Thursday, July 23, 2009

Cover of the Week 38

A friend of Buffalo Tom, Crown Victoria, and a big-hearted music fan, Mark Morris lost his father this past week to congestive heart failure. Richard Morris was 73 years old. One of Richard's favorite songs was Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry." This has been a standard in our own family as well, ever since my mother brought home the Elvis 8-track of Aloha From Hawaii -- Via Satellite, which is the first time I remember ever hearing the song. No one sings it more plaintively than my brother, Paul. It has become one of his signatures (which can actually get a little depressing for Christmas, but what are you gonna do?) So on this request for Mark, I asked Paul to join me in a duet. He sings lead on the second and fourth verses, the harmony on the ones I sing. Paul also plays the guitar solo.

Paul came over, sang, played, saw his sister in-law, niece and nephew, had some baked ziti and hit the road. It was a nice midweek visit.

If you are getting a lot of enjoyment from this weekly exercise, I think this would be a good opportunity for you to make a donation for the COtW project -- if you have not already done so -- in the memory of Richard Morris. Mark suggested the Lustgarten Foundation for Pancreatic Cancer, as his mother, brother, and two maternal uncles lost their lives to pancreatic cancer.

In light of Mark being a Red Sox fan as well, we ask that your prayers include a humble request that the hometown Stockings find their way again. That's from me.

I am hopeful that getting this one in mid-week pushes me back on track; I was adding a day or two each week before posting these and I might have even lapped and lost a week in their somewhere.

I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry mp3

Did you ever see a robin weep when leaves began to die?

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Cover of the Week 37

I recently had the honor in my day job as a real estate agent to list a 1950s modernist house that was designed by an architect for his then-young family. It is not every day I get to work with such interesting and lovely people on such a unique and intriguing property. When we close on the sale in August, it will be the first time he and his wife have moved since he built it. In the intervening five-plus decades, they raised a family, helped build a pioneering community, and grew old together there. They are around 89 years old now.

At one point he and I were unrolling the original old musty blueprints for the place. At the bottom corner was written “The (his surname) Family Residence. (His name), Architect.” I read it and looked down at him (he is quite short now). His movement and actions are taken deliberately, and his speech is slow and thoughtful. I detected an extra few seconds in his pause, though, as he looked down at these prints he created for his family home over 50 years hence. And I am fairly certain his slightly glassed-over eyes were the result of what must have been a tumult of emotion welling up inside him as he considered the drawings. I mean, I felt the imagined decades of family history and the passing of time unrolling along with those prints so I could only guess how he felt, even if I am just a sentimental sap.

Later that week, in discussions with he and his wife at the table, I mentioned something about time in regards to a certain closing date, allowing them more time to get things together for moving -- the many accumulated materials from so many years -- and all the time they will have once this work is all done, and how fast the reality set in for them once they made the decision to sell.

She looked off into space for a moment, sort of shaking her head. “Yes, the time,” she said. “The time just gets so short.”

There are a number of things I love about my now-eight-year-long second act selling real estate. Yeah, the nuts and bolts are great: having no “boss,” the flexibility of scheduling. But I am also very interested in architecture and how people live. And I guess I have to admit that in the net end, overall I really enjoy meeting and talking to most people. There are very few that I come across in the job that I don’t get along with but I can choose whether or not I want to work with them. I have dished a couple of thorny ones off to other brokers. I have spent two years working with some, over five or six different towns, written multiple low-ball offers on places that don’t anywhere or they walk away from irrationally, only to let them finally go in the end. I stay in it too long because I am pot committed. But anyone who has ever played poker with me will tell you I am a bad card player. I stay optimistic and aggressive when I should admit and cut my losses. I think I am learning. Maybe not in poker, but in real estate.

But the thing I still enjoy the most about the job, is going into all of these houses. Even when I find them horrifying or soul-sapping mediocre, there is usually at least some sliver of a glimpse of life in there that opens a door in my imagination into the lives lived in the place, the history, multiple families or maybe just one that have lived there. It is probably one reason I am not as interested in commercial real estate or even selling developments or much new construction. I don’t look at houses as mere structures or commodities, even though as a business person I should. And I often try to counsel my seller clients that it is precisely that point of view that they should try to take when they are arguing that their houses is worth $50,000 more than the same exact but updated house that sold right next door in a better market for less dough. But I am coming from the same place they are; I have no trouble imagining their lives in the house and what it means to them. What I find intensely inspiring is what happens with my imagination in interpreting the stories these places tell.

In my town, land is very often worth way more than the older homes sitting on the lot. We ran out of raw buildable land decades ago here. It is not unusual for a builder to plop down even $600,000 for 1/3 acre plot in a decent neighborhood. Someone recently paid $720,00, in fact, for a perfectly functional multi-level (some know them as split-levels) house that just needed some updating. They are going to build something to try to sell for around $1.4 million, which seems like a tight profit margin given building costs around here. But when I started this job, people were only tearing down tiny and/or badly neglected houses, not otherwise fine ones.

We recently had two such “tear-downs” in my neighborhood. My wife and I walked though the first one when it was a cute little cape style, up on a hill. Walking though, you could see all those years accumulated there in that quiet house. But it was hard to argue for preserving this one as we walked through. Even my wife -- who has not felt the slight lure over to the dark side that I have from time to time working with builders -- had to admit that the interior was beyond hope and the floor plan too labyrinthine to work with. But from outside, we will always miss the white house up on the hill.

The other one on the street, another cape, was not on the market before it was torn down. But I saw the signs coming. There was an old widower there who let his yard be iced over for a skating rink in the winter. He seemed like a nice old guy, but I didn’t know him. This past winter, though, I noticed more and more junk being taken out to the curb for trash pickup -- old suitcases is usually a tell-tale signal; lamps; file boxes in recycling bins; and so on. Sure enough, one day there was a tripod post up with the temporary electric service for new construction. Soon he was gone. A few days later, so was the house.

It still pains me to watch this happen, even if it is inevitable. But I just watch them vanish, along with the lives they held. Often, during the demolition process, you can see the remnants of a detail, say a dining room wall with the old wall paper, or the knotty pine bar from a ‘50s-era basement rec room.

We have what are called “broker previews” on Wednesday and Friday mornings in my town. It is the time when listing brokers open up their new listings for the brokerage community to preview the houses, perhaps offer an opinion or two, maybe even make an appointment for a client for whom the place might be a match. Often, when walking into a house, something will resonate deep in my soul. Some times it begins with just a tickle as I walk over the threshold and notice the outdated surroundings. This does not happen in every outdated house. There is a difference between “outdated” and “old.” Many houses I have been fall somewhere on the scales of “I can’t believe human beings lived here in this squalor” to -- in real estate agent parlance -- “deferred maintenance.” Those don’t necessarily hit me on any particular emotional level. But there are still other houses that have been meticulously cared for, but just have seen no significant cosmetic updates in decades. I find that these are often the most heartbreaking, for it is apparent that there was love in these houses. At one time they had been full of life. Not surprisingly, it is the houses stuck in the 1960s or 70s that get me, for they hit some button that swoops me back in time to my childhood and I gain the perspective of that young kid all of a sudden looking forward to what happens as kids grow, or in some tragic cases, die, as we march along the path through the subsequent decades to the present.

I will find myself seeking out solitude for a few minutes in such houses. I am particularly emotionally vulnerable before lunch, but I usually just get cranky and irritable and not so sentimental. But there have been times that I feel almost literally haunted by these spaces, looking around at family photos, or a vintage air hockey game untouched for years in the basement and I pause and feel like I being possessed by the spirits of the place. I can see vivid glimpses of the possible life tableaus in these houses. It is sort of a feeling of deja vu but on a more emotionally involved level. It is more acutely sad when such houses as these are torn down. One day as I was hosting an open house for someone else in a newly built house, an old couple came in and marveled at the new place. I took them for curious neighbors until they told me that it had been their little ranch that had been torn down to build the house we were now standing in.

We sold our first family house in 2005. My wife and I had lived there for 11 years, the final six of them with our daughter, and almost one with our son. It is just down the road from us and it did not sell right away. And we moved into the new one eventually. It is hard to not take it personally when your house does not sell for a while, even if this was the beginning of the softening market. But I could never imagine it being torn down. Once we left, my wife could never go back and to this day I think she still avoids passing it if she can. I had to go back to keep up the yard and check in on it from time to time until it sold. One day I was raking the leaves in the back yard, in the area where the kids swing set had been, a set my father and I had put together despite the fact that neither of us know how to properly work a wrench. As I was raking, one of my kids’ little old toy figures rolled out onto the top of the leaves. I would be rejoining my family in a matter of an hour or so, but something about that moment made it one of the loneliest I have ever felt in my life.

I wish I could have put all of this down into a song as well as Tom Waits did with his brilliant “House Where Nobody Lives.” I just wish I could write a song as simple and deeply resonating as this. For my money, Waits is up there with the all-time pantheon of great songwriters. He is one guy I would be beside myself to meet and talk to. If you don’t already own the masterpiece LP that contains this song, Mule Variations, I beg you to do yourself a favor and buy it.

So don’t get on me for doing my second cover of his already; you’re lucky I just didn’t do a Tom Waits Cover of the Week every week.

EDIT: I just realized I wrote a review/synopsis of the song about 8 years or so ago at

House Where Nobody Lives Mp3

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Cover of the Week 36

Like most people my age, Motown was a given, as omnipresent as the Beatles from my first waking moment. It was still a vital label and musical force, adapting to the changing times, as I became more conscious of pop music and the artists creating it during the early 1970s, with records from Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, the Temptations, and the Jackson 5 filling the radio. And as with most people my age, the Jackson 5 were particularly relevant for me. They were just a bunch of kids, fronted by this soulful little singer and smooth dance, Michael. Along with the Beatles cartoons, there was a Jackson 5 cartoon on Saturday mornings. And I had a 45 of “ABC” on cardboard that you could cut out of the back of a Frosted Flakes cereal box. Remember those? Square little cardboard records with a round inlay of vinyl grooves to play on a turntable. I had to be careful that the corners did not fold up or they would hit the needle arm. We had white and black kids in our classes. The Jackson 5 seemed to be for all of us. There was one kid who was taking his second tour of kindergarten, a kid much bigger physically than I was, who, with a few other kids, often built a stage in Mrs. Hall's classroom out of those big hollow plywood blocks. When I brought the cereal-box record in to share and impress them with my shared enthusiasm for the Jackson 5, the two-time kindergarten veteran suggested that I give it to him. When I demurred, he knocked me down, put his sneaker on my face, and took the record without asking me again. But I sensed I was in.

I ever got much beyond those original Jackson 5 singles. Yeah, Off the Wall was around later and enjoyable. But it seemed so smooth and pop light to me when I was more heavily into rock music. And Thriller was something that my kid brothers and sisters had around and was ubiquitous on MTV, but it was with this record in particular that Michael went on to represent much of what I hated about 1980s mainstream pop music; it was slick, cheap sounding, machinated-groove sequences with vocal tracks polished and layered beyond human soulfulness. It was just cheesy to me. Very few of the songs until “Do You Remember,” or “Black and White” did much for me and even those latter two are enjoyable on only a lightweight pop kind of way.

I won’t even get into the freakishness of Michael tragically falling away on a personal level; it has been covered, I believe, by now. It was just not relevant to my life. It was a sideshow from an artist who provided very little music that registered on my radar.

And I am not intending to just lay out some negative karma about Michael in the wake if his death and the subsequent surrounding hoopla. Neither am I trying to draw a direct parallel nor contrast him with Stevie Wonder. But the parallels are undeniably there: two inner-city kids who started out as children/young adolescents on Berry Gordy’s Motown label. But Stevie had already scored a bunch of hit singles and was on his way to making big artistic statements in the album format by the time Michael and his brothers rolled around.

However, while Stevie Wonder also eventually fell into 1980s pap and fluff, he provided one of the greatest streaks of albums and singles in the history of pop music. Perhaps only rivaled for my taste by the Beatles and Stones. And he remains a highly vital performer today. Seeing him perform a couple of years ago was as close to a religious experience as I have gotten. Here was a guy who grew up to completely fulfill -- and then some -- the promise he laid out as a prodigy. I was about the age of both of these guys when they started out as child performers, 10, when I bought my first album purchase, Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life. I had long ago inherited albums by the Stones, Dylan, the Beach Boys, Mamas and Poppas, etc. My parents had some Elvis LPs. And I had a big rope of 45s from the British Invasion and, later, contemporary top 40 songs I bought on my own. But the first album I remember buying is Songs in the Key of Life . This was a double album with an accompanying booklet and additional 45-sized 4-song “single.” The music was just bursting out of Stevie to the point that it spilled out off of a double LP into another bonus single. I had never seen anything like it before. The bonus record included this incredible piece of updated New Orleans piano funk called “Ebony Eyes.” I played this track until the record wore off. And then, somewhere down the line, it broke and/or got lost.

In college, at a record store maybe, or digging through someone else’s record collection in my dorm, I came across this 45 again and it was like finding the Lost Ark. I had not listened to the tune probably since before high school. It had probably been five years since I had heard it, as this is not a song I have ever heard on the radio, to this day. My friends at college were ecstatic to learn of this track and it quickly became a staple in the dorm DJ sessions we would spin while drinking and doing whatever else one does in college dorms.

Later, Songs in the Key of Life was one of the first CDs I picked up when that format came out, and there was my old favorite in digital format. And of course, nowadays it is always there to pop up on the iPod. When it came time for the residencies at the bar gigs I started doing with the two iterations of Crown Victoria, we started rotating a Faces-like version into the set. So it is a natural that I try it here in the Cover of the Week project. I have enlisted by rock & roll brother, foil, and piano man from Buffalo Tom and Crown Victoria to accompany me. Phil Aiken sent me the track he did back in the Dr. John/Professor Longhair tradition, bringing the song back a little toward New Orleans. I had intended to lay some guitar over it, but Phil played such a beautiful part that I saw no need to sully it with half-assed guitar. And it serves as a nice change of pace, I think. Major props to Philly Phil Aiken.

Ebony Eyes (featuring Phil Aiken) mp3

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Now on Twitter

I needed yet another way to waste time and connect to "the people."

Find me on Twitter @billjanovitz or click the icon on the right below the links section.

Well, it was nearly all summer we sat on your roof
Yeah, we smoked cigarettes and we stared at the moon
And Id show you stars you never could see
Baby, it couldn't have been that easy to forget about me

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Cover of the Week 35

We had some friends over for the Independence Day holiday this Saturday. We had been dealing with a month of almost solid rain in Boston. Seriously, I believe there was something like 20-ish per cent of available sunshine in June. I was starting to lose it like everyone else -- kids in the house all the time, darkness reaching a nadir of mid-winter-like bleakness at the end of the week. A rainy day here and there is good to keep mental stability and to get some work done. And it has been a productive month for me. But weeks solid is enough to drive a man off the edge.

So it was with giddy excitement that we welcomed Mr. Sun back this weekend. And Saturday was pretty much perfect. We got the bocce set, the Wiffle balls and bat out, smoked a pork shoulder for pulled pork with Blue Ribbon BBQ sauce (apologies to my PETA friends), chilled the Pilsner Urquel, cut up some limes for the Tanqueray and tonics, and enjoyed the day with a small gathering of friends and families. It was a fantastic time and I hope it was the same for you. Man, we milked these two beautiful days. I went out for a 22-mile bike this morning, and that was AFTER a night of beer, pork, and gin (sort of in that order). Then, via the largess of my BFF, Mike O’Malley and our friends at the Red Sox Foundation, brought my family to to the only-in-Boston Picnic in the Park at Fenway, where you get to run around in the outfield and enjoy BBQ, more beer, and if you’re lucky, get some autographs. None other than first-time all star, Timmy Wakefield, lent more of his time to raise a ton of money with Mike at the live auction.

But yesterday, my friend, Tommy Ruprecht, and I got to chatting music He asked me if I had heard this Mick Jagger solo song called, “Evening Gown.” I had assumed he had heard it on my music mix coming through in the background, because I had been recently rotating that tune and another of the Jagger solo record, Wandering Spirit, “Don’t Tear Me Up,” after years of not listening to the record. Tommy had only heard the latter come up which is what made him ask about the former. I love that song, I told him. In fact, I believe that album/CD was one of the reasons (along with Teenage Fanclub’s, Grand Prix LP) that pushed us in the direction of David Bianco, who went on to produce our CD, Smitten. Rick Rubin produced the Jagger LP and Dave engineered and mixed, which he did for many Rubin productions.

Tommy and I waxed rhapsodically about what a beautiful song “Evening Gown” is. I remember the record coming out in 1993. The big deal off the record was a duet with Lenny Kravitz wherein the two of them offer a confused take on the great Bill Withers tune “Use Me.” But the other tunes sort of caught me by surprise. I am sure I heard “Don’t Tear Me Up” on the radio and thought it was, along with recent Keith solo albums, some of the best stuff either of them had managed to put together -- solo or with the Stones -- at the time, anyway.

There is something quite vulnerable in Mick’s performance of the tune. Starting with the song itself, of course. It is a deceivingly simple country ballad, two verses, bridge, solo and an outro verse. (By the way, if the lyric and singing don’t get you, the pedal steel solo will bring you to your knees. It is played by the legendary JayDee Mannes, who played with Buck Owens and the Bucakroos, and played on the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo and other classics.) But Jagger manages to masterfully draw this self-deprecating, back-slapping character, a guy entering middle age and acknowledging this passing of time, apparently still with his wife, who he ultimately is singing the song to, repeatedly bringing back the focus to her in the refrain “But I can still paint the town/All the colors of your evening gown/While I’m waiting for your blond hair to turn gray.”

It is a powerful stanza even just sitting on the page. Jagger manages to capture endless layers of emotion and detail about this guy in so few words, ultra-economically, but the singer still draws us in personally, seeing ourselves and others we know there. I identified with the character even when hearing it at the age of 27 (hard to believe it was that long ago), never mind 43. So I suppose it is predictable that is has wormed its way back into my consciousness, onto my playlists, and ultimately here for a cover version.

I often feel like I so easily lapse into a cliche existence, following many steps about what a guy growing up in America is expected to do, saying the same shit to my kids my father said to me, feeling the inevitable mid-life crisis pulling me in, and so on. I have started to think a lot more about mortality than I used to, almost to the point of obsession. It used to be a subject I would not give much more than a moment’s notice to. We’re here and at some point we all go; sad but true. Now, who's playing at the Middle East tonight?

Don’t get me wrong; I mean, I am not obsessed with staving off my own inevitable passing; it is more of a melancholy, Zen (maybe not) awareness of the passing of time that we have to spend with the ones we love. See what I was saying about cliches? How does one begin to venture into this sort of well-worn subject matter without bumping into and falling far short of Kierkegaard (as Tommy joked in another context yesterday), Shakespeare, the Gershwins.

Well, there you go: that’s how you explore the subject matter, in art -- poetry, drama, music. And Mick does it masterfully here, before you are even are aware of it. Jagger’s lyric comes on like it is going to be one of his tongue-in-cheek country tunes like Far Away Eyes, in other words, devoid of any heavy emotional involvement (unlike, for example, “Wild Horses,” which is just all raw nerve). “Evening Gown” starts off

People say that I'm high class
But I'm low down all the while
People think That I'm crazy
When I flash that California smile

Yeah, yeah, you think. Come on Mick! Bring us something! In 1993, we had been through so much of the beginning-of-the-end of the Stones, with more mediocre and poor music that we - any of us still paying any attention at all -- could be forgiven for just being cynical that there would be any more passion left. But then he hits us -- hard with that chorus, and he goes on to continue to sketch this character. By the bridge, we realize it is himself in there somewhere, under “sports clothes” and “California” smiles.

For Jagger to be singing this as this aging Lothario rock star god was a substantial acknowledgment of his humanity and mortality. I don’t pretend to follow all the gossip about his personal life so I have no real idea of where he was in his romantic life at this moment, but his hammering of the last line of the chorus three times in a higher octave, bringing it home with his enviable country-soul voice, certainly makes the point clear.

“....waiting for your blond hair to turn gray.”

And I had those lines in my head for the rest of the evening, as I looked around at my group of friends -- husbands wives, kids -- until I went down stairs at 11, after everyone was long gone and all the bottles were in the bin and the dishes put away, to record the cover. And the song has stayed with me all day.

Evening Gown mp3