Saturday, December 19, 2009

Covers of the Week 58 & 59

When I was just starting out selling real estate, in about 2001, I sent out a couple of letters to owners of no more than a handful of houses around me that I had seen and admired for years. I am not an aggressive sort by nature, and back then I was even less sure than I am today about transitioning into brokering real estate as a day job. By now, I am established and have gotten a bit more used to this persona, though it is still somewhat of a struggle and not something I always wear naturally; am I a singer/songwriter/Buffalo Tom guy, or am I a suburban real estate agent? I don’t think I have yet fully reconciled these two disparate occupations.

Nothing came of those few letters I sent back then. And over the years, I have quite established a referral base which allows me to be slightly less aggressive in self-promotion and marketing. But I got an email this week that read:

Although you once expressed in selling our house, we're not interested yet in selling what we have or buying a new house. What we'd like to ask is where we can find your CD, Diving for Gold. Our son is a big fan of Buffalo Tom, and we'd like him to have the CD for Christmas...

Well, I wrote back telling the kind folks how embarrassed I was that I had been so forward in my early attempts to establish myself in town as a broker. This certainly does not square with how an aloof rock & roller is supposed to be. And though such tactics may reek of desperation, it is sort of necessary in a medium-sized town filled with hundreds of agents.

But I also noted that Buffalo Tom had no CD by the title. But it did sound familiar to me, and of course, it is the title of the CD by my friends in the band Session Americana. I told Mr. and Mrs. Kennedy (not everyone up here is named that, I have to note) that I would be glad to ask my buddies to sign the CD.

Nonsense, the Kennedy’s replied, regarding my admission of shame regarding the letter; they were flattered and proud that I admired their house enough to write. And they told me they had mixed up the titles on their son’s wish list and now were requesting Three Easy Pieces.

On my second reply, I noted the email address, from Joe Kennedy “(no relation).” It actually started with an “XJ.” X.J. Kennedy?

Soon after moving to Massachusetts in high school, I had picked up this poetry anthology called The Modern Poets at a used book store in Boston. It basically surveyed poetry from the Modernists up through the ‘70s. Each poet covered in the book had a full-page black-and-white portrait -- generally naturally-lit candids -- across from a short bio and a poem or two. Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and a few others were noted for their Massachusetts roots. Included among these Boston-area poets was X.J. Kennedy, who looked very cool with big mutton chops and horned rimmed glasses, if my memory serves. It was one of those important books in my development as a reader.

I remember being struck by that image, the poems, the Boston ties, and would later take note when I noticed Mr. Kennedy’s name pop up over the intervening years. When Wikipedia started taking root, I noticed that X.J. Kennedy was listed as a resident of my town. And the most recent notice I took was this past month, when Mr. Kennedy and the famous poet and author, Donald Hall, were slated to ready at a gallery here in town on a weeknight. I had mentioned this whole back story to my wife, this arc from high school on; how X.J. was a “famous poet.”

I had fully planned on attending such a rare event in our sleepy little town, when family business popped up and called me down to Florida unexpectedly.

But here I was a few weeks later examining the email address. So I Googled Mr. Kennedy, and sure enough, he and his wife, Dorothy, came up as living here in Lexington. And he had told me in his email that he was 80. That would square with the stuff I found on the internet. So I wrote back:

Dear Mr. Kennedy,

You are not, by chance, X.J. Kennedy, the poet, are you? If so, I am quite honored. (Well, if not, I am still honored, ha ha). I am taking a wild swing from your email address. I had read you as a kid in high school, having picked up an anthology called something like, "The Modern Poets." I was smitten with writing poetry and went on to take a class with James Tate up at UMass in the '80s. I probably would have gone on to try for an M.F.A., but was waylaid by the burgeoning Buff Tom Era.

Well, of course he was the same. And of course, he was humble, saying something like “‘famous poet’ is an oxymoron.’” So I arranged to swing by his house, a two minute walk from my own, with a copy of Three Easy Pieces and the Exile book for good measure. I was welcomed in warmly by Dorothy and Joe (he threw the “X” in their to distinguish himself from the other Joe Kennedys in and around Massachusetts politics). We had a great visit. They are truly gracious folks. We went up to their office over the garage and Joe chose and signed three books for my kids. He and Dorothy have done well with writing and putting together books for children and text books. It turns out that another of their sons was in a Boston area band about 10 years ago called Ollie Ollie. I remember talking to a member or two of that band and getting a demo, which I really dug. So the small-town feel of Boston circled around.

Of course, this has nothing remotely to do with this week’s CoTW. But at this point, if you’ve been following for any length of time, you have come to expect such tangents. It is merely what happened to me this week. The take-away is that you never know who is living around the corner from you. Although, nowadays, it is getting harder not to know; we’re all out there.


One of the other events of my week (aside from recording some new Buff Tom tracks), was a benefit Christmas reunion of the old annual Fuzzy Christmas show at the venerable Plough and Stars pub in Cambridge. Fuzzy were a beloved Boston band that had organized a few such holiday hootenannies at pubs and clubs in Boston. This one was held to benefit Stephen Fredette, of the old, also-beloved Boston outfit, Scruffy the Cat. Stephen, being an American musician, could use some help defraying his medical costs. For those of you outside of America that haven’t already heard, if you are not employed full time by a company offering private medical insurance and get sick, you’re fucked and you have to hold benefits at pubs at $8/a head to help defray astronomically inflated medical fees.

Audrey Ryan started the night with some beautiful solo songs. After her set, while Brian Sullivan, of Dylan in the Movies, played a few songs, she requested that I do “Blue Christmas,” which I used to do at the old Fuzzy Christmas pageants in the 1990s. Well, lo and behold! What does Sully/Gooby pull out? Yes, “Blue Christmas.” Well, I wasn’t going to play it anyway. I was given the honor of playing “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” and “Everyday is Christmas” (by Smokey Robinson) with Tanya Donelly and Chris Toppin. On the former, we switched it so that I sang the erstwhile “lady” part (“The neighbors might think/Say, what’s in this drink?”) and Top and Tanya sang the once-male beseeching answer part of the duet (“But baby, you’ll freeze out there/It’s up to your knees out there.”) It was Tanya's idea. And I liked it. It somehow fulfilled all my eighth grade fantasies.

We also had the pleasure of having Arthur Johnson, of the late great band, Come, playing drums, Elizabeth Steen on the piano, and Winston Bramen of Fuzzy on bass. Later, Arthur joined Chris Colbourn and me on stage for a mini-2/3 BT set. Arthur and his wife, Donna, left Boston years ago for Atlanta. So it was a thrill to see them.

It was a fun night all around. A blast from the past. And old fashioned 1991 Christmas. And, though I did not get to play “Blue Christmas” there, I offer it to you here and now. I segue only semi-seamlessly into the sad-assed George Jones tune (how many of his tunes are not sad-assed?), “The Grand Tour,” another cover I used to do in the 1990s. I had been discussing this only just last week at the Q Division Studios Christmas party with Winston and the great Boston young buck, Josh Buckley. So here, it seems to come out of the “Blue Christmas” narration rather easily.

A note about “No Show” Jones: Phil Aiken and I went to go see him about nine years ago in Lowell Auditorium. Now, eastern Massachusetts is notorious as being a place that most country music tours skip. It is probably the worst market for country music in the country. So it is rare to have a George Jones within 40 minutes drive of Boston.

I think I have told this story before.

But anyway, Phil and I get all excited, even if it is tempered by sober (not a word you ordinarily heat often in George Jones stories) expectations of more realistic M.O.R. performance from George. We are surrounded by people we don’t ordinarily see out around Boston music shows. These are the salt of the earth. Say a prayer for them. They constitute the 2000 people that listen to Boston’s only country station.

The opening act is some sort of Grand Ole Opry version of Steve and Edie, but they can sing. And they are backed by Nashville pros. We got a kick out of them and their shtick.

There is a short break while they ready the stage for Mr. Jones et. al. These preparations include getting the Power Point show ready to scroll on the backdrop movie screen behind the stage. We can see someone moving a cursor around on a desktop. This is going to be a real show biz-level production we can see.

Well, soon enough the lights dim and out walks this guy with a mullet and cut-off denim shorts. I swear to you he looks like David Spade in the cinema classic, Joe Dirt. He has a huge American flag (you will note that this was not long after 9/11) in one of those crotch-level flag holders that they use in parades. He takes center stage, under a spot light, standing stock still. We hear the powerful voice of George Jones, singing with clarion clarity, the “Star Spangled Banner,” our national anthem. The crowd is almost heating up to a frenzy level now, with patriotism and fandom, And no one can see George yet. Is he offstage singing?

When the lyric reaches the lines, “Oh say does that star spangled banner yet wave,” there is a slight rest in the recording (for that is all it was, a pre-recorded version), the flagman/tourbus driver starts to undulate his pelvis in a figure-eight pattern, making the flag whip in big sweeping waves. Of course, the crowd goes nuts.

And then George comes out, backed by a band in maroon button down shirts and pleated Docker khakis, like they are managers at an Applebee’s, and -- backed by the dazzling Power Point show -- they kill for over an hour of classic George Jones numbers. I don’t think they ever got to my favorite Jones song, “The Grand Tour.” See what I wrote about the song for about 10 years ago here.

But you can bet your foreign-born ass that they ended with Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to Be an American.” Hell yeah!

Happy holidays to y'all.

Blue Christmas/Grand Tour Medley mp3


bruce w. siart said...

As usual Bill - a great read and great music - thank you and happy holidays.
If you are still taking requests for COtW I would like to suggest a band you mentioned here - Scruffy the Cat - perhaps "Time Never Forgets" or "Shadow Boy"... whadaya think?

Whirling House said...

Great story (once again). Happy Christmas.

JohnnyHank said...

I love it when the Universe makes a good story and there's someone good enough to tell it.
Enjoy the holidays!

Anonymous said...

Why are these so interesting? Totally addicted to this blog.

Randy Reichardt said...

Hey, "Anonymous" - these are so interesting because Bill is a great storyteller. It's why many of us are addicted.

What a sweet, low-keyed, down-home versions of this medley, Bill. Many thanks again for more great music.

Sincerely wishing you and your family and the extended Jano-clan a very Merry Christmas and all the best in 2010!

Anonymous said...

Thanks Bill,I'm about to make up a cd of some of these tunes and send it to a mate for Christmas.Great to hear your working on some new BT stuff,hopefully we'll see you in Australia again soon.Really enjoying the stories too (the Prince one was a classic).
Happy Christmas

Jon B. said...

"Audrey Ryan started the night with some beautiful solo songs."

Ahem! Standing right here!

Merry f'in' Christmas, bub!

Bill Janovitz said...

Sorry, Jonnie!!! How could I forget the fabulous theramin sounds of Jon Bernhardt. I was there and enjoyed it, as always!

Anonymous said...

Belated thanks for the signed stuff. GREAT show at the Paradise on June 11th!

-Matt Kennedy

Christopher said...

Great story, Bill! I took a poetry class in college, and X.J. was the editor of the anthology we used as the text. That was over 20 years ago, and my dog-eared copy of that book is still my favorite poetry anthology.