The Hot Ride

A heat bomb hit me when I slid into my Chevy today, a welcome rapture after an icy winter in upstate New York. It took me right back to the tireless Nash that was heaped among the weeds in my boyhood, nested among toads and copperheads in a bungalow colony in Peekskill.

A James Deanish boy named Leif was my summer partner in crime. He was the true grit country boy, I, the city kid learning the ropes. We were just short of teenage, and that mechanical skeleton was our rocket to the moon.

We sat in the stultifying July sun, hornets circling; our souls exulted from the dusty upholstery scents as we took turns behind the hot steering wheel, the battered speedometer feeding our imaginations. The cracked and crazed sheet metal became a time machine, taking us on far journeys through states that were as yet unknown. Our young hearts baked and burned. Turn after turn, we explored, escaped as if mapping out the rest of our lives.

I have no idea what happened to Leif after that summer. Year after year, my own soul baked on: in my father’s Studebaker, Dodge; in my first car, a 1948 Cadillac hearse. That black monolith took me to California and back twice, tracing every road I had imagined in that magical Nash.

It persists. I’ve since traveled the back roads of most states. My wife, Roxanne and I continue the journey every chance we get: Cross Creek, Savannah, New Orleans, Pueblo, Greensboro, Kansas City, Barstow, Staunton, Albuquerque. Somehow, it’s always just beginning, when the sun enwraps you behind the wheel.

America is in my blood, my bones, as evinced in my writing. Check out this raw reality in the video to my song “Miss America.”
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Catcher 22: Holden Caulfield Today

“The Catcher in the Rye” was as singular a novel as the voice of J.D. Salinger, who passed away on Thursday. To my generation – The Who, Woodstock and all that – it was the bible for the disaffected, misunderstood teenager, who was ready to flip from Peter Pan.

Of course, the flipping continued. After high school, there were new discoveries on the road, so to speak, to self-discovery: Kerouac, Ginsberg, Hemingway, Dylan, the Beatles, the Williamses (Tennessee and Hank), the Millers (Henry and Arthur), Lorca.

But today’s youth don’t have time for such protracted processes. As Jennifer Schuessler put it, writing in the New York Times last June:

Today’s pop culture heroes, it seems, are the nerds who conquer the world — like Harry (Potter) — not the beautiful losers who reject it.

Some critics say that if Holden is less popular these days, the fault lies with our own impatience with the idea of a lifelong quest for identity and meaning that Holden represents.

Since the 1980s, I’ve been saddened by the fast-track trajectory of college students. Pressure to choose a gilded career flattened any chance for soul searching during its ideal developmental period. No doubt many college students in recent times have bounced from major to major, from career to career, and have fallen under the wheels of life a few times. Yet something still seems lost in today’s culture.

Nevertheless, I’m convinced there’s something inherent in human nature that seeks its own inquisitive level despite the “so now” pressures and distractions of the times. Our three-year-old grandson, Russell is as spoiled with store-bought toys as many, but I was heartened to see that his favorite play thing of late is an empty chewing-gum box — the best gift his pappy ever gave him.

The soul lives on.
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Dems ‘Double’ Up on Racism

It would be comical if it weren’t sad, the transparent rationalization of Senator Harry Reid’s comments on the complexion of Barack Obama, the candidate.

I understand the president’s acceptance of the senator’s apology and his need to bar the White House door against a political tempest. But trying to explain away Reid’s choice of words as “inartful” does nothing more than put a ribbon on a rat.

Many influential African Americans have gone on the record in defense of Reid: CNN Political Analyst Roland Martin, PBS Editor and Senior Correspondent Gwen Ifill and John L. Jackson, Jr., author of Racial Paranoia. Furthermore, liberals galore – and I’m no conservative — are smugging up the joint. Case in point, Frank Rich, who writes in his Sunday column:

For all the hyperventilation in cable news land, this supposed racial brawl didn’t seem to generate any controversy whatsoever in what is known as the real world.

I suppose the “real world” would be rationalization nation, which, to me, is populated by hypocritical apologists.

Excuse me ladies and gentlemen, you’re focusing on trees: there’s a forest out there in them thar words. Shall I parse their highly charged meaning?

I’ll take a crack at it. Essentially, by saying Obama would work as a presidential candidate because he was light skinned and didn’t talk like those negroes (I exaggerate here to make a point) is racist pure and simple. You don’t have to be a linguist to read between these lines and their attendant implications. Turn the phrase around, and here’s what Reid is really saying: “I’m sure glad he doesn’t look real dark and talk, you know, real Negro.” Another words, this guy isn’t like those real dark black people who scare the pants off us white boys.

Exaggeration? If so, by how much. It’s all code, man, and we’ve all been around enough to know it. High-minded parsing can’t explain it away.

It’s a Democratic double standard, pure and simple. Maybe that’s why I became an independent long ago.

And, by the way, happy birthday, Martin Luther King.
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Mr. President, You’re Flunking Crisis Management 101

Mr. President, you need to find a podium, and fast. Even college freshman in PR 101 know that major crises require transparency and truth, all from the mouth of the CEO, and pronto.

Sending Napolitano and Gibbs out on such a mission is a joke, plain and simple, and a recipe for PR, even political, disaster.

Napolitano on WABC-TV “This Week” this morning said some confounding things:

That Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was on some list, but there was nothing else to indicate he was a threat. Oh yeah, how about his distinguished banker father who weeks ago told U.S. Embassy officials in Nigeria that his son may be in the process of a terrorist act against the U.S.

Defying logic again, she had the gall to say: “everybody did what they were supposed to,” and that the government practices for exactly this type of event. Oh yeah! Even the commentator, Jake Tapper, to his credit, reminded her that the only folks who did what they were supposed to were the regular folks on that flight and the crew.

Robert Gibbs also buried the obvious failures in bureaucrat-speak about the alphabet-soup methodology of lists (i.e.: Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, Terrorist Screening Data Base, “no-fly,” and “selectee”).

Mark my words, the ham-handed handling of this historic event on behalf of the administration will go down in PR-blunder history along with Bhopal and Exxon Valdez. This will serve as a textbook example for instructors of crisis management who will use it to point out everything not to do.

And PR aside, just wait till Leno and Letterman take to their respective podiums this week.
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“Robert Frank’s The Americans” at the Metropolitan

I just saw the exhibit “Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans’” — centered on the photographer’s seminal book by the same name  — on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, through Jan. 3.

Born in 1924 in Zurich, Switzerland, Frank took pictures in Europe and South America during his early career, but it wasn’t until he crisscrossed the seductive roads of America that Frank felt he was finally making art with his lens. With his U.S. travels in the mid-1950s, his work reached a new level, and 83 of his road images were arranged into the book “The Americans.”

It’s no surprised that Jack Kerouac wrote the introduction to the first U.S. edition of “The Americans (1959).” It raised eyebrows in the media for its brute black and white candor. But “The Americans,” like Kerouac’s own masterwork, “On the Road,” opened the door to the loneness of the country’s heart and spirit and, together, they inspired a generation of artists, musicians and thinkers.

Robert Frank's "U.S. 91, leaving Blackfoot, Idaho"

It’s interesting how foreign image makers like Frank, Mechelangelo Antonioni (“Zabriskie Point,” 1970), Louis Malle (“Atlantic City,” 1980) are able to capture the essence of the land better than most native auteurs. In fact, with the stir made by “The Americans,” Frank was compared to America’s original outsider observer, Alexis de Tocqueville, whose 1835 book “Democracy in America” helped to define the young nation’s unique character (Is it what America brings to you or what you bring to her?).

I believe a great artist is a conduit for “place.” His subject somehow finds him, speaks through him. The artist ultimately “sees” through time as the French photographer Eugène Atget described it. I believe such artists also see through other dimensions, some of which elude us, some of which speak through intersections of light and shadow, artifact and art, quietude and cacophony, moment and mystery.

It’s hard to describe “The Americans.” Language could illuminate it, could degrade it. Perhaps it’s like the stuff of dreams, the magic of which begins to disappear upon transfer to the conscious mind. So much spills from the bucket on its ascent from that deep, dark well.

But I try. Actually, I thought poetry might somehow have a special access pass to the world within photography. So I offer up the following images from my forthcoming chapbook “America, I’ll Have My Way With You”:

I MISS YOU ALREADY AMERICA

I miss you already America
and you’re not even gone

leave me your messages
by the grimed phone booth
how you joke of the truth
hat tossed to eternity
leave me your hay bales
in the sweat hum of the field
waiting on farm hands
and wayward girls
leave me your Ford grillwork
idle at the company house
preaching at the two lane

leave me your truck’s whine
at the crossroads
singing that heaven
is elsewhere in the night
leave me your green trailer
singular at the corner
monument to guts
leave me your shag heart
dusting the television night
with boredom and blood

You might view the video of my song “Miss America,” too.

I was surprised and pleased to see Frank himself link the worlds of photography and poetry in his description of his work:

When people look at my pictures I want them to feel the way they do when they want to read a line of a poem twice.

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Breakthroughs, Bitterness and Biopics

Music biographies mesmerized me when I was a kid. Whether it was Glenn Miller or Elvis Presley, it was always the same fascinating formula: talent and tenacity leading to the precipice of success, with the artist always searching for that one elusive element to define his signature sound, to breakthrough. With Miller it was the addition of trombones. The proceedings always put me on the edge of my seat and the breakthroughs set me reeling. I guess it was in my blood.

It persists. The other night I watched two great documentary-style biopics on TV, one on Johnny Cash, another on Willie Nelson. Willie, as many of his fans may not realize, was actually a Nashville songwriter penning such classics as “Crazy,” which Patsy Cline etched into the music lexicon. Despite his preeminent status as a writer, Willie couldn’t get arrested as an artist in Music City. His quirky phrasing was way too off-beat for the 60s sound, which was infused with sweet strings and pop arrangements.

At the age of 40, Willie returned home to Texas. Such a move would have meant a life sentence selling insurance had history not intervened. As fate would have it, Woodstock Nation had opened the doors to multiple music movements by the early 70s, and Willie realized that such hippie hangouts as Austin’s Armadillo World Headquarters were ready for a new kind of country artist. He enlisted his buddy Waylon Jennings, among others, and set about launching a novel sound to a new audience. His ultimate success turned country music, and the music establishment at large, on its head. Ultimately, he was responsible for redefining music, establishing its “outlaw” class and creating the Austin revolution as well as worldwide social activism that persists to this day.

Despite his huge outsider success, Nashville rejected this giant yet again. By the 1980s, you couldn’t find a Willie song on mainstream country radio, and forget about a major label deal.

Okay, let’s get right down to the hard part. Cash was just another music god to be tumbled unceremoniously from Olympus. By the 80s, he, too, was cast out like so much trash. His popularity was dwindling, and he was struggling to find an audience and make a living.

So these outlaw outcasts banded together, literally, forming the country supergroup The Highwaymen, along with Waylon and Kris Kristofferson. Talk about a Mount Rushmore of talent. They had taken fate into their own hands and, once again, set out to redefine the music scene, outside the establishment, all on their own.

A Bronx boy, I was still getting my country legs under me, when I hit Nashville in the late 80s. At the time, I couldn’t understand why the likes of Willie and Johnny weren’t getting mainstream air play, why I could eat lunch with Emmylou Harris but couldn’t hear her songs on country radio, why Nanci Griffith was considered a darling in all the clubs, to all the execs, but couldn’t get the chart toppers and eventually carped about it in interviews.

I was just getting introduced to the hard truth of the music industry: bitterness. Griffith was bitter, my friend Artie Traum (from back home in Woodstock) — one of the sweetest guys to ever grace the business — was expressing a degree of bitterness, too, in interviews of the day. I was just learning.

The songwriting trade in Nashville was rough. By year two, I was saying you had to learn to live on a diet of stones. Rejection was the blue-plate special everyday. It took me two years to get my first major song contract and more to get my first staff writing job and my first cut. Everyone who stuck with it had war stories: the song on hold that never happened, the artist cut that got dropped by the label or never got released as a single or didn’t make it above 20 on the charts. But, despite eventual successes and even industry support, I left after a decade to pursue a career as an artist, packing scars and wisdom, love and hate.

But back to Johnny Cash. One of the greatest artists to “walk the line,” he faced the pure pain of artistry more deeply, more movingly than anyone before him. Late in his career, with the help of producer Rick Rubin, Johnny faced his inner darkness, his demons, his truth, his soul. With such albums as “American Recordings” and “Unchained,” he found a vast and vital new audience, just years before his death. His new material was so raw that family members had a tough time listening. They told him it sounded like he was saying goodbye. He told them he was.

Pure Johnny Cash

In the Cash bio, artists such as Sheryl Crow, John Mellencamp and Vince Gill expressed the true painful tumble that all artists must face. Mellencamp himself recently penned a telling if rambling article on the biz in HuffPost, a blog post that established a wellspring of conversation in the social media sector.

So, this little Bronx boy, who reeled from the Glenn Miller story and cut and broke his teeth on Music Row, finally came to understand bitterness and the role it plays in any music career. No one is exempt. It may be (excuse me) a bitter pill to swallow, but I recommend downing it to develop a good artist-immune system. Another words, one has to learn to deal with it, embrace it, pain and all, and find a way to move on. Carry it on your back, in your suitcase, in your heart, on your skin — the rose tattoo of the music artist.

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‘It’s tough to beat up a guy that never quits’

Babe Ruth mouthed that ungrammatical gem, and a slumping Nick Swisher of the New York Yankees just invoked it at a critical moment in his career.

Hang with me a moment, and you’ll see what this has to do with us music artists. Swisher made the last out in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series the other night. It was a frustrating moment, since a hit in that spot could’ve finished off the Angels and put the Bombers in the World Series.

With otherwise-clutch Swisher having only three hits in 29 at-bats this postseason, the temptation looms to sit the right fielder for another player. But manager Joe Girardi is keeping him in the lineup for the next critical game, and his reasons are exemplary. Girardi had a number of examples but the best came from his own postseason experience as a Yankees catcher. Girardi didn’t have a hit in the Yanks’ 1996 World Series as they entered a pivotal Game 6. He came through with what was to become a legendary triple. That clutch hit helped put the game and the series in the team’s column and set the stage for a dynasty period: four World Series titles in a five-year period.

Like a baseball season, a music career is a real grind. Baseball players play 162 games each season and more in the postseason, if they get there. Each year, even the best teams have high times and low. They play loose and have fun in the successful stretches and get tight when they play poorly. For short periods, even the best player can look clueless at the plate, his mechanics all out of whack. Then, inexplicably, he gets a cheap hit, and his sweet swing returns along with his confidence.

Out of the mouth of the Babe.

Out of the mouth of the Babe.

Likewise, artists at every level have similar swings, if you will. But, if you’ve had successes and you simply stay in the game, you can bet you’ll have more to build on.

Is this a pep talk? Yes. I give them to myself all the time.
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Dog Guru

My wife, Roxanne and I saw Jamey Johnson last weekend in an awful club in Clifton Park, N.Y. Johnson’s a country songwriter cum recording artist who’s anything but awful. He’s one of those rare artists who come along once in a generation in a genre, in this case country.

He’s so raw and real it hurts. He’s of the outlaw breed, and his songs — even some of his hits – hold a bare light bulb to reality.

He’s a Montgomery boy, an ex-marine, ex-family man, and ex-rebel rouser, and his voice is as perfectly imperfect as his life. I’m not writing this to pitch Johnson, but country fan or not, this plainspoken poet is worth a listen.

I’m reminded of Steve Earle, who blew me away with his 1986 debut album “Guitar Town.” One literate bad boy with a voice to match. The first time I heard him I wanted to burn my guitar and typewriter (remember those), but eventually returned to my auteur senses.

Feels good to get a jolt of genius through your gut once in awhile. I find it inspirational.

What I love about guys like Johnson and Earle is their take-no-prisoners approach. They know who they are, and they live it no matter what, even if it means sacrificing at the altar of the hit-machine gods along the way.

We can all use inspiration on the long and winding road of music artistry, something or someone to keep us on the scent of who we really are. For me, it’s my labradoodle, Stella. She’s my guru. She knows things even Einstein couldn’t, but most of all she knows exactly how to follow her nose, and I follow her example daily.

Stella, my guru

Stella, my guru

Johnson follows his nose at all costs, even though there are risks along the way. His next album may not do as well. He may fade from the scene like many road geniuses before him. But, no matter what, he’ll have done it his way, and he’ll have lived a fully-realized life.

For me, it took a decade to discover my voice as a poet. In fact, when I was in college, I didn’t even know what that really meant. Then, it took yet longer to marry my poetic voice with my music, even a career as a Nashville songwriter along the way, an interesting and — as I once told New York Times pop critic Jon Pareles – circuitous journey. But I now know who I am as a recording artist and know exactly where I’m headed.

And Stella keeps me on track; and no matter what, I love the ride.
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You’re So ‘Yester-moment’

It’s no longer the flavor or the month or what used to be called 24/7 or wall-to-wall coverage. The new media cycle, at least for this nanosecond, is called “perpetual movement.”

In other words, spin or die. That’s the latest from Internet guru Michael Moritz, a Sequoia investor who backed Google, Yahoo and the Sugar Inc. blog-networks.

Quoted in a recent New York Times article, Moritz says:

Perpetual movement is the essence of survival and prosperity online. If online media and entertainment companies don’t improve every day, they will just wind up as the newfangled version of Reader’s Digest — bankrupt.

A second ago, it seems, we were talking about reinventing ourselves. But that’s so yesterday, or should I say so yestermoment.

What the Suger blog people have learned of late is that content on their successful networks must change constantly.

What this overall trend spells for us music artists is even scarier than the current biz model. Maybe the Web 2.0 atomizing machine will move us even further from the album, all the way to the ring tone (do not pass digital single).

Of course, I’m kidding, but only partly. After all, it is somewhat scary. The same warp-machine that devoured major labels, newspapers and publishing may chew us into yet smaller morsels.

For myself, I’m headed into my studio to record a new three-note masterpiece. Must adapt or die.
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Musician: Why Your ‘Greatness’ is Missed

As music artists seek notice from fans and the industry, it’s vital to observe a key factor concerning peoples’ ability to recognize talent, even greatness.

You may have already read about the social experiment the Washington Post conducted two years ago with world-renowned violinist Joshua Bell. It was actually Bell’s idea to perform undercover as a street musician for a day at a Washington Metro station. What many don’t know is that the Gene Weingarten story earned a Pulitzer Prize that year for feature writing. What many do recall is the fact that a venerated violinist went virtually unnoticed, unappreciated and unrecognized.

What the public took away from the story — rightly so — is the fact that people pass up life’s jewels, even when they’re right before their, well, ears. But this tale holds a much greater meaning for artists of all stripes.

Center stage for artists sits the concept of context. What does that mean? For decades, I’ve observed that people, music industry pros included, often don’t recognize greatness in its raw form. When it comes to music, listeners need to have a song or an album framed for them in a validated form.

There are many examples, but here’s a case in point from my own experience as a songwriter and recording artist. In the late 1980’s, I began a ten-year stint as a Nashville songwriter. The first two years were rough, but when I got the hang of it my material and demos became street-ready, as they say. A number of those demos were sung by Trisha Yearwood. Then, she was known as Trisha Latham (her name from her first marriage), and was unsigned and unknown. The first demo I heard her sing on left me slack-jawed, and not just because of the material, which did eventually get signed to what was then PolyGram. By the time she hit the first chorus, I knew I was hearing a major star in the making.

But here’s the point. As I played those demos for music publishers and A&R execs, it amazed me that not a one commented on the singer. So I started what was to become an experiment of my own. I’d ask, “so what do you think of the singer?” They’d invariably say, “who is she?,” to which I’d reply, “Trisha Latham.” Then, they’d say something like “never heard of her,” and that was the end of it.

The reason they never heard of Trisha is because she was being developed privately through Garth Brooks’ camp. A&R in any music town expect to see upcoming talent in the clubs, so the assumption (as it was with Trisha) is: “if I don’t know her, she can’t be any good.” Again, it’s all about context.

Several months later, Trisha’s first single – “She’s in Love with the Boy” — came out, making Music City history for duration at number one for a female artist. By then, she had returned to her maiden name, Yearwood. I made the rounds of many of the same offices again, playing those Trisha-sung demos. This time, by the third note, I’d hear, “That’s Trisha Yearwood!,” to which I’d reply, “yeah, so where were you last year?”

Of course, we’ve all heard the stories of how most famous artists have their walls lined with record-label rejection letters, and, if you’ve paid some dues in the biz, you likely have a collection of your own.

So what’s the point of all of this? People – pedestrians and pros alike – miss greatness all the time. Even in the biz, there aren’t that many John Hammonds, Ahmet Erteguns and Russell Simmonses. If it were that easy to spot top talent, A&R would be a cinch.

So how is this study of use to the music artist? Simply as a point of reference, to understand why some audiences, some pros have been missing your best stuff. Maybe you’ll never write or produce a truly great song. But, if you work hard for a long, long time, chances are very good that you will come up with one, maybe more. For that reason, it’s vital to be armed with such perspective.
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