Friday, April 4, 2008

I Wish I Knew What I Know Now

One of the first concerts I ever went to was at the old PPAC in Providence (Providence Performing Arts Center). I went with two sports buddies, Brian and Sean. If memory serves, Sean's mother drove us the 45 minutes up to the city. Our seats were actually quite good.

Stevie Ray Vaughan wasn't really on my radar at this point. I'd heard 'Cold Shot' on the radio and liked it but I was not a guitar-head. I was a punk rocker all the way so virtuosity was not a pre-requisite for my fanhood. In fact, it almost repelled me in that I was interested in the aesthetic whereby 4 angry guys could pick up instruments for the first time in June and release an album by September.

So I was sort of along for the ride on this one. Obviously the place was packed, but this only served to alienate me even further because everyone was at least 10 years older than us. My buddies who had far more mainstream musical tastes were impressed by the foreign status we held as minors.

The opening act was The Fabulous Thunderbirds who were led by Jimmie Vaughan, himself no slouch on the six-string. Their singer is an icky/cool crooner named Kim Something-or-other and I remember all of us giggling because they'd put out an album called 'Butt Rockin' a couple of years earlier. Kim came out with a beret and cravat on and I fought the urge to egg him.

But, of course, The Fabulous Thunderbirds are a CRACK outfit, folks. They drag dancing out of even the most sedentary of audiences. Even little ol' moi with my newfound outsider punk status couldn't help but be impressed by their fluidity and pep. I still found Kim to be quite yucky, like the high school science teacher who stands a bit too close to your girlfriend and talks about Steely Dan. But even I had to admit that they would be the best wedding band ever.

Their yeoman-like R&B funk groove could not have prepared me for what came next. And it is only in retrospect that I am able to truly assimilate it.

Wearing his trademark wide-brimmed raincatcher hat and long leather coat, Stevie Ray Vaughan seemed to immediately obliterate the SAFETY of The Fabulous Thunderbirds. To their credit, they didn't hit a wrong note. But SRV wasn't hitting notes, he was expressing something that couldn't be captured.

As I said, this is all 20/20 talking because my memory of the actual show is quite limited. I don't even have an aural chip to access. What sticks in my head is that he seemed to float and he seemed to have a light all around him.

People throw around 'the best' as a label all the time. Jimi Hendrix. Clapton. Well, if there was a better guitar player on the planet than Stevie Ray Vaughan at that moment, no one has ever heard of them. And that is part of being the best. Putting yourself in a position to be heard. I'm sure there are prodigies galore out there who attain some exalted level on their own. But this man gave his gift away until everyone knew about it.

If you ever get a chance to watch footage of his first appearance at the Monterrey Jazz Festival, do it. He'd appeared on David Bowie's 'Let's Dance' album but had yet to make his own mark. Using the leverage of his association with Bowie, he snagged a coveted spot in the Monterrey lineup.

He BOMBED. People were hissing and whistling (the European boo). He was too loud, too fast, not jazz, blah blah. Preconceived notions about music kept these morons from recognizing what was in front of them...possibly the greatest potential interpreter of modern blues and jazz on the PLANET. A whirlwind. And they simply couldn't handle it. He only intensified.

Now, I didn't boo. I hung on every note but I must admit that the overall effect was one of stupefaction more than enjoyment. It was more like a sporting event than an artistic endeavor. What he was attempting and achieving was so physically rigorous that you almost overlooked the emotional content, the ART.

It wasn't until almost ten years later, after I'd begun learning to play the guitar, that I truly began to appreciate the loss. I hear him play and it alternately inspires me and shames me. How dare I even try???

So, yes, I saw Stevie Ray Vaughan at the height of his powers. And while I didn't chronicle every second as historic, I still only remember the light around his head. And that his feet didn't seem to touch the ground.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Cat's Cradle, Pt. 2: What a Superdrag

Years have gone by since I've been in Chapel Hill. My post-marriage life is beginning to blossom. Melody has transplanted from Chapel Hill to Williamsburg and we are in the throes of new love. Cashel has started kindergarten and amazes us all.

As I've alluded to earlier, the post describing my meeting with Melody probably deserves an entire blog unto itself. But that historic event happened at Cat's Cradle. We were going back to North Carolina to visit her family so we finally revisited our origin.

We had one night on the town. We knew we wanted to go back to Cat's Cradle but we didn't know who was playing. Turns out it was a band called Superdrag.

After some primping on both our parts, we headed out to dinner. I don't remember where we ate. My memories tend to be fuzzy when I'm around's like being buzzed. We meandered into Cat's Cradle trying not to be overwhelmed by nostalgia. We each picked up a Pabst Blue Ribbon which we'd had that first fateful night in 1999.

To be honest, a group of monkeys could have played musical typewriter chairs and we wouldn't have cared. But happily, the musical Gods had other things in store for us.

I'd heard the name Superdrag before but often confused them with the Supersuckers, my friends Superbug from back in the day, and for some reason Teenage Fanclub. Don't ask me why. But I had never heard their music, or so I realized the instant they began their blare.

Their lineup was the old standard, two guitars, drum, bass. The rhythm guitar player served as the lead singer and the other string players sang harmonies. In most cases, harmony that accompanies loud punk music is not very memorable. But Superdrag doesn't fuck around. Even though they are really a Southern American rock band, their harmonies evoke both the British Invasion and The Beach Boys.

The guitars were perfectly complementary, hovering around each other and battering the melody. The rhythm section was fluid without being weak and powerful without being overbearing. And the songs! Melody and I kept looking at each other, mouths agape, trying to take in the artistry.

Now, to take an instant leap back into time...

After I got back to NYC from my first time spent in Chapel Hill, I wrote an album of songs in secret. I wrestled with trying to save my marriage while discovering a new love. I considered making the best of it in order to save everyone some pain, including my son. Almost a year into this untenable position, I finally accepted that I would have to break up my family.

Now, I had had very little contact with Melody throughout this terrible time. I needed to be sure that I was making the decision for the right reasons and I knew that my passion for her couldn't be the deciding factor. But that longing came out in song form.

I remember finishing a song called 'Myth Maker' and realizing that the album was done. I titled it Bull Cancer...meets the Brown Recluse of Hwy. 54. Melody is a Taurus, I'm a Cancer. She lived on Hwy. 54 in Chapel Hill. And we were plagued by spiders every time we hung out.

The song list is as follows:

1. Hymn to Her
2. Underestimated Melody
3. Mel & Jeff
4. Hellbent
5. Wise
6. Miseducation of a *Fucker
7. Miss St. Tropez
8. Myth Maker
9. Wonders Never Cease
10. Summer's Torture
11. Eulogy for a Death Wish
12. Go to L.A.

Cut back to Superdrag...

As I said, Melody and I were marveling at the songcraft and performance. And then they burst into a song called 'Hellbent'.

This coincidence was very much in keeping with the way the universe seemed to react to our relationship. Here it was, several years later, we revisit the club where we randomly met to see a random band we've never heard of, and they play a song with the same title as a song I'd written for her.

Like I said, what a Superdrag.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Cat's Cradle, Pt. 1: Alone, Combustible

I spent several months on the campus of UNC/Chapel Hill in the winter of 1999. I had been cast in Martin McDonogh's masterpiece 'The Beauty Queen of Leenane' at Playmakers Repertory. This was a major turning point for me in many ways. It was my first Equity acting job. My marriage was on the rocks. Everything was at a crossroads.

I was determined to make my 8 weeks in North Carolina as productive as possible. The daily responsibility of raising and caring for Cash would be removed. The striving for the next gig would be removed. All I would be concentrating on was my part in the play. While a very important part, the part of Ray appears intermittently in the 4 character play. The main thrust of the play concerns the twisted mother/daughter relationship. This meant that I'd have plenty of leisure time to fill.

I had two areas I wanted to concentrate on. First I wanted to get in physical shape. I tracked down my cousin Timothy to ask his advice in designing a physical fitness plan. He sent me a handwritten manifesto that kept coming back to 3 main concepts.

1. Focus
2. Water
3. Protein

He wrote out a rotating workout schedule that toggled back and forth between cardio and weight training. I arrived in Chapel Hill and found the gym on my first day.

Second I wanted to go see as much live music as possible. Being long acquainted with the punk underground, I knew that Cat's Cradle was a legendary club. Every band I knew and loved had played there over the years. It served as Chapel Hill's Living Room.

I deliberately didn't bring any books. I didn't bring my guitar. I brought workout clothes, my workout plan, and a blank notebook.

The campus itself is a dream. Gorgeous in as understated a manner as could be imagined. Playmakers Rep set me up in what is called 'The Actor's House', a massive colonial right off of Franklin Street. Franklin Street is the commercial hub of the campus, coffee shops, record stores, movie theaters, restaurants, and municipal buildings co-exist happily. The theater was a 5 minute walk away, the gym 10.

Rehearsals began. Never before or since have I experienced a process as fertile and simple. Rehearsals were scheduled from between 9 and 5. I was so used to rehearsing at night after a full day of other activity that I was shocked at how much progress was so easily made. It was not uncommon that I'd be called for an hour a day, never more than 3 hours.

This left me ample time to hit the gym for the first time in my life. I noticed immediate results.

I checked the Cat's Cradle schedule. A band called Combustible Edison was playing. They'd developed a small cult following in the lounge/martini craze that had hit in reaction to grunge. I knew of them because they were from Providence.

Cat's Cradle sits in a modestly sized commercial retail strip mall. I don't remember what sat on either side of it but I remember thinking that it seemed odd to me, as if it were a donut shop or pharmacy. But once inside it had all the makings of the perfect music venue.

A tunnel entrance opened onto a large square room. The stage was to your immediate right. At the back of the square was an elevated porch of sorts where the soundboard sat ringed by benches. A doorway led to a back room with a pool table, some video games, and the bar and bathrooms.

I had taken my wedding ring off for the trip. Our therapist had encouraged us to look at this as a separation in order for us to more clearly see how we felt about each other, about the relationship. I don't know if my ex took her ring off but I did. I felt a desperate urge to connect with my basic self, the one that belonged to no one, the self I was born with.

Combustible Edison took the stage. They all wore thrift store tuxes and cocktail dresses. Their music, while lively and well-played, felt as false to me as the faux-emotional-bombast they were supposedly counteracting. They brought out a bit of the dumb jock in me. The crowd was much the same and the martini glasses that peppered the landscape seemed insincere. I was driving and on a strict dietary plan, but the contrarian in me felt obliged to order a Pabst Blue Ribbon.

I drank it slowly, abandoning it when it lost the frost. Combustible Edison were still wriggling, somehow excluding those of us who weren't wearing plaster of Paris rings or flowers in previously owned silk lapels. I headed out early so I could hit the gym early.

Focus, water, protein. The self I was born with.