My family went to NYC in 1971. It was my first real travel, and definitely the first time in a real city. I loved New York, was fascinated by all the yellow cabs, the noise, it never got dark, people spoke different languages. We stayed at the Hilton. Somewhere I have a photo looking down from the hotel window at the intersection of 6th Ave and 56th. The cabs looked like yellow dots. In the corner of the frame is ‘Black Rock,’ the old Sony Music HQ, where I was to spend a lot of time when I was on Columbia. (I once ran into Walter Yetnikoff on that same corner. He looked like he was going to shoot me. That’s another story).
These photos are from the top of what was the Pan Am Building, now MetLife, taken on my first camera, a Kodak Instamatic. As you can tell, my fashion sense was rocking even then. My brother and sister don’t seem to be as excited by the whole thing as I was, but they were teenagers and we all know what that means.
In this photo I’m 10 years old, roughly the same age my son was on 9/11. That day, he came home from school, got in bed and crawled under the covers for a couple of hours. He’d seen the towers fall on TV at school (an accident for which his teacher apologized profusely).
I’m not sure why these stories go together, but when I saw these photos this morning I remembered the innocence and promise I felt that first trip to NYC. I remembered the shock and silence walking those streets in early October of 2001. And I remember even now the searing image that my son, like so many of us, witnessed on that day.
Above all else, I think of that beautiful, crazy city and the strength of the people that make it what it is. I think about all the lives that were lost and those that were changed 20 years ago.
And, I still wonder what happened to that shirt.
I’ve been off the socials for awhile. Roughly since the death of Charlie Watts.
There was something about that event that made me go dark. I didn’t know him of course, but he meant something to me, to so many. I saw him play once and it blew my mind. For me personally, his death followed the passing of Nanci Griffith, Hal Ketchum and others like John Prine – people I did know, and had worked with over the years. Hal and I hung around a lot in the 80’s here in Texas. He was just a badass singer and had possibly the best hair this side of Robert Plant at the peak of Led Zeppelin. Nanci gave me some of my first really great opening slots on her shows. She sang on my first two records. One time we toured Northern California and LA together. I opened for her in Sebastopol the night Kate Wolf died. The next night at the Great American Music Hall in SF, I forgot to book a hotel and so she got me one. I hope I paid her back. John…well, he basically taught me (and so many others) what a song was. As a teenager I rewrote so many of his songs it’s embarrassing, replacing his nouns and verbs with my nouns and verbs. I wanted to know what it felt like to write like he did. I first saw him play at the Texas Opry House in Houston when I was 16. Later I did some shows with him. I have a picture of the two of us at the airport in St Louis a few years back. He was always a true gent. When these people died the internet was flooded with comments. I didn’t want to add mine to the wash.
And Charlie Watts. What was it that affected us all? Yes, his drumming was fantastic. Brilliant. Beyond. And the man had more style in his fingertips than I’ll ever possess. (I one time held a suit that he had owned at a vintage store in London. Didn’t fit, unfortunately.) Is that it though? Just drums and style? I don’t think so. My feeling is that beyond the personal loss, someone like Charlie Watts represents our youth and the passing of time, the certain coming end for all of us. We mourn this loss, this unveiling of not the end so much as the reality of the present moment, the mirror of where we are today, the time and experiences we’ll never regain, and what we may or may have the chance to get done on this earth before our number is up.
These people that leave us. I take them as inspiration, as a clear bell to do more, to push harder for music, for art, for taking the world in and making something from it, for just doing my best everyday.
Tony Bennet has retired. I heard an interview with him the other day. Bill Evans (another favorite of mine) told him near the end of his life that music was just truth and beauty.
Truth and beauty. That’s all there is.
So, let’s go for that.
The birds have been going crazy around here lately.
I woke up at the regular time today in my own
And went out onto the porch to meditate,
Hoping to get lost in the bird sounds
And the colors of the trees against the grey sky.
But as it happened, all through the neighborhood
The great army of leaf blowers had once again descended
With their incessant whining and revving of agitation.
I sat there, listening, watching my mind get tossed about
By waves of tiny engines run by people I can’t see
For an end that may or may not affect me.
The dissonance put me on a familiar edge
I don’t like to admit lingers always
In my shadow.
But even then, when I least expected,
The great insect would mysteriously go quiet
And in the fleeting lull of engines
I could hear an ever so slight birdsong.
It was there, but in all the static
More like a flashlight in the foggy distance.
What a wake-up!
Because that’s where we all are in this time of
Lost to the gravity of something we didn’t see coming
And have little real ability to control,
While our beauty and our simple nature is hard to locate
For all the chatter and noise
Aimed like a warrior’s ancient arrow
On all we love the most.
It’s hard not to inhale the very stress of it,
To sense that what was promised to us is now lost,
What we thought was our given, a right,
Has been snatched while we slept.
But as I sat there (of not very calm mind, as it turns out)
I noticed the engines growing quiet, slowly at first, then
In what must have been a rush of the loading trailers,
They were mostly gone.
Only across the valley was there a slight hum and buzz.
And then, the birds seemed to be all around me.
For they were never gone.
It was just my hearing that was temporarily overwhelmed.
No, they were always there,
As they’ve always been.
And once this time passes, the beauty and grace
Of the song that we call life will carry on.
So, my hope is that as the rumble of these days
May overwhelm your mind,
Know that the migrations are still in play
And that the birds are out there, waiting,
Singing their bloody hearts out.
My friend Gary Nicholson says he rarely gets writer’s block.
To him, it’s like a water tap.
If you turn it on every day, the tap works easily.
The water comes out clear.
Let it go a while — say, a couple of months,
Rust sets in and the water runs brown.
It takes a while before it runs clean.
Make something every day.
There’s a confidence that comes
From believing that when you turn that handle,
Something good is going to happen.
From “The Habit of Noticing: Using Creativity to Make a Life (and a Living)
Available in print, ebook and audiobook at www.dardensmith.com/store
Text and Photo © 2108 Darden Smith
There’s no substitute for cash.
But over the course of my work I’m paid in lifestyle as much as anything.
Being able to spend my years doing what I love
And experiencing all I see out traveling —
These are luxuries never to be taken lightly.
Yes, there are rough times.
I don’t have the stability (and bank accounts)
That some of my friends have — the ones with regular jobs.
My children grow up without the proverbial big-screen TV
But I don’t think they’re unduly scarred.
It’s a sacrifice worth making.
And I would do it again.
From “The Habit of Noticing: Using Creativity to Make a Life (and a Living)” on Irie Books
Text and Image © 2018 Darden Smith
As a kid, I like to draw pictures.
But being left-handed, stuck in those damned right-handed desks at school,
I have a hard time making drawings that aren’t lopsided and weird.
The other kids, being kids, tease me about the bizarre scrawls on my paper.
So at the bitter age of 10, I figure out how to make the teasing stop:
I quit drawing.
I make up a story,
And the story is, “I can’t draw.”
In 1989, I’m in L.A. recording what will become Trouble No More.
Sitting in the studio, bored, scratching on a newspaper with a pencil,
I accidentally draw a tree.
Immediately, I cover the drawing up, afraid someone will see it.
A few seconds later, I move my hand. It’s still there.
Suddenly I’m 9, sitting in the back of the class,
Lost in the land of crayons and construction paper.
It feels good. I start to teach myself to draw again.
Now when I travel, I fill notebooks with weird little black-and-white pictures.
There’s not a straight line to be found, and it doesn’t matter.
I don’t make these images to show people.
I don’t need a gallery wall for proof they’re valid.
The doing of it is all that matters now.
Sometimes I think about all those years I spend believing that story
I tell myself when I’m 10: the story of no.
Because I listen back then, I miss out on a lot of joy,
A lot of time dragging ink across a page.
Don’t listen to the teasers.
Draw the pictures.