Two-plus weeks at home is a lot of time to unwind, if one doesn’t have travel plans. And come the holidays, I don’t. I have no desire to go anywhere in December. When I have my two weeks’ downtime, I just want to do my own thing – no phones ringing, no texts; perhaps meeting a friend or two for lunch and conversation but that’s the extent of it. Simple plans (or maybe non-plans): do the winter purge (I get rid of things at the start of each season to keep the good flow and never allow clutter to happen), go to the gym (dire need, as of late) and actually start making my own music again. You would think two weeks is a lot of time, but when you’ve neglected it all for so long, you forget your own songs; you have to reteach yourself the various parts, timing, etc. And playing/recording all the parts on new equipment takes time and patience. So I didn’t get too lofty this year – if I could at least begin one song, that would be an accomplishment.
Nevertheless, now all that is coming to an end, as I have to return to work on Tuesday, the 3rd. So I thought I’d take a few minutes to jot down my favorite things that I’ve been listening to and using for reference/motivation while I’ve been home. It’s been plentiful, without a doubt, but there are biases and higher points, especially since I wanted to be as much a participant as well as a listener. So let’s start with getting back to the basics, just to get the blood flowing:
THE BEAU BRUMMELS: Volume 2 (Autumn, August 1965)
When I first set out to start working on this solo album (my first, by the way) in December 2010, I was listening to everything I could find by this brilliant-but-criminally overlooked San Francisco band. Most people know them from their first two hits, “Laugh Laugh” (especially since they were on The Flintstones as “The Beau Brummelstones”) and “Just A Little”, but this album is a lot less Beatlesque than their debut, Introducing… and a lot more folk-rock, with its extended use of 12-string guitars, richer harmonies and insightful lyrics. From this album came my favorite of their tracks, which I dearly want/intend to record a version of – the wondrously perfect “Don’t Talk To Strangers” and it was here that I basically picked up where I left off 6 years ago.
Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era, 1965 – 1968 (Elektra, 1972)
This timeless classic is one of those “must haves” for any record collection and every generation. Of course, I was running through the 4-CD reissue set, issued by Rhino in 1998. This is the ultimate compilation of “garage-rock”; yes, it influenced a suitable number of musicians that helped pave the way for the foundation of punk rock during the ’70’s, but having been a child in the late ’60’s, I was very fortunate to have two parents who had such unbelievably wide musical taste. Their record collection was no less than a small record store and they purchased a major portion of the singles that make up this remarkable collection. Among the amazing tracks (for those not in the know), “You’re Gonna Miss Me” (13th Floor Elevators), “She’s About A Mover” (Sir Douglas Quintet), “Open My Eyes” (The Nazz), “Lies” (Knickerbockers), “Little Girl” (Syndicate Of Sound) and one of my top 5 songs of all time, “Psychotic Reaction” by The Count Five.
THE WHO: Happy Jack (Decca, December 1966)
While The Who Sell Out is my favorite Who album (since it was the first I owned and heard), Happy Jack is the one that influenced me the most, as after hearing it, I finally decided to buy a guitar, learn how to play and write songs. It’s a consistent, great album, filled with melodic brilliance and power shown by the 4 members of The Who, all of whom had writing credits (everyone had at least two songs, except for Daltrey, who only wrote one). Townshend’s “Run Run Run” is a blast of machine gun fire, as “Don’t Look Away” is near-country rock and the ten minute mini-opera “A Quick One, While He’s Away” is hilariously inspirational. But for me, the song that still turns me back into that impressionable 14 year old is John Entwistle’s “Whiskey Man”. Don’t ask me why; all I know is I love it as much now as I did then.
NEIL DIAMOND: Just For You (Bang, 1967)
Say what you will, this guy is one of the greatest songwriters in our (or any other) lifetime. I am incredibly partial to his Bang Records years, for it was here, he wrote and released nothing but classics – “Solitary Man”, “Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon”, “Thank The Lord For The Nighttime”, “Cherry Cherry” and so on. I heard these songs constantly as a child and absolutely loved all of them. This album, his second, has them all, as well as “Red Red Wine” (yes, he wrote it and did it first and it’s still the only rendition worth a damn), “You’ll Forget” and the magnificent and heartbreaking “Shilo” (my favorite of his entire output). Listen to the lyrics and see if you aren’t carried off on a tide of emotion. Influential on me? You better believe it.
R.E.M. Reckoning and Fables Of The Reconstruction (I.R.S., April 9, 1984 and June 10, 1985)
I’m not going to be pedantic and wax eloquent about what R.E.M. has meant to me since I first heard “Wolves, Lower”, 35 years ago. Everyone knows; it’s a fact and their influence on me has been immeasurable. During my time off, I had moments where I could just sit and think quietly – and this is highly personal. I thought about my ex-girlfriend (who I dated for 7 years, starting in 1986) and her death in February 2015. A mutual friend of ours got in touch with me after 20 years (which was the same length of time since she and I had last been in contact) to let me know. I never had a chance to grieve or mourn properly; the thought of her being gone was something I could not process. R.E.M. was her favorite band; these were her two favorite albums. I’ve always loved these two records beyond description, but at this point and age, they’ve taken on a greater depth and emotional meaning for me.
THE PUNCH LINE …to get to the other side (Synchronic, April 1st, 2006)
Okay, maybe this is a dick move, but in order to start moving forward, I had to listen to the last thing I released. And this was it. The story; the evolution of this album is long and tedious – this released version is the third attempt at an album started in December 1987. The original tapes, featuring the 4-piece line-up are, sadly, gone forever. When we reconvened in November 2003, I didn’t want to revisit these songs – they weren’t of the here-and-now. The popular vote won out as friends, family and the (new) band members said otherwise, so we did them all once more and finally delivered. I’m my own worst critic, naturally, and I’d do a lot differently. But this particular song IS a true favorite; it’s one of the better pieces of lyrics I’ve ever written; I’m still immensely proud of it for what it was – and keep this in context: it was written in May 1987, when I was 22 years old (I’ll be 52 in 5 days). It was the first time I felt like a real “songwriter of consequence” and the rest of the band, along with our fans felt the same way. It was supposed to be our debut single – it wasn’t (a totally different and longer story) but that’s how things sometimes go. In any event, even 19 years after its inception, I finally had a version I was happy with. Imagine that – a love song to your home town…
By going back and listening closely to The Punch Line’s last album, it gave me the chance to map out where to go next, especially with the enormous amount of material I have for this upcoming record.
I can think of worse ways to spend a two-week vacation at home!
(author photo credit by Elizabeth Ross)