Sunday, January 10, 2010

What Else Do You Need?



Check out Jesse Winchester on Elvis Costello’s Spectacle. Jesse might not be everyone’s cup of tea. Some my find him too straightforward or sentimental. To those I say: hey, there’s no accounting for the taste of such cold-hearted wretches like you who can’t recognize brilliant songcraft when it is staring you in your sad old bitter face. So go and pull out your Nitzer Ebb records and have a good time.

Look at the faces in the crowd. Look at my girlfriend, Neko Case, tearing up. Look at Elvis’s face. One of the greatest songwriters of our generation is sincerely humbled. As well he should be.

Now, Elvis is one of my favorite all-time songwriters. And I think he should get a Nobel Prize simply on the basis of forming this new television program (which I have only seen clips of, by the way, as my cable company wants to charge me $14 more a month to get this “tier” of programming) where he provides a wide audience for someone like Jesse Winchester. But Elvis has often seemed to let his cleverness, his words, and his concepts get in the way of good pop songs over the years. Don’t get me wrong: I am all for pushing boundaries and ambition, and the wish to write something that moves the head as well as the heart. Costello perfected that delicate balance for many years and still pulls it off more times than not. Waits is a pro at this. Dylan still manages to hit it from time to time, but now his brilliant lyrics are often backed by a 12-bar blues crutch.

It is extremely difficult to write a simple, beautiful song -- lyrically and melodically -- like this Jesse Winchester example. And Jesse has done so repeatedly. I’m only a recent fan. Look for “Little Glass of Wine,” or “Foolish Heart.” I would not be surprised to find out that Nick Lowe turned on Elvis to Jesse, but Elvis has apparently long had an amazing deep record collection, so perhaps not. Lowe has always done a good job with the above-described balance, as has Elvis, delivering the goods since “Alison.” But, like Tom Waits, Nick Lowe has been a guy who seems to get better on his later records. Sure, I loved the early catalogs of both of them, but as with Tom, Nick’s later records -- I’m talking about those from the past 5-10 years even -- leave me breathless.

So, if you don’t like that sort of thing, there is nothing I can do to win you over from the side of evil to the side of good. After all, I was told last night by a bunch of musicians, in the dressing room at Hot Stove Cool Music, things like “you must not like music,” and “everyone likes those first two records at least. How can you not like it? What’s not to like?” This was, of course, in response to my admission that I have never liked any Van Halen. Don’t start listing songs. I do not like them. I don’t hate them; I simply found nothing in any of it to enjoy. My brother Scott agreed with me, as did a few older musicians, who might have been more reluctant than I to alienate themselves at first, but sheepishly came around eventually. Who was on the side of good and who on evil in that situation? I feel like I stood with the Force in that instance Hot Stove Cool Music is a big tent.

*****

As is well known by now, the danger of having a blog, and of the internet in general, is the impulse to comment, write, and/or post something can be fulfilled in a matter of seconds and sent off to view with the push of a button. Like this video, for example. A friend of mine, Brendan Gilmartin, posted it on Facebook (sorry, I forgot who you were that did me the favor) and I react here. Immediately. Everything is instantly publishable. And for an impulsive personality like mine, this poses potential pitfalls that can easily end up as nagging regrets. In the past, I might get ginned up and make an off-color remark at a party, wake up with a throbbing head and queasy stomach at the crack of noon the next day, and slowly work my way into making an apologetic phone call or two. But after some Alka Seltzer, an afternoon on the couch watching some NFL game in which I have nothing personally invested, and a roast chicken dinner, the faux pas or sore feelings from the night before would quickly be receding in the rear view.

I don’t mean to imply that I am about to rail off on anything or anyone; I am certainly not. In fact, I am about to get all mushy. Again. You see, the perils of instantaneous modern mass communication also offerw the potential for one to pour his heart out, straight, no chaser.

I have been involved with Hot Stove Cool Music for nine of it’s ten years. We held the 10th anniversary event last night. In those early, pre-2004 World Series says, I never thought it would be more than a one-off, then two-year thing, and so on. But as a result of those first couple of years, I got drawn in seemingly forever -- by the charity, by the music, by it’s Boston-ness, and, most of all, by the bonhomie of the people involved in making it happen -- musicians, managers, baseball writers, baseball players, club managers, actors, bartenders, fundraisers, guitar techs, wives, husbands, kids...

I brought in my then-relatively-new buddy, Mike O’Malley early in those first few years. He immediately became MC and chief auctioneer. He is so good at what he does, that various Red Sox and the Red Sox Foundation tap him for virtually every event that they have. He flies out from his home at least a dozen times a year just to help on these charitable events. Friends of mine who watch him in this milieu never fail to remark to me how impressed they are at how he handles these things, as well as all the glad-handing and promotion before and after the actual shows. He works extremely hard. Imagine, for example, flying in on the red-eye only to have to sit and listen for two hours to the braintrust who typically make up the “talent” on wacky morning radio shows.

And yet Mike never fails to thank me -- thank me -- year after year, for bringing him into this organization. And that pretty much summarizes HSCM. Jeff Horrigan, Mike Creamer, Kay Hanley, and Peter Gammons constituted the foundation on this thing in year one and remain at its heart. Creamer does most of the heavy lifting -- from the bulk of the booking of music, to arranging the venue, comp tickets, car services, hotels -- everything to who is out of beer in the dressing room. But there are so many other folks who come back year after year to lend a hand. Egos have rubbed over the years, some people have joined, some have left. Often it is merely attrition. Sometimes it is a difference in opinion, philosophy, or vision. Rarely is it a heavy conflict.

The astounding thing about HSCM, though, is how few people have left the fold. It is like the mafia. You can’t get out that easily. It is heartwarming to see how much of a close group of people it is, how much we look forward to seeing and playing music with each other, hanging with each other’s families, etc. And we are fully aware of less charitable views of the event: we’re just a bunch of the same crusty old Boston rockers playing behind a baseball writer/commentator, baseball players and general managers strapping on guitars, the same group of people year after year, etc. Am I more known as a sideman for Peter Gammons than for my Buffalo Tom-acity? I don’t think so, but it is not an absurd question. Who cares? Seth Justman, keyboardist and principal songwriter for the J. Geils band certainly seems not to care about such trivialities. Can I tell you what a thrill it is for a rock & roll lifer, a deeply committed fan, to play and sing “Must of Got Lost” while one of the song’s authors is playing organ? I got to do so in practice and soundcheck and then Mike O. came in and shattered everyone with his lead vocal on the song last night.

The J. Geils Band! Seth Justman! A man who knows a thing or two about writing a classic, simple, beautiful song. A man who knows soul, the blues, roots, and pop songcraft. Though, you would not know it was him, lurking there in the shadows. In fact, when Mike came in to rehearsals to sing the song the first time, he brought it. Knocked it out of the park -- which is a good thing for him because I was having such a great time singing it that if half-assed it (which he never does with anything), it was going to be mine. When we finished, I remarked at how great he sang it and, most impressively, while one the song’s authors stood right next to him playing organ. It soon became apparent Mike had not made the connection. I still don’t think it would have fazed him. Maybe it would have made him more nervous. But no one else would be able to see it. Mike comes in and owns the situation. He sells it.

Seth is not going to intimidate anyone. Until they know who he is, perhaps. But he is one of the sweetest guys you’d ever want to meet. And that’s why he fits right in to a band led by Peter Gammons. Mike Gent, Ed Valauskas, Pete Caldes, Phil Aiken, Paul Ahlstrand...you’re not gonna form a band with more heart than that. Generous of spirit and truly great musicians, I am humbled repeatedly.

We have a great time and , more importantly, have raised and continue to raise a boatload of money -- well over $3 million and counting -- for organizations like the Jimmy Fund for pediatric cancer research; the Home For Little Wanderers; the BELL Foundation’s Red Sox Scholars; and more. Anyone who has a problem with this is probably the same guy slagging off Jesse Winchester.

Straw man? Perhaps. Hopefully. I wish.

And part of our mission is to encourage bringing new blood into the event each year. How many such events have had such disparate acts as Low Anthem (last night -- I love them); For Peace (hip hop); James Taylor; Dropkick Murphys; Juliana Hatfield; John Legend; Pernice Brothers; Nada Surf; Lori McKenna? Last night, the band State Radio was probably responsible for selling at least 75% of the tickets, at $40 a pop. When I took the stage with my aging fellow “Hot Stove All Stars,” I looked over a sea of 20-something faces, all of whom seemed open and eager to hear all of the music being played. That warmed my heart. Maybe the day will be soon where we have grown this brand to such a spot where we can walk away and leave it to the youngsters. Believe me, I would love to have someone else take it over from us, build it, and get the same love we get from it.

But that would mean saying goodbye. None of us want to let go. I do think the House of Blues might have been too big a venue. And we always have post-game chats where we try to think of ways to make improvements. And we are always open to suggestions. Maybe we take it back to the beloved Paradise. Maybe it keeps growing. I know we need to get more ball players committed to showing up like they used to when the thing was lousy with the “idiots” of yesteryear. Maybe some of us old-timers will walk away for good someday. Just not yet. We’re having to great a time.

“Never thought about tomorrow/Seemed like a long time to come.”

18 comments:

Red said...

What a flat-out gorgeous song. Thanks for posting it. Never heard of Mr. Winchester, but I'll be researching his back catalog straight away.

In other words, mission accomplished.

bwaldron said...

Indeed. Jesse's been great for many, many years...and anyone who doesn't respond to his newest album -- well, I feel sorry for 'em.

Great post, Bill.

Randy Reichardt said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Randy Reichardt said...

.: The last time I saw Jesse Winchester was when he opened for - I kid you not - The Eagles and The Steve Miller Band at Assiniboia Downs in Winnipeg. I think it was in the summer of 1978. It was not the greatest venue for him, but it was a good show nonetheless. Going back to the mid-1970s, I played guitar with a local Wpg singer-songwriter, who wrote coffee-house ballads and such. We covered Winchester's tune, Isn't That So (from his album Third Down, 110 To Go), which is when I first learned of him.

The song you posted was, well, amazing. I did see the tear in Case's eye, and I want to believe she was THAT moved by the song. I am at best barely a songwriter - you are a great one yourself - so I defer to your awareness of how difficult it must be to handcraft such great lyrics with a melody in tandem with each other. I am very much a melody man first, and this song had the strong melody to lay the foundation for the wonderful story he tells in the song. I couldn't help wondering if he may have been writing about himself, that there was that tinge of sadness, of longing for those earlier days. I feel that ALL the time now, at 56. I hate getting older, knowing each day puts me farther away from the so-called days of innocence. Then again, perhaps I couldn't appreciate both a song like this and your words that describe it, Bill, unless I had a few years of life behind me.

I read your words about HSCM, sitting here sad and frustrated but grateful that you make the time to share your experiences there with us. I knew HSCM was happening last night as I sat in an Edmonton movie theatre, trying to watch a cheesy flick and telling the three 14-year olds next to me to seriously shut the fuck up. Boy did I feel old.

Today I told a friend at our Sunday coffee klatsch that Low Anthem played there last night, and he nearly keeled over.

From a distance, I love the Boston music scene. I so wish I could be a participant. That's why I cherished the five nights I had there last month, which gave me just a tiny taste of the great music on Mass Ave and thereabouts. What a great thing you and your musical friends are doing - sharing the music and raising funds for worthy causes in the process. Certainly you are a good man, giving so much back to your community, lest anyone ever have a doubt (even if you drive like an idiot). ;-)

I take from you much inspiration - and if this is going to sound mushy and suck-up-ish, so be it. But when I do Things Musical here, I try more than ever to pour my heart and soul into it and ensure that those watching and listening are having fun. Much of the inspiration comes from reading your blog. I wonder, WWBD? - What Would Bill Do? - and the answer is, he'd do his best. On Friday, I played a two set gig with Carrie Hryniw and her other two band members, to a very small but attentive group of people at a place called The Carrot. We were rusty (it's called "rehearsal", and we need to make the time for it"), but I could tell people were enjoying themselves. IT wasn't HSCM, but it was still music from the heart.

Ah, the perils of "instantaneous modern mass communication" indeed. Have a great week, w/o any flat tires.

Mike Eisenstein said...

Great blog- what a summary of the whole HSCM ride. BTW, it may be some kind of glitch but I don't get IFC but I can still watch 'Spectacle' on OnDemand. Give it a try.

Bill Janovitz said...

Straw men? Like I said, I wish. But check out the first (so far, only) comment at the end of this article. It is dudes (almost definitely a dude) like this who must actually be stewing in their own hilarious hell.

Bill Janovitz said...

Oops: http://www.patriotledger.com/entertainment/x1793479973/Hot-Stove-Cool-Jazz-raises-350-000-for-Sox-GMs-charity

Randy Reichardt said...

No one forced that shitbird to attend the concert - what an asinine comment to leave. For frak's sake, what's the problem, dude? Probably cheers for the Yankees.

Mike P. said...

Bill - this is such a great point you're making about 'simple' songs.

It's especially true for songwriters with long careers - so many try a little too hard to avoid repeating themselves that their songs get a little complicated for their own good. Wilco might be a good example of this. How great and fun was Being There? I'm still a fan, and do like their recent records more than most, but they do require more patience and work to listen to.

Which is not to say that all simple songs are good, of course; there's definitely an art to doing it just right.

Whirling House said...

I thought it was cool that Elvis was a big fan of Jesse's first record - and while that song started off as seemingly nostalgic, it then elevated itself to greatness...and that doesn't come across on TV very often or easily. Neko was also great...that was just a nice night of fireworks on tv.

Bill Janovitz said...

Now I wish I could write you a melody so plain/That could hold you dear lady from going insane/That could ease you and cool you and cease the pain/Of your useless and pointless knowledge

Anonymous said...

Jesse's "Sham-A-Ling-Dong-Ding" is really beautiful beyond compare ...

Winchester is a master songwriter.
Check out his "Skip Rope Song".

I've seen a bunch of "Costello Spectacle" episodes, and I'm not too fond of the show, although it's great if it helps the likes of Jesse Winchester to reach the big crowd that he so deserves.

Cool to see the recent J Geils Band video. Peter Wolf's latest solo album was excellent, and finally he's got a new CD out in April, I can hardly wait....

Anonymous said...

Jesse's song tapped into something universal about young love. I feel sad for the people who can't relate....
If you can relate....there's no way that you could listen to it without being moved.
-Steve B.-

DF said...

Bill, thanks for the wonderful Jesse Winchester song. Not sure if anyone's let you know, but the first season of "Spectacle" is available on DVD (http://www.amazon.com/Elvis-Costello-Spectacle-Season-4pc/dp/B002JI94VC/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=dvd&qid=1263914405&sr=8-1), so you can at least begin to catch up. I agree with some of the other posters - I find the series to be hit-and-miss, but certainly a great concept and full of gems.

Nigel said...

I must admit, Van Halen is a guilty pleasure. I'm well aware of their faults, David Lee Roth being the biggest of them. After reading your post, I looked at some videos on Youtube, hoping for some justification. Nope. They're lousy live, the lyrics are(at best)less than profound. I blame them for spawning the whole 80's hair metal thing. The list goes on. But I still like to hear 'em occasionally.

On the other hand,I never feel guilty about liking a good songwriter.

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