June – July 2017
Spring and summer draw on, and with Roscoe’s Basement still lacking a lead guitarist, no gigs are forthcoming. Which is a pity, because the monotony and frustration of looking for a new member — of fielding dozens of initial contacts that evaporate after they get a look at the set list — well, it’s getting to me, and I could use the distraction.
There are distractions, but mostly they’re the bad kind. Chuck’s father, who’s been in treatment for lymphoma, dies on July 5 — just days after entering hospice — casting a pall across the summer. Craig will be absent through most of two months on a long-planned European vacation, effectively shutting down our auditions. It looks like the whole season is going to be a wash, and it’s making me squirrely.
See, after six months of brutally hard rehabilitation driven (initially) by a deep fear that I might never play guitar again, I’m playing probably better than I ever have. Indeed, I might actually be, for the first time in my life, objectively pretty good. But that deep-seated fear hasn’t really gone away. I carry out of my recovery a conviction that if I don’t want to lose my resurgent skill, I’d damn well better use it, and regularly. So I don’t just want to get out and play; in a very real sense, I think I need to.
Songwriting and recording give me some outlet, but I’m feeling uninspired. Not blocked, exactly — but with no prospect of a gig forthcoming, the process seems pointless. I’ve got the hunger, and it’s tearing me up in a bunch of directions at once. And so — just as with my search for a guitarist for the band — I come out less with a scattergun approach than with barrels blazing to all points of the compass.
The most obvious itch is the easiest to scratch. With a couple of emails and follow-up calls to the coordinators of local farmers’ markets, I book some solo shows, my first in more than a decade. Nothing precious, nothing fancy, and no half-measures; just me and my Martin, busking for tips for three sets at a whack. Chuck agrees to loan me his PA on an extended basis, and I’m off to the races.
I play five solo shows over the course of the summer and early fall. The first is rough, because I’m unfamiliar with the quirks of the PA, and out of practice, to boot; but once I master the equipment and shake off the nerves, I have a whale of a time. I break out my old straw trilby and go heavy on the fingerstyle, putting the Martin through a gauntlet of open tunings, drawing from every page of my songbook, finding room in my sets for Appalachian folk songs, jazz and blues standards, classic rock — even stripped-down versions of a few originals, including some that don’t fit with Roscoe’s Basement.
Home demo for “The Sailor,” which I perform live at solo shows in summer and fall of 2017. Drum loop, oscillator, acoustic guitar, bass, electric guitars, tin whistles, vocals, words and music by Jack Feerick; recorded April 2017.
I rediscover the joy of holding a crowd without raising my voice, of going soft and easy in a way that a six-piece band simply cannot. And at every gig, I put down my red plastic bucket with its faded SUPPORT LIVE MUSIC sign taped to the front. And over the course of five gigs, different things land in it…
Wednesday, June 28: Scottsville Farmer’s Market
• one comped meal (hamburger, chips, bottled water)
• one jar local honey
• one muffin (blueberry)
• $4.25 cash
• one return invitation (eventually declined)
Thursday, July 13: Bergen Farmer’s Market
• one loaf cinnamon bread
• six cookies
• one slice of cake
• one pint homegrown tomatoes
• two bell peppers
• two bunches beets
• $2.00 cash
Saturday, July 15: North Chili Farmers Market
• $26.75 cash
Saturday, August 5: Pittsford Village Farm Market
• One comped meal (hamburger with bacon)
• five tomatoes
• three zucchini
• one bunch collard greens
• three cucumbers
• one bunch beets
• one packaged salad, ready to eat
• one loaf of white bread
• one jar strawberry jam
• one paper cone filled with candied pecans
• one promotional beer koozie
• one pair novelty sunglasses
• one Charms Blow-Pop
• zero dollars cash
Saturday, September 23: North Chili Farmers Market (slight return)
• one cinnamon-sugar doughnut
• $27.15 cash
One of these things, as they say, is not like the others. Most market runners have the idea that the talent deserves a tent canopy, a stall like any other vendor. I appreciate the shelter from the sun (or the rain, as happens more than once), but it’s in these places that my bucket remains empty, except for what my fellow vendors see fit to put in it. (I’m glad of their generosity; they’re the only ones to hear the whole show start to finish, so they, for all purposes, are my true audience.) So I go home with bags of comestibles, but little to no coin, even in the wealthiest suburbs.
The sole exception is a Saturday-morning market at the Methodist church in the town where I used to live. I have no stall here; I set up with my back to the building, along the pathway that leads from the parking lot into the body of the market. It’s the three laws of real estate in action: location, location, location. Because there is only one route into or out of the market, every single patron must walk past me at least twice; and so my bucket fills with crumpled singles.
Charities figured out long ago that strangers will be generous if you make it easy for them. Same goes if you’re playing for tips. It’s easy to walk past a bucket and drop in a couple of bucks, as if by accidents; but if you have to go even a few steps out of your way — that is, if you have to make a dedicated trip specifically to tip the busker — you’re far less likely to do so.
Back when I was playing solo shows on then reg, I had a standing invitation at an upscale café. At first, I set up in the front window, and I made a mint. But the last time I played there, the owner had started asking musicians to set up at the back of the room, so the queue for the registers wouldn’t get backed up. I didn’t make a dime that night, and I never played there again. I sympathized; he had a business to run.
But when you come down to it, so did I.
Solo gigs are productive in a practical sense — I come home with gas money, or at least with the makings of a meal — but I’m still restless creatively. Craft can avail when inspiration fails.; still enthralled by the improvement in the quality of my recorded vocals afforded me by my new mic interface, I start messing around with elaborate vocal arrangements. But I can only get so much joy out of giving my old songs the Beach Boys treatment. I need fresh tunes.
I’ve grown bored with my own limitations as a melodist, the way the vocal lines in my songs have tended toward a monotone chant or (more recently) a flat Lou Reed-style recitation, not even virtuosic enough to warrant being called a rap. And boring melodies are leading me write boring words; I’ve got a half a dozen disconsolate grumbles in various stages of completion cluttering my notebooks and hard drives, and I don’t feel compelled to finish a single one. I’ve got a hankering for collaboration — to write again to someone else’s music.
As luck would have it, in late July I spot a Craigslist ad with a promising headline: “Any lyricists out there?” So I send a tentative note of introduction…And get an encouraging response. My dude — I’ll call him Magic Alex — put his band on hiatus not too long previous. I check out their stuff on Bandcamp, and it’s pretty cool — indie Americana, something like a less-enervated Bon Iver or a more-medicated Decemberists, and with a cool vintage keyboard vibe.
We continue to exchange emails, talking a little about what we each hope to get out of the process. Sez Magic Alex to me:And sez I to Magic Alex:
Over the course of the week, I send him three completed lyrics from my notebooks. In return, he sends me a lyric of his that’s stalled out after one verse, and two instrumental skeletons of songs.
I complete the partial lyric fairly quickly, giving his basic idea a dark twist over two additional stanzas and a bridge. Without any music, I follow along with the meter of his initial verse; I have to guess where the stresses will fall, but in the end it scans as a piece of poetry, at least.
Writing to his instrumentals is another matter. Magic Alex crafts long, ornate phrases, whereas I’ve grown accustomed to working in short, punchy refrains. I’ll have to get wordier than I usually like.
The tracks are 100% analog goodness, ripped to MP3 from a Tascam four-track. They’re mainly keyboard-based, heavily featuring the sound of a piano played through a Leslie rotating speaker. The first piece is a stately, gentle stroll that lifts to a majestic refrain, a winding, elaborate line on a churchy Hammond organ. The second is sprightlier, with acoustic guitar strums, handclaps, and a harmonium adding a vaguely Spanish tinge. I live with both tracks for a couple of weeks, playing them on repeat, looking for a way in.
The slow one gives me trouble. The constant build of the music encourages me to be grandiose, makes me want to write something “important” — and the political ugliness of the times only makes it seem more urgent. Each phrase of the verse ends in a very deliberate four-note figure, and I write out a bunch of phrases in that rhythm that might serve as a hook: You can tell me. Don’t you let them. For a lifetime. Keep on talking.
Thinking on Yoko Ono’s famous billboards and ads, I settle on “If You Want It” as my hook phrase and title, and write a hold-on anthem for doomed youth. It’s not very good. There are individual lines I quite like, but I never really get a handle on it, and the whole thing stinks of strenuous effort. Still, it’s just a first draft, and might eventually be improved. I type the lyrics up, sing a sketch vocal over Magic Alex’s completed instrumental, and move on.
The faster number comes more easily, and frankly has the stronger melody. I find a narrative hook in a peculiar, familiar dynamic I see online — of older men taking a suspiciously solicitous attitude toward younger women artists, especially if they’re “troubled” or seem vulnerable. I come up with a song called “Annie, I Know” that pokes fun at this creepy/pathetic dance between flirtation, stalking, and rescue fantasy, from the perspective of “just another punter in the bookshop.” I’m pretty pleased with this one; I don’t particularly care for the chorus, but the verse melody — which you can hear below, with Alex’s instrumental track muted — is dynamite, and invites the full Brian Wilson treatment.
Extract from home demo for “Annie, I Know.” Words, voices, and arrangement by Jack Feerick. Recorded July 2017.
I send each piece back to Magic Alex as I finish it.
And after those first couple of emails, I never hear back. Not a peep.
This is depressingly familiar. Long ago, when I was trying to break into comics writing, I several times struck up what I thought was a promising connection with an artist, and put in a lot of work writing something to suit his talents, only to encounter eventual radio silence; emails unanswered, maybe even bounced back from inactive addresses I never understood it then, and I don’t understand it now. I’m pretty sure I don’t give off crazy asshole vibes: If someone doesn’t want to work with me, it’s no harm and no foul — but have the decency, at least, to tell me so.
The bitch of it this time is that, since we did everything via a Craigslist proxy, I don’t even have Alex’s direct email. I Facebook message him, contact him via Bandcamp — I even scan for his name in the local news on the off-chance that he’s died — but there are no hits.
But here’s the funny thing: I don’t feel blocked anymore. I have a whole bunch of ideas for melodies and harmonies, and new perspectives on how songs go together, or don’t. I’m excited about my own work again.
So, Magic Alex, in the unlikely event that you are reading this: Thanks for your help.
You no-good, chickenshit, sandbagging son of a bitch.
Next: Bring ‘em All In