Coming Through In Waves

February 28th, 2007

I was face down on the massage table, a masseuse’s elbow deep into my shoulder blades, when it occured to me that the tinkling, piped-in Muzak overhead was Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb.”

Kind of odd, I thought (between bouts of excruciating pain). Kind of sad, too. But frankly, it kind of worked.

Like many before me (and surely more after), my love affair with getting high was largely influenced by Pink Floyd. It was New Year’s Eve, 1987. After some cajoling, an elder colleague at Berwyn Video (who was later fired for trading video rentals for slices at the pizzeria across the street) rolled me a “pinner” — a thin joint — to augment my transition into 1988. Back home, my best friend Sibby and I took a few drags, then wandered off to our respective interests. He planted himself in front of a Flyers game. I planted myself between the speakers of my stereo, slid “Wish You Were Here” into the CD player, and leaned in.

The albums opening track, “Shine On You Crazy Diamonds,” opens with a delicate, patient, and spacy wash of keyboards, before exploding into a full-on, thirteen minute rock opera (later followed by “Shine On You Crazy Diamonds Parts 6-12”). My mind was blown. I closed my eyes, and imagined myself on stage between two Marshall amp stacks that stretched into the clouds. An endless audience stretched out before me.

And so it began: the rock ‘n roll dream.

“Wish You Were Here,” you’ll recall, begins with the distant strains of a muted television show, and then strumming of a highly-compressed, very AM radio-sounding acoustic guitar, before a fully-present slide guitar opens the song up to its full-on stereo greatness (a technique I later ripped off for Almost Home’s “Radio”). Which is about when my skull cracked wide open.

And so it began: the out-of-your-head dream.

The band, and its music, continued to have that affect (for better or worse). Sure, I discovered REM’s “Reckoning” and The Replacements “Please To Meet Me” and Husker Du’s “Candy Apple Gray,” but those were decidely Lo-Fi. Pink Floyd was Hi-Fi. High-Fi.

And for a while there, that was my agenda. I craved the comfort of an audience’s adoration, but numbness from intimacy. I still feel more at ease in front of a crowd than I am in one.

Fast forward, then, to a swank spa on Central Park West. The sinister edge with which Roger Waters delivers “Comfortably Numb” has dulled. The band has broken up, and re-formed again. I am twenty years older. Still, it moves me. And I think back to the lyrics, and what they meant. And instead of the sinister, I choose to examine the plaintive. Instead of the obvious drug references, I am drawn to the sense of loss.

The child is grown.

The dream is gone.

But instead of feeling sad, I find myself feeling… ok with it.

The child has grown.

The dream has… changed.

And for the first time in my life, that’s fine with me.

Have Heart My Dear

February 25th, 2007

Runyon Canyon coyoteTruth is, given how little I’ve run in the last four months, I probably had no business tackling the Hollywood Hills.

Runyon Canyon, a 130 acre city park, rises over 700 feet between Hollywood Boulevard and Mullholland Drive. My hotel was less than six blocks from the Fuller Avenue entrance. Straight uphill.

Friday morning was crisp and cool, the smog-choked Los Angeles air scrubbed clean from rain. I set out in shorts and a t-shirt, my breath trailing behind me. I ran west on Hollywood, crossed La Brea, turned right on Fuller, and began to climb.

Soon, my calves were burning. My lungs were searing from the frigid air. I overtook hikers and dog walkers — dressed in winter coats and gawking at me incredulously — between gasps. Half-way up the fire road, I spotted a coyote on a tiny patch of sun-dappled hillside.

The vista from high atop the canyon was breathtaking: the Hollywood sign to the east, downtown to the south east, Baldwin Hill (which obscures LAX) eleven miles to the south, and the sparkling Pacific twelve miles to the west.

From above, the vast, chaotic L.A. basin whirled like the workings of a finely tuned wristwatch. From the heights, and for the moment, everything seemed beautiful, and peaceful, and possible.

Go Home, Jake

February 23rd, 2007

Yesterday it was Kurt Loder. This morning it was Britney Spears. Or maybe it was the traffic on Highland, already gathering to a dull roar before five o’clock. Either way, I’ve slept scarcely seven hours in two nights.

I’ve pulled the blinds of my seventh-story, east-facing hotel room wide open. The view stretches from the Hollywood sign to the north, past downtown to the south east, to the vast, already-smoggy tangle of Crenshaw and Inglewood to the south.

A great, billowing cloud bank sits stubbornly along the southern edge of the basin, framing the distant towers of downtown like a film set.

Which is the thing here, really. Even on the rare, rainy day like yesterday, the quality of light here is other-worldly. Despite the smog, the snarl of traffic (it took me an hour to drive twelve miles yesterday), and the sprawl, there is something magical about the sky. It feels like the edge of things.

One begins to understand what D. W. Griffith saw in the openess and opportunity when he shot In Old California” here in 1910, launching a decade of filmmaking the ends on the Oscar red carpet just below my window.

Still, I can’t help but notice the contrasts, the decay just beyond the lens.

The cameras will never pan there, but just across the street from the Kodak Theater on Hollywood and Highland, a ragged Burger King is the sole occupant of two square blocks of empty parking lot.

They Love It In Pomona

February 22nd, 2007

When I was a kid savoring every page of Rolling Stone magazine, and marveling at “Rebel Without A Cause,” the Capitol Records building and Griffith Observatory seemed about as foreign and glamourous as you could get.

This morning, both are in the shadow of the Hollywood sign right outside my window.

Duran Duran was on Capitol. Likewise Foo Fighters, and The Strokes. Of course, the building was sold to a Japanese trading company years ago.

Likewise, the skies above Hollywood have long been too smog-choked for actual stars. They all moved to Beverly Hills anyway.

I’m in Los Angeles on business. I arrived at noon. I will be on the ground approximately 56 hours.

Kyra Sedgwick was on my flight. I didn’t know this until I got to baggage claim and noticed her standing next to me. This occurance makes me, it should be noted, just one degree from Kevin Bacon.

Also on said flight, I read well over 100 pages of Thomas E. Ricks “Fiasco,” a blow-by-blow account of the escalation to, execution and failure of the war in Iraq. This while surrounded by Oscar-bound publicists and stylists vapidly flipping through Us and Star.

I have been to Los Angeles at least twenty-five times, but this is the first that I’ve found myself at Highland Hights, the city’s equivilent of Times Square. Joe Gillis lived a few blocks from here. That whole walk of fame thing isn’t just downstairs. Likewise the Oscar red carpet. It’s literally right around the corner.

In fact, there’s a Joan and Melissa Rivers billboard just outside my window, right above a Donut Stop and next to Highland Liqors and Paradise Dry Cleaners. “Fair & Fshionable,” it reads.

So glamourous.

You, Me & Us

February 19th, 2007

Packed into a particularly uncomfortably subway on my way home from a particularly uncomfortable week at work, I couldn’t help but notice that I was surrounded by nothing but the first person singular.

All around, my fellow passengers clutched their iPods and stared vacantly into space. On the stainless steel, graffiti-proof walls, signage for News Corp’s recently rebranded My9 (formerly WWOR), — in which “my” constituted 9 of 17 words in the ad — made me think…

Is the Twenty-First Century all about I, me, and my?

Walking back from the deli yesterday morning I said, “Oh shit, I forgot to grab The Times.”

“You can read it online,” Abbi said.

And she’s right. I could. And did.

But reading The New York Times online is not the same as patiently sifting through section after section of the actual newspaper, digging into all sorts of topics otherwise too far afield — or one too many clicks deep — to elicit interest, or engagement.

The promise of the Internet has long been that of personalization, customization and niche. Like hip hop? Click here, and get nothing but. Want to know something about aardvarks? Google will get you to The Brookfield Zoo post haste. But who knows what you’re missing by not browsing and discovering all kinds of music, or all sorts of African ungulates.

But where is the discovery? The happenstance? When is one’s curiosity rewarded? One’s horizons expanded?

Lately, of course, it’s been all about “user generated content.” It’s all about you, about your fifteen minutes. See also: American Idol, America’s Top Model, Project Runway, and the recent Grammy Awards telecast in which three young singers competed for the chance to duet with Justin Timberlake. (“In the future,” I recently read, “Everyone will be anonymous for fifteen minutes.”)

As programmers become more efficient at serving deeper but narrower demographic segments to advertisers, then, we find ourselves penned in like veal cattle. The rise of the niche, while potentially affording greater programming diversity, has really limited that which we consume. In a three network universe, the State of the Union was not to be avoided.

“Rising above the clutter,” Times correspondent David Carr writes, “was a lot easier when we were all staring into the same campfire.”

Now, though, brushfires have broken out across the planet. From space, the United States is awash in the blue flicker of the cathode ray.

Why watch “Frontline” report on the demise of journalism when there’s a Celebrity Eye Candy marathon on VH1?

Why puzzle out the potential implications of the US invasion of Iraq when Britney Spears has entered and exited rehab, shaved her head, and gotten two new tattoos.

Why engage in anything at all when everything is so God damned complicated, and you can’t do anything to change anything anyway?

One of my heroes, Bill Moyers, said recently, “We cannot build a nation across the vast social divides that mark our country today.”

In a culture peopled by those obsessed by themselves, and those expressly like them, how can we learn anything at all?

There is, after all, no “me” in “us.”

Out Here In The Fields

February 14th, 2007

I was delivered with The Post this morning, arriving on my doorstep just as the familiar, yellow newspaper truck dropped a bundle of tabloids in front of the Andy’s Deli.

The time was 5:48.

I woke up this morning at 3:31, precisely four hours and thirty-two minutes after laying my exhaustion down for the night. It had been quite a day, as my supervisor and mentor of ten years was relieved of his eighteen year tenure.

Yesterday, amidst Internet rumormongering, a friend instant messaged me. “Viacom is ruthless,” he said.

“No,” I replied. “Capitalism is ruthless.”

Once I woke, I couldn’t rest; my head was full. I tapped out a few emails in the half light of ABC News, then dressed, and headed out the door. The air was bitter, the wind cutting. First Avenue was blanketted in slush. I hailed a cab, settled into the back seat, and put on my headphones. Cross town, through Central Park, and past the great blue orb of the Rose Planetarium, though, I never pushed play.

I could find the music.

Up five flights, into the dark warmth of my apartment, I set down my things, and climbed the spiral staircase to my bedroom. I sat before my keyboard, lit solely by the blue glow of the monitor. The wind was howling. Icey rain pelted the windows. The sky was still dark, the low clouds brushed dirty orange from the streetlights. Dawn was on the edge of breaking. Still, the darkness hung cold and heavy. I decide to make a run for it.

Central Park was empty. The Ramble was still, save for the hiss of the snow. I ran through the hills, leaving fresh tracks behind me, until I reached the southern edge of The Lake. I looked across to Bethesda, The Angel of the Water, her foundation wracked with fencing and girders, and turned westward. Across the frozen waters and through a gray veil of driving rain, the great edifices of Twentieth Century Prosperity — The Dakota, San Remo, Majestic, El Dorado and Beresford — stood defiantly against the frigid gale.

I jogged out of the park, back into traffic, and tried not to get hit.

Still Always Almost There

February 12th, 2007

I just got a call from Syracuse, New York, circa 1993 via Des Moines, Iowa, circa now.

I’m at 29 stories above Times Square at The MTV working the Grammys. This is typically our second busiest night of the year (second to our own Video Music Awards).

Jon Locker is in his basement in East Des Moines mastering the second volume of my “Besides” CD, which means he’s listening to songs I recorded when I was in my early twenties. He said he’d been particularly digging my “Always Almost There” recordings from way back in 1993. “It’s so warm and the drums are kinda soft. It almost sounds like a ’70s record,” he said. “Like it’s analogue or something.”

It was analogue! None of this digital ProTools stuff. Producer Steve Feldman and I recorded it on two inch analogue tape. It was the first and only time in my career in which I recorded to two inch. What difference does it make? Well, it just sounds different: warmer, deeper, smoother — like an LP vs. a CD.

It was a fun summer. I had just graduated Syracuse, so I was scared stiff (as evidenced by heart-on-my-sleeve lyrics like “It’s the springtime of my life / And I’m fearin’ for it”). Steve had just won a Syracuse Area Music Award — a SAMMY — for Producer of the Year, and my band, Smokey Junglefrog, had been nomintaed for Alternative Band of the Year. So in a small town like Syracuse, he would say, “Hey, let’s call that horn player from The Bedouins!” Forty-five minutes later, dude was there playin’ his horn. The record ended up being one of those Santana-like situations. Nearly every musician in town made an appearence, from The Barefoot Gravedigger’s Jill Lippencott on drums, to The Mind’s Eye’s Karen Savoca on vocals, to, well, Bedouins’ horn player AJ Mann.

Some days, Steve was on fire with ideas. Others, I couldn’t pry him off the couch. Once, when I finally got him downstairs all pasty and pale, he actually said to me, “Do you have any pills or anything?” I didn’t, so we pulled out a bottle of Makers Mark, and started drinking — at 10:30 in the morning. An hour later, he was asleep on the couch, and I was tracking electric guitars by myself. Good times. And a good record. The local press even said so (for the first and last time in my career). New Times critic Allen Czelusniak (who would later go on to rip me a new one for “Out Of Your Head”) wrote that “‘Always Almost There’ is as much a sonic statement as a personal one from Wagner… it is a mature work from a talented musician who has come to terms with himself as an artist.”

Unfortunately, CD replication cost way too much in 1993, so I duplicated 50 cassettes, and called it a day. Thirteen years later, it’s on its way to a few more ears.

I’m not in a terrible hurry with the “Besides” project. It’ll come out when it’s done. And Jon’s got a lot going on between playing bass for The Nadas, producing the next Josh Davis record, working with — get this — Dana Carvey (yes, that Dana carvey), and opening a studio in Des Moines with longtime pal (and former Nada) Tony Bonenkamp.

Talking with him about songs and sounds made me want to fly out for a long weekend and record a new CD (pills or none).

Maybe next year.

This year’s about cleanin’ out the closet, and makin’ room for some new stuff.

Which reminds me: I’m returning to Rockwood Music Hall on Sunday, March 25th at seven o’clock (exactly two years to the day from when Abbi picked me up at that very venue). Expect some new stuff then, for sure.

(Un)comfortably Numb

February 11th, 2007

My clothes were in a pile at the foot of the bed. My wrist hurt, my stomach burned, and my head ached. And as I began to piece together the night before, I thought to myself, ‘I’ve got to fight back.’

I woke up on the couch. The room was dark. The clock read 5:19. The floor was littered with debris: an empty carton of Haagen-Dazs Dulce de Leche, a half finished bottle of Gatorade, three remote controls, my socks, boots and belt.

I stood quickly and stumbled up the spiral staircase. My heart was racing and my head was spinning when I reached the top of the stairs. I stumbled, collapsed to my knees, fell forward onto my space heater, and regained my wits just seconds before actually blacking out. I peeled off my jeans and t-shirt, and tumbled into bed. Laying there, I thought, ‘You’re too old for this shit.’

It was, I think, the third margarita…

Abbi had gathered six of her closest college friends and their respective husbands and sibblings at Zarela, a festive, authentic Mexican restaurant on Second Avenue. I was a bit nervouse; it was a large group, most of whom I’d never met, all of whom had known Abbi for years. Still, I sat myself at the head of the table, ordered mine rocks, no salt, and settled in for the Q&A.

“How did you two meet?”

“How long have you been dating?”

“And what do you do?”

Two hours, three margaritas (which Zagat’s describes — I’ve only just now read — as “deadly”), many questions and a delicious (if gastronomically challenging) order of Cochinita Pibil (Yucatan-style pork shoulder marinated with achiote and sour oranges, slow cooked, then served in a banana leaf with a red onion, habanero chile and orange relish) later, we staggered into the February night.

Thirty minutes and on pint of Harp after that, shouting something about perofrming Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” for a birthday party of fourth graders with my high school band, Neoteric Youth, I thought to myself, ‘I’ve got to go.’

Fast forward to eight o’clock this morning. The sun was painfully bright. The sky was clear blue. I lay there in bed, feeling fat, sore, and slow. And I thought, ‘I am fat, sore, and slow. I have to fight back.’

I climbed into my tights (two pair: it is 23° outside after all), laced up my Asics, pulled on my Turtle Fur hat and fleece gloves, and started running.

I visited my orthopedist, 45-year-old Iron Man Triathlete Dr. Mark Klion, on Friday. He x-rayed my knee, then restated his October prognosis.

“You’re still wrestling with quadricep tendinitis. Basically, the fibers that connect you quadricep and your knee cap are messed up. With your injury, the strain is the greatest during eccentric muscle contractions — when your muscles are lengthening — like running down hills and stairs. Stretching will work, and weights will work. Do you have much experience with weights?”

“Dude,” I said, “I run, that’s all. For ten years, all I’ve done is run. Very little gym, very few weights, and not much by way of being preventative. Basically, my 35-year-old body is refusing to do what my 25-year-old body did no sweat.”

“100% then, let’s get you into some PT, and maybe even a personal trainer. Meanwhile, I’ll remind you that there is some chance of the quad rupturing if you mis-step, but that usually happens out of the blue — that is, with no previous injury — and to older age groups.”

Fast forward to nine o’clock this morning. I am gleefully sprinting through The Ramble, hurdling fallen trees, darting down hills, leaping across streams, and climbing stone staircases. The sun is warm on my chest. My head begins to clear. And as I stride towards home, I think to myself, ‘This is the best that I’ve felt in two months.’

I am not healed. The winter is not over. And there are sure to be challenges ahead. But I can fight back. I’ve done it before.

Making Love Understandable

February 8th, 2007

The subway platform is crowded three deep. ‘This,’ I think, ‘is gonna’ be good.’

I lean on an iron support beam deep in the 79th Street station below Broadway. All around me, straphangers crane their necks uptown to catch a glimpse of the oncoming train. My gaze is locked on an article on Tibet in Rolling Stone, but I’m not reading anything.

When the 1 finally arrives, I look up from beneath my sunglasses to scan the cars for rider density. ‘It’s packed,’ I think. ‘Though it is fourteen degrees outside.’

Thed doors open, but no one emerges. Instead, two dozen of us pour ourselves towards the entrance. We don’t acknowledgment of one another, but shuffle quickly past the sliding doors. We clot just inside, pushing as far as we can without bumping into one another.

Faces are drawn and vacant. Expressions are blank, exasperated, exhausted, and angry.

It is 8:45.

In the morning.

There is a young, bespoke man reading The Wall Street Journal, slouching across two seats. There is an elderly woman standing with her arms braced across the width of the train. I am backed up against the west side of the train, wedged between a large black man in a puffy North Face jacket and a young woman intent on reading AM New York.

I turn up Jeff Tweedy.

Cheer up, honey, I hope you can
There is something wrong with me

I look across the platform at 72d Street and hedge my bets. ‘Express?’ I think ‘Or local? Express? Or local?’

I remain on the local, my gaze locked on an article on Tibet in Rolling Stone.

But I’m not reading anything.

I relish the six blocks en route to 66th Street, then dread the doors gaping yawn. No one exits. My bag is tugged and trampled by a gaggle of gasping new passengers. I roll my eyes, and swear to myself.

59th Street? Worse.

I consider walking at 50th.

‘You’ve made it this far,’ I think.

Finally, the doors open at 42d Street. The elderly woman and young, Wall Street Journal man both stir from their comatose. We all do. Slowly, we move for the door. Outside, the subway platform is crowded three deep. I step off the train, and into the fray.

Cheer up, honey, I hope you can
There is something wrong with me

‘This,’ I think, ‘is gonna’ be good.’

Dead In The Water

February 7th, 2007

This morning’s wake up call, effectively rendering two thirds of my life’s pursuits (rock ‘n roll, and MTV) over the hill and obsolete, came courtesy of New York Magazine.

“Consider big media,” columnist Kurt Anderson wrote.

“CDs seem so antique,” my 17-year-old daughter remarked the other day. Again and again these days, the record-setting CD sales number isn’t about gold or platinum but for the all-time lowest number of sales by a No. 1 album. Just as our lame-duck-in-chief refused during 2004 and 2005 to face the hard facts in Iraq and shift strategy when he might’ve still had a good shot at succeeding, the big record companies did not in 2000 and 2001 begin seriously reinventing themselves for the digital age. And yet in this lame-duck age, where the outmoded doesn’t disappear, 90 percent of music is still sold in the form of aluminum-coated plastic discs.

MTV remains the biggest brand in music, but it missed the digital boat in the years before YouTube and MySpace, back when it had the leverage to keep artists on the reservation. MTV is no longer the cool destination for its demo and never will be again. In the radio business, the paleo-monopolists at Clear Channel hoovered up (and homogenized) broadcast-music stations in the nineties at the very moment broadcast was becoming a lame-duck technology, serving in the bargain as a great appetite suppressant for young record buyers. It amounts to a kind of death-spiraling symbiosis among the largest lame ducks, like Detroit with the UAW, each making life more untenable for the other long-term.

This on the subway listening to David Gray’s “Dead In The Water” with a barefoot homeless dude stretched out across four seats next to me .

Have a nice day.