Heaven Is a Big Surprise

5 Mar

I often think about the days before Nate’s birth…

Back when Sunday mornings started late, involved newspapers in bed, and often finished with mimosas over the Chesapeake Bay.

Back when the only impediment to sleep was too many late-night Oreos…

Back when I wasn’t an old man, yelling grandpa things like, “Slow down, there are kids playing in this neighborhood!”

But one moment in particular stands out in retrospect.

It’s the day I got fired from my job, one month before Nate emerged unto this world.

It seemed like the worst possible thing that could have happened.

There we were… a new house… a big mortgage… massive debt… and a raft of other crap I won’t bore you with right now.

And wham. I get fired on top of it.

Then the baby arrives!

And then came his first bath… and I was there for it. I remember starting a little fire in the huge brick fireplace downstairs… In front of a roaring fire, we bathed this new baby, taking our time with each tiny limb. He still had that newborn patina to him. His skin was a pleasantly ruddy pink.

After his bath, we set him up on the couch with a little sign that read: 1 week old.

That picture now adorns Nate’s baby book.

Then there was the lad’s first crack at solid foods. Guess who had the honor of feeding it to him! This guy. And yes, we made a huge mess (also chronicled in Nate’s baby photo album).

I also had the honor of giving Nate his first bottle of formula.

How many firsts… how many blousy afternoons with nothing to occupy my thoughts but this amazing new human.

My fondest memory from that period came a few months after Nate was born, and right before I regained employment.

It was an early spring day. The air outside was cool and warm at the same time.

Melissa had gone out for the morning, and I was home alone with baby Nate.

He was napping on our bed, atop a pillow. The window of our bedroom was cracked open, letting in a stream of falling, cool-warm air.

It was pindrop quiet as I sat there and gazed at this kid.

He was wearing a little blue-striped t-shirt. It was made of terry cloth and kinda stretchy. He had these matching blue pants. I remember just looking at him and thinking, on a random Tuesday morning: “Here I am gazing at this boy. I wonder if my dad ever looked at me like this and wondered… And I wondered if HIS dad ever gazed at him… and so on going back to… when? Caveman days? Amoeba days?”

I can still see him there, snoozing away on that pillow, on Cape St. Claire.

It remains a vision of peace and perfection that may never be matched (for me, at least).

And to think, had I not been fired, I wouldn’t have experienced ANY of this!

My point is, you just never know. And often, what seems terrible now turns out to be a huge blessing later.

Which leads me to today’s song.

I call it Heaven Is a Big Surprise.

I was going to title it something else, but Dan Ostrowski convinced me otherwise. (In fact, he and I are working on a studio version of this song now, as well.)

Meanwhile, here’s the “demo” version. I hope you enjoy.

Like Martin Said

31 Dec

In my view, it’s time to start studying the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King again.

In these crazy times, we need him now more than ever.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Dr. King lately, for obvious reasons.

He has inspired me since I was a child.

I don’t mean to sound corny, or worshipful. But MLK is the greatest, or among the greatest, Americans who ever lived. By extension, he was one of the greatest men ever, period.

His vision, to me, shines a light on how we can heal the country.

I sincerely believe we need a healing, a mass healing. We need to start with the truth and compassion, and end with dignity for all. And in this world, it’s okay for us to all be on the same team. It’s okay to be fellow Americans, and have that mean something… something beyond our personal politics… beyond our immediate self interests… something higher, nobler, uplifting… something truthful.

I see that truth embedded in the Constitution and embodied in people like Lincoln, Jefferson, King, the Kennedys, Eisenhower and others.

It’s those values, expressed in the Constitution, and by extension our homes, churches and institutions, whose existence is protected by the Constitution… These values are what connect us, down deep… across all lines, racial, social, financial, political and otherwise.

Dr. Martin Luther King embodied these values… which I first felt when reading his Letter to a Birmingham Jail at a social-justice rally back in my college days. (Long story, but I was invited to speak by the president of the Black Student Union, after the college paper I worked for offended the BSU with a totally ridiculous “editorial.” Kenny and I shook hands and got to know and respect each other, eventually. It culminated with him honoring me with that invitation. I’ll never forget it.)

It was in Dr. King’s honor — and in honor of all my African American brothers and sisters, and by extension all of us — that I wrote this song.

Final note. I have actually wondered if I was worthy of writing a song about Dr. King. Who am I to tackle such a daunting subject?

But in the end, the truth is the truth. And I love the man and what he stood for.

I also write songs.

And I wanted to write a song that addressed these troubled times with a spirit of love, in the tradition of King himself.

So here is my best attempt.

Like Martin Said.

I Don’t Mean It Mean

17 Dec

Another season of joy.

And of course, that means it’s also time for…

Another song about heartbreak!

I’m trying to be funny, because I’m afraid of my feelings, you see.

This is a sensitive subject.

I don’t think of this blog as a place to get weirdly personal.

I like to talk about life and the realities thereof, of course.

But I don’t generally get too personal.

So please forgive me, but here we go.

The two-year separation began about nine years ago.

We were well into the first year when I hit an emotional bottom.

I had gone through the early stages of grieving the relationship.

Then I tried going out with a couple of blind dates set up by mutual friends.

The whole thing felt pretty silly. You could see the game. It was so obvious. The rules were: look goddamn good. That’s number one. Number two, have money. Preferably shitloads. Third, don’t be old.

Well, you could be old, but not Nebraska old.

You had to be Florida old. And that meant you needed a leathery tan, a tennis racket, a Starbucks and impossibly white teeth at all times.

So there was this game, and I learned it.

And I got surprisingly good at it, for a pasty white fellow in South Florida.

By my standards, I was knockin’ ‘em dead on Match.com for a minute.

I’m not saying they were all Princess Graces.

But they were all good people, and some of them were really interesting.

One or two were probably amazing, world-class women on all fronts.

But in the end, it truly wasn’t them. It was me.

They were playing a game they ultimately couldn’t win.

Because for whatever damn reason, the person I wanted to tell my story to at night was Melissa Livingston…

She remains that person to this day.

Enough time has passed. I can think about it and ponder it from a safer distance now.

Our separation has aged exceptionally well.

It has served us well in terms of both what it was, which was the opportunity to test theories about the world, to make sure you were doing the right thing with your life… And this task could not have occurred inside a married setting.

And the further in the past it gets, the better it seems to serve.

This new song, though, returns to that past…

To the very lowest, strangest point of my journey through a two-year separation (and back)…

I hope it honors that interesting, sad, exhilarating time.

I hope it’s honest enough. I hope it says something worth saying.

I call it: I Don’t Mean It Mean.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.