under the cold and darkly sky / you trip the light and go…
the cars were my fav band growing up. in my high-wire suburban teenage days, their records and lateral solo projects not only were desert island discs, they were my desert island.
the band (driven by ric ocasek’s all-lowercase, overdriven-jangle, and quirky-jerk writing) catalysed my adolescent desire and urgency to learn guitar and to write songs. the whole thing was just endearing, intelligent, and accessible – the good life, a dream away, if there ever was one.
the cars became my crash course in how to bring depth to “disposable” music; that is, how melody married to meaning can court the coolest girls in class.
more importantly over the long-arc of teenage daydreams, some of which linger to this day every time i write and perform, their music spoked out into innumerable other great bands and writers. riding with the cars, in the backseat i discovered roxy music, david bowie, and t-rex; in the side-view mirrors there were robert fripp, steve reich, and john cage; in the passenger seat rode buddy holly, the byrds, and tom petty; and in the way-way-back, crouched flat out of sight of the driver, there were new order, blondie, suicide, the cure, and eventually the ramones, the replacements, and much of what I came to love.
the early 80s was still a world where “intelligent and cool” were a tough tightrope walk. ocasek and the cars hovered over it all, saying, “c’mon, man, the fringe is the cool. one foot in, one foot out — that fine line — that’s the place to be.”
i’m the american misfit kid / still wondering what i did / i’m on the inside, taking a fast ride…
throughout my songwriting life, co-opting the band’s icy reserve, black leather smirk, and reverence for poetic-yet-stuctured rock ’n roll let me embrace any style without care or ambition in my own music. elliot easton’s incisive guitar lines in particular expressed an “ordered recklessness” that seemed to echo the way i wanted to live life.
in a little structure we can find freedom. learning to break with structure comes later, and makes you comfortable as an iconoclast.
alienation is the craze…
ocasek’s passing on 15 Sep 2019 saddened me, though i never met him, never worked with him, never knew him outside of my own context of decades-long innocent-obsession, deep-inspiration, and distant-admiration.
i’m careful not to cry out loud online (or post stock pictures with sad-emoji captions) at the deaths of people i know, let alone people i don’t. that said, that’s all good if it works for you. i admire the courage it takes to grieve in public. dog eulogies always hit me hard. i’ll hit like buttons on memorial postings, with no irony.
sometimes you can’t help get emotional, thinking of connections a passed artist’s work threaded into your life.
when the dance night flies / and the broadway screams / connect up with me…
in december 2016, we put our dog Sterling to sleep in our living room, to a david bowie mix on shuffle. bowie died in january that year, and it all seemed fitting. now, i can’t listen to absolute beginners, the track that randomly came on as Sterling drifted off, without losing my shit. i can’t even write about it here, can’t even think about that song, without a deep-breath pause to hold back tears.
but the sadness in that melodic association is about Sterling, not bowie.
you’re emotion in motion, my magical potion…
along the same lines now, with ocasek’s death came another spectral transition, of a similar, though more distant, cosmic force to Sterling. each traveled astride me over time in a way, and what’s left of them, fortunately, will never die.
in the ethereal afterglow of their spirits, i can still return to a state of all potential and no past, with a wide-eyed worldview that, for better or worse, believed life was malleable enough to coax in my direction from sheer will.
beneath the stars / all souls are lucky…
Luna, our current companion, btw, is the dog in these photos. 18-months-old at the time of this writing, she’s an ever-more reluctant model than Sterling, but also as patient with me as he ever was.
let the photos behold, let them show what they want…
on 16 september 2019, the day after ocasek died, i plugged in my guitar and mic for the first time in a month, and hit a record button for the first time in a year.
since returning to new york city last june from an extended california sojourn, i have not recorded, written only a few tracks, and found scant musical and literary inspiration in my immediate surroundings.
life curved sharp in 2019. unexpected reckonings. fleeting-at-best, illusory-at-worst successes.
life is as living does.
in the past, i always claw out with creativity. this time, tho, seems harder. not sure why. perhaps creativity herself required a vacation from me.
could be this age. could be my age. perhaps age-old curses. could be the mirror never lies.
dancing ’neath the stars and the strife / going through the motions of life… the flowers of evil / will surely grow…
my new york city’s changed, too. it’s not the warholian bohemia that welcomed the cars’ buoyant darkness when ocasek decamped from boston to manhattan all those years ago. my walking the city’s surface deterioration, surrounded now by unrelenting collisions and widening gaps between manmade systemic misery and negligent indifferent opulence, you sense new york will never be new york again.
then again, maybe it’s as it always mostly was, and i was just fortunate to live here for the last 20 years in an anomalous, halcyon blip of progressive serenity.
either way, while this city owns my tomorrow, it can’t touch my someday.
the good life is just a dream away…
thing is, tho, even after an “escape” or a “clean break,” nothing resolves, save pop song choruses. ocasek’s songs reveled in resolutions.
IRL “codas” are a fade-out, however, most of the time. very few people go out for good in a fireball.
the passing of a “hero” always also begs reflection that daydreams come with expiration dates. dreams not coming true is how dreams die. and where dreams die, regrets are more than willing to fill the vacuum.
well i think of you when i dramatize / the things we never did / and i think of you when i’m flyin’ / or when I’m feelin’ just like a kid…
when i hit “record” the day after ocasek’s death, a mournful version of my best friend’s girl poured out. as i played, i tried to sort out an unwanted-yet-uncontrolled sense of loss welling up from the fretboard. like i said earlier, it’s rare for me to lament on (or revel in) anyone’s passing, let alone in public — and let let alone to grieve in public about a stranger.
in many ways, even just cutting a cars cover song the day after ric ocasek died felt as the musical equivalent of instagramming a stock photo of him with a sad emoji caption. but i shared it anyway. can’t explain, other than i was driven, all puns intended.
all catharsis is tinged with selfishness, anyway.
the dead don’t mourn. grief (that is — your loss) is always a one way street.
in many ways, in grief, you weep for you.
who’s gonna come around / when you break?…
a few songwriters’ deaths, if i am lucky enough to outlive them all, will throw me into a cycle of self-reflective sadness. ocasek and tom petty are already gone. luckily a few more are still breathing.
they wrote songs that taught me how to write songs. i strum their tracks all the time to myself. to calm. to sleep. to salve the sense of time passing.
playing covers is a means to repay artistic debts to an inspiration.
the big misconception is that playing covers casts a musician as a wannabe.
it’s just not true. every musician starts out as a cover band.
yeah, you hang on tight / (and you’re running around / with your face in the ground) / like it was your last right…
through the years, i’ve recorded dozens of covers, but released only three: george harrison’s isn’t it a pity (on my 2007 release stay home vs. the love shoppings), the postal service’s such great heights (on my 2013 release :^D), and the psychedelic furs’ the ghost in you (as a spotify single in 2010).
harrison’s track cemented a record comprising stories of seeking spiritual centering in a post-kindness world. i couldn’t imagine that record without the cover now. my isn’t it a pity was a series of live full tracks laid over each other. in true lo-fi fashion, you can hear my apartment radiator knocking in the more quiet moments. i loved that.
the postal service’s such great heights was one that me and a few friends got obssessed with on a road trip down the east coast in 2012. the fun i had on that trip — one of the best unadulterated adult good times i’ve had — comes through on an electrified version i coaxed out of my limited virtuosity, again layering a host of live run throughs to create the recording. the album’s song cycle was about that road trip, so as with the harrison track, i can’t conceive of the record without its inclusion.
the furs’ ghost in you was a moment where i channeled an homage to my 1980s highwire days into 6 minutes of jangle-crash. a bit of a love letter to my idyllic suburban new jersey teenage space, the track remains among my most spun on Spotify.
mostly, though, i record covers for myself, as a means to explore processes and attitudes - to try to get inside the heads of artists and tracks i’ve admired. so except for the 3 above, my covers sit on hard drives gathering digital dust. everything from the sonics’ you’ve got your head on backwards to kris kristofferson’s i may smoke too much to the cure’s just like heaven. there’s a cover record in my future, i keep threatening. :^D
in many ways, it takes courage to play or record cover songs. you allow avenues of comparison to your own work, with work that most likely has reached further and deeper into wider audiences than your work ever will. showing up to a party you’re not invited to is always a risk.
if you’re selective and creative about what you cover, though, your performances can inform and refract on your own influences and development, as i hope the ones i’ve released do.
playing covers live is a bit different than recording them, too. is there a musician alive or dead, who came into this world with their own songs out-of-the-box? prince? mozart?…
for years, i played mostly covers when i played for people. now, having written a couple hundred tracks, i play mostly my own stuff. but i always still take requests and play covers in most of my sets. there’s little pressure, because the point of playing covers (except on american idol, i guess) is not to outdo an original, but to enlighten and elevate your own material.
with an audience, covers can complete circles in a performance, fill in narrative gaps with collective free association. as a performer, you can take people on a journey through their own memories so as to bring them back to you.
in early 2018, i played a cover of tom petty’s walls (circus version) at a local solo gig. a few months removed from petty’s passing, i pulled out a floaty arrangement i had played only to myself for years, never recorded. sharing it with a live crowd in that moment felt right, just to recall the joy and memories of the good times that petty fueled.
recording covers, as opposed to performing them for an immediate audience, however, is a private conversation between you and the artist you’re covering. eventually, if you release it, a crowd gets to eavesdrop, time-shifted, on that conversation.
my my best friend’s girl performance was not an interaction between me and an audience. only between me and ocasek, in my since-decluttered home office / studio, driven somewhat (in retrospect) by pure cathartic intention. no one told me to do it. but i had to do it.
jackie, what took you so long…
it always flipped me out a bit that my best friend’s girl was one of the last songs kurt cobain played live (in march 1994 nirvana opened their final concert with it). what did cobain see in his penultimate month of suicidal ideation inside ocasek’s jangled tale of lost love, blithe envy, and never-faded lust?
with where the song took me, i saw not only into ocasek’s head, but also a little bit into cobain’s head.
“she used to be mine.”
yeah, yeah, yeah
in many ways, ric’s world — the cars’ world — used to be mine, too.
i’m in touch with your world / and nobody’s gonna buy it / it’s such a lovely way to go.