“Conscious continual compassion and ordinary
“Forgive everyone for your own sins/ And be sure
to tell them/ you love them/ which you do.”
“Don’t break your tenderness”
“The Single Teaching: Love Everywhere.”
“Forgive, reassure, pat, protect/ and purify” the living
in “whatever way is best.”
A.G.’s Mexico City Blues Chorus 13, 17, 24, 50, 51, 52, 54,
63, 64, 96, 97, 110, 113, 121, 157, 146, 149, 155,
173, 179, 202, 208, 209, 211, 217, 219, 225, 225,
228. 230, 232, 240, 241, 242
Lowell Canto 87-104
Essence & Existence Canto 182-205
“Did you ever hear that to conquer your enemy
you must repent first, fall down on your knees &
beg for mercy?”
“I’ll tell you this much—when you tell somebody
your dreams & hopes you better be sure they
love you like a brother or your dreams & hopes
probably won’t come true. You got to be somewhat
superstitious to survive.”
“Read John Keats, Melville, listen to Robert Johnson &
“I felt like I’d broken through with this song
[Tombstone Blues,] that nothing like it had been
done before.” -BD
contemporary Malian music/ repetitive without
“turn-arounds”—or lift out chorus, forcing you to
orient yourself wherever the groove is-
end of Strawberry Fields
midnight voice of Chuck D
where do songs fit in?
Cold Irons Bound
A cool sound, & not rock ’n roll
Old Blue Car Blues
Rise & Shine
So Glad You’re Mine
Brokedown Engine Blues
Cool Drink o’ Water
Someday Baby Blues
Fixing To Die
Steady Rolling Man
Deep Blue Sea Blues (Catfish)
Broke & Hungry
Dig What Yr Puttin’ Down
My Kind Of Trouble
“The great and golden rule of art, as
well as of life, is this: That the more distinct,
sharp and wiry the bounding line, the more
perfect the work of art, and the less keen
and sharp, the greater is the evidence of
weak imitation, plagiarism, and bungling…
The want of the determinate & bounding
form evidences the want of idea in the artist’s
mind, and the pretense of the plagiary in all
it’s branches…what is it that builds a house
and plants a garden, but definite and deter-
-minate? Leave out this line, and you leave
out life itself: all is chaos again, and the line
of the Almighty must be drawn out before
man or beast can exist.” -WB
“Don’t waste your time on jealousy. Sometimes
you’re ahead, sometimes you’re behind. The
race is long, and in the end, it’s only with ypur-
joy, new, life, god.
“Hold fast to the highest version of who you are.”
“The nucleus of my solar system is ADVENTURE”
if it isn’t in deeds
“Journey of the act of writing through zones not at
all favorable to the act of writing.”
“Making new sensations appear—subverting the everyday.”
ABANDON EVERYTHING AGAIN
HIT THE ROAD
— infrarealist manifesto Bolano
“Results of five hours waiting…seven texts written in the style
of Uises Lima, or rather in the style of the one poem I’d read
or really just heard.The first one was about the sopes, which
smelled of the grave; the second was about the university: I
saw it in ruins; the third was about the university (me running
naked in the middle of a crowd of zombies); the fourth was
about the moon over Mexico City; the fifth about a dead singer;
the sixth about a secret community living in the sewers of
Chapultepec; and a seventh about a lost book and friendship.”
“A couple of drunks tried to bother me, but young as I am,
I can take care of myself.”
“A waitress (…her name was Brigida) stroked my hair absent-
-mindedly, as she went by.” -Bolano (The Savage Detectives)
The four agreements
Be impeccable with your word.
Don’t take anything personally.
Don’t make assumptions.
Always do your best.
“Bob as a creator. His method of writing and how he was influenced
by his surroundings including Victor. Details into how Bob worked
harder and longer than anybody. Stories about Joan Baez getting
offended that Bob would wake up in the middle of the night and write,
Deep observations by Victor indicating that Bob’s only real way of
communication was through songs.” -VM & son, notes.
“…it must be…noted that the prophet—like its ironic alter-ego, the
trickster—lives up to the promise delivered by his prophecy only when
the latter is projected toward an audience.” -Andrea Cossu
Woody & Seeger—“Taking It Easy”
“Those old songs are my lexicon & my prayer book.” -BD
“The only constant is that it’s hard and it’s elusive, and it requires a great
amount of effort.”
“I’ve not written a song yet that didn’t require me giving 100% of what I’ve
got to get it right, and that’s a lot of effort.” -Mary Gauthier
“I used playwriting to focus on & attack the things I was afraid of, to go in the
direction of the things I was afraid of instead of running away from the them…
the poxxr is an arrow & it is fear & it points in the direction of where you should
go.” -J.P. Shanley
judgements are necessary. sometimes
you must decide.
king of wands/queen of coins
Jesus Christ! Renewal is at hand.
“Tap from yourself the song of yourself,
“I just couldn’t imagine how Johnson’s mind
could go in & out of so many places. he seemed
to know about everything, he even throws in
Confucious-like sayings whenever it suits him.
Neither forlorn nor helpless or shackled—
nothing hinders him. As great as the greats were,
he goes one step further.
You can’t imagine him singing “Washington’s a
bourgeois town.” He wouldn’t have noticed or if he
did, it would have been irrelevant.
Robert Johnson’s code of language was like nothing
I’d heard before or since.
“I is some one else.”
When I read those words the bells went off.”
“The songs weren’t customary blues songs. Each song
contained 4 or 5 verses, every couplet intertwined with
the next but in no obvious way. They were so utterly fluid
at first they went by quick, too quick to even get. They
jumped all over the place in range & subject matter, short
punchy verses that resulted in some panoramic story—fires
of mankind blasting off the surface of this spinning piece of
plastic. “Kind Hearted Woman.” “Travelling Riverside Blues”
“Come On In My Kitchen.”
“The songs were layered with a startling economy of lines.”
“They were so elemental in meaning & feeling & gave you so
much of the inner picture.”
“I copied Johnson’s words down on scraps of paper so I could
more closely examine the lyrics & patterns of his old-style lines
& the free association that he used, the sparkling allegories, big-
-ass truths wrapped in the hard shell of nonsensical abstraction
—themes that flew through the air with the greatest of ease. I
didn’t have any of these dreams or thoughts but I was going to
“The stuff I got’ll bust your brains out” he sings. Johnson
is serious, like the scorched earth. There’s nothing clownish
about him or his lyrics. I wanted to be like that too.”
“Johnson bypasses tedious descriptions other blues writers
would have written whole songs about.” -BD
“..artists are less the outcome of objective qualities of their selves
or their songs and more the result of what hey and other actors
do—cooperating or competing—for the creation of their image
as artists. What is interesting is the depth, extension, and
precarious balance of this collective work and the part it plays
in the definition of authenticity.”
“the unpredictability of the meanings that artists have for their
publics is what constitutes, at least in part, their aura.”
“witty blues, sarcastic rock & roll, reminiscent of…talking
blues, or lyrics that expanded inner directness…whereas
on the acoustic side…symbolism reaches it’s climax and
an unsurpassed coherence.
“a prophet is a ‘highly individualized figure, who derives
his authority not from any institution, but from the assertion
of his personal vocation.” -Andrea Cossu
—has an agenda–works everyone it
comes in contact with.
—giving the feeling that something could happen.
(on the meaning of style):
“stupid people look stupid; a charismatic person never looks
stupid; therefore a charismatic person is smart.” -RH
“I don’t carry myself yet the way that Big Joe Williams, Woody
Guthrie, Lead Belly, & Lightnin’ Hopkins have carried them-
-selves—hope to be able tp someday, but they’re older people.
I sometimes am able to do it, but it happens, when it happens,”
unconsciously. You see, in time, with these older singers, music
was a tool—a way to live more, a way to make themselves feel
better at certain points. As for me, I can make myself feel better
sometimes, but at other times it’s still hard to go to sleep at night.
“The blues is for soothing.” –Albert King
“The way I think about blues comes from what I learned from Big
Joe Williams. The blues is more than something to sit at home &
arrange. What made the real blues singers so great is that they
were able to state all the problems they had; but at the same time,
they were standing outside of them & could look at them. And in
that way, they had them beat. What’s depressing today is that
many young singers are trying to get inside the blues, forgetting
that those older singers used them to get outside their troubles.” -BD
“Dedicated to the rough riders, ghost poets, low-down rounders,
sweet lovers, desperate characters, sad-eyed drifters and rainbow
angels—those high on life from all ends of the wild blue yonder.
And especially to the girls upstairs—Cathy, Miriam, Mildred & Naomi
who put this heavy volume together.
To the magnificent Woody Guthrie & Robert Johnson, who sparked
it off and to the great wondrous melodies spirit which covereth the
oneness of us all
And to Sara who made it all complete.” -BD 1973
“The compression of story is masterful, but its real wonder is in the
spaces, in what the artist left out of his painting. To me, that has
always been the key to his art. To state things plainly is the
function of journalism; but Dylan sings a more fugitive song: allusive,
symbolic, full of imagery and ellipses, and by leaving things out, he
allows us the grand privilege of creating along with him. His song
becomes our song because we live in those spaces.” -Pete Hamill
“Old Bards & Minstrels rhymed their years news on pilgrimmage
road —Visitations town to own singing Kings shepherds cowboy’s
& lawyer’s secrets”
“Woody Guthrie lineage road bards’ll still make us weep where there’s
suffering to be sung. Dylan’s Redemption Songs! If he can do it we
can do it. america can do it. ” It’s allright Ma I can
…”surreal-history love text ending in giant’ YEAH’ when minstrel
gives his heartaway & says he wants to stay.” -AG
“…poetry, his troubadour’s traveling art, seems to me to be more
meaningful than ever. I thought, listening to these songs, of the words
of Yeats, walker of the roads of Ireland: “We make out of the quarrel
with others rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.”
“…looking at the quarrel of the self. The crowds have moved back
off the stage of history; we are left with the solitary human, a single hair
on the skin of the earth.”
“the anthem for all who feel invaded, handled, bottled,
packaged; all who spent themselves in combat with the plague; all who
ever walked into the knives of humiliation or hatred.”
“love, the human emotion that exists in spite of, not because.”
“The signposts have been smashed; the maps are blurred. There is no
politician anywhere who can move anyone to hope; the plague recedes (?),
but it is not dead, and the statesmen are as irrelevant as the tarnished
statues in the public parks. We live with a callous on the heart. Only the
artists can remove it. Only the artists can help the poor land again to feel.”
“…bringing feeling back home…risking that dangerous opening of the
veins…regret, melancholy, a sense of inevitable farewell, mixed with sly
humor, some rage, and a sense of simple joy.” -Pete Hamill
Possibly 4th Street
Episode 13, Part One
Text and photos by Rob Trucks
(note: This ran in the Voice, but the transcript contained one million “you knows” that I had thrown into the conversation, randomly, to the point of incomprehensibility. So, one night quite a while ago, I removed them all, and found it really helps the flow. OK.)
Just barely into a late autumn, early Sunday, New York City afternoon, 53-year-old Peter Case has pretty much come full circle.
By age 14, Case had already plotted his life’s songwriting path. But Buffalo is no place for buskers (too damn cold ALL THE TIME), so Case quit high school, went west and performed on the streets of San Francisco. Karl Malden and Michael Douglas weren’t there, but Allen Ginsberg was.
“Him and Orlovsky,” Case says, “They would come out. I used to play right across from City Lights every night. I used to sleep in City Lights. They let me sleep upstairs. I’d read books and I’d sleep and I’d wake up and go out and play when it got dark out.”
These early street singing exploits are faithfully rendered in Case’s recently published book, As Far As You Can Get Without A Passport. But eventually the self-sufficient troubadour traded San Francisco for Los Angeles, acoustic for electric. He played in the Nerves (their single “Hanging on the Telephone” was later covered by Blondie) and the Plimsouls (best known for “A Million Miles Away,” three and a half minutes of power pop bliss found on the Valley Girl soundtrack), but Case has been on his own— again—for over twenty years now.
Today, after a short set for Dave Marsh’s live morning radio show for Sirius, Case is still in midtown. And obviously tired, if not exhausted. You can tell by his shuffle. And so we put the kibosh on our planned expedition out to Williamsburg in favor of a quick slice at Famous Ray’s or Original Ray’s or Original Famous Ray’s and a busking session in front of a Starbuck’s at 47th and Broadway.
This is also where one of the doubledecker bus lines stops to pick up its troupe of treadmill tourists. A captive audience, it would appear. but they, as well as more excitable excursionists travelling to and from their nearby expensive hotel rooms, ignore the blues-belting Case.
It is a calculated move. AVOID the bone-weary busker. DO NOT make eye contact. As in, these tourists are going OUT OF THEIR WAY not to notice the Grammy-nominated (his latest, Let Us Now Praise Sleepy John, was up for Best Traditional Folk album, but lost to Levon Helm’s Dirt Farmer) singer-songwriter.
Peter’s older now and, at least for today, noticeably more fatigued. It’s warmer of course, and more crowded, but on this corner is a man and his guitar and some songs that no one, in this setting, on this day, cares to stop and hear.
In that sense it’s a lot like Buffalo, almost forty years before.
Possibly 4th Street
Episode 13, Part 2
by Rob Trucks
We’re all in the Americana family now:
Case was once nuptially entwined with singer-songwriter Victoria Williams who later married former Jayhawk Mark Olson
One thing Peter Case has never done:
“I never played professional football.”
Something he’s done once and one time only:
“I wrote a song once with Willie Dixon, and we didn’t finish it and I never got a chance to come back and finish it. I went to his house and hung out. It was a bright moment.”
The name of a book he’s read at least twice:
“Oh God, I have to read books twice or I don’t remember them. Dante. The Inferno. I’ve read that three times.”
Do you own a rake?
So, you busked just last Christmas . . .
“The last time I went and played on the street was, over Christmas I went out and played, with my friend Buddy Zapata. He’ a blues player out there (California), and we went over to Pasadena, just out on the big main drag out there. It was like a million people out and we played for hours. We had little amplifiers. I was playing a Harmony guitar through this little amp that Buddy had, and we were just playing all blues material. We hung around and played for a while and people were throwing money at us.”
What was the impetus?
“I hate to tell you what the impetus was [Laughs]. But it just seemed like a good idea.”
At the time.
“Yeah. I mean, I used to play on the street for a living, you know. And being an independent artist in the current atmosphere, you know, it’s never that far away. It’s good to have a line of work to fall back on.”
Did you busk in Buffalo before you left? Because you left at a pretty young age.
“No, there’s no busking in Buffalo. I played on the street, but I mean I just played on the street because I didn’t have a place to stay. But we never thought we were busking. I didn’t busk until I got to San Francisco.”
Did you start busking right away?
“I worked a couple odd jobs. I was the office boy at a sex magazine for a while, and then I got a job remodeling a guy’s apartment, a rich business man. And then I was starting to meet people out on the street and he came back to the apartment I was remodeling. It was a second apartment. It had Warhols and stuff in it. I had a bunch of people in there drinking wine and playing guitar and he threw us all out. And that day I went out and played on the street for real for the first time.”
Were you pretty much done with busking by the time you moved to Los Angeles?
“Oh yeah. The last time I really busked for real was July 4th, 1976.”
And “busking for real” means busking because you need the money?
“Because you’re dead broke and it’s a great way to make money. I mean I did it steadily ’73, ’74, ’75, right up in there. But at that point in ’76, my band The Nerves was starting to take off. I think we were waiting to get the singles back of ‘Hanging on the Telephone,’ and when we got that back we just moved to L.A. and I didn’t busk again.
“I mean, I might’ve busked. We were pretty desperate at different times. I know we were stranded on the Nerves tour. We went out as the opening act for the Ramones in ’77, but we couldn’t make it back. We didn’t have enough money to get back, and I think I might’ve played on some street corners. I know I did other things for bread because those were crazy times.
“When my first solo record came out I played on the street in Denver at one point. You know, one thing playing on the street gave me was like a sense of comfort in public. You know, a certain sense. I mean, it’s not like it’s the easiest thing in the world, but it just gave me some sort of feeling. I guess I always felt sort of at home on the street. It was always something about the way I felt about life. It was like the street was a place. It was my living room, you know. And it really became that, as I sang on the street a lot, every night, on and on and on and on, that I just felt really comfortable to go out and just start singing, make a fool of myself on the street corner.”
When you’re writing an album, are you looking for a tone in the way that, say, Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town maintains a tone? Or is it more, These are the last twelve songs that I wrote?
“Neither really. For this album I wrote lots of songs. I wrote a lot of songs in different periods, so there was a lot of different kinds of material. And then we could’ve gone different ways with what the tone of the record would’ve been, but I decided that I wanted to record solo and do it like that, and then, you know, select the songs out of the whole group.
“I don’t really tend to write albums that much. I’ve done it a couple of times. I worked with Steve Earle a little bit in the ‘80s, just trying to write stuff and hang out and talking a lot, and his thing was, ‘Peter, I just write albums, man. I just don’t fool around writing songs.’ He’s very focused and professional. But a lot of times I get the songs I write, they just come into me, and sometimes they don’t have anything to do with something I’m really going to perform right away. It’s just somehow the pressure changes in the room, in my head as I feel this thing. It’s a feeling and then you write the song and it comes out, and it might not be very useful to you, but you’ve written it. You’re trying to keep your flow going, you know. So I write a lot of things that I don’t even record, you know, just goofy songs and all sorts of stuff. But once or twice I did write a whole album, and I didn’t do it with a tone in mind, but like the tone kind of just comes out of your body, you know, and how you feel.
“You’re touching the guitar in a certain way and you’re trying to approach it a certain kind of way and you’re feeling things a certain kind of way and then, you know, you start to get something back from doing it. And then you do start editing it so that you’re going in the direction you want to go, that you feel is the right idea. But, you know, a lot of it is intuitional. It’s very variable, you know, from moment to moment.
Give me an example of a record that you wrote as an album.
“Full Service No Waiting. On Full Service, you know, I was married and there were little kids around, my kids and everything, and I couldn’t write so I rented a room from this guy Dark Bob, my friend, he had a room in this building. I just went to this room and I wrote. I’d get there, and I was so busy all the time that I just was happy to be able to get to it and I would just walk in and the second I got in there I’d just start writing. And I’d write right off the top of my head onto the typewriter. I could hear the music in my head and I would just write and write and write. And I had a script of what I wanted to accomplish there, what kind of songs I was going to write. And I just did it. I knocked out that whole album like that. And then I came back, trying to do it again, and I got about halfway into it and all of a sudden I felt self-conscious. You know, it was a diminishing return, and then I just gave up on that completely.
“And now, on this latest record (Let Us Now Praise Sleepy John), I wrote in the middle of the night. I would fall asleep and then wake up at like three in the morning and the songs would come to me and I was in that little kind of feeling you get when you’ve been asleep and your defenses are down and then all of a sudden weird things are occurring to you and stuff. So I wrote the book and the album in that kind of state, but lately I haven’t been waking up in the middle of the night. Something else will probably happen.”
You’re waking up at three o’clock in the morning as if your body’s telling you,
“This is what you need to do.”
“Yeah, I would just wake up some nights and have a song to write. A lot of nights. I wrote a lot of songs like that. It was a really disturbing period, you know. It was when the war was breaking out in Iraq and Darfur and all that stuff was going on. All sorts of stuff. I feel like it’s in the ether, you know? It wakes you up sometimes in the middle of the night. Sometimes you wonder why you woke up. It’s probably because some horrendous shit’s going down somewhere.”
I know that you usually write very quickly, but is there a particular song you’ve recorded that took a long time to get right?
“There’s some songs I’ve labored over, but I can’t remember ever really getting hung up on one that turned into a good song.”
Good enough to record?
“Good enough to want to sing. To keep singing. Like you get to a point like you play it once and you get burnt out on it. The whole trick is to find a song you want to sing, you know.”
That’s the higher standard.
“If you don’t have a song that you feel good about sitting in front of people, looking them in the eye and singing, you just have to keep going. But there’s been songs that I’ve labored over.’There’s a song called “Spell of Wheels” on Full Service. I wrote that with my son Joshua. And that song was about a trip that he’d taken, and so I was writing about something that he’d done, sort of showing him how you could write a song based on real life, you know.
“It took a long time. We had an endless song. Here’s the weirdest part. I started that song when I was 19 in ’73, when I was on a car trip of my own. And then I finished it 19 years later when he was 19. And it was about his car trip. So I wrote the chorus and then the verse and the story of the song came from his story. But the theme of the song was from my thing, and it came together. So that’s probably the longest thing I ever worked was 19 years [laughs].”
Do songwriters have a greater capacity for feeling than non-writers?
“No, I don’t think so. Everybody in the world’s got an incredible story, and everybody in the world is an authentic something. And everybody in the world’s got an incredible story. They live on this planet that flies, you know, millions of miles above . . . . There’s nothing . . . Everybody’s in the danger zone and, you know, everybody’s born, everybody dies. It’s an incredible situation and so everybody feels it, but the songwriter is the person who finds the story. And I know how to tell the story and I know how to use words. And that’s just what I do. I have a drive to do that. It’s like my inborn drive.”
Well, it’s not just a drive. It’s a gift as well.
“And I have a gift to do it too. And I don’t know where exactly that comes from. It is a gift. I have certain gifts, like everybody else does, and I have gifts in songwriting. Other songwriters have different gifts. But my gifts are my gifts. I come from a family that tells stories and I come from people that love words. I myself have a real love of speech and the sounds of speech and things like that. I’ve always been into it. It’s just always attracted me. I also have the drive to play music and perform. But I don’t think I feel life more seriously than that football player on TV right over there.”
One way to look at it as a gift is that you’re good at what you want to do.
“It could be a gift or a curse. It depends on how your life turns out. It just is who you are. Everybody’s got different gifts, and different things happen in life. You know, you end up doing things you never thought you’d do and stuff.”
But you had choices. You could’ve been something besides a songwriter.
“I guess, but you know, starting from the time I was 14 I was really seriously comitted as a songwriter. I dropped out of school at 15, a year before it was legal, left home, moved in with a bunch of musicians, hitchhiked all around, and ended up on the West Coast. And, you know, I could’ve done something else, but it never occurred to me to really want to do anything else. It’s not like I was going to be a lawyer or “try Rock” for a few years and if it didn’t work out . . .
“You know, when I started out I didn’t even really think I was going to have a big career. I just wanted to play. I told that to American Songwriter magazine, and the guy, you know, his own comment in there was something like ‘MTV dreams are the same in Hollywood as they are in Buffalo as they are in Nashvegas,’ you know. And for starts, there wasn’t MTV when I started out. That was not my dream, you know. My dream is a different dream.
“I’m just a writer, you know, a songwriter trying to do my thing, you know, trying to express things vividly, so I could create some things, like these moments, you know. I’m obsessed by time and by the passage of time, and in a sense you almost capture a moment in a song. And if you really capture it right, it continues to live in that moment. It’s like a little movie or a hologram or a memory, you know, that’s right there. Every time you return to it you’re back there. You’re with those people, for example, or you’re saying that thing or you’re seeing this thing. And that’s what I see when I play my gigs, when I play songs. I’m in those different places.
“Right now my powers are different than they were a few years ago. I have this song called ‘Entella Hotel’ on the Blue Guitar record. I was exhausted, kind of the way I am right now, and I went back to this pad I was living at and there was nobody there, and I drank a cup of coffee about midnight and I started writing this song, and I got the first line. The first line was ‘There was no way of telling on the first day in town how far it was from the Greyhound Station to midnight and always.’ And I don’t know why that was the line but that was the line. And then I’m thinking , ‘What am I going to do with that?’ And all of a sudden I’m like writing this song that has this insane weird rhyming thing happening, and it was just this very vivid picture of this place. So I wrote the first verse about that, and I wrote the second verse about the cop that was a real cop, and I just captured the whole thing, you know. Everything in the song was real. I was done with the song and I was like, ‘Wow, that was intense.’ I wrote this song. I went up and I laid in bed. It took me a couple of hours to write that, and then all of a sudden I can’t go to sleep. I’ve got to write the end of the song. I haven’t written the third verse. I don’t even know what it’s going to be. So I go down then the third verse just all comes. And then it was a very satisfying song because it really captured something I knew in a pretty vivid way. It’s not perfect, but it captured something pretty vividly, you know.”
And you feel really good about it.
“My brother-in-law, who never thought I was much of anything, he said when heard that he all of a sudden realized I was good, you know.”
You said that decided to become a songwriter at the age of 14. Did something happen that helped you with that decision? Was there a moment?
“I started writing songs when I was 14. And I was writing all sorts of weird 14-year-old poetry. You know, I had a girlfriend with long straight hair. She thought I was great. I’d read her my poetry. It was ridiculous, you know, and I don’t know what I would get out of that and think that I could do it, but a little while later I wrote that song that’s on the new album. When I was 15 I was already writing songs that older people were playing in Buffalo, you know. I wrote a song that was a break song for blues bands in Buffalo and I wrote another song thatolder people wanted to hear and that was sort of the first sign. “But earlier than that I decided I was going to do it. I don’t know. I just thought that’s what I wanted to do. I mean, I don’t know if I was just, you know, goofing around. It’s just one thing led to another. I was just really into it. I was serious about it. I don’t know what the moment was, though.
“I do know that my parents, my mom and dad would say, ‘You can be anything you want to be in life,’ when I was little. So the one thing I wanted to be, they hated. It’s like, ‘You can be anything you want to be except the thing you want to be (laughs). But I just loved it.
“I grew up in a family with music. My big sister was a real good piano player, jazz stuff, Fats Waller. She played stride piano, boogie woogie. So I grew up in a house with kind of like crazy stuff going on and I’ve got it in my body, because you get it in your body from being around people. I think a lot of my blues feeling came from that because ever since I was a child, there was like blues going on in the house: Ray Charles, Elvis Presley, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, all that. And it just was always on in the house.
Your sister played music but your parents didn’t?
“No, my parents didn’t play it. My sisters played it. My mother liked it. My father didn’t go for that stuff. He liked Dixieland. His big line, like if he dug something, was, ‘That’s hot’ [laughs].”
I’m sure your parents didn’t want you to drop out of school, and they probably didn’t want you to do the songwriter thing because it’s not the most stable of professions. Did they ever come to terms with it? That this was what you were meant to do?
“Yeah, eventually they did. My dad told me before he died, he said he was wrong because he didn’t realize that all the guys that were on the straight track taking management positions and all this stuff, that they were all getting laid off. I guess this was in the late ‘80s or ‘90s. And all these guys he knew, they had come up and played by all the rules, and they were all getting screwed. And now, of course, we all take it for granted that you don’t work for the same company, but back then it was a shocker. It was a shocker that people would give up that much of their young life and then be looking for a job at 45. And so he said to me, ‘You know, you were right. You did something you love and you can make it work. I take it back. You’re right.’ But you know, whatever.
That had to be more meaningful than whatever.
“Yeah, that was a nice thing for him to say.”
I mean, we all want our parents to be proud of us.
“My mother, when she heard my first record, she was not that supportive. My first record came out when I was like 22 or something, 23, and her scrapbook on me starts 10 years later when I got a good review from the New York Times. Robert Palmer went nuts over my first record,went crazy over it. Loved it. That’s page one of the scrapbook. Nothing up to then [laughs].”
But it’s got to feel good to have your dad say,
‘You’re right. You did what you wanted to do.’
“When my dad was dying, he was on his last days, I spent a lot of time with him. I was with him when he died. At one point, he was going through heart failure, congestive heart failure. It was like a long run. At one point he said, ‘Get your guitar.’ He wanted me to play this ‘Coulda Shoulda Woulda’ I wrote. And he wanted me to play it over and over again. So I’m playing this song, this like really goofy song . . . I played it over and over for him. I sat there and played it for him. But my mother, when I play an emotional song, my mother’ll go, ‘Please stop.’”
The final days with your dad have to be full of those bright moments. Can you write about that or is it off-limits because it’s too close? Have you ever tried to write about it?
“Yeah, I’ve written things about it, but not for public consumption. It hasn’t added up. I mean, I’ve definitely written about it, but I mean I was with him when he died and there’s things about dying, you know. I mean, for one thing, he’s still your dad. He’s still doing things first, you know. I got to be with him while he goes off into the unknown. I mean, it looked like he was seeing something. He was all of a sudden like . . . It felt really heavy. But what I’m going to do with that, I don’t know.”
It’s not for public consumption because it’s not as good as you want it to be, or because it’s too personal?
“Well, yeah. It’d be public once it gets to a point where it would add up to something for me. And it’s just not there yet, you know. I don’t try to force it. When things add up to a certain point then I do them and when they don’t I don’t. There’s not sort of a medium area where it’s almost kind of okay. It’s like you know it or you don’t. And I’m not even near having something to write about that. I mean, a lot of people go through it. Everybody in this society right now has gone through this thing with old parents, you know. So I mean, I want to write about it. Dave Alvin wrote a beautiful song called ‘The Man In The Bed.’ Great song about that whole situation. Great song about it, but for me it hasn’t added up to that yet.”