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.

The King

13 May

It’s been awhile since I posted a new song.

But not because I haven’t been writing and playing.

To the contrary: I’ve been doing a good deal of both, and with some truly amazing musicians. (More on this to come… hopefully, much more.)

Meanwhile, I wanted to talk a bit about the process of songwriting.

For starters, I’m no expert – despite having worked at it for years.

I have a healthy respect for the ocean of knowledge I don’t have and will never have.

Then again, songcraft isn’t ALL about knowing your mixolydians from your Ionians.

I sometimes wonder how much Robert Johnson knew of musical theory, or even someone like Dylan. I honestly don’t know the answer, but their music tends to be pretty simple and every bit as much about what you can do within simple structure and melody to give the song its unique sound signature… and emotional power.

How you bend a note is every bit as important – if not more so – than the note you’re playing.

That’s not to say I plan on hiding behind this “dude, it’s all about feelings” thing forever. I am studying and trying to expand my theoretical knowledge as we speak.

Meanwhile, the most recent effort for your listening pleasure (hopefully)…

This started off as a song about some guy who liked “stuff” to much – you know, all that crap that comes from Amazon in those promising little gift boxes of joy? Or he liked money too much. That sort of thing.

It was partially directed at yours truly. I can indeed become obsessed with the next widget for my guitar, or the next TUFI (Totally Unnecessary Fishing Item). And certainly, I am a workaholic – only partially in recovery for that.

But the message seemed kind of thin and screechy: Don’t like “stuff” too much!

Something was missing.

And talking with Melissa one night about family history filled in the puzzle for me.

Turns out, we spent several months tracing back our Livingston family line many, many generations. Luckily, there is ample historical documentation, and prior Livingstons who have made much progress and did most of the leg work for us.

Well if you go back far enough… you can trace the family back to Montana (where Mom and Dad were born)… to North Dakota… to Missouri… to Virginia… (where the first Livingston of our side of the family, Sir John Livingston, came to America in 1650)… and thence back to Scotland.

The events that preceded our family’s arrival to America were the stuff of legend and family tragedy.

The John that came to America arrived with little money, but a great title (Knight of the House of Dunipace). However, he came with just the title and the name, but not the great estate of the Livingstons of Dunipace (a cadet line of the Livingstons of Linlithgow, who became our cousins in New York).


Because his father was a profligate drinker and gambler. According to family history, he spent most of his time in London pretending to have more money than he had and playing off his title and his nobility. Over the years, he not only went broke – he went into hock. And when he died, he left his name… and a pile of debt… to his family. His wife had to basically sell the family estate near Linlithgow for pennies to retire the debt, and apparently died destitute.

What a guy!

What’s weird is, I was kind of on his same path myself for many years.

So I can see that we’re all a little too close to some form of this story in our own lives.

Regardless, this gentleman’s downfall – which led to our family coming to America – gave me the story I needed.

And I put it into the song.

And it gave the song a story.

Here’s the song.

The King:

Whatever You Want (Revised)

6 Jan

Well, this is a first.

I’ve never posted more than one version of a song.

But I listened back to the original version of Whatever You Want. A lot of the vocal sounded a bit flat to me. Yikes.

So I recorded a new vocal track and I think it’s more in tune.

Anyway… hope you agree!


Whatever You Want

2 Jan

Martin guitars are widely considered the finest production acoustics you can get.

I love Martins.

I owned a D35 for many years.

Then I took a flyer, sold the Martin, and bought a Taylor 314ce with the proceeds.

I’m not going to say one guitar is better than the other. But they are different.

The Martin had that deep, resonant, ballsy bass going… like, at all times.

The Taylor chimes like a church bell when you strike it. The mid tones are just silly pretty.

The one knock people often have with Taylors is their supposed lack of bass. I can understand why they say that. On the other hand, I think you can “cure” that with some simple technique. Something about the way you strike the six and fifth strings when you play… I dunno.

All I know is: I was pleased with how the Taylor sounded on this recording.

To me, the low tones sound round, full and resonant. That is a tribute to a beautifully made instrument.

But it’s also a tribute to Melissa.

Or rather… to a Christmas present she got me…

Or rather… she cleared me to buy this present for myself, which was kind of her…

It’s a Sterling Audio microphone.

And it feels right that Melissa gave this to me. She also bought me my first recoding mic, the old Blue Snowball.

That thing has been a beast for going on five years. (Audio techies like to slam the Snowballs for some reason. I don’t get it.)

About two months ago, the beast finally crapped out.

And now, we have a new beast… the Sterling. And it’s an awesome piece of equipment as well.

The really cool thing is: If you’re not making any sounds, but the mic is hot, you will not hear any sounds on the recording. Just clean silence. Imagine that! No background hiss. No messages from alien cultures beaming through your mic wire during the solos.)

Anyway, I suppose I’m trying to say: Equipment matters, especially when you’re recording.

Equipment isn’t going to make up for a crap song, of course.

But imagine if Robert Johnson had had some better equipment in that Texas hotel room where he recorded his stuff. That would have been nice. What we’re left with is ridiculously amazing, of course – historically important, soul-moving. I am not complaining about the low-fidelity recordings Johnson left behind.

I’m just saying: I would gladly give up my new Sterling if it could travel back in time and record that guy. Jesus.

Short of that, we’ll have to settle with this new effort.

I call it: Whatever You Want.

It’s a song about being willing to give someone whatever they want. (Clever title/theme connection there, eh?)

On the equipment front, this is kinda fun for another twist. I played the Telecaster for some of the accent guitar, and the solo.

Again, just played it through the amp and recorded it with the new Sterling.

I thought the mic made it sound just like it sounds when it comes out of the amp. Very true.

As for the song itself, I will leave that for you to judge.

Meanwhile, Happy New Year, and I hope you are rocking to your own new music this fine January evening.


Breathe Out Everything that Could Have Been

6 Nov

New song, new season… same old blues again.

It’s time for another breakup song, folks.

“But Jay… really. Enough with the breakup songs.”

And I say: NEVER! We can never talk enough about these things. I find it healing somehow. I dunno. Maybe it’s the Scots-Irish happysadness. I just enjoy a little complexity sometimes. Not always. But sometimes you want to explore a situation where everything kinda got broken.

Bla bla bla.

Anyway. I have a small confession.

This recording is pretty flawed, from a production standpoint. My piano is clunky. My voice is kind of eerie and thin in spots. The overall audio quality on the vocal is pretty iffy. It seems my trusty USB mic is losing its grip on reality here. I hear more static in the recording tracks every day.

Oh to be back at Ostrowski Towers Record Productions Ltd.

Soon enough. It’s just a bit too warm still. (That’s an inside joke. But we are basically cold-weather players.)

But I started this one on the piano, too, just like the rest of the most recent stuff. Again, it produced a song that feels unique from a guitar-written tune. I think on the piano I tend to look for minor and diminished chords more than I do on a guitar. Probably because my neck hand features a ring finger that’s almost totally unable to bend at the end joint. It looks like a standalone Freddie Kruger finger.

As for the words. I began singing the song with one word in my head: Exhale.

So that was the first word of the lyrics. I improvised the rest over the first take of the song.

They mostly worked. Certainly I liked the vocal melody. So I did a little polishing and this is what I came up with.

Like I said, forgive the roughness here. I think it’s more important to get these songs out there than try to make them perfect.

At least for now. My perfectionistic side will re-emerge, I’m sure.

But sometimes, it’s probably good to put some raw material out there… maybe it will come at you from a different angle.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy…

Breathe Out Everything that Could Have Been:

Hippy@Heart (for J.J.)

26 Aug

I heard a great quote from Forrest Griffin the other day.

Griffin is probably one of the greatest MMA fighters of all time. He’s a pretty sharp guy, as well. And he said something like: Hell is dying and meeting the person you were supposed to become. Or something along those lines.

I suppose we all wonder, at times, if we’re living the exact lives we were meant to live. I used to wonder about that most of the time. (This was back before my first midlife crisis.) Not so these days…

But you always wonder if you could be living a little truer to your true self (whatever that means, right?).

Maybe this song has to do with that – the discrepancy between who we wanted to be growing up, and who we’ve become… and who we still CAN become if we make some decisions and take some actions.

Quick side note/warning: This song contains a harmonica solo. I have to thank my Dad for giving me the harmonica collection as a Christmas gift last year! I finally put it to use!

Regardless, I hope you enjoy the new tune, Hippy@Heart (for J.J.).

The Fall of Superman

17 May

Heartbreak. It’s such a great songwriting topic. I seem to return to it a lot in my own writing, even though life has actually been pretty free of the usual heartbreak lately.

Sad songs heal. I’m sure of that.

We listen to sad songs for the same reason we attend funerals. Shared suffering has the power to transmute itself into beauty… and to bring us closer together on an almost spiritual level. (Pain is the touchstone of all spiritual progress, or so they say.)

For example, I don’t think the great blues men wrote their songs to make people sad. I think they wrote about heartbreak because that’s where the healing needs to happen.

Songs have the power to heal the soul. (They also have the power to maim the soul. I’m looking at you, Justin Bieber.)

Plus, heartbreak — when it comes from love — is complex. That makes it fun or at least interesting countryside to travel as a writer. You can drive over a mountain of hope, and fly down the other side at ninety miles per hour, brake pads on fire, into a river of sorrow — splash!

Fun stuff!

Plus, when you come out on the other side of that river, life often looks brighter than ever. You’ve been washed clean. You’re ready for the next growth spurt. That’s especially true if we’ve learned something about ourselves from the dark crossing. We emerge stronger, wiser, more circumspect.

Hopefully, we also emerge more useful to the folks around us, because we have some perspective to offer. And then, if we’re really wise and smart, we offer that perspective only in measured doses. We instead learn to listen and watch and follow along as others live their journeys, too.

With kids, for example, you really don’t want them to experience heartbreak. So there’s a tendency to offer way too much perspective, almost all the time.

I used to do some of that with Nate. I try not to do it so much these days. I realize now that he must live his own journey. He’s on his boat, and he’s got his own set of charts, and his own star to follow. And the only way my perspective will be useful to him is, perhaps, in retrospect. When he gets old enough, he may see that some of that “Daddy wisdom” as he calls it was actually on point. If that day comes, maybe then he can recall some of the other crap I told him… and get some use out of it.

Who knows. I still can’t tell if we as a species ever get wiser. Somehow I doubt it. But that’s not a bad thing. That’s where poetry comes from.

I ramble.

If you haven’t guessed by now, today’s song is about heartbreak. Guy gets girl. Guy becomes a superhero (to himself, at least), as a result. Guy loses girl. Superhero takes a fall. He turns in his cape. And hopefully comes out better for it, ultimately.

I should add that this song is unique for a few reasons, and especially meaningful to me.

First, I wrote it on the piano. I think that was a first. And it brought out a whole series of new notes and progressions for me. I’m no piano player, but certainly I’m learning to respect the immense power of that cathedral of an instrument.

In addition, this is not the first recorded version of the song. I recorded a prior version with my friend and fellow songster, Dan Ostrowski. (I hope to share some of our co-creations in this space soon.) Dan’s a great drummer, and a great keyboardist, and a great writer, too.

When we recorded the prior version (which was actually the second recorded version — I did an earlier rough demo at home), Dan played keys. He actually gave the song a groove — which is something I don’t generally do. I’m sadly groove-less. I can spin out a melody, and write lyrics. But as far as rhythm, I have a lot to learn.

Fortunately, I have found a teacher — a true master of rhythm. He brings great, moving rhythm to both the drums and the keys.

His keyboard playing basically inspired the keys on this recording. If you hear a bouncing, funky little groove creeping into the piano on occasion, that’s Dan’s influence.

In addition, I added in a simple bass line, and found a drum machine beat that seemed to go along with it. (Again, with the prior version, Dan created a REAL drum part. I’ll post that prior version of the song here at some point soon. I still need to get Dan’s and Richard Branson’s clearance to release that recording.)

But for now, you’ll have to make do with this version of a song I call:

The Fall of Superman