The doors of the convenience store down the block from the concert hall are boarded up, evidence of riots that took place here in 2020, and they still have an old-school bell that jingles every time they are opened. We finished the soundcheck and I’m here to pick up something sweet. I was flirting with a sugar crash onstage in Seattle the night before and there never seems to be desert in the green room — beautiful meals, but rarely sweets — so it’s M&Ms I’m after (there will be some serious detoxing and rehabbing when this tour is done).
Someone is ahead of me at the check out, fishing out nickels and dimes and a dollar bill, enough for a super large slushie (for some reason) on a cold night. Maybe she needs the sugar, too. The cash register and its’ bald operator are behind plexiglass, and he looks over her shoulder at me. “Stylin’,” he says. “What?” The door bell jingles. “Welcome. Your hair: it’s stylin’!” he clarifies. “Love it.” My hand floats to my head in a slightly coquettish move: what, this plain old hair? “Oh…yeah. Thanks, uhh, man. It’s grey, though..” The bell on the door tinkles. “Welcome,” he says. “It’s stylin’, man!”
The woman in front of me moves off and the man reaches for the M&M’s, dragging them through the hole in the plexi. Another jingle of the bell.
“Yeah… Welcome!…I used to use wax and stuff, when I had hair,” he said, running his hand over his bald head, “and it was stylin’. Now…” he trails off.
Another tinkle. Then again. Then again and again, the new customers filing in all look like they’ve weathered a lot of time on the street.
“Welcome. Welcome… welcome! Welcome!”
Everyone who enters gets a welcome. Everyone.
I pocket the candy, say goodbye to the storekeep, and make the bell on the door ring again as I leave. I feel warmer walking back up to the hall.
The day after the gig I get a message from someone asking if we felt welcomed in Portland. I know they mean welcomed by the people that gathered for the Night (they were great and it was a very good Night).
By the time we get to Seattle, I’m a bit fried. Five days of about 500 miles (800 km) a day, sometimes more, sometimes a bit less. It’s just Jenkinson and me. No music or radio, just the very occasional conversation. Mostly the road noise, and the click-click-click of the turn signal as I change lanes, plus every now and then the car bleeping some message at me, the most popular which is “DRIVER ALERT! REST PERIOD RECOMMENDED!”
I’m plagued by nerves more than usual before the gig. I haven’t touched my guitar or sang a note in five days. I feel more like a chauffeur than a singer or guitar player after the epic drive, and thus (I guess) the extra anxiety. I’m smart enough to just let it come on and have its way. No point trying to stop it.
So I’m singing in Washington Hall. I’m playing guitar in Washington Hall. It’s a full house. I’m critiquing myself as I go along until I hook onto images of Billie Holiday singing on this very stage; of Ella Fitzgerald with the Duke Ellington Orchestra on this very stage; of Jimmy Hendrix, for crying out loud, on this very stage.
I let myself ease into the shadows of those people who have sung and played here long before me, and the berating eases, giving way to something like “I’m honoured”. I can hear it seep into my voice. I try to stretch as much as I can on the guitar, sometimes flying, sometimes falling.
We were adamant about no pictures being taken during our time under the lights, and what with Charlie having gone home for a spell, the set up and tear down is labour intensive and there is no inclination or time for me to snap off a shot. So there are no images, no proof we were there or that we did what we did. Just the echoes of a silent crowd; their laughter, too; their hoots of agreement; and that one time they all joined in on “I Will Find A Way to Let You Down”.
The Tired is coming on, and it doubles down on us because The Cold is coming, too…the temperature kind, not the viral kind. It was a mercifully short-ish drive from Louisville and we are earlier than our load-in, so we kill time on the Main Street the theatre is on. Charlie finds a place to grab himself a bite, SJ and I find a sliver of sun to stand in. Not many words pass between us: we are likely both thinking of the next day’s mountain of swapping vans, picking up my car in Columbus, sending Charlie on his way home with gear we don’t need for the next leg, keeping gear that we do, and then beginning the drive clear across America.
After the set up, we quietly ascend the stairs to a “not a room” green room…a part of a balcony that we can draw a drape on. The one wall is lined with a bank of padded benches. There is a bathroom that is ours, an that’s a small blessing. We deposit our bags and each take a place on a bench and silently let ourselves tip over. We don’t sleep, per se, but we invite it.
With no walls around us, we hear the doors open, the crowd start to gather, the murmuring grow. We assemble ourselves, walk down the back stairs to the stage door, our In Ears activated and the crowd noise amplified. We walk out on stage, bringing with us the silence that has kept us company most of the day, and we bring it out with us into the Night. We pour more than we have into the Night over the next two hours, keep up our end of the bargain. Afterwards, we hear a bit what it meant from some of the good-sized crowd that had attended.
Seized by hunger pangs that often appear after we’ve loaded out, we make way to a pizza joint a couple minutes away, the mood in the van in direct contrast to what it was eight hours earlier, until, that is, I realize with a panic that I’ve left my coat in the front row seating. We leave Charlie to wait for the pie, and I race back to the theatre, praying someone is still there. I throw flashers on, leave SJ in the van, pound on the door.
It’s opened by someone who is pulling on their jacket to leave. I explain I’d forgotten mine there, that I didn’t do an idiot check, and I retrieve it from the front row. I’m relieved.
“It’s a good thing. It’s getting cold,” the guy says.
“Yeah, true thing,” I say. “Everything’ll be fine now.”
She appears backstage, looking out of place in this big, brightly lit loading dock of the college-affiliated theatre we’ve just finished playing outside of Louisville, Kentucky.
She is old…a little older than old. She is tiny. Her hair is pure white. Her eyes are reddened. She is clutching a wine bottle, and she is looking around for somewhere to set it down or someone to give it to, so she comes off as a bit lost. Until she sees me, and sees me seeing her. We walk towards each other.
I look down at her, she looks up at me. I’m easily a foot and a half taller.
“You broke my heart,” she says, allowing a slight tremble in her throat and some new moisture to her eyes. “And it feels so good.”
I put my arms around her…all of her fits under my chin and she disappears into my chest. I hold her for a bit. She’s so small…like a bird: hollow-boned and nearly weightless.
I hold on a little too long, maybe…I miss my mother.
A week or so after playing in a beautifully kitted out theatre in Roanoke, for people eager to listen (most of whom had made the 1.5 hour journey down the mountain from Floyd), a note arrives to me by email.
It begins by saying they had attended the Night in Roanoke, had heard good things about the tour (“meaningful”; “soul stirring”), but were sadly disappointed. Deeply disappointed was the term used, actually.
The root of the disappointment was the “dissonance of the drums and other guitar behaviour” given by members who seemed “more wrapped up in their performance than in giving meaning to process. It felt terribly disrespectful,” the note said. It concluded with describing emerging from the theatre “feeling scrambled and confused. I had no idea what message you were trying to convey,” and that other people in their party shared in the disappointment.
I read the note to Jenkinson while waiting for service at an interstate highway food joint. “You going to respond?” he asks. “Pffftt…nah…no. I mean, no point, right?” I say. “What would you say, though, if you did?” he asks me.
I try on a few weak and inelegant retorts and I am surprised to discover I’m actually a little hurt by the email, so my righteousness peters out, air out of a sad balloon. I’ve since let it roll around in me a bit, and here’s what I would have said at the diner counter, and maybe to the author of the note.
Most terms used to describe what we do are not ones that we would endorse. The Night has consequence, is what we would say…and it’s mostly a warning, not a description.
Having expectations might be the best way to be disappointed.
There’s no process on stage. There is a ton of listening, though.
I can’t imagine a group of people more committed to getting out of the way than those who travel with me.
I can’t imagine a guitarist more disinclined to “perform” than yours truly.
I can’t imagine a singer/guitarist who has more respect for those who would leave their home on any given evening and put their hard earned money on something called a Night of Grief and Mystery.
Scrambled and confused seems pretty much a spot-on way to feel after A Night of Grief and Mystery.
We have no message to convey, so you can feel ok about not understanding what wasn’t there.
About a mile and a half up from the Whitehouse, Harvard Street is lined with formidable old churches, temples, lodges…this particular territory staked out by the religiously inclined about the same time they were painting the house down the street white. These things look like they were laser carved out of granite. And there are columns…lots of columns. Nothing says “I’m dead serious” like granite columns. It is in one of these buildings that we put on a Night.
The band hasn’t joined us in a month, and they are on the back end of a 9-hour drive down from Toronto, so the proceedings are a little rough around the edges which, honestly, is how I prefer it.
I look around occasionally, wondering what the people are making of what we do. We are strangers in a strange town. They are strangers in a strange town. We have that in common: this is a strange town.
Here’s what I recall of the ending of the night: I slide the guitar strap over my head and off my shoulder, turning my back to the crowd while I put the guitar down, and when I turn back around, Jenkinson has lunged past his mic, heading into the outstretched arms of an older Black woman in the front row.
“What was that all about?” I ask later on. “She was giving me face all night long!” he says. “It just had to be done.”
As we pack up, there is a regular flow of interruptions, people who want to respond to what they just took part in. I’ve learned to lead people past “I can’t really find the words…” with this simple directive: “Try,” I say.
I come to realize that in Washington, DC, we have brought something that makes no promises, breaks no promises, has no end game, no design to alleviate, no design to punish; no design to sell; we do something that draws on no book, no constitution, but on the work of living and the work of ending.
We have no agenda in a town dripping with agenda, drooling with agenda, drowning in agenda. That’s what people were trying to say, I think.
What happens when you finally get to do something you’ve long wanted to do?
A few weeks ago, somewhere in coastal Washington State, I received an email from Canadian singer-songwriter Hayden asking me if I’d like to sing a song with the Art of Time Ensemble at a benefit concert called Dream Serenade. The concert — held annually for almost 15 years — was returning to Massey Hall. That’s the Carnegie Hall of Canada. It’s also a place I’ve never sang in. Always wanted to, never been asked. Until the email from Hayden.
Schedules rejigged (it turns out the date fell on a day we were on tour but it was a travel day, making it possible for me to get to Toronto, do the gig, turn around and rejoin the tour in Washington), I get to the newly renovated Citadel of Dreams. On the backstage walls are beautiful photographs of a Who’s Who of the western music world playing on the stage. This is the allure of the hall: the people who have played here before you. This might also be the reason to get very nervous.
It was only one song. It wasn’t even my song. Officially, I will never say I’ve “done” Massey Hall. I will say, “I’ve sung in Massey Hall.”
In the minutes leading up to my tune I had the worst dry mouth I’ve ever had that mercifully relinquished its’ grip on me 30 seconds before walking out onto stage. I was fatefully introduced as one of the other singers on the bill (admittedly, a 4-hour concert is a tough gig for any pair of MC’s to navigate) so my first official words on that stage were “My name is Sarah Slean.”
It’s not for me to say how well I did or didn’t do. I can tell you this, though: as I moved off the mic after my last note, that’s when I really realized I was in Massey Hall, and I commanded my brain to drink in the last nanoseconds of my voice ringing off the walls, the sound of the audience’s response, to tattoo the memory somewhere deep inside me, like you might do when having a last swim in a warm lake in the late, late summer, knowing it will seem like forever until you get to feel it like this again. Or, maybe, you never get to feel it again.
No guarantees: the great equalizer.
I sleep a couple hours at my daughters’ in Toronto, have an airport limo take me to Pearson International at 5:30 am (it was a full on Escalade, tinted windows and the whole nine yards. I felt like Drake). Took my seat in Business Class, which for some reason was cheaper for me to book with points than Economy, got picked up in DC, and was at the venue two hours before the rest of the band and 12 hours after I’d been singing in Massey Hall.
Jenkinson asks, “So? Worth it?”
I pause. I don’t know what to say.
“It’s that thing about doing something you’ve always wanted to do. What do you do with the done-ness of it? The other side of the imaginary mountain?”
Thank you, Hayden, for the chance for me to find out.
Why do we say silence ‘falls’, like it’s some kind of cloud lurking in the rafters just waiting to descend uninvited, when it is The Host that welcomes us in to an empty space in the first place, there before we arrive and there after we leave?
A man walks alone, from pool of light to pool of light along the walkway that hugs the theatre on Vashon Island, WA. He is tall and thin, older and masked up, and he spots me lingering in the shadows of the recycling bins trying to quell post-gig anxiety that can pop up now and then. Jenkinson is signing books, and I’ve changed into my ratty road uniform of jeans, scarf, and coat, hoping the night air helps to ground me. Having deduced I was one of the two men on stage, he quietly thanks me for the evening and I acknowledge him with a small smile and a head nod. He stops, and with a demeanour that asks If you don’t mind…? he turns to step into the shadow with me. With a gesture of my own that says Not at all, I take a step forward and meet him in the penumbra. (Penumbra: the area between shadow and light…I had to look that up. Ed)
Quiet and well spoken, he tells me he hesitates to characterize the evening at the risk of over simplifying. I watch him finger his way along the beads of possible words, landing at profound, but he’s not quite satisfied with it. Then he looks puzzled, a bit pained, almost apologetic. “I didn’t know what to do between pieces. No one did, it seems,” he says.
I smile. He’s referring to the silence that can fall over a room when we finish a poem or song. It differs from night to night, depending on the Crowd Mind, but it is almost always there in some fashion. “That’s ok. I had to learn over the years what those intervals could mean and occasionally I need to relearn it.” He lowers his mask beneath his nose. “It didn’t seem right to clap—and it was uncomfortable not to—but it was something like reverence there after a poem or song, and applauding would have broken it. It was confusing.” “Yeah. It can be that way” I say. “The quiet can detonate certainty. Applause can be easy, seductive, maybe even addictive…on both sides of the microphone. Silence takes work.”
He pulls his mask all the way down now. “And it would feel too much like theatre. This was definitely not theatre.” That distinction, unprompted, surprises me. “Definitely not theatre,” I agree. “Matter of fact, when we talk about this—and we talk about it a lot—that is at the very top of the ‘What We Know This Is NOT’ list.” (Performance, show, entertainment, distraction, concert, and genre specific would be next…the list of what we know it’s not is longer than the list of what we know it is. Ed) “Plus,” I add, “audiences are deeply trained organisms, and the training is useless on a Night like this.”
The gentleman makes a couple charitable comparisons to Cohen and hunts for a few more summary adjectives before the attempt dissolves into the mysteries and we shake hands, parting ways, wishing each other safe travels on the dark roads of this little island in the Pacific. It’s a completely moonless night.
I know that in a few minutes, after the book signing is done, SJ and I will convene in the greenroom, and we’ll dissect the silence that was with us on stage, and I’ll be able to tell him about the conversation I had in the shadows, one more marker on the map of a night of grief and mystery, should we feel a bit lost in the quiet.
As far as I can tell, it’s not to exclude the watching crowd, or the band with me on stage. It’s to include the words.
I get distracted easily, interpreting people’s postures and facial expressions, and a full-on conversation starts in my head while I’m trying to wring whatever I can from the words and the silences between them.
At a show in Denver, I’m packing my gear and an elderly woman approaches the stage in the now empty theatre. In a clear Irish lilt (she’s from the Old Country), she lets me know how thankful she was for the Night, and her impressions of my voice and songs.
“You can sing,” she says.
“I try, “ I say, and feel compelled to apologize for closing my eyes all the time, explaining that I’m afraid I’ll lose my way, the connection to the words being fragile sometimes.
“Ach…nonsense, “ she says, “they’re your words! You need to do what you need to do to get them out.”
“And there is no guarantee in the moment that I know how to do that,” I say, expecting her to not understand.
But she does. Turns out she has spent her life in the theatre, and she tells me the story of Sir Laurence Olivier disappearing after a performance of Lear one night, despite the audience screaming for a curtain call. He’s found cowering in a corner by the director who asks why he is hiding and tells him it was the most sublime performance he’d ever seen. Larry says, “I know! But I don’t know how I did it!”
We agreed closing eyes on stage in an attempt to get somewhere you’ve never been is worth the possible misconception that you are somehow “apart” from the crowd.
“There was a song you did in particular…about the arrow…knocked my knickers off!” she said as she turned to leave.
It’s hard to know what an audience at A Night is thinking…or feeling. For one, they aren’t really an audience, they’re unintentional allies in a ceremony. They don’t seem to know it, but we do. Beyond the applause and standing O’s, there is the ever foggy sense of “are they with us?” as we spin the kind of glass that we do. No suspension of disbelief is required for this kind of evening. The deal we are trying to make with them is a different one altogether. If there is good will in the building, we can generally pick up on it, but it’s not always clear.
The morning after the Moab Night in front of a full house – which was a free event sponsored by a local hospice organization – I’m doing laundry in the local laundromat. As I finish emptying the dryer, I turn to find an older gentleman a foot away, staring at me.
“I saw you last night,” he says. “It was a wonderful event. I have a few questions for you, if you have the time.”
Always an iffy proposition, and more SJ’s territory than mine, but I’m curious so I figure, what the hell.
He asks about why we don’t have an intermission, about the set list, a couple other things, and I do my best to answer as I fold my laundry.
Then he asks, “What did you think of the audience?”
That was a stumper. Besides the cell phones going off despite the plea to have them silenced and the full-blown conversation from a deep-voiced individual during the first 10 minutes (dealt with A LOT more grace by SJ than I am capable of), there was the ever present aforementioned foggy sense of just whose side they were on.
I relay this as best as I can, he listens thoughtfully, and almost like a plea he says, “I thought they were with you the whole night, attentive and completely riveted.”
Huh. “Well, I’m glad to hear that,” I manage. He gives me a few tips on what to see around the area before I leave for Colorado (which I took him up on…thanks, John), we say our polite goodbyes and I head out the door into the Moab heat with my folded laundry.
If you ever find yourself walking a tight rope in front of a crowd that no one has asked you to walk, go to a laundromat the next morning. You might find out how you did. No matter what you thought at the time.
Somewhere on the Australian coast in 2017, SJ and I sit watching a group of young people cavorting on the beach we share. I look down at my bloated self and complain about the passage of time, yearning for the form and function of youth.
“That shit is gone,” SJ says, “and it ain’t coming back.” Spoken like a man who knows.
I am 56 years old.
During a 60 Second Answer session I remind SJ of the beach, of the gone-ness of youth.
“What takes its’ place, then?” I ask.
“If you’re lucky, nothing at all,” he tells me. “If you work your ass off, nothing takes its place. It’s a BIG thing in life: Going, going, gone…but not everything goes at once, so you’ve no obligation to scramble to try to reassemble all the parts you started with. You’ve got fewer, you’re lucky. It’s less to carry around. The room for manoeuvering increases the less you’re bound to of the stuff you used to understand yourself to be.”
I am 58 years old.
Every night on stage on this tour is a chance for me to be fully that age, but it’s not granted as a guarantee. Often, the first notes I play are like a key that unlocks the door behind which is every self-immolating thought, every failure I’ve stored away during the run up to the gig, and they pour through. And there I am, taking a public shower under a torrent of insecurity. It’s a precarious moment, and one would think, at my age and with as much time in as I’ve had in the scenario, I’d have a sure fire way of handling it.
I don’t. I throw myself on the mercy of the moment. Hardly a sure fire way of doing anything, a kind of reactivity of a 15 year old.
We talk about this on the drive from Salt Lake City to Moab, Utah, where we will play tonight. As we talk, the landscape starts to be accompanied by the red sandstone monoliths the area is renowned for. Older is in the truck with me, and older is surrounding me outside.
Would that I have all I need to remind me to manoeuvre tonight.
The first thing we do after walking on to stage is plug into our in-ears monitors. The price of being able to hear ourselves in glorious clarity is not being able to hear the gathered crowd, or us talking to each other off-mic. By plugging into the system, we unplug from the world. The irony is not lost.
“Blame Bowman,” SJ says. It’s true…it’s all drummer Adam Bowman’s fault. It was a sure fire way to make the stage experience more musical for us, he said. It cut way down on sound check time, and it meant we didn’t have to carry expensive and heavy wedges around. All true and we are grateful for his expertise.
But the isolation is utterly complete. It’s a weird first move to make on stage. And, as with any added bit of tech, it’s another thing that can go awry, as happened in Boise. Stephen’s in-ears feed completely disappeared somewhere between soundcheck and the downbeat of the Night.
“I’ve got nothing…” Stephen managed to tell me. Under the gaze of the watching crowd, I tried twisting a few virtual knobs and buttons, still nothing. Unable to fix the problem, I basically threw him under the bus.
“Looks like you’re going old, old school, man,” I said on mic.
And he did, the whole Night long. He rose…he more than rose…to the challenge. As one person wrote in the next day, “Tears filled my eyes many times and overflowed …such an enlightening and soul touching evening…”
Ah, adversity: the faithful companion of every Night.
What kind of a world is it when… is a phrase often invoked in the face of a once-and-supposed good thing gone bad, the corruption of a formally (seemingly) innocent act, a kindness that gets dissected to see what cancer really lays beneath, or a eulogy for choices once easy now hamstrung by doubt.
Waiting out a layover in Chicago’s O’Hare airport en route to Boise, Idaho, I thought it’d prudent to call ahead to the hotel to let them know we’d be checking in late. The conversation with Jane the Hotel Clerk was standard front desk fare, but it veered suddenly when I inquired about an airport shuttle and was informed the hotel had none.
“If my car was clean, I could come and get you,” says the young voice on the other end of the line. I stumble a bit and asked her to repeat, stammering that it was a kind offer but way out of the line of duty “and, anyway, we are musicians with a lot of gear.”
“We’ll work it out,” she says and I find myself on the receiving end of a plan that includes a shift ending, a car cleaning, a co-worker, a plea not to tell anybody about the offer, and an exchange of cell numbers.
Should I have been so thrown? It was a small-town kindness, but is Boise a small town? Is it kind? One stranger offers another stranger a ride—there’s something glorious there, and some shadowy thing right behind the glory. Optics, optics, optics is all I can think about. That and, this young woman shouldn’t be offering strange men a lift anywhere these days. “Let me talk this over with my partner,” I say, and beneath our masks Stephen and I whisper back-and-forth.
Let’s just say it: nobody knows the rules anymore.
“Could be a good caper,” SJ says. “Could be a trap,” I say. “Could be the Gods offering a little help in the face of adversity,” he says. “Could be a trap,” I say.
What kind of world is it when you have to second-guess every surprising thing that floats your way? The answer: a world that demands you make the right choice – every time – and sometimes you have to choose for everyone.
In the end gently refused the offer, and in order to say ‘sorry’ and ‘thanks’ in the same move, I let her know that we would set aside a couple of tickets in her name at the door to this thing we’ve come to town to do, something called A Night of Grief & Mystery. “Google it,” I texted. “OMG… tysm!” she texted back.
It took me a few seconds to figure out what the jumble of letters meant and I signed off as any good father would: “Make good choices, Jane.”
Let’s say you have a good notion of what you’re supposed to be doing with your life — some use the term “a calling”, I don’t — and let’s say that you’re lucky enough to have been supported in a myriad of mysterious ways to do that thing. Fine. Now let’s say that because it has the thumbprint of a certain kind of meant-to-be-ness, you find yourself with one foot in the ethereal world of assignment and the other in the more recognizable grind of keeping up your end of the day-to-day deal: a collection indescribable tasks I’ve come to call the Gig Mechanics, the tending to the invisible parts of the machine that allows the Gig to exist.
How you relate to the Gig Mechanics is a choice, somewhat based on your natural inclinations towards detail. Personally, I see it as a dance. Thing is, I’m not a very good dancer. I often end up looking like someone in a dance marathon who has hung in to the bitter end, like a barely-there shell of a person, a ghost leaning on an unfortunate partner. It isn’t pretty.
Get close to someone who is in the thick and thrall of such an endeavour and you are certain to see someone with all the beauty scrubbed away, all the elegance, grace, and assuredness so readily seen from a distance now burned or bleached off of them. Recently, I passed through UK Customs in Heathrow and caught a glimpse of myself in the photo that is snapped as you pass through an e-gate. It was shocking. I looked like I’d been dragged behind the plane across the Atlantic, the toll of the pandemic years’ worth of record making and film making and finally prepping for our tour in the UK and Ireland as the world lurched awkwardly out of plague mode resulting in a mountain of worrying and second-guessing every plan…all of it in plain view in that official photo. I’m not complaining (as my friend SJ says) I’m remembering.
But it was a rewarding tour, by most accounts. No one got Covid; the response from the intrepid folk who helped and /or attended confirmed that there is still a place for something called a Night of Grief & Mystery; and we sold out 8 of our 10 Nights. Mind you, we did those 10 Nights in 11 days, thus this post you are reading. Here are a few things I learned:
10 gigs in 11 nights isn’t heroic or quixotic. It’s stupid.
Booking a venue based on a picture from the internet is playing sonic russian roulette.
You can lean on people, but lean too hard and they will understandably crack.
Weather systems in a van are like those on the coast: they change every five minutes.
Eating a burger in a gas station parking lot after midnight can be a life affirming thing.
While the previous statement is true, having nutritious food at the gig would be nothing less than an act of love. I seem to have forgotten this.
Sometimes you need to remind yourself that you are part of a ceremony, not a concert performance.
It could be that The Hands that guide these things occasionally see your blind spots and provide a Justin Bonnet (road wrangler) or a Charlie Scaife (sound man) to help smooth the way.
To the band – Lisa Hodgson, Colleen Hodgson, Adam Bowman – and to my compañero SJ, a thousand apologies for the pace, a deep bow for being unwitting but willing partners in the awkward dance with the Gig Mechanics, and a thousand thanks for the glimpse into the possibilities.
It’s possible, I suppose, that a song can be about something, but the song doesn’t have to be that thing. This song, for instance, Take a Little Walk: It’s a song about a lifelong fear of the dark, about a night I spent in the woods behind our farm in an attempt to quell that fear when I was about 30. It made it onto a recording called Surgery in 1996 and then it sort of refused to be performed until it began a concert broadcast/recording I did for the CBC in 2007 calledPleasure & Relief: A Live Concert Recording, this version with a string arrangement. Eight years later, Stephen Jenkinson reluctantly peeled the cellophane from a copy of that recording, put the disc in a crappy boom box, pressed play, heard the string prelude, then the song. All the Songs of Love is an account of what happened for him next.
The first tour we did together in 2015 was to be our last. We had no designs on a long-term thing, and he said as much from every stage as we went along. An old theatre in Austin, Texas, is the first time he performed All The Songs of Love, though that’s not what he called it. It came out of his mouth as he was introducing me midway through the night, and it completely caught me off guard. Maybe him, too. On that old stage my song took on a new life, transubstantiated into a meditation on dying, leaving only the appearances of the original song intact.
The song for me now is both these things: my account of taking …a little walk through them fields Gonna carry me gently for my heart to heal Gonna find me a demon in a dark, dark wood You can’t come with me, though I wish you could.
and Stephen’s poetic response to that chorus, which to him was the sound of how, on bended knee, with knitted brow, you can approach that little pile of regrets that mark you, the altar of stones which is the ending of days.
“A victory song/ But I don’t know what I am winning at.” Joseph Naytowhow, from “Born From Dirt”
Subversive. This is what he and I figured it would be if Joseph, a 67 year old Plains/Woodland Cree singer and storyteller, wrote and sang in the language that was not his own but that of the people who stole his childhood, a song specifically about his removal from his home to a Residential School, part of the ‘50’s Scoop.
I think we began in late 2017. As part of the excavation/songwriting process, my job was to create the musical framework and then be a filter for the lyric, to help discern the impact of the english phrases and see that their aim was true, and then suspend them in Western Music motifs. His words, his story, his voice singing: that was the deal we struck and the deal we kept. These are set into what our North American ears will hear as a “vibey track” but is, in fact, a Trojan Horse meant to deliver something to pierce the heart. The song is aimed at us, you see, the descendants of the Orphans of Europe. Not at his kin.
I use the term excavating because song writing is often better when it is more of an archeological dig than an exercise in choosing the right words. Trusting the story…even admitting there is a story…is the best way of honouring the story. But it takes real commitment, and can be hard going, and is likely why Born From Dirt took a couple years until the dig was complete. A proper amount of time for a gem of a song like this.
The lyric that begins this writing appears towards the end of the song and is, in my opinion, the climax: the simply stated bittersweet truth of surviving genocide. What proceeds that line are something like shards of memory, foregoing certain details and including the more impressionistic ones, and makes lyric both fractured and evocative while keeping the sharp-edged impact of those memories intact.
You can listen below or visit the Bandcamp page and hear directly from Joseph about his time with the song and his other collaborators. I’ve included the lyrics here.
Born from dirt in ‘53 January, still before the dawn. A wild child I come from the ochre of my mother’s heart. nôtokwêw ohpikihâkan (old woman raised)
A truck stirs a cloud on a rez dirt road a man in a two-piece suit, one with a gun. Read our rights in a language we could not understand. mâyipayin (the time when things went wrong)
Whimpering dogs nipping at the tires stolen away, I lost: the language of love the feel of the earth the safety of my kohkom’s skirt.
I am that boy, I am that boy, I am that boy And my world was turned upside down.
I was born from dirt in ‘53 January, still before the dawn.
A victory song but I don’t know what I am winning at, I lost: the language of love the feel of the earth the safety of my kohkom’s skirt.
I am that boy, I am that boy I am that boy, I am that boy I am that boy, I am that boy I’m still that boy
A few years ago, I got a nice note from a young man who wanted to let me know that, at least for a while, some songs I wrote meant something to him. I’m paraphrasing, of course, but that was the gist. He concluded the letter with “If you ever wanted to fly in a warbird, I’m a pilot, and I fly vintage warbirds and I’d be happy to take you up.” Outside of Star Trek, I’d never heard the word warbird used, it had dangerous overtones and I’m not great with heights, so I politely declined. Then I thought about it: when is an offer like that going to come around again? I told him I’d reconsidered and, on a slightly stormy day at the end of a summer, I rode out there to a hangar that sure enough housed old combat planes. We went up a couple of times in different planes and I took a few videos, paranoid I’d drop my phone. We did one run with a mate of his, part of a team that flew formation drills—that means another plane sharing the sky with you almost close enough that you could jump from one wing to the other. Completely incomprehensible. I survived and managed to keep my diner breakfast down, and am forever grateful for the adventure.
This vid is made from some of that footage, along with a bunch of other video files that have lingered on various drives of mine for years. I enjoy tinkering with movie images, and I make no claim at being any good at it. What I find intriguing is being able to use these moving artifacts of my life as grist for the mill, and in that way, these little vids I have been making are much like the songs I write.
As it happens from time to time, we head down a path towards something we are certain of only to arrive uncertain of who we are, where we landed, and why we left our locked-down inevitability in the first place. This is the 60 Second Answers to me.
The whole thing was my idea, meant to be quick, artful, honest, and immediate— just SJ and I in the stale air of Dead Starling studio. On the cusp of releasing two new recordings, it was a creative response making peace with the internet’s demand for content (a reality if you set up shop on the thing). It was part potshot at the short attention span of internet culture and part experiment to see what would happen if we clamped a ridiculous time limit on addressing big questions of a personal nature. And privately, it was going to be a place I could flex a new-found/hard-won conviction that I “knew a thing or two”, the byproduct of a truce with my otherwise unmoored mind while I was mixing DARK ROADS and ROUGH GODS in the late summer.
It backfired. It became painfully obvious—even as the first round of questions were being shot— that I was not who I thought I was, not capable of what I thought I was, didn’t know what I thought I knew. I wasn’t prepared for the storm in the eye of the question, and the videos are a record of a man slowly coming to terms with a panic that obliterates. The other man in the videos –SJ– has the unenviable task of repeatedly watching that sun come up on the man, the dawning of understanding “there are a lot of things we are not going to get to be”.
At 56 years old, I’m coming to recognize the consequence of knowing and the despair of not knowing. This is a weighty thing in a time where that despair can easily become a wildfire. The fuel is uninhibited access to that kind of ‘information’ that is mostly opinion, parading as fact. Neither of those is a story. And that’s what we’re yearning for, I think: stories. Not certainties. And they’re in short supply. Right now the story includes me developing the skill of being gracefully uncertain of things, making friends with NOT knowing.
There’s the storm in the eye of the question. And it might be that NOT knowing is the calm in the eye of that storm.
This comes from the “Here’s The Thing” file. We could make it so that these recordings show up in some playlists that you’ve already paid money for, that next generation of radio, I suppose, but without the hard won royalty structure of radio. The World Wide Web is the wild west.
Here’s the “thing” I mentioned: I have to fall asleep every night, like you, secure in the knowledge I did my best to make the most of what I do, what I make, and what I’m in on the making of without denigrating that thing in the process. I can’t do that if I fork over the material to streaming services. It has never felt right.
If streaming is your thing, great! You can stream to your heart’s content here! Downloads? For sure. Order discs? Bandcamp has got you covered. It’s full service, asks nothing more of you than any other platform and has the added bonus of treating its’ artist with something that looks like respect.
Look, my life here isn’t so bad. I just made lunch, blaring old school funk while cooking, dancing (sort of) while chopping away at the cutting board, which is refreshing because I spent most of the last nine months’ worth of daylight and dusk in a recording studio making the recordings you see above. While I danced, it occurred to me that some might be assuming this music will show up on their streaming service. I thought it’d be good of me to clarify: it won’t. In the same way your mortgage payment won’t just show up in your bank, in the same way your dinner won’t just show up on your table, if you are lucky enough to have one.
There is a scene in the movie Amadeus where Antonio Salieri is reading scraps of original scores he has managed to con from Mozart’s wife while she visits to ask for his help with her husband’s career. He will go on to slowly poison Mozart out of jealousy, but as he reads and marvels, we watch the realization set in…that he understands he will never know what it’s like to make something so beautiful with such apparent ease.
The movie was bollocks, of course, but that scene seared itself into me when I saw the film some 35 years ago. It set the stage for declaring myself a “patron saint of mediocrities”, as F. Murray Abraham’s character Salieri does at the end of the film, and likely had a lot to do with driving me madly towards an impossible thing: I just want to make something inarguably beautiful. I know how insane that sounds.
But maybe something else was being tuned up in me, too, such as the ability to recognize and work in the shadow of something greater than me. To be able to walk along side something or someone that seems to be “taking dictation from God”, as the movie’s Salieri described Mozart, without being consumed by inadequacy and impotence. Dramatic stuff.
One night I was on a stool at the bar of a club, part of the night’s lineup and waiting my turn, sitting beside a woman I did not know, and we were watching a guy play guitar and sing on a stage far across the room. I marvelled to myself that the guitar seemed fused to his hip, that even when he wasn’t playing it, the thing seemed to be an extension of skeletal bone, muscle, and tissue. I couldn’t tell where it ended and he began. When he played, all I could do was shake my head and smile and I noticed the woman beside me smiling, too. I think I said, “He’s something else.” I think she said, “He’s my husband.” And that’s pretty much how I met Kevin Breit.
We became friends, and for a while found ourselves living in the same town, and so we played a bit together, a few shows here and there. I interviewed him as part of a creative explorations grant I was working on. “People will often ask me after a gig, ‘Hey, what was that chord in that thing…?” he told me. “Of course, it was just an A minor but—as you know—the whole day is in that chord.” It was the “as you know” that got me. It was a kind hearted gesture of inclusion, giving me the benefit of the doubt that I understood what he was talking about. And I did.
Somewhere around that time I had begun to make a record in seclusion. It’s been all swirling ash and embers for most of us the music-making world for a while now, and my response to the dissolution of an established career path was to delve into the mechanics of engineering and mixing and reacquaint myself with the current digital recording technology. I forged ahead with a recording I called Vain + Alone, performing, engineering, and producing it on my own. On it were nine new songs, recorded in such a way that were meant to be sketches instead of pristine, full fledged tracks, though they became more full fledged than I had intended thanks to some slight OCD inherited from my mother. I played a lot of guitar on the record and I joyously discovered that, while I knew I could never play like Kevin, there was some kind of permission I had been granted to at least try and play beyond my own understanding of my capabilities on the instrument.
I decided to initiate a series of regular lessons with him. Being a self-taught guy who barely graduated high school, the notion of lessons at over 50 years old seemed unlikely as much as it seemed overdue. “We have to open up E minor for you,” he said in the first lesson. So we did, and it would be the only official lesson, because I decided that it would be more useful for him to reharmonize the new songs I was working on, to use them as living examples, instead of just theorizing about the various approaches to harmonic arrangement. He worked up a recording in his basement one day and had me over to listen. I think it was for a song called “Burden”— same key, same melody, same chord structure, same tempo…but a completely different setting. The song had leapt alive in a way I would never have been able to imagine it, in ways that would never occur to me, from a bank of possibilities I would never have access to.
I invited him to keep going. Within 6 months or so he had rearranged 8 of the 9 songs from Vain + Alone, played most of the instruments himself and what he couldn’t play himself, he convinced his talented friends to contribute. He mixed and mastered it. It was always the plan that I would sing the songs, but that was my only input and even with such limited involvement, I held up the process for a couple years, sometimes due to scheduling but probably more often because I didn’t want it to end. I feel like these versions of the songs are like illuminated versions of text that monks would produce. So many times I’d put the recordings on in the car as I drove alone and I would marvel at the second life the words had been granted, grateful for the attention to detail and genuine concern for the song that Kevin brought to each track, and sometimes all of that awe would lead me back to my V+A versions and I’d be able to see what was good about those, too. In comparison, in the timeframe we have been making this recording, Kevin has written, recorded, and released 2 of his own with another 2 in the can.
So, I didn’t want it to end, and putting a record out these days feels a lot like slipping it down the throat of some great beast then watching it take to the sky in lumbering wingbeats (it’s a dragon, I guess) and recede slowly towards the horizon, your disc in its’ belly, never to be heard of again. But it would be highly dishonourable to not even try make it possible for these versions to be heard, so here I am at the dragon’s mouth. I’ve been pretty clear with Kevin how I feel about what he has accomplished in these recordings, and he has been pretty clear that, despite his DNA everywhere on it, I should just give it an eponymous title—which I reluctantly have done—instead of trying to come up with a more esoteric and descriptive title.
In real life, Salieri did not poison Mozart. They lived in the same town for a while, were peers, and occasionally vied for the same gig. I’m going to guess Antonio was a wee bit jealous of Wolfgang, but was a true fan. Even though Kevin Breit and I swam through some of the same waters over the decades, it has only been the last 5 years that I’ve come to know him, and in that time I can absolutely without any hesitation say, “I am a fan.”
In his last surviving letter from 14 October 1791 (he would be dead in less than 2 months), Mozart tells his wife that he picked up Salieri and a singer in his carriage and drove them both to his opera, The Magic Flute. About Salieri’s attendance, Mozart writes: “He heard and saw with all his attention, and from the overture to the last choir there was not a piece that didn’t elicit a ‘Bravo!’ or ‘Bello!’ out of him…”
Welcome to that plea for all your unsuspected kin, Travelling that lost nation road even now. We are modern, we are homeless, and we are confused by freedom. And so we’ve left them to themselves, or to each other, or to their god, As we ourselves seem now to have been left.*
*From Invocation, by Stephen Jenkinson, from ROUGH GODS
You know the cliche: the songwriter hears a great line and mutters to no one, “Damn…wish I’d written that.” It’s a private moment, not a proud one. There aren’t many words or lyrics that I’ve wished I’ve written, not because there haven’t been a great many lines I wish I’d written (there have!), but because I understood early on that it was a waste of a good wish. Instead, I figured out how to get inspired….try to locate something in my own learning that gave me the same response as the thing I coveted…or at least aim at it.
We are modern, we are homeless, and we are confused by freedom is one of those coveted lines. I wish it was mine. I really do. It’s perceptive, elegant, simple, dead true, heartbreaking and comforting all at the same time. It’s a keen summation of the current world. The line explains a lot about why things are the way they are but doesn’t have to explain itself. It promises no change, offers no hope, is not yet another call to yet another toothless revolution. It’s a scathing indictment and as gentle and non-judgmental as a thing could be. On stage, making things up as we went along, I came to always wrap that line in something different from the rest of the Invocation. It became something we aimed at, that line did. A gathering point, and a turning point.
I’ve been absolutely wary of trying to turn any of SJ’s stuff into a song. The alchemy of “prose into song” is dangerous and there isn’t a word that has been written that can withstand any mishandling. When we decided to make an “echo” version of the Invocation for ROUGH GODS, we began with the idea of having it read by another voice. We tried me reading it, and I was awful. Then came the notion of having it intoned, and then, finally, sung. We first settled on Lisa reading and then the question: what if she sang it? I was resistant to the whole notion, but applied myself to the situation.
Wariness aside, I’d long privately thought that were I to try turn some of SJ’s text into song, I would aim at My Favourite Coveted Line so, naturally, it was the first thing to emerge as promising. Through twists and turns in different arrangements, it became what you hear …an R&B inflected lament to the way things are. All the other melodies that came to be for the other sections of The Exegesis owe their existence to the fact that this section made itself known to be worthy of the rest of the effort. Recording is rarely easy, in my experience, and Lisa and I had to try a few different approaches to the singing of all the sections in The Exegesis over the months, with Stephen chiming in from afar. When she sang this verse, though, we all knew it had found itself and no tinkering was needed, and the challenge became having everything else sound as at home with itself. I think we found our way through pretty well.
Having the coveted thing is rarely as satisfying as the coveting would promise. Be it a lyric, a haircut, a cool brown leather jacket from Germany that your producer was given by someone famous, or (and this is important) knowledge or wisdom from someone who maybe has seen more life than you: something earned is better. It will take you further and will be more valuable to those to whom you will eventually leave it. But the coveted thing might be something to aim at, a clue as to where to rummage around in your own life for something you’ve missed noticing. Careful, though: might not be what you expected. Or wanted. Or wished for. Another classic cliche.
We sat on the side of the road somewhere in a car, me making an ineloquent case for turning a massive chunk of writing into a morsel for NOGM, him politely listening.
My case was this: Part of my dismay at living in the modern world stems from not having a relationship to the story of how things got to be this way. We act like a people that knows something is wrong, but we can’t quite put our finger on it, and we’d rather not see what lurks behind the myth we’ve created of “us”, a myth created to ease the nagging discomfort of our homelessness. When the shit keeps hitting the fan, this dislocation cripples any chance of a graceful response to difficult times. In a free fall, every move is a flailing, desperate one and in daily life, that thrashing translates into cruelty, injustice, intolerance, entitlement…arguable hallmarks of western civilization.
My job in the NOGM enterprise can be described as creating a temporary container for SJ’s text. Initially, I set the words against a slow chord progression based on a song I’d been trying to write since 2014, What The Masters Have. I think we tried it a few times but found it to be a slog. So, I ditched the chord cycle in favour of a two-chord riff, traded the ballad tempo for a “slinky-assed” groove, and made room to be able to invent vocal parts on the fly depending on how the text was unfurling on any given Night. What The Masters Have was retooled and inserted as an interlude between Come The Romans and it’s conclusion, Come The West, and appears that way on DARK ROADS.
There is so much that is good and sane in this track. This excavation of the wreckage of cultural shame is, in its’ own way, comforting in that “Well, now I can at least see the monsters coming“ kind-of-way. Once you catch a glimpse the bigger picture, you can start living your end of things more responsibly. Anything else is just yelling at the storm.
I’ve learned a bit about language in the last five years and one of the first reorientations I had was around the terms angel and demon. While we’ve come to know the terms as cartoonish opposites, their origin is unpretentious and draws them much closer together: they are messengers both, one bringing the news that is welcome, the other bringing the news that is more burdensome.
For a time, singing anything with the word “angel” in it (including my own songs) was troublesome, but in looking for the through-line to be able to sing Calling All Angels on Jon Goldsmith’s arrangement for The Art of Time’s record Ain’t Got Long, I became OK with the idea wanting comfort once in a while, of calling it down from somewhere, pleading for it, of being carried occasionally when we are tired, “because we’re not sure how this goes”.
One of the first Canadian artists I became aware of to make the transition from a record label to their own independent label was Jane Sibbery. I didn’t know Jane (I don’t know Jane) except to know she was capable of making some extremely remarkable and beautiful recordings. And I was aware of her new status at the time as indie entrepreneur, and intrigued by her solo salon shows she was doing all over the planet. Before there was Facebook and Twitter and all the rest, there were message boards and I recall reading messages posted by folk who attended some of these concerts.
The striking thing about these posts was that they were all so well written. These were not the breathless ramblings of overwrought fans, but well crafted, steady, and grounded thanks to Jane for showing up with her songs. One post in particular from somewhere in Europe caught my attention describing 200 people in a church basement singing along to Calling All Angels. The quality of the writing, the image of strangers in a strange land singing together, Jane on her Quixotic quest for independence all galvanized and turned that song into something alchemical for me.
The recording session happened the day before a European tour with NOGM and when I returned home a good while later, I contacted Jon and told him I was dissatisfied with what I remembered of the session, and that I wanted to redo the vocal. I was a bit of an asshole about it. “Have you heard it yet?” he asked. “Um, no.” “I’ll send you the rough mix. Listen, and then we’ll talk again.”
So I listened. Twice. When it was over I wiped a few tears from my cheek, called Jon back and said, “That’ll do.”
Most of the last 200 days or so, I’ve ridden the bike to this door and contended with making a record. Two records, actually. Its a computer based thing these days, recording is, and the Mac says that so far there are 10,551 separate files that make up these records. I’m not sure if that is too many or too few, but each of those files was created by a keystroke that was in turn created by a decision that came from a kind of formula like this: Implode. Explode. Unload. Reload.
Implode To begin, you set charges at the foundation of what is comforting and comfortable in your understanding of what you have built in the past. Lean on the detonator. The idea needs to come down so that something new can take its place. That is, if you want to make something you haven’t already made.
Explode You take that rubble and apply an unearthly force to it so that all the pieces are suspended, and more importantly all the spaces between those pieces can be wholly accessed.
Unload A kind of editing…convinced you are right, you go fully down one road, get lost for a time, refuse directions if they are offered, and finally return to start again. You let go of more than you keep, hoping that you’ve discovered what is useful.
Reload Reassemble the pieces. This may be the hardest part: Agree to repeat the above steps until enough is burned away and what is left is something that is recognizable by you as the idea you didn’t know you had.
Making something that isn’t being asked for is like looking for something that you don’t know you’ve lost yet. Its only when you find it that you know you didn’t have it.
Equally, it’s like waiting to be found by something that doesn’t know it is looking for you. Either way, it won’t feel like you have much say in the matter, so if power is your thing, this formula of mine won’t be for you. The work of it is making yourself available to find or be found.
part laboratory, part stage, and part sanctuary: Not a safe place, either. Sane doesn’t always equal safe.
Modest modern recording: a couple thousand square feet in an old factory beside a river and 10 meters from railway tracks; black mould on the walls and an asbestos covered boiler furnace in the back ; electricity flows in—feeding thoroughly modern computers, digital audio interfaces, and accelerators that form the core of the studio tech—through a transformer that sits on the ground in front of the electrical panel and manages to keep itself from a puddle that regularly appears when the rain comes.
None of this is sexy.
But the act of creating ‘something from nothing’ is, so the space and the cold machinery become beautiful by some strange alchemy and weave themselves into the DNA of the recordings made here. It is most fitting that a recording like Dark Roads, Rough Gods is being made at the intersection of High-Tech and Dilapidated. The irony of wrestling something human from all the silicon chips, copper wire, neoprene, alternating current, and random access memory in the belly of a soon-to-be condo that was the love-child of hubris and 20th century manufacturing…is not lost on me.
I’ve always thought Nights of Grief & Mystery was a thoroughly urban creation, contending as it does with the dying of what we thought was a good idea: us, our ways, our crowning achievements, our mastery over the mysteries. This is the right place to be to try to make a record no one is asking for, that can at least converse with the times it is being born in to.
Recording is no replacement for playing live, but things being as they are, this place has become part laboratory, part stage, and part sanctuary. Not an escape, mind you, but a sanctified sane place. Not a safe place, either. Sane doesn’t always equal safe.
Wherein I wander the roads of the Heintzman grand .
Not Every Dark Road Is Outside Your Door or How I Got Used To Not Knowing.
Not every dark road is outside your door.
Years of chasing songs through an entirely interior landscape has taught me that. It’s a deal at the crossroads every time, and every song feels like it is the last thing I’ll ever write.
Every song begins with what you can see, what you are sure of, and then inevitably slips into the darkness of what you don’t know. The fringe benefit of this kind of contract—one that you willingly enter into over and over— is that you get used to being in the condition of not knowing, used to not being so sure about everything. But it can also clarify and fortify what you do know. And you’re not writing fiction, so you can’t just make shit up and have it stand in for something like the truth…the ‘truth’ here being the actual road, you see.
You stray from the road, you stray from the truth.
Now, you might say that there is something to be gained by straying from the road, and you might be right, but that’s not the deal I made. You stray from the truth and you are, by definition, lying. And what’s to be gained by lying? Usually, it’s power. Sometimes it’s self-preservation. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.
So, you strike the deal, stick to the road and not every song is useful, not every song is a gem, but every covenant is kept and that is saying something. The promise to keep going, to keep looking, though you don’t know what you’ll see, if you’ll see, or where you might end up, and all for no guarantee of any return on the investment…that’s a skill that will serve you. In the light and in the dark.
The invitation sounded exotic: bring some gear to a beautiful house in the foothills of the central valley of Oaxaca, Mexico, for a few weeks, work on the new NOGM record, get some back-end tour business done, maybe get some writing time in. I assembled a substantial recording rig meticulously packed in foam for flying and arranged to rent what I couldn’t bring. The kit bag contained instruments I’ve not really used before but was eager to explore…synths and the like. We got down to work quickly, establishing an unnatural rhythm of 12-14 hours a day in a self-imposed quasi-monastic setting with one daily meal.
Along with the promise of focussed work time were sun and warmth, birdsong, the absence of crunching snow underfoot, a view of greenery outside the window and mountains in the distance, and a taste of cultural life away from the tourist centre. All of that appeared, all of it good, all of it exotic. And all of it alienating.
I am a stranger here in Mexico as much as I am a stranger in the landscape of this new record. Mexico seems to me like a wild place, a fever dream version of what I know. There are features that are recognizable but those bits are embedded in the chronically unfamiliar. Not unlike this new recording.
The unfamiliarities shred my ego. Not unlike this recording.
There is green, true, and the occasional explosion of colour from some adventurous blossoms, but much of the landscape is dormant brown, waiting for the rains. Not unlike this recording.
I crossed the border willingly, paid the dues, became the estranjero, and have felt exposed ever since. Not unlike this recording.
We didn’t need to come here to do this, and maybe home would have had its advantages. I hate to admit that I’m a bit undone by how out of phase I have felt down here. But there is an up-side: when you are a stranger in a strange place, you are offered the chance to employ a part of you that gets dulled by comfort and familiarity. Humility becomes a valuable communication tool, as does the ability to be kind, and your ears tune into clues and cadences in noises that sound foreign and this helps discern the way forward. You adapt. Not unlike this recording.
And maybe you discover you don’t need a lot of what you thought you needed, and you clarify what is necessary. And you make something good out of all that apprehension and unease.
Wherein we end the Nights of Grief & Mystery 2019 Tour.
A packed house. Amongst friends. A good end…or pause, as the case may be.
To my companeros on the road: Adam Bowman, drums; Colleen Hodgson, bass; Lisa Hodgson, keys/vox; Emily Adam and Ana Elia Ramon-Hidalgo AKA “The Choir”; Charlie Scaife, FOH Sound Engineer; Gabe Jenkinson,Justin Bonnet, and Keshira haLev Fife, supreme guides and wranglers on the road and in the venues; and of course Stephen Jenkinson, the “why” of the thing.
One would be hard pressed to find better people with whom to travel a good chunk of the western hemisphere. Thank you for commitment to every Night we played, for your care of the vision, and your patience while being chewed up by the machinery of the tour.
The last thanks (and maybe the most thanks) goes to the least seen: James Nowak, Lead Organizer of NOGM. A mind-numbing mountain of detail, a soul-crushing numbers crunch-fest, an impossible balancing act of pragmatism and dreaming, you were a joy to behold when you crowed with pride at finding mistake after mistake during reconciliations with venues, van rental companies, lighting companies, sound companies, insurance companies, US government agencies, hotel chains (aided immensely by Ana Elia in that task), airlines…the list is endless…and you were an equal joy to behold when a mistake was ours and with humility and grace you owned it and repaired what could be and moved ever forward.
Nothing of what has happened these last 12 months could have happened without you, James. We all are in your debt as much as we were in your care everyday.
With love for you all, gh
Photo: A. Burashko, from the cheap seats, end of The Night.
Somewhere in California or Arizona. People of The Tarmac.
The Black Mamba II, 70’s style.
Four of us drove from Santa Fe to L.A. over two days while the other five flew. A strange snow/ice storm in Flagstaff on Day 1 was the only taxing part of the trip, and this day had us under blue skies mostly, which was a great way to see this desert for my first time. I was happy to not be in airports and planes and in fine company in the van. “People of The Tarmac” is what we called ourselves.
I neglected to gas up in Needles (where we spent the night) and had to find gas between towns. Enter: this gas station. Just off the interstate on the old and famous/infamous Route 66. Paid DOUBLE for the pleasure of filling up here. That would be $6.49 USD/gallon.
This photo made it all worth it, though. It looks like I’ve been painted into the van, 70’s style, minus the scantily clad, sword-wielding, huge-breasted sci-fi woman.