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Wednesday, January 08, 2003
Track By Track… this goes on a bit, and is recommended only for the truly interested.
1 - NO FAIR: This concerns several visits to our old neighborhood (where Pete had still been living) in the weeks after Sept. 11, before they found his body. The realization that we'd really lost Peter, then my loss of faith, then my loss of sobriety. The childhood cry of "No Fair" …heard after a bad stickball call or a "Monopoly" cheat… seemed appropriate somehow.
2 - JOHNNY LIGHTNING: Begun as one of the discarded songs for Magic Beans' followup, about Pete and me playing with toy cars back in the days. I reclaimed a fragment of it, now serving as a sort of elegy. The first voice is Pete at around 13, recalling even earlier times. The poem, which I consider a kind of epigram to Uncle, is a lyric by Charles Ives: "There Is A Lane," recited by an artist Pete and I enjoyed deeply: Van Dyke Parks. Van Dyke was a good friend to me in the aftermath of the catastrophe, and kindly agreed to participate in the recording.
3 - THE LOST CHILDREN: Not much need be added to this one; it's some forlorn wishful thinking. Musically, it was the performances of Bowie, the Who, et al, at the Concert For New York (and the catharsis of the firefighters surrounding us there) that convinced me that rock and roll still had some validity to me. So here goes one.
4 - IN OTHER WORDS, NEVER: The title is a comment on my own chorus for the previous song: the lead-pipe thud in your stomach every time you realize there's no fucking hope. The recording is a brass piece Jim Gray and I made in the late '80s on a four track, which was slowed down and superimposed on some sub-Jerry Goldsmith / John Cage noise experiments I did years earlier. It's my funeral dirge for my little brother.
5 - THE LATE DAYS OF SUMMER: The one direct "universal" comment that I indulged in, written and recorded so quickly that we almost forgot we'd done it. Ragged but right? Sincere, anyway.
6 - BIRD IN THE HOUSE: A true story… woke up once with a big black bird on my knee, and we both went buck wild trying to escape each other, to the great amusement of my late brother Bobby and Pete. This music was the first thing I tried to write a few months after 9/11, pounding the piano with my fists. My friend Claudia informs me that a bird in the house is a traditional symbol of death. Dunno, but I can empathize with that bird. He did get out, by the way
7 - WHAT ARE THEY DOING IN HEAVEN?: This gospel tune by Charles Tindley was recorded memorably in the 1930s by the incredible Washington Phillips. This arrangement is indebted to his version, which Pete and I admired as a truly humanist hymn largely avoiding Christian cant. It would be nice to believe in a heaven ahead.
8 - MILES ACROSS THE SEA: My friend Miles Hunt (of England's Wonder Stuff) has helped me through some dark times. The coincidence of his name and location made for a nice title proxy for all those people who make an extra effort to be true friends, even when they don't realize how close you are to jumping off a cliff. This begins a section of the album concerning friendship.
9 - WELCOME TO NEW JERSEY: Here's Pete and me, recorded on shitty cassette many, many years ago doing a chant we "wrote" after a family road trip. Those endless hours of taped kiddy shenanigans were what led me to making records, and as this is the "friends" section, it handily introduces a ditty about current Garden State resident…
10 - PAUL LaGRUTTA: Pete's lifelong best friend has also been one of my dearest buddies. Through his own heartbreak, Paul took a page from Pete's heroism and held a lot of us together. To salute him in song, I went to the Beach Boys for inspiration, figuring that the effect of a song full of in-jokes (for someone the listener never heard of) was similar to my own non-driver bafflement over lyrics like "competition clutch" and "magnesium spokes." I still loved Wilson's songs, so what the hell. Drop-ins include young Pete mentioning his pal (and eventual best man), and my Dad singing "Volare" back in the 70s. At the end, you'll hear LaGrutta himself, surreptitiously recorded last July 4th.
11 - BEHISTUN: The first song I ever "wrote" was this chant, based upon a picture of an Egyptian temple I saw in an encyclopedia at 5 years old. The year Pete was born I strutted around the house singing this, and remembered it for this unadulterated 4-track recording, made almost 20 years ago. Sure it sounds like crap… sure it's tedious and ill-played… Pete would collapse in hysterics to know it made a legit release, and that's why it's here.
12 - YOU LOUSY STINKING SCUMBAG: A hitherto unrecorded favorite from my Skels days, here in its glorious entirety. Again: to amuse him, and to bridge into the subsequent section, concerning enemies this time.
13 - BAD GUEST: This is a jaundiced glance back at the New Year's Eve party at which I met Pete's eventual in-laws, a repulsive bunch of feral vermin I spent the rest of his life avoiding. Since his death, they've wallowed in the media "celebrity" granted 9-11 "survivors," visiting unimaginable cruelties to Pete's mother (and the rest of the family) that you wouldn't believe if I described them. They continue to do so, compounding our grief. Hatred is poison; induce vomiting, have a laugh at the enemy and move on. But first…
14 - PLAYED BY LINDA BLAIR: The main character in the film "The Exorcist" was a young girl named Regan., just like Pete's widow. I'll say no more. At the time of his death, Pete's daughter Ruby was a year old, and I have a photograph of him ecstatically holding her aloft. That snapshot prompted the next song.
15 - SUCH A BEAUTIFUL SIGHT: This is intended as a counterweight to the preceding bitterness, and is -in part - based on the same music. The last time I saw Pete was in a hospital on Labor Day 2001. Both of my parents had just fallen and injured themselves severely, and the shock of Pete's death shortly afterward ensured that their recovery would be limited. We're a close family. My Sister Maureen's resolve in raising Pete without a father was only surpassed by the lifelong delight she took in him; I saw the same qualities in that photo of Pete holding Ruby. His brother David read a eulogy at the memorial service in October 2001, and his eloquence and humor in the face of absolute devastation symbolized for me all that I've loved and learned from my family. A lot of stuff behind a song that, I admit, doesn't live up to the subject.
16 - SHOO FLY SHOO: One of the first songs made for the album, and its relevance is intentionally oblique. It's part of what I call "a child's guide to misanthropy," along with the next tune. A dog is harassed by a fly, which is sort of how a kid feels when the new kid arrives. There is no insect or mangy dog I do not prefer to the human race.
17 - FROGS ARE SINGING: The first verse of this was composed after the last Christmas we spent with Pete. It plopped out with no apparent reason. After we started this album I remembered it, and realized it was a sort of dream. I understand why a soul-baring artist like Neil Young is drawn to the serenity of model trains. Little Willoughby worlds we can fill with our fancies, where nobody cares about cool or commerce, where nobody's nonexistent deity commands genocide as the ticket to heaven. I hope you've gathered that the other meaning of "Uncle" is a cry of surrender. I live now in dreams, when I can.
18 - SLEEPY RIVER: So here's one on that topic, a song the great Paul Robeson sang (in the film "Song of Freedom"), which we would play and sing along with on many long, often inebriated nights alone together at his apartment. We never worried about sounding like alleycats, and I won't worry about a stiffness of delivery here, trying to croon back a river of tears. It's corn, sure, but I'll gratefully take such corny dreams.
19 - THE SOUND OF HER VOICE: So I grow some corn of my own, this time for my wife Shelley, without whom I could not continue living. Plain, sappy and as inadequate a tribute as the rest of this album, but likewise heartfelt. She held me together so I could help hold my family together, and though we all continue to disintegrate, there are still moments of joy in living. In Pete's name, we all try hard to cultivate that possibility, despite all.
20 - THE DORAY WALTZ: The Doray Tavern was a bar in our old Brooklyn neighborhood that I used to pass on the way to school. "Where Good Friends Meet" said the sign on the window, and my youthful sarcasm thought that was ironic, given all the old no-hopers who congregated there over Scotch and Viceroys. Now I know better.
21 - EVERYBODY'S GONE: After a concentrated avoidance of directly addressing Pete, we were wrapping up the album and it was time for this. My little bro and I used to savor those times we could get away from everyone to yammer, toss back a few, and listen to music. Hoagy Carmichael, Thelonious Monk, Copland, "Smile" bootlegs, on and on. Sacred times. I set up in the studio, poured one whiskey for him and one for me, and started singing this song, completely terrified. At every pause in the lyric I gulped another glass down, and got pretty wrecked in the four minutes it took to complete. No mystical visitation, alas. Just a long night of tears, more whiskey, and this souvenir of the evening's ceremony.
22 - THE CLANG OF THE YANKEE REAPER: Van Dyke gave me permission to use a bit of his gorgeous tune as the background music for one last word from Pete. The lyric of Parks' chorus is: "Gone… just like I said. The good old days are dead; better get it through your head." True enough, but there's one thing I'll never get out of my head, so I leave Uncle with it: the sound of me and my beloved little brother… my hero Pete… laughing.
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