NO PLAN B

NO PLAN B

My first wife and I get engaged when I’m 22
And her father sends me the letter.
He’s very concerned about my career choice
And wonders if I would consider a trade school;
Something to fall back on.

After I calm down, I write him a letter.
I tell him that my father always told me to never have a Plan B.
If you have it, you’ll use it.

I also say that when I get to be 30, if there’s absolutely zero chance
Of making a living at music,
Then I’ll think about some other line of work.
But until then, no.

The marriage doesn’t work out,
But the plan does.

(By the way, I grew to love this guy, and he became a big fan. Word has it that when I got my first press in Chicago, he carried a copy of the story around to show his friends.)

CONCRETE

CONCRETE

In high school, I have an odd-jobs business
Mowing lawns, painting houses, moving families.
I do landscaping, build patios and decks, even clean windows
For the right price.

Basically, I’ll do anything.
My method is, first get the job,
Then figure out how to do it.
There’s a network of construction guys I can go to
For a quick lesson on whatever I’ve gotten myself into.
They get a kick out of my
Will-do-even-though-I-don’t-know-how-to attitude.

One time, I get a contract to pour a driveway.
(Who hires a bunch of 17-year-old kids to pour concrete?)
I go see Larry, my friend Mark’s dad.
He’s a contractor, and one of the biggest, meanest dudes I know.
Larry shakes his head; he can’t believe I’m going to try a driveway
But he lights up a cigarette and tells me how to do it anyway.

It works. The driveway gets done, and it looks pretty good.
Larry stops by during the day, and saves my ass at a key moment.
If he hadn’t, I’d be breaking concrete for a week.
I get paid, though wind up not making much
Because I severely underestimate the time and materials needed for the job.
But do I pour the driveway? Yes.

Put that in the same column as
Writing a symphony,
Scoring contemporary dance works,
Sitting down with Bloods and Crips to write a song,
Writing a book.
Just because I don’t know what I’m doing when I start
Doesn’t mean that I don’t make it happen.
I just need help.

Be willing to fail and you just might win.
We’re capable of doing, of being, many things if we just say yes.
Be brave enough (or dumb enough) to try.
If you just get going, and keep your eyes open,
You’ll find the help you need.

But unless you know what you’re doing,
Stay away from concrete work
Or get yourself a Larry.

 

AN AFTERNOON WITH PAUL WILLIAMS

Paul Williams is sitting next to me at a dinner in LA.
His stories are hilarious.
He tells me how much fun he’s having of late,
That after not writing songs for many years
He’s only recently getting back into it.

I say, “Well, we should get together and write something.”
He turns to me and says, “Really? What are you doing tomorrow?”

So here I am, spending an afternoon
Writing with Mr. Paul Williams,
And though our song is awful, completely forgettable,
The day is amazing.

As we work, he talks about his early days in Los Angeles, writing for everyone
From Three Dog Night and the Carpenters to the Osmonds,
Being on movie sets with Barbara Streisand,
The alcohol and drugs, the entire years lost and
How he eventually flames out,
Only to get sober and
Devote his time to helping others do the same.

“And now,” he says, “I’m writing again. I’m so lucky.”

At one point, while we’re in the middle of figuring out the bridge, Paul jumps up and says, “God, I love writing songs. Don’t you?”

I leave the session with something better than a song.
Paul Williams gives me a master class on life,
A map of where I want to wind up.
He doesn’t really teach me anything about songwriting
But he shows me what it’s like
To be truly excited
About the process.
How to disconnect,
Re-engage, and ignite again
After watching it all
Fall away.

ADVENTURE

ADVENTURE
Summer, 1994

I’m the opening act on Stevie Nick’s summer tour.
For the three months that we cross the country
I know that a two-year odyssey
Recording, travel, promotion and shows
Is coming to a close
And I’m worried.
I don’t have songs for a new record.
Not sure if I have anything to say.

Backstage at some amphitheater out west,
Maybe in San Francisco, or San Jose,
The drummer in Stevie’s band, Russ Kunkel,
Tells me I should go on an adventure,
Drive across the country,
Do anything to shake the trees.

What he’s saying is I need to
Get out of my mind.
See something new.
Go find the songs.

Shortly after that tour I go completely off the rails
With a divorce-money-career collapse
And I start to question who I am
As a man, a father, an artist.
But instead of running from the chaos, I dive down into it.
Writing, always writing.
And from those upside-down days
I find a whole new bag of songs,
A new vein to explore.

Over the next few years
I come to see that
The real adventure is inside the walls of my own house,
My own soul.
I stop hiding in my songs,
And start telling the truth.

Russ is right.
Sometimes we need to take an adventure,
Blow the carbon off the spark plugs,
Trick ourselves into seeing what’s really there.

 

 

 

SONNY THROCKMARTIN

As a 17 year old, wannabe songwriter in Houston, TX in the late ’70’s who had possession of a pretty good fake ID, getting into clubs was not only easy, it was the coolest game in town, and somewhat of a responsibility that one had to rise up and fulfill.

I was at Rockefeller’s one night seeing Michael Murphy and his band, trying to figure out how to write something like ‘Geronimo’s Cadillac,’ and hoping that no one noticed my beer.

In the middle of his set he called a friend of his up on the stage, saying that he was one of the real songwriters, one of the legends. It was Sonny Throckmartin.

I don’t remember the songs that Sonny played that night, but I remembered his name. As I got older, I kept noticing that it popped up next to a lot of really great country songs.
“The Cowboy Rides Away”
“If We’re Not Back In Love By Monday”
“Why Not Me”
“The Way I Am”
“Friday Night Blues”
“Last Cheater’s Waltz”

See what I mean?

When I saw Sonny last night, I told him about seeing him play that night in Houston. He remembered the show.

But he had no recollection of the underage kid standing on the side of the stage trying to drink beer and take notes at the same time.

Charlottesville

Charlottesville

I strongly condemn any ‘white supremacy’ movement.
Anytime. Anywhere.

I don’t believe in white supremacy.
I don’t believe in the superiority of any race, for that matter.
Lately, I’m not even sure I believe in the supremacy of humans, looking at the way we’ve done our best to screw things up.

I also don’t believe that the ‘white’ race (whatever that is) in this country is being held back or cheated in any way. If anything, it seems to get the majority of the good breaks.

I’m an Anglo male, born in the early 60’s, with a mostly German heritage. There’s a bit of English, Scots/Irish (probably), and maybe some Native American blood as well.
Basically, I’m a mutt. An immigrant.

Any prejudice that touched my life generally worked out in my favor. My family was never refused service in a restaurant. I grew up thinking I could have any job I wanted. I got away with things as a young man that others would’ve been thrown in jail for doing. Any harm that came my way was usually self-inflicted, and never because of the color of my skin. If there was a time when I didn’t get into a school, or any work situation, it was because of my own lack of talent or preparation. Most of the time I just didn’t work hard enough.

I’ve never been denied access because of an ethnic box I checked on a form.

I believe in God, but I’m not certain that one religion speaks to a greater truth than others.

I do believe that God speaks of the supremacy of love, and that there is no higher act than to love our neighbors as ourselves.

I believe this is a foundation of granite. Steel.
It is the bedrock of all good things.

“Hate might win a battle, boys
Love will win the war”

 

 

NIGEL GRAINGE

My friend Nigel Grainge passed away this week.

He was a mentor, guide, confident, source of perpetual curiosity and frustration, role model for how to remain interested in the world. But above all, he was an enduring inspiration.

In the music business, Nigel did what they call “A&R” (Originally this meant “Artists and Repertoire). He found artists, signed them to a deal, and made records. But he was more than that. In my mind he was the ultimate Record Man.

Over the years, he was wildly successful at spotting talent and making great records. Some of the artists he’d worked with were people like Rod Stewart during the “Maggie May” years, Thin Lizzy, Steve Miller, 10cc, The Boomtown Rats, The Waterboys, Sinead O’Conner, World Party. He was willing to take risks, go the opposite direction from the mainstream. He spent a fortune making a record with Buffy Saint-Marie that few people heard. He didn’t care! For awhile, his label Ensign Records, was one of the most successful labels in the world. It was almost comical that he ran it out of two rooms on Monmouth Place off Westbourne Grove in London’s Notting Hill. It was just him, his partner Chris Hill, and their indomitable assistant and god-mother-to-wayward-artists, Doreen.

I met Nigel in 1988 in Austin. He’d picked up my album (“Darden Smith”, used, three days after it was released) in a record shop down the street from his office. He said he wanted to sign me away from that deal and get me on Ensign. As a teaser (or maybe a joke, I don’t know), he asked if I’d be interested in writing with one of his artists, Boo Hewerdine. I’d never heard Boo’s music, but quickly realized it meant a free trip to London. So of course I said yes.

It was a good call on my part.

Boo and I wrote two songs a day for a week in Martin Lascelles’ kitchen on Croxley Road in Queens Park, did some demos, Nigel took us to dinner and, bizarrely, offered us a record deal! We’d known each other for less than a week. Once the details were worked out (I was still signed to CBS), he booked two weeks at Arlyn Studios in Austin three months out, flew Boo in a week early so we could frantically write more songs, and we made a record with Martin producing. It was that simple. None of us, Martin, Boo or I, knew what we were doing. We just stumbled through it.

The album, “Evidence,” came out, got three and a half stars in Rolling Stone, and promptly disappeared. But for Nigel it was all about the record. His real talent was putting people together in a studio to see what would happen. He was great at it. Our project was a bit of a folly, but it was also genius. He knew, somehow, that Boo and I should work together, that we could do something new.

In the coming years, after the record, Nigel and I became friends. I continued to return to London to write, record, mix albums, tour. Nigel showed me the city, took me to countless dinners, Arsenal games, films, concerts, parks on Sundays, explain the intricacies of Cockney slang, introduce me onto the Goon Show, secret Indian restaurants. I would stay at his house, and on weekends we would walk down to Portobello Road, shopping for records. Later we would take them back to his place to listen. His stereo was outrageous. The entire top floor of his house was full of music — 78’s, 45’s, albums, cds, artifacts and memorabilia. He had the most extensive collection of singles I’ve ever seen. I seem to remember him having every top ten song on all the charts dating back into the early 50’s, from both sides of the Atlantic. He could talk Philly Soul, New Orleans, Reggae, Dub, Country, Dancehall, Memphis, Muscle Shoals, Swing, and he had the records to back it up.

Nigel embodied music. I think he was one of those people who heard sound differently than most of us. I still remember him up in that room one afternoon, listening, eyes closed, swaying slightly, as he played for me a perfect clean 45 of “God Only Knows.” He went to a different place when a song moved him. He didn’t know, or didn’t care, about the how records were made, not the technical parts. He just knew if he liked it, if it was exciting, something unique, real.

Even into his late 60’s he was one of the most plugged-in musical people I knew. He bought music almost every day. When we would get together I would ask him what he’d been listening to lately. I was always amazed at how his list would align with my teenaged daughter’s! Though he struggled to find a place in the modern music business, few could touch his depth of knowledge, passion, and, as always, his collection, which he’d been working to digitize. He was working on a, TunesMap, a digital platform that would put music into a larger cultural framework. I saw this work as a way for us all to see what was inside Nigel’s brain.

Rarely did I play him music that I liked, for fear that he would turn the volume down, and with that North London accent just say, “Shit.”

But he always wanted to know about my life, my kids,. We talked family, his daughters Heidi and Roxie, relationships, his health. He loved SongwritingWith:Soldiers, and saw immediately how it was pure music, without the hassle of the music business.

In many ways, he was still my A&R man. I would call him before making every record to talk sounds, players, concepts. With him, your work was either “brilliant” or “rubbish.” He was black and white, and painfully honest. When I was young his criticism was hard to take. But he did me a favor, showing me that everything I did wasn’t great, that I could be better.

Boo and I were talking this week and we both admitted that after 30 years, we still make records for Nigel, hoping he will approve of what we’re up to.

That won’t stop. Some perspectives just don’t go away overnight.

I last spoke with Nigel about a month ago, before and then shortly after a surgery for an old ailment that had resurfaced. He was back in the hospital. I told him I loved him, and I meant it. Just last week I sent him a photo of Boo and I from our recent songwriting workshop in Somerset. In many ways, the collaboration is better than ever, some thirty years later! The text was read two days before he died.

On Monday, the day I heard the news, I was driving to through the Cotswolds to do a show in Birmingham (the one England). I pulled over at a beautiful old church and went inside to send my friend off with a song. I played some piano, sang “Loving Arms”. Later, sitting there in the pew, wiping my eyes, I looked up, and where the beams came together above the altar, saw a Star of David carved into the wood. In all the churches I’ve been in, I’ve never seen that. Why now? Why did I pick this church?

In the end it doesn’t matter.
I think it was Nigel, following me around, telling me to keep going, to keep moving, stay curious, to always look up.

VIVA TERLINGUA – JERRY JEFF WALKER

When I was around 12 years old, my brother came home with a copy of Jerry Jeff Walker’s album, “Viva Terlingua.” It sounded out of control, rough, like a cross between a bar-fight and a church revival. But the songs…they brought you in and wouldn’t let go.
And a voice that was all gravel, whiskey and velvet.

I was already writing songs by then, but that album altered my stars and set me down the trail of the whole Texas music thing that was going on around that time. Guy Clark, Townes, Rodney Crowell…

Later, after my family had moved to Houston, I bought every Jerry Jeff album I could get my hands on. I used to go see him play whenever he was in town. I would sneak into the Texas Opry House to see the Lost Gonzo Band, and discovered others, John Prine, BW Stevenson, Michael Murphy, Steven Fromholz…it was my education. Stories, with a melody. Great songs. They showed us all how it is done. The sound of those records is scratched indelibly onto my brain.

But for me, it all goes back to Jerry Jeff.
Without him, I probably wouldn’t be writing songs, playing music. You could say he ruined my life! Or blessed it.
Every now and then I run into Jerry Jeff around Austin. We talk guitars, drink coffee. I love his stories.

At The Nobelity Project event this year he and I sang Railroad Lady together. If you would have told the 17 year old me that this would happen I would’ve called you crazy.

Aren’t you glad life doesn’t work out like we plan?

 

JD SOUTHER

Back in 1979 I dragged two friends to Rockefeller’s in Houston to see J.D Souther. I was just a junior in high school but I knew that he was cool, that he’d written all these great songs.

Black Roses, White Rhythm And Blues.
New Kid In Town.

He was sick that night, barely had a voice, so instead of doing two sets, just did one. But the show was amazing. It was one of the nights that made me want to be a songwriter for a living.

Yesterday I stepped out of my hotel in lower Manhattan and there he was, standing by the door.

I think when you see a hero you should let them know. And maybe get a picture.img_0265