Wednesday
Jun172015

About Those Uncollected Stories

 

My albums have thirteen songs on them.  This was a coincidence at first -- I didn’t realize that the first couple were sequenced that way until it was pointed out to me -- but it long ago became apparent in other, unrelated ways, that the number thirteen had some mysterious significance in my life. So, when it came time to sequence my third record, I didn’t mess around --  it got thirteen songs, just like its predecessors, and just like every recording I’ve made since.  I happen to like continuity and I just might be superstitious.

This current collection only exists because I’ve stuck with the thirteen track formula. If, for example, I record  twenty songs for a new album, and maybe fifteen of them warrant release, two of those fifteen end up getting cut, as a matter of course. An unexpected bonus about continuing to put out albums this way is that there are now more than enough of these lonely orphans lying around to make up an album of their very own.

Here are thirteen of them. Annotated session information and liner notes below.

1. Luck (outtake from Look At All This!)
2. Letter One (outtake from Do What I Want)
3. I’ll Fly Away (outtake from Better Get Right)
4. When It Rains (Recorded live in Portland, ME)
5. Soon (outtake from I Like You A Lot)
6. Time Will Destroy (outtake from unreleased album, 2003)
7. The Zoo (outtake from No Further Instructions)
8. Fields of Meat (outtake from Look At All This!)
9. Home (Mountain Road) (outtake from Look At All This!)
10. Baseball (outtake from The World Will Be Different)
11. Soul of A Man (outtake from Better Get Right)
12. The Prisoner’s Song (outtake from Look At All This!)
13. One For The Road (Recorded live in Durham, NC)

An Annotated Guide:

Recording "Look At All This!," Photo by David Sykes

Track One: LUCK


One of several outtakes from the Look At All This! sessions. Whereas my first three albums all featured a band that had already played countless gigs together, the group was assembled for the purposes of making this album was playing together for the first time as the tapes were rolling.

 

Photo by David Sykes

Mazz Swift and Ian Riggs had both been part of my live band for a year or so, but Jordan (Guy) Perlson and Michael Daves had each just moved to town, and were brand new to the fold. It didn’t take long for the new group to find its groove -- this track is one of the very first things we laid down.

Michael Daves and Jordan Perlson, Photo by David SykesPersonnel:

Michael Daves: Electric Guitar
Howard Fishman: Vocals, Acoustic Guitar
Jordan Perlson: Drums
Ian Riggs: Upright Bass
Mazz Swift: Violin

Recorded at: 23 E.10th Street, NYC, December 2004

Engineer: David Sykes

 

Track 2. LETTER ONE


Photo by Anders Goldfarb 
A song from “we are destroyed,”  and a melody that reappears throughout the narrative, each time with a new set of lyrics -- a device that allows the character of Eliza to keep a sort of diary of her emotional state as she travels west with The Donner Party. It’s a conceit; though she’s ostensibly writing letters home to a lover who has spurned her, the audience knows that she’s in uncharted wilderness, and that the letters will never reach their recipient.


CD Release show for DO WHAT I WANT, April 2002 
This track is an outtake from Do What I Want, an album we recorded in downtown Manhattan in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, smoke and stench still wafting through the air.  We used the same studio we’d recorded I Like You A Lot in the year before, and we were the same band, but whereas that album had been essentially a live-to-tape, all-acoustic affair, we were now exploring a new sonic palette and when it came to choosing songs for the final album sequence, this track felt like it didn’t belong -- it somehow seemed like a leftover from the band’s previous incarnation.

 

Personnel:


Russell Farhang: Violin
Howard Fishman: Vocals, Acoustic Guitar
Jonathan Flaugher: Upright Bass
Erik Jekabson: Trumpet

Recorded at Sorcerer Sound, NYC, October 2001

Engineer: Tim Conklin

 

Track Three: I’LL FLY AWAY
(Traditional)

 

Photo by Kaity Volpe
This was always a strong contender for inclusion on Better Get Right, but at the time it somehow felt redundant at the time to have it appear along with "Down By The Riverside." Don't ask me why.

 

Essentially a “live” track in the studio, this recording features an exceptionally soulful, greasy solo from Roland “King” Barber during the breakdown section.

 

Photo by Ed Bobrow

Personnel:

Roland Barber: Second trombone solo, vocals
Etienne Charles: Trumpet,  first ensemble solo, vocals
Jose Davila: Sousaphone
Howard Fishman: Vocals, Acoustic Guitar
Andrae Murchison: Trombone, first ensemble solo, vocals
Jordan Perlson: Drums

Engineer: Dana Leong

Recorded at Life After Dark Studios, Harlem, NYC, December 2008

 

Track Four: WHEN IT RAINS (Live)

 

Photo by Jason Woodruff 
A song that I’ve been performing in concert for some years now,, but one that has somehow never made it onto an album.  A couple of different studio outtakes exist from The World Will Be Different sessions, but there was something about the insouciance of this live version from Portland, Maine that trumped them.

 

We were joined this night by the great Allen Lowe on tenor, whose fat, swinging tone perfectly fits the old-fashioned feel of the song.

 

Songwriters will sometimes say of a tune that it simply wrote itself. This was one of those songs for me.

 

Personnel:

Howard Fishman: Vocals, Acoustic Guitar
Allen Lowe: Tenor Saxophone
Nathan Peck: Upright Bass
Mazz Swift: Violin

Recorded live in concert at One Longfellow Square, Portland, ME., December 4, 2010

Track Five: SOON
(Ira Gershwin/George Gershwin)


Photo by Pierre Jelenc 
The only song recorded for I Like You A Lot that was not included on the album, this was a one-off, recorded very late in the evening -- a song we’d played a few times together in concert, but never with piano, and never with this sort of feel. It had been a while since we'd done it, and I wasn't so sharp on the lyric, singing the beginning of second verse at the top instead of the proper one ("Soon/My dear you'll never be lonely/Soon/ You'll find I live for you only").


Photo by Nicolas Hill 
This has always been one of my favorite standards. Once, when I was a teenager, my grandmother Minna Bromberg and I were watching a documentary about the Gershwins, and someone played a rendition of “Soon.” In the second measure of the song, when “blue” notes tug at the melody and harmony (“the lonely nights will be ended”) I remember her saying “that’s a Jewish melody.”

Personnel:

Russell Farhang: Violin
Howard Fishman: Vocals, Piano
Jonathan Flaugher: Upright Bass
Erik Jekabson: Trumpet
Engineer: Tim Conklin
Recorded at Sorcerer Sound, NYC, September 12, 2000

Track Six: TIME WILL DESTROY

In the late summer of 2003, what we were still calling The Howard Fishman Quartet decamped to Telefunken Studios on Talcott Mountain in Connecticut to record what was supposed to be the follow up to Do What I Want.  It was a strange and confusing time. Erik had left the group to move to California, and though Russell and Jon were still on hand, within just a few months both of them would be gone as well.

Photo by Anders GoldfarbAfter touring and promoting the previous two records, playing hundreds of shows together up and down the East Coast, we’d hit a bit of burnout. As usual, I brought a batch of new songs to the sessions, but this time something was different. For one thing, the studio set-up proved to be a challenge; for the first time, we were unable to make eye contact with one another while tracking. Worse, the arrangements of the songs, rather than taking shape organically, felt formulaic and flat. There was creative dissension. There were bad vibes. The magic was gone.

Although some nice things from those sessions survive (including a late night set of standards with just Jon and me on upright bass and guitar), the album was shelved and most of the songs were rewritten and re-recorded the following year with an entirely different band for the record that would become Look At All This!
 
“Time Will Destroy,” a scrap, seems a fitting representation of where the band was at the time.

The silver lining that seemed impossible to imagine back then is that Russell, Jon, Erik and I would reunite years later, and have continued to perform and record together whenever the stars align.

Personnel:

Russell Farhang: Violin
Howard Fishman: Vocals, Acoustic Guitar
Jonathan Flaugher: Upright Bass
Engineer: Chip Karpells
Recorded at Telefunken Studios, Simsbury, CT, August 2003

Track Seven: THE ZOO

Photo by Jim McLaughlin

This recording comes from an all-night session with Jon and Jordan -- a marathon that began in the early evening, concluded after sunrise, and featured numerous takes of something like two dozen different songs (none of which these guys had ever heard before).  I think we recorded almost all of the basic tracks for The World Will Be Different that night, several from No Further Instructions, and a handful of oddities that simply didn’t or wouldn’t fit on either of those albums.  This is one of those latter, sort of a companion piece to “Garbage” from NFI, before it became apparent that most of the songs on that album seemed to be about Romania. 

Personnel:

Jim Campilongo: Lead Electric Guitar
Howard Fishman: Electric Guitar
Jon Flaugher: Electric Bass
Jordan Perlson: Drums
Engineer: Alan Camlet
Recorded at Hoboken Recorders, NJ, 2009

Track Eight: FIELDS OF MEAT

Photo by David SykesThe meat seeds for this song were planted on a long car ride with Ian Riggs, as we made our way from Brooklyn to a tour stop in Camden, Maine.  Ian has a keen appreciation for the random and the absurd, one of the reasons we’ve always gotten along so well.  

We were talking about the idea of “meat” as something that gets bought and sold -- an abstract word that many people take for granted but is in fact a polite way of describing the flesh of a murdered animal that has been prepared for human consumption.  How soon, we wondered, will humanity be giving polite names to every living thing on earth, as it all gets repurposed for our use and disposal?  

Ironically, the lyric that would give the album Look At All This! its name comes from a song that doesn’t even formally appear on the album. “Fields of Meat” wound up being a hidden track, neither sequenced nor credited, and appearing after a few minutes of silence following the end of the album’s final song, “Pictures.”
I fought for this track to be on the album proper, but this was the first time I’d used an outside producer for one of my records, and I lost the fight.

I always thought that this song deserved to have a track of its own, not least because without a credit in the hidden track, some listeners over the years have told me that they hear me saying "Fields of Me" ("Mountains of me, etc.) -- interesting, but incorrect.

Personnel:

Michael Daves: Electric Guitar
Howard Fishman: Vocals, Piano
Jordan Perlson: Drums
Ian Riggs: Upright Bass

Recorded at: 23 E.10th Street, NYC, December 2004

Engineer: David Sykes

 

Track Nine: HOME (MOUNTAIN ROAD)

"Night Hills," oil on canvas, HF 2008While composing songs for the ill-fated travelers in “we are destroyed,” I imagined instances in which they must have keenly felt the effects of their self-imposed geographical dislocation, and felt a yearning for the familiarity of home (and all the feelings that can be conjured by that word).

Although this song’s lyrics would later be rewritten and retitled as “Where Do We Go From Here?,” the version here has the original words, inspired by memories of being in my childhood home on a cool summer evening -- an electric fan in the window, crickets chirping outside, the occasional soft whoosh of a vehicle passing by, but otherwise all darkness and safety, the excitement and promise of tomorrow just on the other side of cozy, restful sleep.

Personnel:

Michael Daves: Lap Steel Guitar
Howard Fishman: Vocals, Acoustic Guitar
Ian Riggs: Upright Bass

Recorded at: 23 E.10th Street, NYC, December 2004

Engineer: David Sykes

 

Track Ten: BASEBALL

 

"Resonate," by Sean Patrick Gallagher

A song that is sometimes much longer in performance. A number of lyrics were expurgated for this recording (including some thoughts about Andy Petitte and Alex Rodriguez).  

 

People that don’t know me well often tell me that I’m quiet, and sometimes ask what I’m thinking about. This is what I’m thinking about.

 

Personnel:

Howard Fishman: Acoustic Guitar, Vocals, Fender Rhodes

Bill Malchow: Accordion
Jordan Perlson: Drums
Engineer: Alan Camlet
Recorded at Hoboken Recorders, NJ, 2009

Track Eleven: SOUL OF A MAN

(Traditional)

The Biting Fish live at Dizzy's, Jazz@Lincoln Center, 2008, photo by Kathleen Scully

A song originally recorded in 1930 by the great Blind Willie Johnson, this is another essentially live track -- another one-off,  from the end of the very first day of tracking for what would become the album Better Get Right.  The band had never heard the song before the tape was rolling, but that didn’t matter.  I just asked them to listen, and to play what they felt. This is what happened.

Personnel:

Roland Barber: Second trombone solo
Etienne Charles: Trumpet
Jose Davila: Sousaphone
Howard Fishman: Vocals, Acoustic Guitar
Andrae Murchison: . Trombone, first trombone solo
Jordan Perlson: Drums

Engineer: Dana Leong

Recorded at Life After Dark Studios, Harlem, NYC, December 2008

 

Track Twelve: PRISONER'S SONG

(Traditional)

Another “palate cleanser,” recorded between takes of other things we were working on for the Look at All This! album.  I’ve always loved Vernon Dalhart’s 1924 recording of this song, which I first heard in New Orleans, at Butch Trivette’s house,  when I lived there in the early 90’s.  Michael Daves was noodling around on a banjo, and used it for this one and only take -- according to him, his first recording ever on the instrument.

Personnel:

Michael Daves: Banjo
Howard Fishman: Vocals, Acoustic Guitar
Ian Riggs: Upright Bass

Recorded at: 23 E.10th Street, NYC, December 2004

Engineer: David Sykes

 

Track Thirteen: ONE FOR THE ROAD (ONE FOR MY BABY)

(B. Dylan)

 

Photo by Anders Goldfarb

Choosing just thirteen songs for my live “Basement Tapes” album, culled from our three-night stand at Joe’s Pub in New York City wasn’t easy, given the dozens and dozens of songs we tackled of the complete, peculiar, underground (and now, finally available) recordings made by Bob Dylan and The Band in 1967. This rendition of “One For The Road” actually comes from a different three-night stand of this music, at Duke Performances in North Carolina.

 

Spontaneity, surprise and irreverence are such a part of this music for me -- I like to think this performance captures a little of all of those things.

 

Personnel:
Howard Fishman: Vocals, Acoustic Guitar
Jordan Perlson: Drums
Ian Riggs: Electric Bass, vocals
S. Stephen Stevenson: Trumpet, vocals
Roland Satterwhite: Violin, vocals
Recorded live at Duke University, Durham, NC, 2008

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Saturday
Feb142015

Heroic Odets

 

En route to The Theatre at St. Clements on West 46th Street in Manhattan last night, I mentioned to a friend that I wasn't sure I'd ever seen a truly great production of a Clifford Odets play, and that I'd never seen a revival of the relatively obscure one we were about to see -- Rocket To The Moon. I'm happy to report that both facts changed immediately as the lights came up on Harry Feiner's inspired set, and The Peccadillo Theater Company began its soulful, stirring staging of this neglected 1938 piece.


So often, in remounts of Odets, it can seem like the performers are acting in different plays; this actor thinks he’s in a 1930’s gangster movie, that actress thinks she’s Mae West on the vaudeville circuit, etc. More often than not, the proceedings are a total disaster, the performers and the material seemingly at odds with one another and both falling flat on their faces, hard. The result, in my experience, is never pretty, and often much worse than that.

Such is not the case here. The Peccadillo’s production is a delicately masterful ensemble endeavor. While there are stellar individual performances throughtout (as well as a couple of curious casting choices), it would be unfair to single out any one actor. The entire cast gives absolutely everything they have to the whole, and because of this, the whole is so much greater than the sum of its parts. Every actor is fully invested in the material, and the material pays back in dividends.  This is Odets the way Odets was meant to be.

A sort of ugly-duckling relative to O’Neill, Williams and Miller, Odets sits uncomfortably in the pantheon of great American playwrights, and praise for him (when it's even given) generally comes saddled with qualifications like “problematic,” “early promise,” “unrealized potential,” and “Hollywood sellout.” His language and his characters can be extreme; it could never be said of a single page of Odets dialogue that the words are dull or lifeless. If anything, they can seem to have too much life. They bubble over --  with enthusiasm, with slang, with aphorisms, with jokes, with philosophy, with nerve, with joie de vivre. Play it too hard, the whole thing explodes in wince-worthy cliches. Play it too soft, and it falls apart -- the actors simply get crushed under the weight of exposed plot and dated speech.

Somehow, The Peccadillo company and director Dan Wackerman have achieved a perfect balance. The pace feels musical, which makes sense and is something of a revelation. It is fortissimo and furious when called for, soft and legate at others (given this rare and welcome sensitivity, it’s a bit surprising that the sound design by David Thomas includes a jarringly anachronistic between-scenes soundtrack; this is a minor quibble).  

The cast finds the ridiculous, and they make it natural.  They find the outsized emotions, and run straight into them --  the way we all can do when faced with crisis.  The people in the plays of Odets are almost always people in crisis. This doesn’t make them lunatics, or buffoons, as they are so often (wrongly) portrayed. Sure, they’re a little neurotic; so are we.  Sure, words come out of their mouths that they immediately regret; they come out of our mouths too.  Yes, they can be grandiose, obnoxious, sentimental, irrational. So can we. These are not characters peopling a museum devoted to a clumsy, bygone era. They’re us -- imperfect, striving for understanding, desperate for love, dissatisfied, trying to make sense of the world, alive.

Wackerman and his actors do not condescend to Odets.  There are no tongues in cheeks here.  The company believes in the material, and so we do too.  They jump into the fire, and we follow them.  The approach here is one of humility, dignity, and respect, and it's moving and effective to watch.  The play is given the treatment it asks for, and we are all enriched for it -- audience, company, and playwright.

Bravo to The Peccadillo.  This is a production that deserves a much longer and more prominent run than the limited engagement it’s just begun. See it while you can.

 

Sunday
Dec212014

Yusuf/ Cat Stevens and The Sound of Surrender

Early in the Yusuf/ Cat Stevens concert in Boston a couple of weeks ago, while he waited for a stagehand to bring him a guitar between songs , someone near the front of the stage shouted something to the 66 year-old performer. “I’m really happy to be here!,” came the spontaneous, ernest reply. It did not sound like ersatz showbiz banter; it sounded humble, childlike even, as if he himself were surprised by the emotion. It sounded like surrender.

The crowd, in response, rose to its feet en masse, producing a sound that was more than just a cheer, more than just thunderous applause.  It was an embrace.  It was a moment -- an acknowledgement by artist and audience alike: Cat Stevens, someone who for all intents and purposes had ceased to exist over three decades ago, was back.

 

For a long time, it has been hard to love the man once known (and now known again) as Cat Stevens.  In the years since he formally retired from the popular music world in 1978, his name has popped up in the media from time to time. He would be quoted, or seen in a video clip interview, and it was difficult to accept the visage of the person he now presented himself as -- hard to reconcile this cold, humorless, unhappy and severe-looking man with the joyful, understanding, goofy/wise songwriter whose music we’d known and loved.  For a long time, the man now known as Yusuf Islam completely disowned his artistic output as Cat Stevens, a confusing, dispiriting slap in the face to those of us it once meant so much to.

 


The man he now was was running Islamic schools for children, spreading the word of Allah, being a spokesperson for Islam.   After a while, he began making some children’s albums, but he wasn’t playing the guitar, and the music was not for us. In interviews, he sounded defensive and removed. Some remarks attributed to him seemed to be in line with some of the more distasteful prejudices of modern-day conservative Islam.

Then, in 2006, came  An Other Cup, his first album of commercial music in 28 years. He’d dropped his adopted last name of Islam, and was now calling himself, simply, “Yusuf.” Something had shifted, certainly. How welcome it was to hear that voice with that guitar again, after all these years. Still, the album’s opening track “Midday (Avoid City After Dark)” set a tone of unease, paranoia and judgment that never really lifted. Elsewhere on the recording, there was a revisit a much earlier composition “I Think I See The Light,” and an interesting (if forced-sounding)  reworking of a section of his “Foreigner Suite”  ("Heaven/Where True Love Goes”), but the bulk of the album felt earthbound.  Nowhere was there the joie de vivre that inhabited his best work.  2009’s follow-up, Roadsinger, sounded fresher, but still unconvincing. Which was it -- was he wary of us, or we him? There seemed to be skepticism and distrust on both sides.

Some live performances began to pop up here and there online. He was steadfast about not playing any old Cat Stevens material save for a select few songs that he could justify in the context of his religious path -- songs like “The Wind” and “Peace Train.”  He had collaborated on a musical called “Moonshadow” that featured actors singing some of his old songs and was having a run in Australia. It proved a critical and financial flop.

I paid attention to all of this because, although I did not grow up listening to Cat Stevens per se, his music became the soundtrack to my adolescence when I watched Harold and Maude for the first time, and everything changed.  

I went out and got a guitar. I listened to Cat Stevens music obsessively, played and sang his songs with friends, hunted down all of his albums. While it was clear that he’d lost his way artistically on later albums like Numbers and Izitso, the earlier, classic albums that he’s still known for (Mona Bone Jakon through Foreigner) were full of treasures that could be mined again and again. Indelible melodies, beautiful production, emotionally committed performances and, most of all, a gentle wisdom, a repudiation of the status quo, a sense that we were not alone. Here was someone who was trying to make sense of life too; he may not have had the answers, but he was looking for them, and we were encouraged to join him. Here was a friend.


Of course, I quickly learned that Cat Stevens had already ceased to be. My adolescent soul despaired knowing that there would be no more Cat Stevens albums, no more Cat Stevens concerts. The man who had become a hero to me no longer existed.

In time, his music too would fade from my consciousness. As I grew and matured, so did my musical tastes and sensibilities. I might reach for a Cat Stevens album on rare occasions to remind myself of something that once meant so much to me, sometimes surprised that a song or album held up as strongly as it did, but his music was no longer a living thing for me.  I did pay attention when he came out of retirement with the two Yusuf albums, and listened to each of them a handful of times with attendant hopes and (it seemed) inevitable disappointment.  It was hard to get excited about his music now. The voice was the same, but the spirit was changed, different, unwelcoming.

Nevertheless, when it was announced that he was going to perform in America for the first time in 38 years, I put my misgivings aside and became a teenager again, queueing up for tickets on the phone the morning that they went on sale.  I did not listen to the new album Tell ‘Em I’m Gone, nor did I look for any news about the kinds of shows he’d been playing of late.  I simply drove up to Boston to see my old hero, expectations dimmed to almost nothing.  I imagined I would see Yusuf Islam, delivering a respectful program of his latter-day music, with perhaps one or two old favorites thrown in as crowd appeasement.  I wasn’t going for Yusuf Islam. I was going to pay homage to the singer that had once meant so much to me, for the chance to simply be in the same room with him for the first and what I figured would be the last time.


* * *
 
I’m still trying to come to grips with what it was like to be at that concert in Boston.  What happened there was more than just a good concert given by a group of well-rehearsed, talented musicians backing a pop icon on a comeback tour, though it was partly that.  It was more than just a nostalgic trip down memory lane, as a sold-out crowd sang along to songs that many (including myself) never expected to hear played live again, though it was that too.  Without resorting to hyperbole, being there, for me, was an unexpected catharsis, something like seeing a ghost.

I didn’t know, until I got there, that he was now billing himself with the ungainly but revealing name of Yusuf/ Cat Stevens. Was he now acknowledging his former self? This was a surprise, the first of many that the evening would hold.

The once and future Cat Stevens walked on to a tremendous ovation (no surprise there) and launched into a solo performance of “The Wind.” Okay, in some way, that was what we’d come for and here he’d already given it to us.  All the latter-day Yusuf stuff would follow, we’d give him some hearty applause at the encore, and that would be that -- or so I thought.

What was this though?  He was wearing sunglasses and a leather jacket -- not the austere, devotional garb he’d worn in the (admittedly not so recent) appearances I’d seen him do online. And the stage set -- it was elaborate, whimsical, evocative of the old Cat whose tastes sometimes crossed the line into outright silliness. Most significantly, though, he himself seemed engaged, connected, and -- hardest to believe -- lighthearted.

“Here Comes My Baby” and “The First Cut Is The Deepest” followed, two very early pop hits, secular love songs. Woah, he’s doing that material?  What’s going on here?  

“Thinking ‘Bout You” followed, a more recent song of love and devotion, but it was buoyed by an energy and commitment that sustained the freshness of what had come before, and served as a bridge to the first real shock of the night, as the singer made his way to a piano at the side of the stage and, unaccompanied, launched into the opening strains of “Sitting,” as the crowd seemed to collectively gasp before erupting into joyous, grateful cheers.

Here he was again. Cat Stevens. Questioning, seeking, proudly admitting that he did not have the answers but that he was on his way to find them.  Our companion, our friend, had returned.

It was the first of what would be many goosebump moments in the generous, two part concert. He followed it with “Last love Song” from 1978’s obscure (and mostly pretty bad) Back to Earth, the mere fact that he was exploring and reclaiming obscurities from his back catalog speaking volumes.

By the time he’d reached the end of the first set, closing it with "If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out", the message was clear -- something had happened. He was giving us back the songs he’d taken away so many years ago. He was, after all this time, validating their worth again, and with it, our love for them.  After insisting for so many years, as Yusuf Islam,  that there was only one way, only one truth, one law, one path, he’d relented. He was giving us permission, again, to do and think and live how we wanted. And he seemed genuinely happy saying and singing it. I’m not above admitting that I wiped tears from my eyes. As I looked around, I saw that I was not alone.
 

 The second set held even more surprises, as song after song from the old oeuvre was brought back to life. “Oh Very Young,” “Sad Lisa,” “Miles From Nowhere” (I have my freedom/ I can make my own rules/ Oh yeah, the ones that I choose”).  They were presented, for the most part, as set pieces, with hardly any improvisation at all, but it didn’t matter. Old faithful Alun Davies was there on lead acoustic guitar, as he has been since 1970. Matt Sweeney was a welcome addition on electric guitar, adding a pinch of verve and danger to the mix, but if old concert footage is any indication, Cat Stevens was never one for taking too many risks onstage musically, choosing instead to eschew spontaneity in deference to the arrangements on his studio recordings.  

It was inspiring to hear him still tinkering with that beautiful failure “Foreigner Suite,” still trying to get it right. Old classics like “Where Do The Children Play?” and “Trouble”  brought with them a great sadness; confronted with the simplicity, the naivete even, of the sentiments in these gentle lyrics, it was impossible not to think of how the world has changed and darkened since these songs were written and last performed. Even “Moonshadow,” that lullaby of Buddhist acceptance, carried with it the sting of longing for less dire times.  

 * * *
 
Being at this concert, hearing these songs again, sung with conviction by this man, was like being allowed to spend a night in one’s childhood home, with everything back the way that it was from some pre-existential, innocent moment -- with even one’s family members frozen in time the way that they were decades ago. For me, it was eerie, spooky, unsettling, like Emily’s trip back from the dead in Our Town.

At the end of each of these old songs, there was that same sustained applause that followed his aside, early in the show, about how happy he was to be here.  It’s a sound I keep coming back to when I think about the experience of being at this concert, a sound unlike any I think I have ever heard.  It had mass. It was an entity, a palpable force, as though the emotion behind every voice and every pair of hands could be heard. There was a sort of desperate celebration to it. It was the sound of reconciliation, of gratitude, of redemption.

Yusuf/ Cat Stevens may never tour again (though I hope that’s not true), may never sing these songs again (also probably not true -- I've since learned that he's been doing them for some time now), but on this tour and on this night, he made something truly magical happen: he brought back someone we loved from the dead, a phantom from another time, and with that act offered tacit acknowledgement that we’re so much better together than we are apart.   It would be wrong to call the concert a triumph, because the man that Yusuf/ Cat Stevens has become is clearly too humble to aspire to triumphing.  Instead, it felt  something like a miracle.

 

 






Sunday
Nov022014

Crawling Inside A Song And Shutting The Door

 


 

On the eve of the release of one of the most bootlegged of bootleg recordings ever made (Bob Dylan and The Band’s complete Basement Tapes)  I happened across another, much less-well known, perhaps totally obscure Bob Dylan bootleg recording -- an outtake from the soundtrack to an execrable film called Hearts of Fire, a star vehicle gone wrong for a burned-out, lost in the weeds mid-80's era Dylan, who later admitted that he was drunk most of shoot.

The film soundtrack featured exactly two new, and entirely throwaway, Bob Dylan songs -- “Night After Night” and  “Had A Dream About You Baby,  But the song, or rather, the performance that I’ve been listening to, is not a Dylan song at all, but a cover of Billy Joe Shaver’s “Old Five And Dimer.” It’s a skull-rattling gem. 

According to a website called alldylan.com, Dylan went into a London studio over two days in August, 1986 to record music for the soundtrack. His band for the sessions included the likes of Eric Clapton and Ron Wood. On the first day, Dylan put the band to work on five takes of John Hiatt’s “The Usual,” one take of something called “Ride This Train,” which sounds like a mess of a half-formed original song that he quickly abandoned, before launching into five takes of “Had A Dream About You Baby.”

Then comes the solo take of "Old Five and Dimers" and, for three minutes and twelve seconds, Dylan delivers a performance that digs down and scrapes every bit of nuance to be had in a song that isn’t even his.  It’s an astonishing bit of theater, and better by far than any acting he did onscreen for “Hearts of Fire.”

The “old five and dimer” who narrates the song is, on the surface, about the furthest thing in the wolrd from rock icon Bob Dylan.  He’s a nobody, a guy that’s knocked around through mostly hard times, a Cadillac buyer who knows that “good times and fast bucks are too far and too few between.”  Yet, even during Dylan’s mid-80’s nadir, when he seemed to be artistically and spritually bankrupt, he was still Bob Dylan -- a household name, a man who’d sold millions of records and put an indelible stamp on American popular music and culture. He was still someone who performed in sports arenas, who’d engendered a following of rabid acolytes who followed and examined his every move.

Yet, listening to this recoding, you would never know any of that. In fact, the singer in this recording sounds like the oldest, most five-and-dimerist, broken down singer you’d ever want to hear sing this song. The performance sounds authentic. It sounds real. At the end, he cries “An Old-Five and Dimer is all I intended to be!” the phrase positively drowning in weary, stubborn, hardcrabble, painful pride. 

 Really Bob?  All you ever wanted was to be an anonymous, unknown, everyman kind of guy? That’s what you wanted, when you hitched a ride to New York City to seek fame and fortune and your place in the history books?  To hear this recording, it’s almost believable.

So where in the world does Dylan get the nerve to imbue this song with the sort of raw conviction that he does?  How does he do it?   He gets inside the song. He plays the part. It’s theater.  

  Of course there is a lie behind the performance. One could even say that Dylan's not being authentic here.  But he is.  He’s using an example of something he knows little about (being a unknown failure) to express something about the way he feels right now that is beyond the scope of the language of his experience.  It’s the same as when we feel so good that we say we feel like a million bucks. Or we feel like a King. Or we feel like we’re on top of the world -- even when we don’t really know what those things are actually like. We have a feeling that transcends our ability to capture it in words. so we reach for a metaphor to express it. 

Isn’t that what all great, well-told stories do?  They get at something that we feel but don’t know what to do with, because the feeling is so real.  A good artist is brave enough, or lucky enough, to be able to do that with some regularity. A great artist, like Bob Dylan, can do it across a career that spans decades. It’s why we revere them so much, follow them, wait to see what they’re going to share with us next, because we never know when the muse will visit and allow him to imbue some song -- his or someone else’s -- with that kind of feeling that raises the hair on the back of our necks.These kinds of performances bring us closer to our own unplumbed, complicated feelings. They make us feel less alone.

And then, we can’t get the song, or the performance out of our heads. We want to share it. We want to tell everyone we know about it.  So, check it out, and see what you think.  And while you’re at it, listen to the one other keeper from these sessions, “To Fall In Love”, an unfinished original that sounds like it could have been part of those Basement Tapes that we're all listening to this week.

 

Thursday
Oct162014

Beware Facebook

 

Like a lot of us who use Facebook, I have a personal page and a page for my business, where I can connect with people who are interested in what I do professionally.  On the professional page (in my case, a "fan" page) I make announcements about upcoming concerts, recordings, new projects, post photos and music, interact with fans, etc. 

For a month now, I have been unable to access my professional page, and Facebook has not respoded to any of the dozens of help tickets that I have created about this issue.  There seems to be no one there at Facebook.  This is the second time this year that this has happened -- the first time, about a week went by and then, without explanation, my admin account was available again, appearing just as mysteriously as it had vanished. 

This time, the situation is more serious, as I have a tour coming up and presenters who would like to interface with me and my fans via Facebook.  Not having access to my page is having a real impact on my business. As you can see from the screenshot above, Facebook knows that I run this page -- they just won't allow me access to it.

I have posted about this on my personal page, and had people respond with similar horror stories, some saying that they had lost access to their pages permanently, and with it, years and years of original content created for, or posted to, their page.

This is intolerable.  Facebook is not a small company. Facebook should have tech support and be able to fix this kind of thing.

Maybe if enough of us make noise about this issue, they will pay attention.  Would you please consider reposting this on your social media?

Thanks for your help!

#FacebookFail

 

UPDATE 10/24/14: The page has been restored. No explanation, no feedback from tech support, just a mysterious resolution (for now?). Be on guard, FB users!