2017, a fan's notes

At the close of years past I’d occasionally adumbrate some high points and post them to my website. Meant in a spirit of reflective gratitude, surely it came off as so much bragging. Yet, as Martin Mull said of mobs chorusing “We Shall Overcome” in joyous unity -- if they undercame, they wouldn’t be singing. Ill-advised though I may be to sing my own praises, 2017 was such a terrific year for me, probably the best year of my life if I count the blessings in full and if the arbitrary January-to-December container isn’t too flimsy to hold heavy reflections, that I’m driven once again to the keyboard to hymn the gods who have granted me so much, perhaps subconsciously motivated by the silly superstition that my public declarations will encourage them to treat me just as gently in 2018, and definitely nagged by the thought that at my present age most of life’s rewards should, by biological logic and historical example, be waning, and that in every previous era a moldy troubadour such as I would not be stomping around like a lusty monarch but following the path of the sere and yellow leaves of early winter. (In that sentence -- its involutional length if not its emotional tone -- I salute Thomas Bernhard, whose Gathering Prizes helped make last August a lot funnier.)

The books, as long as I’ve brought them up, didn’t quite pull their weight this year. Way too much fluffy contemporary reading. I bought Letterman impulsively in a Seattle bookshop, along with Richard Russo’s Trajectory, to ease a longish flight, and I ended up gobbling both like a ravenous moron. But Rudy Rucker’s stemwinding The Lifebox, The Seashell, and The Soul: What Gnarly Computation Taught Me About Ultimate Reality, The Meaning of Life, and How To Be Happy, offered more than ample nourishment. It’s a long, digressive, scrupulous teasing-out of the hypothesis that everything in the universe -- the laws of physics, the chemistry of life, the products of the mind -- is a computation. It has fictional stories, dense graphs, handmade illustrations, offhand autobiographical anecdote, and pages of equations and computer-science minutiae that I had to struggle with or skip altogether. It’s more like going through a bulging box of papers from your grandfather’s closet than enjoying a professionally edited book, but it allows the sort of acquaintance with a brilliant mind that the now-fading, pre-Internet age of high-powered editorial gatekeepers would have likely denied us.

On the lighter side, as Dave Berg would say, I checked in with two old favorite comic masters, Peter DeVries (Comfort Me With Apples) and Max Shulman (Rally Round The Flag). Peter the epigrammatical elitist and carpenter of durable phrases stained by a dark Calvinism, Max the wisecracking Jewish populist and master of streamlined ready-for-TV sentences. Close in age (Shulman was born 9 years later than DeVries in 1919 and died 5 years sooner), both were permanently amused by sex, American middle-class mores, and adolescence. It seems to me that I’m so fond of comedy in every form -- I’ve already namechecked Mad magazine, Peter & Max (an excellent cross-denominational deli), and Letterman and Mull, and might add examples as farflung as LaWanda Page, Bennett Cerf, Marcel Pagnol, Michael O’Donoghue, I Love Lucy, Martin Short, Jeeves and Wooster, Sandy Baron, James Thurber, Second City, and the Three Stooges -- that I can’t be said to have any actual taste in it.

Three books, Dreamland, Strangers In Their Own Land, and The Mandibles, clarified and deepened my concerns about America’s near future. Opiates, bizarrely unfit leaders, and reckless borrowing. If you’re trying to break [fill in the blank] you don’t have very far to go, USA.

On a professional plane, my year was studded with more braggable moments than any previous -- the Met in NYC, the Grammys, the Steppenwolf showcase of a musical-in-progress, my return to the Grand Ole Opry, and the Town Hall show in December with various SNL-ers, for example. If these things had happened to me 20 years ago I’d be so giddy with excitement that only pharmaceuticals could level me off. Being in one’s fifties is empowering and slightly sad: the level of excitement appropriate to outstanding personal landmarks such as the Opry and the Met is just metabolically inaccessible. If I was transported back in time to provide musical interludes at a live show between appearances by Gilda Radner and John Belushi, and to mill with them in the stage-left wing and upstairs dressing room at one of America’s greatest venues...don’t wait up for me to teleport back to now. Yet here I was, sharing a bill with their latter-day counterparts, brilliant and funny people, and most of what occupied my mind was, so to speak, points of order. How long till my next spot? Was the tuning doing okay amid the offstage temperature shifts? What time was it? How much sleep would I be able to fit in before tomorrow morning’s flight? And so on and et cetera. Although I occasionally get flustered by performance environments that are outside my comfort zone, this represents my mental state at most performances: practical, problem-gnawing, and composed. Being both 54 and nervous doesn’t make any sense at all. I’m a finished work, pretty much. Keeping form, from here on out, is the focus, not making strides. The difference between the moods I’m in after aceing a show and whiffing one (more on which below) is hardly ever drastic; nor is the difference between the after-show highs from facing 4,000 people or 40. Likewise, chatting amiably with Vanessa Bayer was a pleasure, but dishing with the Uber driver en route back to Brooklyn was fun too.

The aspect of the year that heated up my emotions the most was the musicians I had access to. On mandolin alone -- Scott Simontacchi, Jesse Cobb, Don Stiernberg, Matt Flinner -- holy Christ. In 2017 I also got to work live with Matt Munisteri, Noam Pikelny, Dennis Crouch, Anat Cohen, Patrick McAvinue, Yvonne Gage, Eric Schneider, and Duke Levine, to say nothing of years-long accompanists -- okay, basically, friends -- such as Shad Cobb, Robbie Gjersoe, Missy Raines, Redd Volkaert, Fats Kaplin, and Jenny Scheinman. That’s a partial list, and it reflects a satisfying variety of projects on my calendar, a conscious methodology of changing it up from trip to trip, and, again, being 54, since none of these people would have returned my 30-year-old self’s phone call. Singing a verse of a song I made up and then throwing Matt Flinner a solo is a dream with which, as Wm F. Buckley said anent Ronald Reagan’s election to the presidency, I would never in my most unhinged moments have wafted my way to Nirvana. And here we are. 

I count 104 dates on my 2017 routing sheet. It sure felt like more -- maybe it was the added travel days. I also did a handful of Hideout Monday night shows, a couple sit-in-with-friends dates, a charity fundraiser or two, and a little radio on non-performance days. Hawaii, which has been my #1 dream destination for years, was probably my favorite work outing. It wasn’t all work: I arrived three days early, checked into the seaside resort generously provided by Chuck Gessert, the promoter, and rose at the next day’s dawn to go on a 6-man outrigger canoe race with Chuck’s private club. We were short a person on our canoe, but even with two of the five of us total novices -- me and a pretty young woman who shed progressively more clothing as the 90 minutes of aerobic labor wore on -- we won against 3 other more experienced boats. Between strokes, we watched the sun coming up over the island. At the halfway stop, at the edge of a Tom Sawyer-like island, the men and the woman stood waist-deep in the water alongside their boats and chatted, some of them dropping broad hints about how much money they had earned on the mainland before retiring. Later, I snorkeled, swam, hiked a long road with a gradient of as much as 37%, ate like a pig, hiked in the mountains, fooled around with wild ponies, and checked out four of the island’s nine climate zones. I did a music presentation for a public middle-school class, most of them natives. Our single point of intersection was Michael Jackson. 

During my week in Australia and New Zealand (also my first visit) I didn’t have much unscheduled time to myself, except for an afternoon in Melbourne, which I spent wandering rather aimlessly. The town is unlike any I’ve seen. Its population is almost 4 million but it has a non-corporate service economy that seemed to me like it would be unsustainable in a city four times as big. It takes 15 minutes to walk 5th Avenue in Brooklyn from 7th Street till it dead-ends on Flatbush. By contrast, I spent 90 minutes walking through and beyond the Fitzroy section of Melbourne, and another 90 walking back along different streets, and the Park Slope hipster-commercial terrain stretched on and on, ramen dives and bookstores and rock clubs and coffeehouses and jeans and shoe stores. The next day, in a neighborhood 40 minutes distant, Shad and I walked for a half-hour after soundcheck, and it was the same thing. There were graffiti, sidewalk vendors, pretty 100-year-old buildings, and happy young people on bikes (racially homogeneous young people) everywhere. One was left puzzled as to where the hipsters were stealing money from to buy their body oils and other uplifting non-essentials. We played at a theater, a dance hall, and a festival situated on the bay, and were left with the impression that Melbourne has it all.

In Auckland I landed a little before 6AM and had nothing scheduled until a 3PM soundcheck. I had left my phone at the gate at Vancouver, and so I really felt unattached. After napping, I walked around, ending up at an Israeli/Mediterranean restaurant called Ima and run by a kind lady called Yael Shochat. My meal was sabich, a chickpea and potato dish, with a mixed mezze-plate appetizer. I had a lot of questions for Yael about the prep, the ingredients, and the history of the food, and I forget all of the answers. I returned to Ima the next morning for breakfast before the flight to Sydney and brought Shad with me. By the time we left, I had the restaurant’s $50 cookbook under my arm, and when I’d got home I tried out its recipes for vegetarian couscous, Tunisian sandwich, and hamusta soup, then promptly ordered two more copies for Christmas presents. Part of the fun of working from a book unavailable in the west is decoding the list of ingredients. I already had silverbeet and capsicums in my refrigerator, to my surprise.

Visiting Sisters, Oregon for their annual folk festival and instructional camp will prove hard to forget. The town is cute -- a little too cute, if you ask me, more like a replica of a Western town, a la Rock Ridge in Blazing Saddles. (“Now all we got to do is make perfect copies of ourselves...you men start workin’ on the dummies!”) Smoke from the not-so-far-off fires that were imperilling much of the west coast last summer was prevalent for the first two days of camp. On the third day, the promoter called off the rest of the event on the advice of certain lily-livered local health authorities. I spent the remainder of the cancelled event in a motor lodge, trying to work on lyric assignments from Logan Ledger, a dynamic young country singer, and Anat Cohen, the eminent clarinetist. Neither of them was in any way breathing down my neck, but I wanted to get something done, if only to please them. To no avail. I did get plenty of whiskey drinking and phone talking done, and, as the weekend rolled around, I rambled over to Bend to have an incredible meal at Ariana with my dear friends Frank and Sheri Cole. Sheri’s sister Kathy and brother-in-law Randall, from Kansas, were also along. With each new installment in the wine flight over the 3-hour dinner, Kathy got a little more red-state. “I just don’t want them taking away our guns,” she declared, after the fifth glass. “Who’s going to take away your guns?” I said, my own tongue loosened by the grape. “You don’t have a gun,” Sheri told Kathy, getting more to the point, perhaps. “But if I wanted to get one,” said Kathy, good-naturedly, “I don’t want them taking it away.”

These seven days in September seemed never to end. On Sunday night, I checked out an intermittently engaging movie called Wind River in a cute theater on the edge of town. On Monday I washed my clothes in a laundromat and read a book about the Warner brothers of Hollywood. It was September 11, 2017, but it felt a little like September 12, 2001, when I was also in Oregon and cut off from loved ones. Despite occasional contact with people, my feeling was of isolation and loneliness, which continued as I drove up to Portland to play a solo show. I went up to my little room above the bar after playing, poured a slug of whiskey, and sank into an intermittently engaging Philip Roth novel and an Edward G. Robinson movie.

Now, about the whiffing. Anat Cohen had invited me to appear as her special guest and collaborator at the Logan Center on the south side of Chicago, where she and her ten-piece band were to unveil music from her style-straddling new record, Happy Song. I first met her at a wedding in 2003, where she was playing in one room and I in another. On break, I heard a pretty sound sailing on the air. Upon finding the source and listening a while longer, I thought, “This is about the best playing clarinet playing I’ve heard.” We jammed briefly at that affair, and played together impromptu years later at the Hideout and Fitzgeralds, but this official date of hers, with me advertised on the bill, was a sharp ratcheting-up. Her arranger, Oded, threw me a couple tunes to try to put words to, at which I pretty much failed. To the extent that this didn’t reflect on me, I concluded that there are strong melodies that are well-suited to the human voice and to literal meanings, and strong melodies that aren’t, and these were the latter. Arriving at the gig, we had a pretty long soundcheck and I had a good time hanging with the NYC hotshots in Anat’s band. Conservatory-generated jazz youngsters are intelligent, argumentatively resourceful (I don’t think the cellist appreciated my dig at Ron Carter, to which he responded quickly and firmly), reverently history-minded, and altogether sober. Not much like the cool-encrusted, slangy, half-drunk, hamfisted loafers of the Americana scene! At Anat’s show, I was achingly disappointed with my performance, especially of “Beaumont Rag,” which after all was me on my own turf, fiddle tunes, playing the Watson version that I had provided and Oded had meticulously transcribed. The sound was imperfect, and I was probably a little fatigued from some early-morning travel, but mostly I think I was ill-at-ease in the venue and intimidated by Anat’s fantastic playing. I evaded obloquy in the next day’s Tribune review, but I was mad at myself for falling into such an elementary mental trap. Apparently I forgot I was 54.

But that was nothing as compared to six weeks earlier, where I had the lowest performance point of my year, in a little town in the middle of New York state. At a private party in a barn, with a few hundred middle-aged lollygagging in the dark and setting bonfires and gyrating savagely, nothing was clicking for me. For once the players I’d assembled weren’t jelling. And the sound was miserable, making us even worse than we were. It was like hearing yourself back through your Wisconsin grandmother’s kitchen radio. The buyer was a great guy, full of cheer and hospitality, and he told me an inspiring tale about how his simple business idea had revitalized his struggling community, there two hours from Utica. Also I have to admit that the payout was good. But all I could think of, as the golf cart carried us across his acreage back to our rental van, was the distance I had come to sound so terrible. When you degrade yourself in public and have only the consolation of a check, you can feel exactly as low as a whore.

Wasn’t this supposed to be a positive essay? When I wasn’t traveling and playing, I was recording and writing. I brought three record projects to 90% completion last year; all three will be released this year. One is a large collection of new compositions that I’ll put out as downloads via my site, like my 2009 package 50-vc. Doberman. It might be another 50, or maybe a few more, I’m not sure yet, but my engineer friend John Abbey and I have about 50 tracked and mixed as of now. The second record is my next Bloodshot release, a duo record with Linda Gail Lewis. It’s completely different from my last couple of records, since it’s designed to reflect and enhance Linda’s personality and strengths, which are like happy hands around your throat. Finally, the third is a reimagined version of Bob Dylan’s Street-Legal, which has played around the edges of my mind since its release back in 1978. Orchestrally this was a record (Bob’s I mean) grand and ambitious in conception -- three lady singers, a highly focused eight-piece band backing Bob plus trumpet on one song, abstract lyrics about tarot and apocalypse and personal troubles we can only guess at -- but, like Bob’s other work of the period, a bit patchily and hastily executed. It’s hard to figure out why they didn’t bother with another pass or two at the songs so that the players could settle better into the arrangements, but they didn’t, and as a result, you can hear how masters like Jerry Scheff handle themselves in a tight spot. The patchiness invites you to fill in the holes in your imagination, or spin off into your own alternate arrangements, which is what I did.

Those first two projects kept me writing at a strong clip throughout the year. I also wrote for Logan and for Mark Roberts’s play The Last Night of the Jabez Country Opry; and I recorded a version of “My Brain” for an upcoming Mose Allison tribute that his girl Amy is putting together. (“Girl.”) I bought a new Martin guitar, one of the “sinkers” at George Gruhn’s shop, in the strange “quad” size. Some modest but real strides were made on the clawhammer banjo, as I toiled at the standards “Snowdrop” and “Cumberland Gap” and became obsessed with a wild youtube song in a weird tuning by Walt Koken, “That Gal With The Run Down Shoe.” I vacationed in Utah and Colorado. My youngest son totaled the family car, got a 30 on his ACT, maintained a C- average at school, socialized heavily, and may or may not end up at one the west coast colleges we visited in the fall, leaving Donna and me free to sell this 2200-square-foot prison and move on into the next chapter of our lives. My 2018 summary may be written from a luxurious loft in the sparkling city, or, who knows, a padded chamber provided free by the county.