Tag Archives: music

The Gods Await to Delight in You: Playing and Enjoying Music in the Catskills

Originally published in the Woodstock Times

RBW, with Satellite Paradiso, 2016, pic by Hans Wendland

RBW, with Satellite Paradiso, 2016, pic by Hans Wendland

Hudson Valley life affords me more opportunities to play music in front of people than any other place I’ve lived, and that includes New York City. The Catskills, in fact, feel like one big stage, with accommodating spirits hovering, encouraging, constantly offering chances for musicians and music lovers to step out of everyday life and into the timelessness of song. I completely understand why Dylan, the Band, Hendrix, John Sebastian, Van Morrison, Rundgren, Bowie, and many other musicians have lived – or still live – here. And why Woodstock (in Bethel) happened in these hills, and why its scope and vibe has never really been repeated elsewhere.

In his poem, The Laughing Heart, Charles Bukowski wrote, “The gods await to delight in you.” In our rolling, mysterious hills, this notion feels quite real. Our local gods, in the rocks, the waterways, and lush mountainsides, await to delight in us, musicians and music-lovers alike. Their desire is palpable.

Uncle Rock & Noel Fletcher, Wilson Campground, Mt. Tremper, NY, 2006

Uncle Rock & Noel Fletcher, Wilson Campground, Mt. Tremper, NY, 2006

~

I’ve actually lost track of the venues in which I’ve performed. The list runs the gamut from the Bardavon and First Steps Preschool, to the Bearsville Theater and the Woodstock Farm Festival. Almost every church. Definitely every school in the Onteora system. Mountain Jam? Did it, more than once. Santa’s arrival on the Woodstock Green? Played that, with my band, on a flatbed truck, with Santa himself on lead guitar. Adoption ceremony in Delhi, at which foster kids officially became family members? Check. Garlic Festival? Several times, ate the garlic ice cream. Glenford Church? I turned fifty on that stage. New World Home Cooking? Yes, broadcast on WAMC. Utopia Soundstage? A lot. Levon’s Barn? God yes, with Levon on drums. Harmony Café? Yes, and walked off with a cannabis-scented, crisp fifty dollar bill, pressed into my hand by a very friendly, very high dude in a Grateful Dead hoodie.

RBW, Kleinert/James Gallery, Woodstock, NY, 2014

RBW, Kleinert/James Gallery, Woodstock, NY, 2014

Also: Kleinert/James, Byrdcliffe Theater and Barn, Colony Café, Tinker Street Café, every bookstore in the region, every library, Proctors, The Linda, Rosendale Café/Street Festival/ Theater, Clearwater (Sloop and Fest), Taste of the Catskills, Belleayre, summer and winter Hoots, Tinker St. Cinema, the Shandaken Theatrical Society, Empire State Railway Museum, Woodstock Animal Sanctuary, Woodstock Community Center, ‘Cue, BSP, Market Market, and probably your neighbor’s house. Maybe even your house.

Uncle Rock, First Steps Preschool, Bearsville, NY, 2015

Uncle Rock, First Steps Preschool, Bearsville, NY, 2015

RBW with the Catskill 45s, house party, Mt. Tremper, NY

RBW with the Catskill 45s, house party, 2014, Mt. Tremper, NY

Every venue offers something different, and affects music, music-maker, and audience. As a musician, you become accustomed to how you sound while practicing, usually at home or in some hovel. But once you play out, that sound changes; the music takes on characteristics of the room (or the outdoor space), the people, the communal vibe of the day, which is nigh impossible to predict. After some time, you learn to gauge the space, the people, and adjust. You learn to pivot.

RBW in Rocky Horror at Byrdcliffe Barn, Woodstock. Pic by Dennis Oclair

RBW in Rocky Horror at Byrdcliffe Barn, Woodstock. 2013, Pic by Dennis Oclair

Sometimes the venue is charmed, and energizes, imbues you with power. Alternatively, even in our music-friendly region, a space can work against you, with bad tech, crappy acoustics, and/or a clueless or hostile crowd that’ll make you feel like you’ve been thrown to the lions. At which point you must suck it up and play on.

In my experience, the local venues I’ve loved playing are, not surprisingly, often the venues in which I’ve also seen some unforgettable shows. Best acoustics? Easy: Levon’s Barn. Thick, rough-hewn wood, few windows, and somehow, even though you feel you’re in someone’s home (because you are in someone’s home), the Barn features top-notch sound equipment and sound operators – usually Brendan McDonough.

When I played the Kids Ramble in 2007, I stepped onto the thick rugs of the performance area and recalled how, three years before, I’d seen Levon sit in with Ollabelle at the first Midnight Ramble I attended. We’d been told Levon couldn’t sing, due to his cancer treatments. But to everyone’s astonishment, he did sing, in duets with his daughter, Amy. The energy between them was magic, a glowing thing. And like I say, it all sounded fantastic; perfect volume, all instruments discernible as individual waves, but also part of a whole, touching the audience’s insides, enlivening us, making us one.

Uncle Rock and Tracy Bonham, Fiber Flame, Woodstock, NY, 2014

Uncle Rock and Tracy Bonham, Fiber Flame, Woodstock, NY, 2014

Because most of us listen to music on substandard speakers, earbuds, or through bad systems operated by amateurs, you forget how great amplified sound can be. So, excellent live sound is often revelatory. And that’s what you get at the Barn.

And by the way, Levon was not supposed to play at that 2007 Kids Ramble gig, either. But he did. Elizabeth Mitchell and You Are My Flower, with whom I, as Uncle Rock, shared the bill, played the Velvet Underground’s “What Goes On,” and they drafted me to play bass an arm’s reach from Levon, who laid down a funky beat and grinned at me like a Cheshire cat. I will take that one with me when I go.

~

When folks talk – and/or post – about “best concert(s) I ever saw,” I always include Richard Thompson at the Bearsville Theater, solo acoustic, Rumor & Sigh tour, 1991. (My wife and I were weekenders then.) First time I saw him, first time I heard his now classic “1952 Vincent Black Lightning.” The sold out, 400-person capacity room was the perfect venue. Any bigger, and it might’ve lost some intensity; any smaller, and the crush of people would’ve distracted. His songs, jaw-dropping fingerpicking wizardry, and quiet charisma mixed with a mysterious element he conjured among the congregation, a sense of community. I’ve seen many shows in this room, full bands and solo performers, and I’ve played in various configurations – solo, band, huge band – and for me, the Bearsville Theater excels with smaller-scale acts. Again, much wood makes for good acoustics, the vaulted, church-like ceiling gives a sense of quiet grandeur, and the separate space for the bar means no glasses clinking during quieter moments.

When I finally played Bearsville Theater about fifteen years later, my first thought was, “This is where I saw that amazing Richard Thompson gig.”

RBW in Paul Green Rock Academy's Christmas Spectacular, 2014, Bearsville Theater

RBW in Paul Green Rock Academy’s Christmas Spectacular, 2014, Bearsville Theater

~

My favorite local gig of all – one that I played – was impromptu and just three years ago. I’d performed at Mike and Ruthy’s inaugural summer Hoot at the Ashokan Center, first on the Toshi Seeger stage, then throughout the grounds over the course of the day. It was a perfect summer day, ideal temperature, few bugs, verdant surroundings. The Hoot was well attended, with great food, reasonable prices, and much spontaneous fun for kids and adults. It was the kind of day that makes everyone a better person.

Summer Hoot, 2013, Toshi Stage, Ashokan Center

Summer Hoot, 2013, Toshi Stage, Ashokan Center

I was officially done, and Mike Merenda asked if, after Natalie Merchant’s set, I would commandeer a “song swap” at a bonfire atop the hill overlooking the Pete Seeger stage. It would be an alternative for folks who didn’t want to go dance at the Killian Pavilion, an opportunity for the many campers who’d brought instruments to play together. I said sure, thinking, “No one will come. Everyone will go dancing.” I was wrong.

RBW, Kingston, NY sidewalk, 2012, by Tania Baricklo

RBW, Kingston, NY sidewalk, 2012, by Tania Baricklo

The perfect day melted into a perfect Catskill summer evening, starlit, no sounds of heavy industry audible, dew in the air. Someone lit a huge bonfire on the hill, just as Natalie said thank you, good night. The crowd below dispersed into the deepening dark. To my surprise, a wave of people ascended the hill, and campers stepped into the firelight with guitars, mandolins, banjos, and ukuleles. The congregation swelled quickly, from twenty, to fifty or so. Maybe more. The crowd, as an organism, was initially bashful. I was wondering how to engage everyone, when out of the darkness, a woman’s voice asked, “Anyone know ‘I Love Rock N’ Roll’?”

“I do!” I said. And I played it, and everyone sang, and we were off. As the hours passed, people grew ever bolder, singing folk songs, country, rock, punk, and originals that ranged from a cappella emo laments to crusty sea chanties. As goes it with a successful song swap, a momentum asserted itself, and young and old alike settled into our temporary little firelit tribe, tapping into ancient strands of collective memory. Humankind as a species has spent much more time singing songs around fires than any other activity, and a sense of familiarity takes hold, a constant déjà vu.

Finally, around 1 A.M., I grew tired and took my leave to drive home while I still could. The circle kept singing, barely conscious of me, piling on logs, sending sparks aloft as they engaged in song after song after song. I could still hear them from the darkness of the parking lot, where I reluctantly re-engaged with modern life, i.e. my car. Just before I turned the ignition key, I could also hear, ever so faint, the laughing of the delighted gods.

bonfire

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Blue Impala – On Father’s Day

RBW Sr. early 60s

RBW Sr. early 60s

Father’s Day has always been an unusual day for me. Prior to my son Jack’s birth in 1998, it wasn’t a happy day. But now it is, at least partly. Yes, it’s the day my son and his mom make a fuss over me, and that’s very sweet indeed. And it’s an opportunity for me to reflect on this most important aspect of my life; fatherhood defines me more than anything, and makes me feel blessed. But Father’s Day, for me, is also a time of deep, melancholy wonder.

I wonder how things might have been different, had my own father, Robert Burke Warren, Sr. – Burke to his family and friends – not died on April 11th, 1972, just after I turned 7. He was 30.

Jack’s birth has brought lasting joy in the face of a vacuum in my life, but Father’s Day still finds me longing, occasionally angry (less so these days), and stubbornly curious about what might have been, how my dad would have aged, changed, and whether he’d be a Mac guy or a PC guy. I think about the man who, even though I only knew him for a brief period, shaped me, and whose shaping I both accept and continually fight against.

Burke’s death was tragic and mysterious. He was an ex-Marine, and, like his parents, an alcoholic. One night, after carousing with his cousin,  he drove drunk at high speed into an embankment off I-85 in Atlanta, and killed himself, by accident or by design I will never know. By all accounts, he was depressed (a proclivity I inherited), unemployed, and perhaps, like Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman (spoiler alert) he knew his heirs would receive benefits in the event of his death. (Which my brother and I did.) But like I said, I’ll never know. My last memory of my dad, I’m happy to say, is of him playing guitar at my 7th birthday party, leading my friends and me in a singalong of “Puff the Magic Dragon,” “Country Roads,” “If I Had A Hammer,” and “Home Grown Tomatoes.”  He seemed pretty ebullient that night, although if anyone knows the skill with which a depressive can hide his condition, it’s me. But I was so proud to call the cool guitar playing dude my daddy.

RBw, dad, brother Britt, saying grace, probably 1970

RBW, dad, brother Britt, saying grace, probably 1970

My mother had divorced him when my brother and I were toddlers, and they’d been estranged, but in the last few years of his life, he was making an effort, coming around, hosting us at his swingin’ singles apartment, taking us on trips. I adored him. He drove a blue ’68 Chevy Impala, and often had a cocktail in a plastic cup when he picked us up from our home. The summer before he died, he and his second wife, Dee, took us to Disneyland. Our first airplane trip. They rented a Volkswagen Bug, and I recall laying on the backseat, happily exhausted from all-day amusement, and making up a song as I watched the passing streetlights of Anaheim, bringing myself to the verge of tears with the joy of creating a melody out of thin air (a melody I do not recall, but was, in all likelihood, a rip-off of something from a Sid & Marty Krofft show).

Britt, dad, RBW, Christmas '68 or '69

Britt, dad, RBW, Christmas ’68 or ’69

Dee, a gorgeous stewardess, adored Burke, too. He was movie star handsome, charismatic, a fun character with a debilitating gloomy streak exacerbated and medicated by alcohol. Though my mother says he would rage when they were married, the only time I recall him angry was when my brother and I – aged 7 and 6, and impish – got his Marine sword down from a shelf and unsheathed it. He came in before anyone was impaled, and of course he freaked out, swatting us on our butts as we howled in terror and remorse. He wore British Sterling cologne, had a BA in English from UGA, had once considered the seminary, but also wanted to get in the shit in Vietnam (they wouldn’t send him). He loved to play guitar and sing, and was skilled and self-taught, loved the early 60s folk stuff and sappy, romantic ballads. Didn’t know what he wanted to be when he grew up. Probably peaked in high school and never got a chance to redress the imbalance. Was not cut out to be a husband, at least not at 22, when he married my mom, hastily, if you catch my drift.

RBW Sr, 50s

RBW Sr, 50s

From these details, and others I have culled from people who knew him, I compulsively try to create a presence with which to commune, to try to understand, to rage at, and, as I’ve gained a little perspective, to console. I expect no satisfaction from these actions, no “closure.” It’s just a thing I do, sometimes gaining traction somewhere inside, sometimes spinning like a hamster wheel.

***

When my mother sat us down and broke the news that sunny April day, we all cried for a long time. I remember, just before she dropped the bomb, being in a  great mood. My mother said, “I’ve got some bad news,” and I replied, “What could be bad on a day like today?” And then she told us, through tears. Probably one of the hardest things she ever had to do, and she handled it well. 42 years on, I retain a visceral memory of the grief. All of us bereft, in unison, mom telling us to cry as long as we needed to. We asked if we’d ever see our father again, and she said no and she was so sorry.

She was sort of a weekend hippie, our mother, working in advertising, a la Peggy Olson, during  the week, but attending protest marches, communes, and festivals on the weekends. (Atlanta in 1972 was still kind of “the 60s.”) She said she believed in the collective unconscious, which we did not understand intellectually at that time, but sort of “got.” In a move she regrets, she didn’t take us to our father’s funeral, at which, I was told many years later, Dee threw herself on the coffin.

Mom initially told us our father “fell asleep at the wheel,” but when I was about 13, I found the police report in the attic and learned the truth. Documents and, horrifically, a photo of the Impala, the front end demolished, spiderweb shatter on the windshield. Thankfully, no photos of my dad, but autopsy reports stating he’d died with high levels of alcohol in his brain. This discovery occasioned another memorable sit-down with my mom, during which she revealed to my brother and me some of our genetic inheritance, i.e. our family tree is blighted with alcoholism. (Also, I would find out later, depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, suicide, and, not surprisingly, divorce.) We were adolescents then, and it was an excruciating, but enlightening chat, and one of the only times she talked to us about our father when we were kids. Mainly, she said, “Watch out for alcohol, boys,” which I appreciate.

I’ve dodged the bullet of a “drinking problem,” but, interestingly, I am drawn to addicts, usually without consciously knowing they are saddled with the disease. Somehow – pheromones? facial “tells”? intuition? – I am disastrously discerning on a preconscious level. I have a history of diving into relationships with addicts, and then, after wonderful intimacy followed by stress, disappointment, and chaos, I bolt. I need to do the abandoning this time around, and I do. After the dust clears, I see the pattern clearly and feel like an idiot. Again. It was – and is – a therapist’s dream, and I have the bills, the time spent in Al Anon, and some fractured relationships to prove it. Also: my main source of moonlighting income in 16 years in NYC? Bartending, at which I excelled. I have to admit: I enjoyed cutting people off and 86’ing them. Power over the drunk at last.

Bartender, The Beauty Bar, wee small hours of Truckstop Tuesday, 2000

Bartender, The Beauty Bar, wee small hours of Truckstop Tuesday, 2000                          “You are cut off.”

Is it my destiny to neurotically recreate the story of the relationship between my troubled father and me, wherein the addict elicits and invites great affection only to spoil it all through bad, yet predictable, choices? Choices I, as an adult, can now control, or feel like I control, through rejection? Maybe. But maybe not. Maybe addicts are common, especially in my lifestyle, and 86’ing some – from my life and the bars – was the right call, regardless of my history. The addicts still in my life are a challenge to love, but that’s not been wasted energy. And they will tell you I can be trying, too, because I can be.

Juicy Freudian interpretations of such life choices are the rage of our age, as is blaming and shaming, etc., but at the end of the day, that all feels simplistic and reductive. Fodder for good stories, sure, but only fodder. To flesh it all out, to get closer to accommodating, if not understanding, marks left by love, you need music. You need art.

***

I inherited my father’s musicality, and I’ve been a musician most of my life. I wrote songs in my teens and 20s, but didn’t really invest serious energy in songwriting until I became a father at 32.

The received wisdom is that parenthood saps your creative juices, and your spawn are like little vampires. But, like a lot of dire parenting predictions, this was not true for either my wife, a writer, or me. For both of us, Jack’s birth brought a burst of creative energy. Also, and this is crucial, I wanted to impress him. Granted, he wouldn’t grasp the tunes for a few years, but I needed to buckle down and write some good stuff, and that entailed lots of rewrites and hammering away as I had never done before. No writing about romantic love; the best stuff came when I wrote about family.

I’d tried to write about my father before. I wrote a terrible poem about him in high school, a screed about his alcoholism and abandonment.  My English teacher loved it, and I got an A, but I’m glad it did not survive.

With my first CD, … to this day, I set about trying to write a resonant song about Burke, how I felt about him, how I dreamed about him sometimes, how I was angry but also sad about his death, and how I would always remember and miss him. In becoming a father myself, I felt a few steps closer to knowing who he was, what he’d felt; the delirious happiness, the terror, the humbling – and, at times, humiliating – privilege of parenthood. But for my father co-creating me (albeit by accident, my mom says) I would not be experiencing any of that – and I was and remain grateful for all of it.  Becoming a dad helped me move further toward forgiveness.

Al Anon sharing, therapy, et al, is helpful in constructing a less chaotic narrative of one’s life, but it’s no help in the songwriting process, so I let all that go, and let dreams and photos guide me. Most interesting, the song for my father began to come when I tuned my guitar to DADGAD. Coincidence? Maybe. (I would record it one step higher, in EBEABE, which makes the story less cool, but true.)  For non musicians, all you need to know is this is an alternate tuning favored by folkies.

My efforts birthed “Blue Impala.” Except for Richard Doll’s exquisite bowed double bass part, I played everything. And I stepped back from it and felt satisfaction. Fourteen years on, I still do.

 

Blue Impala
by RBW

Your paper face, your silent smile
Peel back the years, erase the miles
Bittersweet scent, cliche cologne
Photograph ghost in sepia tone.

CHORUS:
A blue Impala, one hand on the wheel
I will remember you, you were just passing through.

Sometimes you rise into my dreams
Some strange disguise in mad shifting scenes
I’m like you now, back then did you know?
Did that make it easier to let go?

CHORUS

Questions go unanswered, mysteries will remain
Wonder why and I ask the sky, but all I hear is the rain.

Just a wild seed in the tailwind of time
Cruel as a storm with calm in your eye
You left us all with so very much
So much to claim but nothing to touch.

CHORUS

Questions go unanswered, mysteries will remain
Wonder why and I ask the sky, but all I hear is the rain.

***

I sent … to this day to my mom, and she loved it, but for about a year, she told me she couldn’t bear to listen to “Blue Impala.” This did not surprise me, and, in fact, gave me a perverse little thrill; I’d evoked an emotional response, which is what you want as a writer.  But finally, she told me she could listen to it, and was ready to talk in detail about my dad, lo these many years later.

Even though I’d wanted to hear that for decades, I said, “That’s OK.”

I’d found him on my own.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad.

Your son, Robert, June, 2014

rbwsrgrave

 

Alex Chilton, A Personal History

alexjackrbw

Alex Chilton, RBW, Jack, outside Alex’s Treme, New Orleans, cottage, spring, 1998

A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton, my wife Holly George-Warren‘s biography of Alex, hits bookshelves this week. (You can keep up with events and enjoy videos and reviews at the Facebook page.) In advance of that auspicious occasion, Paper magazine commissioned me to write an essay about how Alex and his music and life impacted my family. I’ve pasted the first paragraph below, with a link to the rest of the piece. Please enjoy!

***

Technically, my wife Holly George-Warren worked on A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton for about three years, but she’d been talking about it for almost two decades. A fan since the ’70s, she met Alex when he was washing dishes in New Orleans in the early ’80s. He was in the “rags” part of his riches-to-rags-to-riches arc, scraping jambalaya off tourists’ plates to make ends meet. Holly and Alex hit it off. A couple years later, he produced her band Clambake, an early step on his winding path back to musical activity. I came on the scene in 1987, when Holly’s band Das Furlines and my band the Fleshtones shared a bill. All I knew of Alex was that he’d been the 16-year-old white singer of The Box Tops, a kid who’d sounded like a 40-year-old black man on the 1967 smash “The Letter.” I’d heard-tell of his ’70s cult band Big Star, but I’d not checked them out. I learned more — a lot more — via Holly’s stories of Alex, and her expansive record collection, which included Box Tops LPs and the Big Star oeuvre alongside Alex’s eclectic, occasionally slapdash, intentionally confounding solo work. Holly also possessed The Cramps classic debut LP, Songs the Lord Taught Us, which Alex produced. I am partial to Big Star, but Holly loves it all.

                                                                                                                         Read more HERE.