Less Suck, More Rock

December 26th, 2005

I am walking home from the gym. I am still sweating. My muscles are warm. My vision is clear. I am holding a vente mild in my left hand, and a brown bag with an egg sandwich and orange juice in my right. Counting Crows’ “Time And Time Again” is playing on my iPod. It is raining.

As I reach the southwest corner of Columbus & and 81st, the sun breaks through the clouds. The rain continues falling, illuminated by sunshine. Tiny droplets float just above my head like atoms free of their valence. And I decide right there that this moment, somehow, summarizes the entire year.

I realize that time is man-made, and that for all intents and purposes, it’s superfluous and meaningless. But I appreciate the order of it. I appreciate the opportunity to start with a clean slate. I appreciate the ability to make some meaning from it all. And then to do it again.

2004 ended unceremoniously. I was alone in my apartment; seated in front the television, fast asleep when the New Year arrived. There was no fanfare, no fireworks; no deep, slow, wet kisses for me. Just a warm Bass Ale, and my MTV. Which was fine with me. The just-expired year had been a mess. I had bumbled recklessly and without intention from one half-assed relationship to another. In my wake I left, at best, apathy, at worst, heartbreak. I climbed the spiral staircase to my bed happy to leave the year behind.

I adopted the motto early on that the New Year would be all about “Less Suck, More Rock.” (My friend Kat even made me a t-shirt to that end.) It wasn’t much of a goal, really, being the 2004 sucked pretty badly. But it was something.

Kat checked in periodically throughout the year, sending brief emails with the subject header “S::R?” The ratio ebbed and flowed like anything else. But overall, as the remaining hours of 2005 tick away, I can tell you with confidence that 2005 did, in fact, suck less, and rock more.

2005 certainly had it share of surprises. Who would have guessed that I would release three CDs? Or finally get a record deal? Or spend two weeks on tour in the Midwest? Or play my biggest shows ever? And who would have guessed that I would interview Cameron Crowe? Or Michael Penn? Or hang out at the Sundance Film Festival? Who’d have guessed that I’d stand on a bridge in Miami during a hurricane laughing into the wind?

Not me.

But it was the small, unexpected surprises that made this year what it was. A bronze statue of an angel. A fiery sunset from my deck. A cold beer on the porch in Nantucket. An afternoon of songwriting in my room. Ethan grabbing my hand and leading me down the beach. Or a sun shower where tiny droplets of rain danced just above my head like atoms free of their valence.

In the end, I am tired. By my calculation, I spent over one hundred nights away from home. That’s over 25% of my year. Which explains the exhaustion. But I am recovering.

In the end, I’m happy. I did more than I planned. I saw more than I’d expected. And I was loved more deeply than I could have hoped.

And in the end, I am grateful. Numerous people have made this year suck less, and rock more: Jason, Stephanie, Mitchell, and Mike, Abbi, Chris, Jen and Ethan, mom, dad and Madonna, Josh and Jerry, Mandy, Michael, Goldner, Rach and Heather, Rob and Claudine, Amy, Mark, Wes and Casey, Chris, Guy, Tony and Walker, Kevin, Stephanie, Scott, Derek, Justin and Rob.

And you. Thank you. You made the dark days bright.

I’m taking the rest of the year off. I’m going to go home to Philadelphia. I’m going to be quiet a while. I’m going to watch movies and sleep. I’m going to work on my long-threatened novel. I’m going to run in Valley Forge. And I’m going to spend time with friends long-lost.

I’ll be back next year, when we’ll do all it again.

This Little Light

December 24th, 2005

The last Broadway show my mother, brother and I attended together was Tony Kushner’s “Angels In America” in 1994.

Chris and I were living in Saratoga Springs at the time. My white Chevy Celebrity stalled out on I-87 near Suffern en route to the city. On the cab ride down, a fellow passenger (bourbon on ice in hand) asked, “So, are you two, like, um… gay?”

I rolled my eyes. Chris answered, “No, we’re, like, um… brothers.”

Chris and I made it to the Walter Kerr Theatre just as the houselights were fading.

“Angels” marks the beginning of my love affair with Bethesda, Angel of the Waters. But it also marks my first adult experience in New York. I was dazzled — frightened even — by the bright lights and fast pace. I never could have guessed that I would spend — to date, anyway — more than one third of my life in this dazzling, frightening, brightly-lit, fast-paced city.

My mother, brother and I all live within a twelve block radius of one another now, which is primarily serendipity, not strategy. And though it facilitates seeing one another now and then, busy lives and the general good sense not to overdue it have limited such gathering to the “rare” to “very rare” file. Which is, in general, fine with me. This theater going experience, though, was in the “rarest of the rare” column. It was Christofer’s idea.

My brother is a fascinating study. He is at once remarkably warm and deeply invested, yet cool and often distant. His says that his primary objective is to be a good husband and father, yet he spends 70+ hours a week at the office. His far-off gaze and hushed speech often suggest that he is thinking about other, larger issues than those at hand. I believe that he often is.

While it is neither unusual nor unprecedented that Chris would suggest a cultural outing (he rarely misses one of my shows, for example), it is unusual in this age of wives and girlfriends that said outing would solely involve my mother, brother and me. Apparently, Chris’ wife, Jennifer, loathes Garrison Keilor’s hushed baritone. And Ethan’s still too young to sit still for three hours. (Heck, so am I.)

So there we were: a single mother and her two sons in the orchestra section of Town Hall enjoying Mr. Keilor’s slice of Midwestern kitsch. Of course, it’s not insignificant that Chris should take us there. The Midwest — as a symbol — has been lost to all three of us. For my mother, who grew up in Iowa, it is a different story, one I wouldn’t feign to know or understand. But for me, the Midwest is a far-off place where, once upon a time amidst fireflies and crickets, everything was deep and simple. I tune into “A Prarie Home Companion” and, through Mr. Keilor’s Lake Woebegone tales, endeavor to return to that quieter, more tranquil time. I imagine Chris does too.

It was a fairly magical Christmas gift to hear my brother laughing so deeply, and to hear my mother singing so clearly. It was a fairly magical Christmas gift to sing “Silent Night” with 1500 New Yorkers. And it was a fairly magical Christmas gift to hear 75-year-old folk legend Odetta read this poem aloud:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most
frightens us.

We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be?

You are a child of God.

Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure about you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to manifest the glory of God that is within us.

It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone.

And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

Standing there in her white knit dress, funky beret and multi-color scarf, this frail, soulful woman led the audience — né, this congregation — through four verses of “This Little Light Of Mine,” then shuffled off, leaving us all to bask in the glow of our collective brilliance.

Blue Christmas At The End Of The World

December 22nd, 2005

What a strange, strange night.

I’ve been meaning to record a few Christmas songs for ya’ll for a few weeks. But I haven’t really been home for a few weeks. And when I have been home, I was neither in the mood to play music, nor in the Christmas spirit. But the transit strike (which appears to be approaching an end) has had me home all week, which has been great.

But I also got a copy of Speilberg’s “War of the Worlds” yesterday. So I was conflicted. What I really wanted to do was sit on my couch, eat sushi, and watch TV. But I had an obligation. I had some Christmas Cheer to spread, gosh darn it.

So I did both.

Imagine the scene. I’m upstairs drinking a Saporo, and getting carried away with guitar solos and tamborine parts for Merry Christmas Baby. I’m trying to sound like Bruce Springsteen, but I’m sounding more like Terrence Trent D’Arby if Terrence Trent D’Arby was born in Iowa. The buzzer rings. Dinner’s here.

I run downstairs, pay the dude, and spread out in front of the TV. Thirty minutes pass and I haven’t eaten a thing. My chopsticks are in my right hand, but I’m frozen in place, mouth is agape. The film is relentless, and huge, and horrible. And it’s impossible to watch without thinking about September 11th, and wonder just how in the hell we all survived that craziness.

Then I pop back upstairs and sing a vocal, and fix a solo, and try and think like an elf or Santa’s Little Helper, or something. Somewhere around two o’clock (yes, in the morning), when my contacts are completely gummed up and I can barely keep my eyes open, I give in, go to bed, and hope I don’t dream of three hundred foot tall Santas spewing webby, red bile from their mechanical mouths.

All my dreams were bright. Hopes yours are too. Merry Christmas!

[audio:merrychristmasbaby.mp3]

The Scientist

December 21st, 2005

The last time I walked from Times Square to 80th & Columbus, my mother was lecturing me the entire way.

The time was last fall. The occasion was my appearance in The New York Times. My mother was not pleased. Nor, for that matter, was my father. (Or, for the record, me.) With my mistakes in print, and my morality in question, the fifty blocks passed in a heartbeat.

Not so last night. My iPod was out of juice, and I was way too grumpy to call someone to share the commute. So, for the first time in I don’t know how long, I opened my eyes, opened my ears, and let the city walk me home.

It’s about a forty-five minute commute. It’s got upsides, and down. But overall, I’m not complaining. It is what it is.

The Upside To The Transit Strike:

1- Window shopping
2- People watching
3- The smell of Christmas trees
4- Christmas lights
5- Time to think
6- Fresh air
7- Blue sky
8- Bonus exercise
9- Shared experience
10- This City really is the best

The Downside To The Transit Strike:

1- It’s cold out
2- Fingers, nose and toes
3- Tourists
4- Honking horns
5- Sirens
6- Concrete
7- Planning ahead
8- Wearing uncool shoes
9- Hats mess up my hair
10- Commuter congestion (C’mon people! Speed up!)

At the end of the day — which arrives at 4:31 p.m. ET today — it’s impossible not to be optimistic. It’s The Winter Solstice. Tomorrow is going to be a longer, brighter day, no matter what. It’s science.

Photograph

December 20th, 2005

I may have dreamt the whole thing. I’m not really sure.

Oh wait, there’s photographic evidence.

Ok, so it’s true. I was in Palm Beach, Florida, this weekend. Yes, it was mostly-sunny and 80° the entire time. And yes, I left my laptop, Blackberry, and guitar at home, and no, I didn’t listen to my iPod once.

I would say it was a “recharge the batteries” type situation, except that my batteries were so depleted that it was more of a “begin to recharge the batteries situation.” I’m pretty sure I’ve expectorated most of the poison, karmic and otherwise, that I’ve accrued over the last few months. My head’s clearer, but it’s definitely not clear. My mood’s improved, but I’m definitely not in a good mood.

The highlight — in terms of finding some clarity, anyway — came Sunday morning when Abbi motivated me to go on my first decent run of Q4. She endured a solid thirty minutes of monologue in which I brainstormed how I’m going to approach music in ’06 and beyond. As we sprinted up the driveway and I slipped into the pool, I turned to her and said, “I’m glad we had this talk.” She’s a good sport. She laughed.

Otherwise, I slept a lot. I mean, I slept a ton. Like, ten hours a night with naps in-between. I didn’t read anything of substance, just newspapers and magazines. I didn’t watch any television. No media whatsoever (except radio, where Nickelback’s “Photograph” is apparently in constant rotation). And not a ton of beer, either. Nope. Not feelin’ the beer. Doesn’t go so well with the TheraFlu.

So, got back late last night, just in time to tune into NY1 and find out that the MTA and the TWU couldn’t work it out. So I walked sixty blocks in a thirteen degree wind chill this morning, wearing nothing but a sport coat and a scarf. Happy Holidays!

Oy.

Milk & Honey

December 17th, 2005

I’m going off the grid.

I just finished watching “The Island” a second-rate, Michael Bay sci-fi flick. In the film, Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson discover that they’re clones created as insurance policies for their real-life doppelgangers. So they break free of their faux-Utopia and, you know, live happily ever after on a boat in the tropics.

I’m not sure I need to break free of anything, and I’m pretty sure I don’t have a clone living underground somewhere, but it struck me as a fairly novel concept that I might actually not play guitar, not record a song, and not blog, for a whopping 72 hours.

So here goes nothin’.

If you need me, click here. If you really, really need me, call my cell.

Otherwise, see ya Tuesday.

Back In The Arms Of A Good Friend

December 16th, 2005

A funny thing happened on the way to retirement.

I’ve been thinking about retiring from music. Not completely. I expect I’ll continue recording and releasing albums (though I think I’ll rely more heavily on digital distribution), but I’m not sure how much more I want to perform and tour.

Fact is, I’m a media executive. My day job is full-time, and then some. I’m on call 24/7. If I’m not online, they find me on my Blackberry. If they don’t find me on my Blackberry, they find me on my cell. I spend numerous weeks of my year in L.A., Miami, Las Vegas, Park City, and beyond. So I’m not sure how many more of the precious few weeks of vacation get I wanna spend on the road (fun as it can be). I’ve been thinking a lot about Thailand, Australia, Hawaii…

And I’ve been thinking a lot about how thankless it is to be a 34-year-old musician prostrating ones’ self to a 22-year-old booker.

Not to mention I’ve frittered away thousands of dollars on records and and release parties and t-shirts and tours, and never really made it into the black.

Not to mention I’ve been sick as a dog all week and am absolutely positive it has everything to do with my three-album, two-tour year.

So I’ve been thinking about retirement.

And as most things work, I got a nice little “feather in my cap” (as Rod Perez would say) yesterday afternoon when Rob emailed me that Jeff had emailed him to say that my cover of Matthew Sweet’s “Girlfriend” (available on my recently-released “Heartland”) was voted one of The Onion AV Club’s “Great Cover Songs of 2005.”

It’s not a huge deal, but it’s kinda cool. I mean, I could’ve been universally lambasted for ruining the song. Instead, seems like at least a few people out there are digging on it. In a short-and-sweet description wedged between Rilo Kiley and The Donnas, Christopher Bahn writes:

Backed up by The Nadas, Wagner offers up an appropriately sweet bluegrass-tinged version of Matthew Sweet’s romantic slice of power-pop.

Just when you think you’re a big old oak tree falling to the ground in a empty forest, someone comes along and says, “I see you falling!”

Which — for today, anyway — is good enough for me.

I Was Thinking I Could Clean Up For Christmas

December 15th, 2005

For the first time in three weeks, my throat isn’t sore.

I was gonna drag ass into the office yesterday morning on account of the fact that I have this coming Monday off (I’m going to West Palm for the weekend!) and I felt guilty missing a full day of work. But as I was lying there in my fever dreams, it dawned on me that I could use a day off to not only get well, but also get my apartment back in shape.

I’ll be honest. It was pretty gross. I haven’t really paid any attention to my apartment since summer. So there were two months of dirty clothes in the closet, books, CDs, and guitars everywhere, plus a fine layer of dust on everything. It looked like the Titanic. I won’t even tell you about the sheets and towels. Suffice it to say that I was beginning to be convinced that I wasn’t sick, my environment was.

So I decided to stay home.

I was online all day, checking and replying to emails. But mostly, I was ordering both my internal and external worlds.

I ate lots of oat meal. I drank lots of orange juice. I made a fruit smoothy. I took vitamins, Tylenol, and lots of DayQuil. I watched “Four Brothers” (pretty bad ass), “Cinderella Man” (which got me teary), and half of “Fever Pitch” (no chemistry).

I did six loads of laundry (including sheets and towels). I mopped the hardwood floors with Murphey’s Oil Soap. I cleaned the kitchen and downstairs bathroom. And I wiped down 3/4 of my apartment’s surfaces with Windex.

Frankly, it was borderline obsessive compulsive. I was convinced that if everything around me was clean, I would feel better. And though I worked up quite a sweat running up and down six flights of stairs, I do. Though I’m really looking forward to West Palm.

80° and sunny on Sunday.

I think I feel better already.

Out Of Office

December 13th, 2005

Sherbert is the poor man’s sorbet.

When I got sick as a kid, ginger ale and orange juice was one of my favorite remedies. Spaghetios with Meatballs was another. But rainbow sherbert was the best.

It’s all in my belly at the moment.

I told the guys the entire time I was on the road, if I get home without getting sick, it’ll be a miracle.

I probably don’t need to spell out how a guy can get sick on the road with a rock and roll band. Forget the truck stop food, the late nights, random beds, or smoke-choked bars. I figure I picked up the bug last Friday night. Josh and I were hankerin’ for Throat Coat Tea, but couldn’t find a mug.

I said, “I’m sure there’s one on the bus.”

There was a mug on the bus, but God knows what the crusty stuff on the bottom was.

I’m not blaming the guys for getting me sick. I got myself sick. The last time I felt this bad was after the last tour. The time before that? You guessed it.

So… something’s wrong with this picture. Not the tour thing. The whole thing. The life thing. So I’m thinking it through. I’m working it out. Because at 34-years-old, the whole rock ‘n roll fantasy isn’t scaling.

I left work after lunch. I was sweating, nausious, and I decided MTV could live without me for the afternoon. It took me ten excrutiating minutes to find a cab, and five more to get home, but only thirty seconds to be into my pajamas, and into bed.

I’ve got a healthy dose of Duane Reade Day Time cough syrup in me, plus two Tylenol Colf & Flu pills for good measure. Oh, and a scoop of ranbow sherbert floating in some ginger ale.

I feel a little bit better right now. And I know I’ll get better still.

Original Of The Species

December 11th, 2005

Every gig is more unusual than the last.

Last Saturday found me making good on my bargain in Waterloo, Iowa. This Saturday found doing it again in Westford, Massachusetts. And then some.

You’ll recall that I solicited patrons for the making of “Heartland.” Three of those contributors merited a live performance at the location of their choice. Last week was Smitty’s Bar. This weekend was Robbie P’s Living Room.

There’s a photo somewhere of my father from deep in the 1960s. He’s thirty-years-old, max. Of course, he’s wearing some ridiculously garish flowered shirt, bell-bottoms, and a Raleigh Fingers mustache, but that’s not the point. In the dusty, folded, faded photo, my father is standing on a coffee table, strumming my mother’s acoustic guitar, and singing at the top of his lungs.

That was me last night. Except it was my guitar. And Rob’s coffee table.

I played the three-set show with one-time Smokey Junglefrog drummer (now a chef and father of two), Tod “Fish” Salmonson. I dug deep into my catalogue, excavating oldies that surprised even me. But that’s cuz Rob, Fish, and I have been hangin’ out and playing songs since we were twenty-years-old.

I can barely remember what it was like to be twenty-years-old. I think I was pretty much the same as I am now: I worried a lot, over-thought everything, and felt things way too deeply. I didn’t have a whole lot of foresight. I couldn’t see much further than an arm’s length. (Still not sure I can.)

I tried to put myself back into the head of a twenty-year-old yesterday. I spent the entire train ride from New York to Boston preparing a speech (of sorts) for a presentation at Emerson College. One industrious young student, Danit Zivan, invited me to speech to her communications fraternity, Zeta Phi Eta, after reading about my interest in doing so at Syracuse.

I was charged (well, I charged myself) with summarizing the last thirty-four years of my life, and connecting the dots to create some meaningful narrative. Which is a pretty tough assignment when it’s your own life. It’s the closest thing I’ve done to writing a term paper in a long, long time. I might have gone on a little long (you can read it here) on how who I was as a little kid led to who I am today, but I was trying to make a point.

Remember the story about my vision quest? It’s the September after college graduation and I’m on a solo fast deep in the Utah desert. And I’m asking The Gods or The Spirits or Myself or Whomever what I’m supposed to do with my life. And the only answer I get is, “You’re doing it.” Remember that story?

Well, that seems to be how things have worked out at 34-years-old. As I said to the students, “You can be anything you want to be. Odds are, you’re going to be exactly who you’ve always been.” Even now, that’s something of a revelation. I was a musician and editor of my high school paper, and then I was a musician and journalism student, now I’m a musician and Executive Producer of MTV News Digital. If I only knew that it was going to work out just fine, or just as it was supposed to… damn. I could’ve gotten a lot more sleep.

And that’s why I wanted to speak with them. I remember that uncertainty. Heck, I still live with it. But not like then. Back then it was crippling uncertainty coupled with blind naiveté and no concept of adult reality. The thirty or so Emerson students, though, were right on. Their questions were especially impressive.

“Does the media influence culture or does culture influence the media?” I couldn’t get away with answering “Yes,” but I tried. Because that’s The Big One, isn’t it? I certainly don¹t think there a bunch of old, white men sitting around in some room figuring out “The Message,” but there are definitely plenty of powerful and subtle spin-artists out there. Still, there are a thousand other factors pushing on the media, not the least of which being the mood of the news director on any given Tuesday.

Another student asked, “What’s your favorite REM album and tell us about interviewing Michael Stipe.”

I was like, “Is that a ‘Green’ t-shirt you’re wearing?” Sure was. Rock on. (And “Reckoning.”)

But it was my host, Danit, who wrapped it all up, turned the tables, and really got me thinking.

“Did you ever consider using your MTV connections to further your music career?”

I was stumped. I mean, I get asked that question all the time, but never in front of an audience. And I never know quite what to answer. Yes, of course I’ve considered it. And to some degree, I have used my connections. But not really. I’ve never networked, or even handed my CDs to label types. Possibly because I know how futile it is. There are a lot of waste baskets between a publicist and an A&R rep. And a lot of CDs on an A&R rep’s desk. And mine don’t sound anything like Britney’s, or even Scott Stapp’s. Mostly, though, it never felt right to pimp my music at work (beyond emails and fliers, that is). And if that means I’m playing “Summer’s Gone” for a room full of old friends on a Saturday, and few college students on a Sunday, well, that’s all right with me. I’m exactly who I’ve always been.

Afterwards, a young woman stepped up to thank me.

“I’m graduating in one week,” she said. “I cry every night.”

I understood where she coming from. I was right there with her.