to earn it.

Even right now. I am happy with what I wrote, yet the trade-off for these hours of concentration is a VERY full bladder. Maybe life does suck!!

OK, I’m back. Life’s OK.