The Broken Things

25 Jul

Soul surrender
Now I see
Just how broken things
Can set you free

Broken stuff gets a bad rap.

I remember my dad’s car broke down once, on a mountain pass in Colorado.

Instead of getting it fixed, he used it as an excuse to buy a new car!

Enter the “Mercury Brougham” epoch of Livingston family history.

You could literally walk around inside that car, it was so huge — and brown. Very brown.

I should mention the backstory on the car breakdown.

We were on a family trip across country, moving back to California from Maryland. Our vehicle was one of those old Brady Bunch station wagons with the fake-wood siding. My sister Angela and I enjoyed free play in the back of the wagon at 75 mph. So it was a rude awakening when we heard a huge “KERCHUNK” and felt a thud hit the bottom of the car. Dad had driven over a falling rock from a Rocky Mountain escarpment.

It punctured the gas tank.

Dad’s solution? Have mom retrieve ALL chewing gum on hand. As I recall, we had a “Plent-T-Pack” of Juicy Fruit and one of Big Red.

Mom handed the gum around to all the kids. We began chewing with robotic, businesslike purpose there on the side of the highway in the mountains.

Once we assembled the “Wad”… dad attempted to plug the gas tank with it.

No dice. But a great idea. And a lot of chewing satisfaction.

Meanwhile, we got a tow truck.

Dad went to the shop with the tow truck guy.

He came back with a brand-new car.

Broken things get a bad rap.

Or how about all of those broken relationships we endure before finding “the one”?

How about breaking an egg to make an omelet?

How about a drunk hitting rock bottom, and watching his whole life fall apart as a requisite passage through to a new, better life?

I mean, you can have a breakdown… or a breakthrough.

Both involve broken things.

So I wanted to write a song about the duel nature of broken things… That it’s not all bad.

As Leonard Cohen said, there’s a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.

So when you encounter the next broken thing — be it a relationship, a vase, a leg, or whatever… don’t get too down.

Remember, the broken things can set you free… if you let them.

Also, the version of the song below is actually a second take. The first one was all mucked up with out-of-tune backup guitar riffs. It sounded like a bad acid trip at a James Brown concert. Hopefully this one is a bit better. It’s certainly a lot cleaner and more stripped down…

And a slightly MORE stripped down version, losing the last verse and bridge of vocals…


The Broken Things

Soul surrender on my brain
This kinda love drives a man insane
Soul surrender once again

Susan lost her kids, she really hit the skids
But that’s how she found her bottom,
Eventually she got ‘em back again,
She got them back again

Hail hosanna for the broken things, for the broken things

Soul surrender on my mind
Please, please pardon me if I’ve been unkind yeah
Soul surrender one more time

The broken things
When the stormy wind blows I can hear it sing
Yeah, I hear it, I hear it sing, yeah
Sometimes you win when you surrender

Soul surrender all day through
I’ll be okay, honey, long as I have you yeah
Soul surrender pure and true

The broken things
When the stormy wind blows I can hear it sing
I hear it sing, I hear it, yeah
Sometimes you win when you surrender

Soul surrender now I see
Just how broken things
They can set you free
Soul surrender redeemed me

Billy couldn’t get a look, he finally read the book
The secret it unfurled handed Billy a dozen girls,
A dozen pretty girls

Hail hosanna for the broken things, for the broken things

Melissa’s Song #102

9 Jun

We occasionally – and only on a Sunday morning – slow dance in the kitchen.

And that’s what I wanted this song to feel like.

Slow dancing in the kitchen.

We only have so much time on this planet.

I know we gotta make-a-da-money.

We have to pay the bills, take care of the kids and all of that stuff.

That’s the urgent reality of life we face on a daily basis.

But by all means, take time to whirl your loved one around the kitchen once in awhile.

Or even if it’s just you and a cup of coffee, like on that commercial from the 80s.

You know the one, where the housewife sachets around the kitchen with her cup of Taster’s Choice International Blends…

She’s holding it to her bosom as though she were about to drive off with it in the Volvo for a dirty weekend on Nantucket.  

But I digress.

My kitchen-dancing partner is, has and always will be Melissa B. Livingston.

And in some ways, every song I’ve ever written has been about her.

Including this one… which I call Melissa’s Song #102. (Lyrics below.)

 

Melissa’s Song #102

*Played in key of C

Verse
She feels so good to me
She’s sunlight falling through the trees
She’s Magdalene on bended knee

Refrain
Anytime I see her picture on my Galaxy S phone
I’m home

Verse
We met in the spring
It quickly turned into a thing
That fall I bought you a second-hand ring

Refrain
Anytime I see your picture on my Galaxy S phone
I’m home

Chorus
You’re an acrobat so high you’re never coming down
Debutante without the pomp each time you hit the town
You’re so damn pretty, I declare
I just want to run my calloused fingers
Through your golden honey hair, golden honey hair

Verse
She feels so good to me
Like sailing on a deep blue sea
Like honey’s call unto the bee

Refrain
Anytime I see your picture on my Galaxy S phone
I’m home

Chorus
You’re an acrobat so high you’re never coming down
Debutante without the pomp each time you hit the town
You’re so damn pretty, I declare
I just want to run my calloused fingers
Through your golden honey hair

Coda
So we freed the dove again
We let that thing begin
Where we were more than friends
We were more than friends
We were more than friends

My Whiskey Broke

16 Apr

Ahh, the drinking days.

I can’t say I didn’t enjoy the hell out of many of them.

But when they went south, they went Borneo.

I’ll never forget one night that ended in a huge fight… and yours truly in a cheap motel outside Baltimore.

I can assure you, there’s very few things more depressing than a hotel outside of Baltimore, attached to a small lounge.

But alas, that’s where your author found himself — alone, semi-drunk, and so pissed I couldn’t bring myself to continue drinking.

Of course part of the fight was about my proclivity for the amber holy water.

But that’s a story for another time.

My point is that some pain is too complex, too deep and too raw to be drunk away.

You can drink away a tough day at the office.

You can drink away a breakup with someone you weren’t going to be sharing a Volvo with anyway.

But when you lock horns on the deepest levels with someone you actually care about… and you hit that steel wall where nothing you can say or do can fix it… then your whiskey stops working.

It breaks and that’s it.

You’re left with your pain, your regret and your dimming hopes for a light at the end of the tunnel.

And you can only hope it’s not her with a flame thrower coming to finish the job.

Well anyway… I’m happy to report that the story had a happy ending.

We eventually resolved our issues and moved forward with our shared project.

And hey, now I have this new song – and that terrible night at the dive motel to thank for it.

Life’s funny that way. As they say in a certain program I’m familiar with: don’t quit before the miracle happens.

Happy Easter to you, with love from Maryland.

Without further ado, here’s the new one:

My Whiskey Broke

Lonely in a Sea of Love

7 Mar

 

Sometimes I wonder if this blog makes any sense.

I’m fine with posting songs.

But I wonder if I should do as much talking as I do.

The songs should really speak for themselves, right?

So I’ll keep it short today.

Here’s the new one.

If you’re feeling alone… If you feel like people couldn’t love you if they knew the “real” you… If you’re surrounded by loving, caring people but sometimes feel alone anyway… This song’s for you…

By the way, you’re really not alone. (As proof, I cite the Dhammapada.)

And since I’m talking to you, I’m not either.

Hope you enjoy this one. (I should add that I’ve since tweaked these lyrics and they’ll change in the future.)

I call it Lonely in a Sea of Love.

 

Lay the Old Man Down

21 Dec

Dad died two weeks ago. It feels like two years have passed.

Grief is like a friend who is only there for you in difficult times. Grief is a healer. Grief isn’t pain. Grief is processing pain. It’s absolutely healthy to feel everything, in my view. Whatever’s going on, you gotta let it out and give it room to breathe.

Grief is just a process. We have to honor it to move on in life. To paraphrase Gordon Gecko, grief… is good.

It was a few days after he died that I first cried. Like, really cried hard.

For some reason, I kept seeing him in that red western shirt and bolo tie. That’s what my amazingly in-tune sisters chose for him. And it was so perfect, I get choked up every time I see him there, in that shirt, in my mind’s eye.

I remember the smell of zippo lighters, cigarettes and coffee.

I remember the Justin cowboy boots and the colored “trousers” he wore, which reminded me of Toughskins jeans.

I think of the music, and the writing, and the sugary warmth he could exude. That warmth was entirely real. And when it shone down on a little kid, it made quite an impression. It felt a lot like being saved.

But alas, this god was of the Old Testament variety.

He was Shiva, creator and destroyer.

The same eyes that could fill you with a feeling of safety and belonging could turn, quickly. In a split second, you could be dealing with a tiger on the loose.

But dammit if he wasn’t the most interesting guy I’ve ever met.

I’m not going to call him a legend. Because he really needs no adornment or extra title…

He was, without hyperbole, a very interesting guy.

Who drops out of high school, grows up on the rez, marries at 17 and winds up getting invited to dinner at the White House?

Who helps countless Native American tribes build toward a better future, with better schools, jobs programs and self-determination?

Who helped me rebuild my first boat, the Gull?

One guess…

But Dad did a lot more than that.

Hell, he gave me life (with a little help from Margie).

Which reminds me of the lanyard from the Billy Collins poem (not to mention my name with his, which would be an absolute abomination and a brazen insult to Mr. Collins)…

I say to you, Dad,

You gave me two eyes to see, and a warm home
You gave me three brothers and four sisters to love
You gave me strong limbs, and (once) thick hair
You gave me a beating heart, and blood, and brain
You gave me courage, and a little bit of crazy

You gave me life itself, a fate, a human dream.

And I give you this song that I wrote yesterday.

(And after you’re gone, at that!)

Without further maudlin adieu, here’s the new one. (Lyrics below.)

Lay the Old Man Down

We had to lay the Old Man down, bout two year ago
I said we haddalay the Old Man down ss-bout two years ago
But, But that old sun still shines, and the breeze still blows

He was a wild, wild cowboy, six bars on his sleeve
He was a wild, wild Indian, six bars on his sleeve
He showed me places honey I just could not believe

Sad memories turn pretty, time it takes pity on us

One morning in the livingroom, he said it’s time to go
Tuesday morning in the livingroom, he said it’s time to go
Well time was flying by, now it passes so slow

Oh, dad, I see you coming roun again
Ghost of the past come to play, wanna be my friend
Sit back and stay awhile, look at me with that cynical smile
You’re gonna stay here till the end

Sad memories turn pretty, time it takes pity on us

We had to lay that sailor down, down in the dirt
He was buried in his favorite JC Penny shirt
And we sang him off slow… Easy come, easy go
Easy go, easy go

Down on Sullivan Street

3 Dec

We’re back from California.

What a trip.

We laughed. We cried. We went to the emergency room.

Well, several of us, actually… and for several different reasons.

My father, my nephew (who is more like a brother in a way), my niece… all went to the emergency room in different instances – all over Sonoma County.

During Thanksgiving week.

I can say, Parkinson’s is a bitch.

Migraines and such are a bitch.

So is pneumonia and a bunch of other nicks and war wounds we’ll all have to deal with at some point in old age – if we’re fortunate enough to make it there.

But to see how my family came together, got folks where they needed to be, and took care of some f-in business… that was awe inspiring.

Every large family has had its share of challenges, but we’ve got a really loving, interesting, intelligent and hilarious family.

Like I said, we ain’t perfect. But what I’m getting as I tumble through middle age is that the most you can ask of life is that it’s interesting. I sometimes think the worst fate would be to live a “normal” TV life. You know, like the Brady Bunch, which I absolutely loved. Still, I wouldn’t want to be Mike Brady.

That strikes me as a little bit boring.

There aren’t many perfect people among us, anyway, so at least I have plenty of company.

But it’s becoming increasingly clear: we’ve all got our problems, our crosses to bear.

Even the most “normal” among us are – in reality – probably struggling on some level.

I was walking around with that thought in the back of my head the other day. At some point I sat down at the piano and pounded out a G-F-C progression. It sounded nice and simple. And the words “living down here on Sullivan street” came into my head.

As I messed around with the chord progressions, this vignette kind of emerged.

It’s of a small town, kind of like Petaluma where I did a lot of growing up.

But it could be anywhere… maybe in Pennsylvania somewhere, one of those little towns up in the foothills of the Poconos.

So these people aren’t zooming through life unbothered. They missed the “privileged” bus.

They’re struggling with addiction, incarceration, the pains of love, the wounds of war, joblessness, the faceless machinery of our bureaucratic apparatus… the list goes on.

But as with Sisyphus, one must imagine the inhabitants of this street – Sullivan Street, it turns out – one must imagine them happy.

Because why not?

Here’s to our family – every member. No one gets left out. Not a single fifth cousin twice removed. Here’s to the struggling folks all around the world, the regular people, dealing with everyday shit. Each of us is a hero in our own life story. But I hope we always remember to recognize our fellow heroes – our fellow human beings, I mean.

I hope we can always remember to help each other through this, whatever “this” is… to paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut.

Here’s the new one, Down on Sullivan Street:

Just Like Mr. Cohen

11 Nov

Leonard Cohen is dead.

Long live Leonard Cohen.

Of all the great souls… the songwriters and prose writers and poets I have admired over the years… I’d put Leonard right up there with the very, very best.

He wrote simple. He wrote the truth. He wrote with humanity and compassion and subtlety and grandeur, and humor.

Chelsea Hotel is probably one of my top 10 favorite songs of all time.

But how can you pick and choose with Leonard’s work?

Melissa introduced me to his poetry in recent years, and it’s every bit as interesting, playful and deeply inspirational as his songwriting.

This is so strange.

About a month ago, I sat down to write a song about Leonard Cohen.

It just kinda materialized one evening while I was brushing my teeth before bed. “I want to be just like Leonard Cohen.”

That was a funny thought, with some honesty behind it. And the music came right with it.

So I went downstairs and stayed up way past my bedtime (for a school night) writing this sucker.

I recorded a couple early versions, then headed over to my friend Dan Ostrowski’s for the “real” recording session.

Set in the Maryland woods, Dan’s Sunrise Studio is a beautiful, happy space to create.

And create we did.

Dan is on drums and keyboards here. I don’t think you’ll hear a more flawless drum line (although Dan would probably disagree, being as modest as he is).

I’m on guitar(s) and vocals.

This isn’t a perfect version, or final version or anything.

But I offer it up to you as a bit of music amid the madness.

More than that, I hopes that ALL of my brothers and sisters (fellow humans, I mean) can take a moment to listen to some Leonard Cohen today.

In fact, if you haven’t, please go do so before you listen to this song.

I would start with Hallelujah.

Meanwhile, Leonard… here’s a tip of the old fedora to you, you old silken crooner… you old dancer in the moonlight… you seducer of souls… defender of the hopeless and the insane… poet… titan… we love you, and we bid you goodnight, sir… for now.

And here’s the song I wrote in your honor. I hope you can hear it on your celestial radio up there.

I call it: Just Like Mr. Cohen.