Just got back a week or so ago from the East Coast, where I had been out hitting the boards, re-acquainting myself with being a solo acoustic troubadour, opening for Elliott Murphy & the Normandy All-Stars. I hadn’t played solo acoustic in twenty years. And, back then it had been done it under duress when the TENEMENT ANGELS album was first released and the label that put it out ran into financial problems making it necessary to temporarily sever ties with The Skeletons, who until then had not only had been doing the shows with me, but were also the band on the record. And, not only were they the band on the record, but the entire record, every song, was arranged with the idea that THEY were the band on the record. I was so thrilled to have Donnie Thompson playing guitar on my record (through a 100-watt Marshall half stack, no less) that I had him play most of the solos. Now, if I were to do nothing but practice every waking hour from now until it’s sayonara dirtnap time, I wouldn’t ever be half as good as Donnie. And suddenly I had to go out without Donnie, without The Skeletons, and without an electric guitar. That was the last time I did the solo acoustic thing.
I admit that I felt like I got pretty good at it, and even started to dig it. I liked the freedom of messing with tempos, with the emphasis on a new word, or phrase, or section, something that would present a new POV of the song, or even a complete on-the-spot-reinvention of a song. Most nights went really well, with attentive, receptive audiences, and I loved the opportunity to establish a more intimate relationship with them. I dug all that. BUT! Sometimes these audiences talk, or just some of them talk. That’s their privilege, their right, their choice, but for me, as a performer, I hate it. It’s distracting, demeaning, and even soul crushing. Yes, we singer-songwriter types can be sensitive – even one who came up during the 70’s Punk Wars. This happens mostly in bars, but a bar is often where one finds oneself doing the solo acoustic thing (herein known as the SAT, ok?). So, it does come with the territory. I know and accept that. But, as a defense mechanism and desire to never knowingly subject myself to that again, I quickly developed a fine set of rules I could always fall back on as my List of Instant Excuses why I don’t/won’t do the SAT. The talking, the lack of enough real presence on my part “out there in the marketplace” to feel like I’d attract an audience, AND the goddamn talking. This was just my short list, and for twenty years, give or take a song or two here and there, it served its purpose – a purpose that one could argue also justified the cutting off of one’s nose to spite one’s face.
So, twenty years later, here I am, doing the SAT opening for Elliott Murphy and the Normandy All Stars. All my excuses fell short. This was an ideal situation: I was just a guest opener, and therefore not responsible for drawing many folks; these were all “listening” places, hence, no talking. As my excuses fell to their silent deaths, their remains scattering among the dust and kibble of my career, I felt those three words working their way from brain to mouth. “I’ll do it!!!” says, I. Glory be! Hallelujah!! Fuck yeah!!
Truth be told, after a coupla warm-up shows I start to get my sea legs back under me and I start to relax, and I actually start to enjoy myself, and, in the process, begin to remember that I had gotten pretty good at this way back when. LIVIN’ ON LOVE is a great opener, works every night, and I pitch it somewhere between the Bo Diddley beat it’s based on, and an Eddie Cochran vibe. CHEYENNE, the perennial second song, is a long time favorite of mine, as well as lots of Del-Lords fans, and there’s a slew of them at every show. After those two songs I mix it up each night, playing HEARTBEAT OF TIME, which I wrote with Dion; HOT ROD ANGEL, LOVE OUT OF TIME, a true story from the SAVING GRACE album, as well as being a true story with a surprise (even to me) ending; an updated HOW CAN A POOR MAN STAND SUCH TIMES AND LIVE?, MERRY XMAS, BABY, (who doesn’t love Xmas songs written by Jewish kids from the Bronx?), and ABOUT YOU, which always goes down great because it references LOUIE LOUIE, the F-Word of R’n’R songs. By the third or fourth show, I had found my zone. I was as one with the songs and the moment, and I feel like I got down to some real fine work out there. I pushed the songs, I pulled the songs, and thanx to some technical tips from Roscoe (thanx again, compadre), started to play that big old black Martin J-40 like I was back in my living room. A very different brand of communication than the rock’n’roll band, but hey, it sure is portable, and can be surprisingly effective, too. Man and guitar. Awright! I dig!
As for my new touring partner, Elliott Murphy, I knew of him. However – and how this is possible is beyond me – we did not know each other. As we found out in a little less than an hour over Chinese food with our pal Gary, we discovered we knew around fifty of the same people. Except each other! One name after another, with some being real close to home (Rich Nesin, fer chrissakes!!??), we each had a story or two about that person. Go figure. I’ll tell ya what though. I really liked Elliott. Instantly. Just picked up a cool vibe, and it was all there. Very easy, comfortable, AND Chinese food. Gary, by the way, is Gary Borress, my pal, my bro, and the owner of GB Records, where Elliott has a new record – actually two new records, a studio one that’s self-titled, and a live one with his band The Normandy All Stars (much more about them in a bit) called JUST A STORY FROM NEW YORK. GB Records also recently reissued my first solo record TENEMENT ANGELS last year, and will be releasing the first new Del-Lords record in twenty years in the Spring.
I remember hearing a lot about Elliott back in the mid-70s when his first record AQUASHOW was released. I remember the long blond hair, the horizontal striped long sleeve t-shirts with a vest, and I remember that Rolling Stone lumped AQUASHOW together in a single record review along with THE WILD, THE INNOCENT, AND THE E STREET SHUFFLE by some fella named Springsteen. I cannot specifically recall but I would bet you the proverbial dollars to doughnuts that the term “New Dylan” was thrown around like some hapless baby-face being tossed around the squared circle rasslin’ Killer Kowalski himself (Know what I mean??!! Manitoba will know, and that’s what counts, as you all know). Yes, the New Dylans were plentiful in the years following Bob Dylan’s own white-hot, mid-60’s period, which had led him to (Yikes!!) NASHVILLE SKYLINE, to (Good Lord, make it stop!) SELF-PORTRAIT to lukewarm “comeback” records like the completely forgettable NEW MORNING on to the completely forgettable PLANET WAVES. That’s how badly we missed the “old Dylan”. And, that’s how devastating Dylan’s output through JOHN WESLEY HARDING had been. My pal (after fifteen years, I still love saying that) Dion likes to say, “People come up to me and say, Hey Dion, what time is it? People go up to Dylan and say, Hey Bob, what time should it be?” I like that.
A quick, blue skyin’, off the top of my head, list of New Dylans through the years : John Prine, Garland Jeffreys, Willie Nile (whom I also work with on occasion), James Taylor (really), Neil Young, Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon, Graham Parker, Elvis Costello (yes, they came from near and far, hither and yon), (your pick here), Patti Smith (why not?), uh, Elliott and Springsteen, all come immediately to mind. And now, from the perspective of much time passed it is now more apparent than ever there never was, isn’t, and never will be a “New” Dylan. In fact, never has there been a more singular artist than Bob Dylan produced by this, or any other, country. At any time.
But, Elliott! Elliott’s Rock’n’Roll is not Country based, nor is it Folk, or even Blues based. It’s more of a sound born on New York City streets and of late night scenes behind drawn curtains. It’s a geo-specific poetic style, full of romance and mystery, and lives lived behind locked doors, or on the shadowy streets, and all strictly on the Down Low, in the ever-changing accident that is New York City itself. Stylistically, Elliott would be closer to Lou Reed than any of the other fine artists on that list. What I really appreciate about Elliott is he never forgets to bring the tune. It’s not just a lot of pretty words floating on the sound of a poet in love with his own voice. Depth, Soul, Poetry, Intelligence, and Alliteration. The lyrics illuminate the melody, working with, not in competition with, the song – the song, without which, as Elliott, as every great R’n’Rr poet knows, nobody would give a shit about those beautiful words. Such great songs they are, too. My first favorite is LAST OF THE ROCK STARS, the song I remember reading about way back when. I love it. Maybe the earliest example I can recall in music of re-contextualizing the Rock’n’Roll iconography of the 50s, like a 53-Chevy or Elvis, and bringing it all into the present, not as nostalgia, but with it’s balls, power and mythology intact. Sonically, it’s got the Fender guitars, the harmonica, the fleet rhythm section, some organ, and well, you can begin to understand the New Dylan tag. But, really what it is is literate, NYC Rock’n’Roll, not unlike HIGHWAY 61 REVISITED, but more akin to LOADED-era VELVET UNDERGROUND. Either way you wanna lean is gonna work for me. And LAST OF THE ROCK STARS works for me.
Since then, I have listened to AQUASHOW several times, and it’s a great record, a great NYC Rock’n’Roll Singer-Songwriter record. Rolling Stone called it “the best Dylan since 68”. That’s what I’m talking about. The slice-of-life vignette songs like HOW’S THE FAMILY, and HOMETOWN, are terrific, and the latter also rocks pretty good when it wants to. Ya got POISE ‘N’PEN, which I love, and ROCK STARS itself. AQUASHOW is hard to find, but well worth tracking down. Elliott is not throwin’ down whiny, solipsistic, woe-is-me shit here. This remains Rock’n’Roll at all times, and that, my friends, is a big part of the point. For a long time the granola & brown rice eatin’ , sandals wearing, painfully earnest, self-righteous acoustic troubadours have managed to claim the Singer-Songwriter genre as their eminent domain. However, from Lou to Garland to Elliott to Patti to Willie Nile and hey, right down to my own bad self, some S-S’ers still worship at the altar of Rock’n’Roll, the Big Beat, some edge, with a fistful of NYC concrete and steel, and some bumps and bruises in our flesh, bones, blood, heart and soul, and that, Jack, is that!
The shows. The first night we’re in Piermont NY at The Turning Point, where I find old friend Kenny Margolis is playing keys and accordion with Elliott. Kenny played on a few songs on the Del-Lords’ LOVERS WHO WANDER album. It’s great to see him. Then, I meet the band, The Normandy All-Stars who’ve been playing with Elliott for years. They’re French, hence the name, and I should mention that Elliott has been living in Paris since 1989, which itself is probably the main reason we never met before our Chinese dinner the night before. Ya got Laurent Pardo, on bass, Alain Fatras on drums, and on guitar, the only Normandy All-Star who gets featured billing, and why that is becomes pretty obvious pretty quickly. He’s Olivier Durand, and has been with Elliott the longest. They’re a great band. Accent on the word, band. They play like a band, they look like a band, they radiate “Band”. But, Olivier is a whole other thing, too. He and Elliott both plug in Taylor acoustic/electrics except Olivier uses a small bank of guitar effects pedals that allow him to orchestrate, embellish, and on some thrilling solos, flat-out tear it up on that acoustic in a way I’ve never heard before. No shit. But, Olivier, Laurent & Alain think and play as one. I should add that Elliott more than holds his own, too, being an excellent guitar & harmonic player. Laurent and Alain know that when Olivier is out front, they are all out front. The point for them is the ensemble, the band. They play for the band and the song – the band and song are not there as vehicles to promote themselves as individuals. They rally behind Elliott’s songs, his playing, and great singing, creating a comfort level that allows Elliott to do his job. It’s a beautiful thing.
But for me the main thing is that they’re a band, not some studio strangers getting paid to do a job. This is a BAND. And for me, a band; the idea of it, the sound and the feel of it, the power of it, the friendship, the shared experience, all adds up to why “the band” is very the essence of Rock’n’Roll, what it means to me, and why it remains R’n’R’s purest vehicle. I loved doing the SAT, and will continue to do it, but a band, The Del-Lords, in particular, that’s where it’s at for me. We all had a great time, made strong friendships that we know will endure a lifetime, and it was sad to part ways. I’ll miss Laurent, Olivier, Alain, and of course, Elliott, too. But, it’s really just a beginning.
The trip ended well. At our favorite Italian restaurant, Sharon and I had a small dinner for some family and friends, that were not able to come out West for the actual wedding six weeks ago. We also had a few more friends meet us at Manitoba’s afterwards so that we got to see as close to everybody as we could. Sharon’s sister met my sister. Low key, cool vibe, great food. It was nice. The next morning we were in our Jet Blue extra legroom seats on our way back to Oxnard, CA.
I don’t think anyone could have predicted that a Bronx kid and a Jersey girl, after knowing each other for 35 years, never being in the right place at the right time – or in the right situation, with long gaps of as much as ten years of no contact, at times unknowingly being on opposite coasts, would, or even could, end up married all these years later, and, perhaps most amazing of all – living in Oxnard, CA, where our proximity to the beach means year round perfect weather, without an apartment building in sight, where one feels like more of a New Yorker (“not from around here, are ya, boy?”) than during my 47 years living there, driving everywhere AND loving it! Funny world, my friends. You never fuckin’ know! Happiness comes in a side door, or in the mailbox, or on Facebook, just when and how you least expect it, and hopefully you’re smart enough to play that hand if and when it’s dealt to you. I am very grateful I was smart enough to step up when the right time finally presented itself. Oh, and a Happy and Healthy New Year, everybody.