And why is the only dream I can dream the dream of giving something beautiful to this overflowing world? – Linford Detweiler
Today, on the eve of my forty-sixth trip around the sun, I ran into my friend, Don. Many of us who know Don learned he experienced what would certainly qualify as a “near-death experience” a few days ago. I was happy to see him – first, because I’m grateful he’s still alive, but also because although I had learned of the incident this week, I didn’t want to clog his wires with an additional barrage of inquiries. He was safe and he was on the up-and-up, so I thought to give him some space to breathe, and to learn the details of the story from him in due time. For my own peace of mind, I was very happy to run into him during a coffee run in our small town. Aside from my curiosity about his story, I wanted him to know I was glad he was ok.
Have I shared that I’m grateful Don’s still alive? And I’m also glad I’m alive to see another year, too. To make another trip around the sun. There was a moment while hearing him relay the details of how it all occurred for him a couple days ago that I noticeably quivered inside. I could’ve thrown myself on him then – I had to think up something funny to say, and quickly, to keep tears from springing to my eyes. (I never saw my father cry until he was in his forties, and so I’ve wondered if this more recent, swelling impulse is genetic – or a feature of midlife that none of the self-help books tell you about.)
During the holiday break, I took a hike to see a humpback whale carcass that washed up on the beach of Kincaid Park in Anchorage, Alaska. I had learned about the whale in the summer but had never managed to see it. A friend informed me that she had recently hiked down to see the carcass in December, and that it was still there, and that in its current form it was nothing short of mystifying. On only the directions in her text message, I set out one late-afternoon in rapidly diminishing light in hopes to find it and see it. I needed something to do while the kids romped in the snow with friends in the park that afternoon.
What transpired in the light, the atmosphere in the midst of my walk down towards the beach was nothing short of magical. I couldn’t have asked for more incredible conditions in which to seek out this thing, to observe the sleeping, decaying beast where it rested.
I hope the gallery testifies to some of this.
I was going to post it to commemorate the New Year some weeks ago, but I held off. I forget why exactly, though I think I wanted to enter the year quietly this year. As little pomp or notice as possible.
I think sharing it now, to bow towards the sun and the “giver of life” for this mystery-laden journey on which I find myself, feels appropriate. And to share it with gratitude for my friendship with Don, whose presence the universe clearly wants us to enjoy and appreciate here a little longer. The ways Don’s enriched my life and the role he’s played in my work as a writer and musician, and more adds to make this post a good one to dedicate to my friend.
When I thought to post the gallery in January, I was only going to post it with the below text. It comes from a slim-volume work by another individual who has, like Don, enriched my life and my creative endeavors in ways there aren’t words to adequately share here. Linford Detweiler is best known as a founding member and songwriter in Cincinnati’s adored Over the Rhine (a band, too, whose songs and music has enriched my life in inexplicable ways). Some years ago, he released a limited-run, slim-volume work, Unsung. On a good year, I remember to dig it out and read through it and be reminded of all the ways I’m glad to be alive but don’t know how to express in my own way. As the Quakers say, “This friend speaks my mind.” In Unsung, Linford speaks to something that so deeply resonates for my journey that I feel the vibrations from the reading for hours afterwards.
Lastly, there are two songs below the gallery that can perhaps serve as a viewing soundtrack – or separate soundtracks – for moving through the pictures, or sitting with them. I’ve been obsessed with both songs in recent weeks. I’ve listened to these songs a lot since the start of the new year. At the tail-end of winter in AK, I think I’d set up a little shelter and live inside them if I could . With the light in those pictures, they feel like home. So do Linford’s words from the excerpt below.
I’m glad to be alive. I’m glad you’re alive. How to receive and then honor and adore this gift of life? I’ll do my best to spend what’s left of my time here living the question…
“…Is it love that gives me the gift of these days and nights? For this gift of life is too big. I must give some away. This life is too abundant. My cup runneth over. Look, life is spilling out on the ground around my ankles. Life is spilling out of her eyes. Here, I give my life to you. It burns and quivers superfluous. It pulses with beauty and terror. Why have I been given such an unwieldy, consummate gift? The universe expands, strains and groans with excessive grace.
Take this message to the giver of life: You have been reckless with all creation. You have allowed even me to sip from the cup of the eternal. I have broken the bread of the infinite. I am overwhelmed and undone. There are days when I fear my soul will burst.
We will write with no fear of breaking our hearts, our hearts are already broken.
What are we to do with the infinity found in a single day or night? Is the light of early morning a burden we must bear? Do the mountains hum, the rocks cry out? Does the beauty that saturates these days of drunken longing offer anything tangible or quantifiable to the sick, or hungry, or war-torn? What doctor prescribes beauty unadorned to her patient? And why is the only dream I can dream the dream of giving something beautiful to this overflowing world? […]
Who will defend the wild flowers, their vivid intricacies swaying in hidden places? Who will defend the impertinent scabbard of red on a blackbird’s wing, or the down on a young girl’s cheek? Who will decipher for miles and miles the burning songs of whales?
Even if I did succeed in giving a little something beautiful back to the world, of what possible use could it be? Is there room in the world for one more beautiful thing?”
I bid my boys, “Go. And make for me an Advent wreath.”
And they looked at me, mouths agape, slightly vexed.
We were at church on Thanksgiving morning – don’t ask me to explain that part right now – and they were shoveling pancakes into their faces and I was sick to my stomach and not eating and one of the priests twice announced that there was Advent-wreath-making for kids at the back of the room. All over the place, children were leaping up from their flapjacks and fleeing their families, racing to the table, but my sons did not budge.
And so I bid them a second time, “Please. Go make for your father an Advent wreath,” and they looked at me in a way that I imagine mad Lear’s children more than once regarded him.
And then I insisted, like a first-rate, whiny-assed dad-brat – let’s say more than half-pleading. And even so it may still stand as one of the more tyrannical things I’ve recently done. I already can’t rationally explain why I drag them to church half the time anyway – I’m sure we’d probably all do just as well to sleep in. Our spirits could use more rest. But I do this anyway and I did this on Thanksgiving and I told them the Advent wreath would be like an early Christmas gift for me. And maybe it was the “Christmas gift” part that made something click –
For then they stood – perhaps they sighed, too – and they proceeded towards the craft table…
Exterior noise – the hawkers, the sellers, the marketplace – seems to grow louder and louder this time of year – unbearably, intolerably so for my nerves, my composure. And so each passing year I seem to swiftly turn heel and go all commensurably quiet, become more inclined to hunker down and stay in: Inside – the house, my head, my heart, a notebook, a song, poems, a good playlist, books, etc.
You know what I mean.
Advent is by definition a season of waiting – of expectancy – but our culture’s spin on this specific time of year has made it a space in which to achieve new, uncharted levels of wanting, to manically close the gap between craving and getting, to hunt and then leap onto deals and items Now – immediately! – before those slippery suckers (the deals and/or the things) swiftly vanish.
And yet while everyone’s hollering about cheer and clanging bells and screaming deals, I find an overwhelming hush blanketing me. No: blanketing Time. And leaning into it – or resting underneath it – has become unavoidable. More so by the year.
And so consequently, I’ve fast become a worst customer ever: The advertisers may as well be hawking Sony Walkmans at a school for the deaf. I’d rather lean on minor chords – and extend their quarter rests into half-rests, the half-rests into whole. Light the candles and sit. Make ice lanterns that no one may ever see glowing in the backyard, save for us, or anyone stealing through the back alley.
In these ways, Alaska’s long dark, its longest nights of the year – even if every day at 3pm between November and February I’m ready to sleep for twelve hours or two months – for me have become a slice of paradise.
Which is hardly to suggest I don’t struggle. A lot of my friends here have their wits about them – they’re smart – they fly away, head south. They go tropical. Or go mad. Freely and without apology. It is a lot. The winter dark can weigh on you a bit like the One Ring to Rule Them All on a chain around your neck. Which explains why I never understood the winter solstice as a holiday-worthy celebration until I lived in Alaska for a couple years.
It’s impossible for me to ignore the implications of the Christmas story I grew up hearing – this tale of a baby born in poverty: There was no room for him in any place anywhere but in a shitty old barn, and the infant’s poor, scandalized parents had to place this sleeping newborn in a food trough. That’s some mind-blowing, jackpot-rich (while also remarkably ineffective) symbolism. This, in part, has to do with why I drag my sons to the particular church we attend. It’s a clue to a mystery I’m becoming more and more assured that I will never solve.
(I have to admit that I appreciate the story’s imagery and details more than usual this particular year, too – in 2017. As Linus informs us every year at this time: A couple thousand years ago, Caesar Augustus issued a decree that all the world should be taxed…and there was no room for this pitiful, poor pregnant and unmarried couple in the inn. When you’re feeling brave, open today’s paper – or read the past week’s headlines – and try not to see or spot the nativity story playing out plain as day in real time, in our empire. Today, right this very instant…)
Meanwhile, I’m in such a vulnerable state this time of year – easily teary, for some reason – that I’ve little doubt a choir of angels appearing out of nowhere – even to announce, “Peace on earth” and “Go see this baby” and all that – wouldn’t leave me necessarily sore afraid so much as just really dead. I’d prove without a doubt a surefire goner – knocked down forever from a straight-up coronary. An angelic chorus would end me. It would. Of this I’m certain.
It’s dark both early and late this time of year in Alaska. I often lumber as if through a half-dream. Between waking and sleep. I don’t know where I am or why I am where I am half the time. But – and you know this – I’ll meet you for coffee. We’ll talk. (Let’s.) We’ll make light.
The space in which I find myself each December – dark and often painfully silent as it can be – while infinitely more remote and raw, feels an intimately more familiar region than what everyone is selling me, hawking, yammering about. (Oh, how the aggressively-cheer-infused commercials surged on and on and on in a First Order-style assault – and we were so trapped, cornered smack in the middle of our row – ahead of Star Wars the other night! Commercials in a movie! Really.)
And still, I both brace for it – there’s nothing easy about darkness and/or its accompanying silences. As one sage proclaimed, “The Waiting is the Hardest Part,” after all – but I strive in my clumsy, awkward manner to welcome it each year. Or to at least stumble towards it, in an effort to try and embrace it. Do I have any other choice?
In this season, this testimony to and marked as it is by darkness, we find essential things laid bare. Our shared poverty – spiritual and material: It is laid bare before us like at no other time in the illuminated year.
And for someone in need of everything, I somehow – in this season perhaps more than at any other time of year – understand again that I also possess everything I could ever need.
And so, this waiting. Resting in my deepest need and still complete.
I told my boys to make me an Advent wreath.
(And what is the waiting that defines this season? Waiting for…? And to what, to whom do we owe this unbearable, welcome silence? These dark hours?)
Maybe it’ll be one of those inglorious moments they reflect on as adults someday, humorously recalling their insane, crotchety, crankcase messy father guy: “Remember how he…And I wasn’t even done my pancakes!” (I do feel a little ridiculous about it. They were serving blueberries that morning.)
And now we’re nearing the end of Advent and I’m sitting here at my kitchen table with my coffee on a December morning, the sky low-lit and gray, washed in traces of violet and worn blue. And I sit here by candlelight and coffee steam. Three candles lit.
1.) In the car a couple nights ago, my youngest asked if we could listen to some Christmas music. We had brought some Christmas albums on CD to the car a day or two earlier. (See #3) I asked him what he wanted to listen to and he said, “Can we listen to the ‘Sound of Silence’ song?”
I couldn’t immediately tell if he meant he wanted to hear “Silent Night” or that he really wanted to hear Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence.” I happened to know I had the S&G CD in a folder full of music that I’ve carried on the road with me since the past summer, so I grabbed it from behind my seat.
“You mean this song?” I asked, popping the cd into the player.
From his place in the passenger’s seat, he smiled and went, “Yeaaahhh…”
Now, if you pitched in for the Hope, Alaska Kickstarter a couple years ago, you received a letter describing the force, the influence that both Simon and Garfunkel’s music and this season’s “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” have held over my life since I was a small boy. That my nine-year-old somehow has made “The Sound of Silence” into a Christmas song since that time, and with no influence or prompting on my part – I’ve never played S&G in the mix of Christmas music in this season, for example – may stand as my favorite Christmas gift this season.
(Have you ever heard this version (below)? Can you imagine that in 2009 they could possibly improve on the song and make it even more beautiful?)
2.) Can you maybe understand how we’d come to title the album Light Years?
As I’ve shared with some, a lot of the songs on Light Years were written while house sitting in a couple different locations over the summer of 2016. It was a year of new, dizzying transitions here, and there was something grounding about walking around these homes strumming guitar, finding chords on the piano, in rooms fully-furnished with other people’s stories and memories. These rooms (and others) at different hours of the day offered up a lot of material, a lot of possibilities – always within view.
(In many ways, songwriting – and house sitting, too – always feels closer to writing fiction than any other writing genre or art form – with maybe only the exception of painting, though only as long as the right musician/band is at the helm. At least in my experience. Which is funny, because oftentimes we want to assume a song says or has more to do with the songwriter directly than a story drawn from someone’s imagination. But go be in somewhere entirely outside your familiar when you have a chance and start imagining, concocting stories of how you see and find the space in which you stand. Light Years has a whole lot of that going on…)
3.) A few days ago, my thirteen-year-old, Sam, asked me if we could listen to Christmas music on the way to school. I retrieved my limited supply of holiday-themed albums on CD, and asked him what we should listen to and offered him a few of my seasonal favorites: Over the Rhine, Sufjan Stevens, the Vince Guraldi/Charlie Brown album – ?
“No,” he said, looking everything over, “where’s that…that guy?”
I knew what he meant – boy, did I – and soon enough we were tearing down Northern Lights Boulevard listening to Andy Williams croon and romp through the classics as if the angels descended from Vegas playing horns and timpani’s, the angelic voices punking some poor, lonely shepherds in the fields just craving a good night’s sleep.
The older I get, the more I find myself running clear the other direction of the big band spins on Christmas. Not in some Scrooge-y, scornful manner – on one hand, I do have a soft spot for it – though one steeped in nostalgia, a region I try to visit as infrequently as I can manage today. (A conversation for another day.) Still, that was a fun drive to school – the nostalgia-trippy brain center reveled in the pomp and excess for a moment.
And yet, at midlife, for my limited time to sit down and fully absorb music, something feels truer to life in the sounds that emerge from Sufjan’s muted banjo and nearly whispered “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming”; there’s something that more closely dials into any limited notion I possess of “home” in Linford Detweiler’s hushed “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” on piano than in the hustle and glare and romping horn sections playing over the mall’s sound system. And it all amounts to more than what I could ever conjure or adequately describe in words or conversation…
Meanwhile, the families or packs of friends that gather in a home and sing the Hanukkah songs acapella as they light the candles, or don their winter coats and gloves and walk the neighborhood caroling for the community – those are spaces like no other and no single, self-important’s songwriter’s efforts can ever come close to honoring a space in time the way that these acts do…
Speaking of “home.”
It’s nearly time to drop a record.
For those who backed the Kickstarter insuring we could even make this album, expect it to ship either just prior to or directly after Christmas day. Solely as a self-absorbed, sometimes-delusional singer-songwriter, I think this insures I won’t be competing with Andy Williams, Mariah Carey, Frank Sinatra, or Justin Bieber’s Christmas recordings on your stereos and laptops and smartphones. Maybe you can throw one or two of the Light Years tunes into your New Year’s Eve party playlists – which is not to say these are danceable tunes, necessarily, but they also aren’t nearly as un-danceable as 2012’s but so beautiful EP. Maybe you can spin it on the car stereo a few times as you drive around in a brand new year and begin leaning into some intentions for the new year…
For anyone else purchasing the album, expect an official release date in January of the New Year. If you follow any of the social media things pasted with my name and mug, it’ll be pretty obvious when the album’s available/released.
Lastly, a few days ago, postcards of Brian Adams’s album art pics arrived in the mail, and I remembered too well the season and time period that inspired some of the songs that became Light Years. In that summer – a time rich with transition and confusion – I would now and then see one of Brian’s pictures on social media or out in the Anchorage community (in the museum, or in a periodical), and it seemed like they always provided me a fleeting but much-needed space of calm. And some good reminders of all that’s right in the world, in life, or in a single ordinary day.
Still, an album was the last thing on my mind that summer. But then, at the same time, the summer was everywhere – in every room I entered, everywhere I roamed – and with it, the midnight sun, and with that – as we soon discover in Alaska like nowhere else anywhere – so was the light. The light, the light, the light…bending and falling…
And now we’re here.
Happy Holidays, All – to you and your families & loved ones, et al.…
This past Sunday night, the boys and I finished dinner and hurried through the dishes because we wanted to watch a couple episodes of Stranger Things before bed. Monday races towards us after dinner every Sunday evening and so prolonging the weekend as much as we can is always too tempting to pass up. Particularly on this weekend, as we’d been looking forward to Season 2 of the show for months.
Also, I have to tell you – the boys were not home when I learned about the church shooting in Texas earlier that morning. I found it, like all these other mass shootings – and probably a lot like you have, too – unspeakably difficult to absorb. I had a gig the night before the shooting and the boys had spent that night with friends. When I read the news online shortly after waking up Sunday, I had a now too-familiar “nesting” impulse – this seeming need to hurtle towards the kids, gather them, race home, and cave up from what more and more seems a rapidly-crumbling world. That tendency seems to spring to life in me more and more in the 21st century. With each new mass shooting, for instance, something in me braces for impact, and a very real, palpable, “felt” terror dings my armor.
Mine’s a fragile armor at best, I’ll admit. It’s constructed in large part of being a white male, growing up working-/middle-class, in the possession of an advanced education and a semi-stable income and health care, and the grand illusion that if I play by some rules and codes, and observe and attend to all the social contracts appropriately and all the while aspire towards my “best self,” then everything will work out “just fine.” (In other words, yes, it’s an armor made of fine sand, too, but it’s still solidly done its job for 40+ years now.)
And when the repercussions of terror – in the form of anxiety – don’t just ding the armor, then they massively dent it. As proved true on Sunday.
But there we were Sunday evening, gathered and home in a new space we’d moved into a couple weeks earlier. We picked up the pace on the after-dinner routines in the hopes we could disappear from the present and watch this spectacularly fun Netflix show set shot-for-shot in the era of my own imagination-rich childhood. If we maintained this pace, we would watch an extra one or two episodes – as if to pretend it was still Friday and that Monday wasn’t rapidly on the way.
I checked the fridge to brainstorm options for their lunches for Monday morning and saw the milk carton snug in the door’s shelf. I remembered then that I forgot to buy milk earlier that afternoon. I’d meant to do that when we were driving home from our friends’ house. And I was counting on cereal in the morning, especially because I knew we would stay up a little later to watch the show and that I would want as low-impact a breakfast as possible Monday.
But I also didn’t want to drive all the way over to Safeway. I woke to snow Sunday morning and when I picked up the boys earlier, the roads were still super slippery. So I also had no interest in sliding around the slick roads on a Sunday night without snow tires on the car yet.
I decided on a compromise. I’d hop in the car, drive up the street to the gas station and buy a small single serving bottle of milk to split between two bowls of cereal in the morning. I’d done this once before. If you measure it right, you have just enough in one small milk from the gas station soda section for two boys’ cereal bowls. They were going to their mom’s the next day. This could hold us over till our next stretch together.
I closed the fridge and told the boys I was going to run up the street to grab milk at the gas station. I said I’d pop up there and back. I told them to finish washing and drying the dishes and putting them away and I’d be back in a flash and then we’d watch Stranger Things.
They agreed, and probably even relished the thought of a few minutes home alone and they began moving around the kitchen with a little extra bounce as they found the new cupboard spaces for our dishes.
I was putting my boots on when my nine year-old called out, as if suddenly remembering, “Love you!”
It came out quick, but it arrived full – his call possessed heft, a weight in the way it leapt forward and then, too, in the way it landed and settled inside me. If I didn’t know better, I might have thought he’d mistaken my announcement of an errand to the gas station up the street as an announcement that I was grabbing the next flight to Patagonia for a few months.
I chuckled. “I’m coming right back,” I told him, smiling, sliding into my other boot.
“I know,” he said, slipping plates into a cupboard.
And I couldn’t tell you exactly why I had to remind him of that either, except that later, thinking about it, I knew that the full import of his pronouncement of love exposed a nerve, a different kind of vulnerability in the armor than the vulnerability exposed by terror. Or was it? Different? Either way, in that moment, “I’m coming right back” was almost a way to deflect some of the force of that open, unabashed affection he offered me. And it was honestly almost too much to bear right then, free as it had arrived, and so unexpected and pure.
It unsettled me. It exposed other cracks. For how much I felt it. The love. And needed it, or desired it. But also for the way I didn’t know how to fully accept or embrace it, save for my eyes welling with tears at my front door. He had done this on Halloween, too. I was leaving the boys at their mom’s, and I was proceeding out the door when he announced from the other side of the room, “Let me give you a hug,” and bolted across her living room and threw himself at me. Then, too, I exited that moment both light and heavy-hearted and swimming between the two concurrent emotions.
Soon enough, another thing crashed into the moment, too, as I put my jacket on and grabbed my wallet. I was quietly absorbing the waves of my son’s affection and then remembered what had occurred in Texas earlier that morning.
Maybe it’s that this time the shooting occurred in a church. Perhaps it’s that it happened in a church and this incident happened so quickly after a shooting at a concert a few weeks ago. Maybe it’s just that it happened – again – period. That these shootings keep happening. Maybe it was that the growing, widening realization that this can happen anytime and anywhere now – that something feels very different here now – that we’ve turned a distressing and undeniable corner (as a country, a species) in our era, and that there’s no arguing (or convincing me) otherwise.
I didn’t have – and still don’t have – words to clearly define or explain what came over me then. Maybe that’s how terror works. Or starts to win. To gain ground. But I thought of an otherwise ordinary Sunday, dressing to go to church. Arriving. Polite greetings. Shaking hands with friends, acquaintances. Taking your seat with family or a friend.
A few weeks ago, protesters picketed outside the church I periodically attend with my boys. They’ve also entered and occupied the front row of the church in silent protest before, too. I’m not suggesting the individuals protesting this church would ever unload on us with machine guns. But they’ve conducted themselves in such a way that I’ve sat in church feeling anxious and concerned about what’s transpiring, imagining what could transpire, about what’s possible in the midst of a specific kind of tension brought on by their actions.
By that measure, I can’t for the life of me conceive, then, of what living through what those churchgoers encountered this past Sunday would be like. Who can?
And I know, on one hand, I’m being a real simpleton here: It’s not as if before all these mass shootings defining our era we’ve never been at risk of sliding into harm’s way. Of course I’m not suggesting that at all. In fact, statistically, I was and am wildly more at risk of dying in a fatal car accident while driving the few blocks up the road on a milk run on a Sunday night than I am of being killed by a mass shooter. I know this.
But that didn’t make the fact of Sunday’s shooting – only the most recent in a lengthening series of horrific incidents – go down any easier. Not at all.
I paused at the front door and breathed in the full import of Matt’s freely-, gently-offered love. I don’t know how else to refer to that moment. But I had to consciously open to it that evening. I’m not suggesting I intentionally wall or guard myself from my kids or their affections. I’m saying only that I was aware on Sunday evening that I had to pause, breathe, and open to it. That I was feeling vulnerable and fragile and on guard before Matt impulsively expressed himself, and that I first chuckled it off because the risks love opens us to and asks of us are perhaps the greatest vulnerabilities imaginable. After all, vulnerability means we’re capable of great loss and deep wounding – though also of significant transformation, too – in unimaginable ways. And maybe that truth proves also too overwhelming to absorb and to live with every day so that we can’t help but armor ourselves in a little bit. Or a lot. For safety and sanity’s sake. Well, rather, for the illusion of possible safety and control.
“I love you, too,” I told him – and his brother – and I went to the store, and I bought a single bottle of milk for Monday morning, and I returned home in one piece – I survived – and we watched Stranger Things together, and for another night we were safe, we were home.
What follows is my first-ever attempt at a “tweet-storm.” I teach English Comp and Creative Writing classes as an adjunct instructor at the college level, & in the past year this has become considered a legitimate form of writing & communication. Well, “tweeting” has – and the tweet-storm is an extension of that. Twitter is discussed in our university’s ENG 111 textbook, and many of my Creative Writing Students are very active on social media.
I’ll disclose that I took all the social media sites – save for Instagram – off my phone after the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. I only returned them to my phone a little over a month ago, in order to hit all the social-media- & campaign-bases during my Kickstarter’s run, as I’ve tried to secure funds that will afford me to record my next album.
Oddly enough, shortly after launching my Kickstarter, twitter (& the news/media outlets, of course) exploded with information re: the White House scandal concerning the suspected collusion of Trump White House officials with Russia. The firing of FBI Director James Comey only loaned more fuel to the already-torrential/-gushing stream of information concerning these matters on twitter, & so much so that I’ve assumed attempting to leave any impression re: my meager fundraising- & album-production-effort is a fairly guaranteed lost cause.
Nevertheless, after the past week – and becoming tangled or sucked into one or another tweet-storm – I tried. And that’s what’s below. In my own search for information the past couple weeks, I’ve occasionally found myself deep into a variety of tweet-storms – some by knowledgable, intelligent, astute critical thinkers, journalists, and more (and some gut-busting comedians, too). Then some, it goes without saying, fall under the banner of delusional, really-far-out-there/-gone conspiracy theorists.
So, what follows is/was my slip into that form for a few minutes today, in an effort to weave/tell a little bit about the story of the album I’m trying to fund at Kickstarter, the working title of which is “Brave.”
Aside from an experiment/draft in the form, I would only add that – if I’ve come away from twitter with anything – or if, after my Kickstarter wraps & I again delete the social media apps from my phone – I think it’s important to add, to say that if there’s one lone takeaway here (in addition to hoping to fund my next record) I think we should all be reading Sarah Kendzior’s work, along with a number of others (mentioned below) right now. pax, JJB
00.) My 1st *Tweet Storm* : A Story re: Brave album/Kickstarter. w/ props 2 @sarahkendzior &etc. Read on below – http://kck.st/2phvIgA
1.) I’m house-/cat-sitting this wkend for friends. Realized the last time I did this for them was right after the ’16 Presidential election.
2.) A couple months before that, I was house-/cat-sitting for another friend. My gf & I had just split up, & moved out of the apt we shared.
3.) 1 day, while packing up that apt, I was boxing some files from an old filing cabinet & unearthed a lyric sheet for a song I wrote in ’96.
4.) The song was called “Brave.” At 1st I felt sheepish – it was a young song – was glad it never amounted 2 anything. 2nd song I ever wrote.
5.) But then I also really loved a few lines in the song. I appreciated the intent – the thing that kid-wannabe-songwriter was trying to do.
6.) I took the melody & lines that still seemed pliable & went to work on a new revised version of the song. A cat-/house-sitting project.
7.) Tooled away on it during the summer of house-/cat-sitting. Then #BillCunningham died & then a dead whale washed up on the shore in Anc.
8.) These events led 2 stories for local papers. I shelved the song. A few mos passed. Somehow @realDonaldTrump becomes Prez. Me=Shellshock.
9.) So, fast-fwd: Late Nov 2016, I’m house sitting then for same friends who r away this wkend now. I remembered that this evening.
10.) Am still reeling from election. Still can’t swallow it. Very little makes sense. & L. Cohen is dead. I wrote about him 4 paper in Oct.
“I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life, and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing that I wanted to do.”
– Georgia O’Keefe
“When you do something beautiful and nobody noticed, do not be sad. For the sun every morning is a beautiful spectacle yet most of the audience still sleeps.” – John Lennon
How are you? Where are you?
I’m in a hotel lobby in Golden, Colorado. A few feet down the corridor from where I’m seated, a high school prom is winding down, and in the other direction – in the hotel bar – erupt rowdy cheers and bursts of applause at random. While I typically prefer (and always have) hiding in the wings and away from the noise, I’m happy that – telling only by the sound of things – there’s celebration in the air this evening.
I’m in Colorado this week for work-related reasons. No, not the work of songwriting or music or art. I’m here, rather, for full-time, 9-5-job-related reasons. Some of you are familiar by now with this dance between two worlds – and some of you are engaged in this dance, too: You know all about juggling the work you do to (maybe) pay the bills and afford your art, and the art you do to…survive, to respond to a call (or a rhythm) you’ve heard from the time you were young, to embrace & respond to the deeply wounded world, and/or to feel alive and full of love and purpose during this swiftly-passing lifetime.
Tonight, I had dinner with a friend I hadn’t seen in close to fifteen years. When we made plans to meet up last week, we were clawing at our memories trying to recall when we last saw each other. Until a few hours ago, we’d convinced ourselves it was nearly 20 years ago, both remembering one specific turbulent winter when we crossed paths in Illinois in the late-90s. Out of the blue at dinner this evening, however, my friend remembered suddenly, “NO!”- no, it hadn’t been 20 years ago since we’d seen each other! We’d seen each other – remember? remember? – why, we’d seen each other in this century, after all! She then reminded me that we had seen The Innocence Mission during the brief time that we were both trying to be elegant bohemians in NYC (and I was failing that endeavor brilliantly), when our paths last overlapped – before life brought her here, and took me to Alaska. It then all came crashing in on me, too.
(Where do these memories hide anyway? Once she mentioned it, I was instantly there again.)
Of course: One evening, shortly into the new century, we went to see The Innocence Mission in a tiny basement lounge somewhere in NYC’s labyrinth. We then tumbled into extended detail of that show for her partner, who had never heard of the band. I remembered they performed the Velvet’s “I’ll Be Your Mirror” that evening – my friend remembered the way Karen Peris’s willowy voice proved transcendent in that tiny underground space, and how shy and reticent the trio appeared between songs that evening.
What is it about music that lodges “just so” in our memories? While I can recall for you a lengthy list of incredible books I’ve read in those 15 years, I’d be hard pressed to tell you what I remember or what stands out or proved transformative about them. While my friend and I forgot we were both in each other’s company at that show in this century, once we made the connection we recalled specific songs in the set, the curious room where we gathered, and the way Karen’s hair shielded her face as her voice lifted and carried us up and beyond the boundaries of NYC and to a place, a space that only music ever properly or passionately takes you…
Last night, a friend of 30 years texted me:
“I’ve known you since I was in 9th grade.
You’re the same.
You hand out music.
You give away books.
You write and encourage others to write.
NOTHING has changed…”
Of course, a few things have changed – there’s a lot of gray in my hair now, for example – but she’s also right in many ways. I’m still “guilty as charged” of all the above. And I also – telling by my scribbling during my time at a conference in Denver the past week for work – still survive classes/seminars/lectures/conferences & office-work by scribbling away at lyrics & ideas for songs & stories. Ever since I was in grade school those scribbles proved the seeds for new songs, poems, or prose. Some people need “fidgets” to survive boredom or long periods seated at a desk or table listening to someone yammering. I’ve always needed a notebook & a pen. It’s never helped my grades, & the school’s progress reports often labeled me a daydreamer or a kid w/ his head in the clouds, but it was my North Star, the place where my heart and mind found home. And 30 years later there’s no sign this source, this habit, this impulse is ever gonna quit…So why even try to stop now? And why would I?
Shortly after puzzling with her over some challenges I’m facing with my Kickstarter campaign, I spotted an article with Cincinnati’s Over the Rhine that someone posted to Facebook. My love affair with Over the Rhine’s music extends even longer, just a few years further than my unending affection for The Innocence Mission’s.
Not long into the article, one half of the husband/wife duo – songwriter and musician Linford Detweiler – offered this gem: “Make your life’s work a labor of love. Make it about the work. Ask, ‘What must I do to make my life a work of art?'”
Without divulging many more details than I have, I’ll tell you that it sounded like he had been eavesdropping on the phone conversation between me and my friend in PA only moments earlier.
I can trust those sentences. I’ve thought about them all day. And I also feel like I can trust the person who has come to that kind of assessment re: how to live this life we’re given.
Some of you are aware that my “Brave” Kickstarter is unfolding, at least in funding, at a slower pace than the crowdsourcing effort for 2014’s *Hope, Alaska* effort. And that’s not to sound ungrateful or unnecessarily concerned. Still, on any given day, the worry that it might be “underperforming” has proven unsettling-to-mildly distressing. (You know artist types often distress easily, so take that with a grain of salt.) I know there aren’t guarantees in crowdsourcing. You’re informed of the risks from the beginning. I understand this.
And yet, my excitement about the new batch of songs, my love for the way the songs sound since we recorded the rhythm section sessions convinces me that I’ll try just about anything (within reason, says Dad JJB) to make sure this record gets made. If this Kickstarter doesn’t reach its goal, I’ll work in other ways to bring it to life. The songs as they stand now have reminded me all over again why I love songwriting. Watching songs come to life and mature into full-blown recorded material proves a wonder-filled process at every turn. That’s worth the risk of a Kickstarter campaign. Easily. It’s worth the failure, too.
And it’s worth every success and humiliation to “make of my life a work of art.”
So, I’ve come all this way this evening to say, first & foremost: Thanks to anyone who has supported this project. I believe that supporting an individual’s creative undertakings proves the rare occasions that “thank you” can fall short of its desired impact. Faith in this recording project (and others) falls within the “Words Fail” category.
If you came along with me on the last crowdsourcing campaign, you know I have a tendency to write long. I’m supposed to hole up and write a novel one year (or 10) soon, but I keep following songs and melodies down shadowy paths…
In closing, I would request you consider only this for those of you who’ve already supported the effort:
We’re more than halfway through this Kickstarter. We have 12 days left. We’re 20% funded. I’ve got my work cut out for me. I do have a barely-sketched-out notion to put off a new-used car for a couple years and to take out a loan to finish the record if this KS doesn’t meet its goal. However, I definitely want to honor the efforts of those who have already thrown full-hearted support behind this project, and to equally honor the work and efforts of the artists who’ve put faith in this campaign enough to aid in its undertaking to now by doing the best I can to see this KS succeed.
Maybe you’ve been able to hear the “John Prine” or “Eyes of Love” demos. If not, send word my way, and I’ll connect you with these.
We will also share a couple other “KS backer-exclusive” pieces until campaign’s end – 5/25 – too.
You’ve perhaps wearied of me blabbing about the project on FB, twitter, and/or Instagram. (You can escape, if necessary, from my “All Things JJB’s KS” on Snapchat – I’m not there.)
I wonder then, instead of my non-stop shameless self-promotion – and only if you’re inclined and can find a couple minutes within the next couple weeks – if you’d mind posting the link to this KS and saying something to your friends and/or social media networks about why you’ve supported it? And/Or, if social media’s not your thing – and I get that, trust me – maybe you can think of a couple friends who might be interested in supporting independent, “local” (by way of Anchorage, AK) music? This is the link you can share, however/whenever you choose: http://kck.st/2phvIgA
I was fortunate in recent years, with my first two albums, to be able to fund them from the near-excess of teaching opportunities afforded to me over and above my usual 9-5 job here. In the last couple years, a lot of my extra work has dried up (I won’t gab about the AK budget crisis here), and so I’ve dared myself to give this route a try and see where it leads.
However, in the event I have to resort to something just shy of miraculous and off the KS platform – or if at some point I do need to seek funds from other sources or must dig in for the long haul and commit to releasing this project a year or two from now, after the funds have been saved, then please note I’m more than happy to thank backers of this platform – goal or no goal – with a copy of the recording and merch items behind which you’ve thrown your support.
In the meantime, time to hit the pavement again. I know some of you are too busy to read lengthy blog posts, e-missives, etc. Maybe you even need to mark these writings Spam because you’re so busy right now and the messages are endless as it is. I understand. That’s ok. Believe me I get it.
Now we’ve all been here – in front of the screen here – too long. It’s spring outside. Things are in bloom everywhere I look. Get out there. Be in that. That’s where songs are born.
“I guess I just wasn’t made for these times.” – Brian Wilson
Hello. Good afternoon.
If you’re reading this, you already have some idea about how much music means to me. So, it’s a little hard to explain how much it further came to mean to me during the second half of 2016. For example, late last summer, one of our local papers liked my idea for an election-season music column, “Coping Skills,” and then again, immediately following the election – for the last few weeks of 2016 – a four-part column I called “Music for the Darkest Time of Year.” These pieces presented me with an opportunity to delight in something critically important to me in the midst of a rancorous and toxic election cycle. Each week, those articles somehow helped me feel steady (well, steady-ish) amidst choppy-to-raging waters. Shortly after writing a piece about Leonard Cohen in late-October – after re-immersing myself in his catalogue for a few weeks – the songwriter passed away. I’m sure, of course, that some EKG reading of the soul would reveal that a number of us experienced a similar swell of feelings with that news – and if not with Cohen’s death, then with the news of other musicians who passed on last year. However, for me, news of Cohen’s death – and so soon after plunging again into his songs and writings – possessed a little extra punch; especially as it arrived so quickly on the heels of a presidential election campaign season that proved about as absolutely awful as one could be.
Then, a few weeks following Cohen’s passing, our small community here lost a dear friend to cancer – my Sam’s teacher since 2nd grade (since Kindergarten for a number of his classmates), Suzanne Drinen. There aren’t words to express and explain here now how that news arrived and impacted an already-challenging period in time.
There was, however, a moment I had in those weeks that you may relate with or be able to understand: I was preparing for an upcoming gig one evening a few nights after Suzanne passed away. It was an otherwise unremarkable scene – a common one in the days when I’m prepping for a show. In this case, I was popping a Neil Young album into my player as I surfed through my collection, looking for possible cover songs for the upcoming gig. It’s hard to convey the full import of how it went down now, but a few bars into one of those Neil Young songs, something snapped. I had that unmistakable experience any number of people have had with Neil’s work (or with another’s music) over the years: Something in that quiver in his vocal, along with the tone and the composition of the song I surfed into, washed into me and knocked me down for the count for a little while. It was as if years ago Neil had dialed into the culminating waves of grief and bewilderment I was right then juggling in my own life, and he knew I’d need a song in which to find shelter – one that both empathized with and related to the condition of my heart, and one that subsequently worked to heal and soothe it. Over the following days, I was in way deep, back into Neil’s work. Along with Leonard Cohen’s very early work, nothing else seemed to resonate or seemed so in tune with my inner-landscape right then in the thick of grief and the deep of dark winter in Alaska than the songs of those two artists.
A couple weeks later, during the winter holidays, I thought to gift a couple people (known Neil fans) with a couple different, favorite Neil Young albums.
Regardless of where I was in my own life right then, I’m never going to forget the moment I handed one of Neil’s albums (on CD) to someone, who then waved it off and motioned to his laptop. He had recently subscribed to Apple Music, he said. He responded that, yeah, he could add another CD to his stacks of these crude, unlistened-to, antiquated relics. He could even import it onto his laptop. But why? At $10 a month he had access to not only all of Neil Young’s entire library, but virtually everybody else’s too.
I don’t mean to sound so clueless or out of touch. What I’m describing is not new. But I think it was compounded by the fact that this info was coming from a fellow musician. Regardless of what Neil’s music meant to me right then, the entire reality of the state of music in our age pounded through me that evening like a maxed-out sub-woofer in a way it had not yet done in all my years to now reading and hearing about Spotify, streaming, pirating, downloading, Pandora, etc.
So, in other words, at the low, low cost of $10 a month, apparently, I can have every single version of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, each of Neil Young’s songs, and all the different ways John Coltrane played “My Favorite Things.” Wow. I don’t even know how to begin to process that, let alone respond to it.
In that moment, I thought of one of the only pieces of Neil’s autobiography that I can still recall today. I remembered him making a case for album art, and describing at length the photography around one specific album of his. No one is more aware than him that the music-listening and -consuming landscape has been irrevocably altered in recent years, and I recall reveling in that small section how much the design, liner notes, and album art meant to him, and what a significant role that played in the listening experience of years ago. (I confess that I don’t remember much else about the book now.)
Still, that afternoon, I said nothing and only returned the waved-off Neil Young cd to my bag and still months later have not fully processed the implications of that moment or what it means for my own songwriting efforts, as well as my unabashed fandom for the entire experience of not just music, but albums. As in, photography, liner notes, album credits, etc.
As many of you know, I’m trying to finish my next record. Funds are trickling in at a snail’s pace, and I allow that the crowdsourcing effort could tank or “buy the farm.” This is the possibility built into every crowdsourcing effort, of course. So, for me and my sensibilities it’s made a lot more sense for me to think of this effort as putting together a literal, physical (albeit small) art exhibit – one that fits in your hands – than participating or trying to keep apace of current music industry trends and impulses.
Two nights ago, I received five CDs in the mail – albums by Simon and Garfunkel, Lou Reed, and the Velvet Underground. The total for these came to under $20. Amazon.com now refers to many classic albums as “Add-On Items” for your order.
If you want the equivalent of a digital or physical “Add-On Item” for your listening library and have a couple minutes, maybe you’d consider pitching anywhere between $1-$500+ to our efforts to finish my next record. There’s even an option there for keeping with trends and purchasing a digital copy. (http://kck.st/2phvIgA)
It’s certainly not a pragmatic or the most sensible investment in our digital times.
The opening sentence of the piece read, “The White House budget office has drafted a hit list of programs that President Trump could eliminate to trim domestic spending, including longstanding conservative targets like the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Legal Services Corporation, AmeriCorps and the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities.”
On one hand, I wasn’t surprised to read this. I won’t explain why.
However, only days earlier, I had submitted for publication a short essay about my service years in Americorps beginning a couple months after graduating college (10/1995-12/1997). When I name-dropped the Student Conservation Association (with whom I served from 1995-1996) in my Leonard Cohen article last fall, it somehow caught the eyes and ears of an organization in DC, Voices for National Service, who were in the process of collecting narratives for a book-length publication. (The book, In the Service of Others – composed of stories and testimonials by individuals who have worked as national service volunteers for different organizations – was released in March.)
As I shared in my short essay, that single year I lived in a dry cabin five miles deep in the New Hampshire woods working for SCA and Americorps continues today to prove a watershed year in many ways – if not actually the most notable, “vocational” threshold among the many thresholds one passes through in a single lifetime.
For instance, after a few years writing lyrics and singing in a couple bands, I finally picked up a guitar that year in the woods and committed to learning to play so I could continue writing songs. If you own a guitar, living in the woods on $69 a week (after taxes), with the bare minimum belongings is good for that kind of endeavor.
Through that year of service, I also landed an internship at the state mental hospital, twenty miles from the state park where I lived. Part of our service year with SCA involved internships with other area non-profits, and mine included the state hospital gig, and another one at the New Hampshire Writers and Publishers Project, a non-profit serving the region’s literary community.
As I shared in an interview with a woman at the Voices for National Service a few weeks before the NYTimes article appeared, I landed in Alaska in 2003 to live and raise my kids within easy-to-reach wilderness areas. I work full-time for a mental health agency. Additionally, I supplement my income here by teaching Creative Writing classes at the University of Alaska and by recording, performing, and releasing music. So, I can draw a nearly straight line between my service year in the NH woods from 1995-96 to my vocation(s) here in Alaska and where my life finds me today.
So, while I’m hardly surprised that a wealthy NYC real-estate magnate recently handed the most powerful position on earth would find what I find important expendable enough to “ax,” it was still hard not to take that opening sentence personally. I understand that what I’ve done and do today doesn’t boast outcomes that I could expect any business person of the current President’s standing to understand. In this way, he’s only the manifestation of everyone who’s ever challenged my undertakings, or questioned or maligned these: whether making music, writing columns that afford me my wifi bill (but feel like a life preserver), teaching a subject I love as an adjunct professor to pay for after- school childcare, and then more as I remain employed in “the humanities.”
I’ll allow, maybe, that it’s high time I grew up. Yes, on one hand, I’m long overdue.
But I’m also very, very stubborn. And the songs don’t just go away because you…gotta “grow up.”
Anyway, my entire “career path” – the combined pile of my vocations and pursuits – adds up to me being entirely invisible, a Nobody to, at the very least, the current administration’s budget office. So. There’s that, too.
(On one hand, I might have known I was in trouble when I fell so hard in love with Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman my sophomore year of college…(“I’m Nobody! Who are you?/Are you – Nobody – too?”))
I know we’re raising families and trying to put food on the table and attempting to stay employed and to keep our businesses alive and to pay off medical expenses and puzzling over that term “Retirement” and wondering what it means to save for it when there’s no money left after the bills. I know, too, that there aren’t many in a position of power who will ever understand or care about our dearest-held fools errands or what a single album means to us in a lifetime, or what it can possibly mean that we find a sense of purpose and calling in the wounded world where and when we do. I know, too, that a lot of us are donating extra funds to organizations working to improve the lives of people in dire, dire need of help. Many of you are my heroes for these sacrifices you’re all making.
And I know I’ve gone longer here than anyone has time to give to anything right now, too.
Still, in closing, some Jon Nobody’s simply asking if you’d consider either donating to the crowdsourcing campaign I recently launched to fund the next record, or to invite any music fans you know to perhaps contribute some tiny amount to it. If, say, you enjoyed any part of “Hope, Alaska” and can think of anyone who might enjoy a set of Americana, indie tunes currently in process, please direct them this way: http://kck.st/2phvIgA
If you know someone who’d rather pitch cash at music than at Starbucks’s new Unicorn frappe, maybe you can direct them to that link, too.
I’ve recently seen firsthand that it makes less practical, rational sense than ever in my lifetime to make and release music. Especially “physical” music – for the tactile of us….
So maybe it’s just like Brian Wilson said…
Thanks for reading.
I hope this finds you well and taking care.
By the way: Give a call. Pay a visit. Drop by. I’ll buy us coffee, or a couple rounds. Or come over. We’ll make food, build the friendship fire. Sometimes, when the kids are at their mom’s, it get a little too quiet. Would love to catch up.
It’s been a while, and only because it has been such a long while, it’s a little hard to know how and where to begin this correspondence.
What’s new with you? It seems a lot’s happened since Bower’s “Hope, Alaska” came out…A lot that hangs heavy in the air in recent months, for sure, but that I doubt I would skillfully know how to address or discuss here of all places.
I will share that of the books I’ve read so far this year, even as recently as last night, and of the songs and albums I’ve listened to over the last few days, I’ve also returned with some frequency to these lines from the poet, Robert Wrigley:
“Hope is a thing with sleek skin. A trout…There is no future and it’s coming.”
I can’t remember why a friend shared that with me a few years ago, but it still sticks. And since this correspondence is going to be too long anyway, I won’t go on and on about what those lines mean to me here and why it seems to make all the sense in the world to me in a time that not much going on in the world makes any sense to me at all.
Wrigley’s words worked one over on me a few years ago, too, and enough so – in just such a way – that I threw those lines into the “Hope, Alaska” liner notes as a kind of footnote or “P.P.S.” at the last minute – like, right before we sent the album art off to the printers. I can remember pulling a quote about Phillip Seymour Hoffman at the eleventh hour and asking Bradley to make this last edit and worrying that – after everything I’d already put him through – he would reach through my computer screen and lift me off the ground by my throat like Darth Vader.
And in recent days – and in these strange times we find ourselves in – I feel like I’ve come a kind-of full circle. The songs on “Hope” were in part meant to push and pull on that buggering term and here I find myself in 2017 pushing and pulling and wondering about it more than ever.
Meanwhile, there’s this other thing going on, too. There’s new music. And some of you know about this already.
Three years since the last Kickstarter, I must admit that I’m still surprised I survived the crowdsourcing effort. I’m not saying I’m surprised we met our fundraising goal – though the moment we did that had its own shock and disbelief built into it, too.
But I’m more shocked I survived all the “shameless self-promotion” and the “buy my stuff” and “here’s my Bower face again” thing that Kickstarter’s all about. If there were any reason I’d ever pine for major label support today, it’d only be because someone not me would be paid to handle the promotion side of this machine so that I could just be my “INFJ”-self (see Meyers-Briggs) and mind my beeswax and write and record and play songs and that’s it.
So why I’d leap into the fray all over again is – on one hand – beyond me.
However, in other ways, it’s also a no-brainer, too. I met some incredible people through that crowdsourcing stint, then played in some remarkable locations, and – because the Kickstarter campaign brought the album to life – I have watched the “Hope, Alaska” album and merchandise travel to locations around the world that I haven’t. And that strikes me as pretty amazing. And – depending on the day – it can prove a little annoying, too. “Hope, Alaska” has been to Ireland and Paris and I haven’t yet. I’m jealous of my own CD. How is that even possible?
I also believe these new songs are right and good enough to warrant getting out of my own self-conscious way again and giving Kickstarter another whirl. So, we’re going to do that: We launch next Tuesday, April 25. If you liked the “Hope, Alaska” album enough to think it could be worth investing in the next record, then mark your calendars – or enter it in your phone or iCal or whatever we all do to remember stuff now.
Last summer, I spent a lot of the season house sitting and during this period, without any intention of doing so, I found myself flush in a songwriting period for the first time in a couple years.
One night, after being at it and in the songs for a lot of the day, I went out and wandered around town for fresh air and to maybe feel human around other humans for a few minutes, and at some point in the evening landed in a bar and ran into a couple people I knew. A few of us were shooting the bull for a couple minutes when one of these guys asked me, “Hey, what ever happened to your music thing anyway? Why aren’t you writing songs anymore?”
I can’t remember how or if I even responded to him; maybe I fainted on the spot, or turned and ran away like Forrest Gump, or maybe I leapt on him like a jungle cat – but whatever I did I woke up in my friend’s house the next day – so at least I made it back in one piece and continued working on the songs.
And in the months since that time, we found there are enough songs to warrant a new album. It’s untitled, but the working title, for now at least, is “Brave.” (We’ll share the story of that song/title soon enough, via other means.)
The only way I’ll know how to swear by and represent these songs to you and anyone else, however, is to share them with people, but – like the last record – the only way I’ll be able to do that is to leap into the void and engage in another crowdsourcing effort.
So, again, next Tuesday, April 25th, the new Kickstarter for this record will launch and go live. Forecasting recording production, post-production, and replication costs, it looks like I’ll be working to raise close to twice what I raised for the “Hope, Alaska” Kickstarter. (The “Hope” Kickstarter covered replication and some minor post-production costs.)
The album will feature Evan Phillips at the production helm again, as well as a couple returning musicians and a batch of new ones, too. Evan and I started pre-production tasks for the album in the new year, and even in their currently rough, skeletal form, we’ve become pretty excited about where this project will go once it’s underway. I’m entirely comfortable sharing that these feel like some of the “best” (most gratifying?) songs I’ve written since returning to songwriting in 2012.
Perhaps more than requesting that those of you who backed my last project get behind this one, I would doubly appreciate if you would consider sharing word of this project with anyone you think might enjoy the kind of sounds, themes, and songs we put together for “Hope, Alaska.” While this record won’t sound exactly like “Hope” it will certainly bear some clear similarities and hardly prove a stylistic departure a la…well, like recent Bon Iver, for example.
Since I am needing to raise a bit more than I did in the last campaign, I’m going to have to reach a little further out than I did with the last one, and it’d mean the world if you knew anyone with whom you could share this project or introduce to the music.
We have some great incentives and “backer rewards” this time around, and we’ll feature weekly updates, including backer-only video performances and behind-the-scenes glimpses of the project in progress. Backers will also get an early look at Brian Adams’s remarkable album art for this project, an early-bird glimpse of the track listing and more, and a digital copy of the record ahead of the release date.
Thanks for reading all this if you made it this far. Oh, and if you want the absolute first, earliest early-bird glimpse of the record, then read the P.S. below my sign-off. In the meantime, I’ll probably shoot another message Tuesday, when the Kickstarter goes live. And that message will be crazy short (I PROMISE) in part because this one is so crazy long. And once the campaign goes live I’ll be like a man with his hair on fire for 30 days straight anyway and probably only speak/write in monosyllables or emojis.
Ok. Be well and take good care,
P.S. For about five minutes late last year, I thought that I’d title the new record “Tribute” and I toyed with this track listing of alternate titles. With the exception of “John Prine” (& never minding tracks 3 & 9, written before last summer) none of these are the actual titles of the songs on the new record, but were – at one time or another – working (alternate) titles, or seeds, that helped me stay a course while writing them:
Well, a more accurate title would maybe be “Two Weeks of Waxwings.” These pictures were snapped over the course of a couple weeks when my day’s activities crossed paths with what at first glance would appear the random goings-on of waxwings in Anchorage, Alaska.
Over the last five years, I’ve come to adore these birds and to anticipate the unpredictable moments that our paths cross.
Perhaps it’s what Mark Whitmer – in The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior – calls “the stately, upright posture” of waxwings. When they descend and then perch in a tree, they appear almost distinguished, proud – and entirely oblivious to the cold temperatures this time of year. They’re good role models for helping you endure, with character and dignity, the bitterest cold of the long winter months.
And maybe it’s also, in part, their head crest, which on one hand immediately – for me, still a novice birder – distinguishes them from other flocking birds, and that also just looks really cool in profile or silhouette.
I don’t know. If I knew exactly what it is about them that consumes me this time of year, and how to describe it, I would. Maybe it’s mostly that I have an associative affection for the word “bohemian” – a word that too accurately describes my life and the choices I’ve made in adulthood – and so I’m narcissistically drawn to them as a sort of totem or spirit animal/bird.
All I can say here is that when I hear them approaching or within earshot, in this season – deep winter in southern Alaska, from December through February – something goes to rest, goes light and easy inside me. In the moment I hear the waxwings – before I see them or even know where to spot them – whatever weighs on me or is taking up too much space in my mind disappears. I immediately start scanning the sky in the direction I hear their song.
And maybe that’s another part of what attracts me to them: I know their song. Even from a considerable distance, I can hear them and know that waxwings are close. I can only distinguish between a couple other kinds of birds by ear, from far away – without seeing them. They’re one of the few bird species that I immediately recognize by sound.
Then, once they’re within view, the real show begins. It’s this part that causes me to drop everything – whether my activity, or my “troubling mind.” Such as when, a few days ago, while running a work errand, my head teeming with worry about one or another thing, I saw a flock of them twisting and sharply turning through the air, diving and racing around the sky before finally descending together on a few nearby trees. I pulled over, put my hazard lights on and got out of the car. I lost track of how long I watched them take turns diving from the top of one tree down to a nearby mountain ash – where they consume the berries – and then fly back to the higher branches, only – I imagine – when they’ve had their fill. I lost track of how long I watched them, but when I returned to my car and drove away, I also lost track of everything that had been consuming my “trifling mind” until our paths crossed.
A friend of mine texted me a couple weeks ago telling me she was zoning out on videos of starling murmurations, and she encouraged me to do the same. Curiously enough, I had a little earlier been reading about the science of starling murmurations at a website and had just watched a video that was included with the article.
While never, in my experience, as dramatic as witnessing a starling murmuration in real time, when you watch waxwings in flight you’re aware that a flock’s motions and activity possesses its own science, too, and – like the starlings – equally proves mysterious and musical to witness as it happens.
Maybe, if a starling murmuration is an orchestra performing a symphony by Mozart or Beethoven, then watching waxwings flock and fly and descend and feed is like witnessing an acclaimed jazz trio or quartet at the peak of their powers in an intimate venue.
Lastly, I appreciate the “shy” nature of these – and many, many other – birds. I’m not a nature photographer. I like the way they don’t let me step too close before swiftly darting away, out of sight. I admire that these regal, beautifully-coiffed birds – like others, of course – are not prima donnas. They are beautiful singers – and fliers – and exceptionally dressed, and yet they don’t trust a close up encounter. And don’t need one the way I do. The way I crave one.
I don’t have fancy lenses that cost the maintenance needed on my car, or the price of a good guitar. I’m occasionally wracked with envy and wishing I did. I am, it’s obvious, as much a novice photographer as I am a bird watcher. More than the perfect, most beautiful or postcard-perfect shot of wildlife or nature in action, I’m more interested in (and snap pictures of)…”moments” as I experience them. These are often inexplicable or intended (/staged) photographs. I yank out my phone (in most cases) and play with lighting as quickly as I can, and look for form in the moment. Sometimes it “works” enough to my satisfaction. Or, to put it crudely, sometimes this process affords me a few photos that, for me, “don’t suck.” (A lot of them, however, do, and I do trash a lot of the pictures I take.)
Anyway. I stopped looking at social media and the major newspapers and media and magazines last week, beginning 1/19. I found that without my feeds and media at an absentminded, automaton click away, I was scanning the sky a lot more. Looking somewhere, anywhere. For something. Not just for anything.
I think I was looking for waxwings.
(dispatches & ruminations from the regions of art & fatherhood)