In mourning the loss of my trusty club cello of the last 15 years, I’d like to share the origin story of our pairing. I never imagined I’d learn so much from — and come to love — a piece of wood quite like I did this mossy, broken-down, rough-and-tumble, squeaky old, hoarse, janky and forgotten cello when it came into my life completely uninvited one day in 2004. [… read the full piece at Medium]
I once found myself at an Elton show, on the first of two sold-out nights at Madison Square Garden.
A good friend brought me, having extended the invitation like this: "Hey man, I know this is random but do you want to go see Elton John? My ex-girlfriend's mother's old boss has a pair of company tickets he's not using."
Who would refuse a five-degree hand-me-down? Sign me up.
The Elton magic is multiplied 100 times in person. From the stage, he said things like "Tonight is my 64th appearance from this stage…" and "Bernie Taupin and I have been writing together now for 46 years…".
Just another day at the office! Here, have some stone-cold classics.
I didn't know most of the songs, even though I'd assumed I would. It was a ballad-heavy show, and different people in the hall would light up and cheer when he played "their" song, only to fall silent during others. The guy is mondo prolific! During my life he's released 123 singles, 31 of which have charted in either the US or UK, so you can forgive yourself for not knowing the whole EJ canon. It's worth a dig though, especially the early stuff. Check out "Honky Chateau" and "Rock Of The Westies".
Of course, the one song that always ties it up: "Your Song" for the encore. I'm sure I'd have seen a riot had he not played it.
[See also the Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman duet in Moulin Rouge]
Speaking of songs which rise from the dead, a couple of years ago I was woken up late at night by "Rocket Man" and couldn't shake it until I'd made a home video:
A few other songs which have boomeranged for me: Perfect Day (via an old dusty tape), And I Love Her (after it was covered by both Cobain and Metheny), I'm Alright (totally my fault: a certain dancing chipmunk got burned into my brain after I watched Caddyshack about 100 times in middle school).
Quality songwriting is all about grace. You can choose to be sophisticated also, but it may not resonate as well. I'm a three-time conservatory dropout, mostly because Paul McCartney and Tom Jobim were never mentioned in those vaunted "music theory" courses. Give me music reality any day.
A great song is like a little music lesson. Compositional devices like appoggiaturas or a walkdowns will come up in just the right way to get the message across, and your musical brain will remember them because of the emotional imprint of the song. Elton's chord changes are forgivingly slow for untrained ears, and he somehow manages to avoid predictability despite deploying pop warhorses with almost cartoonish obviousness. Learning his tunes is a great way to learn the harmonic ropes.
Whether or not you care for Elton John, we all take him for granted.
I mean, to argue about Elton John would be a little like arguing about Mt. Everest. It won't change anything. He just is.
The Elton Formula of sweeping melodies over slowed-down gospel chords and either a super-lazy (Candle In The Wind) or a charging (Crocodile Rock) shuffle has been deployed steadily now for almost five decades. The schmaltz was huge in the 70s, and he's mostly been on cruise control ever since - which is not to say you should overlook him.
His hits have this weird way of rising from the dead, at just the right time, long after you forgot them. And he's been around forever. People can love him or hate him but he's a traceable element on our musical periodic table. For example, you'll find a high Eltonium content in the later work of Phil Collins.
Of course, tugging on heartstrings is a mysterious business and if you overdo it people will get turned off. A lot of us are careful to avoid Eltonisms for fear of sounding too broadway. Pour on the schmaltz too thick and you'll get branded for life as a cabaret act (or worse - a wedding singer!) But Elton gets away with it most of the time. Like those magical birthday candles that keep relighting themselves (in the wind?), long-forgotten Elton songs tend to boomerang back into view at the right time, taking on a whole new life (and a new audience). The movie "Almost Famous" was the best commercial for Tiny Dancer ever.
This song is in our DNA:
The first time I heard Save The Last Dance, I'm embarrassed to say, was on a gig.
This happens to me more than I'd like to admit. I knew the title but it sat on the endless list of "classics" I just had to know. And in the canon of hundreds (thousands) of jazz and pop standards we all have to know are several thousand songs I don't know, but heard the title referenced somewhere.
[Click here if you don't see the video]
Any time I hear a song referenced, in literature or in conversation, I'll search my pretty-vast-but-actually-very-tiny internal catalog for familiarity. I look for a match. Do I know this song? And usually I don't, which is fine unless you're a professional.
You can dance every dance with the guy
Who gives you the eye
Let him hold you tight
I was playing bass for Philip Hamilton back in 2000 and he called this tune as an encore. Trio gig, packed house, and I'm scribbling out the changes right before the set. He and Etienne Stadwyck (the keyboardist) both looked at me sideways for not knowing the tune already and I pretended not to be faking it. Phil slays this tune (as a ballad!) but my first time playing it with him was a trial by fire.
Needless to say the song has been etched in my DNA ever since.
You can smile, every smile for the man
Who held your hand
Beneath the pale moonlight
The lyricist, wheelchair-bound Doc Pomus wrote it on his wedding day while watching his bride dance with a succession of men.
But don't forget who's taking you home
And in whose arms you're gonna be
So darlin, save the last dance for me
I love the way these words roll off the tongue. I love the happy-sad vibe and phrasing. The melody soars a little bit but not dramatically. Anyone can sing this song. I've played it at many gigs, many weddings, I play it in the subway and for myself.
Oh I know that the music's fine like sparkling wine
Go and have your fun
Laugh and sing, but while we're apart don't give your heart
Love is such a mystery, we're often caught between longing and the longing for freedom, the desire to be longed-for but also to celebrate our lover's freedom. Dance is the ultimate expression of this paradox, and who hasn't lived some version of this moment? Watching from the sidelines, aching with love, he can't dance, so he sings about dancing.
Baby don't you know I love you so
Can you feel it when we touch
I will never ever let you go
I love you oh so much
Sadly, Doc's marriage didn't last. But this song will live forever.
Read D.P.'s story in colorful detail here.
A perfect night in Paris.
The evening began at Radio France, the French BBC type thing. The thing I wish we had something like in the US. We rolled up in there and did our one a capella song at the end of James's interview on the French Fresh Air program. It was very classy, very high tech. Espressos were served on trays, again, like usual in my dreams.
From there I caught an Uber (like normal, from my phone, using the wi fi of the place, right there on my phone in France) The car rolled right up front and I jumped in like ya do. All good, found the tasty little joint I was going to play in, walked right in and it was pure magic. Paris totally knows how to do its little nightclubs. I soundchecked, relaxed for a minute and then hit it. Right there on the one microphone in the middle, under the perfect mood lighting. James and the crew were right there along with about 30 locals and they were all digging it. The sound was perfect, the vibe was perfect, the response was perfect. Keith, Adam and Damon got up at the end to jam with me. Perfection. I recorded it, so you can hear it: click HERE and press play.
I'm thinking France needs to happen once in awhile. I want to properly belong to this place a little.
Anyway, so that went great. I'm sated, I just gave it up pretty good to Paris. Something about this place makes us play our best, but only if we've earned the right. They'll tune you right out if you blow any chunks up in here. Even just one little one, they'll show you the door. Luckily I didn't tonight, and they didn't.
So it wound down gently and I got to take my friend Mary Noelle out to dinner, say a proper thank you for setting the gig up and also do some more catching up. She's one of my closest friends and we never run out of stuff to talk about.
Then I took her home, hopped in a cab in the drizzling rain and got on the road back to Pernety where the band was staying. On the way home, crossing the Seine, the perfectly orange half-moon was low in the sky right next to the Eiffel Tower, and even though I was already ruminating on how perfect the night was, it just got a little bit perfecter.
1:30 am and the boys are still up, munching the cake and the croissants and re-living the glories of our week with James McBride. I walk in and they all start cheering, saying how I killed it tonight and we all dished for another hour. Telling the stories, laughing our asses off.
I love this life, I love this city, I love this world and I love you.
Paris is calling me back soon.
Little darling, it's been a long and lonely winter
I can usually remember the first time I heard a song, but in this case I do not. I doubt anyone under 45 can remember the first time they heard "Here Comes The Sun" because most parents since the 70's have made sure it's one of the first things their kid hears:
[Click here if you don't see the video]
The smiles returning to their faces
One thing I love about it, among many: the happy-sad thing. Some people, when it comes on, they'll jump up and smile. But many do the opposite: I played it for a friend once and she started crying. Didn't make it past the first verse. Not all childhoods are sunny, and this song certainly doesn't always sound it.
It depends on what it's following: if you were just listening to Aqualung or Philip Glass or Jay-Z or Mutemath I doubt it'll connect as intended. It's totally childish and innocent-sounding.
But a lot of us hear the breakup of the Beatles in this song too.
Sun, sun, sun here it comes
Here Comes The Sun is too pure a song to allow anyone an opinion of it. You have to sing it with a straight face. You can't insert yourself into it. It's totally a head-above-water song, the song grownups sing to the kids to pretend it's all ok.
One day I woke up and knew I had to learn it, so I did. I didn't learn it because the sun had just come out, but because I needed it to.
I feel that ice is slowly melting
I've been categorized as "happy-sad" before. I'll confess that learning to perform this song on a cello was an important step on my own road to happiness. I like to play what's true.
And I love this song!
And the air was beautiful
I first heard From The Morning while sitting in a pub near Portobello Market in London. When I say "first", I mean I'd heard it many, many times before without actually hearing it.
But for the first time on that day, I was sitting in the kind of pub where they play what they want because that's what you do. "From The Morning" finally revealed itself.
A day once dawned from the ground
[Click here if you don't see the video]
The track will never leave us, it's one of the great masterworks. A few pop gems are little Mona Lisas, like "I Only Have Eyes For You" by the Flamingoes. We appreciate them.
But "From The Morning" by Nick Drake is the type of track which might just save your life, as it did mine. The groove, the sound, gently and truthfully painting your life into a sunrise, performed by one person in one take:
Then the night she fell
My 31st year was marked by several transformations, new ascents and falls which drastically expanded my view of the world and of the people in it. Sitting at this pub on that particular day, for me, happened to be a hanging-on-for-dear-life, hoping-against-hope, trying-not-to-miss-anything moment.
So look see the days
Some days I look at the sky and tears burst right out my face. It's just too big up there, my ego can't handle it. I want to feel so important, but it's impossible with that sky above us all the time. I held onto the bench thinking I might blow away, scatter like dust.
All questions and no answers, but Nick's quiet effortlessness brought me right into the present, offering direction if I could only stop spinning long enough to hear it.
And now we rise
I'd launched myself into love again with no regard for common sense or postwar planning. Which some say is how you should always do, nothing else will bring you more alive. But I don't want to describe what happened that winter. Many losses of heart, money and dignity.
I looked down at worn grains in the carved-up table, cradling a pint as if it were my pint-sized baby self and reckoned with the untenableness of my situation.
So look see the sights
The endless summer nights
And go play the game that you learnt
From the morning
Nick Drake died at 26. I'm much less young now, but every time I hear him I listen a little harder. Maybe for advice. Did I miss something last time? Sometimes you're only ready for so much, but I remember the color of the October London sun that day. I remember briefly finding myself inside this track.
Part of me is still sitting at that gnarly table trying to figure things out, learning to fully enjoy the beautiful moments. Because sometimes that's all you get.
I had heard Ron Sexmith a lot, considered myself a fan, but the version of this song which etched itself into my brain is that of Feist. She killed this tune on TV, everyone took notice and I, like usual, was late to the party.
Could it be three simple words, or the fear of being overheard?
[Click here if you don't see the video]
I'm the guy with the secret heart, but only to myself. Nobody ever has to tell me to get a grip, for my grip is chronic.
Secret heart, why so mysterious? Why so sacred, why so serious?
So yeah, I'd heard Ron sing this song many times. Loved it. But a woman's voice changes the whole thing around. Now she's my mom, my girlfriend, my sister my aunt and my grandma all together. Very encouraging: Come on, you better do it, Trev! You gotta loosen up and cry or dance or laugh or whatever. "Oh come on, just let it out you'll feel better."
Easy for you to say! Call it fear, pride or whatever your flavor of resistance: it's rarely voluntary.
The very secret that you're trying to conceal
Is the very same one that you're dying to reveal.
It's not supposed to be hard to express ourselves, but somehow we've made it so. Men, we take a few knocks and decide we'll keep it all inside for now.
But there is only right now, always.
You can't bury your truth inside and let it fester. I've learned that I have to reveal it, but it doesn't come out by itself.
Go tell her how you feel!
How different would my life be if I'd summoned certain courage in certain moments, in the face of certain unexpected opportunities, or at least when certain kisses were being dangled just that once?
Could it have something to do with admitting that you just can't go through it alone?
Merciless in its truth, this song is like a self-help book. It's The Art of Loving, When Things Fall Apart, The Artist's Way and Dale Carnegie all rolled up together. Encouraging you to summon the guts to connect more truthfully than you think possible, and telling you to do it now.
I need this song every day.
Thank you Ron Sexmith.