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.

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: