“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.
Vancouver, BC. Crammed in a tiny, gas-guzzling, shitty U-Haul with an uncertain transmission and careening down Interstate 5, I thought, You’re 55, man. What in the hell are you doing?
A bittersweet reality check.
This image was taken about 24 hours after walking off a stage in Portland (and a sublime Night it was…just the two of us on stage, the first time in a few years). The last US show. The intervening hours went something like this:
Van 1 (The Black Mamba II) returned and a U-Haul picked up in Portland; The gear moved from one truck to the other; A 6.5 hour solo drive to Vancouver, BC. (a piece of cake after the 10, 12, and 16 hour odysseys undertaken during the tour); The rented gear accounted for and returned to the backline place; Extra stuff packed and shipped; A hotel found; Another hour drive to the hotel; Arif The Concierge employed to bring a couple weeks worth of tour tailings up to the room while the U-Haul is dropped off; U-Haul dropped off a with minutes to spare; Cab back to hotel; Grab a chicken club with side salad from hotel bar; Eat it in the room; The remaining gear re-distributed in a delicate operation involving 4 pieces of luggage and a luggage weigh scale, which I won’t fly without; A mound of travel receipts compiled and recorded and tallied, numbers sent to headquarters.
This image is what the end of that 24 hours looks like.
I admit I reserved these tasks for myself and did much the same at the front and back ends of all the legs of this 2019 tour—which, by the way, is kind of turning into a world tour if things keep going like they have been: 2020 is already starting to shape up into something we hadn’t foreseen. I did so not out of a twisted messianic/masochistic inclination but with good intentions: to pull my weight, to be a team player, to ease the way for the others on the road with me…and because I think I may have a touch of the Control Freak in me. I think I may have inherited my mother’s mild OCD.
This last 24-hour chunk brought with it some clarity, though. A bittersweet reality check: I am no longer 32 years old and can no longer operate as though I am. Crammed in a tiny gas guzzling shitty U-Haul with an uncertain transmission and careening down Interstate 5, I thought, You’re 55, man. What in the hell are you doing? These shitty seats are made for young people moving their lives across the country, excited for what lies ahead. Not old men running on fumes, in over their head, and trying to tie up loose ends to get home for another show. Time to get elegant.
Graceful, is what I probably meant. I had more than my share of clunky, graceless moments on tour (just ask those that were in the van when I hit a parked car after the concert in L.A.). I’ve been trying to attend to these tours in a more graceful fashion. I do believe I’ve been getting better at it since we began over 4 years ago, but I’m aiming at a version…a vision…of myself: something like Gene Kelly tiptoeing amidst puddles, or Fred Astaire putting fires out, nimble and graceful.
Portland, OR, wherein I contemplate the price of “a beautiful drive”.
How to love a place.
One of our hosts here in Portland, OR, calls this “Tank City” and it is the reason they will be moving soon. It is directly across the river, just waiting for an earthquake to have it’s way with whatever mystery is contained in those tanks.
Beautiful shot, though, right?
No, of course it isn’t.
We’ve covered over 4000 miles on this leg, through the Rockies, along the ocean, through the Mojave dessert, through wind storms and snow storms and rain, under blue skies and by the cover of night, under full moons and through inky dark air. All of it “beautiful” except for the tortured sections of that very ground that allowed for our travel and participation in the concerts: the asphalt, the pipelines, the power generation stations and their feeder lines strung up on towers as far as the eye could see, the gas stations, the lakes of California forlornly and shockingly low still allowing recreational boating and surrounded by drought afflicted hills covered with dried trees, planted firewood now, just waiting for a spark. Begging for it, maybe, to put them out of their misery.
Yeah…I understand better now: if you really love a place on this planet, the best way to love it is by staying away.
That we–the band and I–are complicit in this is not lost on me. I don’t know what to do about that. Is it enough that The Nights are my shot at redemption? Probably not.
I’m guessing I will have a lot to answer to when the time comes. Meanwhile, there is a crow yelling at me from the tree I’m sitting under. I’ll try to explain myself, beginning with him…or her.
Santa Fe, NM, wherein I finally play solo trumpet in front of people. Only took 23 years.
The Terrified Trumpeteer.
When I was 32 years old, I came across a wrecked trumpet in a shed. I wrestled a decent note from it and slowly fell in love with the idea of being able to play it. I always thought trumpet was cool…cooler than me, cooler than guitar…and I wanted to be cool. I though maybe learning how to play would help my musicality as I’d always been afraid of playing single note lines on the guitar and the trumpet is notoriously single note-ey. I quickly learned it was a crummy horn and bought a student model. I carried the horn everywhere with me in the car, playing when I could, and made a deal with myself that I’d play in front of people by the time I was 35. Then 40. Then 45. Then 50. I snuck it on a few recordings, into a few shows in places I could hide it.
Last night in Santa Fe, we decided to add a piece of SJ’s at the top of the Night and I came up with the foolish idea I would open the piece with solo horn. This was before we knew the house was standing room only I. A rather large theatre. In the dressing room, I explained my idea to SJ and attempted to play what I had in mind, bleating and squeaking all over the place, a comical sound. We broke up laughing and I said, “Maybe this is a bad idea…”
After the laughter died down, Stephen said, “No man, I think it’s great! It’s brave.”
I counted my blessings to be working with a man that valued that kind of bravery at the risk of a very awkward couple of minutes in front of a packed house and the derailment of a good story the trumpet was trying to set up. Yes, I counted my blessings and privately to rued the day I ever thought I could play in front of people. When you get nervous singing, you can still breathe through it. When you get nervous playing guitar, you can still breathe through it. When you get nervous playing trumpet, well…you are too busy breathing through the trumpet and there is no place to calm your breath. To boot, your nervousness shows up in your lips (embouchure, it is called) and your lips are doing almost all the work. Trumpet is risky business.
This photo was snapped by drummer Adam Bowman minutes before going on stage. What you see here is a terrified non-trumpet playing man going over in his mind how he will communicate to Stephen on stage he is bailing from playing trumpet.
In the end, I didn’t bail. It wasn’t perfect (like it is when I play alone in the car or studio) but it was brave, I guess. Maybe next time it’ll be perfect. If there is a next time.
Denver, CO: wherein I find shelter from the shitstorm when I meet McKaylee, The Strong Trouperette.
The Strong Trouperette.
ScrewedSometimes Addendum: Later that same day…
More gods throwing more marbles on the ground…almost literally. Charlie twists his knee getting out of the van at the venue; the van at the venue is parked a considerable distance from the venue itself; word from the venue is we can’t bring our truck up to the load-in door; local sound crew/gear and band loading in at same time, not quite enough people to ease the burden of moving a mountain of gear; I’m not sure whether to be angry or grateful when I see McKaylee—the slight 11 year-old daughter of our Denver host—rolling massive, heavy amp racks and speaker stacks up a frustrating incline on a pedestrian-only walkway; the wrangling knee braces and ice, food, lighting, electricity, another @#%!! follow spot that needed pampering; and lastly, due to a glitch at the home office, our greenroom was more of a greenhouse, surrounded as it was by windows onto a part of the lobby and the aforementioned pedestrian walkway. All this—plus the previous 24 hours—in the face of the full house the Denver team manifested, much to our good fortune, and a testament to their hard work.
It seems that this dark Road Diary is a litany of challenges. Maybe the Dark Road is lined with challenges, or paved with them. It certainly seems to be that way. Still, that’s just one side of the endeavour…the challenges often pop up in the mechanics of the proceedings. Even in the SNAFU’d course of the day, this can happen:
Upon seeing McKaylee trying to carry a big side table for the stage plus 2 paper bags full of greenroom stuff, I intercept her and finally introduce myself.
ME: Hey. I’m Gregory. What’s your name?
ME : It’s nice to meet you, McKaylee.
MCKAYLEE: It’s nice to meet you, too, Gregory.
Just those words of welcome, her young voice embroidered with kindness and respect—It’s nice to meet you, too, Gregory—was like coming across a calm eddy in a torrent of adult-onset bullshit.
We redistribute her armload of stuff, put one of the bags and the table atop the last rolling amp rack, and begin the ascent to the venue door. Obviously, cups are falling, the table is falling, the drawer from the table is falling, and eventually I’m swearing.
ME: Sorry for swearing so much, I said. I shouldn’t be swearing.
MCKAYLEE: It’s ok. I hang out with the Grade Eights. They always swear.
Great, I think to myself. I have the temperament of an American schoolchild when I’m under pressure.
I didn’t get to hang out much with McKaylee after that, but I did see her flit about sporting a tour tee shirt. I hope she keeps it for a long time, along with the memory of that day she helped a band stand on its feet and deliver what it had promised to her hometown after a long and trying day.
Our brief meeting sliced open a vein of yearning to hear the voices of my own kids. I’ll be calling them as soon as the van stops rolling. Somewhere in New Mexico, I think.
Salt Lake City, UT, and Denver, CO: wherein we undertake repairs to the van, a show that day, a night drive through the mountains, more driving through a windstorm the next day, a storm of a different sort at the venue etc etc etc…
Imagine that you are travelling through the world, that you are floored with good intent, that you are proceeding as you imagine your ancestors might have done before the times of indenture and servitude, obeying the nap of the world, certain that real tinkers and gypsies would recognize you at once from across the fields and claim you as their errant kin, faithful to the fluster and wild sorrow of your days, faithful to the star chart conjured and cast on the wind blown night of your birth.
These days, that would make of you, among a fistful of other things, a – forgive this technical term from the road warrior lexicon – shit magnet. Do something that raises neither the hackles nor the ire of the regime, you’ll probably cruise through unscathed, no harm meant, no harm done. But call your outfit, oh, Night of Grief andMystery, and a couple of likelihoods might gather.
You might be haunted across three states by a slow leak in a tire, be unnerved by it enough to go to three fix-it places on gig day and flirt with load-in disaster, only to be thwarted by the service sector and then be taken into the slip stream of human kindness by Andy, who does the job for free because you’re so far from home and because the necessary paperwork for it would mess with his joy at getting off work at noon, who with a princely flourish presents you with the culprit, the sheared-off business end of a wood screw.
Or you might pull into a service centre to give the band a pee stop and seek shelter from 60 MPH winds that are prompting the automated road signs to warn you off the road for the next 65 miles for fear of being blown over, and bring your choice of nutritionally questionable snacks to the counter for payment, where Flo is waiting to serve you in a head scarf and a breathing mask, both signs of someone with a wickedly compromised immune system courtesy of chemo or radiation, who in her irrepressible lilt asks where you’re heading (Denver) and why (a show) and for what kind of show (music) and what kind of music (hard to describe, as usual) and is it Dick Clark music or Johnny Cash music? That’s when it hits you that Flo has figured it out from the likely cliff edge of her life, that this gig is a kind of Man-in-Black thing that you can dance to.
Spokane, WA: wherein we wake up in one country, almost don’t get into the next country, and prevail in a 105 year old theatre in a town we’ve never played.
The Night that almost wasn’t.
Resilience. I know…if you’ve been reading any of these Dark Road things, you’ll know that word has popped up a lot.
It’s amazing to me that we wake up in the morning (assuming you do wake up) staring down the barrel of the day and have no idea whatsoever what is gunning for us or who will love us on the way to getting on the other side of the next gig, which is all I want to do: just let me get on the other side of the next gig, please.
Yesterday, a simple clerical error on Charlie’s visa had us detained at the border crossing with the likelihood of having to leave him behind…a heart-breaking prospect…and the rest of us being held until he was back in Canada. This is what I learned: mountains are immovable, that is true, but mountains are scalable. Once you get over the shock of the immovability of the thing, you can set yourself to climbing. Sometimes you reach for a handhold you know is there, sometimes you’re hoping your hand and foot finds a purchase. Sometimes you choose the wrong path and have to double back. There is a lot of swearing, apparently (though I wasn’t aware that I was dropping F-bombs all over the tiny waiting room of Border and Customs.) You pause, breathe, and make your next move in the general direction of “up”.
In this case, the “next move up” was a gentle suggestion they contact the office responsible for the error. US border and customs people aren’t really into taking suggestions, but this person did…a little reluctantly, maybe…so all the more credit to that person. All breaths held as we danced delicately around ignoring our companeros in a second car pulling up not 5 feet from the little room the rest of us were in, involved in their own mountain drama, and finally an exhale watching them pull ahead and disappear down the road.
It was never guaranteed we would get to the top of the mountain, but we did. Charlie got a new visa. We were all quiet in the van until SJ spoke about the consequence of words, of speaking aloud, and the root of the word “fate”. We pulled into a weird casino/ rest stop to gather ourselves and grab a bit of food, late for the load-in now. Someone yelled to me as we were walking out of the place: in his hand an envelope of cash I’d left in the bathroom. I looked at his hand, looked at his face, and back to his hand as it dawned on me what he was holding out to me. I took the envelope, held his eyes, shook his hand slowly, and assumed he knew how grateful I was. Didn’t say a word…neither of us.
The gig in Spokane had its challenges from the very beginning, and narrowly avoided being cancelled altogether. No one could have seen what was gunning for us, nor could we see how we would be loved through to the other side. But we were. The venue was great, the people who wrangled the gig on the ground there were great, the pinch-hitter host brought in at the 11th hour was great, even the hotel was great. And the crowd was great, dancing in the aisles and with us all the way.
Nelson, BC: wherein we bury a part of the Night and make our way to the US for the last time this year.
Calling In The Saints and RIP Hoskins’ speechifying.
If I have my wits about me (and mostly I don’t) I give my camera to Charlie to snap a couple photographs for me from his vantage point during the proceedings and I did this last night in Nelson,BC. Back in the hotel room after the show, I was thumbing through some of these pics and stopped short at this one.
We start every Night with what we privately call “The Invocation”. It is exactly what the word implies, but its proper title is “Calling In The Saints”. This shot is from the beginning of the Night: Lisa, Emily, Ana Elia, and Colleen singing a very old song, the rest of us in the room listening to this overture to the invocation, to calling in the saints.
Every night we get to play is another chance for me to get some things right. After the refreshing dip back into the songs and sounds in Langley on the other side of a couple weeks off, last night found me floundering when it came time to play the trumpet and take a turn at the mic to talk about a new song. This “speechifying “ has been challenging, and the band has been patient (the band has also been patient with my trumpet “playing”, but I’m not ready to give that up quite yet). But it’s clear I’m not built for talking, not in the way that is being asked of me. The guitar and singing lets me leave a part of me behind, but the talking drags me back into my muddled brain. So, no more.
Langley, BC: wherein we reconvene for the final leg of this tour.
When we see the end.
The view through the smoked glass window in the back of The Black Mamba 2 (what I call the current wheels carrying us) as we leave Langley, BC, headed for Nelson and then the US. And then the end of the tour.
It had only been 2 and a half weeks since we played in Minneapolis, but the consensus in the green room was that it had felt longer. We had obviously all missed being in the thrall of the the thing, and I must say it showed up for us on stage. It was a good Night. The more I tour like this, the more I come to understand that we essentially playfor free. It’s the travel and all the out-front work that we get paid for. That’s the work of it. It’s no secret, and it’s not news to you, probably, but the time on stage is the payoff.
To the good people who filled the hall in Langley, the good people who wrangled the whole thing for their town, and the good people who gave us their backs and arms and food and help of all kind: thank you. Your presence makes all the in-between worth it.
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: wherein we confront all manner of things on the way to this gem of a moment near the end of the Night’s proceedings. The final Tour Trailer for this tour. All it is missing is an explosion.
But all we have is this.
“If we could , you know we would: We’d accompany each of you to your door this evening.
We’d see to it that the key still worked, that the door still opened that it was still your house.
We’d close the door behind you but before we did, with your kind permission, we would kiss our lips, kiss you on the head, and bless you.
Dubuque, Iowa: wherein gh wonders about old songs in a new life as we saunter around the continent on these Nights of Grief & Mystery.
So, you write a song for the right reasons, you record it, and give it as many chances at a “meaningful life” as you can. But you can’t control outcomes, so the songs and the recordings float out there in the wide, wide world beyond your reach and influence. Best to leave them alone and to practice letting go.
Maybe one day –unknown to you– they make their way into someone’s life and weave themselves into a story not of your making. They adapt and transform, and maybe you hear about it in an electronic note or a handwritten letter, or a voice from a crowd or a chat after a concert. Suddenly, this old thing has a new meaning and you stand there amazed by it, humbled by it, moved by it, mystified by it, grateful to it.
I’ve been wondering lately why I haven’t been rushing to play solo shows, why I’ve thrown my lot in so emphatically with Nights of Grief & Mystery for the time being: I think it is because the Nights give the songs a container to be in, a context where they mingle with other elements and undergo some kind of alchemical transformation, become a part of something unseen when I wrote them. The collaboration has us going through my song catalog to see ‘what-might-fit-where’ in the Night, and so some songs get a new lease on life while others see the light of day and get put tenderly away again because, though it is clear there is a good line or two, they don’t quite stand on their feet when it comes to carrying a heavy load. There are more of these than I care to admit, but I’m grateful to those songs, too.
The Nights run hot…what drives them has nothing to do with entertainment and everything to do with everything that is not distraction. Thus, the ego is burned away from the songs over and over again and all that is left is the ineffable intention I had when I wrote them. Sometimes the song and the singer are left standing. Sometimes they are cinders.
Turns out Nights of Grief & Mystery is a crucible.
Wherein we keep you apprised of making our way down the dark roads and dark, dark woods on our saunter around the continent on these Nights of Grief & Mystery.
Humility on The Dark Road
In a truck stop in Marion, Illinois, just north of Clarkesville—the Clarkesville that the last train goes to, I think— we pulled into a no parking zone to have a “picnic”. This is a code word for “let’s make a meal from the green room food we didn’t eat last night.” In this case, last night’s green room was in Nashville and the leftovers consisted of an amazing fish stew, Mulligatawny soup and some apples. One or two of us crossed the parking lot to the fast food joint that was there, but the rest dug in, standing huddled around the food bin, trying to stay out of the substantial wind that had been blowing all day.
Across the same parking lot came a man, his eyes locked on us and our van and trailer, and I was sure he was coming to A) tell us to move the illegally parked van/trailer or B) to get an autograph from Willie Nelson (happens in airports all the time).
He heads straight for Stephen and says, “I was at your show in Nashville last night and had to say thank you.” Stunned us all. More than 200 miles from last nights’ show, in a no-frills truck stop, this man explains he is a palliative care nurse, that he lives and works in Chicago, and that he drove 4 and a half hours to come see The Night in an intimate theater in Nashville. “I just couldn’t believe my eyes when you pulled up…you and this fella, “ he said throwing his head towards me. “Everyone who works in my field should see this show.”
In a truck stop on I 64 under a threatening sky, with a serious accident unfolding just ahead that will close down the interstate and change the lives of those involved (unknown to us as we huddle around the food bin) and more hours than we counted on to get to the next hotel, I was reminded why you never hold back when playing for people.
Nine hours on the road to see us…almost 1000 miles…with no clear expectations or promises of what the evening would be.
Wherein we keep you apprised of making our way down the dark roads and dark, dark woods on our saunter around the continent on these Nights of Grief & Mystery.
Wrestling Old Ghosts
New York City: You write those three words down, in that order, and there’s a feeling of having written a tight, picaresque novella. They have that weight, no doubt. They do for me, and I don’t favour the place. It has always been too much for me, all at once. But to play there: I’ll admit it on behalf of the band, was and remains a BIG FRIGGING DEAL. This is largely because I have a strong sense that everyone there HAS SEEN IT ALL, BABY, SEVENTEEN TIMES. So, if at the end of one of these most unlikely of evenings, undertaken in a speakeasy of previous times/now an off off Broadway atmospheric and odoriferous black box owned and operated by what is surely a bejeweled, silver cane-wielding aristocrat of a failed city state of yesteryear, the crowd’s generosity of spirit alive in their laughter, alive in their silences rises, and they rise en masse to bless you as you take leave of them … well, then, it seems you have truly stood and delivered, and served the Muses their portion, and kept to the covenantal jangle of the bardic road life. And we shook that monkey of last year’s NYC audio debacle off our backs. Mercy prevailed.
Pittsburgh: An eight hour bus ride down the highway to a lapsed and former Slavic Cathedral (I know. We did put ‘NO CHURCHES’ in the contract. Nobody seems to read the fine print. Myself included.), now one of the craziest, most seductive and tricked out high tech venues I’ve ever heard tell of. A three story high vaulted mahogany ceiling, Byzantine tiles set in the walls, spectacular Oaxacan-style brickwork, moody lighting, a green room where the priest once prepared for mass. A few ghosts from the Old World, wondering what became of their heirs. Grief and Mystery, alright. Now, perhaps you’ve made rash but entirely necessary promises to yourself as your days have gone by. Vows, even. And if you lived through the eighties, those promises might have included something like this: “No matter what, I’ll never do a music video. Never, no matter what.” If you did, we have that in common. I had no reason to make such a vow, no lifestyle choice, no skill that would ever lift that strange vow to the realm of possibility or likelihood. But in truth, back in the day, I’d watched enough of those crude novelties – added up, whole days of my lifetime that I’ll never get back – that the vow at least made some kind of moral or artistic sense. So you know what I’m going to tell you now. An hour before show time last night, the Grief and Mystery ensemble is on stage for a three-camera video shoot of various takes on what we do. At first it seemed like a record, a kind of archive thing, like recording a live show. But there was just enough ‘lights/camera/action’ to the business to give me the bends, morally or artistically speaking. Mr. Hoskins (‘Hoss’, we might come to call him), the dervish of detail in such moments, drove the film crew to fits of precision, focus and unwavering technical prowess, himself calling for retake after retake. With patrons for the evening’s show already lining up outside and looking through the stained glass for a glimpse of the shenanigans, the band hit their mark. They were tight, model musical professionals. I blew my lines several times, ludicrous because I wrote and crafted all of them some years ago, and the order and the cadence of them were mine, and barring neurodegenerative disarray should have come to me easily. But I’m no actor. That much self understanding was renewed.
Fifty minutes later its time for ‘Ladies and Gentlemen …’, and we reach into the mortal depths once more, and we believe in these strange nights. And we earn our keep. Tears and applause enough, and enough ribaldry from the Steel City crowd, and three hours later weare sipping smokey whiskey with the owners and the local organizers in the emptied hall, all of us beginning to lie with alarming and escalating confidence about the epic edges of our lives, and for a while, as the Old Man, the patron saint of this operation unawares, so properly put it: The whole damn place goes crazy twice. And its once for the devil. And its once for Christ.
Wherein we keep you apprised of making our way down the dark roads and dark, dark woods on our saunter around the continent on these Nights of Grief & Mystery.
Prevail #2: by Lisa Hodgson
Prove more powerful than opposing forces; be victorious.
“We prevailed” has been the most commonly uttered first words spoken after walking the dark road from the stage and back to the temporary shelter of our greenroom.
Ahhh…the mercy, the kind labour’s of our many hosts providing us with a sanctuary, may you ALL know how immeasurably important and crucial your offerings are.
You see, we DO prevail….over and over again. And the opposing forces? Well…they are there, EVERY SINGLE TIME. Do we prevail because we are more powerful? No. We prevail because each one of us is willing to saunter along this dark road, sometimes crawling on hands and knees, other times with arms outstretched and a knowing glance to the mystery, all ragged and breathlessly whispering… “Shall we Dance?” Nights of Grief & Mystery…We asked for it, They deliver…and then some.
Wherein we keep you apprised of making our way down the dark roads and dark, dark woods on our saunter around the continent on these Nights of Grief & Mystery.
The Church of What’s Happening Now
We made a deal with ourselves, with each other, with whatever brought us together a few years back, that – having tried, mind you, tried and tried again – we wouldn’t play churches. Call it bad faith: I’m not sure I’d argue. Call it a fall from whatever grace would have us: a case could be made. But we put it in the contract: No Churches. No Used-to-be-Churches either. Obviously a good number of people have associations with such places that won’t or can’t be overcome, and so are deeply dissuaded from darkening the doorways. Given even the documented histories, that’s understandable. And I for one have spoken or played or performed under more crucifixions, tormented stick figures, metaphorized and raptured butterflies rising from the rack, back lit by incontestable stained glass vignettes, than is wise. But the tactical strategy for the prejudice is this: for reasons unknown to me, they built these places in the old days so that people in the pews couldn’t quite make out what was being said at the front of the hall. The sound, almost always, is swimming, turgid, swampy in all the ways you wouldn’t want, and unwarm. And entombed.
So we pull into Portland, Maine yesterday, and we adjust the set list to bring back one of our operatic favourites: Never Be a Poet. We’ve done so because we’ve been booked into the Maine Irish Heritage Hall, and the story is about my first trip to Ireland, and about all the weather of fatherhood and frailty, and because Portland has a noble history of welcoming ragged survivors of The Famine in the mid-1800’s. Beautiful confluence. Until we pull up to the Maine Irish Heritage Hall. And it is a proper Gothic pile, a nineteenth century used-to-be-a-cathedral, in fact. Oh oh. Without our man in the house, Charles, we’d have been in the shit, in every way that can be imagined. But his chops with the knobs, and a way-too-long sound check, and a quick dressing room revamp of the set list to accommodate the utter lack of light on stage and cut down on us moving around, and a band that trusts itself now to rise, and faithful Erin-led local organizers/workers, and especially a curious, slow to warm but beautifully locked-in crowd of the children of the children’s children who Came From Away in those ruinous days: all of that wound itself around this once and only night granted to us to grieve and be mystified, and for a while all was marvellous and well. Street legal devastation of the uninvestigated life proceeded. The people in the book signing line testified to it, were strangely grateful for it. Elegant praise. Generosity of spirit. Burgundy in the back room afterwards. Reasons to live.
Wherein we keep you apprised of making our way down the dark roads and dark, dark woods on our saunter around the continent on these Nights of Grief & Mystery.
Highjacked, held hostage.
Some nights more than others, the emotional current seems to run higher. There are a lot of reasons for this and I don’t know them all, and last night in Turners Falls…a full house, an old theatre, an absolute crack team of young people on the ground there (led by the intrepid Erica) setting the scene for us…was properly a high-octane Night, a perfect way to start this tour.
Sometimes, fatigue is the the crack that emotion seeps through for me. I’m not a fan of tears on stage, but occasionally I’m highjacked, held hostage by the moment until it relents. Last night was that kind of night for me, both in the dressing room and on stage. There was a different kind of fatigue in the house, too: the one that makes itself known living in these times, in this country specifically: people tired of carrying a weight they didn’t realize they were carrying.
So the wreckage was deep and very much in evidence for us in Turners Falls last night. I was lucky to be a witness.